How to sneak a peek over the garden fence

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The National Gardens Scheme, 85 years old this year, offers the chance to be nosey in a good cause, reports Victoria Summerley

Picture the scene. The sun is shining and the fragrance of roses, lavender and new-mown grass hangs in the air. In the distance you can hear the clink of tea cups and the sound of chatter as visitors try to choose between lemon drizzle and coffee and walnut cake.

Click HERE to to sneak a peek

Some sit in solitary silence, drinking in the scents and sounds of an English garden in summer. Others compare notes ("My wisteria's got loads more flowers than that!") or scribble down the names of choice varieties that have caught their eye. Small children inspect ponds for fish or investigate the water feature under the watchful eye of their parents. It's a typical National Gardens Scheme (NGS) open day.

I open my London garden for the NGS in August, for the fifth year running, so I can say from personal experience that this picture is no fantasy. Generally, the weather has been reasonably good. Visitors are, on the whole, charming. And the coffee cake always goes down well.

Easter traditionally marks the start of the gardening season and the NGS , which celebrates its 85th anniversary this year, offers a fantastic way to see gardens that – short of climbing over the wall – you would never normally be able to enter. Indeed, a friend says that where she lives, just outside Oxford, an NGS opening is known as Nosy Neighbour Day, because it's such a good opportunity to have a gander at a property you've always wanted to see.

If you've just moved into an area, and want the lowdown on the local allotments, or the best garden centre, or you need to find someone to put up a shed, make a beeline for your nearest NGS garden. Owners are usually happy to share information and gossip about local life – and they'll offer practical advice about the local soil conditions and what will do well in your garden.

You can find an NGS garden open somewhere in England and Wales (Scotland has its own scheme) from February (snowdrops) through to Christmas. There are famous gardens, such as Sissinghurst, created by Vita Sackville-West, and Great Dixter, the home of Christopher Lloyd. There are grand gardens – Hatfield House, and Highclere, the location for Downton Abbey. Even the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury get in on the act, opening the Frogmore House gardens at Windsor, and the gardens at Lambeth Palace.

There are allotments, and bluebell woods, and rhododendron walks, and sub-tropical gardens like mine, which take advantage of London's urban heat island effect. Best of all for the domestic gardener, there are smaller gardens full of ideas that might suit your own.

Garden visiting is not a modern phenomenon, as a new exhibition opening later this month at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, south London, will tell you. Timed to coincide with the NGS 85th anniversary, it looks at how artists recorded the great gardens of their day and laid the foundations for tourism.

But what is it for, the NGS, apart from allowing people to have a nice afternoon. The National Gardens Scheme was funded in 1927, to raise money for the Queen's Nursing Institute. More than 600 garden owners opened their gates in the first year, including Sandringham, and Arundel, Scotney and Sudeley Castles. By 1931, the number of gardens in the scheme had grown to more than 1,000. This year, more than 3,800 gardens will open, including 120 of what are now known as the "1927 gardens". The NGS expects to raise more than £2.5m in 2012.

The money is donated primarily to charities offering nursing and palliative care, such as Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie. Indeed, the NGS is Macmillan's largest single donor.

There is a fairly rigorous selection procedure for the Yellow Book. The NGS wants to ensure the public gets value for money, and also wants to know there are no hazards – so slippery steps and bridges without handrails are a no-no.

Most garden owners will tell you that their inspection ranks as one of the most terrifying experiences of their life. It goes without saying the garden has to be of a certain standard, and it must provide – in the infamous NGS phrase – "45 minutes of interest".

So if you are garden visiting over the next few weeks, spare a thought for the owner, who has been alternately weeding and baking for the past few frantic days. More coffee cake, anyone?

Sowing the seeds: How it all began

Eighty-five years ago, Miss Elsie Wagg, the sister of a successful financier, came up with the idea of opening private gardens to the public to raise funds for the Queen's Nursing Institute. Miss Wagg, whose portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent, realised her wealthy friends might enjoy showing off their manicured lawns and herbaceous borders to an admiring public. Her idea had far-reaching repercussions: as well as raising money, it democratised garden visiting. For the first time, ordinary people could stroll through the gates of some of the grandest houses in the land on payment of just one shilling (5p). They didn't have to wait to be invited – and they didn't have to tug their forelocks.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future