Sui Searle: Why I love the National Gardens Scheme (NGS)


The National Gardens Scheme is a godsend for those of us who harbour unfulfilled dreams of owning a perfect English country garden. Sui Searle tells us why this wonderful charity allows us to fill up on inspiration, beauty and, most of all, cake. 

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY BY SUI SEARLE | @Hector+Grace @GirlAboutGarden

When Annabel asked if I would like to write a piece for her Red Book magazine my thoughts sprang immediately to visiting gardens – something I love to do when I have time – but more specifically, visiting gardens that are open for the National Gardens Scheme (NGS).

This might have had something to do with the fact that I had just recently taken a group of etchers, with whom I share a studio, to visit two fantastic gardens in a beautiful corner of Kent, but also because, to me, visiting other people’s gardens is a little adventure of its own – fitting in nicely with the ethos of Bleak House.

Following hot on the heels of country walks and a pub lunch with the dogs, or a day trip to the sea, one of my favourite things to do on a spare weekend afternoon is to seek out interesting gardens to visit. If I’m lucky, I might find one that allows us to take our dogs along too so they don’t have to miss out on the adventure.

I love discovering NGS gardens because, not only do you never quite know what you might find, you also get to see new and interesting places. The gardens I visited with my etching group sit perched above the marshes in the sleepy village Oare, a place I wasn’t familiar with but which I discovered has stunning views over wildlife-rich wetlands and farmlands just outside of Faversham. Not only did we get to visit two interesting, thoughtfully designed and inspiring gardens, I also found a beautiful corner of Kent that I might otherwise never have visited. 

In contrast to the glamour, polish and temporary nature of show gardens at Chelsea, or the perfectly manicured vistas in National Trust gardens cared for by a team of professionals and an army of volunteers, many gardens that open for the NGS are lived-in, evolving gardens owned by private individuals.

I find it inspiring to see how people have designed and planted their gardens. Plus, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good nose over the garden gate! At the same time your entrance fee to the NGS raises money for good causes - mainly nursing charities. In 2017 the NGS donated £3 million to charity. And if all this wasn’t enough, there is also of course tea and cake. There is always tea and cake. An afternoon of inspiring gardens, interesting places, a cup of tea and homemade cake… OK, it may not be the most rock ‘n’ roll, but to me it’s the perfectly British, lazy weekend, afternoon adventure.

I’ll be honest, some gardens are undoubtedly more interesting than others. A cursory bit of research on the Internet should give you some clues as to what to expect before you venture off. I especially recommend doing this if you are thinking of travelling any distance to get to a garden. But not knowing what you might find is all part of the adventure. And there are some real gems to be discovered. 

Here’s a little tip to get you started: The Barn garden at Serge Hill, just 25 miles from London, is open for the NGS on the 10th June 2018. They are the gardens of Tom Stuart-Smith – an award winning Chelsea garden designer and, in my opinion, one of the very best. Absolutely stunning gardens and planting and an NGS opening that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Details of all the opening dates for the gardens in the scheme are available here.

Images: 1&4 Pheasant Barn, Kent | 2&3 Pheasant Farm, Kent


Sui Searle & Hector Pickleton


Curiosity lead Sui Searle to poke her head around the door of a ramshackle shed on the side of the road in Kent to find a secret etching studio housed inside.


Sui Searle & Hector Pickleton


Sui Searle tells us how her Bleak House tote has become the perfect etching companion and why Marie Kondo would be proud of her.



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