Do we expect too much from open gardens?

by AnneWareham on August 4, 2016

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This piece was recently published in Gardener’s World Magazine. Love to know what you think about that question…


If you wonder why we’re not doing our bit for the NGS here’s the answer: Shocked, but not surprised.


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Cherie Southgate August 4, 2016 at 7:50 pm

Oh Anne I’m so with you here. I’m sure MB is a lovely lady but it seems a bit sad to me that the president of the NGS is a renowned cook rather than a renowned gardener. Generally I find the NGS gardens too tidy and I’m sure they’ll become even crisper round the edges under the guidance of the champion of the non- soggy bottom – will she hate bog gardens and marshes?

AnneWareham August 4, 2016 at 10:23 pm

Well, I guess it nails the real preoccupation…(love your soggy bottom thoughts..)

We have an NGS organiser not too far from here who prides herself that none of her gardens have a single weed. Or so she claims. Sigh.

Abbie Jury August 4, 2016 at 9:11 pm

I have been on both sides of the fence, Anne. We opened our garden for about 20 years and I have done a fair amount of garden visiting myself in NZ, the UK and southern Europe, mostly. I have seen a few, but not many, gardens that have sent me away buzzing with excitement and a few where I was a little aghast at the fact that they were even open. Most I have enjoyed in some way or another though the ones I want to make a return visit to are not that numerous. I can only recall a couple where I have resented the amount I had to pay to get in. Lemon drizzle cake has not featured in any that I recall, but on a full day out garden visiting, I am really appreciative of those gardens that offer refreshments.

Visitors come in all shapes and forms, of course. But NGS, from what I have seen on the small experience I have had with it, is similar to our local festival in that it attracts many visitors who are indeed just looking for a pleasant day out and are not necessarily keen gardeners themselves. This is the bread and butter of garden visiting (or the “rank and vile” as somebody here has been known to call them in a jaundiced moment). Didn’t Vita Sackville-West call them the “shillings”? And for such folk, a pleasant and courteous welcome, an enjoyable stroll amongst some plants that are in flower, pleasant weather conditions, an available loo and preferably afternoon tea is what delivers them a return for their entry fee. That is where they are at and it is not fair to criticise them for that. Open gardens are part of the leisure business, after all.

Knowledgeable garden visitors have always been the minority. We almost always enjoy the overseas horticultural tours – and indeed still accept them even though we are now closed – because there are generally more people on them who are really keen gardeners and plantspeople which makes them much more interesting to host. But just as the princess who had to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, the garden opener has to host a lot of “shillings” to find the few garden visitors who are stimulating to host.

Anne, ask not “do we expect too much from open gardens?” Maybe the question should be “do we expect too much from garden visitors?”

AnneWareham August 4, 2016 at 10:19 pm

Well, that is my point. We are culturally missing out on letting people know what a great garden can offer. So, sure, people always want an icecream at the theatre, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t generally have an idea that going to a play offers a little more than that and some interesting costumes and sets (maybe). But in effect, when it comes to gardens, we stop there. Xxx

Jenny August 5, 2016 at 12:11 am

Wow! Such snobbery! For goodness sake what is wrong with people going to visit a garden just to enjoy a day’s outing and enjoying tea and a piece of cake in a garden setting! I feel quite sorry for you if this depresses you. People are what they are. Maybe it is a good thing that Mary Berry has been appointed to that position. If she is successful in getting more people out to visit gardens then good for her. I am a gardener and have opened my garden on many occasions. I delighted in all who came-and never knew of anyone who didn’t like what they saw or what we had done. I concentrated on those who enjoyed the visit.
Our visits to the UK always involve gardens and everyone we visit is different. I love them all for their variety and accept that they are not always to my taste.
“Rank and vile” “Shillings” Good grief. You British You are all like a British friend of ours who hates to be with the “Grockles” So sad. We love the diversity of culture.
We went back to East Ruston again this summer and loved every hour of our visit, Alan.

AnneWareham August 5, 2016 at 9:58 pm

Yes, Jenny.

Julieanne Porter August 5, 2016 at 11:01 am

I think a lot of people do visit gardens for a pleasant day out. A lot won’t be gardeners, but maybe these visits will encourage them to start gardening themselves, and this is no bad thing. But there will be visitors who are interested in seeing something different, engaging all the senses and making you think.

I do like gardens that offer refreshments but that’s partly because I have a chronic illness and need to have a rest when visiting. I could live without the refreshments per se, but they tend to mean there is somewhere to sit. And a lot of gardens don’t have somewhere to sit and with British weather, sitting on the ground is often not an option.

I agree that having a cook as the president of a gardening organisation seems odd. I couldn’t quite believe it when I heard. But then I guess NGS would argue they are trying to reach out to people who are necessarily gardeners.

I do agree with Anne that many people expect too much from gardens. There is often churlishness from people who want their ‘moneys worth’ (whatever that means), even when the entry fee is going to charity! And because of organisations like NGS and National Trust, where they make gardens that are weeded within an inch of their life, that’s what people then think is normal. These they are often run as ‘attractions’, and there is more focus on numbers through the gate than there is on showing a garden that makes you stop and think and consider form and beauty. I don’t know what the answer to challenging these expectations though, other than I think we have to allow room for both (multiple) types of garden visitors.

So I can see both sides. I sometimes go garden visiting just to enjoy some pretty, but other times I go because I want to see something different, challenging, and inspiring.

AnneWareham August 5, 2016 at 10:03 pm

We have plenty of seats,even if no lemon drizzle for you, Julieanne. And, I’ll keep challenging and hope that it will raise people’s aspirations and enable some people to feel that reaching for the stars, aspiring for something just that little bit finer, a little bit more exciting, really is worth while. Even if it just gets called lovely, like every other UK garden. XXxxx