Green and Gentle Lands: Exploring Gardens and Historic Sites

By Nancy Smith Brooks, Extension Master Gardener

London Gardens

I took a marvelous cruise in May 2019 called “Green and Gentle Lands: Exploring Gardens and Historic Sites,” aboard the Ponant Line’s ship Le Boréal. We took six different excursions to gardens in England, Scotland, Belgium, and Norway.

“Summer Sun,” blown glass and steel sculpture by Dale Chihuly, at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, England Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

“Summer Sun,” blown glass and steel sculpture by Dale Chihuly, at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

Our first stops were at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Richard Barley, Director of Horticulture, Learning, and Operations at Kew, met with our group of avid gardeners and talked about Kew’s worldwide research role and its seed bank at Wakehurst, “a library of plants.” Pleasing this Master Gardener of Northern Virginia and University of Virginia graduate, he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s culture; especially a bread grain.” Barley also described his decision to bring Wolfgang Buttress’s sculpture “The Hive” back to Kew from the 2015 Milan Expo, and to reassemble its 170,000 pieces in a meadow.

When you stand in “The Hive,” you can track bees’ movements by sound and light, the intensity of which is controlled by the vibrations of honeybees in an actual hive at Kew. It is an extraordinary exhibit that highlights the importance of pollinators. Barley emphasized that “Horticulture is a vital component in the current and future custodianship of gardens and landscapes. Global warming is at the front of our mind.” He stressed the key role of social media in sharing Kew’s message, which is “Don’t grow up. Grow wild.”

Rod of Asclepius sculpture at Chelsea Physic Garden, London, England Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

Rod of Asclepius sculpture at Chelsea Physic Garden
Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

Chelsea Physic Garden, one of the world’s oldest botanic gardens, was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries, and celebrates the connection between plants and medicines. It has over 5,000 medicinal, herbal, edible, and useful plants. I have a family connection to Digitalis (Foxglove) that is used to treat cardiac disease, because my English paternal grandfather, Frederick Alfred Upsher Smith, was the first chemist and pharmacist to refine Digitalis so that the dose would help, and not risk killing, the patient.


Border Gardens

 The third English garden we toured was 11th century Alnwick Garden in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, near the Scottish border. Jane Percy, Her Grace, the Duchess of Northumberland, hosted our group and took us on a tour of the extensive gardens. She herself is a force of nature who envisioned the gardens, revitalized them, and has created one of the most ambitious new gardens in the world. There is an amazing Grand Cascade tumbling waterfall and a Poison Garden where dangerous plants are kept locked up in gorgeous cages so that curious tourists don’t kill themselves, or others. She has made the local economy strong with her vision for the town of Alnwick, and her emphasis on The Young Gardeners, The Enterprise, and the Elderberries Programmes. The Elderberries program serves (mostly women) senior citizens. The Gentlemen’s Club offers woodworking to senior men. A large children’s garden serves all children and includes raised beds for children who use wheelchairs. We were lucky enough to see a wedding party on the grounds of the estate. The Duchess has left the gardens of landscape architect Capability Brown and its sweeping views alone, fortunately. Harry Potter film fans may recognize Alnwick Castle as Hogwarts School of Wizardry.

Firth of Forth, Scotland Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

Firth of Forth, Scotland
Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

Up the coast from Northumberland is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in Scotland. The Rhododendron, many two stories high and very old, were in full bloom. Great swaths of Allium and tulips were just fading. We banqueted at the Victorian Caledonian Hall, which overlooks the rock garden. Founding Father Benjamin Rush studied here, and later signed the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps he and Mr. Jefferson talked about plants?

Belgian Gardens

Our first stop on the Continent was Ostend, Belgium, where we toured the 14th century Oostkerke Castle, which has a dramatic history of occupation, pillage, arson, and natural disaster. The famous Dutch landscape architect Mien Ruys restored and redesigned the borders and gardens in the 20th century. Roses and the familiar Virginia Creeper climb up the walls. The ancient moats have been excavated and form an important design element of the current gardens. Regal swans are very much at home at Oostkerke Castle and nest on the banks of the moats. As we returned to Le Boréal, we stopped at the Japanese Garden in Konings Park and meditated in the peace of the rock garden, water features, bamboo, and statues. Arum italicum (Italian arum) was in stunning bloom. Apparently it is not invasive in Belgium.

After sailing up the coast to Antwerp, the next day we toured Arboretum Kalmthout, founded in 1856, and Hemelrijk Garden. Kalmthout includes a valuable collection of woody plants, 148 of which appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species. The arboretum conducts important work on sustainability, environmental protection, and conservation. While Antwerp is famous for its diamond trade, Hemelrijk, a landscape park and botanical garden densely planted with rare trees and shrubs, is famous for its Hamamelis ‘Diane’ Witch Hazel plants bred by Jelena de Belder.  It is a private garden now and features sensational vistas including allées of pollarded willow trees and a serene lake.


A Norwegian Tropical Garden

Yes, Virginia, there is a tropical garden in Norway, Flor og Fjære, located on the island of Sør-Hidle near Stavanger, where it is protected from the North Sea. The plant hardiness zone is 8a. One highlight is the world’s northernmost plantation of tropical palm trees, banana trees, and bamboo. There is even a sandy beach that looks out over the majestic mountains and the Gandsfjord. I was struck by a huge (over three feet in height) Fuchsia triphylla ‘Gartenmeister,’ because the Gartenmeister fuchsias that I plant for the hummingbirds in Arlington, Virginia never reach that size.


At Sea

We embarked at our docking site at the foot of the Tower of London Hill, and for me the greatest thrill of the entire voyage was sailing under Tower Bridge. Traffic was stopped and the bridge was raised as we sailed under it as the sun set. While at sea, guest lecturers Holly and Osamu Shimizu (Holly is the former executive director of the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.), and Alain Baraton (Head Gardener at Versailles, Trianon, and Marly in France) delivered five lectures.

Holly Shimizu’s talks were “Gardens Through the Ages,” “The Fragrant Garden,” and “Developing a Home Harden.” She remarked that labeling in public gardens is always a problem because signs get moved, stolen, and disappear. I thought that the demonstration garden coordinators would appreciate her comment! She also noted that the English love to use Solidago (goldenrod), but that it can be the wrong plant to use since it is invasive in England. She commented that in the Japanese culture, people are inclined to prune plants back hard, because if they do not neighbors will think that the family is having problems and all is not well in that home. Holly and Osamu do not always agree on how hard to prune back plants at their homes in Delaware and Maryland because she likes a more natural look that she calls “controlled untidiness.” And she joked about current landscaping practice: “When did mulch start falling from the sky?” She prefers to grow ground covers rather than spreading more mulch. I am having success in Arlington growing ground covers like creeping thyme and golden ragwort. She described her “freedom lawn” where anything green that grows is welcome.

Alain Baraton talked about “Le jardin anglais, plus qu’un style, un art” (“The English garden, more than a style, an art”) and “Botanistes, jardinières, et rosiéristes anglais” (“English botanists, gardeners, and rose growers”). My school girl French came in handy and I understood most of his lectures, except the jokes. As a member of the Continuing Education Committee, I did understand his wry comment “Malheureusement, c’est la vie” (“Unfortunately, that’s life”) when his PowerPoint slide deck failed to play.

It was a great first cruise and the excursions were all amazing garden experiences. I encourage you to visit any of these gardens when you are in Europe.

North Sea at sunset Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

North Sea at sunset
Photo © 2019 Nancy Smith Brooks

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