LONDON -- Inspiration can come from many places, but exploring the gardens of London provided riches beyond my wildest dreams.
After an overnight flight to Heathrow airport without sleep, I paired up with a few of the 23 gardeners who traveled with me to discover the gardens of the city.
Our rooms weren't ready, and we knew it was imperative to stay up to get our body clocks in sync with local time. As we walked toward the Tube, we were treated to beautiful flowers at every turn. Just about everyone gardens here.
We got off the subway near the Tower of London and were greeted by spectacular roses with petals of orange and red. Behind them were double purple columbine and a mass planting of pink geraniums. It was beautiful, but the plantings inside the castle were even more interesting.
Along the old moat, thousands of English daisies hugged the ground, their flowers just an inch above the deep green grass. But what set off the white blooms were bright yellow dandelions. Would any public garden in the States try such a combination? I doubt it, but this planting was spectacular and could certainly be done at home.
Days later at Hampton Court Palace, the huge, immaculate formal gardens were breathtaking. But the one that really stunned our group was a diminutive bed. Orange lily-flowering tulips stood erect over a carpet of blue forget-me-nots. The combination was spectacular. In my garden, I'd probably get forget-me-nots followed by tulips two weeks later. This was real gardening, I thought to myself. If we had visited one day sooner, or later, we would have missed the planting in its prime. I can only imagine the English gardener looking on with pride as Americans fawned over this ephemeral design.
At our next stop, I had to laugh while walking along a tall stone wall at Windsor Castle. Bright red honeysuckle rambled across the top. I guess even the royals have to deal with the invasive plant.
But they have good taste, too. I caught a glimpse of corydalis lutea, my favorite perennial, growing at the base of a small waterfall. Even royalty can see the benefit of a plant that blooms from spring until winter, never needs replanting and makes a beautiful colony in only a couple of seasons.
It was Wisley Gardens, however, that really captured my heart. We arrived at the garden during a steady downpour. While some travelers stayed under cover, I was not going to be denied.
While looking at the map, I noticed at the far reaches of the garden an area labeled "Plants for Bugs." Because my radio partner and dear friend Jessica Walliser is an insect expert, I was compelled to make the 20-minute hike out there.
I started out briskly as I was eager to see the rest of the garden. It wasn't long, though, before I slowed to examine the National Heather Collection. I was surrounded by a group of plants I knew little about. The colors and textures were wonderful, and I wondered how I could make them work on the edges of my woodland garden.
As I moved on, the main path narrowed to a soft foot trail through the grass. There I discovered the insect garden. The Royal Horticultural Society was using the area to research how native and non-native plants attracted insects. I snapped pictures frantically to record every detail for the report I would give when returning to the States.
I headed back a different way, no longer in a hurry. "I'll see what I can see," I said to myself.
As I walked along the River Wey through Howard's Field, I stumbled upon a weathered garden bench surrounded by sky blue wildflowers. It was the simplest but maybe most beautiful combination I'd yet seen in the garden. I sat alone on the bench to enjoy it. In a garden where anything was possible, this subtle and restrained planting offered a fine lesson in gardening. Just because you have the ability to add every plant doesn't mean every plant needs to be added.
The historic gardens of London inspired and taught me many things. I can't wait to try what I learned in my own garden.
100th Chelsea Flower Show Amazes
LONDON -- Nothing could have prepared me for the wonder of the Chelsea Flower Show. I was lucky enough to visit in May for the 100th anniversary of the show. It was Disney World for gardeners times 100.
One of the first things to floor me was an outdoor display of 30 wheelbarrows with their handles in the ground and wheels up high, forming a triangular piece of garden art. Most were painted hunter green, but the point of the triangle featured three bronze ones, two silver and one wheelbarrow of gold. It was the start of a day I'll never forget.
It's the formal garden displays that draw many of the visitors and might be the thing the show is most known for, at least to Americans. The crowds were sometimes five deep surrounding the perimeter of each. But the Brits are so polite; they would patiently wait for a chance to make their way to the front. Once there, they would spend a couple of minutes studying the garden, maybe shooting a few photos and then working their way back out through the throngs of people.
There was no pushing or shoving. There was a laid-back feeling, and camaraderie between gardeners. It was fun to ask and answer questions while standing next to strangers who were also in awe of beautiful designs and wonderful use of plants. Each one of the formal gardens had a plant list, which helped immensely. One plant that was in nearly every garden was cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). The variety I was most interested in was 'Ravenswing.' I'd never seen it before; the 3-foot purple stems were topped with small lacy white flowers. It's basically a biennial weed hardy to zone 6 as it self sows freely. It resembles Queen Anne's lace or hemlock, which covers fields and roadsides in Western Pennsylvania. Cow parsley produces foliage the first year and then adds flowers the second. If I can find seeds, it will be part of my garden next spring.
I expected the majesty of the formal gardens and knew they would be spectacular, but I never anticipated what was on display in the Great Pavilion. Every flower or plant you could imagine, at its peak. UK gardeners could buy tubers, bulbs and plants right there or place an order after examining the plants.
The first display I saw was filled with 8-foot-tall blue and white delphiniums in full bloom towering over the biggest red begonia flowers I had ever seen. Next door were thousands of daffodils in vases, 30 flowers of each variety. I was flabbergasted to see an arbor completely covered in clematis forming a tunnel for visitors to walk through. I walked around it many times, trying to figure out how growers did it. A hundred different primrose and lupines were shown on shelves in booths, all in their most spectacular form; it was unbelievable.
Each plant from lavender to lady slipper orchids had its own display, and each was perfect. There's also an area showcasing every garden product you could imagine. Seeds, garden tools, ornaments and so much more were for sale.
To me the Chelsea Flower Show is the gardener's Super Bowl. I hope to see it again one day.
The 2014 Chelsea Flower Show will be held May 20-24. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, go on sale to the general public Dec. 1. Information: www.rhs.org.uk.