The Gardens of England

Treasures of the National Garden Scheme

Author: George Plumptre

Review: Petra Hoyer Millar

Welcome Schillingses

Quite right Miss Elsie Wagg.  At a dusty council meeting of the Queen’s Nursing Institute in 1929, Wagg, a keen gardener, saw an opportunity to capitalise on this country’s horticultural bounty by opening beautiful private gardens to raise funds for their appeal to support district nurses.  For the fruitful fee of a ‘shilling a head’, the National Garden Scheme (NGS) was born.

We think

The Gardens of England: Treasures of the National Garden Scheme is an eloquent account of the evolution of what was predominantly gentry-restricted pastime of garden visiting, the gardens, and the development of the NGS.  The book spans eight decades, divided into five different eras starting from that initial glint in Wagg’s eye, to garden visiting as we know it in the new millennium.  The chapters are cunningly composed by the high calibre team of garden makers and commentators; Elspeth Napier, Catherine Horwood, Vanessa Berridge, Leslie Geddes-Brown and Christopher Woodward, with an in-depth introduction by George Plumptre.

We love

Around 50 NGS gardens pass inspection, eloquently described through the lives of their respective owners and their mark on the gardens through time.  Personally, I think this is the real value of the book.

Too often perceived as static entities gardens are dynamic and very much the product of the personalities of the owners, gardeners and designers whom gardened them over the generations, and/or heartwarmingly overly respective owners too, where garden ownership has changed hands.  The Gardens of England tells these stories and, if courageous, one may confess this to be the gardener’s true sense of purpose, as it’s about more than just that next season. But, I’m not that brave….

We, too, open our garden every year for the NGS as part of a village opening. No need to rummage through the index of the book, as we’re not listed, nor should we be. Though, as a fellow bearer of that distinctive yellow badge, the stories of those gardens ring true, and I loved reading them. Granted, 50 from the nearly 4000 gardens is not the most accurate of depictions, and many of the gardens featured are not as secretive or private as the NGS decree, on account of them being well trodden, public gardens. Though, interestingly, even the grand public gardens, such as Sissinghurst, once were nervous fledgling Yellow Bookers, opening their gates to potential critique and ridicule from the incoming ‘schillingses’, so amusingly described by Vita Sackville West. And, admittedly, there is more to the NGS than grand gardens, as the book also boasts a multitude of stunning modern gardens, such as Waltham Place, designed by Henk Gerritsen, Broughton Grange by Tom- Stuart Smith, Scampston by Piet Oudolf, and Broughton Hall designed by Dan Pearson. So, too, smaller city and town gardens, such as Charles Rutherford’s garden in London.

Anthony Woodward, garden maker and author of The Garden in the Clouds, described the process of designing a garden as “intelligent and patient self-education in horticulture and in the making of a place”. Visiting a garden, or opening one’s garden is just that, the opportunity to learn from fellow gardeners as to how they overcome the season’s challenges, their triumphs and/or disasters. Or as Vita Sackville-West puts it:  “Nothing could be more useful to the amateur gardener than to observe other people’s ideas, other people’s successes and other people’s failures. One could go and sit in those gardens on a summer evening, and imagine what one’s own garden (and one’s life) might be”.

Picture of Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. copyright Anthony and Penelope Warne
Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire, copyright Country Life. Denmans in West Sussex copyright John Brookes. Blickling Hall, Norfolk, copyright Rosanna Lewis.

All images from ‘The Gardens of England: Treasures of the National Gardens Scheme’ edited by George Plumptre (Merrell Publishers £24.95).