Garden visiting has never been more fashionable but it is always at risk from the weather. It is not only the weather on the day of your visit. It is the weather leading up to it that can accelerate the season and leave none of mid-June’s flowers in bloom when you arrive on a long-planned outing.
Be warned, overseas readers: this year, British gardens are a month ahead of themselves. I have never before now seen wisteria in Britain in flower by mid-April. For the first time in my memory, April has been cruel enough to breed lilacs out of the dead land. Usually the season evens itself out and adjusts its tempo with a following spell of cold weather. I do not see how 2011 can regain its rhythm. The flowers that usually reassure me at home when I return from the Chelsea Show in late May are already going over. The rest of May will be a blank.
When our garden-openers named their day this year for charity, they never imagined they would be caught short. More than ever are opening on a Garden Sunday and they will need all their ingenuity to look their best for the crowds. The bible for us garden visitors is the National Gardens Scheme Yellow Book, now in bookshops for £9.99. No fewer than 3,700 gardens have an open day in England and Wales this year, a number ummatched in any other country. Keen gardeners from abroad need to consult it if they are not to miss the extraordinary range on offer and go away thinking that English gardening is summed up by grand places like Hampton Court or Kew.
The National Gardens Scheme is being sponsored yet again by investment managers Rensburg Sheppards, who continue to see a similarity between those two wars of attrition, investing and gardening. The NGS is the biggest-ever single donor to Macmillan Cancer Support. Last year £2.5m was donated through the scheme to charity.
I have just finished my virtual visiting after reading through the self-descriptions of all the gardens in the book. They give an invaluable insight into changing aspirations and ways of making an acre or two look interesting. Three fashions were not much in evidence 20 years ago: wildlife, theming and plots of vegetables. Of course many people grew vegetables but none thought of charging money on open days to show off “produce”.
On August 7 even the Marsh Lane Allotments up in Tottenham, London N17, will be showing “an exuberant collection of decorative, edible and exotic plants”. On July 16 the winners of the Best Allotment in London Award will be presenting more than 150 allotment plots at Paddock Allotments in Raynes Park, London SW20. On September 4 the Golf Course Allotments on Winton Avenue, London N11, will be opening “over 200 plots maintained by a culturally diverse community”. Cakes and jams are on sale too.
All these allotment days are fun and interesting, as I discovered among the overgrown marrows last year. I particularly recommend the Valducci Flower and Vegetable Gardens up at Meole Brace in Shropshire. They have deserved their global TV coverage and claim now to have been visited by “16 international judges”. They also hold the national collection of trumpet-flowered daturas. Many of these tender pot plants are wonderfully scented even though botanists have renamed them Brugmansias. They are open on July 24.
As for the theming, some gardeners go their own inventive way. In Choumert Square, London SE15, the owners of “about 46 mini-gardens with maxi-planting” claim to be in a “Shangri-La setting which the media has described as a ‘Floral Canyon’.” On June 5 they are combining a garden-day with the atmosphere of a village fete. In Muswell Hill, London N10, I like the sound of 46 Dukes Avenue, whose owner won a medal at a recent Chelsea Show. Like me, she aims to be “just on the right side of chaos”. Unlike me she is also organic and curvy. Visits are by appointment but the foxgloves and aquilegias will soon be over.
Elsewhere there are plenty of themed sections, adding to the publicity and perhaps the confusion. Down in Surrey one single garden can contain “lake, bridge, stream flowing over natural weirs, bog gardens, roses, perennial borders, elevated viewing hide, tropical bamboo maze, curved pergola of rambling roses, unique topiary buttress hedge”. No doubt it is a heavenly place but some of the self-descriptions make me think we have been seduced by design “features” and forgotten the old virtues of unity and harmony in a landscape. It is a nightmare to go round small gardens which are forever trying to “surprise” their visitors. We seem to be losing the wood for the trees.
At Edmondsham House, near Wimborne in Dorset, there is a medieval grass cock-pit and up at Hiraeth near Droitwich there are dozens of metal animals, including giraffes and elephants. It sounds restless but a visitor calls it “a haven on the way to heaven”. Stumperies are on the increase, inspired by the example of the Prince of Wales at Highgrove, and there are endless wild flower meadows which are perhaps more than long-term masses of ox-eye daisies. In Sussex on May 29 the garden at Copyhold Hollow near Borde Hill is showing a “newly formed” stumpery and a “crow’s nest viewing platform slung between two oak trees”. Many garden-owners write hopefully of the possibility of sighting animals, my idea of hell. I would rather be in Warwickshire on June 12 where the village of Dorsington describes itself as a “hamlet with a secret”. Parts of the secret are the farm animals at Manor Farm, but others are the Rolls-Royces of all vintages on show at Welshman’s Barn.
English ingenuity is inexhaustible and much of it still goes into the ground surrounding our houses. Our summers would not be complete without at least one bizarre experience in somebody else’s idea of a garden worth opening. Among the 3,700 there are the classics too, witnesses to hours of hard labour undertaken in the hope of looking good on the open afternoon. If the azaleas have faded and the old roses have fallen, somebody, somewhere will have an all-weather stumpery to fill the gap.