Gardens: 'The gardens have structures that have withstood the test of time'

Indulge in a spot of armchair gardening, and visit the UK's finest plots from the comfort of home

PICKING favourites is never easy, so when it came to choosing the UK's top 20 gardens, author Helena Attlee had some tough decisions to make.

On the up side, she got to visit some of the country's best-loved, most historic and inspiring gardens as part of her research for a new book, Great Gardens of Britain (16.99, Frances Lincoln). "Britain is full of sensational gardens, and at first we wondered how on earth we would choose between them," she says. "We began by drawing up some strict criteria to help with the difficult decisions that had to be made. Some of the gardens in the book have been famous for hundreds of years, like Stourhead and Levens, and others are newer arrivals on the scene, such as Scampston and East Ruston Old Vicarage. But whatever their age, and this was one of our criteria, all of the gardens we chose had to represent a high point in their particular style or period."

With its different climates, Britain's gardens are hugely diverse and this is reflected in the book. There are gardens from the west coast, where the influence of the Gulf Stream creates a mild, rainy climate and tender plants from around the world happily flourish. Mount Stewart, in Northern Ireland, is one such example, where plants such as Mexican lilies and the Lobster Claw from New Zealand are grown. In complete contrast, the parched, windswept gardens of the East Anglian flatlands are home to gardens growing a very different range of plants. At East Ruston, on Norfolk's north sea coast, agaves and cacti seem at home, while Beth Chatto's Mediterranean Gravel Garden is a tribute to what can thrive in Britain's driest climate.

Four Scottish gardens feature in the book, each one very different. Crarae is home to one of Britain's best collections of rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and conifers, set in the dramatic Highland landscape that surrounds Loch Fyne. Attlee explains that this is a family garden, created and extended by three generations of the Campbells. Grace, Lady Campbell, began work in 1912, transforming the steep wooded ravine with a little help from her nephew Reginald Farrer, whose plant-hunting expeditions took him to the remotest parts of China, Japan and the Himalayas. Now run by the National Trust for Scotland, Attlee says that the garden is at its best in May, when "bright pink candelabra primulas, hostas and the blowsiest, bluest meconopsis thrive in the damp ground," and 600 different varieties of rhododendron turn the sides of the ravine pink, red, mauve, yellow and white.

"Gardening is the most ephemeral of the arts," says Attlee. "Planting will change over the years, and the green architecture will age and outgrow its allotted space. However, all of the gardens in the book have strong bones, structures that have withstood the test of time."

Crathes Castle is the other historic Scottish entry. Yew topiary was planted at the beginning of the 18th century, but the garden as it is today dates from the first half of the 20th century when Sir James Burnett and his wife, Sybil, created garden rooms, long vistas and magnificent herbaceous borders. Rare and exotic trees add another layer of interest and one of the star attractions is an ancient Portuguese laurel, whose branches have been pruned for hundreds of years into a perfect dome.

"The book is full of ideas, new and old, that readers can play with in their own gardens," says Attlee. "Take two of the Scottish gardens – Little Sparta and the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Here the designers have revived the 16th-century tradition of using the garden like a painting or a sculpture as a means of expressing ideas. We forgot all about symbolic language in the garden years ago. Or did we? In the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Charles Jencks communicates ideas about science and the universe. He explores waveforms, such as brain, sound, light and water waves, which he says are among the fundamental structures of life. In the garden he uses undulating hedges, Chinese bridges and sinuous landforms to illustrate his point. Ian Hamilton Finlay, poet and artist, combined serious political and historical themes with jokes. In the front garden of Little Sparta a stone set among a group of sycamores is inscribed with the words 'Bring back the birch'. A small birch tree grows immediately behind it. His wit is everywhere."

Some of the gardens featured in the book, such as Great Dixter, Sissinghurst and Hidcote, are famous both for their garden features and for the people who designed them. "Our book includes the gardens of many of the greatest British designers of the 20th century, including Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd, Lawrence Johnston and Vita Sackville West," says Attlee. "Their gardens may be familiar, and many of us have absorbed, as if by osmosis, some of their ideas, However, we were amazed by how much there is to learn from revisiting our iconic gardens."

Educational gardens such as Kew, RHS Wisley and the Eden Project are also included among the great gardens. Attlee asks whether Cornwall's Eden Project can really be defined as a garden but answers this with a definite "yes", describing the biomes which mimic the natural vegetation of the world's tropical and warm temperate zones and the richly planted garden outside, where the old china clay pit has been transformed into swathes of flowering plants, pleached and espaliered trees and ranks of productive vegetables. It is unique and could be seen as a contemporary celebration of Britain's gardening tradition. "Visiting and comparing all these extraordinary gardens within a relatively short space of time was like taking an intensive course in British garden history, garden design and horticulture," says Attlee. It's a journey we can enjoy too via the pages of the book and having visited the gardens in print, it's hard to resist the idea of planning a trip to see the real thing.

• Great Gardens of Britain by Helena Attlee with photographs by Alex Ramsay (16.99, Frances Lincoln) is out now.