An Interview with Sue Phipps - Deputy Chairman of the NGS

Deputy Chairman of The National Garden Scheme, Sue Phipps has spent 30 years working in magazine publishing, initially on the advertising side and later as publisher on a range of women’s and lifestyle magazines including Sainsbury’s Magazine and The English Garden. She has been involved with the National Garden Scheme since 2000 and she first opened her London garden for the scheme in 2005.

Now living in Wiltshire, we spoke to Sue about what inspires her and how she prepares to welcome the public to share her garden each year.

Where does your passion for gardening originate?

My father loved gardening. We had a pocket handkerchief sized garden in Chelsea but it gave him huge pleasure. My mother lived on the edge of Exmoor and was probably a more creative gardener than him - She was also an artist and I think she approached her garden in the same way. She used to say that a garden should have somewhere to sit in at any time of the day or year and I totally agree with that.

Now my passion for gardening is fuelled by the peace and pleasure I get from just sitting in the garden, and from seeing things grow, die back and then grow again (mostly!)

Does your family share your love of gardening?

I’d be lying if I said yes, although my youngest son is very interested in growing things. My sister is a much better gardener than I am but we have totally different tastes when it comes to garden styles and plant choices - She’s much more of a purist than I am and is also much more knowledgeable.

Who or what has influenced you the most in your approach to gardening?

I’ve taken ideas and suggestions from so many people but there are a few women who stand out. One example is my step-aunt Margaret Fitzwalter who created a fabulous garden at Goodnestone Park in Kent. We visited often when we were growing up and she’d walk round the garden with me, talking about what she was doing. Most of it went over my head but I think some of the important stuff sank in and when I was older she was even more of an inspiration. She had an amazing gravel garden and also a woodland of fantastic cornuses. 

When we moved to Wiltshire the garden was two acres with huge fabulous trees but literally no plants, no colour no borders – and I was a London gardener without a clue how to deal with such a large space. Patricia Elkington, who has the most beautiful garden in Crawley called Little Court (open for the NGS) was incredibly helpful and taught me to think big. Penny Snell at Moleshill House who was chairman of the NGS gave my some of the best ideas that we’ve used such as the silver birches behind the pond, and on an ongoing basis I have a good friend called Alex Davies who is a garden designer (with a fabulous garden called The Parish House that opens for the NGS) and is constantly full of suggestions, ideas and support. 

If you’re a gardener I believe you garner ideas from everyone you talk to, every magazine you look at, every garden you visit. I would also say that photographers like Marianne Majerus raise your expectations of what can be achieved, and Instagram can also broaden your horizons. 

How long has your garden been open to the public?

We opened our garden in London for about 6 years and we’ve opened our garden in Wiltshire for the past 3 years. I absolutely love doing it. There is simply nothing better than seeing people sitting in your garden or wandering around enjoying it - It breaks down all sorts of barriers. In London I used to bump into people in the street who’d been to our opening and, because they felt they knew me, we would stop and chat. It’s also very good for your confidence because it makes you realise that although all you can see is the pesky weed that’s poking its head through the geraniums, the visitors are just looking at the plants, soaking in the atmosphere, eating the cake and having a good time! A garden is for sharing!

What kind of preparation goes into opening your garden?

Knowing that I’m going to be opening in early June is definitely an incentive to get going in the Spring but I think I’d do it anyway because I just love seeing the garden coming to life. I try not to think too much about the opening because a garden is always a work in progress and you shouldn’t worry too much about it all looking perfect. I think people like seeing the changes that you are making. I have lots of help on the day itself but otherwise throughout the year I have a great guy called Shane who comes for 6 hours a week and does invaluable work and my husband Paddy does all the mowing, which I could do but he does it much better! The most important last minute preparation is doing the edges. Penny Snell always says it’s like having a good haircut – get that right and no-one notices anything else!

There are so many great things about opening your garden. I would be lying if I didn’t say I loved the feeling of, “I created all of this and now all these people are enjoying it,” which is quite egocentric, Because our house used to be a dairy farm and lots of different people have lived in it or have worked there we always get people who come and tell us of its history, for instance the 85 year old man who used to climb our horse chestnut, the young woman who grew up there and hasn’t been back for 20 years – and the people who’ve seen it from the footpath at a distance and now get to see it close up. I love those connections. And yes, sometimes the weather wrecks the day – once in London I had 12 visitors, most of them remained inside looking out while I stood in the pouring rain with 2 intrepid people and discussed roses – but even the weather can’t take away from the pleasure of spending time in someone’s garden.

Do you have a favourite part of your garden and why?

There is a seat in a paved area up against a south facing wall with gravel beds in the paving. Every morning at about 7.00am I sit there with a cup of coffee, I do Wordle, I look out over the garden and think about it, I ignore the 2 fox red Labradors looking at me with a “Take us out now” expression and I make peace with my world. In May the wisteria behind me is always the first to flower and in Summer the dierama and verbena bonariensis wave over my head. And I’m in heaven!

Are there any particularly challenging spots?

There’s a part of the garden that runs between the garden and the field. It was just grass so I’ve mown a curved path through it. Inspired by what I saw Claudia Rothermere had done in Ferne Park, I planted camassias and studded it with about 6 shrub roses (Gentle Hermione and Gertrude Jekyll). I’ve also planted wild geraniums and gaura in it. I love this area because it’s a link between the cultivated garden and the agricultural field. I like the juxtaposition of the shrub roses and the wild grass, but I’m pretty sure that I’m in the minority. I’m not going to change it but I’m always very defensive when I take people through it and, secretly, I think it probably only works in my imagination!

Do you have any plans for changes in your garden?

Because our garden is so new I think I’m probably at the stage of just letting it live for a while before making any changes. Some of my early planting was a mistake so as time goes on I will gently change it and I have plans to address the issue of storing water although I haven’t actually done anything about it. I don’t see the necessity of always changing a garden. I think gardeners should be aiming to do less and to enjoy more. It always saddens me when I hear a gardener say, “Oh I never have time to sit in my garden.” For heaven's sake that’s what it’s for!

What three pieces of advice would you give to a gardener starting out?

  1. Try and resist the temptation to put a plant where it doesn’t want to go
  2. Take cuttings – it makes you feel like God! (and it’s not difficult)
  3. Sit in your garden – every day!

Which other gardeners and gardens do you admire?

The trouble with being involved with the NGS is that you see so many amazing gardens. I’ve already mentioned a couple of my favourites so I’m just going to add one more because I saw it recently. The garden at Bruern Abbey is breathtaking. Angel Collins, the designer has managed to make a very large garden feel accessible and approachable with a beautifully gentle colour palette and simple planting schemes. And so much more! I’m not sure that it’s open to the public so you may just have to read the many magazine articles that there are about it.





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