We were ready for our tea. On the eighth day of our British garden tour last June, our group had already visited two sizable plots, and we were spent. But what we found at our third stop, as we came through an arbor covered in clouds of pink roses, immediately revived us.
The partially open wrought-iron gates drew us toward a fountained stone terrace and borders filled with rich shades of violet-blue salvias, yellow foxglove spikes and countless other colorful blooms. Wicker chairs and benches offered views of artfully planted borders. A golden-hued honey locust and evergreen hedges provided a majestic backdrop.
In Persia, where many believe the concept of gardens originated, the word for "paradise" means a walled enclosure. We were in paradise.
Actually, we were at East Leach Manor in England, on a tour of gardens great and small. As a recovered lawyer turned landscape designer in midlife, I reasoned that my right brain needed every bit of inspiration available. What better place to find it than at Sissinghurst, Stourhead or Hidcote, those icons of English garden design?
To my surprise, however, I discovered that although the most famous gardens were indeed spectacular, some of the most inspiring landscapes I encountered were the smaller, private spaces, like East Leach Manor.
England's 'Yellow Book'
It was the opportunity to see some of these smaller gardens that led me to join a tour rather than go on my own. England's famous "yellow book," more formally known as "Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity," lists private gardens that are open to the public for a small fee on select days, as part of the National Gardens Scheme. I had no clue, however, which ones were most worth seeing in the limited time I had, much less how to arrange an itinerary to coordinate visiting NGS gardens with better-known sites.
Garden tours have become a growing part of the travel industry in recent years. Both the American Horticultural Society and Horticulture magazine now offer tours or "travel study" trips to a wide range of destinations in the United States and abroad. I chose a two-week tour in late June that was centered on gardens in south-central England.
Seven of us -- a woman from Seattle and two couples from Chicago and Warrenton, Va. -- were met at Heathrow airport by our guide, who whisked us away to Tunbridge Wells, an hour's drive southeast of London. In all, we stayed in four towns, traveling to Salisbury and the Cotswolds village of Burford before ending up in Windsor.
Our group was small, but we shared a passion for gardening and plants that provided plenty of common ground, even for those of us traveling solo. Our guide, Laura Southon, kept us organized and on time, tweaked us about our "Colonial" background and regaled us during coach rides with bits of English history that set the stage for our next stop.
In two weeks, we visited 20 gardens -- about two a day, traveling on a small motor coach with more than ample space for day bags, cameras, journals and Laura's on-board library of gardening books and magazines. The timing of our visits to one or two of the more famous gardens, such as Sissinghurst and Hidcote, was predetermined by timed-entry tickets, and the crowds we encountered in those venues were often sizable.
Where possible, however, Laura arranged our schedule so that we entered other large gardens, such as Great Dixter and Kiftsgate Court, toward the end of the day. Then we found ourselves enjoying the grounds in lovely late afternoon light and relative peace after the busloads of tourists had left. At Kiftsgate, I ventured down a steeply terraced area and found myself virtually alone at the edge of a half-circle pool overlooking a stunning countryside vista, complete with sheep in the distance.
Private Garden Tours
When it came to the private gardens, we were able to enjoy most of our visits at a more leisurely pace. At Old Whyly, a 12th-century manor house in East Sussex, owner Sarah Burgoyne served us a wonderful lunch on her brick patio beneath a loggia covered in ornamental grapevines, blue clematis and pink New Dawn roses. Before and after lunch, we wandered through her gardens, which included towering sapphire blue delphiniums, multicolored lupines, a pond and weeping silver pear trees. No one wanted to leave.
Old Whyly isn't one of the NGS gardens open to the public, so we wouldn't have been able to visit it unless we were on this tour or had stayed there during opera season (Glyndebourne Opera is nearby). We visited four or five other private gardens that were part of the scheme, but in many cases at times when the gardens weren't usually open. In some cases, the owners themselves gave us a private tour. The photographers among us were always delighted to be able to get just one more shot of that double herbaceous border without a single red-shirted tourist in the way.
At Great Comp, an NGS garden in Kent that we visited our first day, we were greeted by owner Roderick Cameron, a spry, white-haired gentleman in his eighties. He was especially proud of several homemade "ruins" and walls he had built throughout the garden, using bricks and stone unearthed while excavating the soil. They really did add to the atmosphere of the garden and even inspired one tour member to start dreaming of similar back-breaking work on his own turf when he returned home.
Great Comp's meandering paths took us through meadowlike planting areas as well as traditional herbaceous borders. It was here that I fell in love with astrantias, fuss-free starry flowers whose beauty must be seen up close to be fully appreciated. They come in a variety of colors ranging from soft white to claret red, plus they tolerate shade -- my kind of plant.
One unanticipated side effect of seeing so many gardens at this time of year was that I fell under the spell of roses. Late June is peak rose season in Britain, and we spent time at two gardens -- Mottisfont Abbey and David Austin Roses -- that specialize in them, as well as seeing them in virtually every private garden we visited.
Laura chided me for my hesitancy about growing them: "You Americans worry too much about a little black spot. Just mulch them, prune them and enjoy them."
Another unexpected byproduct of the trip was my acquisition of Simon, a small but exceedingly heavy stone pig, from an antiques shop in Burford, where we spent two nights toward the end of the trip. I'd wanted a souvenir for my garden but hadn't expected to fall in love with something quite so heavy. I justified his addition to my luggage on the grounds that lugging him around was roughly equivalent to a daily gym workout with 20-pound weights, and might help compensate for the substantial breakfasts we were enjoying every morning.
Manors in Bloom
Another highlight was Broughton Castle, the 14th-century moated manor house that served as Viola's family home in the film "Shakespeare in Love." Our tour began with the Great Hall, where the movie's dance scene was filmed. Past and present came together with a twist -- on the wall above the fireplace hung suits of armor that we were allowed to try on, while nearby some of the grandchildren's wooden pull toys were strewn about.
Lady Saye and Sele, mistress of the castle, met up with us in the walled rose garden on the south side, where she was pruning and weeding. "My Heritage roses don't look anything like the ones in the catalogue," she sighed. "What do you think I'm doing wrong? And must I really dig out all the old soil to plant a new rosebush?" Sadly, Laura said she thought so, and we all cringed at the thought of the labor involved.
At East Leach Manor, near Barnsley House, owner Stephanie Rogers led the way. We explored a rill surrounded by a rainbow of color-themed flower borders and passed through those enchanted iron gates to take in the glories of her walled garden, complete with a blue bench in the corner whose color was matched perfectly by clematis just visible over its back.
One of our last stops was Brook Cottage, where seventysomething owner Katherine Hodges still tends the four-acre garden she and her husband created over a 20-year span. There I saw firsthand what keeps these kinds of gardens going strong: Katherine heading to the "white border," wearing gloves and pushing a wheelbarrow, for some work among the perennials.
Toward the end of the trip, over lunch in our 16th-century Cotswold village hotel, the Bay Tree Inn, we debated which of the private gardens we had liked the best. I voted for East Leach, but another tour member said she'd found it "too perfect" and that she preferred Rodmarton Manor, an Arts and Crafts house whose gardens had seemed to her more human and "messier." We all agreed, however, that the chance to explore the private gardens had been the highlight of the tour.
Back at home, I've drawn on what I saw in England for design and planting concepts. I've planted three kinds of astrantias and shrubby cobalt-blue clematis. Who knows? I may even venture into rose territory.
Melissa Clark is a landscape designer and writer who lives in Chevy Chase.