May 172013

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

It’s said that the British are a nation of gardeners, but I’m not convinced. In my search for a home I have seen umpteen gardens – mostly online, a few in the flesh. I haven’t seen one that has been ‘gardened’ in the real sense of the word. Most have just been lawn, sometimes with some shrubs around the edge. The rest have been paved or decked over, often quite expensively (one, described by the agent as ‘stunning’, was completely covered in slate. Ugh).

Whenever I travel by train, I look at the gardens that back on to the railway tracks, and am amazed that people have done so little with the space they’re so lucky to have. But I suppose gardening is like cooking – some people get huge pleasure from it, and the enjoy the process as well as the end result. For others it’s a chore to be got over with as quickly as possible. My heart sinks when I hear the phrase ‘low maintenance garden’, but it’s what many people want.

Jean and Peter Block’s garden, Patchwork, which opens for the National Gardens Scheme, is most certainly not low maintenance. The couple have shaped it (quite literally – it’s on a steep slope) for over 40 years. It has terraces, lawns, ponds, patios, bedding displays, a herbaceous border, trees shrubs, and two greenhouses. It also has umpteen pots, stuffed to the gills with bulbs at this time of year. After flowering, the tulips are deadheaded and left to die down in the pot (those in bedding displays are transferred to pots to die down). In July or August, the pots are dismantled and the larger bulbs saved and stored in the greenhouse until planting time in November. After two or three years they’re replaced with new bulbs.

High maintenance, yes. But I’m sure Jean and Peter would say it’s totally worth it. As would the many people walking around the garden and enjoying a slice of tea and cake last weekend.

PS: The garden is next open on 18 Aug.

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Jun 192011


I met a French woman at a party earlier in the year. She was married to an English chap and said that she’d heard that in Dorset (where her husband comes from) people open their gardens to the public – an idea she found amazing. I explained that it doesn’t just happen in Dorset but throughout the whole country (and Scotland too).

We Brits are pretty reserved on the whole, so opening our gardens to complete strangers is a pretty un-British thing to do. And yet thousands of people do just that for the National Gardens Scheme every year, and are listed in the Yellow Book. Many garden owners provide tea and cake and seating, so you can basically have an afternoon out in someone else’s garden. All of the money raised goes to charity.

I went to my first Yellow Book garden of the year, in Highbury, north London, last night. I haven’t done it justice in this pic, but the layout was clever and did what all good designs should: it didn’t reveal the whole garden at once.

What was essentially a big square at the back of the house had been cleverly transformed into something altogether more intriguing thanks to a sweeping semi circle of planting surrounding the seating area and a path around the garden behind it. It had the mark of a professional and sure enough, it was designed by the owner’s sister when she was training to be a landscape architect.

The lamps in the trees were due to be lit as night fell. Needless to say, instead of a balmy, romantic midsummer evening, it was chilly and damp. But there was a good turnout anyway and wine on offer too.

I’d love to know if any other countries have an equivalent of the National Gardens Scheme and Yellow Book. Does anyone happen to know?