There's no need to feel like a nosy neighbour, peering over hedges at the hidden delights next door. The Yellow Book unlocks thousands of secret gardens
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The Independent Culture
Other people's gardens make compulsive viewing. A garden is as private as any room in your house, and yet strangely public. Most of us would never invite strangers in to view our choice of living-room wallpaper, our furniture, the pattern on our curtains; but our gardens, while equally reflective of our taste, are inevitably open to public scrutiny.

The National Garden Scheme lists 3,500 private gardens that, on certain days, the public can pay to visit. By charging for entry, the scheme raises money for six named charities and for more than 700 others nominated by the gardeners themselves. In this way, the scheme (itself a charity) raised pounds 1.9m in 1996. To be suitable for inclusion in the NGS "Yellow Book", a garden should offer enough material for 45 minutes of viewing. Gardens which are close to one another are encouraged to open on the same day (resulting, in some instances, in a certain unspoken competition).

The fascination of these gardens lies in the great variety of shrubs and flowers, the free or structured planting, and, regardless of size, the strong sense of personality in every garden. This is often as evident in the ornaments and statuary as in the plants themselves. For the public, this is a chance to explore not just a garden, but a perceived lifestyle.

And with plants and seeds to buy, visitors are inspired to return home and try out ideas borrowed from the beds of another garden. Some gardeners retain a deep suspicion of pocket knives and handkerchiefs, as there are abundant apocryphal tales of bushes pruned to twigs as cuttings are spirited away. However, there is little hard evidence of this as the open day closes, and the gardens retreat, nominally, from the public to the private domain.

! The Yellow Book listing all participating gardens is on sale for pounds 4.50 at major bookshops, or you can order it by post for pounds 5.75, including posting and packing, from The National Garden Scheme Charitable Trust, Head Office, Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey GU4 7RT; telephone number 01483 211535