Growbag Blog

Loving and laughing in our best British gardens


Can it be true that it’s decades since there was any published research on garden visiting in the UK? It’s clearly not as compelling to academics as cats’ dinner preferences, but even at the last count it was estimated over 16million people visit gardens every year, and the Growbags are significant contributors to that figure.

Setting aside whether £350 million a year was money well spent for our membership of the EU,  the £60 a year (discounted for new members) I spend on my Royal Horticultural Society membership definitely is. For this, Tim and I can visit RHS Wisley as many times as we like (individual entrance fee is around £15),  receive a monthly copy of the ‘The Garden’, visit partner gardens free, buy cheap and eclectic seeds from their seed distribution scheme and attend the members only day at Chelsea Flower Show. I think even the Daily Mail would find it hard to sneer about this deal.

11 greenhouse interior
Inside the glasshouse at Wisley

But a trip to Wisley requires military planning; just a dozen miles down the A3  from outer London it is now the ‘go to’ place for the chattering classes and their offspring on a Sunday. So alarms have to be set and moral fibre applied to beat the hordes. This Sunday we sneaked into the glass house through a side door just  as the apprentices finished watering and had this exotic jungle completely to ourselves. Just try this experience in February when it’s snowing outside and tropical butterflies newly released in the glasshouse – worth £60 alone.

11 white willowherb
The white willowherb – Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’

The prairie borders above the glasshouse had some knock out plants just hitting their stride, like the Salvia x sylvestris ‘Dear Anja’ featured at top of the page. In the romantic country gardens it was the  Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ that held court.

But even Wisley is not immune to gardening disasters. Ever since they established their new gravel garden we’ve been monitoring the creeping infestation of horsetail with a rather shameful schadenfreude (rather in the way I imagine the rest of the world has been secretly relishing the UK political meltdown).

11 marestail
Oh Dear – Equisetum ravens, or horsetail, in full battle cry

Horestail, or Equisetum arvense, is an invasive creeping perennial whose roots can stretch 7 feet into the soil. It is an unwelcome, primitive plant said to date back to the dinosaurs so it knows a thing or two about hanging in there. Up until now the horsetail formed a discreet understory to the main planting, but the wet June has given this malign invader a growth spurt and it’s now suffocating the more refined and sensitive plant communities with its coarse exuberance – we will watch with interest how they will tackle it. Over the years we have been visiting Wisley it has essentially provided my horticultural education. Some people comment that it feels disjointed as a garden but it’s aim is not to provide a singular style or evoke a particular emotion, but to show you cameos of what is possible.

2 Elaine

I certainly love visiting Wisley too, Laura, for its oodles of ideas – with such a variety of settings, there is always something to learn.  But for me, a garden needs a pervading personality if it is to speak sincerely to me.  I can admire stunning hard landscaping, I can covetously ogle huge collections of rare plants in a sympathetic setting, but a menagerie of plants doth not a garden make.

With my Latin hat on (a ‘petasus‘ if you’re interested), the adjective ‘gardinus‘ just means  ‘enclosed’, nothing more.  So, stick a fence around your patch, and you’re away.  In theory.

I personally like to feel the touch of the gardener (no, not in that sense. Get a grip) throughout the whole of the space – even apparent artlessness can be deliberate. Otherwise, making a garden is just painting by numbers.

My first visit to Sissinghurst garden a long, long time ago was a revelation – a glorious amalgam of ‘spaces’ which oozed their creator’s personality and aspirations from every border and pathway.  I read every detail of Vita Sackville-West’s life (as you probably know, she was quite a gal!), I studied every gardening article she wrote, and returned to Sissinghurst again and again, each time with a deeper knowledge of how she and Harold Nicholson made that ‘enclosed space’ sing.

11 Lilium regale
Lilium regale – one of the stars at Sissinghurst

Vita’s articles are hilarious at times, by the way; she didn’t pull her punches, if you know what I mean.  But her complete involvement in the creation of the garden is apparent in every word.  She knew her plants incredibly well and had her real favourites, like the sumptuous Rosa ‘Souvenir de Docteur Jamain’, or sheaves of gorgeous Lilium regale, but they were always subservient to the overall design she was creating.

And there are hundreds, nay thousands, of other smaller examples through the UK.  You really don’t need a big plot or a huge bank account, you don’t even need to know masses about plants; your garden just needs to have its own unity, it’s own ‘genius’ in evidence.

A trillion times easier to say than to do, but by God, I am going to keep on trying!


I don’t like to pull rank but I had a Vita Sackville-West obsession a lot earlier than Elaine when the off-beat, sexually-charged Bloomsbury set  fascinated the teenage me. Mind you male horticulturalists can be a very funny lot in my experience. Behind my favourite garden there was certainly an extraordinary character.

The 20-year-old purchaser of a rocky site on the north-west coast of the Scottish Highlands planted a shelter belt in 1862 and waited around three more decades to begin planting.  Not for young Osgood Mackenzie the lowered Corsa or club nights in Ibiza. His appetite for everything Victorian plant hunters could retrieve produced Inverewe Gardens – one of the most amazing gardens in the UK.

Inverewe Garden – a Highland jewel

These sub-tropical style gardens include the most northerly planting of rare Wollemi pines, olearia from New Zealand, Tasmanian eucalypts and rhododendrons from China, Nepal and the Indian subcontinent. It’s stunning particularly in spring.

I took the Growbags there a few years ago, a memorable experience.

Elaine can be difficult in Scotland – it makes her a bit snarky. Attempts to get Laura to eat the vegetables in her soup at nearby Gairloch foundered because Laura, at 54, felt she no longer needed or wanted Elaine’s supervision at lunchtimes. You’re getting the picture aren’t you?

On the way home we called at an outstanding nursery. Stimulated by the quality, Elaine fatally overlooked the aforementioned eccentricity of its male proprietor. She extended her highest honour by asking for his catalogue. I’ll never forget his response. He told her March was ‘far too late’ to be asking for a catalogue – that ‘people’ started planning their gardens ‘far too late’. Time stood still. Laura gasped. I think I involuntarily farted. Did he not realise he was talking to a ‘Daily Mail Gardener of the Year’; a horticultural TV star and furthermore, OUR BIG SISTER? Elaine’s head revolved in a murderous arc searching for a time machine that would return her to the Home Counties… or a blunt weapon.

Diversionary tactics were required and fast. I grabbed a nesting box from an assorted pile and stutteringly asked what type of bird it would best suit. Our vendor weighed us up, waited five seconds for dramatic effect, and snarled, ‘It’s for tits!’

Precious memories.

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

2 replies on “Loving and laughing in our best British gardens”

I love your blog, but I’m longing to see what Louise writes, as I have first hand experience of the depth and breadth of her plant knowledge !!

Hi Paddy – yes what a coup signing Louise for the Growbag team! Did you see her piece? Its on site under Simply Terrific this Month. So pleased you enjoy the blog – we have great fun writing it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.