Last month the owners of Lewis Cottage celebrated 10 years of opening their garden in support of the National Gardens Scheme, an organisation that has been encouraging the public to visit privately owned gardens since 1927. Here Richard Orton reports on how the scheme has not just made a huge contribution to health charities but has motivated him and his friend Michael Pell to continue developing their special garden.

Lewis Cottage Garden

The National Gardens Scheme was set up originally to support The Queen’s Nursing Institute (QNI) but has grown over the years to support a much wider group of nursing charities, such as Marie Curie and Hospice UK, and is the single largest contributor to Macmillan Cancer Support.

In total the NGS has donated over £60 million since 1927 to nursing and health charities and now has over 3600 gardens open each year. In 1927 just 609 gardens opened their gates and raised a total of £8,191. In fact two Devon gardens open this year (Cadhay and Sidbury Manor) first opened in 1929.

NGS donations to charity

But the NGS doesn’t just open beautiful gardens for charity – they are passionate about the physical and mental health benefits of gardens too. The NGS also supports charities doing amazing work in gardening and health and grants bursaries to help community gardening projects too.

NGS open gardens scheme supports many charities

Our association with the NGS began far more recently in 2011, when Spreyton Gardening Club called and asked if they could visit as part of their social calendar. Of course, we were delighted to oblige and after much mowing of lawns and tidying of borders, we felt the garden was worthy of a visit.

Amongst the group was a member of the NGS and she enquired whether we had ever considered opening the garden with their support. We had heard some not so flattering stories about the NGS but agreed to a visit from Miranda Allhusen, the county organiser, to have a chat. Typically, 24 hours after the Spreyton Club visit we had signed up to support the NGS having been bowled over by Miranda’s enthusiasm and encouragement, both of which continue to this day, supported as always by her husband, Edward.

Without them and the county team I doubt that Devon would raise the huge amounts it does. So much so that each year seems to set new records (2020 being an exception). A far cry from the £8,191 raised in 1927, in 2019 Devon raised £164,000 to add to the collective NGS pot, becoming the 5th highest county donor in the country and the highest outside of London and the Home Counties. That this was possible is down to all the garden owners across the county and to everyone who visits, pays an entrance fee, buys a slice of cake and purchases a plant or two. A huge, well deserved thank you to everyone.

Planning for opening the garden in May 2012 was not without its problems of course. There were signs to be made, plant labels to write, paths to build where previously there had been none, garden structures like the bridge over the pond to repair and repaint – quite what had we taken on? But we had great fun doing all of this during the autumn and winter of 2011/12, until one fateful day in January 2012 when Michael came crawling up to the cottage on all fours from the bottom of the garden having suffered a vascular spinal stroke that paralysed him (albeit not permanently) from the waist down. Apart from the obvious anxiety within the family about how this might affect Michael personally, we were very conscious that after all the hard work we may not be able to open the garden after all.

Typically Michael faced the issue head on and decided it would be the perfect motivator to aid his recovery – and so it turned out to be. With some deft adjustments to how we garden, it soon became clear that his stroke, as debilitating as it was/is, embodied everything that the NGS stands for. We all know of the physical and mental benefits that gardening brings to our lives but until then they had been simple phrases that we took for granted. Now we were seeing them in action and the benefits to all of our lives were very apparent.

It made opening in that May of 2012 all the more special, surrounded by friends and family who had volunteered to help serve tea and sell plants. Little did we know that we would still be doing so ten years on. Each year we say that there can’t be anybody left who would want to visit the garden and are constantly amazed that each year more and more new visitors appear. These past couple of years we’ve been delighted to welcome more young visitors than ever before and we hope that this continues for these are the gardeners of tomorrow and they, more than any of us, will have to deal with the fallout of the current climate emergency.

Help from friends and family

Over the years, we have expanded the garden a lot and I think this is mainly due to us opening the garden for the NGS. It is hugely motivating and we love it when regular visitors spot something new or notice that we’ve moved a border or installed a piece of sculpture or garden furniture. We’ve increased the size of the garden with a Winter Walk, installed an old grain silo and upcycled it into our NGS entrance kiosk and even set up our own online plant centre after an enthusiastic response to our initial plant sales.

Old grain silo entrance kiosk

All of this has come about from a single phone call from someone in Spreyton Garden Club way back in 2011. We get so much pleasure from opening the garden each year and we hope you do too.

Some Devon gardens open for the NGS this month.

24 & 25 July Pangkor House, Hatherleigh

25 July Hole’s Meadow, Okehampton

Jul 13, 2021

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