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Fancy opening your garden ?

The trouble with gardening is that it does not remain an avocation, it becomes an obsession.

An insight into opening your garden


It is now fourteen years since we decided to try and open our garden for the National Garden Scheme in 2000
We had visited many gardens prior to making the decision, there were all sorts of gardens, some very good, and also some quite bad.

It is very embarassing to visit a bad garden, you often pay your entrance fee to the owner at the gate. Then as most people do, it is first stop the plant sales table, which turns out to be, tiny poorly plants grown in yogurt pots!
On to the garden, but first you pass by a lump of concrete, with a label, proudly describing that the concrete had been dug up in year so and so to make room for the new garden shed. Hurry on past that.

To the garden, which didn’t have any more concrete in it, but also hadn’t  a great variety of plants in, mostly heathers and  semperviviums.

Now to the embarassing part, what do you do. Walk out of the garden past the owner after only 10 minutes? Or find somewhere to sit for a while, then make your escape.

Hopefully you hadn’t travelled too far to see this garden.

The above was not made up, we did actually go to this garden. Two years later, the garden stopped opening.

We finally decided to approach the NGS to ask if we could open our garden, and it wasn’t long before the local County Organizer (at the time Diana Guy) came to see us.
Our garden is not that big, roughly 16x10 metres at the front and  12x10.5 metres at the back.
We have a door at the side of the house that leads to the back garden, so visitors do not have to pass through the house to get to the back garden.

Our main worry was that the NGS like visitors to have at least ¾ hour of interest in the garden, We also have several small steps in the garden which could have been a safety hazard. Parking was also a problem as we are on a main road, so visitors would have to park in nearby side roads.
So we were very pleased when we were told that “We had to open our garden”.

Initial preparation for the first open day.

One of the first considerations is how many times do we want to open the garden and on what dates. This decision has to be made by early September for the followng year.
Forms have to be made out stating your dates and times of opening, how much you are going to charge for admission, will you be selling plants, providing teas and is there wheelchair access.

A description of your garden, and directions to the garden are also required, the former with a limit on the number of words used, as they will be used in the ‘Yellow Book’ published every year, listing all the gardens that will be opening.

Of course when you are deciding on your dates of opening, you have no idea when other NGS gardens in the area will be opening theirs. Bank holiday weekends are a no no for us due to  the amount of traffic passing by, traffic jams are bad enough as it is.
Our garden is at it’s best from mid June till early September, so we normally open in early and late July and mid August.

So we had ten months before our first open day, time to think what we might alter in the garden, and also to think about who we might ask to help us on the day, as we can’t be on the gate, in the kitchen, manning the plant stall and talking to our visitors at the same time.

One of the alterations in the garden was the path to the greenhouse, a quite narrow path that was a dead end at the greenhouse, there would be no room for people to pass each other, some going too and some coming back. Part of the garden had to be dug away to enable the path to lead out onto the lawn.

How many people might come to our first opening, well the County organiser had said she thought we might get about eighty people, as we would be ‘New’ in the Yellow Book.
Well if only half of those had tea, there is no way we had that many cups and saucers, and where were they going to sit, just a few things that were beginning to concern us.

Time marches on.

Just to remind us, in early March the Yellow Book dropped through our letterbox, we could now see the dates when everyone else was to open their garden. It can either be a good thing for another local garden to open the same day, people may well visit both gardens in the afternoon. But if more than two gardens are open together, you may well be missed out.

The cups and saucer shortage had been taken care of by Lyn, she had been buying some from local charity shops. Plastic cups were not an option, but we do use plastic plates for the cake with a small napkin. Extra chairs and tables had been purchased too.

A plant stall was made, and stocked with plants, most from plants we had divided in our garden, and from seed we had sown earlier in the year. Lack of room in the greenhouse, due to our tender plants taking most of the space, meant we had to set up a seed raising area on one of our worktops in the kitchen, including a grow light as well.

We had friends kindly giving up some of their weekend to help us on the afternoon. Wooden boards with stakes were made to attach our posters on and we had decided what cakes we would make, although how many cakes, was just going to be a guess.

The National Garden Scheme arranges insurance for all the gardens that open for them, so that was something we didn’t have to worry about.

