This year Sarah will be visiting and writing about privately owned gardens that open their gates to raise money for charity. She’ll be sharing what we can learn from garden visiting – something she describes of as our most leisurely national sport. Sarah also offers an affordable and holistic garden design service through which she hopes to help normal people with small gardens get as much happiness as possible out of their outdoor space.
“I’d love a nice garden but I just don’t know where to start” is a phrase I have heard time and time again. For a lot of people gardening is a new and mysterious thing – something they’d not thought about until they found themselves with their first home. Sometimes they get lucky and inherit a nicely planned and planted garden, but they are often still clueless about how to keep it that way and fear they will kill everything in sight. Luckily, in this country, a green-fingered friend or neighbour is never far away and learning in this way is exactly how such things have been studied from the beginning of horticulture – skills and knowledge being passed by word of mouth and by demonstration.
Old hands will know about the NGS – and know that for absolute beginners with either a ready-made garden to maintain or for those with a ‘blank canvas’, visiting other gardens is one of the very best ways to find inspiration and gather tips. It is almost as though the National Garden Scheme was set up for this very purpose – although of course it has an even better mission : to raise money for charities. All over the country, gardeners throw open their gates and welcome the public in for a stroll around the gardens they have created around their homes. This is one of my favourite ways to spend a day off – it’s a lovely day for me and I’m helping to raise funds at the same time : since it started in 1927 NGS gardens have raised £55million for charities like Macmillan and Marie Curie.
Planting a garden is like composing a piece of music or a poem (though actually much easier). There are, ultimately, a finite number of plants, notes and words but, miraculously it seems, there’s an infinite number of ways to put them together. Even if I visited a garden whose owner had chosen the exact same varieties of plants as me, their garden would look entirely different to mine. And that should give beginners a great deal of confidence – there is no ‘Right Way’ to make a garden.
Walking around someone else’s garden gives us ideas of what might work in our own gardens. If you are struggling to get started at home, you might pick just one small area that you admire and copy it. Perhaps a painted bench surrounded by geraniums appeals to you – in your garden you will probably place a different style of bench and be given a different variety of geranium by a friend or be seduced at a nursery by something entirely different. You will have started your garden. You don’t have to come up with a grand plan – just start with a small area and then another and another and before you know it you are making a whole garden.
Pick up a yellow leaflet (they’re everywhere) for your county to find gardens open near you or even better, get a copy of the ‘Yellow Book’ (ngs.org.uk) or simply use the website or app. Most weekends will have something to offer and don’t be afraid to ring the gardens that say ‘Open By Arrangement’. A long time ago I used to think that meant something very special; that it didn’t apply to me and was only for ‘proper gardeners’, but I now know that it means entirely the opposite – it means that anyone is welcome to visit pretty much any time – so long as we ring first. OK we probably won’t get the bunting and the tea and cake, but what we are likely to get is a beautiful new garden all to ourselves and in this part of the world you’re never far away from a nice little tearoom are you?
Usually these gardens that are “Open By Arrangement” are simply unable to cope with a lot of cars all on one day. They are not ‘exclusive’ in any other sense and we mustn’t be afraid to ring and say “I’m in the area – can I come and visit?” The owner will probably be absolutely delighted that you did because these gardeners are the real McCoy – there’s no hiding behind a quick trip to the garden centre for some pots and some gap fillers before the one big Open Day (guilty as charged) – these gardens are always ready to be enjoyed. The fact that a garden hasn’t been primped to look good for one day offers more encouragement to the amateur gardener than visiting those impressive, hard to achieve places of Chelsea-like perfection. Visiting a garden that is open “By Arrangement” can mean that you arrive on a day when the roses need dead-heading, the grass needs cutting and the bit out the back seriously needs weeding, but that is a normal garden – a living garden – something we can all identify with, and a chat with an owner who isn’t fretting about running out of cake is a pleasant way to find out more about favourite plants and pick up gardening tips. For me, being able to enjoy the peace of a garden without the background noise of other visitors yakking away, is the best bit of all!
I made the Daisybus Gardens of Wellbeing, near Solva which was open to the public for 18 months before I realised I was spending less time gardening and more time making teas. Now I am making a private garden which will occasionally open for charity in the future.
Over the next few months I will be giving you a little taster of what you might expect in these gardens as well as those with dedicated Open Days. I hope it will inspire you to visit them, help raise some money and fill your head with delicious ideas – and cake!