England is renowned for gardens and flower shows, and 2016 offers an ideal opportunity to tiptoe among the tulips as its Year of Gardens blooms.
Gardens make people smile, no more so than in the northern hemisphere, when springtime banishes the long winter with apple blossoms, dancing daffodils and multi-hued tulips. Flamboyant spring then slowly matures into summer, which sees gardens at their green best. Later, autumn provides a palette of reds and oranges.
There are few better places to see the seasonal spectacle than England, famous for its green-fingered inhabitants and long history of garden innovation. It offers some of the world's most beautiful gardens, and this year is a particularly good time to visit, with the Year of Gardens opening up rarely-seen private gardens to visitors, and many public gardens featuring special shows and exhibits. Some 3000 gardens are on show as part of the National Gardens Scheme (ngs.org.uk) for charity, culminating in National Gardens Festival Weekend (June 6-7), when 380 gardens across England – many rarely accessible – allow public entry.
The Year of Gardens is also celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, famous for landscaping the grounds of many of England's most notable stately homes. His style is now synonymous with English gardens: sweeping lawns, lakes, abundant shrubbery and flowerbeds, and pretty vistas studded with statues and monuments. Some 150 Capability gardens (capabilitybrown.org) will be on show, some rarely open to visitors.
Gardens apart, here are some special shows to highlight a blooming marvellous year in England.
'Capability' Brown at Blenheim Palace Exhibition, Oxfordshire
Blenheim Palace, childhood home of Winston Churchill and one of England's most significant stately homes, also boasts one of Capability Brown's most important landscape creations. A special exhibition provides maps, plans, artefacts and pictures that illustrate the importance of the pioneering English gardener's work and creations. An interpretive trail leads around the palace's always-spectacular gardens. Exhibit until May 2, gardens open all year; blenheimpalace.com.
RHS Malvern Spring Festival, Worcestershire
The RHS or Royal Horticultural Society's most famous show might be in Chelsea, but it runs several others, including this one in Worcestershire. It features stunning show gardens against the borrowed backdrop of the Malvern Hills. There are also plant exhibits, gardening talks and demonstrations, and a very family-friendly range of activities, with some of the gardens designed and planted by schoolchildren. A similar Malvern Autumn Festival in September celebrates seasonal produce and colour. May 5-8; rhs.org.uk
RHS Chelsea Flower Show, London
Perhaps England's greatest floral display is the Chelsea Flower Show (rhs.org.uk), which showcases stunning gardens created by the world's leading garden designers and horticulturalists. Some demonstrate cutting-edge landscaping, others traditional English gardens, and yet others what you can do with urban courtyards or roof gardens. Glasshouses contain floral displays and new hybrids in a fabulous clash of colour and scent. The show has all the razzmatazz of celebrity appearances and a visit by the Queen. May 24-28; rhs.org.uk
BBC Gardeners' World Live, Birmingham
Experts from the BBC television show Gardeners' World are on hand to give lectures and demonstrations, sign books and give exclusive tours at this show. You can sniff your way around the Rose Festival and a display of the latest plant hybrids in the floral marquee, inspect the show gardens, and be inspired by a showcase of small-garden solutions for those with limited space. Even better, the adjacent BBC Good Food Show runs simultaneously. June 16-19; bbcgardenersworldlive.com
RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, Surrey
Set on the Thames River outside London, Hampton Court is often visited as the palace of Henry VIII and many subsequent monarchs. In July, though, attention shifts to its grounds, which feature spectacular summer blooms, show gardens and exhibits, and a festival of roses. There's a family Saturday, and kids will also love the flower-filled Butterfly Dome, with its free-flying butterflies from Asia and South America. July 5-10; rhs.org.uk
RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, Cheshire
Leading gardeners are once more let loose to create show gardens in various styles; this year sees the return of the Water Garden category, while Evolution Gardens try and anticipate the look of the future. A floral marquee flaunts the latest creations of horticulturalists. There's live entertainment, talks, and fun activities for children too. As an added bonus, the show is held on the grounds of an historic country estate. 20–24 July; rhs.org.uk
RHS London Harvest Festival Show, London
As the gardening year comes to an end, this show focuses particularly on garden foods, with plenty of autumnal delights such as a giant vegetable competition (a 509-kilo pumpkin took out the prize last year) and fruit competition for the best apples and pears. You can also taste your way through chutneys, jams, pickles and other seasonal flavours.October 4-5; rhs.org.uk
This article is brought to you by Visit Britain.