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.