Mike Yardley: Great Gardens of the World

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Friday, 17 November 2017, 12:40p.m.
Designated a National Historic Site, there’s actually five seasons at Butchart Gardens, because Christmas is celebrated so lustily, it deserves its own timestamp. (Photo \ Mike Yardley)
Designated a National Historic Site, there’s actually five seasons at Butchart Gardens, because Christmas is celebrated so lustily, it deserves its own timestamp. (Photo \ Mike Yardley)

Whether you’re a casual admirer of other people’s gardens or a green-fingered pro, after several years’ absence, an internationally-recognised garden show finally graces the nation’s calendar again, with the New Zealand Flower & Garden Show set to premiere in Auckland later this month. Brimming with international display gardens and all of the fun, interactive features you’d associate with the Ellerslie of old, the show takes place from November 29 to December 3 at Trusts Arena, Waitakere.

In the lead-up to the show, I’ve been reflecting on some of the world’s greatest gardens that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. On my recent visit to Victoria in British Colombia, I took a short 30-minute jaunt to the rolling countryside of Brentwood Bay, home to Vancouver Island’s most visited attraction, the remarkable Butchart Gardens.

Spanning more than 55 acres, the gardens were hatched over 110 years ago when Jennie Butchart decided to beautify the hollowed-out limestone quarry which had supplied her husband’s nearby cement plant. The Butcharts were keen travellers and Jennie collected many exotic plants which she deployed on her beautifying project. This dedicated labour of love grew from strength to strength, with the gardens steadily expanding into themed zones, like the Japanese, Italian and Rose gardens.

The showpiece is the Sunken Garden, with the tall kiln stack the only remaining vestige of the cement plant. From the lookout, a switchback staircase leads you to the winding pathways wrapped around the vast beds of annuals, flowering trees and shrubs. The glorious Ross Fountain was installed by the Butcharts’ grandson, Ian Ross, in 1964 to mark the 60th anniversary. A gorgeous Rose Carousel is adorned with 30 hand-carved wooden animals and chariots.

I gazed across the Fireworks’ fields, where thousands flock every Saturday night through July and August for the spectacular pyrotechnics, artfully designed in French-style, by great-grandson, Christopher Ross. Grazing from the colossal buffet of fragrance and colour, my favourite section was the Italian Garden, was developed on the Butchart’s old tennis court. It is fittingly elegant and lavishly coloured. 

Designated a National Historic Site, there’s actually five seasons at Butchart Gardens, because Christmas is celebrated so lustily, it deserves its own timestamp. Visitors are besotted by Butcharts’ “Magic of Christmas” with its flamboyant decorations, expansive lighting worthy of Disneyland, and outdoor ice skating rink. It’s worth a trip alone. 

Singapore has been on an unswerving mission in recent years to reposition itself as Asia’s most liveable metropolis. Coining the phrase “A City in the Garden” to describe the makeover, Gardens by the Bay exemplifies the change. I checked it out this one billion dollar botanical blockbuster on a recent visit to Singapore. From the towering vertical gardens in the Cooled Conservatories to the Supertrees Grove, this staggering botanical exhibition spans all corners of the planet.

The grove features 12 colossal artificial trees, embedded with photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy - these compelling man made creations are quite simply awe-inspiring.  A fusion of human ingenuity and nature’s diversity, over 160,000 plants comprising more than 200 species and varieties of bromeliads, orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers are planted on the structures. There’s a touch of Disney to Gardens by the Bay. When night falls, the Supertrees burst into techni-coloured life with a dazzling, choreographed light display spangling the grove. Called Garden Rhapsody, The first show takes place at 7.45 pm and the second show comes on at 8.45 pm.

Three hundred acres of botanical delights grace the parkland of Kew Gardens, located on the south bank of the Thames River. Less than an hour from central London, Kew is close to Wimbledon, and can easily be reached by tube, or via a languid boat ride down the Thames from Westminster Pier. The gardens are “Royal” because for many years they were played host to Britain’s Royal Family. In the 1700s, King George II and King George III extensively developed the gardens we see today. 

George III commissioned the lauded landscape architect Capability Brown to create a landscaped park. Kew Gardens flourished under George III’s botanical director, Joseph Banks. The acclaimed botanist, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his Pacific voyages, turned Kew Gardens into a magnificent storehouse of the world’s plant species. Many New Zealand species were nurtured at Kew in the late 1700s.

The show-stopping Palm House and the Temperate House are glorious Victorian riots of glass and iron. The Palm House features an aerial walkway which enables you to lap up a birds’-eye view over the lush, exotic and tropical wonders. The most recent exhibition house to be built in Kew was opened in 1987. The Princess of Wales Conservatory is an extraordinary display of the world’s diverse climates.

