The National Gardens Scheme and Veddw

November 2, 2012

in Editorial


I think by now many readers of thinkingardens will know that our garden, Veddw, was thrown out of the UK National Gardens Scheme. But I think it’s worth mentioning here for the sake of those who haven’t. For those unfamiliar with the scheme it is an organisation which opens  gardens for charity in the UK, and is a major player in the British garden scene.

NGS 4 20160706_152033 (1)

It’s worth mentioning because it demonstrates the rather depressing state of the British garden world. The reason that the garden is no longer in the scheme is that I wrote a piece in the Spectator lamenting the effect that opening gardens for charity has had on the view of gardens in this country. (The piece can be read here)

It’s a robust piece; it has been accused of being rude, but it’s also not novel. I have been saying this, in print and on-line, for many years now. The National Gardens Scheme and its personnel have in the past, while not engaging with the discussion, been aware and apparently tolerant of, even amused by my views. So our dismissal from the scheme may be more personal than corporate.  I don’t know. The only communication I have had is a couple of emails in response to my query about not being asked for dates this year.

This is the second, following my request to know why we had been put out of the scheme:

Dear Anne

I don’t think you have any concept how many hundreds of humble, innocent garden-owners and NGS volunteers were deeply hurt by your diatribe in the Spectator earlier this year. I find it hard to believe: 1. You would still want to open in aid of the NGS; 2. Given no information about opening had been sent, in the circumstances you would not realise that we were not inviting you to take part.

Yours, George

George Plumptre Chief Executive National Gardens Scheme

The Meadow, Veddw copyright Charles Hawes, Monmouthshire, South Wales Garden

I quote it because I find the description of garden owners as “humble and innocent” and so vulnerable to “hurt” on behalf of every garden in the country open under the scheme, unbelievably patronising and an eloquent reflection of the attitudes informing gardens in this country.  

And, of course, this all demonstrates that my comment in the Spectator article, that : “because gardens have become a charitable exercise, (they are) above all criticism and indeed, critique,” is right. The NGS could have engaged with this debate, to the benefit of all involved with the garden world, and perhaps thereby also created a forum for the actual thoughts and feeling of NGS garden openers and volunteers themselves, instead of speaking for them.

A wasted opportunity.

Anne Wareham, editor

Front Garden and Leymus arenaria at Veddw copyright Charles Hawes, Monmouthshire, South Wales, Welsh Border Garden

The Daily Mail had its own take on the issue. (below the cake piece – strange how cake always finds it’s way in….)

You may also be interested in this piece about reviewing gardens by Sara Maitland.

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Nick Turrell November 27, 2012 at 9:41 am

At last I’ve found someone else that loves gardens but hates gardening! When i read your piece in The Spectator I actually punched the air in triumph and relief. I used to work on a garden programme for Channel 4, it was my job to visit gardens that we could use on the show – I was shocked by what I saw. While there were plenty of rare and unusual plants, the gardens weren’t well designed; and I thought we were a nation of gardeners. Then I realised, we are; it’s the design bit we need to work on. ps I’ve only just discovered this website; it’s right on the money!

annewareham November 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

Thanks! It’s people like you keep me sane, Nick.
Hope you’ve also discovered thinkingardens?

bernhard feistel November 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Sorry that I have a go again: It sounds so wrong, though understandable and human, when a common “hatred” keeps one sane. The concept of loving gardens and hating gardening is a blind alley to me, and has nothing to do with the fact whether a garden is well designed or not.

(I could go along with a slogan ‘I love fine food but would hate cooking it’ but even here might come a point when you want to look behind the scenes and to know what you are ‘tasting about’.)

And what is (even a good) garden design actually worth when you do not like to (at least to an extend) execute and maintain it and deplore the people (including yourselves) who do or have to do it. It is a blind alley, too, to play so-called ‘plantspeople’ against proper designers. There is room to be wrong for both of them.

One could as well say ‘I love good opera performances but hate practising and rehearsing’, which might well be true, but where does it lead? Is the best art the one with the “ideal” ratio between input and enjoyment? I would call that utilitarianism.

