Friday, 18 April 2014

Bluebell bonanza at Hole Park in Kent

The bluebell walk at Hole Park, Kent  is spectacular in April and May
When I glimpse rivers of blue in woodland glades, I know that spring is finally here. This year promises bumper bluebell crops after all the months of rain and the dazzling blue flower is everywhere, basking in dappled sunshine - in verges at the side of the road and every available woodland space. But for a true spring spectacular with bluebells as far as the eye can see, head to one of Britain's best-kept garden secrets - Hole Park in Kent. 
Hole Park is surrounded by 15 acres of formal gardens
This family-run estate at the heart of the Kentish Weald has fine views over the surrounding countryside and one of the finest bluebell crops in the country. The woodland walk is spectacular in springtime, even though many of the azaleas and rhododendrons are yet to flower. And the formal gardens around the house, with 15 acres of immaculately-clipped topiary and green vistas will lift your spirits on any sunny summer day.
The season at Hole Park starts with dazzling displays of spring bulbs
Hole Park is undoubtedly one of the best spring gardens in the country. It opens its doors at the end of March and remains open every day until early June so that visitors can enjoy the spring spectacular, which starts with drifts of daffodils, meanders into a bluebell bonanza during April and May (they are early this year) and crescendoes with azaleas and rhododendrons throughout the woodland valley adjacent to the formal gardens. 
The formal gardens around the house are Italian in style, offset by immaculately-clipped topiary
Immaculately-trimmed yew hedges are another outstanding feature of this Italianate garden, with its fine views over the surrounding countryside. The garden has had time to mature because Hole Park has been in the same family for the last century. It was originally planted by the present owner's grandfather, Colonel Barham, between the two World Wars. Autumn brings another dazzling colour display when the leaves begin to turn.
Acres of bluebells are followed by stunning azalea and rhododendron displays
Walk through the woodland areas and you will be struck by the sounds of birdsong and the delicious smell of spring. And when the bluebells are over, there's still plenty to see and a striking colour palette because of the huge collection of azaleas and rhododendrons, which come into full bloom in May. This is when you will catch the magnificent wisteria in flower too, clinging to the long pergola at the heart of the formal gardens.
In high summer, it's the magnificent borders that give the garden interest, ranging from the tropical hot borders, with their fine vistas over the Kent countryside, to the semi-circular vineyard garden featuring wisteria and climbers. All set against a strong background of geometric topiary shapes, mellow brick walls, classical sculpture and stunning, champion trees, offset by acres of manicured lawns. There is also a water garden and a series of sheltered garden rooms adjacent to the house.
Hole Park is open every day from the end of March until the beginning of June, 11.00-18.00. Summer openings commence on 9 June, when the garden only opens on Wednesdays and Thursdays, through until the end of October, but with additional Sunday openings throughout October for the autumn colours. Admission is £6.00 for adults and £1 for children. Other notable gardens nearby include Great Dixter and Sissinghurst.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Wordless Wednesday - Spring Walks 1 - West Dean Gardens

Throughout 2014, I plan to use Wordless Wednesday to showcase some of our wonderful British gardens, starting today with West Dean in Sussex. For a full review of the gardens, click here.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Arundel Castle opens in a blaze of colour for annual Tulip Festival

