Friday, 31 August 2012

UK suffers from wettest summer in 100 years! Where did the drought go for British gardeners?

"Bridge over Troubled Water" - the winning garden at the shower-soaked Hampton Court Flower Show this year
We all know that the British are good at queuing and talking about the weather, but as August draws to a close, it's official. It's been the wettest summer (June, July and August) since records began in 1912. No wonder our roses are looking battered and our gardens are looking sad. And as for the queues - they simply haven't been there this year - not in the gardens, nor at the NGS openings, nor at the numerous flower shows around the country. Most of us saw a little sunshine at RHS Chelsea, but got soaked at Hampton Court and perhaps the Best Show Garden should have been called "Bridge over Rising Water" if we'd known what was to come!
Ian Hamilton Finlay's extraordinary garden at Little Sparta looks wonderful in rain or shine
Events were cancelled all over the country because of the rain and local councils nationwide stopped cutting the verges, although I'm assured that this was part of the cutback plans during the recession, rather than anything to do with the weather. Reports state that both umbrella and wellington boot sales are up, and wet weather gear has enjoyed a real boom, which is hardly surprising when you consider that we've had 366.8 millimetres of rain across the UK of rain since the beginning of June, just 18 millimetres short of when records began in 1912. But this is a very different story to the one we were told earlier in the year, when the dread was in the threatened drought.
Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire has had a .... million makeover and looks wonderful in all weather
I've certainly spent more time with water running down my neck than ever before! And as the relentless rain has poured down and I've looked out of my window in search of a tiny bit of blue sky, I've sat glued to the Met Office weather forecasts and set out in search of sunshine when it promised to appear. Although it has to be said that on a few occasions, the wet weather paid dividends, like the day I visited Little Sparta in Scotland, arriving at the end of a huge downpour and enjoying the garden there in the aftermath of rain, where every leaf sparkled. The same was true at Hidcote, where there wasn't a soul to be seen in the sodden, but glorious garden.
Tatton Park - one of many gardens I've visited in rain this year, but been unable to publish due to poor photographs

This was the year where we started out with a heatwave in March, and ambled into April listening to dire warnings about drought; yet the moment we were threatened with hosepipe bans the rain started; and it never stopped. The countryside soon turned into a sodden landscape, where car parks closed and those of us who ventured out to visit gardens had to don our wellingtons to squelch across soaking lawns to view muddy borders. I've ventured north, south, east and west in search of new gardens, but rarely managed to take sufficiently good photographs to include with my entries. Most were rain speckled and grey, as was the author at the end of many of my visits.
Villandry, which has put the "P" in potager worldwide - visited in clear blue skies earlier this month
I've had better luck in France this year, where I've had the incredible fortune to visit some of the great topiary gardens, including Eyriganc and Marqueyssac, the incredible potager at Villandry, and to strike lucky with a sunny days at Giverny (where the head gardener is English) and Le Bois des Moutiers (the famous Lutyens house and garden). But even though I love the French gardens, I'd rather be at home, writing about our own. So as August draws to a close, I'm hoping for sunny September days so I can catch up on some of those gardens I've missed this year, as they don their autumn mantels in preparation for the winter.

For more garden visit ideas, click here

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Villandry - is this the world's most perfect potager? When vegetables are an art form and food provokes thought!

