Traipsing through London's gardens reveals many flower combination possibilities


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LONDON -- Inspiration can come from many places, but exploring the gardens of London provided riches beyond my wildest dreams.

After an overnight flight to Heathrow airport without sleep, I paired up with a few of the 23 gardeners who traveled with me to discover the gardens of the city.

Our rooms weren't ready, and we knew it was imperative to stay up to get our body clocks in sync with local time. As we walked toward the Tube, we were treated to beautiful flowers at every turn. Just about everyone gardens here.

We got off the subway near the Tower of London and were greeted by spectacular roses with petals of orange and red. Behind them were double purple columbine and a mass planting of pink geraniums. It was beautiful, but the plantings inside the castle were even more interesting.

Along the old moat, thousands of English daisies hugged the ground, their flowers just an inch above the deep green grass. But what set off the white blooms were bright yellow dandelions. Would any public garden in the States try such a combination? I doubt it, but this planting was spectacular and could certainly be done at home.

Days later at Hampton Court Palace, the huge, immaculate formal gardens were breathtaking. But the one that really stunned our group was a diminutive bed. Orange lily-flowering tulips stood erect over a carpet of blue forget-me-nots. The combination was spectacular. In my garden, I'd probably get forget-me-nots followed by tulips two weeks later. This was real gardening, I thought to myself. If we had visited one day sooner, or later, we would have missed the planting in its prime. I can only imagine the English gardener looking on with pride as Americans fawned over this ephemeral design.

At our next stop, I had to laugh while walking along a tall stone wall at Windsor Castle. Bright red honeysuckle rambled across the top. I guess even the royals have to deal with the invasive plant.

But they have good taste, too. I caught a glimpse of corydalis lutea, my favorite perennial, growing at the base of a small waterfall. Even royalty can see the benefit of a plant that blooms from spring until winter, never needs replanting and makes a beautiful colony in only a couple of seasons.

It was Wisley Gardens, however, that really captured my heart. We arrived at the garden during a steady downpour. While some travelers stayed under cover, I was not going to be denied.

While looking at the map, I noticed at the far reaches of the garden an area labeled "Plants for Bugs." Because my radio partner and dear friend Jessica Walliser is an insect expert, I was compelled to make the 20-minute hike out there.

I started out briskly as I was eager to see the rest of the garden. It wasn't long, though, before I slowed to examine the National Heather Collection. I was surrounded by a group of plants I knew little about. The colors and textures were wonderful, and I wondered how I could make them work on the edges of my woodland garden.

As I moved on, the main path narrowed to a soft foot trail through the grass. There I discovered the insect garden. The Royal Horticultural Society was using the area to research how native and non-native plants attracted insects. I snapped pictures frantically to record every detail for the report I would give when returning to the States.

I headed back a different way, no longer in a hurry. "I'll see what I can see," I said to myself.

As I walked along the River Wey through Howard's Field, I stumbled upon a weathered garden bench surrounded by sky blue wildflowers. It was the simplest but maybe most beautiful combination I'd yet seen in the garden. I sat alone on the bench to enjoy it. In a garden where anything was possible, this subtle and restrained planting offered a fine lesson in gardening. Just because you have the ability to add every plant doesn't mean every plant needs to be added.

The historic gardens of London inspired and taught me many things. I can't wait to try what I learned in my own garden.

Doug Oster: doster@post-gazette.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.


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