Gardening: Between the leaves

From Wagnerian orchids to heaps of hellebores, mountains of monardas and more, Anna Pavord takes a tour around this year's crop of garden guides
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On holiday in the Windward Islands a few years ago, I spent a day weeding amongst orchids and bromeliads on an old grapefruit plantation high in the centre of Dominica. "Weeding" here took on a different character. I was cutting down ferns and morning glories that I would have been fussing over as if they were babies, if ever I could have persuaded them to grow at home.

Looking out over that garden, only two plants were familiar: a buddleia (an object of great curiosity in Dominica) and a camellia, both in bloom. The camellia's flowers, which to us seem so theatrical, were upstaged. Bent under the weight of the orchids growing on its mossy branches, it was a soprano trilling a solitary lieder while everything else was thundering in a Wagnerian chorus.

Bromeliads were the boss plants in this garden. Some grew along the branches of the old grapefruit trees. Others were planted on the ground, between tall stands of anthuriums and arrow-leaved aroids. Many were in flower: startling spikes of coral and purple, or shocking pink and mauve. Some looked like huge insects: flattened, fleshy cockroaches, or a preying mantis leering out of a nest of leaves. Where we might use wisteria, along the front of the verandah, there was a jade vine with three-foot racemes of flowers in an improbable shade of turquoise. Each hanging rope of flowers had its own attendant hummingbird.

Even the simplest tasks were different there. Weeding involved not pulling but cutting. The skim of soil was too precious to dislodge, too vulnerable to expose to the torrential thunderstorms. The chief culprit was a graceful fern that grew wild over all the cooler, damper parts of the island. In the matrix of its roots, bromeliads could get a hold, but the fern was always trying to swamp the newcomers.

Reading a newly published guide, The Gardens of Dominica (Papillote Press, pounds 7.99), I felt desperately homesick. That's because the guide itself is so sympathetically and vividly written by Polly Pattullo, a specialist in Caribbean affairs, and Anne Jno Baptiste, an American-born Dominican who has a beautiful garden at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat in Dominica.

This is the first guide to the gardens of the island and, as you'd expect, it tells you where to go, what you'll see and how to get there. But the introduction does much more: it gives a historic perspective to the way the island is gardened. It tells of the successive waves of colonisers who drove the indigenous Caribs, growers of cassava, sweet potato and soursop, into the remoter areas of the island. It explains how French gardening traditions were followed by English practices, and how they in turn were overlaid by the crops and growing skills of the entrepreneurial black Africans. Many were brought to Dominica to work as slaves on the 18th-century sugar plantations.

All this is part of our gardening history, too. Even if the prospect of a visit to Dominica is as unlikely as a kind word from your bank manager, this is a must-have book. It is richly evocative and knowledgeable, and highlights places that no visitor could find on his own. Only the most detailed local knowledge can produce a guide as good as this.

In Britain, we take good garden guides for granted, forgetting what a luxury they are. The new yellow book, Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity (National Gardens Scheme, pounds 4.50), has just been published, with details of 3,500 gardens open between now and November. New this year are maps, marking the gardens in each area, which is a huge bonus.

This is a directory, rather than a guide. Entries are written by the owners themselves, and I confess I am always drawn to gardens that sound slightly ramshackle and chaotic, rather than to those whose owners are sure beyond any reasonable doubt that their creations "will give inspiration to anyone wishing to develop a similar plot". As the visitor, I feel that inspiration-quotient should be my decision, not theirs. The range of gardens is extraordinary. Tomorrow you could visit the Shorts' garden at Longthatch, Warnford, in Hampshire which has part of the national collection of hellebores (open 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 2). Or you could see the fantastic restoration of the Waddesden Dairy water garden in Buckinghamshire, carried out by Julian and Isabel Bannerman for Lord Rothschild (open 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 1). Or you could race to Devon, where spring is already well on its way, to catch up on the Herberts' tranquil garden at Yonder Hill, Colaton Raleigh (open 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 1).

Make a weekend of it, with a copy of Sue Colquhoun's Bed and Breakfast for Garden Lovers in your bag. The list highlights places to stay where your host won't mind you jabbering about pulmonarias or letting your soup get cold while you speak your mind about monardas. Under each entry is a list of gardens to visit close by. You might make your way to the Burnhams' house, Westcott Barton in Devon, a place so old it's listed in Domesday Book. Ann Burnham is a new but enthusiastic gardener, and is close to Marwood Hill, Arlington Court and Tapeley Park.

The only book to combine a guide to gardens with suggestions of places to stay (all detailed on OS maps) is Judith Hitching's A Guide To Garden Visits (Michael Joseph pounds 12.99). She even includes diversions for wet weather. Ms Hitching is a keen gardener, runs her own B&B at Gower's Close, Sibford Gower, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, and is an awesome cook. If the lily needs gilding, this is the way to do it. While you are ambling through Frank and Marjorie Lawleys' phenomenal garden at Herterton House, near Morpeth, you can be dreaming of dinner at Callaly Mains (01665 574665).

Buy `The Gardens of Dominica' (pounds 7.99, plus 70p postage and packing) from the Papillote Press, 23 Rozel Road, London SW4 0EY (0171-720 5983). For a copy of the B&B Guide for Garden Lovers', send four first-class stamps and sae (11cm x 22cm) to Sue Colquhoun, Handywater Farm, Sibford Gower, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX15 5AE (fax: 01295 780990).

Green sleeves

Also available: `Gardens of Scotland' (Scotland's Gardens Scheme, pounds 3); `The Hidden Gardens of Ireland' by Marianne Heron (Gill & Macmillan, pounds 7.99); `The Good Gardens Guide' edited by Peter King (Ebury Press, pounds 14.99); `Gardener's Guide to Britain and Ireland' by Patrick Taylor (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99).