Thursday, July 17, 2008

An Inspector Calls

I know lots of people are fascinated by the National Garden Scheme selection process, particularly since the BBC's Open Gardens series with Carol Klein. It IS nerve-racking, but in my experience, the television series slightly plays up this side of it for dramatic effect. I thought you might be interested in hearing a real-life account.
I volunteered to open for the NGS in April 2006, in a moment of post-garden-visiting madness. It wasn't so much that I think my garden is particularly gorgeous - though it has some interesting things in it. (The pictures on this post show it as it looked then.) But I'd just been to see a couple of small gardens on a cold April afternoon and while they were lovely, I could have killed for a cup of tea. So often in London, the NGS gardens, though fabulous, are too small to do anything other than shuffle round in single file. People sometimes travel quite a distance to see them, often on their own, and I liked the idea of being able to offer them the chance to sit down and relax.
I contacted the London county organiser, Penny Snell, who passed me on to the assistant county organiser, Joey Clover. As in the TV series, all gardens are inspected to ensure there is enough interest to justify the entrance fee (which in London starts at around £2 for a town garden like mine) and that there are no health and safety issues, such as slippery steps, unfenced ponds and so on. Joey rang me and arranged to come not in the middle of winter as they do in the TV series (how daft is that?) but in July, when the garden would be looking pretty much as it would when it opened.
The inspection is a daunting prospect, as those of you who have seen Open Gardens will know. Luckily, the series didn't begin until after I'd been accepted, or I would never have dared do it. In any case, when I came to my senses, I was so sure my garden would be rejected, I didn't really worry about it.
Far more spooky was the fact that everything that could go wrong promptly did so. You know how in Greek mythology the queen who boasts of her daughter's beauty, or the girl who prides herself on her spinning prowess, incurs the wrath of the gods before you can say "By Jove"? It was a bit like that.
In my case, the first of the horticultural thunderbolts came courtesy of Thompson & Morgan, the seed company. I'd ordered a batch of Nicotiana sylvestris seedlings in the hope that their stately 5ft stems and fragrant white candelabras of flowers would temporarily mask the areas I was still rethinking. After several weeks of cosseting, the plants started to develop flower spikes at a suspiciously low level. They were Nicotiana all right, but the smaller F1 bedding variety, and, worse, they weren't white, but a mixture of magenta, salmon and dirty pink.
The second thunderbolt was a plague of rosemary beetles, a rather attractive creature with iridescent green and purple stripes. Unfortunately, it was rather attracted to the rosemary and lavender in the front garden. Even if we weren't vaguely organic, we wouldn't want to spray pesticide on a herb we might use for cooking, so the only way to get rid of it was to pick the bugs off and squidge them between finger and thumb.
The third thunderbolt was the 2006 hosepipe ban. Much as I would have liked to squidge the directors of Thames Water between finger and thumb, this would probably have resulted in criminal proceedings. Instead, I lugged watering cans to and fro each evening, ministering to bits of new planting that were still trying to settle in.
By the time Joey arrived for the inspection (mercifully without the ominous Prokofiev soundtrack that accompanies the inspector in the TV series), I had given up all hope of my garden passing muster - indeed, all hope of having a garden at all. I'd expected a dragon, but Joey looked blonde and elegant. She was charming, listening politely as I gabbled on about how I was vaguely organic, which was why I didn't use slug pellets, or weedkiller on the lawn, and how I kept the new pond free of algae without using an algicide (I've got a UV filter).
We'd built the pond the year before, and were about to get rid of the climbing frame and replant that bit of the garden. Joey accepted my promise that it would all be ready in time without a murmur and said that because of all the drought-tolerant planting, she thought it would be of interest to lots of people. And the idea of having a garden that opened at the end of August was attractive, as so many gardens open in May or June. As for the famous 45 minutes of interest, she said that rule was slightly relaxed in London, as long as there was lots to see and talk about.
She wanted to know about practical things. Would people come through the house or down the side passage? (Down the side of the house, so their first view of the garden would be a surprise.) How would I serve the teas? (In the open-plan kitchen/diner, accessed from the garden.) What if people (or their children) wanted to use the loo – or the trampoline? (They could use the downstairs loo, and be warned that the trampoline was at their own risk, with no more than one child at a time.) Finally, to my astonishment, she said casually that if I felt brave enough, I could go into the Yellow Book for the following summer.
She's been back since, to drop off my leaflets and posters and so on, and always has a look at what's going on outside. I'm never sure whether she's checking up or just taking an interest. She's probably twigged that I have a habit of changing things or moving them around every five minutes, so perhaps she just wants to make sure the garden is still there...

Spring 2007. Unfortunately, I think I have erased all trace of the climbing frame
from our photo library as well as from the garden. ( We gave it to neighbours,
who have just recycled it to yet more neighbours.)

Summer 2007. Things are beginning to fill out and look a bit smarter

Spring 2008. The addition of 'the beach', as my husband calls it, means less
wear and tear around the pond (and less to mow). The box balls are intended
to break up the straight lines of the pond