A couple of years ago, when I was in London on a work trip — before I ever thought I would live here — I took the train out to Richmond to see Kew Gardens, one of the major botanic centers of the world. I remember being impressed (mostly by the size of the water lily pads) and disappointed that I was too early in the season to see much of anything in bloom. So I decided to go back this weekend.
To be honest, this was a consolation prize to myself: My original plan for the weekend had been to go to Mottisfont Abbey to see its rose garden, which is one of the finest in the world, and this is the last weekend of the peak rose season. Sadly, crazy work hours kept me from making plans until very late, and I found that all the rental cars were booked and trains were complicated enough to be infeasible. So I’ll just have to go next year.
But anyway, back to Kew. This time I knew right where I wanted to start: The water lily house. Because of those giant Santa Cruz water lilies… which apparently were still growing because they were no-where near their normal gigantic size. But I did learn that they are fed weekly with “food bombs” made of “loam, fish blood, and bone”… tasty!
Then through the tropical pavilion and the grass garden to the outdoor water lily pond. These were in fine form, and I noticed that they used a black food dye to darken the water — the dark water is less hospitable to algae but doesn’t harm anything else, and it makes for terrific reflections. I’m going to have to try that at home…
After that, lots of aimless wandering. I always love finding the weird plants that don’t seem to follow the rules.
And the traditional gardens that follow all the rules.
I took a long time walking down the Great Borders, which at over 300 meters long, and with over 30,000 plants, are considered to be the longest English borders in the world. Note, by the way, that the “herbaceous border” is a defining feature of the English gardening tradition. It’s more than just a description of some planting that borders something else; it’s a high art form with all sorts of competing theories about how to place colors and mass plants for greatest effect. I love them.
I feel like I learned the most in one of the walled gardens that had a terrific pergola of climbing roses running down the center. Not only did I stop to smell the roses, but I also took some time to notice how they got the roses to grow on the pergola.
Turns out there’s nothing accidental or “natural” about it. They start with a few single stalks growing straight up the upright posts, guided by some vertical wires. (FYI, roses are known as “clamberers”, meaning that they don’t have twining tendrils or suckers, but simply send out long shoots with thorns meant to catch on nearby supports. Needless to say, they benefit from a little guidance and help from a gardener.) Once the vertical stalk is established, the lateral branches at regular intervals are wrapped in spiral around the pillar, and everything else is pruned away so that there’s a nice spiral of foliage and blooms rather than chaos.
At the top, the branches are trained to follow the beams of the pergola. A single main branch is trained to grow long-ways across the main beam, and then the side branches are trained across the cross-beams. Every year these are pruned back to the base branch, so that the new growth remains more or less under control and full of blooms.
Seeing all this makes me want more than ever to have a garden of my own where I can try it all out. I want to grow roses, dammit!
But not today. So back to exploring: Past the Mediterranean gardens and the special greenhouse/shelter that recreates Alpine conditions necessary for mountain plants. Over to the cafe for a much needed snack. And then back to the borders for a call with Justin, before being herded out at closing time.
I still haven’t seen half the gardens. I missed the cactus house, and the giant hive sculpture, and the walkway that takes you up through the tree canopies. So I guess I’ll just have to come back.