Perhaps there was a missed opportunity, too. Couldn’t you have convinced your superiors at the Channel to discuss the gardens whose design you perceived as awful and suggest improvements? Some of their owners might have even agreed?


annewareham November 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Slight sense of humour failure, Bernhard? I’m not sure why you are so keen to drag me back into the mainstream of garden thinking. It’s a very crowded place full of cheerfulness and worthiness. I welcome with enormous delight the few who think outside the relentlessly positive box. And you? You don’t need me!

bernhard feistel November 18, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Dear Anne,

It seems to me as if you were not entirely unhappy about the NGS’ awkward if not idiotic decision and „explanation“. A more than welcome grist to your mills? Are you shedding some crocodile’s tears too many? The very best that could follow would be the opening of many more private gardens (not necessarily only those ignored by the NGS) under different schemes, ideally on other days than the NGS’s.
I was almost meaning to suggest under the aegis of thinkin Gardens, but this would certainly be too inclusive, i.e. too much ink in gardens.

And may I add another thing: I happen to disagree with the most important argument of your sweet pugnacious Spectator piece. The cakes offered in the NGS gardens I have visited were all mediocre average rubbish, hence fit for the accompanying instant coffee. (But what wouldn’t you swallow in the attempt at Help for „Heroes“.) In almost all cases I found in the gardens a lot more ingenuity and taste, which doesn’t, of course, contradict your arguments. And none provided my beloved ground elder lasagne either…

Or in other words, the British seem to be good at raising money for charities by just being conservative. Helping them raise money by being more ambitious or just different is a good thing, even though some might argue „charity begins at home“.


annewareham November 18, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Did I say how I feel? Don’t think I did or that people would be very interested – except the headline, which was totally accurate.

I think the best that would/could follow would be a worthwhile, extensive debate about quality in gardens, what informs it, whether we should demand it more, whether we should have more open discussion about it and the lack of it.

I can’t actually speak for cake or coffee quality in NGS gardens. Nor about charity money raising, though I wonder if people might not find it easier sometimes, and even possibly cheaper, to just write a cheque and keep garden and cake to themselves.

bernhard feistel November 19, 2012 at 9:47 am

You did speak about cake quantity (variety?) and that “we” have eaten a lot, and regretfully probably too much. Surely you could be able to speak about cake quality in a similar way (not length) as about garden quality. And the NGS scheme has a lot to do with charity money raising, so you did implicitly speak about that, too. But in honesty:

I see the “not amused” NGS’ (over) reaction to your piece as a kind of consequence that you have not only looked the gift horse into the mouth but also complained about rotten and false teeth, which, if I may say so, isn’t the thing, when visiting “retirement homes”.

Or in other words, I feel you are somewhat (also with your book) on a quixotic path, and I say this as a great lover of Cervantes and his hero:
“Quality” in gardens and the NGS are two different things even if they can happen to overlap and I am very doubtful whether (more) quality, not only in gardens, emerges out of an extensive public debate. Perhaps on the contrary, even though I am rather in favour of iconoclasm.

It would presumably be impossible to prove whether the “quality” of British gardens were higher without the NGS scheme, because the art in gardening will always be the exception from the rule and to exhibit it for charity rarely its first thought or aim. Too many people (though less than those who own a kitchen) have what falls under the definition of a garden. It’s the same with letters. We all think or pretend we can read or write but who is being able to produce proper literature? Certainly a great deal less than its ubiquitous critics…


annewareham November 19, 2012 at 10:04 am

You may well be right, but already (if anything after 15 years of campaigning can be said to be ‘already’) things are beginning to change in small ways in the garden world, encouraged also by the freedom of speech which the internet has brought. I say what I do because I must: anger and honesty drives me to it and cannot say whether I will ever be really effective.

My greatest ambition would be to have people who are not gardeners visiting great gardens and appreciating them as they do great music and literature, and as yet, leaping the garden walls is defeating me.

bernhard feistel November 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm

That’s ambitious indeed because of this everyman’s pastime, ( more people are gardening than composing “proper” music or literature) and are hence driven by the market and trends, the (perceived) need to show off, awkward conventions, too much or not enough time, terrible taste and a mixture of all these things and more together. Though I abhor the term “garden world”.

And how well I think I know the feeling when leaping the garden walls, but it didn’t occur to me that there might be a chance to personally change that, except by example and this would be subjective in any case. But I know you have done and are doing this bit already.

Hence I wish you the best of success, with the qualification that I hope I won’t be surrounded by militantly good taste in years to come. And that there are many moments when you don’t see the immediate urgency to draw your sword, presumably in (mountainous) areas yet basically untouched by human “improvement”.

By the way, I’ve just come across your joint piece with Sara Maitland about East Ruston which spoke to my heart. Since I couldn’t, after repeated visits, just make up my mind why I was somewhat feeling uncomfortable in such an apparently perfect, immaculate, tasteful or sometimes even gaudy setting. Thank you, but it shows, yours is a very, very tricky path.

