Country Life Magazine, Crocus, Kentchurch Court, national gardens scheme, NGS, Noel Kingsbury, Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart-Smith, University of Sheffield Landscape Department
I love my tea; I’m quite partial to a slice of cake now and again and I have to admit I do like a nosey around other people’s gardens. Combine them all and I’m like a pig in the proverbial. So, whenever possible, I try to visit an NGS garden where I can indulge in all three and, even better, the money I spend goes to charity.
The National Gardens Scheme (NGS) started in 1927 as an idea to raise money for the Queen’s Nursing Institute. Private gardens would open for the charge of a ‘shilling a head’ and the public would get the opportunity to visit gardens that would otherwise be out of bounds. In the first year 609 gardens opened and by 1931 it was proving so popular that Country Life magazine published a guide-book to the gardens that would open. The ‘Yellow Book’ as it became known, after its colourful cover, now contains over 3700 gardens that open, raising over £2.5 million for selected charities every year.
The joy of the NGS is the wide and varied choice of gardens on offer. There are larger gardens which are often already open to the public which donate the admission fee on these days to charity, there are gardens created by renowned garden designers, the personal gardens of these renowned garden designers, creekside cottage gardens in Cornwall, gardens famous for their snowdrops, gardens created by alpine lovers, and gardens high up in the Pennines.
We have visited a few gardens locally to us over the years. There was Meadow Cottage in the Forest of Dean which was a third of an acre and packed with beautiful plants. Kentchurch Court on the Herefordshire/Monmouthshire border has been lived in continuously for more than a thousand years by the Scudamore family and is surrounded by 25 acres of beautiful gardens and woodland. Brockhampton Cottage, the garden of Peter Clay, the co- founder of Crocus, was designed by Tom Stuart Smith the multi-gold medal winner from RHS Chelsea. Then, a couple of weekends ago, we made a trip to the garden of Noel Kingsbury in Herefordshire. Noel is a garden writer, designer and lecturer best known for his ideas on naturalistic planting approaches to garden design. He is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the Landscape Department which is building quite a reputation for innovative approaches to our urban spaces. Noel has also collaborated with the designer Piet Oudolf on two books. I’m a big fan of Oudolf’s planting ideas and the opportunity to visit a garden which was similar in ethos was too good to miss.
So often gardens open to the public are not gardens of an individual and are managed by a team of people, the great thing about the NGS is it gives us the opportunity to experience personal gardens and the idiosyncracies in them. Noel’s garden was packed with spirit and personality. He’s obviously a keen traveller which was evident with the yurt, Balinese flags and statues dotted about the garden. There were pots and tables decorated with broken pots and china and small woven willow decorations placed throughout the herbaceous borders and meadow. The garden had a real sense of place sitting comfortably in the local landscape. Noel likes to experiment with the blending and blurring of the line between garden and nature. The more cultivated area of the top part of the garden was planted with persicarias, grasses and sanguisorba, amongst others, taking its influence from nature. Paths meandered down to two ponds and then to a meadow area where the garden and surrounding countryside seemed to merge. Teeming with bees and butterflies the garden appeared to be a haven for wildlife. There were bee hives, a small orchard, chickens and a veg growing area and it felt like a garden of someone with a strong connection to the land.
I loved his ‘Pavillion’ with its green roof which is used as accommodation for B&B guests but would also make the most amazing place to write. Although, whether you’d actually get much done whilst staring out, onto the garden, is another matter. The slope below the pavillion smelt wonderful with the lavender emitting its essential oils into the muggy air. There was a particularly impressive patch of hollyhocks, towering above me, and swaying in the light breeze; they were like a plant version of his Balinese flags. Not exactly in keeping with the naturalistic planting of other parts of the garden, I liked how, although he obviously has strong ideas about design and planting, there are plants which find their way into the garden even if they don’t necessarily fit.
There was squash envy, as I compared my own pathetic plants and my two measly squashes to his abundance of them.
I love naturalistic planting but for me elements of Noel’s garden were a little too loose. I personally would like a bit more structure from trees and shrubs. However, that is the joy of visiting other people’s gardens it gives us the chance to see how others use and see the space they have in front of them.
It might be the end of August but there are still plenty of opportunities over the next couple of months to visit some fascinating gardens and of course eat lots of cake. This Sunday, for instance, blogger Victoria’s Backyard opens up her garden in London, on September 2nd Peter Clay, co-founder of Crocus will invite visitors to Brockhampton Cottage and on the same day it’s possible to visit the Pretoria Road allotments in Bristol. The NGS have a great website so it’s really easy to find a garden to visit. I’d love to hear about any NGS favourites of your own.
