Victoria Summerley has always loved the National Gardens Scheme (the NGS for short), where private garden owners open up their plots for judgement one day a year, selling tea and cake to sweeten the possibly critical appraisal of their visitors, with all the takings going to charity. So it was a special day in 2007 when she decided to apply for her own garden to be included. "I'd got so much out of visiting other people's gardens, especially in London. Because you see spaces that are like your own garden. It's all very well going to grand ones, but it's so great to be able to take home ideas for your own garden."
It was a nerve-racking process for Victoria and her husband, Craig Orr, but, she says: "When we found out we'd got in, we were so thrilled. I don't know who was more excited – him or me!"
The garden certainly is lovely. Behind a street of pretty 1930s houses in south-west London, it's the kind of urban plot most of us can only dream of. A framework of dramatic, large plantings creates the garden's sense of peaceful isolation; two large Montezuma pine trees with long frondy needles, as well as an elegantly coppiced eucalyptus, which sways in the wind.
Victoria, Craig and the family figured out a way of working together that looked like a winning template, with Craig making his famous Scottish "tablet" fudge to sell: "He'd take the money, my children would serve the tea and cake, and I'd chat to the visitors." But later that year, Craig became ill with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy. By the time the garden opened in 2008, he was in remission, yet a couple of weeks later, the cancer recurred and he died shortly before Christmas. "That's why this year, it's even more important to open the garden, even though it's been incredibly hard to keep up the work. As one of my neighbours pointed out, Craig would have wanted me to do it."
Victoria derives her determination from the knowledge of where the money raised from teas, cakes and plant sales goes: the takings on the door funnel back to NGS's central operation ("run on a shoestring" says Victoria, admiringly) and are then distributed to charities mainly concerned with cancer, and particularly with palliative care. NGS is Macmillan Cancer Support's single biggest annual donor, writing a cheque each year for more than half-a-million pounds. "That's why I think it's right to open the garden, because when Craig was ill, the Macmillan nurse scheme was so amazing. I could ring up and hear a friendly voice, someone saying, 'How terrible,' someone who knows what you're going through. It's so important."
Though she admits she found it hard, after a summer's work the garden does look lovely. "This year I've gone slightly mad on variegated geraniums," she says, rather apologetically, "the kind of things that grow on French roundabouts, as the wine writer Hugh Johnson once said." She has found some with jewelled leaves, in fine reds and greens, almost like ivy-leaved begonias. "Vancouver Sentinel" is one of these, with tiny delicate red flowers carried on long stems. I find myself imagining a very stylish roundabout indeed.
Victoria has no paid garden help. "I'm too much of a control freak," she says ruefully. But she does admit to enlisting her son Rory during the slow process of building a rustic path of cobbles at the garden's end. "I don't have great visions; everything just develops slowly as I alter a little each time. In the end, he did say to me, 'How many more trips to the garden centre are we going to have to make?'"
The garden has a clear character, and Victoria is particularly good at picking plants with interesting coloured leaves, making contrasts in shape and texture. And there is a strong sense of design and drama, whatever her claims to a piecemeal approach. "People often start very small with gardens, but I like to think that by coming here they could learn how dramatic one big thing is."
She is now looking forward to opening day. For Victoria, though, her gratitude towards the charities that helped her is tempered by her awareness that organisations such as Macmillan and Marie Curie, another NGS beneficiary, are privately funded, not part of the NHS. "The kind of back-up I had isn't a right; it relies on fund-raising. I don't think most people are aware that you're not guaranteed a bed in a hospice if you are dying: if they're full, that's it. We need more places, and more nurses." What nicer way to help raise that money than to visit a beautiful garden and enjoy an afternoon tea? n
Tropical temptations: Get the lush look
Victoria's subtropical borders are filled with good ideas for the urban gardener...
Crocosmias are a big feature this time of year, both the delicate "Meteore" and the taller "Warburton's Gold" in a fantastic buttery yellow (pictured right). Crocosmia are remarkably easy, tolerant plants once they get established – if anything, they need reining in. They like a lot of rain, which is why they look particularly spiffy this year. They should flower until early autumn, especially if you buy a good spread of different varieties, punctuating your flowerbeds with bright colour. I like to plant Meteore from Trecanna Nurseries. £3.50, www.trecanna.com
Dark-leaved Abyssinian banana plants add a dramatic splash of colour and structure, with burgundy ribs on its dark leaves. Ensete ventricosum "Maurelii", £12.99, www.crocus.co.uk. Other colourful leaves in the garden include Canna "Durban", with its fantastic stripes. £7.95, www.trevenacross.co.uk
Pots of pleasure
Small pots with sempervirums and echeverias around the pool add to the interest. Echeveria glauca (pictured below) is a good starter. £2.75, www.glenhirstcactiandpalms.co.uk