The vegetables in the potager at Villandry are changed twice a year
Once you've been to Villandry, you'll understand the meaning of potager and parterre extraordinaire and all others will pale into insignificance! This amazing chateau near Tours in France has set worldwide standards for others to follow and given a whole new meaning to the concept of potager, or ornamental kitchen garden. It's made up of nine squares of different geometric designs marked out by dwarf box hedges, filled with colour-coordinated vegetables. But these are no ordinary vegetables - they're a work of art - changed twice a year to make sure that the show never dwindles.
The chateau at Villandry is surrounded by a series of canals and terraces
Home of the Carvallo family since 1906, the man who purchased the chateau - Dr Joachim Carvallo - spent nearly 20 years creating his Renaissance-style garden in 12 acres of grounds, using existing canals and terraces around the ancient chateau. The result is nothing short of remarkable and Villandry draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Yet Joachim had actually recreated the very style of garden that would have existed here in the 16th century when the potager, or kitchen garden was a an absolute necessity if the castle residents were to survive.
The potager looks spectacular throughout the year and is peppered with ornamental vegetables to give colour
Villandry occupies a fine position overlooking the River Cher and despite being one of the most popular tourist attractions in this part of France, both the village and the chateau grounds have managed to retain much of their original character. On entry to the grounds, you find the potager, which looks spectacular throughout the year, because it contains not just vegetables - two crops, designed to impress in both spring and summer - but also perennials, to give an impressive colour palette in each of the nine squares. Some of the vegetables are chosen because of their ornamental properties - ruby chard, lettuces and multi-coloured cabbages - but the overall effect is quite awesome.
The atmosphere at Villandry is serene, yet the logistics of managing this estate are awe inspiring!
Perhaps the most striking feature of the potager here is not just its perfection, but the fact that there are no huge signs warning you to keep out or not touch, just ropes ensuring that you don't walk through the symmetrical squares. You can walk along the main axes and view the garden from above, but you don't get the feeling that you're being prevented from enjoying the spectacle. And this is part of the charm of Villandry - the whole atmosphere is serene and surreal, yet any gardener will realise that the logistics of managing and maintaining a flawless garden like this are not just complex, but awe inspiring!
The parterre at Villandry is magnificent - and is laid out as a Garden of Love and a Garden of Crosses
Once you've managed to pluck yourself away from the potager, there's plenty more to enjoy including the higher terraces at the rear of the chateau, which contain the formal flower gardens that flow around two sides of the potager and include a magnificent and immaculately clipped parterre, filled with annuals to give colour. The parterre is divided into two areas - the Garden of Love, adjacent to the chateau, with all its heart shaped compartments and the Garden of Crosses (above). The best views are from within, but the heat of the day and huge numbers of visitors meant that I had to photograph from the garden, although the overall impression is no less spectacular.
The Water Garden adds another dimension to the spectacle at Villandry
And once you've enthused over the potager and the parterre, there's another level to the garden, where the tempo is different again. Known as the Water Garden, this area has a huge pool at its centre, surrounded by formal lawns and smaller, circular pools with fountains and clipped box in planters, all surrounded by a pleached lime walk, which gives shade during the heat of the day. The most recent addition to the garden at Villandry is the Garden of the Sun, created by the present owner, who is the great grandson of Joachim Carvallo, just four years ago. It comprises two rooms - one for the sun and the other for the clouds - each reflecting a different colour palette.
Part of the charm of the chateau garden is that you can see the neighbouring village behind the hedges
Of all the gardens, I've seen this year, Villandry is the one that took my breath away! It's not just that it's spectacular, but it's also immaculately maintained and offers an extraordinary insight into how a garden can be managed behind the scenes, so that the visitor can stroll at leisure and enjoy a natural spectacle, without the trappings of Disney. I cannot imagine how many gardeners are required to maintain this beautiful property, but priced at just 6.50 Euros for entrance to the gardens, this has to be one of the best-value tourist attractions in Europe. Like Eyrignac and Marqueyssac, it is open every day of the year. Certainly worth making a special trip to see!
For more garden visits, click here

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Great topiary gardens of the Dordogne - Eyrignac and Marqueyssac

