“Would you like to visit formal gardens or would you prefer to see plants in their natural habitat? Would you like an expert RHS host on the tour as well as the tour manager? Is it just the horticulture you’re interested in, or would you prefer to combine it with a city, or a national park… or even a vineyard or two with some wine-tasting, as on our South African and Loire tours?”
Visits to the French Riviera could take in the Menton Lemon Festival in February and the International Rose Festival in Grasse in May. Just check that the tour you book has been timed to coincide with the right seasons in the destination and what will be in flower.
Among the companies offering the most diverse range of garden adventures, Boxwood Tours (www.boxwoodtours.co.uk) has packages and bespoke holidays which often include access to gardens not normally open to the public, featuring meetings with garden owners and head gardeners wherever possible. It can also arrange garden tours for couples and small parties to many garden-rich areas of Britain and Europe.
Specialist Susan Worner (www.susanwornertours.com) will be running the green season safari to Northern Namibia and the Okavango Delta in Botswana in March, exploring spring gardens in Italy and has the Atlas Mountains and desert of Morocco as a new destination this year. Small groups, well-researched itineraries and private, tailor-made tours are key to its success.
Closer to home, this year marks 300 years since the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, one of Britain’s best-known landscape gardeners.
To celebrate the anniversary, Farm Stay UK (www.farmstay.co.uk) – specialist in farm-based accommodation across the UK – has launched a Capability Brown accommodation collection and Garden Trail for 2016.
The collection highlights the 300+ accommodation options on sites within 15 miles of a Brown garden or landscape, while the week-long self-drive trail shows garden lovers how to combine stays at quaint rural BBs with visits to some of the big names in Brown’s garden portfolio.
The route traverses the Cotswolds, taking in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire (nicknaming this the WOWW Brown trail) and explores some of Brown’s most famous work as well as lesser-known gems including Croome Court in Worcestershire and Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, where some of Downton Abbey was filmed.
The RHS is also paying tribute to Capability Brown, who changed the face of 18th century England, designing country estates and mansions, moving hills and creating lakes, with a bespoke tour of some of his most striking landscapes and parklands including Compton Verney, Ragley Hall, Bowood House and Stowe.
The RHS has teamed up with garden specialists Brightwater Holidays to bring a selection of RHS Garden Holidays (www.rhsgardenholidays.com) both at home and abroad, as well as cruises with a horticultural slant. More exotic trips include a botanical adventure in Chile, visiting national parks and coastal forest, while Sweden and Sri Lanka are also new destinations for the society this year.
Itineraries encompass private, botanic and historic gardens, wild landscapes and national parks as well as vineyards, nurseries and charitable gardening projects. Wherever possible, exclusive access has been secured, as well as private openings and a welcome from the garden owner or curator.
Saga (www.saga.co.uk/special-interests) also has a collection of UK gardening breaks with horticultural hosts and garden visits, as well as destinations further afield to explore the wild flora and gardens of Tenerife, Croatia’s ancient gardens, the floral island of Madeira and the spring flowers of Malta, among others.
And if you would prefer getting your hands dirty, try a working holiday with the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays/working-holidays), a gardening option where the charity invites you to work and learn in one of its stunning gardens. You might be cutting the hedges, deadheading roses, or planting a parterre.
The charity provides the accommodation, usually in a bunkhouse, and food for the duration of the stay, while volunteers will get the essential help and training they need to do the jobs from skilled NT volunteers.
BEST OF THE BUNCH: SKIMMIA
THESE hardy shrubs make a statement in the winter garden with their clusters of vibrant red berries and evergreen leaves to provide year-round interest.
Red tinted flower buds of Skimmia japonica on a frosty winter’s morning look stunning in the border or in pots, which develop into white or pink-tinted spring flowers.
Red fruits are borne on female plants so you’ll need to plant a male and a female together, or a hermaphrodite such as reevesiana if you want berries.
Other good varieties include ‘Veitchii’, which is female, and the male type ‘Fragrans’. S, japonica prefer full shade as their leaves turn yellow in sunshine.
GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT: POTATOES
IF SPUDS have taken over your veg patch, or they’ve suffered from blight and perished over the years, it may be time to grow them in pots if you want a delicious crop which tastes completely different from the shop-bought varieties.
And pots can be moved to a warm, sheltered, sunny spot to aid the growth rate of the potatoes.
Any pot with drainage holes will do, but the bigger the better as they will need plenty of moisture, which will be retained more successfully in a larger pot.
Plant in multi-purpose compost — first and second early varieties work best as they can be harvested earlier so the pot’s freed up for alternative crops.
You’ll need three tubers in a 40L container with some compost on top, plenty of watering during the season and when the green shoots come up, cover them with another layer of compost, feed and water accordingly and continue to do that until you reach the top of the pot.
When they’re ready to harvest, dig them up as you need them. Good varieties include ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Epicure’.
WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK
Tidy shrubs by cutting back broken stems and branches.
Sow sweet peas in a cool, light room or a frost-free, sheltered cold frame.
Order summer-flowering bulbs from catalogues.
Prune wisteria, shortening the sideshoots from the main framework to encourage flower buds.
Keep off icy grass or you’ll damage it.
Spread out well-rotted manure or garden compost on to your borders.
Keep bird baths and feeders topped up.
Keep on top of winter-germinating weeds by hoeing any weed seedlings you see.
Clear damp, soggy leaves from the crowns of plants.
Continue to buy seed potatoes for chitting before planting in March.
Bend leaves over cauliflowers to protect the developing curds.