Housing plants in 10 different computer-controlled climatic zones, the conservatory is a fabulously presented microcosm of the world. Giant lily pads, mangrove swamps, desert life, rainforests....it’s all there.  One of the most popular sites is the former royal residence of Kew Palace. Built in 1631, it was the favourite home of George III and his wife Charlotte, who died here in 1818. Keep an eye out for Princess Elizabeth’s treasured doll’s house. Attracting several million visitors a year, Kew is believed to be the most visited gardens in the world.

Europe’s most popular garden is undoubtedly the botanical splendour of Claude Monet’s Giverny. 75km northwest of Paris, the small hamlet of Giverny has become a shrine to the godfather of impressionist painting. Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny in 1883, and the artist’s most acclaimed works, including Nympheas (Water Lilies) were painted here. The northern end of the property features Clos Normand, Monet’s much-adored pastel pink and green house.

Monet‘s symmetrically laid-out gardens became a labour of love, and are guaranteed to please in all seasons. Through the spring and summer, daffodils, tulips, rhododendrons, wisteria are followed by an orgy of poppies and lilies. Through autumn and early winter, the garden is festooned  with roses, sweet peas, dahlias, sunflowers and hollyhocks. In 1895, Monet bought a neighbouring piece of land, dug a pool and developed his water garden.

Jardin d’Eau was bedecked in water lilies, purple wisteria and the famous Japanese bridge, which has since been rebuilt. The two properties are interconnected by a tunnel, which travels under the busy road, bisecting the two attractions. Giverny is an ideal day-trip from Paris, easily reached by public transport.  Two early morning trains depart Gare St-Lazare, zipping you to Vernon in just 45 minutes. From there, you can catch a short 10 minute bus ride to Giverny.

The grand-daddy of l Irish gardens would have to be Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow. Nestled at the foot of Great Sugar Loaf Mountain, the gardens of Powercourt are acclaimed for their dramatic design, history and variety. The sprawling grounds surrounding the Palladian mansion were commissioned in the 1730s by Richard Wingfield, the 1st Viscount Powerscourt. Over a hundred years later, new ornamental gardens were added to the estate, complete with gates, statues and urns collected from all over Europe by the 7th Viscount.

The centrepiece of the property is the sparkling Triton Lake, which takes its name from the central fountain which was modelled on a 17th century work by Bernini in Rome. The front of the lake is guarded by statues of Pegasus – the mythical flying horse and official emblem of the Wingfield family. Enclosed by exotic conifer tress, the Dolphin Pond is a gorgeous secluded garden that is also well worth admiring.

But the biggest drawcard of all are the Japanese Gardens, created out of typical Irish bogland. These intoxicating gardens feature Chinese conifers, bamboo trees and a plethora of bonsai varieties. Powerscourt Estate is an easy day trip from Dublin, situated just forty minutes south of the city, in the lush and tranquil Wicklow Mountains region. Powerscourt is a year-round attraction, magnetising thousands of visitors every day.

The Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech is one of the most visited sites in Morocco. It took French painter Jacques Majorelle forty years of passion to create this enchanting garden in the heart of the “Ochre City.” It opened to the public 70 years ago. Today you can still encounter an oasis of exotic trees, burbling streams, pools filled with water lilies and lotus flowers; and Moorish buildings with hints of Art Deco, painted in astonishingly vibrant primary colours.

Four years after Majorelle’s death, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé discovered the Jardin Majorelle in 1966, while staying in Marrakech. They were seduced by it and concerned to hear the garden was going to be cleared and replaced by a hotel. They bought the site and saved it from becoming a hotel complex, living in the villa and undertaking a full restoration. Automatic irrigation systems were installed, new plant species were added and a team of 20 gardeners once again began working to maintain the garden, its ponds and fountains.

Yves Saint Laurent claimed the garden gave him an unlimited source of inspiration. He passed away on June 1, 2008, in Paris. His ashes were scattered in the rose garden of the Villa Oasis; a memorial was built in the garden, designed around a Roman pillar which was brought from Tangier and set on a pedestal with a plate bearing his name, so that visitors can remember him and his unique contribution to fashion. “It is a way for artists to live on… ”

Keukenhof. It’s billed as the world’s biggest flower garden, just 25km south of Amsterdam.  The story starts 400 years ago, when Dutch traders bought up tulip bulbs by the caseload, from the Ottoman Turks and started cultivating them. Tulip mania soon gripped the Dutch. Fast forward to today and there’s no better place to immerse yourself in the blaze of tulips than at Keukenhof Garden., in the small town of Lisse. It’s the holy grail of tulip growing.

Every year over 7 million bulbs are hand-planted in the garden, producing an extraordinary riot of colour through the spring months. First developed in 1949, Keukenhof was a planned show-case for bulb-growers. The show-stoppers are the “Aladdin” tulips and the “China Pink” tulips. The Keukenhof Gardens can easily be reached by public transport from Amsterdam, and there are numerous guided excursions that run daily from Amsterdam. The gardens will be open to the public in 2018 from March 22 to May 13. 

Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.

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