Summer has arrived and the open garden circuit has commenced. This is something gardeners look forward to every year, it presents an opportunity for licensed snooping and to see what the opposition is up to. And yes, let’s be honest here, we do tend to see other gardeners as the opposition. We may be all charm and smarm up front, but inside we are seething when we see someone else’s garden looking better than our own. It gives me no pleasure and considerable shame to report that the garden visit throws up a lot of emotions and impulses, and all of them, pretty much without exception, are deeply ignoble and unworthy.
In gardening circles there is a definite caste system. There are many different styles and types of gardener and each group has its own hierarchy and looks upon proponents of a different style with at best suspicion and at worst, deep contempt. These schisms create as much mutual disdain and mental anguish amongst those gardening in tiny suburban plots as the intellectual thinkers gave to the sublime versus the beautiful, the picturesque versus la style Anglaise¸ or the baroque. It’s a fairly safe bet that Addison, Uvedale Price or Walpole probably never spent much as a minute worrying about whether the ladies and gents of the local garden club approved of the placement or their ornamental shrubs or the colour of their garden furniture.
The drill is as follows: you receive your local garden club (low caste)/horticultural society (Brahmin) bulletin listing gardens opening over the summer, generally and ostensibly for a charity (in fact for purposes of showing off all the hard work put in and inducing envy amongst other gardeners). You immediately get on the blower to a garden chum and arrange to meet and ‘make a day of it’ with lunch before and tea after (so you can have proper post-mortem over cake). The day arrives and you and your chum set off for a bit of licensed snooping, a chance to peep behind rather than through the net curtains.
You trip in through the front gate, pay your couple of euro and off you go. Few Scenes of Crime teams have ever done such a forensic sweep of a patch of ground as the seasoned garden visitor. Beady eyes clock every weed, aphid infestation, and sign of black spot or other flaw. There are murmurs and fingers are pointed with heads nodding up and down, side to side or just poised at a quizzical angle. The owner, already exhausted from the weeks of preparation and from being up since six sweeping and preening, bobs about anxiously. One pair in the corner by the raised bed where she keeps her choicest plants are a cause of particular distress – she can’t quite see what they are up to and she is sure she has just seen the flash of sun glinting on secateurs – but she can’t get down as old Miss Winterbotham (the local C of I rector’s elderly aunt) has cornered her and is bombarding her with questions about her early flowering dahlias. You and your buddy put on a wonderful show, oohing and aahing at each bed, making mental notes for discussion later. You feel furious jealousy at the neatness of the borders, the health of the plants and the weed free lawn, but damp down these feelings by declaring sotto voce, that the garden is far, far too prissy and unnatural looking.
Once you have inspected and drunk in every detail of the planting, garden furniture, hard landscaping and paint finishes it is time to inspect the tea. It is traditional to serve afternoon tea at open days. Plastic beakers and bought biscuits and cakes are dreadfully infra dig, proper china and homemade tray bakes and cakes are really the only acceptable option. The owner keeps pointedly remarking that the white plastic table and chairs have been ‘kindly loaned’ to her by her neighbour as she didn’t have enough Victorian wrought iron to cater for everyone. You greet a few familiar faces and chat over tea and millionaire’s squares (slightly distracted by the fact that the man sitting opposite keeps moving his teeth as he tries to dislodge some crumbs which have worked their way under his falsies). A trip to the loo often offers an opportunity for bonus snooping, if unlucky you will be directed to an outside loo, but it will often be indoors, allowing a chance to see the interior of the house, the carpets, painting and books or lack thereof and fittings can be inspected – occasionally you will hit pay dirt and get to go upstairs. Once the lavatory visit is complete you can leave. You give wide smiled thanks to the hostess and tell her how wonderful she is, how beautiful the garden, what Trojan work has gone into it all and skip out the gates.
The second you turn the corner you ask ‘well what did you think?’ – ‘well it looks like it’s had a lot of money thrown at it’ is your pal’s response……… and so it goes on.