The Collector Earl's Garden at Arundel Castle in full bloom at the annual Tulip Festival
A burst of sunny, spring weather and plenty of carefully-chosen bulbs guarantee that visitors to Arundel Castle will be met by a blaze of colour if they visit the Tulip Festival in the walled gardens this year. There will be some 15,000 tulips in bloom over the next few weeks and it's a spectacle worth seeing if you're in the vicinity. The bumper crop - planted over the winter months - is blooming early this year and will carry on through Easter and into May. 
Part of the charm of the gardens at Arundel is the setting within the castle grounds
Open from April to November every year, the gardens at this ducal property have been the subject of extensive redesign and renovation during the last 10 years, kicked off by the opening of the Collector Earl's Garden in 2008. Arundel is home to the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk and, whilst the castle is well-known for its beautifully-furnished public rooms and fine collection of paintings, the garden had new life breathed into it when they commissioned Isobel and Julian Bannerman (who also worked for the Prince of Wales at Highgrove) to carry out a major re-design.
Yew buttresses provide a focal point in the herbaceous borders at Arundel Castle
The Tulip Festival is a relatively new event at the castle and kicks off the garden season each year. Just one of the innovations introduced by head gardener - Martin Duncan - since he arrived here, together with the Stumpery (below), which was added in 2013. But each new addition in the garden is designed to draw a different kind of visitor into the castle grounds and this year for the first time, there is an annual pass available so that garden lovers can visit as often as they want for just £30. 
The Stumpery was added to to the gardens at Arundel Castle in 2013
The Bannerman's contribution - the Collector Earl's garden - forms the heart of the former walled kitchen garden, which once supplied all fruit and vegetables to the castle. It is named after Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, who spent much of his life travelling and collecting valuable objects including paintings and portraits, many of which are now on view in the castle today. Predominant features here include a huge domed pergola, fountains, gateways and pavilions, all in green oak, plus a centrepiece of a mountain of rock planted with palms and rare ferns, and a selection of hot, tropical plantings in high summer.
Restored glasshouses sit at the heart of today's kitchen garden, housing exotic fruits and flowers
The glasshouses in the former kitchen have been fully restored and house a collection of fruit and exotic flowers in high summer, while the surrounding cut-flower garden (also redesigned in 2013) is planted to give good colour throughout the season, starting with spectacular displays of tulips for the annual festival in April and May. The organic Kitchen Garden in this same area provides some of the produce for the castle restaurant.
Arundel Castle was completely restored in the 19th century by the 15th Duke of Norfolk
Arundel Castle and grounds are open Tuesday- Sundays inclusive (plus Bank Holiday and all August Mondays) from 10.00-17.00, April to November. There is a tiered entrance price structure, depending on what you wish to see, but prices for the garden start at £9.00 for adults. Other notable gardens in the area include Denmans and West Dean.
And for one of the best spring gardens in the world, click here to see Keukenhof, Holland.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Keukenhof, Holland - the best spring garden in the world?

Keukenhof opens for just eight weeks each year - from mid-March to mid-May
Is Keukenhof the best spring garden in the world? I'm sure readers will have a view on this. I was lucky enough to visit last week and left with a dizzying array of images depicting the remarkable garden in southern Holland that draws visitors from all over the world. This horticultural mecca opens for just eight weeks each year, but is home to more than seven million bulbs - planted annually - which provide dazzling spring flower displays for the 800,000 visitors who make the pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of the eye candy on offer here between mid-March and mid-May.
More than seven million bulbs are planted annually at Keukenhof
Late March was a little too early to catch the tulips in full bloom, although there were obvious signs of what to expect in the next few weeks (above). But it didn't matter, because there were great swathes of narcissi and other spring bulbs, spectacular blossoms and signs of spring shrubs about to bloom, including azaleas and rhododendrons. But most impressive of all was the mingled fragrances of the flowering bulbs, notably the hyacinths and the vast array of colours throughout the park.
Keukenhof covers some 80 acres (32 hectares) in southern Holland and attracts 800,000 visitors annually
I had no idea what to expect when visiting Keukenhof. This park sits at the heart of Holland's flourishing floriculture industry between the towns of Lisse and Hillegom and I had been told that if you drive there, you will be astounded by the surrounding fields, which are home to the four billion tulip bulbs produced each year by the Dutch. And although the end of March was too early to see these in full bloom, my memories will be of the hyacinths, planted in immaculate rows, with a scent that carries for miles. (For further pictures, click here).
Keukenhof is redesigned annually and all bulbs planted to create new floral displays
Keukenhof covers some 80 acres (32 hectares) and is actually much more than a garden. It is a showcase for Dutch bulb growers, who collaborate to create an annual spring spectacle that draws visitors from all over the world. Bulbs are newly-planted every year and the bedding layout at the park is redesigned so that no spring display will ever be the same. In addition to the parkland, there are also four pavilions within the gardens, showcasing various flowers and plants, with changing themes throughout the two-month opening period.
The Willem-Alexander Pavilion at Keukenhof houses an amazing tulip exhibition this year
Most of us associate tulips with the Netherlands even though this popular flower did not originate there. Early records show that the tulip was first discovered in the Himalayas and introduced to Turkey by the Seljuks in the 11th century, where it is well documented in different decorative mediums including ceramics and paintings. Some 600 years later, Europe was seized by "tulip mania" as bulb collectors became willing to pay hugely inflated prices for the much-prized plant. 
Keukenhof has a constantly changing landscape during the two months it opens each year
Today the Netherlands is the world's largest producer of tulip bulbs, with a land surface area of some 10,000 hectares, providing 4.2 billion bulbs annually. Half of these are exported abroad to garden centres and the remainder leave the country as cut flowers. But it is only when you visit Keukenhof that you realise just how many varieties of tulip there are. There are already some 2,000 different cultivars available and new ones are added each year. 
Holland produces some 2,000 tulip cultivars, many of which are on display at Keukenhof
Keukenhof is open daily (08.00-19.30) from mid March to mid May every year. It is within easy reach of Amsterdam, which has excellent rail and flight connections to the rest of Europe, or accessible from any of the northern French channel ports by car. The drive from Dunkirk is less than three hours, thanks to an excellent highway system, and Calais is only slightly further away. Admission to the park is 15 Euros for adults and 7.50 for children (ages 4-11).

