Victoria Summerley: 'Lots of important people have promised to come and see my plot'

City Life: The trouble withgardens is that you can’t tell them to stop right there, that’s fine, as if you were taking a photograph, or say "stay" like you can with a dog
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Today is 30 July, which means that there is exactly one month and one day before I open my garden for charity under the National Garden Scheme. Actually, I don't even have one month and one day to make final preparations because, for quite a lot of that time, I'll be at work, or giving people lifts, or doing chores, or any one of the million things that working mothers do during the school holidays. Am I panicking? As Lauren Bacall once remarked to the Shah of Iran, you bet your ass.

Lots of very important people in the world of gardening – Anna Pavord, Cleve West, Helen Yemm, Emma Townshend – have promised to come and see my plot. They mean this very kindly, but it adds to the "Eeek!" factor. The trouble with gardens is that you can't tell them to stop right there, that's fine, as if you were taking a photograph, or say "stay" like you can with a dog. They carry on wilting, mildewing, mouldering, yellowing, going over, with absolutely no regard for human plans or timetables.

Regular readers will know that we opened the garden for the first time last year. I hoped then that an array of delicious home-baked cakes would deflect any critical attention from the garden itself. I'm delighted to report that this strategy seemed to work, as lots of people said lovely things about the garden (and the cakes) and no one said anything nasty, at least not to my face.

The worst moment was five minutes before we opened, when my husband gloomily pronounced that he rather thought no one was coming. On the dot of 2pm, when the first two visitors walked in, I had to stop myself from hugging them. Half an hour later, there were what seemed like 50 people in the garden. We had 150 people altogether, and made a total of £450 (thanks to the tea and cakes) for the NGS.

My husband and son took the money at the gate, my 14-year-old daughter and her best friend served the tea and cakes and I had a wonderfully self-indulgent afternoon talking to people who seemed just as interested in my garden as me. We decided to open again this year.

We almost changed our minds, however, when my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, later confirmed as non-Hodgkins lymphoma, last November. In the first stages of his illness, all we could think about was whether he would get better. The garden lay forgotten all through the winter and into early spring. It's only when cancer strikes close to you that you realise how vital all the support systems are. Not just the medical treatment, but the websites, the chat forums, the personal accounts, the practical advice. Thanks to charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care, advice on anything from how to cope emotionally to how quickly your hair will grow back after chemotherapy can be accessed with a few clicks of the mouse.

Ironically, it is these very charities for which the NGS raises money, along with others such as Help the Hospices. As Craig began to respond to treatment, and we became more optimistic about the future, we felt we wanted more than ever to help raise money for causes that had benefited us so directly. We decided to go ahead with the opening.

I won't pretend that it's been easy. For a start, I used to rely on Craig to do the heavy work in the garden, or at least help me heave stuff around. For a long time, all he could do was wave encouragingly from the sofa. My son's been a willing substitute when it comes to weight-lifting, but it's difficult to enthuse about the latest blossom or flower to someone who wears headphones 24/7.

There have been times when I felt the garden had become a depressing chore rather than a pleasure. Months of worrying about Craig left my emotions jangled, and it was difficult sometimes to work out whether I loved gardening – so often in the past a treasured refuge from the pressure of work – or hated it.

I remember I once found myself, on a lovely sunny spring day, walking round a nursery near Epsom with tears pouring down my face. Normally, a morning spent in this way would have been my idea of heaven, but it was as if my brain had made a frantic search for the appropriate emotional response and, in a panic, grabbed the wrong one.

As spring became summer, however, the garden started to weave its old familiar spell. Craig's treatment was successful, and he embarked on the long slow recovery from chemotherapy. I began to relax and to remember how to enjoy things: the texture of a jungly leaf, the sight of the first waterlily, the fragrance of a scented geranium, the sound of a frog plopping into the pond. If you come along on 31 August, I hope you'll enjoy them too, perhaps along with a cup of tea and a slice of coffee and walnut sponge.



Victoria Summerley's garden opens for the NGS on Sunday 31 August from 2-6pm at 28 Multon Road, London SW18 3LH. Admission is £2 (children free). Read more about the garden on her blog at www.victoriasbackyard.co.uk. For information on the NGS, go to www.ngs.org.uk.

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