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English gardens are sublime in England. I have to remind myself of this after a whirlwind tour of some of the loveliest gardens in England. My first instinct upon returning home was to rip out my remaining lawn and plunge into planting a herbaceous border brilliant with lupins, delphiniums, peonies and spires of foxgloves interspersed with alliums, cushions of cranesbill geraniums and more and more roses. Then I came to my senses, remembered the peonies that have already died in my garden, contented myself with my border of nodding aquilegia, and reminded myself to admire, to enjoy, but not to covet.

The Chelsea Flower Show was memorable. Both of the entries from Australia won prizes, gold for the Royal Botanic Gardens - the English were fascinated by the yellow kangaroo paw, the grevilleas and the red dirt of the outback - and silver for the lovely garden entered by Wes Fleming's nurseries featuring plants that were collected by Sir Joseph Banks on his voyages with Captain Cook. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out House & Garden's Chelsea Flower Show coverage for photos and more info.]

There was plenty to look at and plenty to learn. An edible vertical garden clad with tomatoes, calendula and nasturtiums was happily growing nine metres up in the air. Elsewhere, Peter Seabrook was tirelessly promoting his joint venture with the children of 40 schools, and the students' exhibits of brassicas, salad greens and peas all seemed happy and vigorous.

At the end of the show everything was for sale, and Sloane Square Tube Station resembled a woodland as dozens of garden lovers journeyed home bearing huge plants that threatened to jam the turnstiles. I travelled home with my nose pressed into a rare clematis in full bloom.

I also visited two famous gardens in Kent: Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. Sissinghurst is known worldwide as the former home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson and more recently has featured in a book, and subsequent TV series, by their grandson Adam. We were among the first visitors of the day so were able to stroll with ease through the exquisite white garden with its patterns of silver and the herb garden full of hyssop, comfrey, licorice and every possible mint and thyme.

Great Dixter was the home and garden of the late Christopher Lloyd, remembered fondly by the gardening fraternity as a man of strong opinions. Cooks may have come across his lovely book Gardener Cook. Fittingly, Lloyd's vegetable garden was magnificent. I loved the way boughs of birch- or fruit-wood prunings were used to support tall pea plants or beans. Great Dixter's combinations of scarlet, ruby and yellow were in complete contrast to the perfection and elegance of Sissinghurst. Here all was bright, bold, dramatic and exuberant, cultivated with abandon. Christopher Lloyd advocated keeping an area of the garden as a wild place allowing native flowers, grasses and insect life to flourish.

I had a book talk and signing at Petersham Nurseries, where chef Skye Gyngell has just received a Michelin star for the nursery's café. It must surely be the only starred restaurant in the world with a dirt floor, as tables are set in the greenhouse. We ate under swags of apricot bougainvillea and star jasmine with tree ferns towering over. I ate my first wild salmon of the trip, served with tiny clusters of greens. Delicious. Salads included watercress, which is such a lovely plant and seems much more delicate in England. Once again I admired an outstanding and extensive kitchen garden; it was prolific with every seasonal vegetable and herb one could think of.

There were more gardens to see and more small house museums to visit. At The Geffrye there were some unusual herbs in flower, such as Angelica and orris root, and the soothing combination of white, blue and silver flowers and plants occurred over and over.

On a glorious bank holiday I visited the Chelsea Physic Gardens. Founded in 1673, it is the second oldest botanic garden in England and its main gate is said to open only "for royalty and for manure". On this day the crowds came (through a separate entry) to admire and to picnic. The Garden has a delightfully eccentric café. Weathered tables were set under a marquee and on every table was a beautiful full-blown rose. The scene resembled the set of Midsomer Murders; I expected Joyce Barnaby to be serving the teas.

Before heading for the Lake District we visited the curious gardens on the roof of a building in Kensington High Street. There are stone walls, Japanese bridges, grottoes, and a typical English woodland garden next to one that is vaguely Spanish. It is difficult to remember you are six floors up in the air, and the gardener explained some of the challenges of maintaining a garden with a 45cm soil depth. Now owned by Sir Richard Branson, these very extensive gardens were first established in the 1930s, and are now listed by English Heritage. A pair of pink flamingos has also been in residence for that period. Could they be truly happy, I wondered?


This article was published in the August 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.


For more information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools, check out her website.


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