The Watch House NGS Open Weekend 2019


And relax! After several weeks of intensive preparation, another National Gardens Scheme open weekend lies behind us. Rather like Christmas there’s an almighty build-up and then the event itself is over in the blink of an eyelid. In total we welcomed 440 visitors to The Watch House and raised just over £2000 for NGS charities. Our previous record was 300, so this is a fantastic result. Thank you to everyone who took the trouble to come along; we hope you liked what you saw.

Canna ‘Nirvana’ and Colocasia ‘White Lava’ in the Jungle Garden

There were a number of changes to the garden this year and this didn’t escape the notice of regular visitors. To begin with the famous Santa Cruz Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus subsp. aspleniifolius) that protected the northern boundary of the Jungle Garden for ten years has been reduced to 8ft tall, revealing the poorly maintained building behind. It was, of course, a great tragedy when a storm felled the tree in March, but the garden has benefited enormously from the additional light. The shaggy red stumps are resprouting, but so far new growth is pale and sickly, so I am not sure it will survive. We have high hopes that a seeding tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) might give that part of the garden a different vibe in time. In the meantime I’ve stopped noticing the half-rendered, scaffolded eyesore behind the fence. I hope its residents enjoy the view.

The Jungle Garden pre-opening.

We are fortunate that around half of our visitors return annually to see how the garden has developed. I am so flattered that people find the garden interesting and varied enough to come back for a second, third, forth or even fifth time, always taking time to share kind comments and make wise observations. Some recall the changes in position or performance of a plant better than I do. Nevertheless I feel honour-bound to ring the changes for visitors’ sake as well as my own. This year’s bit of horticultural theatre is my Tree of Life, an experiment with epiphytes in a maturing Japanese green olive (Phillyrea latifolia).

Orchids, bromeliads and tillandsia in my ‘Tree of Life’.

Naturally there were a lot of questions about hardiness and how to affix plants securely to a tree. In answer, none of the plants used are hardy enough for UK winters (including late autumn and early spring) so they will have to come indoors during the colder, wetter months. Attaching the plants to the tree was easy; they simply needed packing gently into natural clefts in the branches using damp sphagnum moss. So far, so good; they’ve stayed exactly where I put them. An occasional misting with rainwater seems to be enough to keep them happy during a dry spell. If you feel inspired to grow epiphytes outside in your own garden, just keep in mind that most bromeliads, orchids and airplants are accustomed to shelter and a degree of shade. They won’t last long in an exposed position.

A collection of succulents and coleus by the outdoor kitchen sink.

The question I’m most frequently asked by visitors to the garden is ‘how long does it take you to water everything?’. The answer is about an hour each day in summer. Many folk blanch at that amount of ‘work’, but for me watering is one of the most relaxing jobs in the garden, permitting me time to switch off, observe plants’ growing habits and make plans for the future. It’s like therapy, only cheaper.

Looking out of the French doors into the Gin & Tonic Garden.

The Gin & Tonic Garden has never looked better and is no longer regarded as secondary to The Jungle Garden, by me at least. This tiny 20ft by 20ft space gives me more joy than I ever imagined it could. It’s absolutely rammed with plants, an intricate tapestry of foliage and flowers that looks even more wonderful from above. If ever anyone wanted to get an idea of the variety that nature has blessed us with, they could find it here. From the huge leaves of Entelea arborescens, Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ and Zantedeschia ‘Hercules’, to the fine, feathery filaments of Acacia verticillata ‘Riverine Form’ and spiralling rosettes of Aloe polyphylla, a broad spectrum of plants is here to see in a space the size of my living room. Almost everything is growing in pots, including the trees.

The Gin & Tonic Garden from above

The new fence, which we’re in the process of painting, has made the space neater and more private. It’s not solid so as to diffuse, rather than block the wind. Never shy of making last minute adjustments to the garden, I planted a clump of pink echinacea among a froth of fennel on Friday, thereby creating a square metre of prairie and another point of interest. The need for such tweaks comes into focus when the pressure is on to have everything looking its best!

Last minute echinaceas add a splash of colour to the Gin & Tonic garden.

After The Beau’s arrival, the house started filling up with plants almost as quickly as the garden. Our bathrooms now rival any of those showcased on the countless Instagram feeds devoted to indoor plants, hence I’ve not bothered to add mine to the melee. Every room at The Watch House is now home to at least one plant, most to several more. For me this isn’t a trend – I’ve always grown house plants – but it is an excuse to buy more. My houseplant habit reaches its zenith in the Garden Room, where I write this blog and occasionally work from home. Here in the cool I am surrounded by begonias, ferns, hoyas and streptocarpus, and by oleanders, pelargoniums and coleus. Foliage reigns supreme, but a peppering of flowers is permitted. There is always room for one more here and it’s the perfect sick-bay for any plant that might be struggling.

The Garden Room from the library.

Opening one’s garden to this number of visitors over a short period isn’t possible without a considerable amount of help. A huge thank you to Jane B, Kris and The Beau for making a baker’s dozen of delicious cakes. Hat’s off to Sue, Karen and The Beau for brewing over 400 cups of tea, serving the aforementioned cakes and clearing tables. Three cheers for Jane S, Celia, Steve and Heather for selling tickets and explaining how best to enjoy the gardens. Finally, hurrah for the marvellous Scottish Sue who made sure that neither garden became overcrowded and for generally keeping our energy levels up. It was a fantastic team effort, as well as great opportunity to make new friends. As for Max and Millie, our beautiful pups, they are glad to have their garden back.

At maximum capacity in the Jungle Garden!

In order to save paper I did not produce a printed plant list this year. Instead I’ve spent several hours updating my Plant List on this blog so that it’s fully up to date. Should you have visited and spied a plant that you couldn’t identity, please drop me a line at and I’ll endeavour to provide you with a name and a source.

We shall decide in September if and when we’ll open in 2020, so if you missed the opportunity to join us this year, hopefully there will be another chance in 12 months. If you did come along, I’d love to hear what you enjoyed the most and which changes piqued your interest. TFG.

Evening falls in the Jungle Garden