The British like to see themselves as keen gardeners. Indeed, some consider gardening to be a national pastime and would be mildly surprised to discover that people in other countries do it too. Of course, as an island race, we often prefer well-ordered borders; for some, it is a perennial fixation. According to the Horticultural Trades Association, the UK domestic garden market is worth around £5 billion a year and about £1.5 billion of that is spent on plants. Think of that when you’re buying your next box of mixed herbs for £4.99 from the local garden centre. Anyroadup, away from the great gardens of stately homes and what-not, we Brits enjoy getting dirty hands creating our own little Edens. The average British garden is just 14m2 (150.69 sq feet). Often tucked away behind hedges, walls or fences, for the most part these little oases remain out of sight and bounds to all except family and close friends. But amateur open gardens, where the private patches of mostly modest homes are opened to the public, are becoming increasingly more common.
In 2017, 845 open garden events were listed on the UK National Directory of Open Gardens, from Cornwall to the Highlands of Scotland. That’s 98 more than in 2015. To be fair, not all of those are annual open gardens, but you could still probably spend most of your summer touring the length and longth of Britain, visiting delightful gardens in Anystreet, Anytown. Entry usually costs no more than a few quid and you might even be able to sample a slab of home-made cake too.
A Bit About Britain offers an aphid on the wall view of one such event, the biennial open gardens held in the little-known village of Nether Bottom, in rolling Rumpshire. Nether Bottom’s Gardening Circle, affectionately known as the ‘S&M Ring’ (Sowers and Mulchers) meets in the Parish Rooms on the last Tuesday of every other month, except on Wednesdays. At the heart of the group is a small, but powerful, committee known as the Pollen Eight. Their first meeting of the New Year had but one item on the agenda: the village open gardens in June…
According to the National Directory of Open Gardens, top of the exhibiting counties for 2017 were Yorkshire, Suffolk and Norfolk with 73, 59 and 58 open garden events respectively; Derbyshire came fourth with 38, with Northamptonshire and Leicestershire equal fifth on 32. Regionally, the east and the south predominate – which could be a reflection of sunshine, population – or is it something else?
Back in Nether Bottom, the debate swung to and fro. Wise elders knew what was at stake and the amount of spadework involved. The excitement reached fever-pitch when someone suggested they buy seeds and grow things to sell; it got so tense that tea was consumed. Hyacinth Sweetpea tearfully asserted that she was overrun with montbretia, having problems with black-eyed Susan and, besides, her garden was so small. Pansy Pepper said that, with zeal, Hyacinth would get to the root of her issues and suggested that, in her experience, size wasn’t everything. Old Fagus Maple said he was having problems with his bleeding heart, knew he needed to curb his arbour, but would like to sort out his fuchsia. One important decision was the date; it had to be when there would be guaranteed rain. In the end, they took a vote, though Ashley Birch was confused and didn’t give a fig when it was.
Under the smokescreen of community and good causes, neighbourhood gardening groups devise their strategies. Likely entrants need to be contacted, cajoled, given calming drugs and, sometimes, counselling. Maps need to be drawn, leaflets and posters produced, advertising planned on zero budgets. Some events have plant stalls; some sell refreshments; some are part of a larger occasion; some plough proceeds back into community funds, others support a particular charity; few directly benefit the entrants. Rarely are there prizes; competition would not fit with the Ethos of Open Gardens. The reward is fun, and quiet pride in a job well done…
Forsythia Ragwort gritted her teeth; she was determined that no one, but no one, would have a better garden than her. Of course, Nether Bottom’s biennial open garden event had never been a contest; but, really, everyone knew it was – didn’t they? Didn’t they!? All else – her crochet, table-dressing, window-dressing, cross-dressing and evening class in practical antique aging – could wait. Her husband, Oliver, would become the instrument of her plans…
Erica Broom sat down to choose her colour scheme.
