‘And so this is Christmas’……. The season of goodwill, festive cheer, generosity and sharing. Yes, we all know that Christmas is about giving not receiving but who doesn’t enjoy thinking about what we’d like to receive too? Outside it’s cold, dark and usually wet and as the English countryside slides into dormancy, it’s easy to start dreaming about exotic horticultural adventures in warmer climes. With this in mind, here is the Sissinghurst gardeners’ wish list of horticultural places to visit. A sort of Christmas Horticultural Grand Tour.
Leaving the shores of Britain our first port of call is France to visit the world famous garden at Giverney, once home to Claude Monet. Quite a modest start, requested by Wendy, the Assistant Head Gardener. However, there is a challenge because she only wants to visit when no-one else is there. That could be difficult as it’s one of the most visited gardens in the world and attracts up to 500,000 visitors a year which makes Sissinghurst’s 180,000 look modest. It’s a heady mix of colour, light and water all combined by an artistic genius and a ‘must see’ for any garden enthusiast or art lover.
After France, we head across the border to Germany to visit the Rosarium at Sangerhausen, situated near to the Polish border. This famous rose garden was originally established in 1903 by a group of German rose breeders who wanted to conserve old and rare varieties which they felt were in danger of being lost. Originally only 1.5 hectares, it’s now grown to 13 hectares and has 75,000 roses comprising 8,300 species and is officially the biggest rose garden in the world. Sissinghurst may be well known for its Rose Garden but this is a Rose Garden on a completely different (and very impressive) scale. I love old roses and this is my request.
Troy, the Head Gardener, wants to visit wild flower meadows but is not sure where to go although his ideas seem to hover around central Europe. The Alps, Austria, Switzerland or Slovenia were all mentioned as possible destinations. Having consulted my book by Bob Gibbons called ‘Wildflower wonders of the world’, the Julian Alps in Slovenia have to be the place to go. These are an area of high limestone mountains occurring at the point where Slovenia meets Austria and Italy. Here traditional farming methods and the creation of a national park have ensured the survival of the flower rich hay meadows. Most of the meadows sit at an altitude of over 500m and are full of wildflowers such as Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare), Meadow Clary (Salvia pratensis), Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), Swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum hirundinaria), wild thymes, Dusky Cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) and several species of orchids. Other flowers such as the Triglav Hawksbeard (Crepis terglouensis) and Julian Poppy (Papaver alpinum ssp. ernesti-mayeri) are unique to this area. In shadier or damper areas wild flowers such as the Carnic Lily (Lilium carniolicum), Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), Marsh Valerians (Valeriana dioica) and more orchid species can be found. It sounds beautiful and the special nature of this area has recently been recognised with the creation of the Bohinj International Wildflower Festival held in May. Perhaps the perfect time to visit.
We move on to Italy which Jo has requested. She wants to visit the famous Villa d’Este in Tivoli, created by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este between 1550 and1565. Poor Ippolito always thought he was destined to become Pope but when his chance came at the age of 40 he was thought to be too rich and too powerful. The man who got the job instead was Julius lll who effectively exiled Ippolito by appointing him Governor of Tivoli. Italian law stated that a governor could not leave his province thus keeping Ippolito away from the centre of power, Rome.
Thwarted and frustrated Ippolito turned his attention, money and talents to making a garden but not just any garden. His garden was designed to be a statement of supreme wealth and power, created to impress even the most important visitor. Everything about Villa d’Este is on a grand scale and even now it is considered to be one of the world’s greatest water gardens. 255 waterfalls, 250 water jets, 100 baths, 60 springs, 50 fountains and the Terrace of the hundred waterfalls says it all. He may not have got the job of Pope but he did make an astonishing and beautiful garden thus earning himself a place in history after all.
South Africa is the next destination on our Grand Tour and in particular, the area known as the Fynbos. The Fynbos sits in the Cape Floristic Region which is the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms covering just 90,000 square km. Amazingly, it contains over 9,000 species of flowering plants and is described by the botanist Bob Gibbons as ‘One of the most intensely flowery places in the world.’
It’s easy to forget just how many plants we grow here are actually native to South Africa. Pelargoniums, Gladioli, Agapanthus, Crocosmia, Osteospermums, Lobelia and Schizostylis all have their native roots in South Africa. Two good places to focus on are the Table Mountain National Park and Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. In the park it’s possible to see the true wildness of the Fynbos whilst the botanical garden contains 7000 South African plants including classic Fynbos plants such as proteas, restios and huge pelargoniums. To visit both is the perfect combination and this is my second (and last) request.
Finally, we travel to Japan where Phil would like to learn about the symbolism and meaning of Japanese gardens. He greatly admires the peace and tranquility that exists in these gardens, a feature that he feels Western gardens are often lacking. But Japanese gardens can be hard to understand for Westerners as they have a strong spiritual element rooted in Zen Buddhism that simply does not exist in our gardens. Their use of symbolism also creates a challenge for Westerners to understand. Water, (whether real or represented by sand or gravel) must be present in any Japanese garden as a symbol and expression of the sea. Trees and plants represent nature and many plants have meaning attached to them. The plum, for example, embodies the qualities of vigour and patience.
The best place for Phil to visit is probably Kyoto which has many Zen gardens to visit. Most of these are attached to temples and are still tended by monks today. Nearly all of them are in the Karesansui style which are the dry landscape gardens so typical of Japan. Whilst contemplating the arrangement of rocks and raked gravel, Phil might also like to contemplate the lack of turf care in these gardens. The thought of no mowing, scarifying, hollow tining or returfing will, I think, lead Phil very quickly into a state of deep relaxation and enlightenment.
Now back in Britain, there is just one more garden to view before returning to Kent. Rousham in Oxfordshire is Pete’s choice and is perhaps the finest example of a landscape garden in Britain. Designed by William Kent in 1738, it takes the English landscape and creates Arcadia within it. Classical focal points, long vistas and theatrical stage sets painted in every shade of green create a masterpiece of understatement and style. It just proves that it’s not necessary to travel around the world in search of beauty. There is horticultural perfection in our own small island if we just take the time to seek it out.
Helen Champion – Gardener
**Merry Christmas from all the Sissinghurst Gardeners**