Garden visiting.

by AnneWareham on November 18, 2012

Post image for Garden visiting.

Thanks to our wonderful motorway system, overuse of which I do, of course, utterly deplore, we happily travel three hundred miles in a day from Veddw to visit gardens. Which means I’ve now seen an awful lot. (You can read that both ways.)

A long time ago we used to use the National Gardens Schemes’ Yellow Book as a source of gardens to visit. It is helpful to those who do this to know that the garden owners write their own descriptions of their gardens. So you might think twice before rushing across five counties to visit a garden described as “this other Eden, demi-paradise.”

A close encounter with a cabbage patch eventually sent me off to the bookshop for a more objective basis for deciding where to spend precious days off, and thereafter the “Good Gardens Guide” became our source.

It is still necessary to learn to read between the lines of guides to save wasted trips – no guide offers useful garden criticism. People open their gardens for a variety of reasons and these do tend to show in the gardens. We  began to identify some of these different gardens with our own garden characterisation – deciding what kind of garden you have just visited is an entertaining way of passing time on a long car journey. It also aids communication with fellow garden visitors and is my best hint for creating entertaining dinner party conversations.

Our first distinction was between “personal” and “presentation” gardens. I’m not sure what gives the game away in presentation gardens, but they do proclaim themselves.I remember visiting one garden which had all the ingredients of a good garden in terms of design and planting, but which had a rather impersonal, gardening-by-numbers feel to it. My impression was confirmed when I went back to the guide book and found it was run by an institution. Presentation gardens may be characterised by that dreadful divorce of grass and plants which is effected by chopping the turf back with an edging tool and disciplining the plants by threat of decapitation to stay over their part of the line. Bare earth, labels (inaccurate) and professional gardeners also provide clues, but are not infallible indicators. After all, Tintinhull under Penelope Hobhouse proved that even National Trust gardens can be personal gardens.

Dyffryn, National Trust garden copyright Anne Wareham, for Veddw blog

A sub category of presentation garden is the one with a resident garden designer. These are often betrayed by an unreal discipline in the planting, a certain lack of impulse buys squeezing themselves into the borders. They tend to be tasteful, and are likely to be full of fashionable plants, mostly late flowering large perennials and grasses. They will have meadow, of some kind (there are many) and/or a prairie.

Another sort of garden altogether is that which is nudging its owner towards becoming a nursery. These are frequently termed “plantsman’s gardens” and have large plant sales areas. No prizes for rapidly identifying these, they are recognisable even on the page of the guide. They are gardens for learning about plants and will often even have labels in the borders to assist you in this exercise.  Sometimes these gardens specialise in a particular plant, and may hold a National Collection. Then you know that you are in the company of the great and the good, and what’s more, a fantastic learning opportunity. When you develop a new passion for a particular plant, search out its special garden and immerse yourself. The enthusiastic owner will often be at hand to tell you all you wish to know, and probably some things you didn’t wish to know. At least at such length.

Then there is the “Very Rich Person’s Garden”, with lots of old brickwork and Victorian greenhouses. The planting will be uninspired, even, surprisingly, when designed by a Very Famous Garden Designer. The Very Famous Garden Designer’s bit may be in a separate part, sort of caged off like a wild animal and just as incongruous.  This garden will be immaculately maintained and open one day a year to the hoi polloi, for charity. The hoi polloi will look dutifully grateful for the privilege and hold mini parish meetings on the lawns while eating their cream teas.

Broughton Grange copyright Charles Hawes, photographer at Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales


The sub category here is the “Used to be a Very Rich Family” garden. This will open much more often and be a bit threadbare. There will probably be a children’s adventure playground and a pet’s corner. A general sense of trying hard and of past glories sadly decayed. Something will be Being Restored at Great Expense. We will draw a veil over that ever popular descendant of the landscape school of garden design, the “cottage garden” and turn to consideration of the Good Gardens Guide category of “two star” gardens. The two stars are a subtle warning system for knowledgeable punters. These are mostly very worthy gardens and usually involve a long plod from tree to tree. They are very important and historic.

Renishaw Hall, copyright Charles Hawes, garden photographer, Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales

Unfortunately nearly all of us are looking for inspiration for our somewhat smaller plots and find ha has, grand statues and temples to Athena quaint and irrelevant. You can’t rely on the two stars, though. These are not all gardens to avoid – some of the all time greats lurk here, pretending to be dull. Best to check them out, or at least read the description with the same careful and imaginative attention that you might bring to a menu in a very expensive restaurant.

