Our gardens fizz with creativity, revealing an appetite for daring individuality beneath the veneer of British reserve.
No country on earth takes its gardening so seriously, but dig a little deeper and it’s the frivolity that keeps on blooming, says Rachel de Thame.
Frankly, I’ve never visited a garden in France, Italy or Spain that’s made me laugh. Yet I often do in Britain. Our sense of the absurd extends to our gardening habits – and the result is amusing, irreverent, never dull and immensely endearing. But, then, I believe we have no equal when it comes to passion, knowledge and ingenuity in the gardening department. And it doesn’t matter if those gardens are amid the rolling acres of a stately home or in a small rectangular plot behind a suburban semi. Napoleon famously referred to the British as a “nation of shopkeepers”. If he’d been more tuned in to us, he’d have changed that to “gardeners”.
Of course, several key elements have combined to create the ideal conditions for this national obsession. The starting point must be our equitable climate. Though we love to moan about its unpredictability and the way we can experience all four seasons in a single day, we’re good at pulling on an old mac and going outside nonetheless. And the upside of our weather is that despite its variability, it is rarely extreme. This enables us to grow a vast range of plants, which have found their way to Britain from every corner of the world.
Our island race, long imbued with a sense of adventure and a desire to explore and conquer foreign lands, has brought forth explorers in every generation. Many were botanists, eager to turn their hand to a spot of plant hunting. These intrepid travellers hacked their way through rainforests, scaled precipitous mountainsides and traversed steppe and prairie in search of new plants. Ships laden with crates filled with plants, seeds and botanical drawings found their way back to a receptive and grateful public, waiting to marvel at the latest bounty and add them to their gardens and glasshouses.
“British gardeners are generous with their time, with seeds and cuttings and, above all, with their expertise”
Soon British gardens groaned with rare imports. Camellias and rhododendrons from China; orchids from South America and blue meconopsis from the Himalayas were among the novelties arriving. These were bred and inter-bred by a growing group of plantsmen and nurserymen. Today, these highly specialised growers remain one of British horticulture’s greatest treasures. The knowledge gained from tending a specific type of plant for many years, often by successive generations in family-run businesses, has benefited all of us. Many nurserymen hold national collections of a single genus, ensuring we have access to a vast catalogue of rare and beautiful plants, and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.
This passion for collecting and hunger for knowledge is a key characteristic of the people I meet through my work, filming in gardens across the length and breadth of Britain. I find British gardeners to be generous to a fault, with their time, with seeds and cuttings and, above all, with their expertise. We love to share our gardens with other like-minded plantaholics and gardening obsessives. And we’re not afraid of progress. In the twenty-first century, gardeners have taken to social media like proverbial ducks to water, with a vibrant online community sharing cultivation tips.
We also benefit from a no-nonsense attitude and a refusal to conform. While formal, highly stylized gardens remained the norm on the Continent, in Britain we loosened up and embraced mother nature in a way that marked us out.
Britain’s William Kent, Lancelot “Capability” Brown and other modernising landscapers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries swept away every last vestige of fustiness from our gardens and replaced it with their version of naturalness. Perversely, this often entailed artifice on a grand scale, including the moving of woodlands, hills, rivers and entire villages. But it also showed a fearless approach to change.
“Gardeners have taken to social media like proverbial ducks to water, with a vibrant online community sharing cultivation tips”
We continue to celebrate originality in our gardens, not least at the annual Chelsea Flower Show in May; undoubtedly, the most famous horticultural event in the world, where the best in cutting-edge garden design is showcased alongside displays of perfect blooms from independent nurseries, breathtaking examples of floristry and impressive fruit and veg.
For me, the sell-off at the end of the show affords the most perfect illustration of our obsession with plants. Each year, hundreds of visitors leave the showground and troop onto buses and the Tube with armfuls of plants, their blooms bobbing into the distance as a trail of colour and fragrance snakes along the streets. It’s an extraordinary sight – mad and joyous in equal measure.
I’m fortunate to crisscross the country and believe that no other country comes close to the quantity, quality and diversity of gardens that the public have access to here in the UK. Sissinghurst, Hidcote, Stowe,Tresco,The Eden Project and the RHS gardens have all gained legendary status and are renowned the world over, yet here they are on our doorstep. Getting to visit gardens of this calibre raises one’s game. It can get competitive out there, not only at the village show, where the weight of your pumpkin and super straight carrots are what matter, but in seemingly genteel suburbia too. The National Gardens Scheme’s famous Yellow Book lists thousands of private gardens that, for a modest fee, open to the public for a day or two each year. Provided they pass the rigorous vetting process, it’s a chance not only to raise money for a good cause, but to show everyone just how beautiful your garden is. The combination of doing good, while having a good snoop at what the neighbours get up to beyond the garden gate, is irresistible.
“The combination of doing good, while having a good snoop at what the neighbours get up to beyond the garden gate, is irresistible”
Our gardens fizz with creativity, revealing an appetite for daring individuality beneath the veneer of British reserve. We embrace our curves in sinuous flowerbeds or plant palms and bananas in a tropical-style plot. No one bats an eyelid when a prairie-inspired perennial garden on one side of the fence rubs shoulders with a minimalist water garden on the other.
Whenever I fly back into the UK from abroad, I’m reminded, while peering through the aeroplane window on the final approach, how this patchwork of individual plots merge. They flow like ribbons of green behind the houses, forming acres of bird and wildlife sanctuaries in our towns and cities, where it’s not unusual to have a beehive or keep chickens.
I was drawn to gardening as a child because I could sense how it made my father so happy. It does the same for me now. It can also be a uniquely liberating activity, but that means getting your hands dirty. I particularly enjoy reaching the point where alchemy starts to happen. You’re probably soaked to the skin, there’s soil on your face and in your hair. And whether you’re wielding a hedge-cutter or simply planting, you’re present in that moment, creating magic on your own patch of earth. Where the only rule is to grow what you love.
“Gardening can be a uniquely liberating activity, but that means getting your hands dirty”
Rachel de Thame is a horticulturist, broadcaster, designer and writer, whose passion for plants and gardens emerged in early childhood and is now the cornerstone of a varied career.
This article comes from the latest edition of Barometer. View the digital version.
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