Garden Correspondent said:
This was lovely — thanks for taking us along. I love to look at other people’s gardens, too!
I agree with everything you say about garden visiting especially gardens in the yellow book. Such a lot of work is involved in opening to the public, producing teas and cake and quite often selling plants – all for charity. How wonderful that you were able to visit Noel Kingsbury’s garden, I have a few of his books, it must have been fantastic to have been in his own personal space. We have opened the garden here for the NGS for the last 5 yrs but due to ill health had to reluntantly decline to open this year, just as well because the weekend we usually opened, 2nd weekend in June, the weather was dreadful, absolutely torrential rain, I don’t think anyone would have come! From the blue sky on your photos you had nice weather to enjoy the garden along with all the bees and butterflies.
Julia Stanley (@islaveevee) said:
Oh what a shame. I was there as well, would have been lovely to say hello! Met up with another tweeter @nicelittleplace which was lovely. She opens her garden for the NGS too.
What a lovely post! I wish you could come to my garden opening.
This is a really delightful post. I agree that there’s nothing better than tea, cake and a look at a wonderful garden all in aid of charity. I always visit a couple of local NGS gardens every year and have done for just about as long as I can remember. I go with long-time friends, who I always buy the yellow book for.
I’ve also known a couple of people who have opened their gardens and all concerned said that despite the sheer effort involved it was worthwhile doing and rewarding in every sense.
I don’t have any particular favourite gardens but every year I look through the book and see far too many that I’d really like to visit but know I won’t be able to. xx
Flighty, the NGS is such a great idea. The yellow book would make a great gift for a gardening friend.
The Yellow Book is a great scheme, bringing together like minded people, enjoying the garden which has been opened to the public, and raising money for such worthwhile charities. You can gain so much inspiration from visiting other people’s gardens, and gardeners are so generous with their advise and ideas.
NGS gardens make a change from visiting National Trust gardens. It’s often a chance to see something more relatable to your own garden.
I loved visiting Yellow book gardens. It is a great way too for novice gardeners to see planting ideas, plant combinations and discover the style they would most like in their own gardens; that said the attraction of good tea and cake makes them completely irresistible to anyone with the slightest interest in plants. Christina
Wonderful post and photos…..love, love the first one…..
Thanks Stacey, I thought the first photo really summed up the day.
Tea and cake in someone else’s garden is a wonderful treat, and the NGS is brilliant. Sadly, this year I have not managed any NGS garden visiting 😦
Victoria did suggest that we start a “National this is how the garden really looks” scheme – this year, visitors to my garden are likely to get very damp!
It was very interesting to read your thoughts about Noel Kingsbury’s garden
Hi Karen, We hadn’t visited any NGS for a few years so thought it was about time we did. Even if a garden isn’t what you could have or would want to have in your space it gives you the opportunity to see other ideas and perspective on how to create a garden and use plants.
A most pleasant and relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon WW. You also invariably come away with a head brimming full of ideas and possibly plants too. Sadly with the passage of time my favourite NGS gardens are no longer participating but I’m sure that there will be more on the horizon soon. Hope that you have managed to fit in some garden visiting this weekend.
Hi Anna, I did manage a visit to one garden which I’ll be posting about later on. The weather was a bit grim otherwise but it looks like we might be in for some good weather over the next week or so so hopefully i can squeeze a few more in before autumn proper.
Interesting to read your thoughts on Noel’s garden, I enjoy his blog and his books, but I think a lot of his planting only works in a large open space, which is not what most of us are blessed with. Sadly, I’ve missed the NGS opening days for the gardens around here, but a couple of them are also open by appointment, so I still harbour hopes. And there is always next year!
I love Noel’s ideas on planting. I agree then tend to work better on a larger scale than most back gardens can achieve. My other problem with the planting is it seems more suited to a different climate. A lot of the naturalistic planting ideas originated in Germany and Holland. I lived in Germany for a while and their winters are much colder with more hard frosts but most significantly they are drier. In my own garden my grasses look ok up until Christmas and then just look like a soggy mess. There are so few days when it is beautiful and crisp that the idea of using the grasses and seedheads through winter as interest doesn’t seem to fit with western Britain’s maritime climate.
I’m sure the NGS places you’ve missed would more than welcome you if gave them a ring.
I had exactly that conversation with my sister-in-law the other day. There is something very depressing about brown, soggy, sagging foliage. I found that only miscathus and echinacea lasted until spring.
How does somebody ‘submit’ their garden into the yellow book?
Hi Rick, if you take a look at the NGS website you should be able to find your local co-ordinator. After that I’m not sure but I think they come around and assess your garden. Hope that helps.