I didn’t know, when we left our garden after 40 years in March last year, how much or how little I would miss it. Now I do, to my surprise: very little. I am far busier than I expected in our new little patch. What I didn’t expect, though, is quite how much pleasure I would get from other people’s. Perhaps ambitious gardeners (or those with big gardens) get too self-centred. Perhaps not only ambitious ones. I fear I used to tick off plants or other features in other people’s gardens if I either had them already or wished I did. No more.
I am avid for the front gardens I pass, nosey about back gardens and besotted with the two gardens I visit most often: Holland Park and Exbury.
Holland Park is easy: barely ten minutes walk up the road. “Park” barely does justice to an estate in the heart of London that includes formal gardens on the grand scale, one of England’s biggest and best Japanese gardens, a fine camellia collection, an arboretum with woodland walks, a summer opera house, a sports field for football and cricket and tennis, an outdoor gym, an ecology centre, and a substantial wild area, now full of bluebells, where trees can fall and be left to rot (and no doubt foxes multiply).
Holland Park’s tulips (40,000 were planted for this season) are rightly famous. Their colours gradually evolve from March to May, starting pale and pretty and intensifying to the gayest Joseph’s coat you can imagine. Every day sees a subtle shift in the palette.
As it does at Exbury, but on a scale no one can take in without repeated visits. This is now the third and fourth generation of the de Rothschild family to nurture their 200 acres on the Beaulieu River, where it flows into the Solent. In their maturity they are, I’m afraid, awesome. Every walk is a discovery and leaves my head full of questions. How I wish I knew rhododendrons better – but camellias, too, and magnolias, and all the exotic wonders the Rothschilds have collected.
My trick is to consult the website the day before I go. John Anderson, the head gardener, posts the plants not to be missed on his Noticeboard. Hardly a substitute for knowledge, I know – but a real help in acquiring some.