Discover a secret garden this summer

This week I’ve been enjoying many horticultural delights courtesy of the National Garden Scheme (NGS). The annual summer event provides the opportunity to mosey around private and public gardens in aid of charity.

The scheme is so quintessentially English, reminiscent of the beloved village fete an atmosphere fostered by the delicious homemade cakes available. Spoilt for choice at one garden, I indulged in a generous portion of walnut cake with a pot of cafetière coffee on a shady patio. Hosts were ultra friendly and there was some lively chat amongst the visitors. I met up with one couple at the next garden too, and we greeted each other like old friends. Gardening tips were swopped and recommendations for further gardens to visit. Aah, an English summer.

There are around 3,500 open gardens under the scheme, including some in the Channel Islands which I’d dearly like to visit. To begin with I chose three gardens all within fairly easy distance (thereby saving on the nightmare-incurring fuel costs) and days that suited the time I had free to explore.

Town garden

My first visit was to a modest-sized garden in the historic market town of Midhurst. Rather like Dr Who’s Tardis, first appearances were deceptive. The space was divided into ‘rooms’ and throughout there was an abundance of flowers and mature trees and shrubs, as well as sculptures and decorative objects.

Spoiler alert: Following the pathway and turning a corner revealed a dramatic sculpture by Scottish sculptor, Philip Jackson. Jackson, acting as Royal Sculptor to The Queen, is internationally renowned for his remarkable modern pieces that have a natural elegance and fluidity that lend themselves so remarkably to the landscape. Garden owner and former art teacher, Wendy, told me that many years ago Jackson was one of her students, and they have stayed in touch over the years. When she began opening her garden around 15 years ago in support of the NGS, Wendy asked Jackson if he would be able to lend a work. It made a fabulous statement in this setting and I felt very privileged to experience Jackson’s work close up.

Work by Scottish Sculptor, Philip Jackson in a town garden. This piece is not cast in bronze – these are very valuable for insurance purposes and heavy to transport – instead it is a fibreglass figure with a similar finish. Image

You don’t need to be a serious gardener to enjoy other gardeners’ creative work. It is well-known that being in nature, surrounding yourself with trees and plants is good for your health, and your soul I would add. There are painterly roses, aromatic scents, interesting artworks, landscapes and inspirational room settings to experience. Not to mention new people to engage with. Of course, I’m just naturally nosy and like nothing more than mooching around a heritage garden or a suburban patch of land.

A garden is so individual and each one I visited conveyed its owner’s unique creative touch, and yet common to each was the sheer pleasure for growing things and creating amazing outdoor spaces.

Entry fees are modest (from as little as £4) and further funds are raised by refreshments and plants for sale, grown by the garden owners. In 2021 alone, the National Garden Scheme donated over £3 million to its beneficiary charities.

Barn garden

My next visit was to a larger garden surrounding a barn conversion and set in the open Hampshire countryside. At around 1/5 of an acre there was plenty of room to keep chickens and bee hives, and create secluded spaces for relaxing or dining. A circular labryrinth in a meadow added even more interest and complexity to the garden’s atmosphere. Labryinth’s were created centuries ago at monasteries with the aim of inspiring quiet contemplation. The idea is that you walk around the circle clockwise until you come to the centre, rather like a maze. Only here, if you continue to walk outwards along the same path, it leads out of the labryinth.

A barn garden. Clockwise: above; the perfect spot to relax with a quiet drink (a glass of rosé?) at the end of a long day; dark pink roses; a pretty covered patio area for al fresco dining; just past the rhubarb bed is the garden shed in the vegetable garden; and keep an eye out for the cheeky moles in the meadow labryinth.

The vegetable garden was brimming with rhubarb, summer vegetables and raspberry canes, loaded with luscious fruit (I had to stop myself from popping a few into my mouth, a hangover from childhood foraging adventures).

Incredibly, the owners of this country barn garden do all the work themselves without any extra help. While I chatted, the man of the house grabbed his spade and went off to clear the mole hills which had suddenly appeared in the labryinth path.

This garden has been part of the NGS scheme now for around six years. I was curious what the owners it meant personally to open to the public, after all maintaining a garden does take a lot of work and commitment, and all that lovely baking!

“We know we’re fortunate to have this garden and it’s good to be able to share it.”

Owner of the barn garden.

The little blue hen house.

The hens clucking happily around their own garden at their des-res hen house.

The Italian Garden at Tylney Hall

Tylney Hall, Italian Garden. L to R: view of the Grade II listed manor house from the terrace; one of the stone pergolas. Photos

My final visit this week was to Grade II listed, Tylney Hall, near Hook in Hampshire. Head Gardener, Paul Tattersdill, and his team have been tending the 66-acre gardens for over 25 years. It is, therefore, a beautifully mature garden, the culmination of a lifetime’s work. There is much to see and enjoy including a walled garden, a rose garden, a lake, and an Italian Garden terrace.

Tylney Hall gardens. L to R: a seasoned old brick arch with twisty wisteria vines; a shady lime tree walk. Photos

Although it is part of the NGS scheme I actually visited Tylney Hall the day after for a talk so my time was limited. I did, though, spend an hour or so after lunch in quiet solitude walking the paths, exploring the walled gardens and admiring the profusion of colourful roses. The architecture too added to the experience with weathered brick arches here and there, draped with honeysuckle or old wisteria vines. Now that their flowering time has passed, the wisteria boughs are exposed and have a charm of their own, much like the attractive ‘bones’ of a garden are revealed in winter.

At Tylney Hall the Italian Garden is laid out in a formal style on a wide terrace below the house, and features topiary peacocks, pergolas and a fountain. Photos

The house has a varied history including use as a hospital during World War Two. It was also a school in the 1950s when the terrace was buried under tennis courts. When the courts were removed in 1987 the base of original founatain was discovered, which led the Italian Garden being recreated.

The fountain in the restored Italian Garden at Tylney Hall. Photos

Visit the National Garden Scheme website to find out about gardens where you live or maybe somewhere you intend to stay this summer. Use the handy ‘next 7 days’ feature to narrow the search by region and then county. There’s a section on online talks, especially useful for those unable to visit in person. Some are bookable in advance and some you simply turn up on the day and pay by cash or look for the ‘cards accepted’ icon.

NGS open gardens are well signposted.


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