Gardening: A hundred places of solitude

To experience a sense of ersatz ownership, visit one of the many gardens that remain open over the Christmas season.
Click to follow
There's nothing quite like a large, empty garden that you can pretend is all your own. And winter is the best time for such dreams. One of the best aspects of working as a professional gardener was the chance to do "glasshouse weekend duty". This consisted of unlocking the glasshouses, watering the plants in pots, checking the heating and ventilation, damping down the tiled floors to increase humidity, removing dead leaves from plants. It could be hard work, in the summer at least, but it had ample compensations.

Having the Palm House at Kew to myself on a summer Saturday morning before the visitors were allowed in, or disturbing a covey of partridges on the Rock Garden at Wisley very early on a foggy November day, were experiences I should not want to have missed. I felt grateful for the - mainly unearned - privilege of having a large and famous garden practically to myself. I could pretend that it was my responsibility, mine to redesign, renovate, change and even, possibly improve as I liked. I never felt the same creative urge on any other day.

Occasional weekend duties were compulsory, and still are no doubt, because greenhouse plants need tending seven days a week. But there was one duty, that of Christmas Day, that was purely voluntary. Always anxious to get home to my family, I never put my name forward for this, and now I rather regret it.

I had a student friend at Kew, however, who used to volunteer for the duty each year. It meant a slightly heavier pay packet, of course, but I think he, like me, rather enjoyed the solitude and the sense of ersatz ownership. I recall him telling me that when he had spare time, he would wander round the gardens counting the flowers that were out.

If December has seen few frosts, it is surprising how much will be flowering over Christmas: Rhododendron `Christmas Cheer' perhaps, Helleborus niger in warm districts, and almost everywhere Viburnum x bodnantense and V farreri, Iris unguicularis, and, of course, winter jasmine (Jasminun nudiflorum). But there will be more which are refugees from other seasons, whose impulse to flower has been triggered by climatic factors, not day length: a bearded iris or two, a climbing rose perhaps, the odd herbaceous geranium, heart's ease, and polyanthus.

Of course, gardens in the favoured south-west will boast the greatest number of flowers but, even in my cold garden, I would bet on finding 15 or 20 plants flowering at Christmastime.

There are plenty of gardens open at this time of year where the theory can be tested. Botanic gardens, such as Kew, Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh have very generous opening arrangements, sometimes shut only on Christmas Day itself, but there are also other parks and gardens all over the British Isles that are open in daylight hours throughout the year. These depend on the honesty of visitors to put their entry money in a box, their sense to keep dogs under control, and their sensitivity to realise that winter is often the time when large gardens have to be renovated, so borders may be empty, paths roped off, and trees repaired or cut down.

Ideally, the would-be winter garden visitor will have to hand a copy of the very useful National Trust leaflet, "Places to Visit in Winter" (write to The National Trust, PO Box 39, Bromley, Kent BR1 3XL, enclosing a first-class stamp), together with The Good Gardens Guide 1999, edited by Peter King (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99). Each entry in the guide includes a telephone number, so that you can check the December opening times.

The wonderful thing about this guide, now in its 10th year, is its objectivity. The editor depends on a whole army of inspectors to look round the featured gardens each year, but the enterprise is not sponsored by any commercial concern. The 1999 guide includes 100 new gardens, with only a few of the old ones having fallen by the wayside. It also has a highly subjective, but nevertheless invaluable star system to alert the reader to the best gardens. It makes an excellent Christmas present and may just spur you to visit a garden you have not seen at this time of year before. If you are in luck, you will have the place to yourself, and can pretend that it is all yours. If not, well, you can always count the flowers.