The value of open gardens

By Tamsin Westhorpe

What’s the purpose of opening gardens to the public? Last year my reply would’ve been that they offer enjoyment, inspiration, raise money for charity and give people a chance to look for planting ideas. Today my answer is very different.

Like many head gardeners and garden owners I spend autumn, winter and early spring working in all weathers to get Stockton Bury Gardens ready for visitors. My family garden normally opens on April 1st for the National Garden Scheme and then stays open until October. This year the gates remain firmly shut and the carpark empty due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Open gardens are a low stress place to relax with friends

The week before we open is usually madness with a new menu being prepared in the garden café, signs going up, borders being edged, and windows cleaned. If royalty was to arrive, we’d be ready with everything in place and looking smart. I missed this adrenalin buzz and slight panic this year. During the build-up week I usually have little time to think, no time to look carefully at the intricate details of flowers or consider why we go through this slightly manic ritual every year. Opening the garden is simply something that we’ve done for over 20 years and I don’t suppose we’ve ever really dissected why until now.

Events at open gardens such as plants fairs create a wonderful sense of community

In contrast to my usually energetic feelings in the last week in March this year I felt sadness. I found myself unable to focus on a gardening task and my pace had slowed. The weather this March has produced the prefect growing conditions and as if to rub salt into my wounds the garden looks better than ever. I don’t get to pop in for a chat with our café team and pinch some cake before we open for the day. I don’t get to rush around the garden removing unsightly weeds or faded flowers and I don’t get to chat to visitors about the weather and all things gardening. There’s no clinking of cutlery, no laughter, no constant plant questions – just silence.

The Tithe Barn café at Stockton Bury Gardens in Herefordshire

This silence has made me realise why we spend 6 months working so hard to prepare the garden. Never have I felt so passionate about the fact that gardens need to be shared. It seems wrong that just the family will enjoy the giant flowers of the tree peonies and the relay of blossom. It’s not that we won’t appreciate them but there is nothing like witnessing other people delighting over your borders.

My first thought when the realisation hit that we couldn’t open was for the keen gardener who visit regularly. Then I was reminded of a few incidents from the past when unexpected people came and were affected by the garden. I predict that in the future we will see a very different type of visitor. After being in lock down in a city the yearning to be close to nature will be stronger than ever from all parts of society. It won’t be just gardeners visiting, it will be anyone in search of beauty and space. I recall a young woman who visited last year. When she came out of the garden, I noticed that she’d been crying. When I asked her what was wrong she replied, ‘I’ve had a very stressful time and I am just so overwhelmed by the beauty of this garden. I was driving past and thought I’d have a quick look – it’s the best decision I’ve made this week.’

An open garden is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of life

On another occasion we had a lady visit with her friends who was terminally ill. She had chosen our garden for her last outing and wanted it to be somewhere tranquil and picturesque. How I didn’t weep when I discovered this I do not know. We also have many visitors who come on their own. They feel that this is a safe place, a welcoming place where they come to belong. The team here grow to love and care for these people and have concerns if they don’t show up for their regular Sunday visit. My thoughts are with these people now and I hope they will bounce through the door when we reopen.

We’ve also had people choose our garden to mark a happy family occasion and visits from those who simply want to walk on a lawn bare foot or quietly play their guitar under the shade of a tree. This time of silence has made me realise that a garden that isn’t shared isn’t alive to the same extent. I now know that an open garden is so much about personalities, happiness, sadness and there is a need for open gardens in everyone’s lives. Gardens are a medicine that can’t be bottled.

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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