And then, what is a “personal” garden? It is a garden at the home of the owner, designer and principal maintainer and shows unmistakable signs of private passion. It is often delightfully idiosyncratic. And a good garden? Any of them could be. Most of them aren’t.

Anne Wareham

If you liked this you may enjoy this  (if you haven’t already!) =  The Bad Tempered Gardener and you may be interested in thinkingardens

Euphorbia griffithii fireglow, autumn colour copyright Anne Wareham, at Veddw garden, Monmouthshire, South Wales, Welsh Garden

Send to Kindle

Subscribe to the Veddw Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the Veddw House Garden blog by email:

june November 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I’m reading your post, smiling, nodding and agreeing with you all the way.

I’ve never looked in the Good Gardens Guide, but i’m going to now. Do you know if garden owners write their own posting and pay for them to be submitted, or is it written by ‘independents’.?

I work at a 16ha garden open to the public in the East Midlands, we are owned by a large ‘institution’ and appear to have many ‘bosses’ from many departments.

In my opinion that style of Management will be the death of the place, and slowly over time I am being proven right. It’s such a shame, we are free to visit, but this means we have no money or much in the way of facilities to offer.

BTW, love your writing.

AnneWareham November 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Thank you! (for loving my writing…)

People don’t write their own entries in the Good Gardens Guide, but the people writing the entries are very uncritical and there are a great many of them, of varying quality. (the entry writers) They get paid peanuts for a lot of work so it’s the usual doing it for the prestige thing…Most of them tend to think a garden, by virtue of being a garden, is lovely.

Diana yakeley November 18, 2012 at 5:07 pm

I do rather agree about the NGS much as I love it, they do need to check gardens occasionally. I’m wary of ‘plantsmens’ gardens and find those with a sense of place the most interesting – Rousham never fails to delight. some day I’ll get to Veddw hopefully!

AnneWareham November 18, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I hope you’ll get to Veddw too. Must admit we have never been able to understand why people like Rousham (have finally stopped revisiting in the effort to work it out) – wonder if people who like Rousham like Veddw? That would tend to suggest not..

Margaret (@maogden) November 18, 2012 at 5:13 pm

This made me smile. I can think of several gardens we’ve visited which fit into your various categories. One NGS garden we visited this year had been professionally landscaped and was imaculate and really well designed, but something was missing. We felt it didn’t have a heart, that it wasn’t a gardener’s garden. I think your ‘gardening by numbers’ type of garden probably summed it up. Really good blog, Anne 🙂

AnneWareham November 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm

I’ve thought a lot about this especially, recently. Does a garden need to be loved to really work?

AnneWareham November 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm

O – and thank you for the ‘really good blog’ – great to hear! XXX

Margaret (@maogden) November 18, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I’m going to have a good long think about that–‘does a garden need to be loved to really work?’

Gaynor Witchard November 18, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Very interesting. I’m not an avid garden visitor – I’m too busy creating and designing new ones to be able to take the time off to do so! I’m never really swayed by write ups and descriptions but, I suppose, one has to make a decision based on some sort of description otherwise we would just wander/drive around aimlessly. Also, a ‘good’ garden is so subjective. What is ‘good’ to one will not be so to another. I reserve judgement until I’ve actually seen the garden…and it’s never a waste to me – a ‘bad’ garden will always tell me what I don’t like and keep me on my own track.
But I understand what you write, Anne..

AnneWareham November 18, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Thanks, Gaynor – and you are right, even the moderately awful gardens are interesting – and for me, can spark an article. Really really awful are just — awful.

Gaynor Witchard November 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm

It’s good to see honest debate and questions on gardens! I enjoy your writing as it makes me think about what I think! 🙂

Paul Steer November 18, 2012 at 7:52 pm

As you may know I find thinking painful, but I just can’t stop. I like the comment by Margaret. It is interesting that you can have a well designed garden without ‘heart’. Is heart to do with love ? I love my garden, but someone else may think it boring… beauty in the eye of the beholder ? Perhaps it becomes a garden with heart when it blends nature with design. Perhaps we could have ‘The Bad Tempered ‘ guide to gardens….I think I need it !

AnneWareham November 19, 2012 at 12:04 am

It’s a big question, what heart is in a garden. I will consider a post just on that, I think. But one thing: I think if you do care deeply about your garden (and not just the plants in it) you will pay close attention to a lot of things that will get overlooked in the other kinds of gardens. And I don’t mean weeds or tidiness – those are the easy things to notice and attend to.

