A Snoop Too Far

June 24, 2011 § 20 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a garden that is rarely open to the public. For a few days each year the owners gamely allow people the run of the place, and they give the takings to charity. It is a beautiful piece of Ireland, with water and woodland, and the daintiest walled garden I’ve ever seen.

Small and perfect walled garden

There was much to see in the extensive acreage: a polytunnel crammed with vegetables, more vegetables in the walled garden, congenially intermingled with perennials; a gravelly courtyard, where plantings of the pinky-grey-spired toadflax ‘Canon Went’ swayed in the breeze in a most agreeable manner; an avenue of chalky-barked birch; a boathouse overlooking a tidal river; a compost area with dark and crumbly vintage humus. A display of newly planted nasturtiums, in twenty-four pots, was just one of many pieces of evidence that this space was continually and carefully gardened.

Nasturtium altar

There was, as I said, so much to see. My fellow visitor and I dodged and darted from tableau to vista, oohing and aahing with delight. We ran into another couple several times, sharing with them our cries of appreciation (as you do when you’re visiting a private property and are feeling a little awkward). “Isn’t it lovely!” we gushed, and “Oh! Look at that!”

How lovely!

Despite our moments of mutual enthusiasm, I wasn’t paying much attention to them, until this interchange: “Is there anything up there?”, I asked one of them, as we passed on a narrow corner. “Oh, yes! You can see right in the window!”, she exclaimed. And indeed you could: there, for all the world to see (or those who had paid their contribution at the gate, and were bent on pressing their noses against the glass), was a view of the owners’ private space. I remembered the words of a friend who opens her garden, and who is fed up with the nose-marks on her kitchen window: “Sometimes I feel like leaving a sheep’s head on the table.”

After that, I kept an eye on Mr and Mrs Nosey Parker, watching them move around the exterior of the house and clinging to the panes like those sucker-toed toys that you see stuck to the windows of cars.

Mr and Mrs Parker: enthusiastic visitors

Their curiosity was undisguised and unending. It reminded me of the need for a Garden Visitors’ Code of Behaviour (there’s a parallel code required for certain garden owners, but that’s for another day). It is something I’ve written about on occasion in my Irish Times column, and which I’m wheeling out again here.

Many of the gardens that open in the summer are private spaces, just like the private spaces around your house and my house — only more assiduously tended. Some open for charity, some for vanity, and some to help defray the cost of garden upkeep. All deserve the same respect that we would accord to the most beautiful corner of our own garden. Therefore, a few words of advice:
— Go with an open mind: although you may not like all of what you see, there’s bound to be something that offers food for thought, or even inspiration. You won’t find it unless you look for it.
— Bring your camera and notebook: take pictures of plant combinations that you like, and note their names. But don’t take snaps of the garden owner without their permission. Chances are that if they’re in the garden they are gardening, and may not wish to be immortalised with aphids in their hair and rips in their clothes.
— Keep your criticisms to yourself, and don’t offer the owner unlooked-for advice on pruning, planting or anything else horticultural. And don’t mention the weeds.
— Ask questions, but be reasonable, it’s a garden visit, not a consultation. And try to resist telling anecdotes about your own plants and garden. The garden owner has heard it all before.
— Do keep children on a tight rein. Encourage them not to pick flowers, handle plants, run through borders, throw handfuls of gravel, splash in ponds or rearrange plant labels. Unfortunately, some children are just too lively to bring on garden visits, and their need to blow off steam cannot be accommodated in a carefully-kept space.
— Be honest. If there is an “honesty box” for you to pay the admission charge, do put the money in. Don’t steal plants, flowers, cuttings, or labels. Some gardens have plants for sale, so you may be able to buy the coveted plant. Often the owner will actually give you a cutting. Test the water with an investigative “is it easy from cuttings?”.
— Respect the owner’s privacy. Do observe the signs asking you not to pass certain points, and don’t look in windows, or wander into houses uninvited. Don’t turn up outside opening hours unless you have an appointment.
— Do praise the garden. If there’s something you like, say it. The owner has worked hard to present their precious space to people like you and me.

§ 20 Responses to A Snoop Too Far

  • Paddy Tobin says:

    For a moment, I thought I recognised Mrs. Parker. Wouldn’t that have been fun!

    I reckon a very interesting book could be written on the goings-on of garden visitors.



    • Jane Powers says:

      Mr and Mrs P had English accents, so I think they were tourists. In any case, I very artfully gave her a pair of sunglasses (or black eyes, even) in the photo, so that she would be less identifiable.


  • patientgardener says:

    Outrageous but unsurprising – people are just so rude and these days people have no respect.
    If I was opening my garden which I never would as it isnt good enough but if I did I would have all the curtains firmly closed.


  • readyplanted says:

    Not unusual though. I know lots of owners who open for the NGS often have plants stolen, or seed heads nipped off, as well as the snooping into the house itself. Its such a shame because its usually with great pride that owners want to share their hard work and lovely gardens and I’ve had some inspiring afternoons wandering round open gardens, not to mention fabulous tea and cakes! Let’s just hope it doesn’t put these gardeners off.


  • Crikey! This is an aspect that I hadn’t thought as I’m opening my garden for the first time in September better have bouncers at the ready, and security guards frisking people as they leave in case they take my plant labels.

    It is a very lovely garden that you visited, I like the little Nasturtium altar, especially as it is the sort of thing that I never manage to do myself.


  • Suzanna Crampton says:

    One thing you left out was visitor should go to the WC before they visit the garden. Those kinds of deposits are NOT welcome. I might be organic but not to that extreme.

    I have also had plants stolen which I find quite hurtful as they were raised from seed and cuttings not easy to do so. So years of TLC gone in moments.