(Their cakes are the usual conventional sweet rubbish, which is no wonder since their apples from the perfectly espaliered vista rows are presumably reserved for embellishing the soil underneath only.)

annewareham November 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Thank you. Especially re East Ruston – we worked hard on that piece just to see it censored in print. What joy then to be able to put the full version on-line. And bringing that clarity to an irritated sesne of ‘not quite right’ is one of the joys of what good criticism offers, I believe.

Gardening is a popular pastime and that may be part of the problem – but Sunday painters, all sorts of bloggers, amateur choirs and drama productions all seem to live happily with their counterparts in the cultural word, without demanding equal status with the best. I always have an idea that taking part at an amateur level enhances the appreciation and understanding of the higher art, but I may be wrong and it clearly doesn’t work that way in the (sorry – but what else am I to call it?) ‘garden world.’

High art isn’t necessarily ‘tasteful’ either…

And as for subjective – that is what the critic spends years learning for: to polish their subjectivity.

You are right too about cake – and puddings for that matter, which are too sweet. I’m not sure how they manage it. Adding bits of fruit isn’t the answer…

Gaynor Witchard November 14, 2012 at 11:47 am

My garden will be open for its fifth year in 2013, so I think I’m able to make a comment as a garden owner and a visitor.

From a visitor’s perspective, I agree that there are some gardens which appear in the Yellow Book that really should not be in there at all – in my ever so ‘umble opinion. Perhaps people might think mine shouldn’t be in there, but gardens are so personal it’s difficult to be objective about your own. One garden I visited had old, greying plastic chairs in the front of the house, overgrown grass and a couple of plastic bags strewn over an unkempt hedge. The rear garden – which was what we were supposed to be looking at – drew an equally sharp intake of breath. But, if giant plastic birds and other ‘quirky’ paraphernalia is ‘your thing’, then it wouldn’t have been out of place; my opinion would be wrong and the question ‘why?’ would not be lingering in my head – it’s all down to taste, see…

Anyway, back in my garden, I overheard a woman criticising me ”Hmmf, she could trimmed that tree!” she said, sniffily, unaware that I was standing right behind her. But she was right. I should have trimmed it, because it was so obvious I couldn’t be bothered to climb up the step ladder and shape it nicely anymore. It was getting too big and too awkward – so the next day I chopped it down. Sometimes a bit of criticism (even if we don’t like it) is helpful to steer you away from the banal, and try something more interesting instead.

Come and visit my garden Anne…you might persuade me to do away with the remnants of Christopher Lloyd inspired planting, most of which sadly died off after it’s protective canopy of huge oaks were chopped down by the railway two years ago… 🙁

annewareham November 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Thanks, Gaynor – and a visit sounds good. You’ll need to remind me next summer as, umm, we won’t be getting a copy of the Yellow Book any more..

Kathy Crouch November 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm

another tale of NGS woe. Stourton House in Wiltshire (back of Stourhead carpark) was awarded the silver trowel for 25 years of opening for the NGS. As Elizabeth Bullivant found the garden becoming too much for her, she let it become overrun by himalyanan balsam, rather attractively keeping the spring bulbs cool in summer with a long season of flowering. Far too scruffy for the hoi polloi, so struck off.

I shall replant my front garden in my imagination just to piss off the NGS. Out goes the weedy lawn and 1970’s conifers. Lets have some giant hogweed to poison the punters, rosebay willow herb, himalayan balsam and underplant the lot with ground elder and nettles. I’ll bung in some politically incorrect bedding in the front, pink picottee frilly giant gladioli and African marigolds and invite the county organizer round and call an ambulance when she has a heart attack.

annewareham November 4, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Imagination? Do it! Would be great!

Tristan Gregory November 2, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I like the idea of the NGS as a way to raise a little money and show off a little. It blends quite nicely with the country of village fetes, harvest festivals and local shows, a country now largely gone. Too much criticism of individual participants in this context seems inappropriate as knowing the way it works you pay your money and take your chance. The organisation, its direction and the great minds that do the steering are valid targets though and were they on an intellectual par with similar governing bodies of other art forms in this country they would at the very least be able to coherently argue their case.
Plumptre’s sour whinge at you is both ungrateful and rude and entirely inappropriate. This wedded to the concerns about the year’s takings raised in a letter sent out to participating gardens (look out the window George) makes one wonder.
As regards the artistic rigour that we would like to see applied to gardening we should progress on the basis that no-one sets out to create a bad one but without realistic examples and trends to follow they have little chance. Unlike, say, the Japanese we are not going to settle on a style of gardening whose practice can be set against an agreed standard of artistic purity. The only chance the ladies and gentlemen of the NGS have, therefore, is for the professional gardeners and the public spaces they work in be praised and criticised honestly and with equal fervour.

annewareham November 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Well, with excellent and discerning writers like you and others on this site, and with thinkingardens to publish the material, we can keep offering the necessary honesty.

