What is it that will cause a Briton to don his wellies in the most disgusting weather and leave the warmth and comfort of the sofa to head outdoors for mud and drafty sheds? Or will motivate a coachload of visitors to jump off and explore the extensive grounds of a stately home? We have a love affair with all things gardens, which has permeated British culture through the centuries.
Perhaps more than the inhabitants of any other country in the world, the British people are known as lovers of gardens – their own gardens, public gardens, and the formal gardens of the land’s stately homes and castles. From tiny inner city high-rise concrete balconies to estates covering swathes of the British countryside, dedicated (some might say obsessive) gardeners can be found, working hard to attain perfection in their little piece of soil. Nowhere else can you find quite so many shops, television and radio programmes, shows, celebrities, magazines, awards and jokes all occupied with the topic of gardens and gardening.
A Briton’s garden is very different from the functional backyards of America, the scrubby rustic patches of land adjoining houses in France, the architectural order of Chinese gardens or the dacha plots growing produce for Russians. Functionality does play a part, whether that is digging up the roses to plant vegetables during the war or putting down a patio and brick barbecue to make the most of the two days of summer. However, it is the focus on beauty, experimentation, pleasure in the process and pure romanticism that really sets British gardens apart. Designing and planning a garden purely for pleasure is not, in Britain, the preserve of the rich or the landed.
There are plenty of theories about why we love our gardens so much. Many areas of Britain are significantly overcrowded and hectic, with nightmarish traffic and strained resources. A person’s garden will always offer escape and solitude, as well as a little portion of what many deeply desire but cannot fit into their lives – a taste of the countryside. Our climate is another factor. The weather often keeps us indoors, but at least with a garden there is something to look at through the windows. Five minutes of sunshine between downpours, far too short a time to head out for a walk, is still enough time to pop outside and stick into the ground those half-dozen seedlings that have been patiently waiting on the kitchen windowsill. It is enough time to check the vegetables, smell the roses, or just wander round and plan what to do out there on the next decent day. And planning is in itself a key provider of joy to gardeners. Matthew Hall, head gardener at Batsford Arboretum, makes the connection between visiting grand gardens that operate on a large scale and our gardens back at home: “I think British people love gardens so much because they’re places to find inspiration to take back and use in their own gardens … visiting beautiful gardens like Batsford restores the spirits and provides a fantastic place to gather ideas and inspiration.” Many aspects of the wider gardening world relate directly to this function of the garden as a source of inspiration and an outlet for creativity. Garden centres, gardening programmes, gardening books, visiting famous gardens on a far grander scale – all of these serve to encourage the ambitions of gardeners no matter how small their own plot. Attending events such as RHS flower shows, or the Garden Party at Gloucester Quays (taking place this Easter weekend, from April 18th to 21st), also motivates gardeners to think about just how much they can achieve back home.
Andy Stevens, head gardener at Borde Hill, points out that the weather we so frequently denigrate has advantages when it comes to gardening. “The British climate offers us the opportunity to grow a fantastic range of plants from all over the world”, he comments. “This makes gardening so exciting and gardens so interesting to visit.” UK gardeners often achieve surprising success with growing plants that in theory are not suited to our climate, thanks to dedication, research and experimentation. The UK also has the advantage of many microclimates, from pockets of sunshine and warmth down in Cornwall, to damp Gulf Stream patches in Northern Ireland, to dry gravel areas of East Anglia. The Lost Gardens of Heligan include camellias and tree ferns, unusual for the UK, but happily flourishing thanks to a microclimate of Cornwall warmth and sun, with the added protection of nestling in a steep valley. The area at the bottom, which they call their ‘Jungle’, is at least five degrees warmer than their Northern Gardens. Less than ten miles away at the Eden Project, the founders have made the most of mild Cornwall and added their famous biomes, in order to experiment, educate and learn more about rainforests, sustainability and plant biology.
Britons love using gardens to learn and teach, and not just the gardens that are on the scale of the Eden Project. The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 to teach apothecaries about medicinal plants, and still welcomes visitors today to learn about the future of gardening as well as the past. Kew Gardens is the most famous of many gardens that have year-round extensive programmes of lectures, activity days and talks aimed at all ages and levels of expertise.
Of course, the gardens of stately homes also teach us much about our social past as well as about things strictly plant-related. Nowhere else in the world do large gardens of big houses contain so many disparate sections. Wyndcliffe Court Gardens include sculpted topiary, a sunken garden, a summerhouse, walled gardens, fountains, a lily pond and a bowling lawn leading out to wooded walks. Lakes, white gardens, kitchen gardens, wildflower meadows, terraces, rose gardens – all these elements and more find regular space in the country’s large estates. These days, the beauty of these spaces is often used as a backdrop for other events and exhibitions too. The gardens at Waddesdon Manor, which belongs to the Rothschilds, are used to display some of the incredible art that the family continues to acquire, and sculptures and outdoor exhibitions abound there, as they do in many other gardens through the country.
Most of all, though, it is simply the ability of gardens to transport us to another world, one of enjoyment and natural pleasures, that we love. Even amateur gardeners will tell you that as you kneel down to the vegetable plot or grub around the roses’ roots, the worries and stresses of life slip away as soil through the fingers. Look up, and the scents and sounds reassure you that some things never change. These sensory comforts occupy a role in our lives that no amount of technology can ever replace.