Patt and Roger Trigg's Rickmansworth garden

A Shilling A Head

9th July 2010

Garden lovers have good reason to be grateful to Elsie Wagg – even though most of them won’t even know her name. She it was who, in 1926 and as a keen gardener herself, came up with the idea of asking individuals to open up their gardens for 'a shilling a head', to raise funds for the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing – and the National Gardens Scheme (aka the NGS or the Yellow Book Scheme) was born.

Jill Glenn meets local gardeners following in Elsie Wagg’s footsteps: Patt and Roger Trigg, who have been opening their Rickmansworth plot for ten years, and Caroline Fox, who flung wide the gates to her Bushey garden for the first time this summer.

“We have all these wonderful gardens in this country and hardly anyone except the owners and their friends ever see them – why don’t we get a lot of them to open next year for our Appeal?”

Elsie Wagg’s idea was simple, certainly, but back in 1926 it had the potential to be very controversial indeed. Garden-visiting was already popular, but only for the privileged few. The suggestion of opening to anyone (anyone!) was really rather radical…

…and successful. Stunningly successful, in fact. In the first year 609 private gardens welcomed the public in, and raised over £8,000. By 1931 more than one thousand were open, and Country Life magazine printed the first Yellow Book listing them all. A network of volunteer County Organisers was established to run the scheme, which continued to grow and prosper. After the War the NGS and the National Trust joined forces, with the NGS helping to restore and preserve significant gardens, while the Trust opened many of its gardens in aid of the scheme.

The ‘shilling a head’ fee was finally superseded by more realistic sums in the 1970s, but even today the cost remains reasonable. Most of the gardens opening in the local area this summer are charging around £3 or £4 a head, with funds raised going to the NGS Charitable Trust. Beneficiary charities now include Macmillan Cancer Relief, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Help the Hospices and Crossroads Caring for Carers.

This year there are 3,700+ gardens opening, in all shapes and sizes. Smaller plots are welcome, so long as there is enough of interest in the design/planting, and new gardens join the scheme every year: there are nearly 600 first-timers this summer.

A quiet corner in Caroline Fox's garden

One of these is Caroline Fox, whose multi-level Bushey garden (95’ x 45’) is crammed with interest, in a series of ‘rooms’ that flow beautifully into and out of each other. Caroline and husband Jim opened for the first time at the end of June, and welcomed nearly one hundred people through the gates.

It’s demanding; you need to be on hand to be the face of your garden, to answer questions and to keep an eye on proceedings – and it strikes me that, while it’s not as socially revolutionary as it was in the 1920s, the idea of allowing strangers into your garden to browse and comment (and possibly break off little cuttings) must be as alarming today as ever. Neither Caroline Fox nor Patt and Roger Trigg appear daunted, though; indeed all three seem invigorated by the experience. “Magic!”, says Caroline, while the Triggs, who have been opening for ten years and regularly average 220 to 250 people on an open afternoon, clearly get a huge buzz out of hordes of admirers swarming over their half acre Rickmansworth plot. “People are always polite and respectful,” Patt explains.

Caroline did admit that she was extremely nervous when Edwina Robarts, NGS County Organiser for Hertfordshire, came to assess the garden – but, aside from requiring a few tweaks (such as the addition of some steps to link one level to another more safely), the garden passed with flying colours.

And as for those steps? Caroline built them herself. A few years ago, faced with a garden that needed a good deal of levelling and terracing, she enrolled on a building course “for a couple of days”, and she and Jim between them have literally built their garden out of a wilderness: walls, paths, raised beds… “If you tell yourself you can, then you can, can’t you?” she says. It’s a poignant, significant comment, given that, for the past four years, Caroline (now 65) has been fighting cancer of the appendix: very rare, and with a very bleak prognosis. Gardening has been helpful and healing, energy-giving and soul-sustaining.

Patt and Roger Trigg would doubtless agree about the benefit of gardening. Both now retired, they ooze enjoyment of their superb horticultural achievement: it has taken over 20 years of hard work (beginning with nothing more than a vast expanse of grass bordered by trees), and it’s still very labour intensive. “Roger’s out here most of the time – I can hardly find him”, Patt comments, as we sit in a pretty shaded area looking over the lawn. As a result of the mature trees around the plot, Roger has developed several beds of shade-loving plants, with fabulous (and very healthy) hostas and heucheras, as well as more sun-loving bed on the opposite side. Roger is a plantsman at heart: names and characteristics and recommendations just roll off his tongue. He has even designed a detailed garden diagram, which he issues to interested visitors: each border has a letter, each plant has a number, and the reverse lists species and variety. It’s impressively detailed (J19: Cimicifuga simplex ‘Elstead’ queen of the autumn display, for example) even if there are occasional gaps, such as K19: does anyone know what this is?

Patt and Roger had no masterplan when they began this garden, now comprising primarily herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees. “We put the greenhouse half way down… and then we needed a path to that, and then to the compost bin, and it just evolved from there.” Caroline and Jim’s garden also developed in an unplanned, organic fashion. Once Caroline had cleared the ground elder (“a metre at a time, by hand”) the building of the walls and different levels, and the creating of a beautiful potager at the far end were the main design features. A love affair with gardening website crocus.co.uk and their superfast delivery service means that she can have a plant in the ground almost before she knows she wants it. Instant, spontaneous, unconfined… and ever-changing.

“It’ll break my heart to leave it,” Roger admits, as he and Patt begin to contemplate down-sizing, moving on, travelling a little. From March to September he can’t be away from the garden for more than two to three days. Caroline Fox, with a smaller area to police, says she and Jim manage their garden with “three weeks of madness” in spring and the same in autumn, and “about an hour a night” throughout the summer. It sounds far too easy to be true – and the results are ridiculously bewitching. I could sit here for hours.

Even for someone like me (not a ‘proper’ gardener by any stretch of the horticultural imagination) there is nothing lovelier than to step out of your life and into someone else’s garden for an hour or two. Whether you want inspiration, or solace, or you’re just plain nosy, or you want the opportunity to relax, away from the guilt that comes with sitting down in your own garden instead of tending it, the NGS offers it all.

Poet Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote “One is nearer God's heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth”. God or no God, you know what she means…

Patt and Roger Trigg’s garden (‘Stresa’, The Drive, Rickmansworth WD3 4DP) will be open on on Sunday 25 July, from 2 to 6pm. Admission £3; home-made teas available, together with a large selection of own garden-raised plants at excellent prices. Details on www.ngs.org.uk (search under garden name: Stresa).

Caroline Fox plans to open her garden again on occasional evenings this summer. Watch for announcements.

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