Pavilion of Tranquility at the Manoir d'Eyrignac near Perigord in France
If you're travelling to the Dordogne in France this summer, there are two very special gardens you shouldn't miss, within a stone's throw of each other - the beautifully manicured garden at the Manoir d'Eyrignac, which has been there for 500 years, and the recently restored gardens at Chateau Marqueyssac, which have been there for more than three centuries, but were nearly lost at the end of the 20th century. With views over some of the most impressive scenery of the Perigord Noir, work is still ongoing there, but when you realise what's already been achieved, you'll be amazed.
Le Manoir d'Eryignac and view over the French Garden and lawn
Eyrignac has been in the same family for 22 generations. The present manor house was rebuilt in the 17th century after its destruction in the Princes' Revolt and although it has always been surrounded by formal gardens, what you see there today is the work of the current owner's father, Gilles Sermadiras, who completely redesigned them in the 1960s. He had no experience in garden design when he embarked on the project, but has created an extraordinary topiary palette using just ten basic species of plants including hornbeam, yew, Mediterranean cypress and apple trees. Today his son, Patrick carries on the tradition at his home, with the help of six gardeners and Eyrignac is recognised as one of the great French gardens.
The hornbeam walk at Eyrignac - each of the buttresses is made of 12 plants
Topiary dates from Roman times and is well documented in history, although it did not become popular in Europe until the 16th century when it was re-introduced for the parterres and terraces of the elite. There is a European Boxwood and Topiary Society and for those of you who are interested in the subject, their website has plenty of information. Meanwhile, I shall return to Eyrignac, where I spent a lovely morning last week. The 10 acres of gardens are immaculately maintained and the focus here is on the discipline of the design. But unlike most great French topiary gardens, there are wide turfed avenues between the carefully crafted shapes, instead of gravel. This gives a real feeling of opulence to the property.
Eyrignac's ornamental pond and reflecting pool is constantly refreshed by a spring in the garden
Le Manoir d'Eyrignac prides itself on being open every single day of the year, although winter opening hours are considerably shorter than summer ones. From May to the end of September, the garden is open daily from 09.30-19.00. You need to go early in the day or later in the afternoon to avoid the intense summer heat (the day I visited it was 38C!), although there is a breeze when you reach the edge of the garden and enjoy the views of the valley below. Entrance fee is 12 Euros for an adult, but it's well worth it and there's an excellent restaurant on site. 
The extraordinary topiary shapes at Chateau Marqueyssac
Within an hour's drive, there's another extraordinary garden at Chateau Marqueyssac. This property owes its existence to Bertrand Vernet, an advisor to the French king during the siege of Sarlat in 1692. The gardens came later, when Julian de Cerval arrived here in the second half of the 19th century - he was a military man who came hotfoot from Italy, where he had developed a passion for gardening and planted thousands of box bushes at his newly-acquired estate. But by the 20th century it had fallen into terrible disrepair and it wasn't until the late 1990s that a consortium got together to save the gardens, which are now listed as a National Historical Monument and well on the road to repair.
Restoration work is well under way at the stunning hillside location of Chateau Marqueyssac
Marqueyssac's hilltop position is enviable, and once you've stopped admiring the topiary you can stroll for hours in the grounds enjoying the views of the surrounding countryside, the river below and the impressive array of hilltop castles that this region is famous for. Just 15 years after the gardens were saved from complete ruin, a committed team of gardeners look after more than 150,000 box plants (all clipped by hand), which are ideally suited to the limestone soil here, and  are restoring the remainder of the 55-acre grounds to their original glory. 
Stroll in the 55 acres of grounds at Marqueyssac and you'll enjoy wonderful views over the Valley of Chateaux
This area of the Dordogne is known as the Valley of the Chateaux and the views from the grounds of Marqueyssac are certainly astounding. Like Eyringnac, these gardens are open every day of the year and although it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the area (and deservedly so), there's enough space to enjoy the grounds without feeling jostled by the crowds. Throughout July and August, you can visit on Thursday evenings and enjoy the gardens by candlelight. Entrance here is just 7.50 Euros.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Almost Tuesday topiary preview .... Eyrignac and Marqueyssac

The hornbeam hedges at Eyrignac
I've been a little slow to post recently, but it's nearly 40C here in France and viewing gardens isn't easy in this heat! But I did get out today to see the gardens at Eyrignac (above) and the amazing gardens of Marqueyssac (below). As I write, the temperatures are still well up over 30C, so I'm going to leave a full post on both these extraordinary topiary gardens until it's a little cooler.
The amazing gardens at Marqueyssac

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

"Exotic Sezincote! Stately and strange ..."

We’d drive to Sunday lunch at Sezincote 
First steps in learning how to be a guest 
First wood-smoke-scented luxury of life 
In the large ambience of a country house...exotic Sezincote! 
Stately and strange it stood, the Nabob’s house 
Indian without and coolest Greek within...

