TRAVEL / Hobby Holidays: Gardening

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The Independent Culture
KEEN gardeners must go through something of a crisis when it comes to choosing a holiday. Do they book for spring or summer, when their own garden is at its best, or do they go off-season and get the worst of the weather? Because of this dilemma, there are few practical holiday courses for gardeners which last longer than a weekend. Those who want to learn how to perfect their pruning, improve the roses or

1make radical changes to the design, will either have to do it in one- or two-day snatches, or join an evening class.

The other option is to learn by sampling the delights of other people's gardens. Most of these garden tour holidays last a week or so. Courses and holidays listed below may change for 1994, and prices (which mostly include board and lodging - and travel for overseas destinations only) may rise slightly.

THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE: A gardener's first port of call for reliable information should be the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS membership enquiries: 071-821 3000). Its programme of events includes hundreds of lectures, tours, walks and practical demonstrations at its gardens around the country (Growing Vegetables for the Small Garden, Successful Rhododendrons or Seed Collection and Preparation for instance). The RHS also has an extensive programme of holidays touring gardens all over the world (0394 276276 for a brochure). At the many National Trust (membership enquiries: 071- 222 9251) gardens in Britain there are regular events, including tours led by the head gardeners. Based at the Chelsea Physic Garden, the English Gardening School (071-352 4347) has an excellent series of courses - from one-day seminars such as The Cottage Garden Yesterday and Today, Roses Old and New, and Planning and Planting (pounds 64); to a correspondence course in Garden Design and a one-year (once weekly) professional course in Practical Horticulture. For a historical perspective, the Environmental Field Studies Council (0743 850674) runs a week at Nettlecombe Court near Taunton on Landscape Influences of the Twentieth Century (around pounds 220). Merit Travel and Tours (081-653 6514) has an interesting programme of garden tours in Britain and Europe (prices from pounds 115).

THE ORGANIC FACTOR: The Ryton Organic Gardens (0203 303517), just outside Coventry, run by the Henry Doubleday Research Association, is the best place to get to grips with organic gardening. There are 10 acres of display gardens covering wild flowers, unusual and traditional varieties of vegetables, fruit, herbs, compost making and a 'no digging' garden. Special events in 1994 include National Organic Gardening weekends and theme days run by the gardeners such as Late Winter, and Springtime in the Garden. The Hylands Hotel in Coventry (0203 501600) offers a Muck and Magic weekend break including entry tickets to Ryton and full board for two nights for pounds 70 per person.

TAKING IT EASY: For those who prefer to enjoy other peoples' gardens, there's a wide range of holidays to choose from. The Kingcombe Centre in Dorset (0300 320684) has a summer weekend exploring West Country Gardens (including Forde Abbey) for around pounds 100, while Hilton International (0923 238877) organises six weekends a year visiting gardens or flower shows at different locations around the country for pounds 140. If you can spare a week, the Old Rectory near Pulborough (079 882 306) runs a week of visits to gardens in the area in high summer for pounds 300 and Cricketer Holidays (0892 664242) visits five Kent gardens (including Sissinghurst) in six days, from pounds 499. Motts Travel (0296 613831) also visits gardens around Britain. Dozens of operators offer trips to see the Dutch bulbfields in the spring - for example, Amsterdam Travel Service (0920 467444) organises day trips and three- or four-night breaks from pounds 129.

SPLASHING OUT: As part of its Environmental Journeys programme, Cox and Kings (071-873 5002) runs garden tours to the Cote d'Azur (pounds 1,195), South Africa (pounds 2,545) and the Italian Lakes (pounds 1,195) among others, as well as botany tours all over Europe. Serendipity Francaise (0222 761439) rents out 'luxurious holiday properties' from pounds 500 per person per week (excluding travel to France) in the Perigord region and will put together tailor-made day trips (which include Private Gardens and Chateaux Gardens of Perigord) once you're there (prices on application). Also on the pricey side, Boxwood Tours (0235 532791) shows a sure touch in its choice of hotels for its five to eight-day garden tours of Dorset (pounds 559), Shropshire (pounds 579), Provence (pounds 845) and Madeira (pounds 779).

FAMILY FAVOURITES: There's not a huge demand for family gardening holidays - the best bet, if you want to go away en famille, is to take advantage of Acorn Activities' (0432 357335) flexible programme of special interest holidays - you can choose between Gardening Skills and Organic Kitchen Gardening. Ryton Organic Gardens (see above) has a children's area. The rare breeds of pigs and sheep on display prove popular with kids.

SOLO GARDENING: Most of the rooms at Missenden Abbey, in Buckinghamshire, (0494 890296) are singles. There's a weekend on Adornment of the Garden (pounds 140) and a Summer School week called Enjoy Your Garden (planning, planting and feeding, pounds 395). The Old Rectory and the Kingcombe Centre (listed above) have reasonably good rates for singles.

CUTTING COSTS: Bargain of the week must be Pontins' (0772 621621) gardening holiday based at Brean Sands in Somerset next September - the cost for two people in a self-catering chalet is around pounds 80 each per week. A good way to gain experience is as a volunteer gardener at one of the National Trust's gardens (contact the volunteer co-ordinator at your nearest National Trust office) - although the Trust stresses that these are not training courses and jobs often require special skills. The Trust's Acorn Projects (0373 826826) are open to all who are interested in conservation. Some projects involve work in the gardens. The cost for holidays lasting between two and seven days (usually between pounds 12 and pounds 59) includes board and lodging and a half day off, but not transport.

THE INDEPENDENT GARDENER: Apart from the events organised by the RHS (see above), the best sources of local information and advice are the many gardening clubs and societies around the country. Those who want to put together their own tailor-made group tours can do so through Merit Travel (see above) and Newmarket Travel Service (081-330 7111) which organises a range of holidays in Britain and abroad.

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