The British make small talk by discussing the weather; often the conversation never moves on from this introductory riff. The French, we believe, do the same but their chosen subject is food. The reason for this strange difference between close neighbours is that British food is too predictable, but the weather is endlessly fascinating, whilst in France the food is endlessly fascinating but the weather predictable. This cannot be so true nowadays but the habits remain. At least both nations are always happy, as a variant, to discuss matters gardening, though again taste and approaches differ radically.
This year the Brits have had much to discuss in matters climatological. At the end of March the weather warmed up, the rain stopped (our overseas readers will not believe this but it did) and it stopped for a whole month and more. A wet winter had left big water reserves in the ground, but a dry warm April meant that spring initially sprang into early action. Gardeners, like farmers, are rarely happy though, and the inevitable happened; clear days brought severe spring frosts, slowing new growth and killing early buds and blooms. Then, increasingly parched soils meant that all spring action ceased. That is usually bad news, but for garden lovers around Britain this year it is in many ways a blessing, because it means that the gardens of the Yellow Book will have even more to offer than usual.
The what? The gardens of the Yellow Book are not some form of secret society like the Freemasons, or Sherlock Holmes’s Red-Headed League, but they do represent an elite, the National Gardens Scheme, or NGS. An elite of gardeners, they range from council houses in West London to Sandringham House in Norfolk, the country retreat of H.M. The Queen. The common factor is that they all have gardens of great interest and quality. The scheme has been around for almost one hundred years, when a group of mostly aristocratic owners in England and Wales (Scotland has a separate scheme) got together in 1927 to open their gardens for a few days a year for charity, the chosen charity being one for district nurses, a particularly key part of health support before the days of the National Health Service. It was of immediate appeal and in the first year over 600 gardens participated. It was also of great appeal to the public, there being far fewer gardens open to the public then than there are today, the nurses being a popular cause, and the public becoming much more mobile. In 2020 nearly 4,000 gardens were due to participate but Covid-19 did for some of them; nearly all popped up for 2021 but again many spring gardens were not able to open. Which is why the weather has been rather a boon. The garden season is running about a month late in many counties, (daffodils are still in full bloom in the north) so gardens that might have been past their best by the time openings were permitted in late April are still going to have much to offer to garden viewers in May and June. And the gardens have been yet further improved, if a bit battered, by torrential rains in May, stringing out the flowering of cherries, magnolias and maythorn, the latter, despite its name*, normally flowering in April. This reversal of normal weather patterns incidentally, will also give comfort to both sides of the climate change debate, pointing to, if nothing else, the endless perversity of weather in the UK.
But what is the Yellow Book? The handbook for all these garden openings is a thick, 744 pages, flimsy paperback with glossy yellow covers; hence the Yellow Book. This has become thicker and thicker as more and more gardens have joined the scheme, and has an index system which on first acquaintance will fool most intending garden tourists. But like most things, once you know how, it is easy. Find your county; find the county maps; find your target foliaceous delight by a number in approximately the right location. Then locate the garden, not in alphabetical order but number order, in the county list. Then all will be revealed as to opening dates. Be warned. Often the only date was last week, so now make a note in your diary to do it next year.
If you are in luck, then a cornucopia of information will be poured into your trug (see photograph): the owners’ name, details of how to get there, opening hours, the nature of the garden and its history. As this latter part is written by the owners, these can be modest, immodest, and sometimes very funny. Mr and Mrs Roberts in Derbyshire describe their garden as “eclectic yet replicateable” with 12 different themes including woodlands, a Japanese garden, an Italian walled garden, and many other delights. One suspects that replication would take several acres and some additional labour at peak times. A Dorset garden of less than one tenth of an acre is said to be “a little piece of paradise with the WOW factor”. It certainly will be. In London N11 a group of allotments will be open – 200 of them. Sandringham, to give H.M.’s garden a further plug, takes just nine lines of dry text to describe its 60 acres.
But the typical visitor, bearing their copy of the Yellow Book, increasingly battered as the season progresses, often has one extra item of information that is key to the success of their journey. The gardens may be of guaranteed high quality and interest, but something else is required - the afternoon teas which many gardens offer. This is an essential component of garden-visiting and whilst the owners and perhaps a few staff will look after the garden, they will on their day of Yellow Book glory have raked in many locals, friends, and family to run the teas, which must never entail queues too long, and must never ever run out. Most helpers will be staggering home at the end of their day, one suspects, with a week’s supply of scones and half a Victoria sponge. Many gardens will also pot up a few plants for a plant stall, also for charity, and maybe a craft pavilion.
Patron of the NGS is The Prince of Wales, one of the nation’s greatest gardeners, oft to be found with gumboots and spade in the borders at Highgrove, and the appropriately named chief executive is the Hon. George Plumptre (“plumtree”), scion of Goodnestone in Kent, a great English garden. The NGS really does maintain quality and in that English county life which will be familiar to TV viewers of Miss Marple and similar series, intense local garden politics are involved. There are huge county committees, mainly composed of ladies, and more mysterious review committees to run things and make sure quality standards are maintained. In gardening terms, rather than in the teas, we should make clear. Some of the gardens have opened every year since 1927 and will be hoping to make the centenary (the Yellow Book used to provide a list of honour but that seems to have been dropped at the moment), but there are new ones opening every year. And alas, a few that drop out. Some, no doubt, after a quiet word on several occasions has failed to improve things enough to allow continuing inclusion. One of my favourite gardens was removed from the Yellow Book some years ago after a long and sad decline, mirrored in the state of repair of the modest castle which it surrounded. But in recent years there has been a great growth in village and community openings, where groups in villages and towns get together to open perhaps ten or twenty neighbouring gardens on the same day – and cooperate in making the teas. Some of these, perhaps especially in towns, are astonishing tributes to gardening enthusiasms, ranging from thick jungle gardens inspired by Belize, to vegetable plots that will feed a family of four for much of the year.
Last year the Yellow Book scheme gave £2.9m to a range of charities, still mostly connected, as from the beginning, with health care. Although many gardens were not able to open, garden owners were especially generous and gave donations in lieu to help out, and the NGS used some reserves so that its beneficiaries did not suffer. This year will also be difficult, but many of the gardens will be able to open as lock-down lifts, and garden enthusiasts should be keen to get out in the open air for some exercise, some inspiration, some plant-buying. And a lot of scones and jam, and maybe just a bit of chocolate cake.
So tip for this week? Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, is open almost every day, but on Sunday 23rd May the Duke of Marlborough will give his garden takings to the NGS. See the Yellow Book for further details.
*Maythorn is more commonly known today as Hawthorn. It got its name in the time before 1752 when Britain followed the Julian calendar, which, by then, was 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar introduced by the Pope in 1582 and finally adopted by Britain in 1752. Before 1752, Maythorn usually first flowered around the beginning of May and was used in May Day celebrations. After 1752 it flowered too late for May Day...until global warming made it possible to pick these beautiful (but stinky) flowers on May 1 once again.