The Daily Telegraph - Travel
Flower power from the gardens of Grenada
Blooms from this Caribbean island have won 11 gold medals in recent years at Chelsea Flower Show. Nigel Tisdall encounters a horticultural gem
‘My mother has successfully spent all her money on this garden,” Randy Renwick explains. We are admiring the floral delights of Sunnyside, a topsy-turvy tropical Eden on a hilltop in St Paul’s. Framing a Twenties colonial-style house with lawns looking out to the Caribbean Sea, it is clearly the result of decades of horticultural hope, obsession and labour. Among its many splendours are a bountiful calabash with glossy fruit like green moons, some 300-year-old mahogany trees and a pair of royal palms shooting 70ft into the bright blue sky. A smiling gardener kindly demonstrates how the resident redfooted tortoises copulate, while the house dog gleefully scampers around the zoysia. “What breed is that?” I wonder. “The pain-in-the-neck breed,” Randy replies.
Next week Grenada will exhibit its exuberant flora at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the 18th consecutive year, and the blooms will have come, freely donated, from a dozen gardens and nurseries such as Sunnyside. Similar in size to the Isle of Wight, this island has won a prize at the show every year so far, including 11 gold medals. This year’s designer, Catherine John, has been preparing with her eightstrong team since last July. She appears unflappable but admits to a rivalry, “friendly but that not that friendly”, with Barbados, which will also be competing in the heated arena of Tropical Exotics. A good part of any success at Chelsea clearly comes from mastering the art of transporting flowers and foliage across the Atlantic. Every petal, leaf and stem is treated with reverence, carefully watered and individually wrapped in fleece before being boxed up and dispatched to London in the hold of a British Airways 777. “We pray for no delays,” sighs John. Last May the weather here was unseasonably cold, and the leaves of her areca palms turned black with disgust. This year it has been exceptionally dry in the Caribbean. Around 80 per cent of what’s shipped gets used, and Grenada’s gardeners are thrilled if their contributions form part of a prize-winning display. To the casual visitor, gardening in Grenada looks a cinch. Twelve degrees north of the Equator with a tropical maritime climate and rich volcanic soil, it seems a stick-it-in-and-it-grows kind of island. “In the UK we nurture,” explains Leo Garbutt, the British owner of the Calabash Hotel in Lance aux Epines, “but over here it’s more like hack back.” Most hotels on this island boast glorious trees and flowers, but this high-end resort goes a step further. Its gardens are adorned with smart signs naming all the key specimens and one devoted guest has published a handy guide to help you sort your sago palm from your screw palm. Every suite is named after a local plant or tree (fancy a frolic in Flamboyant?), while the al fresco restaurant, overseen by Gary Rhodes, is roofed with a canopy of sky blue thunbergia.
There’s a similar enthusiasm at the Mount Cinnamon Resort, where the grounds include a long avenue of oleander leading down to the superb beach of Grande Anse, and a kitchen garden that supplies the excellent Savvys restaurant. When I bump into its head gardener, Ras Dragon, at the weekly manager’s cocktail party it becomes clear it’s not only the island soil that’s fertile. “I’ve 10 children,” he tells me with a grin – and you’ll find five of them working at the resort.
While there is plenty to admire in the grounds of such hotels, from the vividly coloured bottle brush to the heliconia Johnson Beharry VC, named in honour of a Grenada-born hero of the Iraq War, it is well worth visiting the island’s many gardens and estates. Some are devoted to herbs and spices, others to its long tradition of growing nutmeg and cocoa. Private gardens tend to have both orchards and ornamental areas and a new attraction is The Tower in St Paul’s, which opened to visitors last month. Centred on a grand house built in 1913 with a large lawn once used for leisurely afternoons of “cricket and curry”, its highlights include delicate jade vines, a rampant Rangoon creeper and magnificent explosions of crotons. Unbelievably, this is all the work of one cheery gardener, George, who has been toiling here for the last 25 years.
Keen garden-lovers can book a half-day excursion with local tour companies to see several properties. A popular stop is Hyde Park, owned by a sixth-generation Grenadian, Fay Miller, which has a glorious view over the island capital, St George’s. Strolling around its orderly lawns and flowerbeds, I find it hard to imagine how this must have looked in September 1994 when Hurricane Ivan destroyed 80 per cent of the island. Among the personnel flown in to help with the recovery was a landscape designer, sent by USAID, who set about restoring its heritage gardens. Miller recalls that it took 10 years for her Christmas tree palm to resume bearing red fruit at the appropriate time. And does she talk to her plants? “No, but I do thank them for flowering.”
For Anne McIntyre-Campbell, a florist and owner of Smithy’s Garden in Morne Jaloux, the secret of gardening here is to do your own watering – “then you can see what’s going on”. Her garden has an wild feel and is a tribute to her approach. It took her three attempts, at 100 dollars a go, to succeed in growing a Bismarckia palm. “The first was knocked over by the dog, the second didn’t survive a transplant.” This year she will be sending orchids to Chelsea, but even this has issues. “Last year they were late, this year they’re early…”
Many more blooms will come from the 300-acre Balthazar Estate, a commercial nursery in the mountains and rainforest of the island’s interior. It has been more than 30 years since Queen Elizabeth II visited Grenada, but local taxi drivers still spin a tale about the wry chuckle Her Majesty is said to have given when its owner, Denis Noel, showed her some