Simon S November 19, 2012 at 6:29 am

“GardenAdvisor” along the lines of TripAdvisor. Let the public decide.
On second thoughts can you trust the public.
What a quandary.

p.s. which category do you feel Veddw falls into ?

AnneWareham November 19, 2012 at 9:54 am

There are already such sites, I think, where people can freely comment – we have an internet stalker who abuses us on them. And you can put a review on Google places. There are also such reviews on thinkingardens. (

But we need more than that, because we have hardly begun to learn to look well at gardens: see

As to Veddw – I’d love to hear what you think!

Rebecca Smith November 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Oh I laughed out loud reading this. So very true. I used to undersell the garden at our previous house in the Yellow Book so no arrived and was disappointed. But now, having moved house, to a house where a Garden Designer laid out the garden 20 years ago and NOTHING has changed since then, I realise that it is just too sad and impersonal. So now, even though I am now a garden designer, I too buy those impulse buys at the nurseries even though it is not on the planting plan because it is my garden.
You have summed up garden visiting perfectly. I will now remember to take more money to Plantsmans Gardens for impulse buys of plants that will no doubt die, or for more cake at certain others, and definately my camera when I am with the hoi polloi. Loved it.

AnneWareham November 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Thank you!!! So encouraging in a world where I constantly get told to keep quiet. Great.

Dick Zieg November 21, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I really felt the need to respond to the “heart of a garden” comments. As a new botanical garden in Maine, USA it has pained me to read the descriptions our marketing people put out in advertising our creation. The “puffery” that is common in marketing does not speak to the heart of the gardener nor reflect the love and ownership we as the ones who plant and maintain the garden wish it did. Our horticulture department though small ( 8 full time employees) are responsible for 2 to 3 acres of plantings each and love every minute we spend keeping our gardens ready for the visitors. It is all about the visitor experience! We love to talk with them as the come through and share our knowledge and excite them to do more gardening of their own. My hope is that they will be inspired enough to improve their own properties. My annual trips to England revive the hope in me that Americans will be as gardening inclined as you Brits are. I hope I can also inspire you to come and see what we have created out of whole cloth without the headstart of someone’s formal garden gone bad or the backing of a Dupont or Rockefeller.

AnneWareham November 21, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Come and see Veddw next time you come – and you are right. We need clearer and more honest information about all kinds of gardens.

I hope you inspire your visitors to consider garden design and meaning as well as gardening – in the UK, sadly, mention of garden design can make some people spit. Long way to go…

Dick Zieg November 21, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I was in Wales in 2011. We visit my sister-in-law in Staffordshire near the Peak District every year. Maybe we will come for a visit next year.

AnneWareham November 22, 2012 at 12:59 am


Desert Dweller / David C. November 26, 2012 at 11:33 pm

I’m rolling in laughter and learning at the same time with this post!! Though I need to read up on some of the UK terms, categories or criteria for gardens, comparing your types of gardens and owners to ours in the US, and again to where I live in the southwest, would be a great exercise. The humor – priceless.

AnneWareham November 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Ah, someone should do the equivalent for you. It would be interesting and enlightening. Glad you enjoyed it.

Abbie Jury November 27, 2012 at 1:14 am

How funny. Though I see we are inclined to different descriptors in NZ (we lack the grandeur of history and past wealth). So we tend to get drowned in “tranquil havens filled with birdsong” (if I ever encounter another tranquil haven, I shall scream), “mature gardens” (trees are now 15 or even 20 years old), “peaceful retreats”, “developing gardens” (are not all gardens developing? Likely means not ready to open yet), ” hidden gems” (not visible from the road), “park-like” (over half an acre). My current favourite is a turn of last century double bay villa (Californian style, much favoured in this country) with a narrow border in front of what look to be clipped bay trees, white roses (almost certainly Iceberg) and Buxus suffruticosa hedging described as: “A traditional estate style garden currently under development and designed to suit the era of the relocated grand villa” (BTW We cut houses apart and move them in their entirety to new locations here!). Traditional to where, I ask. California? England? Melbourne? Certainly not NZ.

AnneWareham November 27, 2012 at 9:29 am

Is it something about garden owners and the world we inhabit? #unrealityonlegs

Abbie Jury November 27, 2012 at 9:38 am

I think it is to do with the unspoken charade that garden openers are invariably motivated by a pure and wonderful desire to share their efforts and to bring pleasure to others so all is fair in luring people with hyperbole – even more so when the gate take goes to charity. In fact, a goodly proportion of garden openers I have met over the years are motivated by ego, not selflessness.

AnneWareham November 27, 2012 at 9:40 am

Gosh. Really????!!! Not at all like the UK then……