Thoughts from a Foreign Field

All About the National Gardens Scheme

The Mill Pond and walkway.

My apologies. I have been neglectful so far this month of you, my transatlantic chums. I have lots of pale excuses mostly concerning having to be away at more flower shows (one in Birmingham and one in Moscow) but I think I have probably gone on long enough about garden shows. Instead I will tell you of another great British institution, the National Gardens Scheme (NGS).

This is a wonderful idea that was dreamt up in 1927 in order to raise money for the Queen’s Nursing Institute. The plan was very simple. People would open their gardens to visitors for “a shilling a head” and in the first year 609 gardens opened raising £8,000.00 (in old money there were twelve shillings to a pound). From then on the scheme grew and grew and there are gardens open every weekend in all parts of the country. Some are large and stately but many of them are simple back gardens in towns and villages. There is a phenomenal mixture from family gardens to specialist planty gardens where every single flower is something special.

The whole thing has become a tradition: the gardens are primped and stroked to perfection and there are almost always plants for sale and, even more importantly, home made cakes and cups of tea. We used to open our garden for the NGS and my children (who were quite young then) called it “Cake Day”. They were not very interested in the garden and instead spent all afternoon eating large slabs of cake. The sugar rush was a horror to cope with by bathtime!

As a result of all this garden opening and tea drinking the NGS was able to donate £2.5 million to charities last year which is, I think you will agree, pretty impressive. They are the biggest single giver to Macmillan Cancer Nurses – an amazing organisation that supplies in-home care for patients. If you want to know more then the NGS Website is here and I made a very silly film about gardens and cakes which can be seen here.

I was thinking about all this because one of the gardens I have designed was open for the NGS and I decided to wander along and have a look. It is an old Watermill in whose garden I began working about eight years ago. Since then we have done lots of planting along with building streams, jetties and a big swimming pool. An outdoor swimming pool is a bit of a liability in this climate as the weather is only really warm enough for swimming for, at the most, about two weeks a year. Here is a quick tour round the garden…

The view down the stream The view down the stream
The Orchard Border - Herbaceous Plants under old apple trees The Orchard Border – Herbaceous Plants under old apple trees
The Swimming Pool The Swimming Pool

Most recently we have started working in the two fields surrounding the property and it was these that I particularly wanted to see.

This is the field before we started work.
This is the field before we started work.

We dug some big ponds and have planted loads of trees and they have all settled in well.big ponds and have planted loads of trees

It used to be a big empty field but is now slowly transforming into a wildlife haven full of birds, insects and a rapidly increasing population of wild flowers. Very exciting.

There were about 300 people who wandered around the garden that day, all of them very kind and appreciative. The whole thing ended in a very British way – with a torrential downpour at about 4pm which soaked everybody to the skin and made us all run to the shelter of the tea tent. For more cakes…

homemade cake

View Comments


  1. user-7006916 06/27/2013

    Need to know what this cake is. Please inform.

    Also, what a stunning watermill garden.

  2. user-1020932 06/28/2013

    that millpond garden and view down the stream, wow. i was proud of my Ligularia until i saw that one. idyllic and i want to live there. antonio can bring the cake,,, i'll supply the coffee (tennessee hillbilly here don't know much about tea)

  3. Sunbeams 06/30/2013

    The garden/all of the plants are wonderful but I too am waiting to hear what kind of cake that is. Recipe too?

  4. JamesAS 07/02/2013

    The cake in question was made by my daughter from Carrot and Courgettes. The recipe is below, she (Stroma) is a whizz-bang baker and whenever she is home the kitchen table groans with delicious things. It is in some way fortunate that she no lives in London or I fear I would be so fat as to be unable to do any gardening at all! For more of her cakes look here

    Carrot and courgette cake
    200g peeled and grated carrot
    200g peeled and grated courgette
    90g sultanas
    100ml orange juice
    6 eggs
    300g caster sugar
    250ml olive oil
    500g blanched hazelnuts, finely ground
    1tsp baking powder
    1tsp grated nutmeg
    1tsp ground cinnamon
    2 tbsp desiccated coconut
    60g sunflower and pumpkin seeds plus extra for dusting

    125g unsalted butter
    200g cream cheese
    250g icing sugar
    1tsp vanilla extract

    Preheat oven to 180/ gas mark 6.
    Grease two 23cm round cake tins with olive oil.
    Use kitchen paper to soak up excess moisture from grated vegetables, then add sultanas and orange juice and leave to soak.
    Whisk together eggs and sugar until light and airy, slowly add olive oil while whisking.
    In a separate bowl whisk together ground hazelnuts, baking powder, spices and coconut. Add these dry ingredients to wet. Finally add soaked vegetables, sultanas and seeds.
    Divide mixture evenly between tins, and level out. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean, this can sometimes take longer, as this cake has a lot of moisture.
    Allow to cool in tins for ten minutes, then turn out onto wire rack and leave to cool completely.
    While cooling make the cream cheese icing, beat the softened butter alone for 2-3 minutes, add cream cheese and beat, then add icing sugar and vanilla and beat again, until smooth.
    Lightly toast remaining seeds in oven for 5 minutes.
    Spread base cake with layer of icing then place next cake on top and spread icing on and sprinkle with toasted seeds

  5. CTpat 07/02/2013

    What a lovely garden! We have visited gardens in Britain but so far not gone to any of the private "open one day a year" type. We'll have to check the NGS web site before we next head over there.

    P.S. Um, James? It was 20 shillings to the pound. 12 pence to the shilling. The first time I was in England (back in high school) they were still using the old system.

  6. SteveA 07/02/2013

    James is not permitted to blog about cake anymore unless he gives me a piece.

  7. user-1020932 07/02/2013

    i made the mistake of visiting stromabakes, my god. i'm drooling here

  8. user-7006916 07/02/2013

    Just in case: courgette = zucchini

  9. user-1020932 07/02/2013

    sultanas are a mystery to me as well. my g'mom called her impatiens sultanas. google searches, math, not sure i can make this cake! :)

  10. user-1020932 07/02/2013

    ok, a white grape

  11. penelopes 07/03/2013

    cake looks fabulous- is there flour in it??? I am not seeing that in recipe- it most certainly would be a great cake without - how would it rise?????? Gardens are beautiful . Thanks. ps

  12. user-1020932 07/03/2013

    ok, i came back here for dessert. i visited Stroma's tumblr again and JamesAS you should be very proud she is an artist with the bakery.

  13. JamesAS 07/06/2013

    Stroma tells me that there is no flour because the baking powder makes it rise.

    CtPat: You are of course right, 12 pennies to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, one pound and one shilling to a Guinea. I was never very good at figures. When I first was learning maths at school we learnt the old system, it changed when I was 11. The new decimal system was much simpler!

    tntreeman: I have conveyed your compliments to Stroma. Thank you.

    steveA: That seems like a reasonable condition. I will bear it in mind.

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