The Watch House NGS Open Weekend 2014

It was about this time last year when our friend Beth began twisting our arm to open for the National Gardens Scheme. We took the plunge, and in February found ourselves numbered 104 on the map of Kent in the famous Yellow Book. On the eve of this weekend it still seemed unlikely to me that anyone would go out of their way to visit a garden that measures just 20x30ft, but I was to be proved wrong. Over the two days we welcomed 220 charming visitors and 6 well behaved dogs in a steady stream from midday to 4pm. Everyone who came along was kind and appreciative. Some had travelled from as far away as Leicestershire; many came from the four corners of Kent. It was a pleasure to stop, talk and share gardening tips with so many interesting folk. This alone made it all worth the effort.

The garden was thronged with visitors on both days
The garden was thronged with visitors on both days

The Gods were smiling on us in every way, providing two days of almost unbroken sunshine, a cooling breeze and light, refreshing showers overnight. And we could not have wished for the garden to look more fulsome; the dahlias were in their prime and fragrant gingers soared skywards. Dahlia ‘Amercian Dawn’ was a big favourite with visitors, as was Hedychium densiflorum ‘Stephen’, the kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum), elephant’s ears (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’) and towering Echium pininana.

Reaching for the stars, visitors were fascinated by Echium pininana (Photographed by Scarlett Wardell)
Reaching for the stars, visitors were fascinated by Echium pininana, photographed by Scarlett Wardell

I chatted solidly for the whole eight hours we were open, thus was in my element. I answered countless questions about how to get agapanthus to flower well, to which the answer was always “grow them in a bright, well drained spot; keep them tightly confined and feed with a high potash fertiliser from April to September”. Hopefully the agapanthus of Kent will bloom brighter and more bountiful than ever next year. There was a lot of interest in how to cultivate dahlias in pots and how to reduce the amount of water needed to maintain containerised plants. I shared my secret, which is to use the biggest pots available, use water retentive John Innes No. 3, pack pots together tightly and mulch with surface of the compost with horticultural grit. This way we only need to water our pots twice a week, even in the hottest weather.

Dahlia 'Amercian Dawn' photographed by Scarlett Wardell
Dahlia ‘Amercian Dawn’ photographed by Scarlett Wardell

On both days there was a lovely atmosphere, with visitors relaxing in the sun and unexpectedly bumping into friends and neighbours. What was so encouraging was that several people told us that they had only come to see us because our garden was is so similar in scale to their own. We were flattered that visitors told us how inspired they were by what we’d achieved in a small space and how many plants we’d packed in. The slate terrace was especially admired for its simplicity and clean lines, whilst the outdoor kitchen generated a lot of questions about maintenance and how often we use it. Fortunately this summer we have been able to cook in it almost every weekend, and in truth the kitchen requires very little routine care.

Radiant, Lilium 'Debby', photographed by Scarlett Wardell
Radiant, Lilium ‘Debby’, photographed beautifully by Scarlett Wardell

My partner Alex (aka Him Indoors) slaved over a hot stove to create delicious orange and poppy seed loaves, lemon cupcakes, chocolate cookies, flapjacks and fruit cake. They went down a treat with a chilled glass of Belvoir fruit cordial, with the elderflower proving to be the favourite thirst quencher. Apologies to those who missed the offer of a refreshing cuppa, hopefully we can add this to the menu next time.

Our outdoor kitchen was much commented on.
Our outdoor kitchen came into its own
Refreshing Belvoir cordials were kept on ice
Refreshing Belvoir cordials were kept on ice
Friends Nigel and James sample the home-made cakes
Friends Nigel and James peruse the home-made cakes

Special thanks go to the special people who made the open weekend possible, starting with the wonderful Vanessa, Irrigator General and PR Guru. Here she is with husband Colin, who did our write up in the church magazine. Thanks to Vanessa, many people arrived with their NGS brochures pre-circled with our garden’s details.

Vanessa and Colin
Unsung heroes, Vanessa and Colin

Garden journalist Lesley Bellew gave us a glowing write-up in the Kentish Gazette which tempted a lot of visitors to make the pilgrimage to Broadstairs. NGS Assistant County Organiser, Caroline Loder-Symonds was marvellously supportive and encouraging throughout, convincing us that our garden was worthy of wider attention. Having persuaded us into opening in the first place, it was only right that Beth should travel from deepest Cornwall to make sure we did things correctly. No stray leaf, bare twig or fading bloom escaped her expert scrutiny and was dealt with accordingly.

Me and Beth, NGS pro and Artistic Director
Me and Beth, NGS pro and Artistic Director (shirt and blouse, models’ own)

On the gate collecting entrance fees, and on occasion managing the crowds, was Jack, Scarlett, James, Nigel and Simon. They did a marvellous job talking to visitors, dishing out booklets and providing directions. Scarlett, aged just 11 years, doubled as my talented young photographic apprentice and, I am sure you will agree, took some cracking shots for this post.

The men with the money, Nigel, James and Simon man the front gate
The men with the money, Nigel, James and Simon man the front gate

In the kitchen Rachel and Alex ran a very tight ship, keeping me out of the way until the very end of the day on Sunday when I just had to help myself to cake.

My attempt to blend in with the flowers was futile.
My attempts to blend in with the flowers was futile. Captured expertly by Scarlett Wardell

The whole experience has renewed our faith in human nature and put us in touch with lots of local people and keen gardeners. I won’t pretend that it didn’t involve a lot of planning and work, but it was worth every bit of it to hear visitors’ lovely comments. Preparing for the weekend helped crystallise my ideas about how the garden should develop in the future and this morning I looked upon our tiny patch with fresh eyes and a new determination to make it better than ever next year. Thank you to everyone who helped, visited or wrote about us, and in doing so provided valued support for the NGS charities.

Just desserts - a glass of chilled rose and a cupcake to round off the weekend.
Just desserts – a glass of chilled rosé and a cupcake to round off the day.