Expedition: England, 1994

For years, I've listened to gardening stories from afar. It seemed like all of my friends were visiting one country after another, returning with tales of wonderful plants and fabulous gardens. I figured I was the only one in the state who had never visited a foreign country, unless of course, you count California.

Since I never was a foreign language scholar, England sounded like a safe bet...at least their language is supposed to sound like ours. All I had to do was learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, be able to translate degrees centigrade to fahrenheit, kilometers to miles, pounds to dollars, and learn to drink hot tea...they have a very severe ice deficit in England.

I haven't been given as much advice, since I was about to get married. As was the case then, some were good tips, others...let's just say I have a few less friends. The first good tip was to rent a car from a US travel agent. The second good tip was to get an car with automatic transmission. If you can master driving on the wrong side of the road, driving with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, and then learn how to shift gears with the wrong hand, then you deserve a medal or something.

Fortunately, I had been warned about these things called roundabouts. I seems that british traffic engineers didn't want to bother running electrical wires for traffic signals, so they created these interesting vehicular circles called roundabouts. Once you get on, and that in itself is a feat, you can drive around in a circle until you get dizzy, or you can actually figure out which exit that you should be taking.

Our goal for the trip was to seek out new and exciting plants that may not yet be in America, hence much of our time was spent in small but wonderful gardens and nurseries. Finding a particular garden was a challenge, beginning with knowing the name of the garden. Just to confuse the tourists, they never use their own name...sort of like those cottages at the beach.

As in America, most of the specialty nurseries are located at the homes of the owners. The dramatic difference is that in England, a high priority is placed on having a very large and very extensive display garden...certainly a nice trend for America.

There are two essential books to buy before you try to do much garden and nursery hopping. First of all, you will need The Plant Finder. This British book, which is published every year, lists over 60,000 different plants, and where to buy them. This is an incredible reference book, that all serious gardeners shouldn't be without. The book ($18), is published by Moorland Publishing Company, Moor Farm Road West, Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 1HD (phone 0335 344486).

The second book that you will need is Gardens of England and Wales, known as the yellow book. The yellow book, also published yearly, is a list of every private and public garden that is open, along with directions, times, phone number, and other valuable information. In the US, the book can be ordered from Green Shade Inc, Cape Neddick, Maine 03902 for $15.

Did I mention that you will need a good road map of England...not the kind that you get from a travel agent, but a real road map...try a book store.

Our first stop was at the garden of Diana Grenfell and Roger Grounds. Diana is the author of a book on hostas, while husband Roger is recognize for his book on ornamental grasses. Their nursery, called Apple Court, is a charming little one acre garden. With ferns being a specialty, it was interesting to see actual divisions of some of the original cultivars of lady ferns, that are still grown today. Amazingly enough, the original plants look nothing like those that are sold today under the same names.

The first two things to hit me was the extensive use of phormiums (New Zealand Flax), and the large number of variegated hollies. Unfortunately, the phormiums will not fare well in our colder winters, and most of the hollies are Ilex aquifolium (English Holly) cultivars, which detest our summers. I was very pleased, however, to find a variegated Ilex altaclerensis, that returned home with me for a try in North Carolina.

Another wonderful plant that greeted me when I opened the car door was a white edged sweet gum. It seems as though the English have selected all kinds of wonderful native american plants, that are almost ignored here. Determined to find out more about this one of a kind gem, I was directed to Steven Taffler. In England, this retired plant nut is known as Mr. Variegated.

We found Taffler and his wife Jill in a retirement community, where he had planted the entire complex grounds in variegated plants of every description. I was surprised to find out that some of the plants that I had grown over the last 20 years were named by Taffler, including a piggyback plant, Tolmiea Taff's Gold. There was a variegated paperbark maple, several variegated hydrangeas, a spectacular variegated Chinese chestnut, just to mention a few.

Taffler is currently working with a couple of authors from Japan to produce an English version of the famous book on the variegated plants of Japan.

Our next visit was a stop at Hadspen House gardens. The gardens of the late Eric Smith, hosta breeder and extraordinary plantsman were truly wonderful. The current owners, are a Canadian couple, Nori and Sandra Pope, who moved to England, just for the chance of owning this garden. Many of the plants that you may recognize that originated in the garden are Brunnera Hadspen Cream', Sambucus nigra Pulverulenta', Hosta Halcyon', Blue Moon', Blue Skies', Dorset Blue', Hadspen Blue', Blue Wedgwood', and many more.

One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the garden and nursery of Beth Chatto of Colchester. Beth is a renown garden writer and gardener, whose books are widely available in the US. I had heard Beth speak in Raleigh, nearly thirteen years ago, and had long wanted to visit her garden. Even with such anticipation, I was not prepared for the truly spectacular garden that awaited.

Thinking the five acre garden (probably the finest private garden that I have ever visited) was the highlight, I dared to venture into the nursery. I emerged from the specialty nursery, (smaller than an American garden center), four hours later, with a shopping cart that looked as though it had made a warp drive trip through Wal Mart.

When buying plants in England, keep in mind that each person can only bring in 12 plants each without a permit. Certain plants are not admitted, and the plants and roots must be washed to rid to the plants of all potting soil and insects.

Another journey that I had always wanted to make was to the town of Diss to visit the garden of Alan and Adrian Bloom, and their garden center. Once again, I entered completely unprepared. As we were driving down a country road, seemingly out of nowhere, cars converged on a small insignificant driveway.

In order not to get run over, we followed the traffic. In a few seconds, we found ourselves in a large mowed field, with traffic directors a la the state fair, pointing us into the large rows of vehicles already in place. As we followed the masses, we found ourselves in the midst of the Blooms of Bressingham complex.

Blooms was anything but an ordinary garden center. In addition to the garden center, deli, two 5+ acre display gardens (everything labeled) of unparalled quality, there was a steam locomotive train museum with rides and...well, literally something for the entire family. With time at a premium, I almost ran through Alan Blooms 5 acre garden, and even at this pace, three hours wasn't nearly enough time.

My final visit, which I couldn't leave England without, was a journey to the Southeast corner of England to visit helleborus grower Elizabeth Strangman. Elizabeth is known around the world for her hybrids of hellebores in colors of pure yellow and near black. As we drove in the drive, we were unknowingly preceded by a carload of gardening friends from Philadelphia. Elizabeth told us that there was a regular stream of American visitors.

Many of the wonderful rare hellebores that American gardeners covet, were found in abundance at the nursery. Despite the high exchange rate (every English pound was worth $1.50), the price of hellebores and other plants were surprisingly inexpensive...even the rare stuff.

Despite all of the wonderful plant discoveries, one of the great memories from the trip will be the opportunity to visit the garden, and have tea, with plantsman and garden author Graham Stuart Thomas. Although retired and in his mid 80's, Thomas remains one of England's top plantsmen. His books are widely available in America, through Timber Press.

If you are excited about visiting England, remember that we have the advantage of having direct flights over and back from Raleigh Durham Airport. Perhaps the flights would be better filled, if the wonderful gardens of England were better promoted.