Advertising had to be considered, obviously one can’t spend tens of pounds, the money has to come from somewhere, you can deduct some advertising expenses from the money given to the NGS, but it must be kept to a minimum.
Local radio, free newspapers, posters carefully placed can help. The internet can play a part as well, there are free “Whats on” pages you can use, and also our website helps.
We also print out our own A4 folded leaflets to give to all our visitors when they arrive, the leaflets cost us quite a lot to print, but they help to spread the word amongst visitors and their friends and neighbours. I also keep some leaflets in my van to give to customers when I visit them to mend their washing machines and cookers.
One good thing about living with a main road outside the house is that we can catch the eye of people passing by, with a poster carefully placed.

Two weeks to go now, and we have been out in the car putting up our poster boards  around town, takes about three quarters of a hour for the round trip, and best done in late evening. A list of cake ingredients has been written, ready to buy at the supermarket.. All the sale plants now have a label with their name on, and another label with price.
Plastic supermarket bags are recycled for putting the plants in when sold, so we have been collecting them over the last few months.

We also have to have  money floats so we can give change at the gate, plant stall and in the kitchen.

Two days to go

It is the Friday before the Sunday opening,  In the morning Lyn has to go to a walled garden she tries to look after for an old couple,  I might have to go to a couple of jobs if I haven’t been able to arrange them the previous day. We both meet up in the kitchen about 12.30 to bake the cakes, I can’t actually remember how many we made for that first opening.. Lucky we have two ovens which helps to speed up the cooking, nothing worse than waiting for a cake to cook before you can make the next.
We are both reasonable cooks, which also helps most of the time, but I get told off for being too bossy sometimes. My excuse is that I am just trying to organize everything to speed up the process, but I can’t win..

After the cakes are cooled down those that do not have any filling or topping can be cut into slices and cling filmed. The others are cling filmed till Sunday morning.
Remember the trip in the car we did to put our posters out? Well we now go out again to attach a SUNDAY sticker to them. Then ring round our helpers to make sure they haven’t forgotten they are coming to help us.


Saturday is the day when you just have to do those small jobs in the garden and mow the lawns, should be finished by twelve. But it never happens, always something else you find to do. So by five we still have to rearrange the kitchen to get more tables in for the cakes and tea to be served from. The boxes of cups and saucers, cutlery, and plates have to come down from the roof space, it’s time for a late tea and hope the weather is going to be good tomorrow.

The Cakes ready to be unwrapped

The First  Opening Sunday 22nd July 2001

It was a damp showery morning that greeted us, which made us wonder if anyone would actually come to see the garden if the rain didn’t stop.

First job of the day was to revisit those posters yet again, off with the Sunday stickers, to replace with Today, then back home to fill and top those remaining wrapped cakes.
In the kitchen all the cups and cutlery are set out, tea, sugar, fizzy drink and most important a price list for our helpers and a money float.

Next we have to set out the tables and chairs on the lawn, a table and chairs at the gate for one of our helpers, and just in case it was going to be a quiet afternoon, a chair for the plant stall.
The stall had seventy cannas, that we over wintered for the garden opening, and also perennials divided up the previous autumn, a few plants were bought in to give variety.

A quick lunch then our helpers arrived and with 15 minutes to go before we opened the gate, a queue was already forming.
Our prayers had been answered, the rain had stopped and the sun came
out, as had the visitors, bless them.
By mid afternoon the garden was crowded with people, and despite having to wait to take a photo, or queue for a cake, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Our biggest problem was that the kitchen couldn’t cope with the hot water for teas. We had left two kettles to use, but saucepans had to be filled and boiled to help out, and it was getting unbearably hot with all the boiling water.

Out in the garden there were many compliments and questions. "How do you keep your lawn so green?" "Is it real grass?" "All your plants look so healthy, what do you feed them with?" "What is that tree?" we didn't know the answer to that one, the tree had been there for years before Lyn bought the house.
These seemed to be the most popular questions asked, at this, and our subsequent
opening. We have never had so many complimentary remarks in such a short time, the nicest we thought was "We have visited a lot of gardens large and small but this is the best we've ever seen".

