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Garden Variety of English Culture

April 21, 1991|BARBARA SALTZMAN | Saltzman is editor of The Times ' Daily Calendar section

LONDON — The National Theatre, the British Museum, the West End and all the rest of English culture may be valid enough reasons to go to London. But, truth be told, all that culture is just a convenient cover. For me, English horticulture is the real crown jewel of a trip to the British Isles.

I may brag to friends that in 10 days I can find a way to squeeze in 12 plays and half a dozen museums, but what I really care about is the English garden--and if you play it right, you can cram in at least half a dozen glorious gardens, both in and out of the city, along with the culture. Plus, with the right timing, that glory of all glories, the annual Royal Chelsea Flower Show, held this year May 21-24.

Britons take their gardening very seriously, from small cottage gardens to the grand manors whose influence goes far beyond their borders. Even before setting foot in England, there was hardly a garden I didn't know--and few I didn't try to cannibalize from a plethora of garden books. We visited England again last year in May, and were reminded that there are plenty of gardens to choose from, even if you never leave London. You can barely get to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace without falling into Kensington Gardens, where many Londoners daily rent a lawn seat just to breathe in the sights and sounds of the garden while London traffic lunges along their backside. Even though I favor the relative abandon of the cottage-style garden, proper Kensington is a joy.

And I've never missed a chance to stroll along the Thames' Victoria Embankment between pub or theater dates. It's especially inviting in spring, when the array of blossoms just beginning to unfurl practically compels you to park yourself on any number of benches. But when I really want to taste the true flavors of English gardens, I find a way to get to the countryside--and there is no better time to do it than the spring. A few forays always give the anti-garden members of my party enough of a taste of the English garden to almost match my enthusiasm. To their cascading questions: "What's this plant? What's that plant?" I always point to the guidebook available at most gardens and all the markers by each little leaf and blossom. Much more educational that way.

If you've never been there, your first garden day trip should be to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There are lots of ways to get there--car, Underground, rail--but I prefer a leisurely trip up the Thames by launch, which will deposit you at the back door to the gardens after a little more than an hour on the river.

Plan on spending the day--wear comfortable walking shoes, and take along an umbrella. Kew's printed guides will be of help as you wander through the expansive grounds, with birds and the occasional Concorde flying overhead. The only thing ordinary at Kew can be found in the cafeteria, but if you stick to the tea, crumpets, fruit and cheese you should emerge with enough extra energy to carry your through the grounds.

The Victorian greenhouses, especially the Orangery, built in 1761, are among the primary attractions--immense casings of glass and iron filled with flora from all corners of the world, even exotic California.

As imposing as the greenhouses are, they were not the magnet for me that the herbaceous island beds are. There, all manner of perennials insisted that I stop to smell the flowers, and take detailed notes on every one of them. Some among my party were not quite so drawn, but happy enough to store themselves on a convenient bench till closing time.

If, like me, you can never see enough roses, you'll find plenty to draw your eye--and nose. It's a bit frustrating finding wonderful varieties you'd like to pack up and take home with you, knowing full well they'll never be available at Southern California nurseries. But I did take enough pictures, and scribble enough descriptions to find reasonable facsimiles for my far less imposing back yard.

At Kew, I like to leave enough time to browse through the museum shop, which has one of the best collections of gardening books anywhere. It's hard when faced with that array, not to gather up dozens. If gardening books tend to collect around you, remember that much of the info tucked around those glorious photos--and a good many of the plants themselves--will not make it in Southern California. But, I've found that many are filled with enough ideas to be worth the poundage.

By the time we'd trekked through Kew's 300 acres, including Queens Garden, Palm House, Pagoda, Grass Garden, Cambridge Cottage Garden, Water Lily House, Alpine House and Princess of Wales Conservatory, we were too beat for the boat.

We found the Underground was the fastest way back to the city. And we had been smart enough to make late dinner reservations at an elegant California cuisine clone called Menage a Trois in the Kensington district that easily erased all memories of the Kew cafeteria.

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