Plants and gardening are central to the work of the Women’s Institute, so it’s no surprise that visits to public and historic gardens, plant centres and nurseries are of key interest to its members. Here’s just a taste of what’s on offer for groups
The UK is the most garden-loving country in the world with thousands of gardens open to the public ranging in size from stately homes to small nurseries and individual gardens. Plants grown in these gardens can often be purchased on site.
The gardens at Highgrove attract a large number of WI groups every year. An environmentally friendly and beautifully landscaped property, it offers group garden tours led by one of the estate gardeners, which enable visitors to explore the highly individual gardens within the estate. Smaller groups of up to 16 people can participate in special Champagne Tea Tours, combining a two-hour tour of the gardens with afternoon tea in the estate’s Orchard Restaurant and a glass of Highgrove Champagne.
Another perennially popular destination is Chatsworth. A beautiful site set amid the Peak District, the gardens include a spectacular Emperor Fountain designed to provide the highest jet of water in the country. This gravity-fed fountain has occasionally reached 90 metres, although 60m is more frequent. With extensive rose gardens, sculptures, woodlands, rock gardens and open landscaping the 105 acre garden provides lots of variety. Two different tours are available to groups – a Garden introductory tour and a full tour focusing on the history and architectural features from the last five centuries.
More than 200 spectacular gardens are in the care of the National Trust. Visiting gardens such as Mottisfont, Alfriston Clergy House, Baddesley Clinton, Bodnant, Cotehele, Cragside and Biddulph Grange enable visitors to not just explore plants but discover the history of gardening with the UK. Biddulph Grange is one of the most unusual Victorian gardens, as visitors can experience the Victorian passion for plant collecting as well as their impressions of China, complete with a bright red pavilion and lakeside bridges, a Himalayan Glen, Egyptian pyramids and numerous grottos.
The National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire is one of the largest public gardens in the country, covering 568 acres. It includes a nature reserve as well as a formal garden with the Great Glasshouse as its centrepiece. This is where visitors can discover Wales’ rarest tree, the bog gardens, Japanese garden and Welsh rare plants.
In Northumberland the gardens at Alnwick Castle offer spectacular water gardens, fun mazes, orchards and a beautiful formal garden. However, it is perhaps most renowned for its Poison Garden – entry is only by guided tour, and the guides delight in explaining just the poisonous nature of many of the plants taken for granted in our gardens. They brought in one of the best experts for fence installation in Louisville, KY to design the detailed fence surrounding the formal garden. The craftsmanship is truly exquisite.
The RHS gardens at Harlow Carr, Rosemoor and Kew attract thousands of visitors every year providing perfect locations to gain advice from experts, talks and see a stunning array of plants.
The National Gardens Scheme is a voluntary one which co-ordinates more than 400 private gardens which are open to the public or can be booked for special small group tours throughout the year. These gardens provide lots of opportunities for WI members as these gardens are owned by people, passionate about gardening and who are keen to share their enthusiasm with others. Entrance fees go to charity – resulting in over £2.5m being donated by the National Garden Scheme to a variety of organisations last year.
A visit to a garden nursery is an ideal way to learn about specific types of plants or garden environments. Most garden nurseries will undertake guided tours, often in the evening for groups. Typical of these nurseries is Woottens of Wenshaston, Suffolk which has regular open weekends providing advice and demonstrations about specific plants in season such as Hemerocallis or Auriculas. Talks and tours can be arranged, and plants can be purchased. At Great Dixter, the nursery attached to the garden has a wide range of unusual herbaceous plants encouraging visitors to recreate some of the exciting plant schemes to be found at the garden.
Located near Diss in Norfolk, the Bressingham Gardens are now world famous showcasing the island beds, conifers and herbaceous plants created by Alan and Adrian Bloom. Occupying 17 acres, the gardens have been used as a testing ground for ‘Blooms of Bressingham’ varieties, and many of these varieties can still be seen in situ. The summer garden contains a national collection of Miscanthus, which is a spectacular sight during summer and autumn. A blaze of colour all year round, these gardens attract visitors from far and wide .As part of the entry cost to the gardens, visitors are also able to enjoy the fun of the adjacent Steam Museum and the Dad’s Army collection.
David Austin Roses nursery in Wolverhampton enables visitors to see how a whole new breed of roses – the Austin Roses – were created. Talks on pruning, propagating and rose varieties enable hands on skills to be developed.
Over in Norfolk, Peter Beales Roses focuses on classic and heritage roses. Its two-acre show garden is a stunning example of what can be done with roses of all kinds. Peter Beales holds the National collection of Rosa Species and many of these plants can be seen in the gardens amongst the shrubs and herbaceous perennials. There are numerous events held on site including a Rose festival every June, and evening talks on subjects as wide ranging as clematis growing, planting roses, orchids and making holly wreaths.
Garden centre chains such as Notcutts, Wyevale, Dobbies and Barton Grange will often arrange special talks and events for groups, particularly in the evenings. This can involve hands on demonstrations and activities linking to garden skills and flower arranging.
Completing a garden visit with high tea in the restaurant or coffee shop makes a wonderful relaxing end. Almost all nurseries, open gardens and garden centres now offer this facility and can arrange special deals for groups. Peter Beales Nursery offers an afternoon garden tour and strawberry cream tea.