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Open season: the art of competitive garden collecting

From designer to “Yellow book”, some visitors will stop at nothing to bag the best gardens. The Galloping Gardener considers the perils of straying from the path.

There was a time when garden visiting was associated with middle-aged ladies clad in tweed skirts and sturdy shoes, who stood quietly, admiring the borders and who rarely went further than the next village to see a good property. But today Britain is besieged by a growing new breed of garden “collector”, who will stop at nothing to get a photograph of the latest landscape on their “wanted” list; who’s happy to push you out of the way if you’re looking at something they want to photograph; and who will travel a considerable distance to tick the latest open garden off their “must-see” inventory.

In recent years garden visiting has become a bit like playing the stock market – with a selection of “blue-chip” gardens that everybody wants to see because of their connections with well-known gardeners or their seasonal highlights. These include Bodnant and Exbury, famous for the magnificent spring rhododendron displays; Hidcote Manor, with its highly-prized garden rooms; Sissinghurst, with its connection to Vita Sackville-West; and Levens Hall, renowned for its topiary. Great Dixter also ranks high on the popularity list because of its celebrated borders; Beth Chatto’s garden attracts plant hunters in thousands seeking inspiration for their own plots; and Piet Oudolf’s prairie planting has become a 21st century garden phenomenon – on offer for all to see at Pensthorpe, Scampston and Wisley.

Well-known designer gardens also rank high on collectors’ lists. Mention Gertrude Jekyll, Jeffery Jellicoe or William Robinson and visitors will travel far to see them, while open days at Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s garden at Gresgarth Hall are like rush hour at Victoria Station. But if you really want to see crowds, and boast about where you’ve been, head for Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland, which only opens for five hours a year. And of course Prince Charles opens Highgrove these days, but you can’t take a camera or mobile phone, so you won’t be able to record your visit in the family albums.

Rarely is garden visiting more competitive than in the charity sector. Every year an increasing number of public-spirited garden owners vie to get their gardens included in the infamous annual “Yellow Book”, which boasts growing numbers of private gardens that open for charity and which bring out the garden collectors in hordes. Operated by the National Gardens Scheme, we’ve all seen their yellow signs in the countryside, directing us to properties that we would never normally get the chance to visit. Worthy work indeed, when you consider that they raise several million pounds each year and it’s a valuable source of funding for the charities supported by the NGS. But for the serious plant lover, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see what’s actually in the borders when there are hundreds of other visitors, jostling for position to catch them on camera.

As owners realise the potential of their sylvan landscapes, increasing numbers of gardens are opening to tempt the growing breed of garden hunter determined to explore pastures green. But visitors beware if you’re off to see a property that opens infrequently. You could find yourself queuing for the car park, standing in a long line for tea and bewailing the fact that all your pictures are filled with rear views of other garden gurus. The garden may be beautiful, but if you’re one of 500 sightseers in a one-acre plot you may wonder why you bothered to come.


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