This July, The Royal Horticultural Society introduced a new idea – the World of Gardens – for the first time at its Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. There were four gardens entered, from very diverse destinations: Switzerland, Jordan, St. Petersburg and
It is very difficult to explain, to those who do not understand the British passion for gardens and gardening, that each day some 30,000 people visit the show – which is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday inclusive – and that the Hampton Court Flower Show is the largest gardening event in the world. It covers a huge area of some 30 acres or so. It took me six months to persuade the Azoreans to enter a garden. Understandably, they found it hard to comprehend the concept and the fact that the show garden created would have to be world class because the RHS is the leading horticultural organisation in the world and it sets the highest of standards.
However, once they understood what a perfect opportunity this was to raise awareness of their islands to an audience whose main interest was, after all, gardens, then there was no stopping the flow of ideas. The islands of the Azores are, effectively, one big garden. This is a lush landscape of fertile volcanic soil, set in a temperate climate within the Gulf Stream, where seemingly anything grows in profusion. Flowers abound and, in June, hedgerows of hydrangeas twist like ribbons through the hills and valleys where half a million contented cows produce what I think is the best cheese in Portugal.
Though the plants typically found in the Azores were sourced in the UK for The Azorean Garden at Hampton Court, the volcanic rocks, scree and basalt were shipped from the various islands and formed a stunning backdrop to the plants. The Azores, being volcanic, are blessed in being able to derive most of their energy from geothermal sources. Fumaroles abound, especially on the main island of Sao Miguel, and the garden designer and the builders were tasked to reproduce a smoking, bubbling pool, fringed with, white, volcanic rocks, so typical of the village of Furnas, which is built in the crater of an extinct volcano.
Nothing was going to put gardeners off from visiting Hampton Court, let alone a little rain! Such was the interest in the garden and in the islands themselves, that we had 15 staff there daily – from Sunvil, from other specialist operators and from the Azorean tourist board – manning the garden and the information tent. Three and a half thousand visitors entered the Sunvil prize draw for a week’s free holiday. Cheese from the island of Sao Jorge was on offer, plus a fortified wine from the island of Pico. Many thousands of information leaflets and brochures were handed out.
What were the most frequently asked questions? Probably “Where are the Azores?” was number one. I lost count of the times I said, in response: “One third of the way across the Atlantic from Lisbon to New York”. Another regular query was: “What is the best time of the year to go?”. Most people were surprised to learn that there’s a direct flight from Gatwick operating between April and October and that summer temperatures range between 18 and 24 degrees Centigrade, while winter temperatures do not fall below 14 degrees Centigrade. The islands of the Azores offer an unsophisticated and unspoilt destination with spectacular scenery, very reminiscent of New Zealand in its variety, and wonderful for walking, cycling, whale watching and island hopping by air – perfect for garden lovers and those who enjoy the great outdoors.
The garden was awarded a Silver Gilt medal at the show, and in the region of 180,000 visitors walked past – what more could one ask for in terms of creating awareness about this unique destination? Monty Don and Rachel de Thame recorded the opening shots of the Hampton Court Special for Gardeners’ World on BBC 2 from the Azorean Garden, pulling in a huge number of people along with the TV cameras, and Jo Swift, also of Gardeners’ Word, talked animatedly from the Azorean Garden about the vast array of plants that could be found on the Azores and about the fumaroles, used by the islanders as nature’s own slow cooker for their national dish, Cozido.
My favourite plants from the Azores are probably the tree ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica) and agapanthus, both of which self-seed on the islands. I confess that I bought a couple of tree ferns from the Azorean Garden. I can’t wait for them to be planted in my small Twickenham garden – they will be a wonderful reminder of the exotic flora to be found in the Azores every time I look out of the window.