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Taking gardening leave on Guernsey

Press Association logoPress Association 29/03/2017 Hannah Stephenson

Proud garden owner Jennifer Monachan sweeps past the long row of strappy-leaved agapanthus lining the back of her mock Tudor mansion, admiring the wonders of her sloping garden, which she has lovingly created over the last 20 years.

"God made a mistake when he didn't make me an artist," she declares, stretching her arms out joyfully towards her slice of horticultural heaven. "I feel this is like my canvas and my flowers are my paints and my colours. That is my raison d'etre."

Her sense of the dramatic has filtered into La Petite Vallee, her private garden, a five-minute drive south of St Peter Port, which is part of a new Royal Horticultural Society tour featuring visits to both public and private gardens in Guernsey and its smaller neighbour, Sark, which spans just a mile (1.6km) wide by a mile long.

In summer at La Petite Vallee, great fronds of soft purple wisteria drip from its woody framework attached to the house. Jennifer's personal Garden of Eden evolves endlessly as you explore, revealing a cornucopia of planting, from the traditional to the exotic.

Jennifer is able to grow such an eclectic mix, largely because Guernsey - and the neighbouring Channel Islands off the Normandy coast - has such a temperate climate.

Just an hour's flight away, the islands are said to be the sunniest location in the British Isles, claiming more then 2,000 hours of sunshine per year with virtually no frost.

It's no surprise then, that Guernsey is a hotbed of horticultural production and our tour host, the smartly attired king of clematis Raymond Evison, 28-times Chelsea Gold Medal winner, is testament to that.

He's a celebrity among gardening enthusiasts and locals alike, and his nursery produces two million clematis a year, which are exported worldwide to destinations as diverse as China and Japan.

A genial gentleman who works tirelessly to promote horticulture in Guernsey, Raymond gives us a tour of his 3.4 hectare nursery on the east coast. As we walk through a network of glasshouses, he explains his specialism in growing compact types that produce blooms not just at the top of the plant but all the way up the stem.

Some of the palm-sized flowers are double and blousy, others delicately striped, in every shade from deep purple to cool white.

Yet there are blooms all over the 62 square kilometres of Guernsey, including more than 1,000 window boxes, hanging baskets and other planters in the capital St Peter Port alone, adding a colourful stamp to this pretty town's cobbled streets and picture postcard marina. That's before you find an array of flora and fauna in the island's historic Victorian Candie Gardens, once part of a private estate.

The tour, which allows a maximum of 28 people, has been designed to suit those who just like pretty gardens to those with a specialist interest in botanical elements.

Partners who aren't interested can always explore the many idyllic beaches, coves, cycle paths and coastal walks the island has to offer.

I embark on a cliff-side trail along the south coast, a windy diversion where it's easy to admire the rocky coastline and the Pea Stacks, a group of pink-tinged granite jagged outcrops at Moulin Huet Bay, which inspired Renoir to paint a series of pictures when he visited the island in 1883.

As we walk along a segment of the signposted coastal path - you can walk around the whole island, but it's just over 100km, so planning is required - we see pint-size white sea campion, clusters of pale yellow Alexanders (horse parsley) and inhale the scent of wild garlic, also known as three-cornered leek. In summer, the banks are splashed with pink and purple wild orchids, pink foxgloves and an array of other wildflowers.

I step back in time again on the second leg of the tour in Sark, part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey with its own set of laws and its own parliament. An hour-long ferry journey from Guernsey, It has only 600 residents, no cars and the only vehicles are tractors, bikes or a horse and carriage.

Choosing the latter, a 15-minute journey to Stocks Hotel takes us past a small grocery store, described as the "Iceland of Sark", visitor centre, post office, school, playing field and vineyard. There's one doctor on the island and his emergency response vehicle is a tractor.

In a place where the postman also mends washing machines, the small community needs to be - and is - resourceful.

The hotel has its own permaculture garden, using low-input sustainable agricultural methods, and fresh seasonal produce - including rhubarb, raspberries, asparagus, celeriac and sorrel - is served to guests. Resident chickens provide the breakfast eggs and it's hard to believe that just four years ago, this was a bare field where horses grazed.

Later, we walk to the horticultural jewel in Sark's crown, La Seigneurie Gardens, set between flower-strewn granite walls, mature woodland, towers and battlements of one of the most historic houses in Sark, which dates back to 1675.

Its riot of summer roses, fragrant lavender and climbing clematis is a sight to behold, made possible by the wealthy Seigneurs, or titular rulers, who presided from the early 19th century, and now maintained by La Seigneurie Gardens Trust.

I feel happily lost in time on these two floral islands with their own laws, their own quirky ways and their tremendous community spirit. They have surely sown the seeds of success.

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