  • Naughty, naughty Mr & Mrs P! Love the photo of him gawking :)I’ve been opening my garden every summer for the last 10 years or so and must say that there have been only a handful of negative incidents in all that time. But my daughter recalls a lady, face pressed up against a window, calling a friend over to “take a look”, they hadn’t noticed Zoey was sitting in the room watching tv!


  • Bill Smith says:

    Private Gardens That Only Sometimes Open to the “Paying” Public. Enter gawkers galore. What else should a proud owner expect? Nose smudges. Oh my! Unleash the hounds…


  • Patrick Quigley says:

    I am on the committee for the Ulster Gardens Scheme and we would usually suggest that garden owners close their curtains over to prevent visitors peering in. Unfortunately too many people assume because they have paid to see a garden they have carte blanche to do whatever they want once they get in. A friend who opens her garden has had some horror stories to tell: all the seed heads of her blue poppies removed; visitors who had been brought into the house for tea and scones going through drawers when she left the room; a plant sucker being hauled out of the ground and when she offerred to fetch a spade in the hope it might embarrass the culprit he simply said yes and proceeded to dig it out. Another friend had welcomed a coach load of visitors to her garden, provided teas, scones etc, and at the end, despite having agreed a fee in advance the entire group boarded the bus and drive off without paying any money at all. It makes me despair sometimes, but I am always so grateful to all those who do share their gardens and hope they will continue to do so as it brings so much pleasure to others.
    By the way, i think i recognise the garden in question – without breaching its annonymity, by any chance is it in West Cork. It is years since I visited and it looks beautiful


  • Peter Cornichon says:

    A lovely column in every sense, inspiring me to seek a garden haven as I head to northern Minnesota. I do not expect to be challenged by the invitation of grand houses, but I’ll keep my nose clean nonetheless. The tomatoes are done in Austin, but despite the early onslaught of summer’s arid days, the rose pavlonia has taken flight. Cheers.


  • Oh dear… I have a suspicion that deep inside I am one of these dreadful people who would like to follow their baser instincts and peer through the windows into other people’s lives! Only stopped by my husband grabbing the scruff of my neck and hauling me back into line.

    When visiting Prince Charles garden at Highgrove, it was all I could do not to rush up to the windows and peer into his living quarters leaving an incriminating imprint of my nose on the panes. Only the likelihood of setting off alarms and hundreds of armed security people jumping out of the bushes stopped me from doing this.


  • Jane Powers says:

    Yes, Patrick, it is in West Cork! Your stories (and Susanna’s and Deborah’s) are more examples of depressingly bad behaviour — and I could tell a million more. But MOST garden visitors behave impeccably, of course.


  • KB says:

    My dad is so nosy. He’s always snooping round houses where he has no business. Once he took me right in to the house where an old lady had lived (and died). All her stuff was still there, I was mortified! Love your rules, they should apply to life, not just garden visiting. I will print them out and present them to my father x


  • Paddy Tobin says:

    There was a television programme from Highgrove where Alan Titchmarsh interviewed Prince Charles. Prince Charles recalled lying on the floor of the sitting room to avoid being seen by visitors. I wonder was this the occasion of the visit by Ms. Sock?

    On a slight change of emphasis: Jane, you mention the “honesty box” above and a thought on these honesty boxes came to me during a recent garden visit. Would it be honest to put only what you thought an appropriate/fair fee for the garden into the honesty box? Imagine the garden owner suggested €5 per person for visiting the garden but, after visiting, you thought such an amount too much; that the garden was not of a standard that deserved such a payment. Would a payment of, say, €3 per person be more honest and more in keeping with the “honesty box”?


    • Jane Powers says:

      Oh dear, the poor Prince!

      Regarding the honesty box question: I understand your point completely. Some owners have an inflated opinion of how worthy their gardens are. And they do overcharge.

      But I feel that the honesty box is part of a culture of trust that we don’t want to lose in gardens. So, if one leaves it short — for whatever reason — it is eroding that trust. If a garden isn’t up to scratch, then perhaps the best thing is to seek out the owner and discuss a reduction in the entry fee?

      I’d love to know what other people think about this!


  • Paddy Tobin says:

    Jane, for the record: we both paid the full amount suggested. As you say, it is the fair thing to do. The garden owner wasn’t about but, you know, most garden owners don’t really want to hear an honest opinion on their garden; it is too precious and personal to them.On the other hand, commentators on gardens generally lean to the side of being polite and not causing offence rather than being truthful. Rarely is a garden critiqued in the same style as, say, a restaurant or book.



  • VP says:

    Paddy – true re gardens and lack of critique, but I’m constantly finding I’m in disagreement with film critics, so I expect it would be the same for me with gardens.

    The problem with a critique is that it often excludes enjoyment from the equation…

    I was Ms Sock at Highgrove and also had to resist peering through the windows – you go perilously close at one point on the tour 😮

    Jane – I’m imagining a multitude of people who open their gardens to the public are printing out this piece as a handout for the next time. A good point made with wit is so much more effective than a list of dos and donts

    PS just spotted your book review in next month’s Gardens Illustrated 🙂


  • Lizmcgpr says:

    Great column – love the pic, would have loved if they had found themselves on here!


  • Good grief, how appalling. I admit to always being curious about the houses behind the gardens, but to press one’s nose against the glass? I’d be too afraid of being caught. Like the garden visiting advice – though some of my earliest memories are of my Mum saying “Mum, no, you can’t” as my Nan tucked yet another sneaking cutting into her handbag…


Something to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading A Snoop Too Far at One Bean Row.


%d bloggers like this: