20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 75

Secret gardens

Ursula Buchan

It was 75 years ago this year that a Miss Elsie Wagg suggested to a committee meeting of the Queen's Nursing Institute that owners of gardens be encouraged to open their gardens to the public for an afternoon the following year, to raise money for a memorial to the late Queen Alexandra. a patron of nurses. So it was that several hundred gardens (including Sandringham and William Robinson's Gravetye) opened in the summer of 1927, and 'the splendid sum of £8,191' was raised. So successful was the initiative that King George V suggested that the gardens open again the following year, and the National Gardens Scheme

was born. Last year, well over 3,000 gardens opened in England and Wales and more than £1.5 million was raised for a variety of causes, including Macmillan and Marie Curie nurses, and the Gardens Fund of the National Trust.

All this may be gleaned from a small exhibition at the Museum of Garden History, with the offputting title A Nurturing Nature, as well as a newly published, large and very yellow volume called Making Gardens. Initally, I wondered why this year had been chosen as an important landmark, but Winnie the Pooh's 75th birthday party last weekend has convinced me how strong and general is the urge for marking anniversaries, The National Gardens Scheme can be seen, in its own small way, as a paradigm for social, cultural and horticultural change over the last three-quarters of a century. Initially, it was aristocratic in constituency, philanthropic in impulse, small and amateurish in organisation, restricted in its aims, and restrained in its enthusiasm (for many of the owners of gardens which opened that first June were just that: owners rather than committed hands-on gardeners). These days, the National Gardens Scheme Charitable Trust, with its headquarters at Hatchlands Park in Surrey, is professional in its administration, democratic in constituency (well, much more so, anyway) and, though essentially still philan thropic in impulse and enduringly mindful of its roots, far less restricted or restrained.

The beginnings might have been small, but the virtues of the idea were soon evident. Initally, free leaflets were published listing the gardens, but soon only a book would do. 1949 saw the first, and distinctive, yellow cover, which gave it the popular name of The Yellow Book. The books were illustrated with orginal drawings, most notably by the children's illustrator Val Biro, until 1998, when photographs replaced them. The scheme's commitee has been chaired over the years by a succession of interesting and energetic women, including Hilda, Duchess of Richmond and Gordon; Lady (Daphne) Heald; Carolyn Hardy; and, presently, Daphne Foulsham. For many years after the war, the charming, tactful and organisationally gifted Miss Rachel Crawshay ran the scheme almost single-handed from a flat in Lower Belgrave Street, typing out the entire Yellow Book on a manual typewriter.

The gardens and gardeners have changed, too. Although Sandringham still opens its gates, and many public gardens set aside a day for the benefit of the scheme, the vast majority are much smaller and owner-made, and in both town and country. Many gardens band with others to provide a good afternoon's entertainment: the life's work of gifted amateurs will be allied with the respectable efforts of neigh bours, good-natured enough to give in to some gentle coercion.

The way gardeners have changed, if not in step with society, then at least on the same track, can be traced in the short descriptions which appear in The Yellow Book, mostly written by the owners themselves. Here the horticulturally sophisticated, the creatively avant-garde, the self-deprecating and the beadily conceited seek to lure the visitor with a few, often compressed. sentences. Garden owners exhibit individualism to a degree unthinkable in 1927. One garden offers a 'fluttery' — perhaps appropriately — 'wild-flower meadow, Victorian greenhouse, tortoise castle, gothic temple, Moorish sheep palace, new Hermitage', while another entreats you to 'enter a oneacre tapestry of magical secret gardens with magnificent views. The surefooted visitor may explore the many surprises of this exuberant escape from reality.'

Despite progress's juggernaut, there are aspects of the scheme which Miss Elsie Wagg would immediately recognise. There are still plenty of owners who talk only of helping the 'nurses', underplay their gardening skills and are distraught if they think they can no longer keep the weeds at bay and will have to forego the pleasure and pain of 'opening'. Though the typewriters at headquarters have been replaced by computers, and the low-key poster publicity augmented by an accomplished and very useful website, the organisers at county level and those on the council still appear to have the old-fashioned knack of wearing smart, serviceable suits and hats, looking more or less at ease when they meet royalty, and thanking profusely every volunteer and gardener they meet. Whatever befalls, we can count on there being something to celebrate in 2026.

A Nurturing Nature — The Story of the National Gardens Scheme is at the Museum of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE], until 16 December; Making Gardens — A Celebration of Gardens and Gardening in England and Wales from the National Gardens Scheme is edited by Erica Hunningher and published by Cassell (LW). Ursula Buchan 's latest book, Good in a Bed — Garden Writings from The Spectator, is published by John Murray (£16.99).