THIRTY EIGHT YEARS OF VISITING GARDENS TOGETHER By Ronny Flynn

The featured image is of  Barbara & Ian Pollard at Hazelbury Manor

We believe that relationships thrive on shared interests, and one that we cultivated together from the beginning was a love of visiting gardens. In the UK there’s a ‘yellow book’ of private gardens open to the public once a year for charity, organised by the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). Ronny Gardens Yellow Book  The book is a kind of garden lovers’ bible; the information is now on-line but in our early days it contained hidden gems hard to find elsewhere, and we planned our spring and summer weekends with it. Sometimes, whole villages open, ranging from the smallest cottages to the manor houses, hosted by incomers and established families alike. The big bonus for us was and still is the teas, the best in England, with delightful homemade scones, cakes, and tea from a pot, equalled only by the teas in National Trust properties, which are another passion. We love the buildings preserved by the National Trust, the gardens are also superb and their teas sublime, but that’s another article.

Ronny Gardens Trop
Tropaeolum Speciosum

We spent the ‘getting to know you’ year before we married visiting gardens at weekends. We met in the spring so had the whole summer ahead of us. We didn’t take holidays abroad then, those came a few years later when we earned a bit more and our jobs were more secure. Although it is unlikely and no doubt tinged with young love, those weekends seemed to have endless sun. We would search for gardens within our home county and then the counties surrounding us with a priority list in mind – counties with a good number of gardens were selected, then localities where whole villages were open. Those serving teas and with plants for sale were tops. Single properties with no teas and no other gardens nearby would get a miss. When we visited our parents for the weekend, we would take them to gardens on the Saturday, and try to visit more on Sundays on the way home. Both sets of parents lived in counties with National Trust properties and we would fit these in whenever we could.

When Prince Charles and Diana Spencer were married in July 1981 it was a public holiday. We are not royalists and we elected to spend the day visiting Hidcote Manor garden in Gloucestershire, one of our favourites. It is a National Trust garden with stunning herbaceous borders. It was the first time we saw the Scottish flame flower – Tropaeolum Speciosum, a bright red climber threaded through the hedges, and later we planted one in our garden.

Heligan Gardens,May 2002 040
Heligan Gardens

We bought a number of memorable plants from memorable gardens. We were married at the end of April and had a week in North Wales for our honeymoon, in a cheap cottage in the shadow of Snowdonia. There was snow on Snowdonia and the cottage was freezing cold but there were gardens to visit and we bought a Spirea shrub, with white flowers that form a spiral shape, at Bodnant garden. We kept this alive for four years until it found a permanent place in our third home. (Twenty five years later we planted more Spiraea shrubs alongside silver birches in our own ‘silver jubilee garden’). We bought a Rosa Banksii from the John Brookes garden mentioned below, a prolific climbing rose with tiny yellow flowers that we kept alive for over 26 years, but when we sold the house, the new occupants cut it down! On a visit to a National Garden Scheme garden in Oxfordshire we bought a number of bamboo plants and we drove home with them sticking out of our car sun roof. These were also kept alive in pots for three years until they found a permanent place. Happily the new owners of our last home have not destroyed the small bamboo thicket that became established.

We are lucky to have seen some gardens that no longer exist in the same form. At Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire, the classic English kitchen garden was still in use in the early 1980’s and provided us with many ideas. The owner was an elderly woman who had lived there since 1935 and who had the wealth to keep the garden running as an Edwardian kitchen garden, with six kitchen gardeners, just as in the old days. Produce such as pineapples were still being grown and used by the household, with fruit and vegetables regularly sent to her other estate in Scotland.  At Hazelbury Manor near Bath, we were treated to the sight of the owners, an eccentric and in those days, young millionaire couple, Barbara and Ian Pollard, who later came to TV fame in the UK as ‘the naked gardeners’. They had beautifully renovated and enhanced the Edwardian garden there, which is still open to the public under different owners. The Pollards then bought another property – Abbey House, a 16th century stately home and gardens next to the historic Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire which they transformed into a successful tourist attraction, that still includes ‘clothes optional’ gardening days.

Ronny Garden 4
Denmans Garden

At a garden near Arundel in Sussex called Denmans, the owner had created and maintained a garden for 34 years. Now an older woman who used a wheelchair, she had turned to the garden designer John Brookes for advice and the two of them had created something magical and accessible. Brookes now owns the property and runs his design business from Denmans, which is still thriving as a show garden. Its courtyard and lawns with use of gravel interspersed with plants and the walled garden have been exquisitely planted to show the best of colour and foliage. We went away laden with ideas, a climbing rose, and later bought all of John Brookes’s books.

Ronny Garden 5
East Front Montacute House

Our holidays in the UK were often built around visiting gardens. Before our daughter was born we both had jobs that involved working across the UK, and we were able to combine time off with work visits, to look at gardens. National Trust properties are open till the end of November, and some open their grounds and gardens all the year round. So we had spring flowers in Devon, summer fruits in Cambridge and autumn colour in Cornwall. In spring and summer the ‘yellow book’ was always with us in case we could snatch a garden visit. Two of my jobs involved working on Saturdays, so if we went away, we could spend Sundays visiting.

When Kiran was born she accompanied us to gardens. Her birthday is in June and the sun always shines on her birthday. Her second birthday was spent visiting a garden, followed by a birthday tea at home with her grandparents. It is prime time for strawberries, and we always have them. We have dozens of non-digital photos of her with us in gardens, rolling down grassy slopes, hiding behind trees and generally having fun. At the Elizabethan mansion Montacute House in Somerset when she was 16 months old and just walking unaided, we watched the full moon rising like a ball, and she said ‘moon’ and ‘ball’. Magical! We have passed the garden visiting tradition on to her and she and Ed are both National Trust members.

Ronny Gardens Japanese
Japanese Bonsai

As the years have gone by, we have spent less and less time in the UK and more time on home exchanges and working abroad. Our passion for visiting has not diminished, and we have found different opportunities. We visit botanical gardens when we are on our travels. In Edinburgh, the Alpine garden gave us ideas for our garden in France. In Stockholm, as well as all the native species to be seen, there was a vast organic garden with café and shop. Unusually, members of the public are able to buy produce from the gardens, and we had a scrumptious tea. In Adelaide, we were enchanted by the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, seemingly the only one of its kind. Here we were treated to the history and use of ‘useful’ plants, with the most beautiful papier mache replicas of fruit and vegetables which had been used for teaching purposes. More recently, at the National Arboretum in Washington DC, we looked with awe at the Japanese White Pine bonsai tree that had been ‘in training’ since 1625, had survived the US bombing of Hiroshima, and had been donated to the US by the Japanese in 1975 to mark the US Bicentennary. Such generosity in the face of such violence. Then, just a few months ago we marvelled at the size and abundance of citrus fruit at the botanic garden in Naples.

Ronny Gardens Orange Trees Naples
Orange Trees In Naples

In the coming months, we are looking forward to visiting more gardens in the US, Canada and Australia. But first, we are spending a little time back in Milton Keynes, where 20 million trees and 5000 acres of parkland have been planted since we met and settled there in the 1970s and where we have started another garden of our own. The ‘yellow book’ will again come in handy to hunt down some new planting additions.

All Photographs supplied by Ronny Flynn

  1. www.ngs.org.uk
  2. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
  3. Campbell, Susan (1987) Cottesbrooke: An English Kitchen Garden