London Calling

You’d think that leaving the country would force me to take a break from the garden, but I just got back from two weeks in London, and there’s nothing like a trip to England, ancestral home of many American gardeners, to make you want to get home and get your own yard in shape.

I spent a day at the sprawling Key Gardens just outside of London, and I also visited a few of England’s most famous gardens, including Sissinghurst Castle, home of early twentieth-century poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, and Great Dixter, the home and garden of Christopher Lloyd, one of England’s most famous garden writers. (Lloyd died earlier this year, but his garden continues to be maintained in his exuberant style.)

Visiting a showboat garden can be overwhelming and even a little discouraging. At Sissinghurst Castle I walked among the perfect walled gardens, where each flower bed had its own theme and every walkway was marked by tiny, perfectly-trimmed boxwood hedges, and I found myself thinking, “Well, sure. If you’ve got a castle and a moat and the staff to keep it all up, who couldn’t do this?” Sometimes a big garden can feel more like an exercise in conspicuous consumption than a reflection of the gardener’s passion for plants.


But then there were those moments that made me realize that a little more attention to my own garden could yield some spectacular results. Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter is all about color and wildly overgrown borders that you practically have to claw your way through. (Lloyd was also as opposed to plant labels as I am; in the brochure given to visitors he wrote, “I hate the look of labels. Like a cemetery.”) And Kew Gardens featured so many unusual varieties of familiar plants that I realized I should work a little harder to find out-of-the-ordinary varieties for my own garden. Also, even in the smallest city parks or private gardens, I realized that whipping unruly plants into shape can make all the difference.

So here is my new, United Kingdom-inspired to-do list for fall:

Don’t be afraid of a little staking. I love a naturalistic garden where tall stalks are allowed to flop over and shrubs have the space to sprawl. But sometimes one piece of string can make all the difference. The tansy I grow in my garden is supposed to help ward off aphids and attract beneficial insects; besides, I love the small, button-shaped yellow flowers. But it can reach three to four feet before it blooms, and then it flops over just when the flowers appear. I saw the same plant growing at Hyde Park and realized that a single piece of twine tied around the entire plant would keep the stalks upright and restore a little dignity to the plant. I think I can make the time for that.

Get to know a species. At Kew Gardens I saw a long border planted entirely with salvia, a species I’m already infatuated with. But I realized that a garden planted entirely with one species can offer a surprising amount of diversity. Smaller plants that functioned more like bedding annuals could fill in empty spots, longer-blooming varieties could keep the display from getting too dull, and the wildly different grown habits—from short, shrubby Salvia greggii to the almost majestic S. gesneriiflora ‘Tequila’—would mean that the casual observer would never guess that the garden had been planted entirely with just one species.

Grow some food. I’ve scaled back my vegetable garden in the last few years, and now I mainly grow a little fruit, some herbs, and a few artichokes. But British gardens seemed to call out to me: “Come on! Grow a little food! How hard is it?” I saw beets growing in the flower garden, where their red leaves contrasted with orange dahlias, and I noticed that even the smallest garden had room for a neat little plot of lettuce and onions. British gardeners make a kitchen garden look embarrassingly easy. On my first day back home, I set up a little fence to keep the chickens out, raked some compost into the ground, and seeded in some lettuce, using six lettuce seedlings I bought at the nursery as row markers. It wasn’t difficult at all. What was I thinking?

Follow fashion. When British gardeners get into a plant, they go all the way. I saw tall purple verbena (Verbena bonariensis), that tough wiry perennial whose purple flowers attract butterflies like mad, everywhere I went. It seems to be the flower that goes with everything.
But I also discovered the virtues of a popular shrub I rarely see here: Bupleurum fruiticosum. It’s burdened by an awful common name—shrubby hare’s ear—but if you can get past that, there’s a lot to love. It’s a Mediterranean native that likes dry soil, grows into a hefty five-foot shrub, produces lovely dark green glossy leaves, and sports massive clusters of yellow flowers that look like fennel or dill. It blooms over a long season, makes a good cut flower, and likes to be cut back when it gets out of control. It’s pretty enough for a formal garden but would also look comfortable in a more shaggy, naturalistic setting. (I’m going to begin my search for one this weekend.)

Fortunately, the restrictions on bringing foreign plants into the country, coupled with a truly painful exchange rate, meant that I wasn’t able to bankrupt myself buying plants while I was in England. But I was glad to come home with some new ideas for the garden. Now if only I had a castle and a moat to go with it.


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