June 3, 2007
THE CURTAIN WENT UP WITH the carpenters still banging away on stage and the actors learning their lines. I had scarcely ordered the plants I need, let alone planted them, when spring went into overdrive. Plants I was planning to move and clumps to divide suddenly looked inviolable, on the point of flowering. Besides, the soil was rapidly drying out: a peck of dust in March was a bushel in April. With no rain in prospect it was time to go visiting; to cast off self-reproach and see the spring displayed by gardeners who really know how.
The Savill Gardens at Windsor with their splendid new visitor centre are drawing crowds these days. The soaring oak-roofed building is the best piece of modern garden architecture we have.
But even better in April, to my mind, and much less visited, are the Valley Gardens, a mile to the south on the ridge of the Great Park that overlooks Virginia Water. If ever there was an idealised landscape, a forest of exotic flowers, it is this. Sir Eric Savill and his successors have groomed 200 acres of ancient hunting forest, carved vistas, nurtured rarities, planted amphitheatres and wound paths until a wander in these woods in spring is pure intoxication. When
magnolias melt in petals on azaleas it goes to my head. A sailor with a perfect beam wind might feel like this, or the audience of a sublime aria. Life doesn’t get any better.
You could call it the abstract painting of gardening, this entirely English style. There are no functional parts, no symbolism, no representation, no eye-catchers; just the landscape itself, coloured with flowers. Sometimes at the end of a plunging wisteria -ride you see silver water. Immense oaks and beeches support the sky. Reality is suspended in horticultural heaven.
French garden nirvana is as different as could be: nature not idealised but domesticated. It would be the perfect moment, I thought, to compare what London and Paris do best. For years my favourite French April garden has been La Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne: the prettiest possible potager all primped up for spring. The heart of it is a walk under arches of wisteria; each arch a different species or cultivar. “Macrobotrys” dangles pale tassels a yard long: sinensis sweet smelling purple
ones. There is pink and white, and a graceful form nearer to grey. All are pruned tight for maximum performance.
But the gardener is drunk on bulbs. They even scale the walls of his bothy and sit in pots on the roof. Tulips are marshalled like dancers at a ball, swirling among pansies and wallflowers, disciplined by low box hedges and little skirts of pear trees in flower at knee height. A positive embankment of sand and manure announces asparagus: the first tips, no knobs, of grey and cream are poking through. Later there will be grand displays; the immaculate rose garden and the border where michaelmas daisies stretch for a hundred yards. For now the union of function and frivolity is
quintessential Paris, and pluperfect spring.