In the rain and the cold, gardens abroad have their charm. Thirty years ago nobody much offered “garden tours” and the general view was that Britain’s gardens were so good that there was little point in travelling miles to see nothing but historic evergreens in some curious corner of Italy. How habits change ... nowadays most keen gardeners are tempted by words like “Ninfa” or “Bagatelle”. Regularly, readers send me details of the Manoir of this or the Villa of that which they have just seen and consider to be deserving of a visit. Early and late in the year it also has a far better climate. If only I did not feel homesick after three days. It is rather nice to be away from one’s own weeds but at night I am haunted by green dreams of England.
What might you investigate for a foreign tour this year? Providers have proliferated and many of them offer travel with small groups only, capped at 14 to 20 clients. I have usually found gardening friends on such tours and it is certainly a relief not to have to think of travel plans and opening times. The older practice of including dinner every night for all clients together is fortunately on the wane. It is better to recover quietly on one’s own after a day of taking notes. It is intriguing, though, to observe the dynamic of married gardening couples at close quarters. Quite often she knows much more and keeps quiet but he answers for her.
I have travelled with Susan Worner Tours (www.susanwornertours.com) and I can recommend her quiet grasp of every itinerary, all carefully vetted in advance, and her knowledge of how to keep a low profile and take everyone to places that make them happy. She runs tours to France and Italy that are not only to publicly available gardens. She also runs a fascinating tour into the Dolomites to see the superb wild flowers with a top professional guide, this year on June 30-July 7. From November 10-22 she is running a first-class tour to South Africa, the Western Cape and private reserves. I would turn to Susan if I was needing seasoned advice on a trip I was considering in any of her areas. Keen gardeners tend to book with her.
Peter Moxley of Individual Holidays is another experienced planner with several less usual trips on offer (www.individual-holidays.com). He runs a trip to the gardens of Grenada in the Caribbean guided by Suzanne Gaywood, who has won gold medals at the last two Chelsea Flower Shows for her designs for Grenada gardens. The trips leave on November 21 and 28 and by then I would be delighted to be visiting private gardens, a chocolate factory and a rum distillery and meeting members of the Grenada Horticultural Society for tea. The trip has been sampled already and much enjoyed. Moxley also runs a tempting tour to Galicia to see the superb camellias and the International Camellia Festival. The trip begins on March 8 this year and is one of his expertly planned trips to Spanish and Portuguese gardens that have all been well received. On May 6 and May 9 he runs an exciting trip to the Madeira Flower Festival that includes a floral Wall of Hope “where children place their flowers with the objective of building a flower wall symbolising the hope for a better and more peaceful world.” Madeiran gardens are included in the trip.
I would like to try Japan again, after a trip 40 years ago that did not always escape industrial sprawl and lines of white-socked schoolchildren marching to their own songs. Japanese nurserymen have so much to teach us. One recommended way is to contact Inside Japan (see www.insidejapantours.com) where Jocelyn Knightly-Brown can talk you through dates and destinations and arrange either one of her own garden trips as a Japan specialist or a tailor-made trip to what you and your beloved most want to see. To help you with the latter, but not the beloved, I suggest you buy Helena Attlee’s The Gardens of Japan (Frances Lincoln) and look first for sites she visited that interest you too. The seductive Moss Temple of Saiho-ji has been shut to the public since 1977 but Inside Japan will get you in by appointment. You will have to join a half-hour session of chanting and copying Buddhist scriptures before you can view the green moss.
For gardens in Britain, insiders and outsiders should head for Border Lines (www.border-lines.co.uk), offering day tours to pre-selected gardens that attract those in the know. It is run now by James Bolton, who has built on the company’s strong track record and knows how to satisfy critical English gardeners who are treating themselves to a day looking for new ideas or others’ awful mistakes. If you come from abroad and want to see whether archetypal English gardening ladies really exist, a Border Lines tour is your best hope of field research with the real thing. James Bolton also runs excellent tours to private and public gardens in France and Italy and I would certainly see whether he can meet your needs. For longer trips I would consider Brightwater Holidays, which has good itineraries in Scotland and Ireland too (www.brightwaterholidays.com). It even offers Passionate Lady Gardeners of Northumberland for four days. The Duchess of Northumberland’s extravaganza is included. Single room supplements are £75 extra.
In general, Brightwater offers modestly priced trips, but they include pricier ones to Costa Rica or the Mekong River. On October 9 you can go over to see the celebrated designer Piet Oudolf’s own garden in Holland on a two-night trip for £395.
Italian gardens are now immensely well covered. Personally I would approach them by buying Kirsty McLeod’s remarkable The Best Gardens in Italy: A Traveller’s Guide (Frances Lincoln, 2011) and planning my own itinerary. I wrote a preface to this book because it presents so many private Italian gardens that the tours never go near. After a year or two of austerity you will need to check their opening times before travelling, but there is so much here for every Italophile, plants, hedges, giardinieri and owners, often amazing, included. If you want to tailor-make your own tour round such an itinerary one option is to contact Rachel Potts (see www.rachelpotts.org) who has been covering Italian gardens for 20 years. She will guide you for walking trips, day trips and whatever you reasonably want. The magnet nowadays is the great garden of Ninfa, just south of Rome. Open days are strictly limited, from April to October. I recommend May and the vital website for access is www.fondazionecaetani.org/giardini.php. Read Charles Quest Ritson’s expert book Ninfa: The most Romantic Garden in the World (Frances Lincoln) in order to understand what you see. Garden labels are rare at Ninfa and the roses are unusual.
Lastly, my own tailor-made tour for you, Fly to Philadelphia. Pre-book timed tickets for the incredible Barnes Foundation’s collection of paintings in its big new home off Benjamin Franklin Parkway – Philadelphia’s version of the Champs-Elysées – and marvel at this utterly stunning collection, especially the Matisses and Cézannes. See the other art museums nearby, including the Rodin Museum. Then go out to Wayne, Philadelphia, an hour’s drive, to see the brilliantly planted and designed gardens at Chanticleer. Then, also an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, go twice to the unsurpassed Longwood Gardens, where the conservatory displays are the world’s best. Three days would suffice and you need not even meet an over- enthusiastic garden-owner and listen to her talk on how she came to be in the garden that she is about to show you in all-too-loving detail.
Robin Lane Fox was a guest of Susan Worner Tours