Join Helen Yemm on a Boxwood gardening adventure

Helen Yemm
Borders at Gresgarth Hall, Lancashire - GAP Photos

A few years ago, when the dust had settled on my house move, I was busy making a new garden. Thorny Problems and other writing projects were chugging along very nicely thank you. These sit quite comfortably, furthermore, alongside other things I do, such as giving informal gardening talks around the country. 

So the idea of adding another string to my bow was unthinkable – and the idea of hosting garden tours arranged by Boxwood specially for Telegraph readers came quite out of the blue. Initially, I must admit, it scared me stiff.  It is one thing to sit behind a laptop and share your acquired knowledge and occasionally your innermost gardening observations in print with a mass of unseen readers. It is quite another kettle of fish to be part of a team of two (with a highly qualified tour leader) ushering groups smoothly around some of the horticultural treasures of Britain and Europe, keeping everyone fully briefed and smiling. 

The responsibility has been huge, but over the past four years since I took up the challenge, my Boxwood Tours moments have been some of the best.

Last year (2017) took me, on each occasion with a harmonious and often hilarious bunch of gardeners, to the grand and romantic gardens of the Italian Lakes, to some utterly sublime parts of of north Norfolk and across the channel to the Arts and Crafts gardens of Varengeville. 

Botanic Garden, Soller, Mallorca Credit: Tim Wright/Alamy 

Importantly, each tour was preceded by a whistle-stop research trip, undertaken during the previous year with Boxwood’s Kew-trained owner and highly experienced mastermind (is that word still acceptable?), Sue Macdonald. We just take off into the blue together with the tour leader, for an intense, horticulture-filled few days during which they steer me around the course, walking the gardens together, meeting and chatting with the owners and head gardeners – which I find intensely rewarding - visiting hotels and restaurants, all the time putting together what will become, back at Boxwoods HQ, meticulous plans for the following year. 

Every tour is researched this way, and although utterly exhausted by the end – I have to take in and process so much in such a short time – I confess it is the nicest part of my role. All the excitement and none of the responsibility.

Of course, on the tours things do go wrong - I could spill the beans about lost passports, people slipping over and external forces that conspire to throw plans into chaos but somehow don’t – but the memories that stick are mostly of the excitement and general goodwill generated by people with a shared passion.

And surprisingly perhaps, I have found that while I love taking visitors abroad and seeing famous gardens, the sort of places pictured on the front of coffee table books, the gardens I get the biggest buzz from generally aren’t instantly recognisable, particularly the very private gardens we that we visit in the UK.

Helen with tour leader Sophie Piebenga and a garden owner Credit: Boxwood

Stand-out visits in the past year were perhaps the afternoon visit to Frances Winch’s gardens at Kettle Hill (fantastically rosy and floral – and with exceptionally glorious tea and cake, as well. We collectively ‘chilled’ as the expression goes), and a late-in-the day amble in the topiary-rich elegance of the Crawleys’ garden at Hunworth Hall. 

But it feels wrong to single out any garden – the Norfolk tour, a high-summer weekender, was one of the most electric and rewarding I have hosted. The September trip to Varengeville will always be remembered – not so much for the Lost Passport Incidents (each one resolved brilliantly in rapid French by tour leader Patty Shone: getting the anxious owners of the missing documents back into the UK was a high point of a different kind…), nor for the privilege of an inside-and-outside visit to Le Bois des Moutier under the influence of extremely charismatic owner Antoine Bouchaer-Mallet. 

No, stuck in my memory just as powerfully is the gloriously blowsy cottage garden of immensely charming Constance Kargere at Le Clos Normand (unruly clouds of Erigeron annus being a star feature). Also, the massed bright orange stems of a bamboo Phyllostachys aureocaulis seeming to power upward behind massed box dumplings - this in a garden of trees and dramas that is so private I can’t even name it.

For 2018, all the tours have been researched and are keenly anticipated. More great and fascinating private gardens feature in all of them. Kicking off the season in early May is a tour of the gardens of northern Mallorca, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. 

There are, at time of writing, only limited spaces left on this one, but two UK tours are also planned which I will write about in due course (both with tour leader Sophie Piebenga). One to the gardens of the Cotswolds in June and another to the Lake District in September (see boxwoodtours.co.uk). 

Meanwhile, I am already gearing up for some research for 2019.