When I first opened The Watch House for the National Garden Scheme in 2015 I felt a little lonely. Compared to the south and west of Kent, the spread of gardens opening in the east of the county was sparse, to say the least. But over the last three years numbers have grown, and I’m delighted to report that 2018 will be a record year. Not only does this mean I won’t feel lonely any more, but I’ll also have more inspiration here on my doorstep. Visiting other people’s gardens is one of the best ways of getting ideas for one’s own. Even if a garden’s style isn’t to your personal taste, appreciating an alternative approach can still affirm what you do and don’t want on your own patch. I guarantee there will always be something to inspire, whether it’s an accidental coming together of two unusual flowers, an ingenious piece of garden ornament, a splendid vista or just a plant you’re unfamiliar with. Seek and ye shall find.
The particular charm of most gardens that open for the National Garden Scheme is that they are private and therefore gloriously individual. They are generally tended by the owners rather than paid staff, and have a more personal, often eccentric feel about them. NGS gardens may not be manicured, but they will certainly be skilfully and lovingly gardened. This is all to the good when it comes to applying any appealing ideas to one’s own plot, as they ought to be replicable with a bit of skill, determination and elbow grease. Stately homes and gardens are also wonderful to visit, but the chances of owning or recreating one of those is slim.
I am always staggered that there are not more gardens open in our part of the county. By ‘our part’, I mean the area to the east of Canterbury, if one were to draw a line between Herne Bay on the north coast and Folkestone on the south. This encompasses the coastal towns of Dover (no gardens to see here – what a pity), Deal, Walmer, Sandwich, Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate, as well as countless ancient villages inland. The climate is mild, it’s not too wet and the number of sunlight hours are among the highest in the UK. We’re surrounded by farms growing cut flowers, salad leaves, asparagus, hops, strawberries, grapes, apples, pears and stone fruit. Yet despite being on the edge of the Garden of England – and a fertile edge at that – we have been all at sea when it comes to gardens open to the public.
Of course it’s all about quality, not quantity. This year there are some exceptional gardens opening in our area, including the private domaines of two Head Gardeners – Steven Edney of The Salutation and Philip Oostenbrink of Canterbury Cathedral. At Sweetbriar Steven and his partner Louise, also a very talented gardener, have created a vibrant, multi-textured jungle packed with colourful, unusual plants at the rear of their cottage. I was blown away by it when I visited last summer and can’t wait to go back. A stone’s throw away is Woods Ley, the home of Philip Oostenbrink. A man after my own heart he’s serving Prosecco at his garden openings rather than tea. Woods Ley is another small garden like my own. I am intrigued to see how Philip has used the space to pack in a host of exotics, including tree ferns, gingers, cannas and part of the National Collection of Hakonechloa macra held at the cathedral.
For those with more conservative tastes, Yoakley House in Margate promises to be a treat. The grounds of these pretty almshouses are given over to manicured green lawns, colourful flower beds, roses and specimen shrubs. Yoakley’s hanging baskets are billed as ‘magnificent’. I am looking forward to being transported back to the heady days of my childhood then this was the norm for public and communal open spaces. Close by is The Garden Gate, a community garden growing a mixture of flowers and produce using organic methods. There’s a wildlife pond, two poly tunnels, a shade house, coppiced woodland and a green roof. Perhaps the best part is that visitors on open day will be able to sample pizzas cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, complete with toppings plucked from the garden. Let’s hope they get a fine day.
East Kent NGS Coordinator Andrew Montgomery and I have cooked up a plan to visit some of the gardens pre-opening so that I can describe them on this blog. It will be chance to meet the gardeners when they are not the centre of attention, and to suss out what the highlights might be on opening days. With luck I will also be able to capture the gardens when there are none of the inevitable red kagoules in shot! The first gardens we’ll visit will be 34 Cross Road in Walmer and Watergate House in Fordwich, both of which I’m excited to see.
A plantsman’s garden, 34 Cross Road is home to a collection of daphnes and hardy geraniums, as well as unusual trees, shrubs and alpines. On the tranquil River Stour, Watergate House, home of Chelsea Flower Show designer Fiona Cadwallader, has a series of colour-themed garden rooms embraced by ancient stone walls. Finally, I must mention ‘Haven’ in Minster, a garden I am ashamed to say I haven’t visited yet, but which opens regularly for the NGS. 2018 will be the year I hop on the train and pay a long-awaited visit to this village garden, which is composed of a series of glades and full to the gunnels with plants.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get out and start garden visiting again, especially after such a brutal and prolonged winter. With the National Garden Scheme, the more gardens you visit, the more money goes to charity: you might just arrive home with a few plant treats for yourself too. TFG.