by Norman Todd (February 1998)
Beverly Nichols advised that when faced with a garden visit and when that inevitable time barrier hits you head on, trim the edges of the lawn and leave the grass uncut. I don’t have any lawn so his advice doesn’t help me at all.
I have never – not once – been able to get our place in shape for visitors. I always tell myself that people like coming here because they go home feeling their own garden is Eden compared to ours.
As a consequence of the perpetual unmaintained look I try to sound superior about it and call it a ‘natural West Coast garden’. It doesn’t really fool anyone but it eases my own sensibilities a little.
I am sure you know this line well, but despite its triteness, I find it still works quite effectively. Actually there are two lines – “You should have been here last week”, and “In two weeks time this will be a blaze of colour” and always have a few horror stories ready. Visitors then think how lucky they are and they then don’t ask so many embarrassing questions. I usually start by informing them that I carry extra insurance because the place is so dangerous. Then I point out Rhododendron aureum which Dr. Koelpin used to try to cure arthritis, which it did a bit, but killed his patients in the process. I also point the poisonous berries on the Daphne laureola and the remains of our Heritage Tree – a native dogwood which needed some dead limbs removed. The butchers who came to do the job misunderstood the arborists’ instructions. They thought they were to ‘remove the dogwood’ when the order was to ‘remove dead wood’. That gets some sympathy as I lead them past a particularly noxious patch of brambles.
I find it helps to just keep talking – don’t give opportunities for questions or comments. Nothing will spoil your day more than when some insouciant visitor tells of his specimen of such-and-such that is twice as big as yours and blooms the whole year. The late Maggie Whitney had a tactic that was pretty drastic but worked well. When someone would say, “It must be beautiful when everything is in bloom.” She would reply. “If you don’t think it’s beautiful now you are not a gardener so OUT”, and she would point the way. But don’t use that method right after the “You should have been here last week” line.
It helps a bit if you have some juice or pop or coffee available and some chairs. A lot of visitors will just stay near the refreshments and forget all about going round the garden. Normally I serve the coffee from the greenhouse but last year I had one group – all nice blue-rinse ladies – who came when I wasn’t ready for them. My wife was out of town so it wasn’t just the garden that needed maintenance – regardless; I just gave them the run of the house. They found the ugliest spoons and mugs for the coffee and used paper towels instead of napkins. They were in every drawer and cupboard looking for utensils. While I was called away for some other commitment they fended for themselves just fine.
One thing I have observed is that a surprising number of visitors arrive with full bladders – the coffee station has some consequences to it too, which should be borne in mind. So this year we are going to build a toilet that is accessible without going through the whole house. I say ours is a private garden and by that I mean that some of us can remedy the bladder problem en plain air. But that is not satisfactory for all guests, so one has to be prepared to offer other arrangements.
If you really want to put on the dog think about charging admission. This will bring you a lot of respect I have noticed. People will talk in hushed tones when going around. You can say the admission is for a charity if you want the voices to be even more hushed. However, paying people will stay longer to get their moneys’ worth and more will come with bigger pockets to take home samples. This spring I took pride in four little plants of R. recurvoides. After one noisy visitation I had three and after the next there were two. A lot of garden visitors know their onions.
Some garden owners ask visitors to sign the guest book. We don’t have one. We are waiting to get an autograph that is really worth something before investing in a fancy album. But it has the advantage of giving you a record of who might have made off with the prize proteoides.
I think it is important to wear grubby clothes when taking people round the garden. It shows you are a worker and closer to Lady Chatterley than most of the observers. I always look at peoples’ hands. If they are not as dirt engrained as mine I write them off as being theoretical gardeners only.
From experience I now know that it will be impossible to get the place in shape for the Royal Visit so I don’t worry about it anymore. You will no doubt be asked to show off your garden this year as members of our club just love coming to criticize all your hard work. Remember that you can be the visitor in many more gardens than you can be the host so just check that you have something to drink and a convenient toilet and if you have a lawn do the edges first.