When Mayor Michelle Wu handed me the Golden Trowel Award for first place in the Large Yard Garden Category of the City of Boston’s 2022 Garden Contest, I was thrilled. But when, moments later, she drew my name from a jar containing the names of the first-place winners in the nine garden contest categories, and I won two round-trip tickets on JetBlue, I really hit the jackpot.
This good fortune produced a set of quandaries: Where, when, and how to travel? As an avid gardener, I had long wanted to visit English gardens, but choosing specific gardens and organizing an entire trip was daunting. I considered joining a tour but that felt too confining; I wanted to choose the gardens to visit and spend as long in each garden as I wanted. So, with suggestions from gardening friends and ideas from books, magazines, online resources, and tour companies, I planned my own tour. Here’s how you can, too.
One challenge was to decide when to take the trip. Reports of 2021′s record heat wave and the lack of air conditioning in some UK accommodations made me hesitant to travel in midsummer. Plus, I didn’t want to miss much of my own garden’s summer season. Also, I wanted to attend the Chelsea Flower Show in late May, so chose travel dates near to that event. Others might be influenced by flower bloom times; tulips and spring bulbs peak in late April to early May in England, but roses aren’t in full flower until June, and mid-summer is the height of many gardens, so travel timing might be influenced by these considerations.
The second big question was, which gardens to visit? As a devoted reader of English gardening magazines and consumer of British gardening social media, I had many gardens on my list: Wisley and Kew in the London area, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter in the southeast, Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex, Hidcote in the Cotswolds … but it became clear that even with two weeks to travel, I would have to narrow my choices if I didn’t want to spend precious time on transport and have to hurtle through Britain at warp speed in order to see gardens all over the country. With the priorities of seeing the gardens of Christopher Lloyd (Great Dixter) and Vita Sackville-West (Sissinghurst) driving me, I focused on the area south and southeast of London. But still, there were many, many gardens to see, and I didn’t know how to narrow down my choices. Knowing that I was particularly interested in gardens designed in the “English Cottage Garden” style, with mixed borders containing shrubs, perennials, and annuals, I used this preference to guide me as I studied the possibilities. I read books such as “Gardens of the National Trust” by Stephen Lacey, which includes tables detailing the characteristics of each garden (such as whether it has topiary, borders, or natural water), and reviewed the National Trust and Royal Horticultural Society websites. I examined itineraries of garden tour companies, including Carex Tours and Huron Tours. I asked gardening friends for recommendations and watched the BBC show “Gardener’s World” to learn where they’d visited. British garden magazines such as Gardens Illustrated or the RHS’s The Garden often highlight specific gardens, and I created lists from these articles.
After identifying possible gardens to visit, I began my education in English geography. I obtained a map of British gardens, and plotted out possibilities using this, a paper map of the United Kingdom, and Google Maps to identify locations and sticky notes to pinpoint them. Then, I asked Google Maps for routes and distance between the gardens, to determine the feasibility of visiting more than one each day. This helped me rule out some gardens that were too far afield to combine with visits to other locations. Ultimately, I created a Google map that depicted the location and routes to every destination. To ensure that we did not show up on a day when a certain property was closed, and to plan our meals and snacks, I also created a list of each garden’s hours and days of opening, as well as whether they had a café or dining facilities. (Almost all do.)
The next challenge was how to travel to each property. Given most gardens’ locations in rural areas, a rental car would be the easiest mode of transport. But, neither my spouse nor I wanted to drive on the left side of the narrow two-lane hedgerow-lined country roads we would be traveling. We were happy to take trains and buses, but given our remote destinations, it was apparent that it would not be particularly convenient to use public transport, though taxis are usually available at railway stations, even in smaller towns. So, with the help of the Rome2Rio website, which aids in trip planning with multiple modes of transport, I identified train routes and took trains between the larger towns (using the Tube in London), and then booked taxi drivers in advance to transport us from our hotels to the gardens. Although one can search for taxis online in each city or town, I contacted our hotels to ask if there were drivers they worked with whom we could hire, and this strategy ensured confidence in the drivers. Our drivers were prompt, reliable, and friendly, and served as unexpectedly wonderful tour guides. We learned history along with horticulture: one morning, as we were traveling from one location to another, our driver casually mentioned that the Battle of Hastings (1066) had occurred in the nearby fields.