Friday, 4 April 2014

Floral Friday - spectacular spring bulb displays in Holland

Bulb fields around Keukenhof, Holland
Hyacinths as far as the eye can see at this time of year
The daffodils are nearly over, but the tulips are coming into bloom
Early morning eye candy at the heart of Holland's bulb country
Bulbs are one of Holland's main exports - April is the time to see them in full bloom
Early morning mist over the Dutch bulb fields
I've just returned from Holland, where I was lucky enough to visit Keukenhof and the bulb fields around Lisse - certainly one of the most spectacular sights I've seen yet in my travels. The daffodils (above) are coming to an end, but the hyacinths are now in bloom and the tulips are yet to come. Full report to follow.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Wander "lonely as a cloud" and enjoy spectacular daffodil displays at The Valley Gardens in Surrey

A "host of dancing daffodils" at The Valley Gardens, Surrey
If you really want to experience the long-awaited joys of spring and feast your eyes on an ocean of daffodils, head for The Valley Gardens in Surrey just as soon as you can, because you will really understand how the great poet, William Wordsworth, felt when he wrote the verse that immortalised this charming yellow flower:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of dancing daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze
The daffodil meadow there is fast coming into full bloom and you can spend a memorable afternoon walking through the 430 acres of parkland and enjoying all the spring flowers, including narcissi, heather and some spectacular magnolia blooms - all welcome sights after the incessant and torrential rain that has been such a feature of the last few months here in waterlogged Britain. 
Acres of daffodils in bloom overlooking Virginia Water in Windsor Great Park
The Valley Gardens are part of the Royal Landscape, and lie at the southern end of Windsor Great Park, near Virginia Water. You can park quite close to the daffodils if you get there early (parking costs £6.00 at the gate, but spaces are limited). Alternatively, head for the Savill Garden, and walk through to the daffodil meadow - it's not too far on a sunny day and you can enjoy the magnificent Heather Garden (below) en route. 
The Heather Garden, located close to the daffodil meadow in the Valley Garden
The Savill Garden forms part of Windsor Great Park, and is named after its creator, Eric Savill, who went to work for King George V in 1931, as Deputy Surveyor. He was a talented plantsman with a knowledge of farming and forestry, who set to work, and planted the seeds of the magnificent 35-acre garden that is there today. It's home to several National Plant Collections and forms part of "The Royal Landscape" - a clever catchphrase for all the surrounding areas, including The Valley Garden.
For other spectacular daffodil displays in southern England, click here. This year sees them flowering much earlier than last and you may want to check with individual gardens before travelling a long way to visit.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Thoughtful Thursday - Images from Rajasthan

Just home from Rajasthan in India, where I was lucky enough to see the opium poppies in full flower, many wonderful birds and glorious faces. And now it's time to catch up with our English gardens - after the wettest winter in recorded history, I fear there's going to be more than mud out there!