Hazel and Basil Willow thought about it very carefully indeed. Their garden could certainly do with some attention, but the expense might put an end to the summer holiday in Dungthorpe. They lay at night, dreaming of plush lawns and neat borders, but were tormented by nightmares of torrential rain washing it all away, or their mad neighbour, Mrs Belladonna, running amok with an axe and secateurs. They were almost ready to throw in the trowel.
Rowan and Poppy, from numbers 5 and 11 weren’t dreaming of gardens at all.
The gifted amateur appears to sail effortlessly through the preparation for open gardens. If they feel any pressure, they do not mention it; their silence is unnerving. Lesser, common or garden, mortals spend at least six months repeatedly checking the weather forecast, planning, reading catalogues, heaving stones and barrow-loads of soil, fixing, digging, visiting garden centres and nurseries, growing, planting, trimming, tripping over seed trays in the spare room, cursing; six months of putting off weekend arrangements that might disrupt the Holy Garden Project. Aches and pains materialise in body parts people don’t know they have, probably haven’t ever seen and certainly rarely want to mention in general conversation. With the lighter evenings comes weeks of eating late, of the world seemingly rushing by…while others carry on as though life were normal.
Sometimes, those that can, find it’s easier just to pay a gardener.
Primrose Moss visited her mother in Mudshire. Whilst there, she ‘borrowed’ a few shrubs and replanted them in her own garden. No one would notice – including her mum and especially her husband, Forest.
The Reverend Spray and his young wife Lettice (a late bloomer) took stock of the vicarage garden and bought a job lot of concrete garden gnomes on eBay – surplus from the national elf service.
The S&M Ring counted confirmed entrants and printed leaflets.
Major Disaster maintained that no one had asked him if he and Petunia would open their garden; so they wouldn’t. Yah boo!
Tension mounts as the Big Day approaches. People devise ever more cunning ways of discouraging, rabbits, deer, moles and other pests – including prolifically pooping pussy cats. Late frosts result in devastating losses and damage. Entrants publicly console each other; but privately…
Down at the Olde Ruptured Duck, Doc Nettle leans against the bar, sucking on his briar and nursing his third pint of wallop. Hyacinth Sweetpea had been in, complaining of convolvulus. Oliver Ragwort had slashes and burns, possibly inflicted by Forsythia. Old Fagus Maple was suffering from wind.
At night, when the neighbours were safely cuddled up with their camomile tea (except for Rowan and Poppy from numbers 5 and 11, who were safely cuddled up with each other), Primrose Moss crept to her car and unloaded the budding roses and well advanced alpines and border plants she’d spent a small fortune on at the nursery in the next county, where nobody knew her.
Jasmine Black and Earl Grey had volunteered to serve Nether Bottom’s teas, Victoria Baker of course did the cakes and Marigold Glover (with help from Ajax Sheen) did the clearing up. Violet Potts managed the plant stall.
Hyacinth Sweetpea, Pansy Pepper, Old Fagus Maple, the Ragworts, Willows, Erica Bloom, Primrose Moss, Rev and Mrs Spray (and many others) all looked at each others’ gardens before the Grand Opening. They not only admired some beautiful gardens, but also experienced Nether Bottom from different perspectives – including Numbers 5 and 11. Then the public came from far and wide and everyone had a Jolly Good Day being nice to everyone – even Forsythia Ragwort. Naturally, they toasted one another afterwards with dandelion and burdock beer – and swore they’d never do village open gardens again. Well, maybe not…
Regrettably, there are no surviving photographs of Nether Bottom’s memorable Open Garden Day. Instead, this piece is illustrated with selected shots taken at the lovely open gardens event held in the small North Yorkshire village of Burton in Lonsdale in June 2017, organised by their wonderful garden group, Pals with Trowels. The weather was a little dull, but it was a convivial experience, the gardens were varied and stunning – often highly creative and amusing as you can see – and cream teas were served in the Village Hall – yum! There were bees too – so many bees! (We like bees, don’t we children?). I happily clicked away with my Box Brownie, chatting to folk as I went. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the photos don’t do the gardens justice. Burton is on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, the last village in Yorkshire; or is it the first? – I can never remember.