When should you open your garden to the public? Like all timed options, it is a call which is hard to make in advance. You will know when you, at least, feel that you have something worth showing. The problem is to pick the best date and give due notice of it. The weather of the past five seasons brought everything into flower so early. This year it has held everything back. Garden openers who have given traditional dates are likely, at last, to be vindicated. Only now are magnolias nearing their best outside London. Last year they were fully open by March 16.
Britain leads the world in opening its private gardens to visitors. This year around 4,000 gardens will be on view, some of them offering teas and a few of them even welcoming dogs. They are set out as clearly as ever in The Yellow Book of the National Gardens Scheme, now on sale at £9.99 (www.ngs.org.uk). It is the essential companion to any keen gardener’s visit to the UK. Since 1931 Scotland’s gardens have gone their independent way. They too are “open for exploration” at www.scotlandsgardens.org. The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and its related outstations are essential places of pilgrimage for anyone going north of the English border.
South of it, in 2012, the gate money of the English scheme contributed no less than £2.6m to English charities including one called Perennial, which sounds ever more attractive as the years go by. It aims to “help horticulturists who are facing difficulties”. This year the NGS has planned a new, concentrated initiative which foreign visitors should use as their starting point. On the weekend of June 15-16 some 800 gardens will be open across England. I am setting it aside for adventures into new territory.
This year’s openers seem fond of a new word: “twist”. Their gardens have a “design twist”, a “landscape twist” and even a “wild twist”. Perhaps I should open mine each spring with a “nutkin twist”. Squirrel Nutkin and his bushy-tailed friends have had a high old time excavating my crocus corms. “Havens”, nonetheless, are on the increase, invariably for wildlife but sometimes for harassed Londoners too. Recycling is also prominent, as never in the 1980s. At 10 Low Row, North Bitchburn, Mrs Ann Pickering is inviting us all to see how “frogs have colonised a bath”.
There is no knowing where you will find some excellent cake on sale for tea. It often makes up for an overhyped garden. This year, some of the gardens are marked with a circular symbol which resembles a rose, but the mark no longer means that the garden is of special interest to plant-lovers. It merely means that plants will be on sale. Instead there is now a symbolic “D” in a square against some of the gardens, meaning that they have been designed by a member of the Society of Garden Designers. Usually I prefer those which the owners have done for themselves. However, this year, the NGS is initiating a closer working relationship with the Society of Garden Designers in the hope that it will “gather momentum” in future. The Yellow Book has a useful list on pages 11-13 and 713 of gardens by prominent designers who belong to the society. Many visitors and keen students want to see what the “professionals” are doing. This list points them in the right direction.
On July 28 I will be trying to visit Broughton Grange in north Oxfordshire, where the designer Tom Stuart-Smith worked in 2001 on the central plan for a 25-acre site. Its financially expert owner, mainly living abroad, gave him every encouragement while preferring to stay anonymous in The Yellow Book. Since 2001 the garden’s plan will have changed and developed but it is still a commission of which its medal-winning designer is proud. In Berkshire the NGS highlights Virginia von Celsing’s “own garden at Pyt House as a masterpiece of formal elegance and restraint.” Restraint is not so evident at Ian Kitson’s remarkable Follers Manor in Sussex, which won no fewer than three awards from the Society of Designers in 2012. It is certainly one for aspiring designers to visit this year. In London, the scale of the gardens is inevitably smaller but there are dozens to interest visitors. The NGS picks out Pamela Johnson’s cleverly planted garden at 20 Eatonville Road, London SW17. Where the NGS is today, FT readers were last year. In 2013 four separate visitors wrote to urge me to visit this small garden as they had independently found it so charming. If my weeds permit, I will take a Sunday off and hope to prove them right.
Up near Malton in Yorkshire the walled garden at Scampston House is definitely one to travel to see. It is England’s best example of planting by the much-praised Piet Oudolf in a four-acre country setting. I must force myself to go and appreciate it on its own terms, rather than judging it severely from photographs. On June 15, Yorkshire also offers a chance at 6.30pm to see the garden of Shandy Hall, once the home of the literary genius Laurence Sterne. I am a late but zealous convert to Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. I wonder how he would have worked the main modern feature of his hall into his brilliantly digressive narrative. It claims nowadays to be home to at least 220 species of moth.
On Sunday at 16 Witton Lane, Little Plumstead, Norfolk, we are promised an “Aladdin’s Cave” for the alpine and woodland plant enthusiast. On June 9, seven miles east of Ledbury, the Herefordshire garden of Birtsmorton Court will be showing off a “large tree” under which Cardinal Wolsey is said to have slept, and a pool laid out to mark the consecration of Westminster Abbey, claimed to have been some 500 years ago in Henry VII’s reign. On July 28 the fine garden at Cothay Manor near Wellington in Somerset will be open, showing the impact of replanting in the 1990s. On June 29-30 the flower garden at Ashley Farm in northwest Herefordshire will be showing off a planting which began only in 2005. There is no question of the scheme resting on historic laurels. It is also a showcase of hard work and thought in the past 10 years.
Safety is inevitably a concern for garden-openers. At Hillesden House in Buckinghamshire it is even expressly stated that there is “no wheelchair access to the lakes”. Even without it we have a fascinating summer ahead. While the NGS has gone on growing yearly, so many readers write in to ask for advice on which gardens to visit abroad during their hot summer holidays. The foreign may have cachet but it cannot compete with all these gardens on our English doorsteps. They are part of the greatest garden-trail in the world.