Green fingers? Then show them off for charity

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The Independent Online
Michael Penfold's begonias are in top form, despite the weather. And just as well, for tomorrow is their big day. This Sunday, and the next, Mr Penfold will be displaying his gardening skills to anyone who cares to visit as part of the National Garden Scheme. Without even a garden to boast of, he creates "an oasis of colour" in Basingstoke with hanging baskets and trellises along the path to his cottage.

There are nearly 3,500 private gardens in England and Wales (300 in Scotland) which open annually under the NGA scheme, from the grounds of the Royal Mausoleum at Windsor, to Mr Penfold's pathway. The scheme has been going since 1927, with all proceeds (pounds 1.4m last year) going to charity.

"It's the most perfect equation," says Consie Dunn, organiser for West Sussex. "People love showing off their gardens, other people love coming to them, and we raise money for charity." But not everyone can earn a place in the scheme's "yellow book".

"I get a squeaky telephone call saying 'would you like to come and take a look'," says Mrs Dunn, which she duly does. "If we don't feel they are ready, we say 'wait a couple of years and get in touch again'." The criteria are that, as well as being in excellent condition, a garden must offer visitors at least 40 minutes of interest.

Indeed, the smaller the garden, the more inspirational it can be. Antony Noel receives up to 300 visitors on the days that he opens his witty 40ft x 17ft garden in Fulham, west London, filled with clipped box, gold urns, trellised pyramids and a malachite fountain. As he says: "They see that I have done some great things in a small space and think 'perhaps we can have a go'. Everybody can have style."

The MacAulays opened their garden in Muckhart, Perthshire, under Scotland's Garden Scheme for the first time this summer. It has many rare trees and rhododendrons. Despite the fact that it poured with rain, they attracted 180 visitors. "It was a mixture of keen gardeners who had never had the chance to see the garden before and loyal friends who came to support us because it was raining," says Jennifer MacAulay.

Luckily, it had been dry up till then, so preparations had gone smoothly. However, "It's a huge amount of pressure," says Mrs MacAulay, who will wait a few years before opening again. Her fear is familiar to Consie Dunn: "I know what a stew people get into. Their husbands say to them at midnight before opening: 'Just let me write a cheque for the charity'."

However, on the day itself, say Mr Noel, "I'm always delighted to chat with visitors. It's like a party, and the plants all party along, too."

8 Elbow Corner, Basingstoke is open tomorrow, 2-5pm, and 13 August. Antony Noel's garden at 17 Fulham Park Gardens, SW6, is open on 17 Sept. The NGA handbook, 'Gardens of England and Wales', is widely available at pounds 3, or call -01483 211535. Scotland's Garden Scheme, 31 Castle Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2EL (0131 229 1870).