Whenever and wherever my wife, Nancy, and I travel, we visit gardens – from formal botanical gardens that cover hundreds of acres to small, unnamed gardens beside a village church.

Often the gardens we view are not at their peak – because we believe that except for family commitments nobody should leave Maine during gardening season.

Even though most plants will not be in bloom when we visit, we see trees and shrubs, stonework, paths and the general structure of the grounds. We also get to see how the gardens are arranged, what plants are grouped, and – because we know the color and shape of most blossoms – we can picture how they look at their peak.

Several years ago we visited the Montreal Botanical Garden in mid-November and had a great day watching the staff prepare the plants for winter (we still talk about how much work it is for the staff to dig up the rose bushes every year, pile them up and cover them with insulation. That’s gardening commitment!).

We may be garden-obsessed.

During a 10-day trip to Great Britain this past November, we visited two gardens included in “The Gardener’s Garden,” a book published last year that describes about 250 of what the editors consider the best gardens in the world. We also visited a park that felt like a wonderful garden and delightful pocket gardens at sites including Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, churches and even some stores.

Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens in the Richmond section of London, is considered – and “The Gardener’s Garden” concurs – the world’s premier botanical garden. The first plants were installed in the 1660s and the first designs were created in the 1730s by William Kent and expanded in the 1760s by Lancelot “Capability” Brown – two early, eminent landscape architects.

We had only four hours to tour the 300 acres at Kew, so we barely scratched the surface. We started by walking to the Palm House – one of the three major enclosed gardens there. Built in the middle of the 1800s with more than 16,000 panes of glass, the gigantic Palm House holds tropical plants (including palms) divided by continents. Signs explain how many of the plants are used.

The Temperate House, built about the same time, is closed for renovations until 2018. We came across the Princess of Wales Conservatory – featuring 1,500 species of orchids and water lilies, among other plants – too late to give it proper attention.

We got lost after the Palm House, but ended up on the mile-long holly walk, which was at its peak, with the most berries in late fall. The holly walk led us past the Tree Top Walkway. Visitors can take an elevator (or, as the British say, a lift) up 60 feet to the 660-foot walkway through the tree canopy. We didn’t.

Toward the end of the hollies, we found the Chokushi-Mon, a nearly full-size replica of a gateway to a Japanese temple, surrounded by an elegant Japanese garden, which even had a few shrubs in bloom. Nearby was a 10-story Chinese pagoda surrounded by mixed gardens.

We also discovered a garden dedicated to barberries, which was interesting because barberries are deemed an invasive in most of the United States.

And we walked through an aquatic garden, a rock garden, a grass garden and a set of raised, rectangular garden beds, each containing plants from the same family. The display allows people to see how plants are related – and how different even plants in the same family can look.

Nearby was a bonsai collection; Nancy and I can always spend time looking at bonsai.

Once we left the garden and looked at a map, I discovered that we had done a pretty good job of seeing the 25 percent of the garden closest to Kew Road, but missed the 75 percent toward the Thames, including the Azalea Garden, Rhododendron Dell, Bamboo Garden, Woodland Glade and Queen’s Garden.

It’s a good reason to return to London.


Hampton Court in Surrey is much more formal. The palace and garden were given to Henry VIII in 1529, an unsuccessful attempt by the Catholic Church to curry favor (at the time, the king was attempting to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn; eventually he broke with the church to do so).

It was largely redesigned and replanted between 1690 and 1702 by William and Mary, who ruled England as a couple.

The garden at Hampton Court is designed to be viewed from a distance, unlike Kew, which draws people in close to look at blossoms and branches. Hampton has vistas of the Thames through sheared and sculpted evergreens, with gravel paths that wind through the lush lawns.

We saw Hampton Court as part of a guided tour, and a lot of the tour was devoted to the Christopher Wren-designed palace expansion. But even in spring and summer, with all the bedding plants in full bloom, it would take a lot less time to tour than Kew.


Nancy and I stumbled onto St. James Park our first morning in London – where we’d arrived about 6 a.m. after a virtually sleepless overnight flight from Boston.

We couldn’t get into our hotel room, so we took a taxi to the Churchill War Rooms, the underground bunker from which the prime minister directed British efforts during World War II. (The museum doesn’t cover gardening, unless you count some of Churchill’s garden paintings, but it was one of the highlights of our trip.)

We got to the museum about 90 minutes before it opened, and the park – we didn’t know which one it was at the time – was right across the street.

The park has a long, narrow lake – with Buckingham Palace at one end and 10 Downing St. nearby, but not visible, at the other. The park is well laid out to provide views of the palace and peaceful walks with views of waterfowl and draping trees. It was sunny – unusual for our visits to England – and there were swans on the lake. Altogether, it was a lovely gardening moment.

Around the English countryside, the smaller gardens – especially at historical sites – all were done to match the time periods of the buildings and can provide ideas about how to make plantings coordinate with structures. Keep in mind, though, that many British historic buildings, and their gardens, are older than in this country and might be difficult to replicate.

When we travel, we drool over many of the plants and always check to see which we can grow in our Zone 5 garden. England is more temperate than Maine, but we look for appropriate plants we’ve seen on our travels to buy and add at home if we have the right spot.

We also are awed by the scale of these gardens. Kew is 300 acres; Nancy and I have a third of an acre. Even the small pocket gardens at Kew are larger than our yard. But we do study how these gardens mix perennials and shrubs, create paths and use plants as gateways.

Last summer we planted some dogwoods at our house to create an ungated entrance from our front yard to the back – an idea we picked up from a garden in Wicklow County, Ireland. It looks OK now, but will be even better when the dogwoods grow a bit. And if we ever win the lottery, we’ll buy all the neighboring houses, tear them down and make a larger garden.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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