A consumer's guide to gardening leave

Bromsgrove Advertiser: A consumer's guide to gardening leave A consumer's guide to gardening leave

The RHS launches its first ever garden holidays brochure featuring horticulture-themed holidays around the world for its green-fingered consumers - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.

By Hannah Stephenson

Themed holidays have been around for a long time, suited to hobbyists whose pastimes have included painting, cooking or indeed gardening.

While garden-themed holidays simply used to involve trips to well-known gardens to admire the scenery and perhaps enjoy a guided tour, today's offerings are more sophisticated, and if you pick the right holiday, you may have smaller groups, visits to private gardens and even a bit of hands-on experience.

Tailor-made garden cruises featuring talks by TV gardening experts, visits to exotic gardens where guests can sample the locally grown tropical fruits and trips which incorporate some of the major horticultural shows are all available.

Kew-trained horticulturist Sue Macdonald, who founded Boxwood Tours (www.boxwoodtours.net) in 1990, which specialises in quality garden holidays, says that green-fingered travellers are becoming more discerning.

"They want more private visits and want to meet the garden owners or head gardeners. That's a big draw on a tour. They want to hear about the garden, how they cope with recent weather difficulties and plans for the future. They need someone there who can tell them the key information.

"Gardeners want a tour leader with a horticultural background, rather than just going around a National Trust property without meeting anybody, just looking. They want questions answered."

Some organisations offer workshops for people who want to learn some practical gardening, but they are difficult to incorporate on a garden-themed holiday, Macdonald explains.

"Setting up tours which are more practical is not easy to do because it involves extra insurance if people are using knives or pruning shears or digging.

"Gardens also have to have enough space to bring people in for hands-on gardening experiences, so they might need enough space to take a group of 10 people, for instance, to take cuttings from a shrub."

But the yearning for knowledge among travellers is ever-increasing, she points out.

"We have started looking more at different plant groups, which we're doing on our Cornwall tour this year, so the head gardener is going to talk about and demonstrate the propagation of camellias, but it's not set up like a workshop."

The Royal Horticultural Society recently launched its first ever RHS Garden Holidays brochure in conjunction with escorted tours expert Collette Worldwide Holidays, featuring horticulture-themed holidays around the world, including itineraries to the US, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, The Azores, France, Italy and Spain.

Celebrating the centenary of RHS Chelsea Flower Show, its China tours follow in the footsteps of the original plant hunters and offer visitors an element of discovery.

"For somebody who really wants to get down and dirty in plant hunting, looking under rocks, in damp bark, under leaves, up in the trees, in search of orchids or clematis or magnolia or whatever we are looking for, following in the footsteps of the original plant hunters, the plant seekers' trip would be one for them," says Sue Biggs, RHS director general, who has a background in travel.

Biggs notes: "A lot of people will be happy to go to beautiful gardens, be told what the plants are and where they grow best and how to grow them at home, but if you want really top level - where you find out the Latin names, how to cultivate and graft plants, the real horticultural knowledge, then it would be best to choose a tour that's escorted by an RHS curator or horticultural specialist."

So, what should holidaymakers check when choosing a garden-themed break?

:: Check the inclusions because you may discover that food is not included and optional excursions can bump up your costs.

:: Take note of single supplements. Many gardeners go on horticulture-themed holidays on their own.

:: Look for unique experiences where you won't be on a well-worn trail behind a fleet of other tourist coaches.

:: Try to find out the calibre of your tour escort - are they just a courier or a horticultural specialist with plenty of knowledge?

:: Consider the schedule carefully. How many gardens a day will you be covering? You might only be doing three or four gardens in the whole tour and be at the hotel the rest of the time.

:: Watch out for the term 'private visits' because the garden may be privately owned but open sometimes to the public. You may be greeted by crowds if you go on a day when it's open to the public.

:: Don't always go for the peak time. There's a broader season and lots to see - without the crowds.

:: Check group sizes. A good yardstick is 25 maximum to be able to see and hear most things, but if you are visiting a small garden, even that can be too many.

Best of the bunch - Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) Witch hazels brighten up the garden at this time of year, with their spidery and fragrant yellow, orange or red flowers.

These slow-growing, deciduous shrubs are striking in the late winter garden when the great outdoors still seems to be in a state of semi-slumber.

Among the sweetest is h. x intermedia 'Pallida', while 'Diane' bears interesting red flowers and bright red and orange autumn tints and 'Arnold' produces bright yellow flowers.

Witch hazel grows to around 3.7m (12ft) and should be planted in moist, well-drained, neutral to acid soil in sun or dappled shade.

After flowering, cut back the flowered shoots to strong buds, but only to confine the plant if it is outgrowing its space.

Good enough to eat - Bare rooted cane fruits This month is the latest time to plant bare-rooted cane fruits including raspberries, blackberries and hybrid berries.

The canes are usually sold in bundles. Prepare the ground beforehand, digging a trench along the proposed row, adding organic matter if not done previously.

All bare-rooted cane fruits, except autumn-fruiting raspberries, need support, which is done through placing posts at either end of the row, with a minimum of three strong wires hung horizontally between them.

If you are using a wall or fence as support, attach the wires to vine eyes screwed into the wall and plant raspberries about 45cm (18in) apart and blackberries 1.5m (5ft) apart.

Prune newly planted canes to about 22cm (9in) from the ground to encourage the production of good, strong canes from the base.

In the summer you can cut it right out. Tie the canes to the wires as they grow, but don't take a crop this year, removing flowers to help establish the plants so they produce a better crop in years to come.

Three ways to - Restrain invasive herbs 1. Surround herbs such as tarragon and mint with a barrier of slates buried vertically in the gound to stop the underground runners from threatening neighbouring plants.

2. If planting in a border, plant invasive plants in a bottomless bucket buried to its rim.

3. Make an ornamental feature of invasive herbs on your patio by planting them in individual pots.

What to do this week :: Keep sacking or old carpet handy to cover and insulate cold frames during very cold periods.

:: Sprinkle sulphate of potash fertiliser around the base of fruit trees and bushes.

:: Cover buds on fruit trees and bushes with netting to protect them from the birds.

:: Finish winter-pruning apple and pear trees, removing badly placed or diseased branches.

:: Bring pot-grown strawberry plants into the greenhouse to encourage early flowering and fruiting.

:: Trim back winter-flowering heathers when the flowers have started to fade.

:: Plant new roses before spring. Bare-rooted bushes should be planted immediately.

:: Clip wall-trained ivy, removing it from windows and gutters.

:: Continue winter digging, adding compost as you go.

:: Sow parsnips as soon as soil conditions allow.

:: Sow spring onions and lettuce in cold frames or under cloches.

:: Prick out seedlings in the greenhouse and space them in larger trays when they are big enough to pick up by their new leaves.

:: Plant dahlias into trays to encourage them to develop shoots to take as cuttings.

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