September in Kew Gardens

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Thanks to my daughter's decision to spend a Semester Abroad in London, I was able to visit several wonderful English gardens in September. The first was the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew - regarded as the world's number one botanical garden with the largest and most comprehensive plant collection. What began as a "physic garden" of 9 acres in 1759 is now a 300 acre property with an arboretum, woodland, rock garden, Holly Walk, Winter Garden, numerous perennial beds and formal display gardens.

In addition to the plants, the garden is home to beautiful conservatories, museums, palm houses, Kew Palace and several temples. Since we had only one afternoon to spend there, we focused on the horticulture. Below are some views of the fabulous garden in September.

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Kew's arboretum is a living library of trees that stretches over the majority of the Gardens and is a wonderful place to see many different species of trees including rare and ancient varieties.

This specimen monkey puzzle tree was planted in 1978. The first monkey puzzle trees were brought to the UK in 1795 from chile.

This specimen monkey puzzle tree was planted in 1978. The first monkey puzzle trees were brought to the UK in 1795 from chile.

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There are more than 2,000 species of trees in the vast arboretum including a collection of "Old Lions". These magnificent trees are the oldest trees with known dates in the Gardens, dating back to 1762.

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Grasses and perovskia sway in the breeze and create a soft foreground for the collection of trees and shrubs.

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The Duke's Garden showcases perennials with beautiful foliage such as the bergenia and heuchera above.

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The large rock garden displays a range of mountain plants, Mediterranean plants, and moisture-loving species from around the world.

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The beautiful Japanese Garden is comprised of three areas. Above we see the Garden of Peace, reminiscent of a traditional Japanese Tea Garden with stone lanterns and a dripping water basin.

Below, is a glimpse of the Garden of Activity, symbolizing the elements of the natural world such as waterfalls, mountains and the sea. The raked gravel and large rocks represent the motion of water as it swirls and tumbles.

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Five-Plant Gardens

I recently came across a book in the library called Five-Plant Gardens by Nancy  J. Ondra, which features 52 ways to grow a perennial garden with just five plants. I was intrigued by the topic – it reminded me of the “5-Ingredient Recipes” cookbook that my sister-in-law swears by. The book was beautifully designed and illustrated, so I just had to bring it home for a closer look.

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Nancy Ondra wrote this guide to simple gardening primarily for novice gardeners. As she states in her introduction, “..when you’re new to the process, starting with a manageable-sized space, a clear shopping list, and a simple-to-follow planting plan can make the difference between inspiring success and frustrating disappointment.” I think her five-plant strategy is great for gardeners of any experience level, and may even be very beneficial for those seasoned gardeners who are looking to scale back and simplify their complex, time consuming gardens.

The “Five-Plant Gardens” concept is a great organizing and editing tool. (And by “gardens”, I mean a garden bed, or a small plot, not the entire property.) After gardening on my own property for 22 years, studying landscape design and visiting hundreds of gardens, I can attest to “less is more.” Less variety and more of each type of plant, that is. Not the collector’s approach of “one of this and one of that”, but large masses of the same plant, which create a stronger statement in the landscape. It can be very hard to do, and requires steely self-control, (not to mention a special “collector’s bed” where you can house your impulse purchases), but the result can be very satisfying. And with a small variety of plants, the maintenance is much easier.

I have a “five-plant garden” that I installed 20 years ago, and it still pleases me after all these years. It is a shaded circular bed in the loop of my driveway, with a gazing globe as its focal point. The five perennials are hellebores, astilbes, cinnamon ferns, hostas, and fringed bleeding hearts – low maintenance shade plants that provide four-season interest.

Every month has its own highlight:

Hellebore foliage in winter gives way to flowers in March

Hellebore foliage in winter gives way to flowers in March

Emerging fiddleheads in April

Emerging fiddleheads in April

Hosta foliage unfurls in May

Hosta foliage unfurls in May

Cinnamon fronds and bleeding hearts steal the show in June

Cinnamon fronds and bleeding hearts steal the show in June

Astilbe blossoms explode in July

Astilbe blossoms explode in July

Hosta blooms stand out in August, and the changing colors of fall foliage provide interest from September through November.

I’m going to break the five-plant rule by adding snowdrops for February appeal. Since they are early bulbs that completely disappear, perhaps they won’t count?