This is how Sir John Betjeman described the unique property near Cheltenham in his verse autobiography "Summoned by Bells". He used to come here for lunch during his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. And it's certainly one of the most unusual gardens I've visited - with its striking Moghal-style architecture and lovely gardens, well worth making the effort to get to, despite it's restricted opening hours - just two afternoons a week.
View from the house over the chadah bagh, with a pair of elephants which emphasise the Indian theme
The house (top) - with its onion domes, minarets and peacock-tail arches - and the pavilion were designed by Samuel Pepys Cockerell for his brother Sir Charles, who worked for the East India Company. Completed in 1805, it was the inspiration for the famous Brighton Pavilion, following a visit by the Prince Regent to Sezincote in 1807. The original gardens were landscaped with input from Humphry Repton, the lesser-known, but more flexible successor to Capability Brown, who helped Samuel source sketches for classic Indian gardens. The classic chadar bagh (top) featuring trees and ponds in front of the house and the pavilion were added by former owner of the property - Lady Kleinwort  - in the 1960s.
Brahmin bulls adorn an ornamental bridge at Sezincote
Located near the glorious, but touristy towns of Stow-on-the-World and Moreton-in-Marsh, where you expect to find honey-coloured stone buildings, Sezincote comes as a real surprise because of its marked Indian influence and unusual gardens. The property is approached by an avenue of holm oaks, and over an ornamental Indian bridge - complete with two pairs of Brahmin bulls (above) - overlooking the Snake Pool, which takes its name from the three-headed serpent intertwined with a dead tree stump and the magnificent water gardens (below).
The water gardens below the Snake Pool at Sezincote
The original garden lies to the north of the house and features a chain of inter-connecting pools and streams, lushly planted and fed with water from the top pool with its temple dedicated to the Indian sun god, Surya (below). It was a dull and damp day when I visited, but this didn't detract from the glorious planting and serenity of this magnificent garden. Everywhere you look, there are large-leaved aquatic plants, together with weeping beeches and willows.  
The house and garden, like so many others in the area, suffered neglect during World War II, but was brought back to life by Lord and Lady Kleinwort, who purchased the estate in 1944 and started restoring it to its former glory. Today the property is still lived in by their descendants and serves as a family home, but is only open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays from 2.00 - 6.00. Other notable gardens nearby include Hidcote Manor, Kiftsgate Court, Snowshill Manor and Sudeley Castle