Kathy Crouch November 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Hi Anne, liked your article a lot. I remember cringing a few years ago when I saw a programme about the NGS and choosing gardens for ‘suitability’. The county organizer was delirious with delight when a posh farmer’s wife made a white, yellow and blue border in front of a red brick wall. The sucking up was excruciating. It was pleasant but ordinary.

Meanwhile at a working class man’s terraced house, teeth were sucked at the health and safety aspects, ignoring the creativity and originality. Doubt was cast – the garden looked a little scruffy. Can’t remember who was in or out. I do know I haven’t been to an NGS garden since.

annewareham November 4, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Ticking boxes has become the national pastime, perhaps?

Evie November 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm

An aside: But could it be that NGS have invited critique when they invited rivalry in?

Evie November 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm
annewareham November 4, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Well, of course those poor innocent gardeners are competitive. And they love the buzz of getting their garden in the scheme. Estate Agents know what it is worth too!

Evie November 4, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Oh dear! 🙁 How times have changed. Sadly.

I wouldn’t see that as a plus to buying a property, so estate agents lucked out with people like me.

In my mum’s day gardening was more about swapping surplus fruit & veg to freeze. And passing on surplus seedlings/cuttings/chutney/jams etc., Generous people reciprocated.

Bring back the olden days!

annewareham November 5, 2012 at 12:09 am

Evie, there have also always been people like me who have wanted to make gardens which are places of reflection and beauty. The sad bit is the way all the different things we call ‘gardens’ get lumped together.

Evie November 5, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Anne, I only have to browse Veddw’s pictures and I’m in that quiet place of reflection and beauty. I can visualize myself walking at Veddw. One day soon I hope to be able to that.

Evie November 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I wasn’t fully aware of the history behind NGS so I read about it on their website: and its commemoration

So it was set up as a means of acquiring money for charities? I can’t see any history of how it changed to become a competitive scheme, with awards for what are considered the best or most worthy. And if indeed that was never the intention of the founders, then it begs the question, why would NGS encourage competition (and to my mind an “I’m better at this than you” attitude), in what was originally a gentle scheme intended to support those in need? Those who were willing would open their gardens for others to come see in exchange for a shilling, which was donated to the worthy charities.

How sad that it all changed!
I for one would much prefer to feel that I was strolling around a garden that was simply – just there; rather than encouraging rivalry.

An exchange of my pleasure of looking at nature in all forms, for my shilling (5p + about £3.45p), would still generate the funds in any case.

Faisal Grant November 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Anne, it sounds to me that your National Gardens Scheme has become so focused on profit and popularity that it’s forgotten its mission.
In Australia we have nothing so comprehensive or powerful. Nor do we have all the grand gardens getting grander.
This whole question is like that that confronts art patronage. Are paintings presented to gain the greatest adulation, or are they presented to say something, even if what they are saying is discomforting, a little thorn in the side.
You should be jubilant. Michelangelo was brilliant, despite the interminable interference of Pope Julius II; and his work lives on. As will Veddw.

annewareham November 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Thank you, Faisal – I hope you are right.

William Martin November 2, 2012 at 6:43 am

Bravo Anne..I missed the original article by months………. We suffer a variation of this general ethos here in Australia but no-one seems to is as you say ………
“The purpose of visiting a garden becomes harmless pleasure and tea, a chance for a gossip with friends while deploring the greenfly on the roses on thorny sticks that are as common as the strangely fashionable lemon drizzle cake. It is a chance to admire the less than admirable and deplore the perfectly acceptable. Convention rules. There will be no breath of complaint about rotten design poorly executed, but a so-called ‘weed’ can bring the County Organiser down upon a garden opener like a ton of manure. Tidiness is all.”

Rory Stuart in his new book ‘What Are Gardens For?
Visiting, Experiencing and Thinking About Gardens’
has a crack at looking beyond lemon drizzle cake.
Cake you say?

annewareham November 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

Thank you – and we will be reviewing Rory Stuart’s excellent book very soon. Without cake…

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