Traditionally, the gardening press would have us believe that gardeners spend the winter indoors, tucked up by a warm, glowing fire, scanning the seed and plant catalogues for inspiration. Then, come spring and summer, we all leap into action to put all that planning into practice. Whilst there is something rewarding about flicking through a magazine or catalogue in the depths of winter, the reality is that many of us really gain inspiration for our gardens either from the garden centres in spring, as all those tempting pots appear, or from visiting gardens and shows.
When it comes to visiting gardens, those on offer through the National Trust or the Royal Horticultural Society, tend to provide great inspiration but it is on rather a grand scale. Gardens open through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), however, can be much closer to what you may be trying to achieve at home.
The NGS slowly came into being in the early 1900s and since then has become a thriving charitable enterprise which has donated over £58 million to charity since its records began in 1927. Often referred to as the “Yellow Book”, you can now more easily access details of gardens using the NGS app on your computer or mobile device, enabling you to find out very easily what is open in your area each weekend throughout the summer. With over 3,500 gardens listed, there’s nearly always something open within easy reach.
We try to visit a couple of NGS gardens each year and on one weekend in May this year we visited two rather contrasting gardens. The first was a very typical NGS garden. It was literally a stone’s throw from where we live, barely half a mile from our front door.
It was the first time this garden had thrown its gates open to the public and they were blessed with a glorious warm, sunny spring afternoon. (I do always feel for those who find they’ve chosen to open on the wettest weekend of the year!) This particular garden provided both inspiration and reassurance. We were struck by just how many plants we had in common – clearly all things that grow well in Hampton! By contrast, we don’t grow acers in a big way, whereas this garden had several, all of which were developing their brightly coloured little winged seedpods.
The element of this garden that really struck us, however, was the amount of different seating opportunities it presented. Carefully positioned chairs and benches enable the sitter to either follow the sun or follow the shade depending on the mood. As we were visiting en route to another appointment, we took the opportunity to sit and absorb the garden, something we don’t really do enough of in our own garden. Inspired by this, earlier this weekend I found myself dragging a deckchair into a different part of the garden and found myself viewing our veg plot from an entirely new angle.
Our second NGS garden that weekend was an entirely different proposition. Chilworth Manor dates back to Doomsday and although I looked up their website before visiting, I really hadn’t anticipated a garden on quite such a grand scale. John, on the other hand, hadn’t anticipated quite such a hair-raising steep, narrow lane to drive down! We descended into the valley down, what we subsequently learnt, was the hill that inspired John Bunyan’s “hill of difficulty” in Pilgrim’s Progress! Chilworth Manor has participated with the NGS for many years and Lady Heald, the former owner of the Manor, was one of their National Chairwomen. However, as she became elderly, the house and garden fell into disrepair until purchased by the current owners ten year’s ago. They have both transformed the garden and planted a vineyard!
Our visit began with an introduction by the Head Gardener who provided some interesting insights into restoring a garden on this scale. We soon wandered off under our own steam, taking in the woodland and Japanese gardens as well as the absolutely stunning and extensive walled garden. The white wisteria walk is probably one of the most striking features I’ve seen in any garden for some time. The roses and peonies had yet to burst forth and so we could only imagine what it would look like in another few weeks.
So was there anything to be inspired by in this garden? I really enjoyed the sculpture dotted around. It wasn’t advertised as a ‘sculpture garden’ but there were interesting pieces to be discovered, carefully placed to complement the planting and area surrounding them. We have two heron sculptures by our pond, bought many year’s ago, but we’re still very fond on them and they have now weathered rather beautifully. If I didn’t have any sculpture in the garden, I think I would be actively looking for some!
I confess that we were also inspired to buy a couple of bottles of their wine. A pale pink but very dry English rosé which is only in its second vintage and quite limited in supply. Chilworth has joined with other local vineyards to create the Surrey Hills wine trail which also looks rather fun! I don’t think, however, that we’ll be planting vines any time soon!
So why not check out the NGS website and spend a lovely summer’s afternoon contributing to a good cause whilst enjoying the garden, indulging in some tea and cake and maybe something a little stronger?! And I promise that we’d not drunk the wine when we spotted these – yes, they own alpacas too!