Monday, 13 August 2012

Coughton Court - ancient house with glorious walled gardens

Coughton Court - a castellated Tudor manor house and home of the Throckmorton family since 1409
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Coughton Court (pronounced 'Coaton') was a small castle, when you approach this Tudor property in the heart of Shakespeare country in Warwickshire. Your first view is the one above - a honey-coloured house, with towers and castellations, which has been home of the same family since the 15th century. And it's the current resident - Clare Throckmorton - who, with the help of her daughter, Christina Williams, has created the garden here in the last two decades. Before they started work here in 1991, there was a rather flat and uninteresting landscape around an important listed property.
At the rear of the house there are two avenues of pollarded limes, which lead to a pair of sunken gardens
Christina is no newcomer to garden design and was an RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner in 2010. The landscape she's created at her family home is a tribute to her talents, but more importantly, has turned Coughton Court into one of the great Midlands gardens, attracting more than 100,000 visitors annually. The house is managed by the National Trust and features portraits, priest holes and an impressive collection of furnishings and family memorabilia. But garden visitors can enjoy one of the best walled gardens in the country with a fine collection of roses and a landscape that is constantly evolving.
The formal courtyard garden overlooks the pollarded lime avenues (above)
At the rear of the house, Christina has created a formal garden comprising a courtyard with box-edged beds (above), laid out in the style of an Elizabethan knot garden and filled with different perennials throughout the seasons. On the same axis, there's a double lime walk, leading away from the house towards a pair of sunken gardens. Elsewhere there are a series of contemporary garden rooms, all immaculately planted and tended. But at this time of year, it's the former walled kitchen garden that attracts most attention from visitors. 
The walled garden features a rose labyrinth and 'hot' and 'cold' borders to provide constant seasonal colour 
The two-acre walled garden adjoins St Peter's Church and has an impressive rose labyrinth, where more than 200 varieties of roses are entwined with clematis around arches and pedestals and underplanted with perennials. Only opened in 1996, it received the World Federation of Rose Societies' Award of Garden Excellence, ten years later in 2006 - a first for a UK garden, but you wouldn't know this unless you happened to see the tiny commemorative wall plaque within.
Strategically places seats provide resting places throughout the magnificent walled garden at Coughton
Leading off from the central rose labyrinth, you'll find the Red and White Gardens, surrounded by hornbeam hedges with 'window' peepholes, giving visitors a glance of what's within - 'hot' herbaceous borders, with bold displays of cannas, dahlias and lobelias in the former and an oasis of calm in the latter, featuring white clematis and other subtly shaded perennials. Remember to look back as you walk through this part of the garden, as there's many notable vistas. Curved allees create climbing frames for the plants and you there are strategically placed seats to sit and admire the view. 
"Curved allees create climbing frames for the plants"
Not surprisingly, the walled garden can get very crowded in high summer, so wander further afield and enjoy the bog garden and riverside walk (glorious in springtime when the daffodils are in flower), and slightly further afield, Philip's Garden - a densely shaded area, filled with water-loving plants - primula, iris, hellebore and fern - named after its Harrogate horticulturalist creator, Philip Swindells. There are also two churches within the grounds here at Coughton - St Peter's with its fine collection of Throckmorton monuments and the smaller Catholic church, which is in need of restoration.
The gardens at Coughton have been created during the last two decades by a Throckmorton family member
As you wander through the gardens, it's hard to believe that there was nothing here of note just 20 years ago and that work was further hampered by a huge flood in 2007, when the water flooded not just the gardens, but the entire ground floor of the house. If you're looking for another local property, visit The Master's Garden in Warwick. Coughton Court is open daily (except Monday) from 11.00-17.00. Admission to the garden is just £2.50 if you're a National Trust member, but otherwise £5.90 for adults. 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Kiftsgate Court - a credit to three generations of gardening women in Gloucestershire

First view of the terrace at Kiftsgate Court in early summer
Gloucestershire has more than its fair share of glorious gardens and if you're making the pilgrimage to Hidcote Manor, you must also visit Kiftsgate Court. It's a very different garden, but shares wonderful views over the Vale of Evesham, and is a tribute to the three generations of women gardeners who've made it what it is today. And it's right opposite Hidcote Manor, so a must see if you've made the effort to see Lawrence Johnston's garden, which has received of a £3.5 million makeover in the last decade.
The wide border at Kiftsgate Court
Kiftsgate was built at the end of the 19th century and provides a magnificent backdrop for the gardens created there in the last 90 years. It has a Georgian front with a high portico, which can be seen from various parts of the garden and is still used as a family home, but unlike so many other properties where the house dominates the landscape, it's the gardens here at Kiftsgate that will make you gasp.  And at this time of year, most of the garden is in bloom - from the moment you walk in and are greeted by the magnificent roses, to the glorious white garden; the rose border; and the lower garden overlooking the Vale of Evesham towards the Malvern Hills (below).
View over the half-moon pool and the Vale of Evesham
The garden was originally planted by Heather Muir in the 1920s. She had help from her closest neighbour, Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote, but Kiftsgate has stayed in private hands and has been cosseted by two further generations of women gardeners, so retains a sense of intimacy and charm and feels like a family home. You'll find the famous 'Kiftsgate' rose (Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate') in full bloom if you visit in June and July, although current owner Anne Chambers likens it to a "triffid" if kept unchecked!  
The sunken white garden at Kiftsgate Court
Leaving the heavenly scented formal gardens behind, you'll find yourself in the sheltered Lower Garden with its half moon swimming pool overlooking the Malvern Hills (above) - and as you wander through the huge Monterey pines, you'll find many exotic plants including echium and agave, sheltered from winter frost on the banks leading down to the pool. You'd be forgiven for thinking you've walked into an entirely different climate here, because it's so different.
And don't miss the amazing Water Garden (above) - a modern masterpiece commissioned by the present owners, where 24 swaying bronze leaves designed by sculptor Simon Allison reflect in the black water of the rectangular pond, complete with stepping stones inspired by the moat at Sutton Place. This is a place to sit and reflect on what you've already seen in this amazing garden. But do make sure you don't miss the Lower Garden (below) even if it is a steep climb - there are many tender and unusual plants here.
Kiftsgate Court is open from May to end of July five days a week from 12.00-18.00 and during August from 14.00-18.00. Check website for opening times outside main season. Closed Thursday and Friday. Admission is £7.00 for adults and £2.50 for children. Free to HHA members.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

