Gardening: Cottage industry show: Small villages bursting with flowers and fruit trees are one of summer's sweetest treats, says Anna Pavord

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Rubbernecking seems a pretty harmless pleasure and fortunately, in rural areas, you can still gape and loiter without being reported to the police by some zealous Neighbourhood Watch member. I spent a profitable morning recently, pottering through the village of Harlaxton, just west of Grantham in Lincolnshire, peering shamelessly over hedges and fences into gardens fronting the streets. People said 'Hello' and 'What a nice morning'. It was like being in one of those Fifties Ealing films where everyone is imbued with superhuman amounts of good neighbourliness.

Harlaxton is by no means a chocolate-box village. There has been some dire modern infilling among the older cottages and there is more than the usual amount of bungalows corralled around the outskirts. There are also more curiosities than you would expect.

The village is mostly the work of a man who, with singular lack of inventiveness on the part of his parents, was called Gregory Gregory. He was lord of the manor of Harlaxton. You cannot miss the manor house: a stone building of staggering vastness that was Gregory's work, too, built during the 1830s and now an outpost of the University of Evansville, Texas.

The village was evidently intended to be a model of the Picturesque. You can almost see the pages of the pattern book as you wander through the place: honeycomb chimneys, vastly important porches, ornamental wellheads, turrets, balconies, a spot of half- timbering, Gothic windows.

Harlaxton exemplifies the principles laid down by the 19th-century pundit John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furniture, published in 1840. He advised that a considerable amount of any cottage- building budget should be saved for features such as porches, chimneys and gardens. He considered that there should always be 'some architectural feature in or about the gardens as well as the cottage' and that the builder should not 'omit objects purely ornamental, where they can be introduced with propriety'.

Gregory Gregory did all this and then some more. You notice, for instance, ambling through Harlaxton, how good the boundaries of the gardens are: dry stone walls down Duck Street and Rectory Lane; mellow brick walls elsewhere or comfortable hedges of hawthorn, as useful as they are beautiful. I bet Gregory was also responsible for the big old fruit trees that still exist in many of the cottage gardens. There are few things that set off a cottage better than a large pear tree.

You can see them in the back garden of the cottage at 4 Manor Drive where there is a handsome, thick border of ferns planted all the way along the outside of the brick boundary wall. The front of the cottage is covered with ivy, carefully clipped close to the wall and around the windows, while two big cones of yew stand either side of the entrance. These are quiet effects, but Harlaxton is full of them.

It is, a la Loudon, big on chimneys, too. There are huge ones on the cottage next to the post office in Pond Street, which has quite complicated brick coving round its windows and door. There are another three hugely overblown chimneys clustered together in the middle of the roof of Cherry Tree Cottage in Pond Lane. The pond is a rather smart duckpond at the end of the lane, with stone ruins round the back and side. I supposed they must be the remains of the original Harlaxton Manor. The ducks process down 17th-century semi-circular stone steps to the water.

By the church is the old school house, a bit of Stratford shrunk in the wash: black-and-white timbering with a balcony just big enough for a thinnish Juliet. She would have difficulty focusing on Romeo, though, because looming close to the balcony is one of those 'architectural features' on which Loudon was so keen. The one here is a hump-roofed gazebo, or a well - impossible to tell from the lane.

From the churchyard, smelling richly of hay from bales stacked in the farmyard next door, you have an unrivalled opportunity to admire the back as well as the front of the cottage at the other end of the footpath. This is a proper cottage garden: sweet peas climbing up the picket fence; sturdy rows of cabbage and lettuce behind; geraniums hurling themselves out of boxes fixed below bedroom windows.

I bought a fine aeonium undulatum in Harlaxton, a shiny moon- faced plant with the perfect symmetry of all its kind. It was on a table outside 61 High Street, together with lupins, verbenas, passion flowers, daturas and old regal pelargoniums. There was a beautifully planted garden behind, too.

What I was supposed to be doing was visiting Zoe Richmond and Gary Dixon, whose garden at 1 Hilltop Cottage in Thurgarton, Nottinghamshire, is open for the first time this season under the National Gardens Scheme. Rubbernecking here would get you no more than a glimpse of the treats in store, for the front garden is minute and, as the cottage fronts the main Nottingham to Southwell road, it is not prime strolling territory.

These two, both in their early thirties, have been together for 10 years and at the cottage for nearly five. Both come from nearby mining villages and neither had gardened before they came to Thurgarton. Nor do they come from gardening families. Yet here they are, hooked, besotted but discerning, and indefatigable in their pursuit of the perfect border.

Listening to them talking about what they have done in the garden, you feel you are watching a speeded-up film. They have taught themselves so fast. They started, like we all do when we do not know much, with the standard kit of indestructible shrubs from their local garden centre. Now they help to set up rare-plant fairs.

The garden, cottage style, is long and thin, not an easy shape to deal with. The back door leads on to a modest yard where there is a small, round iron table, mostly obscured by a wicker basket of ageratums - tall ageratum houstonianum, not the squat dwarfs that the seed breeders seem to think we need.

Nasturtiums ramp over the join between the yard and the garden itself, which is at a slightly higher level. A path of dark bricks, lifted from the yard, leads in a gentle arc to the right and disappears under a mound of evergreen ceanothus. You are pushed round the ceanothus to the left, on to gravel which takes you to an immaculate, though minute, lawn. There used to be more of it, but in the way of all passionate plant collectors, Zoe and Gary started to nibble away at the turf almost as soon as it was laid, to give themselves more space for plants.

'We've had penstemon madness, then geranium mania,' says Gary, who now seems to be in the middle of a passion for foxgloves. Most of the unusual ones were there, together with some superb penstemons, the variegated gaura 'Corrie's Gold', ferny erodium manescavi, beautiful spires of lobelias such as the vivid 'Tania', masses of verbena 'Elmstead Purple'.

They had not fallen into the trap of collecting plants just for their own sake. They learnt that lesson quickly. The garden works as a whole as well as in its separate parts. Not having much in the way of spare cash, they never supposed that money would do instead of love. Their passion for the garden is unboastful, un-self-satisfied. Gary still gazes at their penstemons, their geraniums, their alliums with the rapt attention of a man seeing them for the first time. It made me look properly, too.

The garden at 1 Hilltop Cottage, Thurgarton, is open tomorrow (2-6pm). Admission pounds 1. The gardens at Harlaxton Manor are being restored by Alan Mason, open daily (11am-5pm) except Mondays until October. Admission pounds 2.50.

(Photograph omitted)