When you open your garden to the public it’s important to do it right, especially nowadays when people can be so litigious. So you must have all the appropriate insurances etc. in place. We open for charity and so we’re doing it through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) – a wonderful organisation that raises money for charities, mostly to do with welfare and medicine (eg MacMillan Cancer Support). The NGS’s roots lie in the birth of ‘civilian’ (i.e. District) nursing, which began in 1859, and the NGS was set up in 1927 as a fund-raising idea. Volunteers were asked to charge ‘a shilling a head’ for admission to their gardens and four years later, in 1931, the up-market magazine Country Life produced for them a catalogue of open gardens, which was (and still is) known as The Yellow Book, because of its bright cover. And the idea soon caught on.
The NGS makes opening easier for people like us, by providing experience and practical advice, plus a package of posters and useful signs to the Car Park etc., and of course insurances. The Scheme is organised by county. So last week our garden was inspected by one of the Lincolnshire team whose job was to check that their high standards of horticultural proficiency were met; she also kept an eye out for potential health and safety problems, such as revolving knives, loose paving and flesh-eating toads. I’m glad to say that our garden passed this test. So we’ll be advertised in The Yellow Book for 2016. We haven’t fixed the precise date yet, but it’ll probably be a Sunday in later September.
We have actually opened the garden for the NGS on two occasions previously, in June 1999 and 2000. In those days we weren’t quite so busy and had the energy to cope with lambing in March, plus hay-making in June/July. June is the month when almost any garden is at its best and it’s the month when most of The Yellow Book gardens are open. ‘The July gap’ is infamous in gardening circles, as the first flush of roses has finished and the perennials and shrubs of high summer haven’t come into their own yet. July’s quieter, but then there’s another flourish of openings in August. Although our garden is at its most colourful in June – and Maisie’s collection of old roses is superb – many varieties have a second flowering in later September, which is when Asters come into bloom and grasses put up their showy seed-heads. There’s also a hint of colour in birches, yellow alder and field maples. The weather, too tends to be more predictable and less wet than June or August. Our last opening, on June 18th, 2000, was ruined by torrential rain, which actually left part of the main border under water! I think we managed to welcome about a dozen visitors that year.
After the debacle of 2000 we decided to put garden opening on hold and this coincided with Maisie doing a lot more commercial work with prehistoric wood (these were the years of rapid expansion prior to the bankers’ bubble of 2007/8), while I was writing books (Britain BC, Britain AD, Britain in the Middle Ages, and The Making of the British Landscape) and, of course, doing three mini-series of my own, plus dozens of Time Teams for Channel 4. But in the past three years things have calmed down, and although 2000 was a minor disaster, we did benefit from the business of opening to the public: it gave purpose, direction and discipline to our work in the garden. And we also got to know a number of new friends, some of whom had opened their gardens for the NGS, too. And of course the Open Day itself is rather like a big party and it’s great when old friends muck-in and help at the pay desk and in the tea room (or barn!). I remember our first opening, in 1999, put me very much in mind of one of our Open Days at our big excavations in Peterborough in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, with a full car park, plenty of adrenalin during the event, followed by lashings of food and drink around the barbeque.
If possible we like to have a few plants to sell to our visitors, especially if they’ve enjoyed them in the garden. For example, we use Euphorbia myrsinites, the blue or myrtle spurge, along the fringes of our better-drained beds in the front garden. This was where the builders (on our suggestion) tipped all their broken cement fragments, smashed tiles and bricks, not to mention lots of sand and gravel – and consequently it’s the only part of the garden that’s at all well-drained. And those are precisely the conditions favoured by myrtle spurge. So yesterday before we were hit by the forecast thunderstorms I nipped out and potted up seedlings that had sprouted around the edges of the gravel pull-in leading to our back door. I found 23 and potted them up – and with luck I should get a few more later in the autumn. What do you reckon: £2 a small pot and £3 for a larger one? That’ll appear very cheap next year.
Then a couple of days ago the rain started and I began to have doubts about the whole Opening idea. Maisie was away at the University in York, poring over ancient timbers. So I was alone with my anxiety. Just to reassure myself, I ran upstairs and took a picture of the garden; then I down-loaded it onto my main computer and peered at it critically on the large screen. Was the garden up to standard? Was it? I was far from certain. In an introspective, gloomy frame of mind I Tweeted it – and was astonished by the kind responses it received. Anyhow, you can judge for yourself, below. So I’m feeling a bit calmer now. And many thanks to my Twitter friends for those warm words. Tonight I’ll go to the Peterborough Beer Festival with a very old gardening friend whose palate, like mine, is unrivalled. To drown my sorrows? No, I no longer have any!