Debrief: Pause and Reflect

With the second group visit on Wednesday, our NGS opening for 2017 is over and we can look back to what went well and forward to what could be done better next year.

On the financial side, over 2 open days and two group visits (rounded) takings were as follows:

  • entrance                 £544
  • tea and cakes        £281
  • plants                      £213
  • others                      £39 (dibbers/tampers, book/jigsaws, donations)
    total                         £1077

30% of sales went to a local charity and we took 20% expenses from the overall sales which, after talking to others who opened their gardens, we felt was a reasonable average. This means £810 will go to the National Garden Scheme and £160 to my local charity, just from opening the garden; OK, it did involve a (large) degree of preparation on our part, but the whole experience was hugely enjoyable and personally rewarding, as well as financially rewarding for the charities involved. And yes, we will do it again next year! Will we change anything though? Not a lot…

In terms of the opening days and times little will change. It’s ‘swings and roundabouts’ as far as dates go, and although few roses were in evidence there were plenty of other things flowering that wouldn’t have been if we had opened earlier. We opened from 11.00 till 4.00 on the Wednesday and 1.00 till 6.00 on the Sunday but had no visitors after 5.00 on the second day, so Sunday opening times will be brought forward next year. Studying the Yellow Book shows that some gardens only open for about 3 hours at a time compared to our 5, but we would rather spread visitors out over a longer period to ease pressure on parking.

Parking was just about adequate, with visitors parking in the yard of our neighbours’ converted school house. Our own vehicles and those of our helpers were parked at the local village hall (5-10 minute walk) which was to be an overspill car park if needed (it wasn’t), but this was a last minute arrangements and we don’t know whether it is something we can arrange in advance next year as it might conflict with paid bookings at the hall. Parking is such an important aspect of garden opening, and is the only issue I had any concerns about whatsoever in the lead up to the events. In theory, we might expect fewer visitors next year without the attraction of it being a ‘new’ garden, but with several people saying they would come again it is still an unknown quantity – in fact, this year three people came twice, all with different companions on their second visit! This year, including group visits we had a total of 155 visitors, so not huge numbers but certainly numbers we and our helpers could comfortably cope with.

Group visits are a different thing altogether; we stated we would be available by appointment for group visits of 5-25 in July and had 3 groups book up, quite far in advance. One group cancelled a month or so after booking as we couldn’t accommodate a coach and the organiser was concerned about her ladies getting lost on the country lanes if they came in their own vehicles! We had expected perhaps about 20 in both the remaining groups, but the first (a garden group) had 14, and the second (a WI) had 12 plus an extra couple having a second visit. The garden group just wanted tea and biscuits, whilst the second were going for a meal in the local pub afterwards and didn’t need refreshing, so this made preparations a little easier. The garden group stayed for about 2 hours (their usual meeting length, I think) but didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the garden,  didn’t buy any plants and spent most of the time talking over their tea and biscuits, leaving us wondering if group visits were worth the effort. However, the WI were delightful and very interested in the garden, wanting a personal and informed tour and leaving us happy to list similar arrangements for group visits next year after all.

Helpers were essential on both main openings, so with Wednesday being the quieter day we had five people, two on refreshments, two on the door/parking and one on plant sales, with a sixth for part of the time to cover breaks. On Sunday we split some of the roles into half shifts and had eight friends helping, plus the husband of a helper who stayed on and became the ninth; one of our friends also helped with refreshments on the first group visit. We were so grateful to all these people (one couple did all day on both days) but all professed to enjoy the experience and are willing to repeat it, so that’s great to know.

As almost as much was raised from sales as from entrance tickets, they are certainly an integral part of the openings as far as we are concerned. The Golfer made the dibbers and tampers with minimal effort and putting out boxes of books and jigsaws which would otherwise have gone to a charity shop was similarly easy, and will be repeated; we also sold some plant supports that were no longer used. I enjoy baking, and the cakes were mostly made over a two week period beforehand so weren’t a chore although some will be dropped from next year’s menu and quantities will vary of others. The cardinal sin of running out of cake was not committed, and the Golfer and I still have a wide selection of cake to choose from the freezer every day!

