Doddington Place Gardens meets George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the National Garden Scheme

Posted: April 18th, 2024

‘I’ve known about the National Garden Scheme all my life,’ says George.  ‘My mother used to open our garden [Goodnestone Park Gardens in Kent] half a dozen days a year. She would despatch myself and my brothers on our bikes to put up the NGS signs. We used to get hundreds of visitors.’

George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the National Garden Scheme

George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the National Garden Scheme

The venerable National Garden Scheme is a peculiarly English charity.  No other country in the world has anything remotely similar.

It is astonishing that scores of people visiting gardens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland,  and eating mostly home-made teas can generate £4 million a year of which £3.4 million is given away in donations.  And donations account for between £2.5 – £3.5 million a year. ‘The Yellow Book’, as the NGS book is affectionately called, lists nearly 3,500 gardens that will open to visitors this year. ‘People are welcomed with open arms and leave feeling better after visiting a garden,’ says George.

NGS garden visitors love buying plants

NGS garden visitors love buying plants

But it isn’t always plain sailing – ‘it can be a very emotional, people have been known to burst into tears when they have spent weeks preparing the garden for opening and suddenly the weather forecast is terrible.’

In the fourteen years that George has been at the helm the NGS has gone from strength to strength by imaginatively widening its scope. ‘It used to be much more insular – more restrictive fussing about things like whether gardens were tidy or not. And it didn’t engage nearly enough with the beneficiary charities.’

Now all the charities – which include Maggie’s Centres, Horatio’s Garden and Hospice UK – work together as a group.  Each May there is a dedicated Gardens and Health week (4-12 May 2024) linking service users from the NGS beneficiaries with free garden visits and funding garden and health projects.

The Community Garden Grants scheme started quietly in 2012. It took off in 2019 and has since helped scores of community gardens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The maximum grant available is £5,000. The benefits of community gardens are manifold, from growing food to benefiting people with learning disabilities and above all bringing people together. Two examples are a community garden run by a group of Pakistanis in Liverpool and Rhubarb Farm in Nottinghamshire, a two-acre horticultural social enterprise that provides training and volunteering opportunities to sixty ex-offenders, drug and alcohol mis-users, older people, and people with mental health issues and learning disabilities.

‘I didn’t have an epiphany that sparked off my interest in gardening.’ George first became interested in garden history after studying history at Cambridge. But he was catapulted into becoming more knowledgeable when he was commissioned to write The Collins Book of British Gardens in 1985. ‘I visited two gardens a day for weeks on end. Caroline Hardy of Sandling Park, Kent put me in touch with all the 50 NGS county organisers.’

From 1980 to 1990 he juggled his time between journalism and working as the Sotheby’s representative in Kent. He has contributed garden articles to Country Life for over forty years. He has also written scores of books on gardening, cricket as well as a biography of Edward VII.

He was The Times gardening correspondent before joining Sotheby’s full time to edit Preview and Art at Auction, the end of year review.  Then he moved to Cape Town to be Sotheby’s South African representative.

Returning to England he set up Green Fingers, a pioneer internet gardening company. ‘Our competitor was Crocus, they survived, we did not.’

Next the world of auctioneers beckoned once again, and he joined Bonhams as the Business Development Officer until 2009.  He became a trustee of the NGS in 2006, and then moved to become chief executive in 2011 after a period as an interim.

Three years short of its centenary, the NGS is flourishing. Astonishingly, of the 600 gardens first open in 1927 about seventy-five of them are still opening for the charity.  The NGS widened its remit to Northern Ireland during Covid with about 25 gardens.

In addition to individual gardens and the community gardens several allotments open, as well as village group openings.

'Tea is an important part of any garden visit' says George

‘Tea is an important part of any garden visit’ says George

‘Tea is an important part of the whole garden-visiting experience,’ says George.  Teas make £650,000 a year and plant sales £250,000.

The charity has thirteen full time staff and 600 volunteers which includes a team in each county.  The Patron is Dame Mary Berry.

Tom Stuart-Smith is designing a garden for the NGS at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.  ‘Tom has had a long association with the NGS, opening his own garden for thirty-odd years.  Crocus is building our garden.’ The garden will include dozens of plants sourced from many gardens open for the NGS (including Doddington Place Gardens), as well as some from Tom’s Plant Library and other sources.

Tom Stuart Smith's Plant Library

Tom Stuart Smith’s Plant Library

The garden is being generously supported by Project Giving Back, a new charity started by a philanthropic couple to enable charitable organisations to stage a show garden at Chelsea thus raising their awareness.  The idea arose during Covid when charitable causes were struggling.

The NGS Chelsea garden is designed as a woodland grove with hazel trees and woodland planting underneath, and a sustainable building made of cleft oak (split by hand) designed by Tom’s architect son, Ben. To make it look as if it has been outside for ages it is being rubbed down with wire wool soaked in vinegar.

The garden will then be moved to the new Maggie’s Centre at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. ‘It is important that there is a life for the garden with one of our beneficiaries after the show.’