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.
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.
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.
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.