Reflections on Gardening in England and Montana

“Has the property ever been affected by Japanese Knotweed?” Um, yes? I was in the process of selling my home in the United Kingdom and encountered this question on the property disclosure form. Two weeks and seven hundred dollars later, I was the owner of an inspection report declaring no visible sign of Japanese Knotweed AND an insurance policy for the new owners in the event it did surface. Before moving to North Yorkshire in northern England, I had never heard of Japanese Knotweed or the concept of a plant so invasive it would grow through concrete. I definitely wasn’t a gardener. As a kid growing up in Billings, I gardened with my Grandma (in the way kids do). Once I married, I’d have a spring planting frenzy every few years. But nearly everything withered under the hot Montana sun when I forgot to water it.

My job eventually took me to England. Upon buying a little English cottage in 1997, I hired a local gardener, Tulip Bemrose, to point out to me what to dig up and what to leave. (Yes, that’s really her name. Perfect, huh?) Amongst other plants, she pointed out the knotweed and strongly recommended I get rid of it. I eventually did and am glad I did, as it would have kept my house from selling. What a difference from Montana!

Reflections 1

My small English garden had some lovely things that will always remind me of England and Yorkshire. Lenten Rose, Lungwort, Lady’s Mantle, Magnolia, Elderflower and a beautiful Golden Feverfew that Tulip labeled a weed – but a beautiful one. There were many other plants, but it is these that remind me especially of my home in the UK. I bought the house partly because I loved the massive clematis that covered the garage with pink blossoms every summer. But the thing I loved most about gardening in the UK is that my garden hummed along whether I was there or not. I could put in some new plants and walk away and they’d be flourishing when I eventually got back to them. A REAL gardener, whether British or American, knows this is not the way to garden. But I am not a REAL gardener and I had a time-consuming and stressful job. Often the only thing I’d do in the garden for weeks at a time would be to drink a glass of wine while listening to the birds and absorbing the peace of the plants.

When I left the US, I knew very few plants by sight, but I got to know quite a few in England. I’ve enjoyed seeing their familiar faces in the gardens of Montana. But interestingly, it’s been the “weeds” that have caught my attention. In my Yorkshire garden, I had an ongoing battle with Ground Elder and Creeping Buttercup. I am less of a gardener than a “weeder”. I get more satisfaction from clearing the weeds from a patch of soil than I do from putting in any number of new plants. I am fascinated by how they spread underground, and if the soil is soft and moist and the weeds pull out easily….heaven!

Last summer, I was helping someone weed borders on Billing’s West End. She complained about the Snow on the Mountains spreading, and asked me to rein it in a bit. My grandmother had Snow on the Mountains in her flower beds, so as I worked I happily daydreamed about childhood days in Grandma’s garden. But as I dug, I found the root system familiar. It was strangely reminiscent of Ground Elder – as were the leaves. Could it be? A quick Google search confirmed my suspicion. The Snow on the Mountain that I loved in childhood was a variegated version of the Ground Elder I spent my 40s and 50s fighting. Who knew? Earlier that summer, while volunteering in a community garden, I encountered my other nemesis – the dreaded Creeping Buttercup. I started digging it out, but then thought maybe it was supposed to be there. It was blooming quite prettily, as it does. Our head gardener told me another volunteer had found it on the bank of Pioneer Park’s creek and transplanted it into their beds. I warned her about its tendency to spread, but haven’t had a chance to venture back to see if they’ve been able to contain it.

I returned to my home town of Billings in autumn of 2015, after 20 years living in the UK. England is green all year around and flowers bloom all year round, even in the north where I lived. By January of 2016, I was desperate to see something green and lush and living. I decided to treat myself with a trip to a greenhouse and planning for spring. But I was gobsmacked (British slang) to find the Billings greenhouses shut down in the winter!! I finally got a fix at Gainan’s Greenhouse, but they didn’t yet have the spring bulbs I was craving. So I soothed myself with the aroma of moist soil and growing things.

Other differences….I am shocked to find peat moss widely used in the US. In the UK, use of peat is largely taboo. The largest gardening organization in the world, London’s Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), lobbies aggressively against its use for ecological reasons. Alternatively…in the UK, pollarding is a common pruning technique, but is described as verboten in the Yellowstone County Master Gardener class. Slugs and snails thrive in England. I definitely don’t miss the crunch-squish of a snail beneath my slippers in the dark. The slug/snail quotient is much smaller in Billings and it means I have Hosta in my garden! Oh – and this is interesting – a British “yard” is a small, paved area next to a house. Any area with grass or plants, no matter how small, is called a “garden”. I still use much of the British vernacular, so when I’ve referred to “my garden” in this article, an American would call it “my backyard”.

Probably the biggest difference between the UK and Montana, though, is the availability of gardens to visit for respite and inspiration. England is a gardening nation and there are gardens everywhere. Nearly every weekend in the summer, homeowners open their private gardens to the public to raise money for charity. For a few dollars, one can tour gardens large and small, and get a cup of tea and homemade cake to boot. Within an hour’s drive are scores of stately homes and accompanying gardens. (The Moss Mansion, while lovely, is a small guest cottage by comparison.) And there are a plethora of “purpose built” gardens. Options from my neck of the woods range from the 20-acre Himalayan Gardens, with masses of rhododendron and outdoor sculpture in an intimate woodland valley, to the RHS Harlow Carr Gardens with 68 acres and the longest stream-side garden in the country, not to mention plant trials, an alpine house and kitchen gardens. Just a half mile from my old cottage is the Fountains Abbey World Heritage Site. It has water gardens dating back to the early 1700’s, medieval ruins, and landscape gardening on a grand scale – 800 acres of it. Best of all, the gate to the Deer Park is never locked, so visitors can sneak in for a walk in the late night twilight of British summertime. The options for gardeners are endless and I highly recommend a visit.

~Submitted by Kris Glenn