The National Gardens Scheme – A National Treasure

Recently we had the opportunity to visit a private garden open under the banner of the National Gardens Scheme and it occurred to us that if any undertaking in British horticulture deserved an editorial it was the NGS.

What began in 1859 as the kind charity of a Liverpudlian merchant has since grown into one of the major publicly funded charities in the UK. William Rathbone’s generosity and determination in pioneering communal nursing programs for those less fortunate eventually caught the attention of Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria who nurtured its becoming a national voluntary organization.

Fast forward to 1926 and, mourning the loss of its patron Queen Alexandra, the scheme decided to initiate a fund through which new nurses could be trained and those had retired might find financial aid. Enter Miss Elsie Wagg, then a member of the scheme’s council, who identified the fervour with which her homeland embraced gardening and recognized an opportunity to harness this passion for a greater good.

It was decided that private gardens would charge ‘a shilling a head’ for members of the public to be granted access to them and, in so doing, form a charitable basis for Britain’s horticulture.

By 1927 the National Gardens Scheme was formed and in just one year had raised over £8,000 (over £100,000 in 2016). A year later the nursing organization with which it was partnered was renamed the Queen’s Nursing Institute.

In 1931 Countrylife Magazine began producing ‘The Yellow Handbook’ as a tour guide for the 1,000+ private gardens now involved in the scheme and, in the wake of the second world war, the NHS adopted responsibility for the District Nursing Service, however, it recognized the financial needs of those new nurses’ training and also of veterans entering retirement. It was decided that the NGS would donate funding to the National Trust for the purposes of restoration and preservation of native sites and in return the Trust would make some of its more prestigious gardens accessible to the public under the NGS.

Having gained status as an independent charity in 1980, the NGS began expanding its list of beneficiaries – a group that included Macmillan, Marie Curie, Help the Hospices and Crossroads (now Carers Trust) by 1996.

Two decades on and the scheme has donated over £45 million to these beneficiaries, and others too, half of which in only the last ten years, and the handbook is now known as ‘Gardens to Visit’.

We have visited quite a few private gardens open under the National Garden Scheme (NGS) over the years and only a few weeks ago came across the inspiringly named ‘Eureka’ near Biggin Hill in Kent. It’s an acre garden with an emphasis on colour and over 50 hanging baskets and 150 troughs and pots – that’s a lot of work! There’s plenty of places to sit and admire the owner’s labour of love and, of course, lots of tea and cake too! It’s finished opening for this year now, but do put it in your diary next year for a visit, and as many other gardens as you can, to support such a valuable charity.


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