The biggest learning curve relates to the plants, and I am grateful to those who helped on the plant stall and to a number of visitors for their feedback and in particular to Anna of Green Tapestry who provided detailed observations; this informed feedback will guide the content, structure and layout of the plant stall for next year. There will be fewer varieties and fewer plants in total, but bigger plants with an emphasis on what is likely to be flowering in June/July. The new location will be at the front of the house, away from the entrance to ease congestion, and the combination of table and ground level display will be ditched in favour of tiered stands, along the lines of this improvised structure the Golfer produced as an experiment:

In the meantime, I have passed more than a dozen bedding dahlias and begonias onto neighbours who are currently turning their very small patch of a grass into a garden, and have sorted out other perennials into ones that can be squeezed into the garden somewhere and others that will be nurtured in pots until next year’s opening. There are a number of annuals to accommodate too and I shan’t be bothering with these on the stall again, although admittedly they were all just surplus to our own requirements. My detailed labelling proved useful, but in practice needs minor adjustments and I like Anna’s idea of also having a list of what plants are available.

Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed opening the garden and sharing the pleasure we get from it with others and I hope at least some of you will find this debrief interesting. I have been picking the brains of many blogging friends in the lead up to the opening, drawing on their prior experience, and perhaps my own experience will similarly inform and encourage others in the future. In the meantime, just like last year when planning began as soon as we knew we were accepted,  plans have already begun for 2018 but this time we will be even more informed – and have several pages of positive comments in our Comments book to nurture us until then!

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39 Responses to Debrief: Pause and Reflect

  1. Oh, well done, you must be thrilled. I think your debrief is very intesting – I’m sure it will be really helpful to others looking for ideas about opening their gardens, especially if it’s for the first time. I like your clever use of the staggered trestle for plant sales, may we borrow it please?

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Kate, and you were so helpful to me in the first place. Of course you may use the trestle idea – we may not actually use saw benches next year, but for trialling the concept they were perfect. Would need another 2 though!

  2. Heyjude says:

    Congratulations – your hard work paid off. I love visiting gardens as they give me inspiration and I always have a look at the plant stall. it is lovely to find a plant you like that you have seen in situ.

  3. Cathy says:

    I think this will be a great help to others planning to open their gardens in the future, Cathy. I can only imagine all the hard work and planning you put in, but how rewarding it sounds!

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Cathy, and because I was organised it never became a burden or was stressful – just one brief moment about a week before when I realised I had forgotten to visit the open garden of a friend, as I had promised, because I just wasn’t aware of any dates except our own opening!

  4. Pauline says:

    Well done Cathy, all your hard work paid off.
    I had to laugh when you mentioned that you had a visit from a WI. We also had a local WI visit when we used to open, they came, looked at the garden, had their rea and cakes and paid for their visit. We were then amazed when they then sang Jerusalem and started their meeting in our garden- and no, they hadn’t arranged this before hand!!!

    • Cathy says:

      Oh my goodness, I certainly didn’t know what to expect but would never in a million years have expected that! 😀

  5. Yes, very interesting! Many years ago, I happened to catch an Open Day and it was the most fun ever. Congratulations on your success!

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Marian; yes, ‘ordinary’ gardens when they open can be really fascinating, and of course so different from each other

  6. Steve says:

    Well done Cathy. Very useful debrief . My next open day is 2018 now.

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Steve, not a patch on your village openings though!! Have you got confirmed dates for next year yet so I can write them on my calendar?

      • Steve says:

        Hi, should be on 16/17th June, 11.00 to 17.00, lunches are available about 12 stunning gardens. Hope you can come.

        • Cathy says:

          Thanks Steve – I have noted it down and the info will be transferred to next year’s calendar in due course. 2018…good grief!!

  7. I am so glad this was such a success because I know you and the Golfer worked hard. To has such support from friends must be a great feeling too. Well done. I will keep in mind these thoughts about your tour when I next have a tour in my garden. I don’t usually have so many people but it is something of the same routine.

  8. Well done. Could I come and visit as part of my 90? Not sure where you are?

    • Cathy says:

      Thank you – we are on the border of Staffs/Warwickshire. If you did come it would have to be on an informal basis as I have already begun tweaking, etc, post-opening! 😉

  9. jacqueline. says:

    Un joli bénéfice : félicitations !

