x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Why not open private gardens to the public?

Nick's Garden Britain's National Gardens Scheme, which raises money for charity by allowing access to otherwise closed gardens, is well worth emulating in the UAE.

As part of Britain's National Gardens Scheme, owners temporarily open their private gardens to the public and the proceeds go to charity. Getty Images
As part of Britain's National Gardens Scheme, owners temporarily open their private gardens to the public and the proceeds go to charity. Getty Images

When it comes to learning horticultural lessons from a holiday abroad, some trips are infinitely more useful than others and, as with most things, location and the company are key.

Some years ago, I met my wife's uncle for the first time. He was a soil scientist by profession but had lived on an old farm in the mountains of Andalucía for more than 20 years before I went to stay with him for the first of many memorable, informative and enjoyable holidays. What he didn't know about gardening, propagation and irrigation in the Mediterranean wasn't worth knowing; he had even been interviewed by the BBC when a famous long-running British radio show visited southern Spain for a programme it was making on expatriate gardens and gardening in the area.

Each visit to his home was like having my very own horticultural masterclass. He always ensured that we went to visit other private gardens and their proud owners whenever I came to stay, introducing me to plants, gardens and gardeners that it would have been impossible for me to experience in almost any other way.

Unsurprisingly, holidays organised without the benefit of a private expert-turned-mentor tend to be less informative, particularly when other variables such as family, friends and the vagaries of fortune intrude on well-made plans.

Last year, I visited the Italian region of Lazio, the rural region surrounding Rome that is also home to some of the finest houses and gardens in the whole of Italy, including the Villa Gregoriana at Tivoli, the Castello Ruspoli garden, Villa d'Este, Villa Lante, Villa Aldobrandini and Palazzo Farnese. Despite the fact that all of these gardens were on our itinerary, my wife and I only managed to visit one, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola's Mannerist masterpiece at the Palazzo Farnese because our three-month-old daughter simply wasn't as interested in parterres, logia, fountains and staircases as we were. Our priorities had changed.

Given this experience, I wasn't holding out much horticultural hope for my latest holiday, an extended visit home to the UK with my now highly mobile and increasingly wilful daughter, who, at the age of 16 months shows even less interest in gardening now than she did previously. Thanks, however, to a venerable British gardening institution called the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), my low expectations could not have been more wrong.

Not long after arriving at the house where we were staying while on holiday, I noticed that our host had a copy of the Yellow Book for London, a guide to private gardens in the local area whose owners were opening them for charity under the auspices of the NGS. To my delight, there were several gardens listed within walking distance, and of these, one was open during our stay. Here was the chance to visit real gardens and to learn from real gardeners. The prospect of doing so filled me with as much excitement as a visit to any Italian palazzo.

The gardens at Downings Road near Tower Bridge in Bermondsey are a series of roof gardens planted on top of large Dutch barges connected by moving walkways that float above the river Thames. Boats have been moored at this spot for more than 150 years, but the present community developed over the past 20 and is now home to more than 70 people. Among these is Elaine Hughes, a wildlife gardening expert for the London Wildlife Trust who lives on one of the larger barges and has been caring for the gardens for the past six years. Thanks to Hughes's work, the shallow, rooftop gardens feature vegetables and plants chosen to attract wildlife, as well as a wide range of evergreen shrubs and trees including weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia pendula), silver birch (Betula pendula) and the large North American black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia).

Without the NGS, it would have been impossible for me, as a member of the public, to enjoy these amazing floating gardens up close. I learnt some invaluable lessons from Hughes as we discussed the challenges of gardening in planting beds that are no more than 30 centimetres deep.

Like the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust, the NGS is an organisation that sits at the heart of the English gardening establishment. However, unlike its more illustrious bedfellows, the NGS is a grass roots, volunteer-based charity that raises money for good causes by celebrating the efforts, ingenuity and successes of gardeners regardless of the size of their plot or the amount of cash lavished upon it. Last year the NGS raised more than £2.5 million (Dh 14.85 million), and over the past 15 years it has given more than 10 times that amount to a range of gardening, caring and nursing charities.

The concept could not be more simple, and it owes its success to two British obsessions: gardening and the desire to see what other people do in the privacy of their homes. Each year more than 3,700 gardeners in England and Wales open their normally private gardens to the public. Some are open for just a single day. Money is raised from the sale of Yellow Book directories that list the open gardens, entrance fees, donations and the sale of plants and refreshments. These go straight to the NGS and from there to that year's designated good cause.

As I left the floating homes and gardens on the Thames, it struck me that the National Garden Scheme was just as memorable as the garden. Maybe it was just a madcap holiday pipe dream, but I also thought that with the enthusiasm of gardeners and the support of the right sponsor, such a scheme could achieve great things here in the UAE. Would you be interested? Why not drop me a line and let me know if you also think it's a good idea.



Ask Nick

I'd like a plant to brighten up a corner of my garden that's shaded most of the day by a tree, preferably a plant with bright or white flowers. What would you recommend?

I'm not evading the issue, but there is a vital piece of information missing from your question that prevents a straightforward answer. In this instance, the species of tree that is casting the shade is the key factor. Some trees have characteristics such as dense canopies, fibrous root systems or even excessive thirst that make underplanting all but impossible. In such circumstances, only pot plants stand a chance of success. Under trees prone to excessive shedding, however, even these will struggle.

If pushed, I'd suggest white Catharanthus roseus but I really need to know more about the tree in question.


Garden buy

Papaja garden accessories

With outdoor gardening not so much of an option right now, thoughts turn instead to indoor plants. And if yours are in need of a makeover, check out the new collection in Ikea's plant/garden department, which includes the Papaja range of pots and accessories.

They come in a range of colours, including this glorious, on-trend shade of hot pink (the only "hot" thing we're chasing right now). Great for livening up a neutral lounge, they'll give your indoor greenery the attention it deserves.

Dh8, Ikea stores nationwide.