Every year I make an effort to visit an NGS garden or several. I do this for various reasons but mainly because I do love a garden and I really like to see what people are doing, how they're using plants and why they are using them the way they do. It's fascinating to see how people put together their gardens, be they designed in a specific way, or with a nod to a specific garden genre or even a specific garden. Sometimes the plant pallette is the definitive design brief, be that English cottage garden or jungle, or sometimes it can be the size of the space that defines the design. And sometimes there is no design brief and its a persons very individual collection of plants that creates a garden that is opened.
I have visited some spectacular gardens, ranging from urban jungles to cottage gardens, to ex-Chelsea show gardens and productive biodynamic gardens to garden squares and designed landscapes. Gardens that have taken years to evolve and gardens that have been designed and installed in mere weeks. Gardens that are entire life's works, including gardens of passionate plant collectors where one species is very much in the fore, to gardens that are still evolving and new. Gardens belonging to young and old, to men, women, couples and families. But most importantly, and here's the thing, to people who are passionate about their outdoor space and the way in which it is used.
To gardeners. To growers. To plantspeople. Call them what you will, these are the people behind the gardens. Those who work tirelessly in the days and weeks before they open for that one day, to create their idea of heaven for you to see and wonder around, notebook and camera in hand. They make cakes, prepare plants for selling and often produce leaflets with planting lists and plans so you can take inspiration from their gardens away with you.
And they do this for love. Proceeds, which this year are £2.637 million, go to a variety of charities, including MacMillan Cancer Care and the Marie Curie nurses, as well gardening charities such as Perennial and supporting the Garden Museum to have a garden intern each year. They are Macmillan and Marie Curies biggest donators, giving each £500,000 this year.
I have never opened my garden, but my mother opened hers the year before she died. It was, ridiculously, to her the biggest achievement of her life. She felt her garden was far from 'finished' but had been encouraged by a friend who also opens her garden each year, and it was an enormous success. Teas were drunk, cake was eaten, plants were sold and over 200 people visited and stood in awe of the spaces that had been created in 5 short years. The rill and pond, the woodland garden, the kitchen garden, the rose arbour and the loosely named orchard, were visited, discussed, photographed and enjoyed by a line of people who were genuinely interested and pleased to see what was going on. For a woman who had spent years teaching and inspiring young people, to think this was the biggest achievement she had ever had was a little ridiculous, but I think it shows the passion of the hundreds or maybe thousands or millions of gardeners who create these beautiful spaces that we so rarely get to see.
Ironically less than a year later we were relying on Macmillan nurses to see Mum through the last days and hours of her life, and they occasionally retreated to the garden for a tea break, aware of the sad irony of the situation themselves whilst returning to her to tell her what they had seen, or to bring her a posy of what was flowering in her beloved patch at that moment.
Occasionally a dissenting voice arises about the NGS and the gardens that open, as if the dissenter expects to see something designed to Chelsea Flower Show standards behind each entrance. To those I say, behave!! These are people's gardens first and foremost. They are little pieces of paradise. Visit with open minds and be prepared to understand the people as much as their garden. Marvel in the fact that in their spare time this is what they do, what they love and be happy that they want to share it with you, even though they are often terrified. Understand they are often baring their souls by opening this space, in a way that only an amateur artist accepted for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy might understand. Be kind, be mindful and suggest thoughts but be mindful of open criticism, particularly if you aren't find of it yourself!!
But most of all I say, in a bizarrely proud and British way, visit these gardens, these people, these souls. Buy some tea, take some photos, support those charities and enjoy the gardens whilst being proud of the charities you are helping to support.
To find your local gardens visit www.ngs.org.uk, where you can also discover how to go about opening your own garden to visitors through the NGS, whilst supporting their charities.