Great Gardens: What Canadian Gardeners can learn from the Brits

Hockey here = Gardening there.

For a Canadian to understand the passionate obsession that the Brits feel for their gardens, just look at how passionate we feel about hockey. I travel to the U.K. a couple times a year and love their gardens and their passion for the gardening experience.

Hockey here = Gardening there.

I reflect on the pedigree of hockey. It was barely 200 years ago when a group of school boys, attending Kings Edge Hill Private School in Windsor Nova Scotia, thought it was a clever idea to play Hurley on the winter ice of Long Pond, in their back yard. They ‘laced up’ and used Hurley sticks to move a ball around the ice. About 70 years later, a group of Canadians in Kingston Ontario created the first rules for hockey. In 1892, Lord Stanley, then Canada’s Governor General, donated the Stanley Cup to reward the best hockey team in the country and the rest is history.

The Brits sent plant hunters around the world on plant discovery expeditions about 200 years before we played the first game of hockey. The Chelsea Physic Garden in London was established in 1673 for the express purpose of collecting seed and plant stock from around the globe to explore their medicinal value.

In the twenty first century, we have some catching up to do. Based on my experience ‘over the pond’, I recognise the enormous opportunities we have to learn from the Brits where gardening is concerned. Precisely WHAT we can learn might surprise you, as they are not hung up on shaping yews into giant ducks or pruning the living daylight out of a Little Leaf Linden to create a two-dimensional effect. Though, these things still go on, the emphasis now is on nature.

This spring, I was in London for the grand re-opening of the London Garden Museum and I marvelled at the largest flower show in the world at the Chelsea Flower Show, visited the historic Chelsea Physic Garden and I took advantage of a public tour of private gardens in Richmond, London. I was in heaven.

I have the following observations: 1. Bring on the wildlife. Archbishops Park, in Lambeth, across the river Thames from Westminster, provides unique learning opportunities for young and old alike. A still pond illustrates the value of water as habitat for myriad desirable wildlife. Frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies and song birds find food, shelter and breeding habitat there. Signs explain all of this in detail. Insect hotels and mason bee habitat have been created by school children and are featured throughout the park. Archbishops Park encourages visitors to take time to take their time. The powers of observation are sharpened when we slow down and observe.

2. Sit and contemplate. We can’t have too many places to sit in our public green spaces. It is worth noting that the Brits have created more than four times the urban green space in London, per capita, than the French have in Paris.

3. Kids. When a tree is felled in a British park (I am sure for a good reason) it is often limbed, for safety and left there for kids to crawl over and explore while it rots. It takes a couple of generations for a large tree to rot, so this proves to be an inexpensive, resourceful use of a product that otherwise would be considered waste. As nature slowly returns the carbon of the wood back to the soil, from which it sprung in the first place, we learn that there is value in sometimes just leaving a thing alone. Nature has her way of working things out.

4. Passion for plants. Generally, plants do not advertise well unless they are a blaze of colour. Usually we ignore them and take them for granted. Truth is, we are learning more and more every day about the value of our green, living world and redefining it as part of our urban infrastructure.

When I say that the Brits share the same attitude towards gardens (and plants) as Canadians do towards hockey, think about the excitement that would occur if two Canadian teams made it into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Well, imagine this. While the Chelsea Flower show was on (May 23 to 26th) BBC 1 featured a live, one hour broadcast each night in prime time. All the U.K. tuned in to see the latest plant featured, to learn the garden trends demonstrated at the event and (of course) to see their favourite garden celebrities expound on the best plants for British gardens. This was a week of Stanley Cup playoff gardening.

What can we learn from the Brits about the gardening experience? So much more. I urge anyone with a passion for gardening to explore it over there.

Mark Cullen is lawn & garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.

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