A taste of the unexpected at Coleton Fishacre, Devon

Coleton Fishacre was designed and built for Rupert D'Oyly Carte, using local Dartmouth shale
Coleton Fishacre is a secluded, but spectacular garden in Devon, hidden away down winding country lanes. This year marks the 30th anniversary of its acquisition by the National Trust - originally as part of the Enterprise Neptune campaign to link up the South Devon coastal path. The house at the heart of the 30-acre estate (above) was commissioned for the flamboyant and wealthy owner - Rupert D'Oyly Carte, son of the impresario behind the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas - who used the house and grounds for entertaining. 
The garden extends to 30 acres and enjoys a microclimate because of its position
All the main rooms in the house face south, and Art Deco enthusiasts will enjoy the furnishings and textiles. But garden lovers will love the grounds, filled with rare and unusual plants, including many exotics, which thrive in the microclimate created by the unique position of the property, at the end of a promontory with the River Dart to the west and the sea at Pudcombe Cove. Access to Coleton Fishacre is along tiny Devon lanes, so it has not  been ravaged by garden tourism - this is part of its charm, even if the access roads are a little daunting. My advice is: go early in the day so you don't meet a coach coming the other way!
The rill garden - filled with colourful flowers in high summer
The house (top) was designed by Oswald Milne - a pupil of Edwin Lutyens - and is quite austere. It's well worth taking a tour of the interior to see some fine examples of "art deco" living, but be warned.... don't try and take photographs out of the windows, because the ladies that look after this house on behalf of The National Trust, will simply not allow you to! I got into dreadful trouble with my camera and almost had it removed after quite some debate about whether or not I should be allowed to point my lens at the gardens from inside. 
Coleton's hillside position provides plenty of planting variety - most of it faces south
But you can photograph what you want outside and there's lots to immortalise on your memory card. Because Coleton is situated in a protected position near a river estuary it has its own micro-climate and you will find plants here that don't grow elsewhere in the UK, including proteas. There is also an unusual tree collection and you will encounter redwoods and swamp cypress, as well as a very tall tulip tree and a tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima).
You'll find proteas in full bloom at this time of year
I have to confess that I'm not an expert on plants and I visit gardens to gauge the overall impression and atmosphere rather than the planting - but I'm told this garden is a plantsman's paradise - and visitors come from far and wide to see specimens that are not found anywhere else in this part of England. Even I was aware there are plants and flowers here that I've never seen anywhere else in the UK and I was particularly taken by the colour scheme and the way in which the borders were laid out around the house. Everywhere you look there are vibrant colours and another surprise!
Part of Coleton's charm is that the garden is so varied ...
Part of Coleton's charm is that it is so varied - there's a wonderful rill garden (above), filled to bursting with flowers, acres of woodland that wind down towards the sea and afford splendid views, and a stream that meanders through the valley. Every corner you turn gives a different vista, yet you feel as though you are hidden away from the rest of humanity in a secret garden. The range of plants is impressive and because there are so many exotics, it makes especially good viewing in high summer. 
There are many other gardens near here worth visiting, so if you have the time or inclination, do stay locally because this will allow you to visit some of the other properties nearby - it's a magical part of England and you won't want to leave! Particularly notable and worth visiting is The Garden House. Coleton Fishacre is open daily until the end of September, except Fridays, from 10.30 - 17.00. It remains open in October, but check website for opening times.
For more summer garden ideas, click here

