NGS September Open Day – #DahliaFest

Chris and I have been huge fans of the National Garden Scheme (NGS) charity for a long time. You can read about some of the NGS gardens we’ve visited in my articles here. If you don’t know much about it, basically avid gardeners open their gardens for a small donation to the charity. Those donations get distributed through the NGS to care charities like Hospice UK and Alzheimers UK. You can read more and find gardens near you on the NGS website or by downloading their app.

We’re still taking donations for the NGS via our JustGiving page here if you couldn’t make our open day but would like to contribute.

What we didn’t know until we committed to open our garden was Chris’ good friend Rosanna was as big a fan, having visited lots of gardens herself growing up. We thought she was joking when she insisted on joining the open day to do our teas and cakes. Rosanna was not joking! Rosanna never jokes about cake. And when our horticultural and culinary skills were combined, they became Team Dahlia Cake:

For me, it’s been a real joy getting to know Rosanna better through the open days. All three of us wanted to create something special for visitors and I can’t imagine opening without Rosanna alongside us now. Her cakes are a work of art and taste even better – and as everyone knows, NGS is as much about the cakes as the gardens.

How Rosanna baked so much I’ll never know. From Victoria sponge, coffee and walnut, lemon drizzle, brownies, rocky roads, vegan salted caramel and banana cake, vegan brownies, scones and more. At both open days they sold really quickly helping to raise huge amounts toward our total. Eventually, all beautiful cakes have to be eaten and here’s Rosanna doing the honours for the second time this year with the tiered Dahlia cake.

The build up to an NGS day can be a long slog. Garden owners made it look easy when we visited in the past but having gone through it, I have to say we found it fun but extremely challenging. Gardening and growing plants to flower on the day when the weather is throwing anything at you, baking, promoting the event, begging shops to put up posters, organising tea urns, glasses etc. There is always more to do than you imagine. Oh and that blasted weather when on both days it predicted rain!

Chris has always been there to help organise everything and to listen constantly to my worries. In fact, it’s actually his fault we opened this year as he put us forward! πŸ˜€ He’s helped organise equipment, lug things around, come to the allotment to carry flowers etc. Chris, unlike me doesn’t blog about everything but the open days couldn’t have happened without him. Over the last month he’s had a terrible back, probably with sciatica, but even in pain he’s come out in the rain to help collect flowers and other bits and bobs.

On the day, all of the build up just melts away. Of course, the garden looks better than you think it does and there is an air of positivity from everyone. For the first time, it was a pleasure to show other avid gardeners what our garden looks like at its peak in the year. Monstrous dahlias and all!

Over the year we’ve been visited by 245 people across three separate openings. Everyone was so excited to talk about plants! I reciprocated that excitement in spades as I finally found people who loved talking about ferns and flowers as much as I did. I had so many great conversations I wish I had written some down.

Rhodochiton atrosanguineus was the star plant of the year. I’d read Sarah Raven saying the same about the plant on her open days. Everyone wondered what it was.

The people who came were a mix of neighbours saying hello, celebrities, garden designers, multiple authors, gardeners, quite a few garden legends, fernaholics and more. Oh, and a Robin. I always wonder where our bird visitors go in the middle of summer, they never leave the garden in spring and autumn. No dahliaholics though, surprisingly! Not one. Perhaps they’d had their fill elsewhere, or there really are very few people who like their over-the-top gaudiness. Many people converted before leaving though, I feel I fought the good fight for my beloved Dahlia.

I hadn’t properly planned it but I knew I wanted to display my collection of Dahlias at our September opening. I grow my favourites in the garden, the finest of the finest. My allotment is experiment central to try new varieties first. Even more than I expected were in flower, and I’d been shopping for vases in charity shops all year for this moment. I’d stripped Clapham and Brighton’s charity shops of vases so much that they started putting their prices up! Anyway, we put on a mini Dahlia show in our small one bed flat in Zone 2.

Dahlias! Dahlias! Dahlias! πŸ›πŸŒΊ

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We were also lucky to have had some very generous donations for September’s event. Including jams donated by Fortnum & Mason for the scones, a signed Dahlia book by author Andy Vernon and a tonne of houseplants from a kind grower.

Thank you also to our friends and family who helped. So many of you but to name a small number, my parents who kept the garden alive in the heat of mid-summer when we had to go away, Mark, Wizzo, Lizie, George, Philip and everyone on teas, Alex on the door, Wayne for the encouragement, Sue at the NGS for making it all happen. And everyone who chipped in at different times or just came and enjoyed.

In the blink of an eye it was all over and we could relax. Counting up the money, we managed to raise more than our July opening and we still have some more to go as we still have 60 odd houseplants to sell this week. Overall, across both days we’ve raised over Β£1,600 for the NGS. Which is quite simply amazing – thank you everyone for your generosity.

The care charities the NGS support are causes we care deeply about. Care for the sick, elderly and end-of-life care is so important but often overlooked. In an ageing population this becomes more of an issue. I’m satisfied that we’ve all helped in a small way. I’m personally lifted by the fact the NGS is for everyone, no matter one’s age, background, class whatever. Everyone is welcome, everyone gets along. And why not. Who doesn’t like gardens and cake.

To sum up the NGS host experience, I can’t put it better than Rosanna: “The most worthwhile, wonderful afternoon I have had this year.” Thank you to all of you who came along and donated. You were all so wonderful to meet and you’ve created for us a memory to treasure forever.

Please do go to some gardens near you. There are often some open in Autumn and Winter, and then in spring and summer it really kicks off. Often gardens have homemade cakes and teas for sale and you can gain lots of inspiration for your own home and garden. It’s fun and the peak of Britishness!

Now, time to make some changes to the garden… see you next year?

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “NGS September Open Day – #DahliaFest”

  1. Hello – I have loved your various posts over the past number of months. Like you I love dahlias. I have opened my garden twice this year once for a local hospice and the other for the Macmillan Costal Trail in Brighton – stressful but a wonderful experience. May I ask you say you have a small garden, do you open with others in your area as I understand the NGS have various requirements regarding size of the garden. I may explore opening for the NGS next year. Many thanks for all you have shared with us. Kind regards

  2. Really pleased the second open day went so well. Gutted to have missed it. Love the selection of the Dahlias. Did you sell all of the succulents in the end?

    1. Thanks Benny. We still have a number of the succulents, a few different Agave and a few other interesting ones – let me know if you want any πŸ™‚

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