We spoke to some of the prime movers behind Open Gardens/Jardins Ouverts, about both their own gardens and their commitment to the association.
It is an organisation that is peculiarly British in flavour, modelled on the National Gardens Scheme.
Not so much about weed-free, impeccable gardens à la français, as about community, cups of tea, carrot cake and raising money for charity!
The boost to mental health that gardening, community involvement and contribution can make is taken as read.
How it all began
First, I wanted to know a little more about the history of Open Gardens, whose spirit was transplanted so tenderly from Britain to a new home in France.
Ronnie Ogier, treasurer and secretary, explains:
“In 30 June 2013, the owners of four private gardens in the department of La Creuse opened to the public with the object of giving the money raised to charitable causes.
“They raised €300, which was donated to the association ‘A Chacun Son Everest’ (supporting children and young people in remission from leukaemia and other forms of cancer).
“More gardeners were encouraged to join in and the Association was founded in January 2014.”
Now Jardins Ouverts spreads far beyond La Creuse, with gardens in 37 departments.
Bigger impact with smaller charities
Donations to charities supporting children and young people with life-limiting illnesses have totalled more than €115,000 since 2013 and the increasing numbers of French, Dutch and German members make it a truly European association.
Ronnie tells me that the conseil d’administration (organising council) has recently begun forging ever stronger personal links with the charities that Open Gardens supports.
“‘A Chacun son Everest’ is wonderful, but we are just one of many organisations contributing to them.
“Now we’re actively building closer ties to smaller charities, such as ‘Souris à la Vie’ and ‘Quelque Chose en Plus’, by personally visiting their offices.”
All sorts of gardens welcome
Sue Lambert, garden development manager, explains that, after the last two isolating years of confinement, they are keen to expand further east.
“What I really want to get across is that your garden does not have to be a masterpiece to open. It’s about sharing what you’ve learned, learning from others.
“My wildish garden is open at the same time as the small workshop garden of a sculptress in the village and Frenchman, Alain’s, immaculate potager.
Sue Lambert’s ‘wildish’ garden; Photo: Sue Lambert
“Someone else, who hasn’t got a garden, decided to open their large terrace to provide refreshments.
“We are looking for new gardens to open and especially inventive area coordinators. There is room for as many different kinds of coordinator as there are gardens!”
Coordinators help the gardeners with their events
Sue adds that you don’t have to open your garden to become a coordinator – ideas, passion and commitment are what counts.
“People who concentrate solely on supporting garden openers, rather than opening themselves, are sometimes able to dedicate more time.”
Sue goes on, “We’ve had people holding fish and chip evenings in their garden, courtesy of a daughter’s itinerant chip van.
“Just before confinement someone was all set to host a garden fashion show. Somebody else holds monthly ‘swap shops’ in their garden.
“I’m thinking of hosting a carol concert centred around a blue fir in my own garden!”
Support for first-time ‘garden openers’
Opening your garden for the first time can be daunting. But when someone decides to go ahead, there will be telephone calls, emails and visits (geography permitting) to support prospective new openers.
As a rule of thumb, if your garden has a half hour’s interest in it for visitors, it’s suitable to open for charity and Sue will be on hand to advise on publicising locally, as well as providing realistic guidance on the paperwork that’s essential if one is raising money for charity.
Long-time garden opener and member of the conseil d’administration, Sheila Cole, cautions: “I’m an old hand now, so open days hold no fears for me, but we like to emphasise to new openers that interest can be slow at first. It may take more than a year and careful publicity to really get going.”
The fundraising is transparent
When not opening her own garden or working directly for the conseil, Sheila is busy spreading her passion for snowdrops.
She and husband Ian – one of the founder members of Open Gardens – are on the road selling their snowdrops and giving talks to interested gardening clubs.
Sheila is particularly proud of the fact that the association is transparent. “Everyone can track where the money we raise goes – and we take virtually no travel expenses for ourselves, in spite of being on the road so often to visit gardening clubs for my snowdrop talks.”
Sharing garden struggles and stories
One of the joys of an association such as Open Gardens is the sharing of one’s garden-making struggles with others.
And this group from the conseil have had their fair share of struggle in pursuing their personal gardening passions!
Sheila and Ian’s garden was simply a blank canvas when they arrived back in 2007.
Now they say that, in season, a machete can be useful, since the plantings are mature – light years away from the hot field they first began to cultivate – and they enjoy sharing their inspiring no-dig philosophy and pleasure in recycling everything that was already on site.
After arriving permanently in La Creuse in 2015, Ronnie Ogier’s land had to be manhandled and bullied into new levels around the house, but this year she can report the completion of a two-year confinement project: a long rose pergola, built entirely from ‘rebar’ (reinforcing bars).
She borrowed the idea from another Open Gardens garden – even better, one of the incumbents, rose ‘A Chacun son Everest’, was won by Ronnie at an Open Gardens raffle at Chantilly Plant Fair, having been donated by famous rosarian André Eve.
‘A Chacun son Everest’ rose still flowering in Ronnie Ogier’s garden; Photo: Ronnie Ogier
Join the Open Gardens family
Becoming part of the association and opening your garden is a promise of many such serendipitous encounters with others.
And, judging by the gleam in the council members’ eyes, I suspect that they would also like to guarantee you as much fun as possible too.
As Sue Lambert says, “If you open your garden for us, it doesn’t matter how far away you are, you are part of us.
Sue & Mick Lambert, 16 Valaize, 23150 Saint-Pardoux-les-Cards (La Creuse), tel: 05 55 62 32 86
Sheila & Ian Cole, 7 La Poste Sud, 87160, Arnac-la-Poste (Haute-Vienne), tel: 05 55 60 67 40
Ronnie & Richard Ogier, 4 La Guinandie, 87600 Vayres (Haute-Vienne), tel: 06 41 09 82 05