At the end of the day tired and happy, with a few crumbs of cake, and a nearly empty plant stall, we had 162 visitors in the three and a half hours we were open, twice as many as suggested we might get, but we had coped, just.

Now it was time to clear up, all those chairs and tables, cups and saucers had to be put away clean for the next time, and our garden returned to normality, apart from the lawn that looked as though a steam roller had flattened it.
And of course we had to go out in the car and get our posters back again !

At 7.30 pm we were able to sit down for a late dinner and discuss what we needed to do to make it easier for our next opening in three weeks time when we would have to do it all again.

Back to our paid work the next day.

Visitors in the rain ( Of course I had to keep the camera dry, so I did not get wet )

What has happened since that first opening

Quite a lot really.

We had to purchase a hot water urn and a large fan, more baking tins and a mixer for the kitchen and a tent awning for the gate, to give shelter from hot sun or rain.

On one of our open Sunday afternoons we had a record 242 visitors, it was a mass of people shoulder to shoulder, too many for our small garden.
So we decided that we would have to extend the hours of opening  to 11.00am till 5pm. Which of course leads to problems with our helpers. We can’t expect them to stay the whole day with us. So we need double the amount of helpers, with a change round at 1.30pm. Those that do want to stay on for the whole day have to be fed of course.
As a small thank you to our helpers, that we could not open the garden without, we lay on a dinner here after the last open day.
We also now open on a Wednesday afternoon, to try to relieve the Sunday openings, when we did this we found that visitors with no transport could now catch a bus, which doesn’t run on a Sunday.

We also open our garden to garden clubs and the like, we have had the University of the third age (we thought they were going to be hippies with a name like that) for three years running, two garden clubs who arrived in 52 seat coaches (not at the same time) and they wanted tea/cake as well, so had to be split, so that 26 would sit down for the tea and cake while the other 26 looked round the garden, then they would swap over..

We have also had coaches with Belgian, French, Swedish gardeners and also garden holiday groups from as far away as Leeds in the UK. The French group we had a problem with language, there were only a couple that could speak English, but all was well. We had a very nice letter from them, in French, part of which we translated as

"The garden is contained in a pocket handkerchief. But a silk handkerchief, hemmed, festooned, embroidered, scented. ...........If you seek a small corner of paradise in Dorset, it is useless to go further"

We had the Wessex Archeological group come on a private visit, we hoped they didn’t want to dig the garden up.

Some nice things visitors have said

"The best small garden you will ever visit."
(Roy Prior, Chairmam  Wessex Group of the British Clematis Society)

"I have been all over the world, and have seen many gardens, but yours is the best."
(A visitor to the garden)

"Why did we go to Chelsea. Your garden is much better"
(Visitors to the garden)_

"An astonishing garden with two quite different beautifully worked themes.
The front garden displays a rich and varied composition of hardy perennials, with clematis particularly successful, while at the rear of the house, a stunning and eclectic design, which draws its inspiration from Spain, is both a horticultural and visual delight."
(Professor David Stevens FSGD, Fl Hort - Garden designer and author.)

A couple of strange things visitors have said on our open days.

That they didn’t like the garden because they couldn’t see the dirt.

That the green lawn didn’t remind them of summer.

On a Sunday afternoon a week before we were due to open the garden, we saw an elderly couple looking over the fence at the garden. They were both smartly dressed, the lady had a wide brimmed hat with flowers on, and both had a flower in their lapels.
Lyn went out to speak to them.

The lady said “Are we too early”
Lyn replied “Yes, just a week too early”
We let them in anyway, they had the garden to themselves.

Things you don’t really expect on an open day.

A dog digging up the lawn

Three wheelchairs (one motorised) heading down the garden path

A dud Scottish £20 note.

Offers of marriage (mostly from older ladies)

Someone taking the wrong bag of plants from the plant creche.

Visitors helping with the washing up.

We must say that the visitors are very good and very appreciative, we have a laugh. 

Things you don't want to happen on an open day.

The tea urn to break down.

Rain all day

Roadworks outside the garden

Over the last 14 years we have raised around £21,000 for the National Garden Scheme. It mostly goes to Cancer Charities.

The plant stall ( before the invasion )