  10. Anna says:

    Oh what a fabulous total to have raised for charity Cathy! Both sad and surprising to read about the response of the garden group 😦 Oh the Golfer has really come up trumps with the idea of a tiered trestle table 🙂 See you next year xxx

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Anna – I suppose every group will be different. The garden group were friendly enough, but several just didn’t seem especially interested in the garden (perhaps they were veg growers?!) Look forward to seeing you – same time in June next year (unless we meet in the meantime of course)! Thank you 🙂

  11. I am so impressed with all you did and your results. Sitting down afterwards and noting what to keep and what to change while you still remember it is important. I’ve had a lot of tours of my garden but nothing like your NGS setup with food and plants for sale. The amount of work amazes me that you did as just getting the garden ready and making lemonade and cookies always seems more than enough for me. Congrats on your success.

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks LInda – I learned a lot from the experience but talking to other bloggers who had opened their gardens really helped too, as did helpers and visitors on the days. The national organisation rased over £3 million last year so it was really worthwhile being part of the overal achievement

  12. Brian Skeys says:

    An interesting review of your openings Cathy with a useful amount of money raised. It is enjoyable when you have a good team working with you and even better when they are happy to help again next year. I have used the saw benches for plant displays, all on the same level, for some time now, they are really useful because they can be temporary.

  13. Cathy all her hard work has been a success. I’m glad to write it and so I can think about the pros and cons for next year. It has been very nice to donate all proceeds to charity. Greetings from Margarita.

  14. I loved reading about this – I still have one opening to go, and it’s very inspiring to hear how other people have done. If you’re ever in the Cotswolds, come and say hello!

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Victoria – I have found it so useful talking to others who have opened, sharing ideas and experiences. I have looked you up and will indeed come and say hello if we are passing – and you are equally welcome to do the same here (look up 5 East View Cottages) 😀

    • Cathy says:

      Ps hope your last opening goes well!

  15. Helen Cronin says:

    Thank you for a fascinating insight into opening your garden to the public. I’ve been asked to open mine but still need some convincing! I will be bookmarking your post for future reference

    • Cathy says:

      You are welcome, Helen. It was such an enjoyable experience and you have read just how much money can be raised from opening (and ours was not nearly as busy as some). Perhaps consider opening informally one year, just publicising amongst friends and groups you are involved with, to give yourself an unthreatening taste of what it is like…? For the NGS they would visit you and assess you garden for interest and accessibilty and safety and the like and if you were approved it would be for the following year so there is a time delay. Do ask if you want any more information, and pick the brains of the owners of gardens you visit too. When you love your own garden it seems selfish to keep that pleasure to yourself…

  16. well Cathy I am years late in reading this but nonetheless found it really interesting having opened my garden this year. I really like the idea of a Comments book and will copy that should I open again. The plant trestle is a great Golfer idea. I do not think I could cope with a plant stall as well as everything else but maybe another year on and I will have lots of seedlings to part with. someone told me that some of the regular NGS visitors will come in, go straight to the plants and then the tea stall and finally the garden on the basis that they get first dibs on plants and cake and the garden will still be there to look at afterwards!
    I wonder how your revenue compared this year to last?

    • Cathy says:

      Gosh – you are catching up! I like to think it might be helpful for other people reading an account of the details of the opening, but any idea or suggestion has to work for the person opening. The Comments Book is interesting not just for the praise that makes it all worthwhile but knowing what visitors’ overall impressions are and what ideas they will be taking home. It also provides quotes to include in your description for another year. We also ask when they come in where they came from which gives us an idea of the catchment area and where they heard about the garden. Even though numbers were similar, we did raise more money than last year particularly because we sold more plants

      • That is excellent, I should imagine most take less on the second year. your plants are very good!
        I had 181 on the day plus 4 groups. The groups were jolly but I agree they are a lot of extra work.

        • Cathy says:

          There are some gardens that people will keep making return visits to, Dorris – whether for the garden itself, the plant sales, or the cakes, or all 3! That was my main aim, to raise more this year, but I don’t expect it to always be the case. Your group opening period was quite lengthy, which could make it wearing if visits are spread out over that period

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