To plan our transportation schedule, I had to determine how much time we would spend in each garden, and TripAdvisor reviews helped us learn what other visitors had done and recommended. Also, I added time for meals or snacks during our garden visits. Ultimately, I created a detailed trip agenda that included pickup times from our hotels and from the gardens, along with information about the driver for each trip.
After determining which gardens we would visit, I looked for accommodations in a central town so that we could stay several nights in one place and venture out to multiple destinations from there. TripAdvisor was one resource for learning about accommodations, but I also reviewed the itineraries of various garden tour companies to identify the hotels they used, reasoning that they had been vetted by professionals. I cross-checked these possibilities with traveler ratings on TripAdvisor to assure myself that the accommodations would be suitable.
Britain has two leading charities that maintain gardens: the National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society. After deciding upon the gardens to visit, I then assessed the value of the organizational membership fees, compared to the entrance fees we would pay to visit each garden. Given my desire to attend the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and the ability to purchase a discounted ticket to visit the show on a member’s day with fewer people, I decided to join the RHS, which also allowed us to visit RHS Wisley without paying an additional fee.
Overall, the approach I describe here worked well. I failed to follow my own advice when choosing one garden, so when we arrived at Sheffield Park and realized that there were no mixed borders (though it was a lovely park, with beautiful trees, rhododendrons, azaleas, and lakes), we quickly walked the perimeter and called our driver back to take us to another garden on our list.
Though it is hard to choose, the highlight of our trip was probably our visit and stay at Gravetye Manor, in Sussex. This former manor house was the home of William Robinson, who authored the book “The Wild Garden” (1870) and is arguably the father of the English cottage garden style. I hadn’t realized my own debt to this author and garden designer, who advocated for a planting style that rebelled against the popular Victorian approach that used tropical (nonhardy) bedding plants, placed out into gardens when the weather warmed and removed when fall arrived. Robinson instead encouraged the use of permanent plantings of any hardy plants (native or from other countries) that would “flourish without further care or cost,” and he employed an informal and dense planting style that sought to minimize the amount of bare soil. Robinson’s former home, now a Relais and Chateaux hotel property with a Michelin-star restaurant, offered us and other hotel guests an opportunity to take a formal tour, then to sit and relax in the midst of the garden, enjoying tea and then cocktails on the lawn among the gorgeous mixed borders. Later, we dined in the glass-walled restaurant overlooking that same garden, enjoying meals made from their own garden produce.
Would I do this again? Planning this trip required an enormous amount of time, but I learned a lot about England, its geography, the various types of gardens, and other tourist attractions throughout the country, and this approach could be used to plan garden (or other) tours anywhere. We had sufficient time in each garden, and were able to wander at our leisure, though we did not have formal tours anywhere except Gravetye Manor. However, the gardeners working in each of the properties were available and seemed happy to answer our questions — even Troy Scott Smith, the head gardener at Sissinghurst, kindly engaged in a casual chat about a specific rose I inquired about. The absence of a formal tour guide might have even encouraged us to interact with other visitors more than we would have otherwise, and this led to some lovely conversations with other guests.
My spouse, who tends our home vegetable patch, was apprehensive about a travel itinerary focused solely on garden visits. But his interest in photography and appreciation of the pastoral beauty of the English countryside, and the gardens as a means to enjoy it, eased this concern.
In the end, we were able to visit RHS Wisley, Kew Gardens, Nymans, Leonardslee, and of course, Gravetye, Great Dixter, and Sissinghurst — all wonderful. My next challenge? Planning a visit to another region of England.