Follow the yellow guide road to great British gardens

Private gardens open for charity under the National Gardens Scheme and Scotland's Gardens Scheme

Margaret Robertson Â- as all good gardeners do Â- talks to her plants. Charitably, of course. At the moment, she is talking to the Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica 'plenifolia') in her front garden in a town near Glasgow. She is saying: "Hold on! Don't flower yet!"

"I've got a busload of visitors coming in 10 days' time," she tells me. "Rather early in the year, but they insisted. I'm worried there won't be much to see." If the kerria opens its rich yellow blossoms too soon, it could be past its peak when they visit. The same with the camellia. She is talking to that, too.

Her worries are really needless. Spring is already bringing into flower a great succession of small gems in her opulent patch, and the whole ground is shooting and sprouting with the promise of things to come.

Mrs. Robertson opens her garden to visitors through an organization called Scotland's Gardens Scheme (SGS). Her garden is among many listed and described in the group's annual "yellow book."

Britain has two yellow books (so called because of their covers). The other, larger, one Â- published by the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) Â- covers England and Wales. Together, the two guides list more than 3,800 gardens open for a modest fee, which goes to charity. They raise well over a million pounds a year, divided among the garden owners' charities of choice and a number of other charities specified by the NGS.

The two gardens schemes, which have survived recessions, a world war, the waxing and waning of tourism, and changing fashions in gardening, are evidence of a longstanding national pastime in Britain. Or of several national pastimes: gardening, visiting gardens, curiosity about how other people live Â- and a love of afternoon teas, preferably with scones and cream.

Linking these obsessions with charity gives them a pleasant legitimacy.

Garden-visiting was already a privileged practice before 1927, when the NGS began. The 600 gardens that opened the first year, in support of a nursing charity, were mostly large estates (often royal or noble) or what were called "fine gardens" Â- some of which have become legendary in garden history.

As the gardens schemes continued, the aristocratic character of their beginnings was modified by a more democratic inclusiveness of smaller private gardens. Nevertheless, 100 of the original "pioneer" gardens are still open in 2002, the 75th anniversary of the NGS.

Even World War II failed to shut down all the participating gardens, though they grew war-effort vegetables instead of flowers, and the halls and mansions served as billets or hospitals.

There is little doubt that the two British gardens schemes have actively perpetuated the practice of private gardening in Britain. Owners tell you what an incentive it is, even if they open their garden for only one day in the year, as many do. (One-day openings are often more successful than gardens that are open through the season.)

As the day approaches, weeding and tidying intensify. Owners begin to wonder if they will get a mere trickle of visitors or far more than their paths can accommodate. And the weather (notoriously fickle in the British Isles) is always a factor. One garden I visited had 300 total visitors one year and 1,000 on its opening day the next year.

The organization of the NGS and SGS is by counties and districts, with the county organizer responsible for visiting and vetting gardens. Stella Martin, Gloucestershire's county organizer, inspects the many gardens listed in her domain on a "three- to four-year cycle."

And she visits new ones when the owners ask if their garden might qualify. "Quite a lot of tact is required," she says, when a garden does not seem good enough. The NGS requires a garden to sustain a visit lasting three-quarters of an hour. "My own criteria," adds Ms. Martin, "are the interest of the planting, some sort of structure to the garden, and general maintenance."

The variety of gardens in the yellow books is astonishing. The owners write their own descriptions, which run the gamut from humorous modesty to fairly blatant egotism.

Occasionally, the descriptions may be a little misleading. Robertson, at times a garden visitor herself, remembers one garden described as having "many unusual plants grown from seed." But these words meant something quite different to the owner than to her. "Not a single unusual plant in sight," was her disappointed comment.

On the other hand, a quietly described garden may turn out to provide unmitigated delight in every corner.

The gardens range from highly formal Â- with everything clipped to the nth degree Â- to gardens in which nature (at first sight) may appear to have free rein. I have visited completely level, neat gardens where geometrically spaced bulbs or annuals made dazzling patterns between strict box hedges. I have also visited wild tangles on precipitous hillsides where the planting of rhododendrons from remotest China on virtually vertical rock-faces must have required the skills of a Himalayan sherpa.

A tendency today is for groups of small gardens within one community, a village perhaps, to all open together on the same day, allowing visitors to tour round all of them. These collective openings are very popular.

The yellow books themselves make intriguing reading. The world they describe is one in which "formal herb and Zen" gardens vie with "niches and carved urns," ferneries with shrubberies, parterres with knot gardens. An "enclosed formal garden" re-creating an "old medieval Marian garden" may be found on the same page as "modern areas in 'New Naturalism' style inspired by great natural landscapes."

Plants are not an absolute priority in all of the gardens listed. You can hardly read a page without being waylaid by some enticing detail that is not strictly horticultural. "Walled garden formerly used as town gaol." "Dinosaur trail for 3- to 8-year-olds." "Free-range bantams." One garden is "home to three wire-haired dachshunds."

But in between such cheerful sidelines, there is much real gardening on view. On every page you can find mention of old shrub roses, hostas, snowdrops, penstemons, plumbago, and agapanthus.

You turn the pages and take your pick. At one end of the scale, Woodmancote garden in Wadborough unashamedly boasts "a riot of colour unconstrained by 'good taste.' " At the other, a plantswoman describes her "half-acre garden" as having "deep herbaceous borders, terraces with drought-tolerant plants, [a] wild garden, [a] pond, and bog plantings."

If neither of those attract you, then how could you possibly resist "Rustling End Cottage, Rustling End, Hertfordshire"? The name alone is surely enough to draw crowds to its Friday evening opening on July 5.

• For more information, visit the National Gardens Schemes' website, www.ngs.org.uk, or call the National Gardens Scheme at 011-44-483-211535 or Scotland's Gardens Scheme at 011-44-131-229-1870.

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