In July I treated myself to an adventure I had long day-dreamed of taking: to see some of the great gardens of south-east England. It was a treat, a veritable sensory feast. England, and all of Great Britain of course, is a history and literary theme park. Every town and hamlet has old manor houses, historic churches, celebrated battle fields, ruined castles, and ancient abbeys. A lover of English literature I chose a tour that centered on the gardens of horticulturists, writers and artists. Everything about the trip was a highlight, but there were highlights of the highlights. Here are three:

Chartwell — the home of Winston and Clementine Churchill and their children. It is the second most visited site in Britain and redolent with history. It is a homey and comfortable house and the photographs tell the story as no book of potted TV series can, of the immense role this man and his wife played in shaping the destiny of our planet during the first half of the last century. The Weald welcomes one and from the terrace one can see for twenty miles across forests and fields. As I stood and gazed I am sure that I like many thousands of others couldn’t help but think of the famous men and women who had stood there too.

Hatfield House — home to Henry VIII’s three children including the future queen, Elizabeth. To see the Elizabethean knot garden in front of the ruins of the original house and wander in the ascension garden where Elizabeth first heard of her ascension to the throne of England is truly to walk in the footsteps of history.

There is Petworth with its original Chaucer manuscript of “The Canterbury Tales”. The idyllic hamlet of Bosham on the coast near Portsmouth, with a tiny church that reputedly was the place where King Canute worshipped, and which is featured on the Bayeaux tapestries. The gardens of reknown horticulturists Beth Catto and Christopher Lloyd. Charleston the farmhouse and gardens of Vanessa Bell (artist sister of Virginia Woolf) and keystone of the Bloombsbury circle.

And then there is the garden at Sissinghurst, the creation of diplomat Harold Nicholson and his literary wife Vita Sackville-West. There is nothing I can say about Sissinghurst that is not a superlative. Here are two photographs that speak for themselves, one a plant  astrantia major from Vita’s famous white garden and the other of “my pink tower” as she called the centuries old tower that houses her writing/sitting room filled everyday with fresh flowers, as if patiently anticipating her return. Magic. Like the entire two-week experience.

© 2010 Janet Levine, White Garden, Sissinghurst

© 2010 Janet Levine, Sissinghurst


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Below you will find a photo of peonies that bloomed in my garden this morning. For some reason this is a once in three years occurrence so I greet each bloom with excitement. They are among the most beautiful peonies I have seen, and the scent is intoxicating. I have been a gardener for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, I remember my mother at work with her roses, about 50 bushes of various varieties, secateurs in hand as she deadheaded, debudded (to leave only one rose on a stem) and carefully removed aphids and other undesirable pests. My grandfather who spent a third of every year with us always wore a fresh rosebud in the lapel of his suit jacket. When I was an adolescent I was given the rock garden as my provenance and loved to plan and plant and move rocks. My nemesis was the snails who shared my rock garden. Johannesburg, situated on a plateau at 6,00 feet, and with a temperate climate, dry heat and usually reliable summer rain, is an Eden for gardeners. There is one drawback, cyclical drought and with it watering restrictions, so every seven years gardeners watch their hard work, manicured lawns and the beauty they created wither and die. In the suburbs drilling for artesian water sources was a flourishing business.

As a young wife and mother I had first a pocket garden with an almost sub-tropical micro-climate due to a sunny vantage and thick white washed walls. Around giant strelitzes,  avocado and mulberry trees the carefullly designed borders flourished. Later I had almost an acre in which to garden and loved every inch of the rich loam in which whatever I planted grew with vigor and beauty.

When we moved to the Boston area many years ago I had to re-examine everything I had learned about gardening. Our first home was a three hundred year old carriage house set on an acre of land. We had hundred year old giant beeches on the property. The land itself had been neglected for years, but with care and attention a garden will emerge with alacrity from underneath the undergrowth and weeds. As I uncovered flower beds, dug and sowed, the garden returned to some of its previous glory. From spring to autumn we ate fresh produce from the rescued and resuscitated cold frame beds. I planted strawberries around the swimming pool, hosta in the shady areas and a riot of day lilies wherever I could. I learned to accept the cycle of the year, and reluctantly return my gardening tools to their permanent place in the garage each November. Come February the catalogs arrived and soon I would have spindly seedlings growing under lights.

I planted myself in American soil in bringing that garden back to life.

Now I have a much smaller garden again. It is all I want to manage. For me little else in life compares to the satisfaction of caring for a flower bed of rich dark soil where every plunge of the weeding fork or hand spade reveals not only the roots of the weed but wriggling earth worms too. Then you know you have an arable patch and the result is glorious peonies like these.


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