I constantly seek inspiration.
Like coal fed into a burning furnace I need the energy, the stimulation and incentive to continue to drive myself ahead. There are several facets of my life that require this constant stimulus to remain focused… to be complete. From a professional perspective, my furnace burns quite hot demanding regular and frequent stimulus to remain focused and energized. Among the many sources I utilize for my constant need for inspiration is travel. I am certain that the sharing of differing cultures and exposing oneself to unique experiences has been an inspiration for many of you as it has for me.
Gardens, gardening and garden design are all things that are uniquely tailored to their native environments and experiencing these unique surroundings thru travel has long been a significant and dynamic source for my much-needed inspirations. It is for this reason that when the opportunity to visit the Chelsea Garden Show in London came up, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. The decision to take this trip was not something I took lightly in that it occurs in May, a very busy time in my line of work, however, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I simply could not pass up.
Arriving in London I was awestruck by the vitality of the city and amount of development in progress. The skyline was bursting with construction cranes as new and modern buildings rise surrounded by a city of ancient structures. Within this bustling city are abundant and superb parks and gardens that have been offering residents and visitors alike, easy access to vast expanses of natural beauty and tranquility for centuries. One such park is the Chelsea Physic Garden which is the 2nd oldest botanic garden in Britain, having been established in 1673. This walled garden is laid out in planting beds consisting of plants arranged by ailment they were capable of treating. The stone walls surrounding the garden provide added protection from weather allowing plants like Pomegranate to survive here when they would not do so naturally.
Traveling outside the city you quickly find yourself in a beautiful countryside of abundant and tidy farms lined with Hawthorn hedges and dry stacked stone walls. All manners of livestock are found but more so are fields of grains blowing in waves; barley, wheat and rapeseed as well as vegetable crops dot the landscape. Among these well-kept farms and villages are also some of the most influential and historic gardens in the world. The design, arrangement and evolution of these garden spaces has largely shaped the way we see our gardens today. Blenheim Palace, the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of palace, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The landscapes here were designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown who began a popular and famous movement towards natural landscape design. We enjoyed a private tour of High Park at Blenheim that holds a rare collection of ancient English Oaks, some more than 1000 years old. These ageless titans bespoke strength, stateliness and majesty beyond measure. Standing alone, deep in the forest with these trees… if they could only tell me their stories.
An American, Lawrence Johnson and his mother Gertrude Winthrup settled in Britain in 1907 purchasing Hidcote Manor. Johnson immediately set to planning his garden in the open spaces around the manor and by 1920 had a dozen full time gardeners at work. Inspired by Gertrude Jekyll and the ongoing Arts and Crafts movement, Johnson set his garden into a collection of outdoor rooms utilizing vistas and ornaments to encourage a natural progression through the garden. An ornamental kitchen garden, a staple of any proper English garden, is adjacent to colorful perennial borders, hot houses and cold frames.
Across the street (literally) is Kiftsgate Garden, a residential garden that is home to the famous Kiftsgate Rose reputed to be the largest rose plant in the world. While not in bloom during our after-hours visit, the rose climbed high into the surrounding trees 60’ or more and thousands of buds seemed ready to appear within a week’s time. The English are renowned for training vines and climbing plants to anything and everything that does not move. Roses, Clematis, Euonymus and Wisteria are carefully trained on wires strung from anchors sunk into the walls of the home. None of us could have escaped the heavenly fragrance of Wisteria wafting throughout the gardens in the evening air as we marveled at the scenery.
Visiting Prince Charles’ gardens at Highgrove are by appointment and only when he is not in residence. We were lucky on both accounts and enjoyed a private tour of his garden which included many topiaries, a stumpery, vast wildflower meadows and garden art. The yew hedges here alone take 3 full months to trim every summer.
The gardens of Wisley are the 2nd most visited gardens in all the United Kingdom with over 200 acres of display including a glasshouse, rockery, arboretum and expansive perennial borders. The Dogwood ‘Venus’ was in full bloom with individual blossoms nearly 9” across! During our visit, much planting was underway including a bog garden filled with a wide selection of pitcher plants that I found extraordinary.
What is the most visited garden you ask? The Royal Botanic gardens at Kew is the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site containing one of the most diverse plant collections in the world. All the iconic features of the garden were stunning; the Palm House, historic buildings, water gardens and perennial borders seemingly without end. What I found most amazing was a temporary art exhibit “The Hive.” This 2-story sculpture has 1000 led lights and a soundscape composed of bee sounds composed by an ensemble of musicians creating an ever-evolving symphony of light and sound - a dialogue between bee and human.
Rosemary Verey was not a formally trained gardener but utilized the influence of many famous gardens (and gardeners) to create her plantings at Barnsley House. I first visited this garden nearly 20 years ago when Rosemary was still alive and it deeply influenced me at that time. The very formal features within informal plantings, dramatic sight lines creating natural movement through the garden and the decorative kitchen garden all impacted my landscape design methodologies. Meeting with the head gardener Richard Gatenby provided insights to the progression of the garden and what the future may hold. Now a luxury hotel and spa, the kitchen gardens provide produce for the restaurant and the gardens are a backdrop for extraordinary events and private getaways.
The prize of my trip was a day at the Chelsea Garden Show, the preeminent flower show in the world. Arriving early to beat the crowds, I made my way into the exhibition tent where plant and flower collections from across the United Kingdom were displayed. Nurseries and designers bring their very best creating breathtaking exhibitions of floral perfection. I was stunned by the extent of the collections of plants and flowers; Hydrangeas, Japanese Maples, Peonies, Carnivorous plants, Delphinium, Begonias, Heuchera, Daffodils, Tulips, Bonsai, Clematis… the list goes on forever! Having built displays and grown plants for garden shows I found myself in literal disbelief at the magnitude and perfection of the exhibitions. The 8 large outdoor display gardens each presented a differing landscape setting to include a Canadian Boreal forest, a stone quarry in Malta and a tribute to World Horse Welfare’s 90-year legacy of helping horses. As the day went on, I discovered more spaces and captured more innovative ideas on the 11 acre grounds. Finally, when my feet and back could take not more, I retreated to a pub to pause and reflect on my week long English odyssey.
I had found inspiration. Inspiration in the beauty of flowers and the appreciation for everything floral that was demonstrated both in the show and the public gardens. I had found inspiration being surrounded by historic buildings and villages as well as new and sophisticated structures and spaces. I found inspiration in the energy from the people of London and their great city as well as those within the idyllic countryside. I found inspiration in the ideas and concepts of individuals from long ago and those who I had the good fortune to meet in person.
Fortunately, inspiration can come from any place, any person and from nearly every situation provided one is open to the idea. I returned home just in time for Memorial Day festivities… need I say more?
So, I challenge you to find and share inspiration at every opportunity. Look for the beauty, seek the energy and gather the insights that can build your inspiration so you can share it with others.
Now, go outside and play in the dirt.