Does the NGS need to reconsider the plot?
Vann, which opens regularly for the NGS in the spring
Britain has beautiful gardens – thousands of them – and we are also lucky enough to have the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) – a fast-growing network of public and private gardens that open their doors to the public to raise funds for various cancer-related charities under the umbrella of the “Yellow Book” scheme. The famous “Yellow Book” is published annually and lists all the garden openings for the year, divided into counties, so garden enthusiasts can get a peak at some gardens that wouldn’t normally be open to the public. It’s a true example of British patriotism – with garden owners banding together under one large yellow umbrella – to support a noble cause.
Brandy Mount House, an early opener for the NGS, with its famous snowdrop collection
Those gardens can be large or small; style is unimportant; they can open for just one day a year under the scheme, or on a regular basis throughout the season; and the gardens that take part all donate the proceeds to the NGS. It’s a wonderful idea and the patron is HRH The Prince of Wales. But it has its disadvantages too and these are becoming all too apparent as the scheme grows! Each year the NGS proudly announces the fast-growing numbers of gardens in the scheme - 2010 sees more than 3,700 under the yellow umbrella. No doubt there will be more than 4,000 in 2011; 4,500 in 2012 and so on, because it’s considered great and good in Britain to open your garden for a worthy cause.
Bramdean House in Hampshire, which opens regularly throughout the season
It’s public spirited; patriotic and also a way to test the water for garden owners in a growing garden market. Visiting gardens has become a bit like the old-fashioned Sunday school stamps of the 1960s when, as a child, you collected a shiny new sticker every time you attended church. Visiting NGS gardens has become remarkably similar – as the public race to attend new garden venues nationwide, and cross them off in their Yellow Books. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they didn’t introduce a Yellow Passport soon, where you get an official stamp for every garden visited under the scheme, and some form of miles accumulator that allows you free garden entries once you’ve attained a certain number of stamps in your book.
Newcomers to the NGS scheme tend to open for just one day in the first year, but this in itself causes huge problems. I’ve visited no less than 10 new gardens under the scheme this year where the hype has led to such severe overcrowding that you can’t actually see the garden that you’ve come to visit; certainly don’t have the opportunity to enjoy the plants; and are hustled and bustled in royal Garden Party style by over-zealous plant fanatics, who are probably more interested in seeing “how the other half lives” than appreciating the garden.
Lake House, Hampshire, which only opened twice for the NGS this year, but has
plenty of space and adequate parking
plenty of space and adequate parking
In short, it’s not as much fun as it used to be and it seems that neither garden owner nor organiser has paused to think about the logistics of parking, toilets or serving teas to stampeding crowds of voyeurs! I have attended city garden openings where the queue goes round the block; country openings where the local village has seized solid with the traffic waiting to get into a parking lot that was never going to provide enough space for all the visitors; been abused by other visitors in their quest to get into the garden on offer; and fled from the scene like a wounded animal, licking my wounds and promising to give up NGS visits. And if I feel like this, others must feel the same!
And what of the impact on the environment? These days airlines ask you to donate for your fuel usage and governments tax airline seats, in a bid to offset the environmental penalties of flying. Shouldn’t the NGS be doing the same, because the miles being driven by eager garden gurus must surely be having an enormous impact on our fragile environment?
Fittleworth House, which opens every Wednesday throughout the season
Now don’t misunderstand me – the NGS is a British institution with a heart – a brilliant way of raising much-needed funds for respected charities that provide real benefits for those in need. But perhaps they need to re-think the way they operate in a fast-growing garden-visit market where some visitors are only interested in checking off numbers, and wasting valuable resources in the process. And perhaps they also need to consider whether gardens are really worthy of being under their Yellow umbrella, because I can tell you, there are some I’ve seen this year that simply aren’t worth the entrance fee!
In conclusion, I have no doubt that I shall now be beaten senseless about my comments, but I’d love to hear what readers have to say! And just in case there's any question over the photographs I've included here, each garden here gave me permission to use my pictures.