Artists usually look at other artists’ pictures. Gardeners become better gardeners if they look at other gardeners’ gardens. Plants, designs and ways of growing things go into the compost heap of the mind and resurface in a new context. However, it is hard to keep on top of one’s weeds and go off to see how others have struggled to eliminate their own. The golden month of June is when so many gardens are at their most visitable, just when one’s own is looking good too.
Gardens abroad have acquired a special cachet for cultured travellers. People will drive miles to see a French château garden in the middle of nowhere, even though in their own Britain they have never been to see the great garden at Kiftsgate Court in Gloucestershire and have never made a similar trek to Edinburgh’s unsurpassed botanic garden.
Part of the pleasure in a foreign garden is the surrounding change of culture. Part, too, is language. I love being offered a bag of potting compost in France under the name terre universelle. Weaselly animals sound less frightful as petites ermines.
The change in horticulture can be fascinating too. I saw recently in French gardens how a big magnolia could be clipped into a rounded shape like a giant tea cosy. It flowers profusely nonetheless.
Demand for faraway garden visiting is now well served in Britain. Fellow members of a group are usually keen gardeners and friendships form easily from a shared disregard for earthworms squirming on a bare hand. I have often been firmly corrected by quietly spoken older women who have gardened devotedly for years without seeking publicity or writing a column. On a bonding holiday with a recently retired husband, they come memorably into the social glare and turn out to know the first two names of almost every shrub on sight. They worry about the third one when the rest of us are proud to have remembered even the first.
The travel question I am most often asked is, how do I take my wife for a treat in a group to Ninfa? I have even been asked it by a Frenchman. Ninfa is the superb garden in Italy made by the Caetani and Howard families south of Rome down the Via Appia. This year, two top garden travel companies are taking groups. Between May 5 and 9 or May 12 and 16, James Bolton at Border Lines is offering a well-pitched tour to gardens around Rome, reaching the gardens on May 8 or 15 after a morning at a private garden, designed by Dan Pearson, also set among the ruins of some medieval walls. Small groups, limited to 14 people maximum, are also being taken by Expressions Holidays with departure dates from April 30 on through to September 3. They combine Ninfa with the famous stone sculpture garden at Bomarzo and the other historical classic, the Villa Lante at Bagnaia.
If you want to plan your own trip, go with Charles Quest-Ritson’s informed book, Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden In The World, not least because it will tell you what the roses actually are. You can then plan other visits with the excellent book by Kirsty McLeod The Best Gardens in Italy, to which I admit having written a short preface. It is far the fullest English guide to gardens open in Italy and their claims to attention.
If you want to go on tour with eloquent experts, you are spoiled nowadays for choice. Try Boxwood Tours who are linked up to some tantalising combinations of good food, good gardens and good lecturing. From May 1 to 6 they have linked with Hortus magazine and its founding genius David Wheeler to go to gardens in Piedmont around Turin, including the festival of gardening there, the Tre Giorni per il Giardino. The landscape gardener Russell Page worked on some of his favourite commissions in this region and the festival was founded by one of his followers and one of the Agnelli family for whom he laid out a celebrated design. From June 1 to 6, the expert Helena Attlee is lecturing in gardens on the Italian lakes, including the fine garden around the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como, such a divine landscape on a sunny sparkling day. Attlee’s books are proof of her clear grasp of gardens in so many countries, from Portugal to Japan. From April 24 to 29, gardens in Provence and some excellent food are on offer, but the extra attraction is Louisa Jones as lecturer, highly regarded for her knowledge of the area and her writings on it.
If you want to go it alone, my tip would be a simple trip to Paris in late September. Keen anglophone gardeners are still surprisingly capable of going to the city and only walking in the Tuileries.
The first stop has to be Bagatelle, up by the Bois de Boulogne, easily reached by metro and then bus. In late September the roses are having a second flowering and the Michaelmas daisies are at their best in the sunken formal garden.
From September 26 to 28 the autumn flower show will be running at Château de Saint-Jean de Beauregard, a simple train ride out from the city. On a sunny day I found this show to be full of rustic charm, much more so than highly manicured Chelsea. The big walled garden is the other attraction, at its best in autumn with its masses of dahlias, flowers of which are floated decoratively in the garden’s water tanks.
My own group experience of many French gardens has been with French Gardens Today, now under the expert umbrella of Susan Worner Tours. From May 13 to 15 they are running a trip to Spring Gardens of Leading Landscape Gardeners in Provence, including lunch with the designer Dominique Lafourcade and a showing of her latest venture, an African garden. Worner runs an excellent ship, backed by her years of experience and quiet helpfulness to all participants.
If Africa in Provence does not appeal to you, go for the real thing and join her fascinating tour of Exceptional Gardens in South Africa’s Western Cape from November 6 to 18. The Botanical Gardens are on offer of course, but also visits to rose-filled privately owned gardens, game reserves and the natural sweep of flowering fynbos.
It all sounds so tantalising when the rest of us are wondering about the timing of the first hard British frost. If you hate leaving England or cannot wait to come and see us, think of the weekend from June 15 to 17. It is a top weekend for so many great gardens, but if you are an urban bunny, it is also the big open weekend for London’s garden squares and other private gardens, some 200 in all. Away from the madding London crowds I hope to be contemplating quietly beneath my rampant rose Treasure Trove with nobody else to interrupt the calm.