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Little Sparta - Scotland's "modern, mythological garden"

Little Sparta, near Edinburgh in Scotland has been described as both “a modern, mythological garden” (Jonathan Jones) and “the most important new garden in Britain since 1945" (Sir Roy Strong).  It’s certainly one of the most intriguing landscapes I’ve visited yet on my travels, although it won’t appeal to those in search of borders or beautiful horticultural symmetry. “Garden” in the traditional sense, is a misleading word for this extraordinary site, because although you’ll find plenty of greenery, in reality it's an open-air museum showcasing the talents of poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. 
The Temple Pool Garden
Located in a secluded part of Lanarkshire, with views over the Pentland Hills, everything about Little Sparta hints of allegory and illusion, from the warships in the garden, to the references cut into stone and wood detailing his battles with the council about the use of his home as a museum. Hamilton Finlay acquired the five-acre property - originally a farmstead called Stonypath - in 1966 and spent the next forty years of his life toiling the land and adding to his collection of concrete poetry. He is acknowledged as Britain's foremost "concrete poet", and if you visit, you'll understand why - it's filled with sculptures bearing inscriptions, from bridges to pathways and gates to stone walls.
Hamilton Finlay had an interesting upbringing - born in Nassau and reputedly the son of a bootlegger, he returned to Scotland with his parents in the 1930s. He left school at just 13 and briefly attended the Glasgow School of Art before the outbreak of World War II. He also lived and worked as a shepherd in Orkney, and after a brief first marriage, settled down with his second wife at this derelict farm where he would spend the rest of his life. 
The front garden is a series of shady glades with different pathways - keep looking down to see Finlay's words
Little Sparta is quite unlike any other garden you'll see, and although it has neither the scale nor the space of Scotland's other really unique property - The Garden of Cosmic Speculation - it is no less extraordinary.Unlike Charles Jencks' garden at Portrack, the joy of Little Sparta is that it opens regularly throughout the summer and you don't have to make a special trek to mingle with thousands of others on the only open day of the year. 
"Arch n. An Architectural Term A Material Curve Sustained by Gravity As Rapture By Grief"
Perched at the top of a hill and accessed by a farm track through fields, the Hamilton Finlays made sure that their little slice of Eden was away from prying eyes and were happy to share it with the public. Today the property is run by the Little Sparta Trust which continues to maintain the status quo and keeps the garden open throughout the summer months. After a hike up a half-mile track from the main road, you arrive at a beautifully crafted wooden gate, which gives you an idea of what you'll find within. 
The Wild Garden at the rear of the farm, is filled with many different artworks and mature trees
The garden includes more than 200 of Hamilton Finlays' artworks, in what Sir Roy Strong would describe as an "emblematic" garden, popular in the last half of the 16th century. It was his wife, Sue, who was responsible for all the planting here, and although much of the garden is actually open spaces, planted with trees and shrubs, making full use of the landscape views beyond, there is structured planting in the Roman garden, the front garden, the Allotment and the Temple Pool garden.
Carefully placed inscriptions underline the remarkable landscapes beyond the garden
But wherever you are at Little Sparta, it's the astounding countryside that will catch your eye - used to full advantage by Hamilton Finlay to showcase his collection of strategically placed stonemasonry (below) and underlining the view beyond. He did all the landscaping here and the result is a modern Stowe, with buildings, artefacts and inscriptions that ask visitors to examine our place in both nature and society. Combine that with his use of words and you will understand why Roy Strong paid him the tribute he did.
Temple of Apollo with inscription "HIS MUSIC HIS MISSILES HIS MUSES"
Words and pictures cannot really tell the story of this extraordinary garden - there is so much to see with more than 200 of Hamilton Finlay's works on show. You need to visit for yourself to understand the magic of his former home and reflect on his concrete poetry. To read an  interview with the man who created this garden, see the thinkinGardens feature by Ambra Edwards. Little Sparta is open from 14.30-17.00 on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 1st June - 30th September. Admission is £10, with an additional £5 fee for photography.