Are you planning to garden gaze this summer? This lovely expression, coined in 1944, refers to visitors to private gardens large and small, opened under Scotland’s Gardens scheme to raise money for charity.
The charity’s roots go back to 1931, when its original purpose was to raise funds to support the Queen’s Nurses, better known as district nurses. At this time, there was no NHS so this support was critical to Scotland’s communities.
The scheme was a blooming success and the guidebook the following year listed more than 500 gardens, mostly large country house gardens, which opened in return for a “voluntary contribution”.
As war loomed some gardens closed but, as Terrill Dobson, national organiser for Scotland’s Gardens, explains, the spirit of the blitz took over and many garden owners dug for victory by growing vegetables for sale in their flower beds.
“Teas continued to be served on the lawns – without sugar,” she adds.
The authorities began to realise that as the gardens were providing a source of income for district nursing and also a welcome form of relaxation for war workers. As a result, it was agreed that extra petrol would be allowed for special buses to take visitors to the garden openings. The 1944 annual report delightfully captures the spirit of the time: “When Glamis was open in August, one intending visitor went up to the bus station in Dundee and asked which was the queue for Glamis. ‘Lady,’ replied the harassed official, ‘it’s not a queue, it’s an evacuation.’”
More than 70 years on, 500 gardens of all shapes and sizes are opening across the country this year. Their support will benefit 200 deserving causes, including the Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland, enabling them to carry on their valued work in 21st Century community nursing.
With around 125 properties in Courier Country, there’s a mix of historic, nationally significant properties and smaller gardens normally tucked away from the public eye.
“We’re incredibly inclusive, looking for all types of gardens,” says Terrill, “everything from large and small and ranging from formal estates to wild havens for bees and insects; village and cottage gardens to community allotments.”
The main criterion is to offer a good day out so if a garden is quite small, it will be grouped with nearby gardens or included in a trail.
“Many people worry that their garden won’t be good enough to open with us which is usually just plain nuts,” Terrill says. “We’re looking for enthusiastic gardeners with gardens that are truly loved – that’s what makes a special garden which others will enjoy visiting.”
And because today’s children are tomorrow’s gardeners, many properties encourage families to visit. Terrill and husband Gavin’s garden, the Herbalist’s Garden at Logie near Kirriemuir, is particularly popular with families. “We have a lot of space to run about in, lots of frogs and creepy crawlies, and we always offer a children’s quiz,” she smiles.
Anyone who loves a secret garden need look no further than the Fife Garden Trail, a new attraction for this year. It features nine stunning, privately owned gardens, five of which have never or rarely admitted visitors before.
One of these is Whinhill in Upper Largo, a garden filled with love and memories by owners Sue and Jeremy Eccles.
“My parents had made a lovely garden in Ireland where I grew up surrounded by plants,” Sue recalls. “It was my mother’s passion so I guess it rubbed off on me.
“When my mother died I took my horse trailer to Ireland and filled it with all her favourite plants and designed a special area I call the pool garden,” says Sue.
The Eccles’ garden is on the side of Largo Law, overlooking the Firth of Forth and exposed to the west wind.
“The first thing we did was plant a wood of 500 trees to the west which now gives us much more shelter,” Sue explains. “We then built the walled garden and since then I’ve been pushing out in all directions – my husband says he only has to turn round and I’ve dug another bed!” she laughs.
A few miles away in the village of Boarhill, several gardens will be open on July 23. Here, Bobby and April Simpson’s garden at The Cottage reflects a love of gardening that was planted in them in childhood.
“We took on a big challenge when we moved here,” recalls April. “The garden was overgrown and crowded so we redesigned it to open it up.”
Now a riot of pretty cottage plants and quirky nooks and crannies, the Simpsons’ top tip is to choose plants that provide colour all year round.
“We love sharing our garden with visitors of all ages,” green-fingered April smiles.
Whether you have a cottage garden or several acres to maintain, working with nature and a passion for planting are at the root of it all, whatever the obstacles. Breathing new life into a neglected walled garden was one of the challenges facing Catherine and Simon Dessain when they bought Lawton House, a Georgian property, in Inverkeilor 26 years ago.
“The walled garden was empty apart from dock leaves and nettles when we arrived but its mellow sandstone walls made it very pleasant to work in,” recalls Catherine.
Now planted with apples and plums, pears and quinces, soft fruit bushes, vegetables and a mixed herbaceous border, Catherine is constantly thinking of ways to extend the garden.
“I love being outside and nurturing the soil,” says Catherine. “Visitors are so appreciative and you always learn something new from them as well as raising money for worthwhile causes,” she smiles.
Another garden feeling the love can be found deep in the Perthshire countryside at Forgandenny. Here, the romantic woodland garden of Rossie House is dominated by huge old trees, underplanted with a multitude of unusual shrubs and bulbs. Paths meander through the woodland and over bridges, with surprises around every corner.
Owner Judy Nicol confesses a love of “brave flowers and good doers” so hellebores and roses run riot.
Opening her garden to visitors is a high spot of the year. “It’s wonderful to see visitors enjoying themselves,” she enthuses.
That same floral fervour is evident in Pippa Clegg’s garden at Easter Derry in the Angus village of Kilry. Pippa first discovered a love of gardening in 1978 when she got married and lived in Inveresk.
“We had a tiny garden but my father was a great gardener and taught me most of what I know,” says Pippa.
“He helped me fill that first garden with treasures and even now I still have his plants which have moved house several times with me.”
The garden at Easter Derry has evolved over the 32 years the Cleggs have lived there.
“There has been little planning over the years,” says Pippa modestly, “but we started from no garden at all and gradually built up the borders, walls, hedges, pond area, rock garden, greenhouse and polytunnel and planted trees.”
Kilry has a thriving gardening club so five other interesting gardens will also be open this year including June and John Browning’s home, Easter Cammock. Situated on the Cateran Trail about two miles from Glenisla, the garden comprises around five and a half acres, including a large pond.
Since the Brownings both retired from the NHS, they have been able to devote more time to their passion and created a tranquil oasis.
“Although the trees and shrubs are immature, we sowed a large area in native wild flowers which are now established and attract bees, butterflies and birds,” says June. Not all nature is welcome though – June and John’s biggest challenge is protecting the trees from deer and hares.
“This is the first time we have opened our garden but I’m really looking forward to sharing with others the beauty of the wild flowers,” smiles June.
“The simplicity of the ox-eye daisy, primrose or forget-me-not is hard to beat.”
And she doubtless speaks for everyone hosting an open garden when she says: “Hopefully people will take away a memory of interesting flowers, trees and shrubs and a good welcome.”