Historic and botanic gardens boosted by stunning summer

Visitors are returning to historic and botanic gardens but venues are still working to get more people through the gates.

Great Dixter: visitors have enjoyed a kaleidoscope of colour after warm weather promoted lush growth
Great Dixter: visitors have enjoyed a kaleidoscope of colour after warm weather promoted lush growth

Historic and botanic gardens have recovered this year after a stunning summer rescued the late spring, according to head gardeners as well as garden bosses.

Visitors returned to gardens in significant numbers, benefitting from lush growth from warm weather while late-spring and early-summer blooms converged to create what Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett calls "a kaleidoscope of colour". However, autumn colour was rare because of the longer season of warmth.

While numbers are up everywhere on last year's dismal performance - generally put down to wet weather and event fatigue during the year of the Olympic Games and the Queen's diamond jubilee - there have been mixed reports on how footfall compares to previous years.

Numbers recovered

Garrett, who won the Garden Media Guild Golden Nisse Award last week, after being voted as the most welcoming head gardener by garden photographers, says numbers have recovered but not beaten 2011's record turnout, partly due to the garden's location near the coast in Rye, East Sussex.

"It's been a middling year for us," he adds. "It was a slow start and then as the summer was very hot people chose to sit on the beach rather than come and see us. But the garden looked the best it ever looked - because the cold spring compressed the display, it all came at once. It was very exciting and it still looks good now."

Garrett says this year's plant fair was "incredibly successful" with a record 1,800 attendees. Lectures and symposiums also boosted visitor numbers. Next year, Great Dixter will halve its entrance fee for children and it hopes to see a new generation of visitors.

It has been "an excellent year" for English Heritage gardens, says head of gardens and landscape John Watkins. "In Wickley Court, where we had William Hardie's garden play sculptures, that's really boosted our numbers and there's an excellent number of visitors to Wrest Park after its re-representation."

English Heritage launched Kenwood on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London last week, opening the dairy for the first time, allowing visitors to access an area of the garden they have never seen before. English Heritage is also doing more to promote its winter views.

"In all garden sites it's important to keep up standards and promote new things," says Watkins. "The visitors are coming back."

Visits to National Trust properties where the gardens are the main draw increased by around 10 per cent on average between March and October compared to the same period last year - 3.9 million, up from 3.5 million, which the trust puts down to the weather.

Regional performance

South East gardens such as Sissinghurst, Cliveden, Emmetts Garden and Greys Court have seen a 20 per cent increase in visitors on last year, but in the South West it was only a five per cent rise.

Here, however, the comparatively warm summer has allowed many tender species to survive and the wetter autumn has helped the formation of magnolia flower buds, promising a colourful start to 2014.

One garden that continues to see visitor growth is Myddelton House in Enfield, north London, which saw numbers rocket from 3,500 in 2008 and 5,000 before the £487,500 Heritage Lottery Fund restoration that was completed in 2011 to nearly 60,000 this year.

Head gardener Andrew Turvey says EA "crocus king" Bowles' creation has benefited from being a constantly evolving project, but events such as "gardeners' question time" coffee mornings as well as cheese-and-wine events also did well.

"I think there's a need for it and a demand. It's one of our most popular features," says Turvey. But he had to be careful. "I don't want to get a reputation for doing that as I already get around 20 people turning up a year expecting free advice."

He adds: "Visitor numbers this year are slightly better than last year and we've been increasing by around 5,000 for the last couple of years. Things like dying the grass lawns and floral beds blue to commemorate 400 years since the New River was created are novel ideas that continue to give people a reason to visit."

Successful fiesta

West Dean in Chichester, West Sussex, has also done well, with 5,000 more visitors in October 2013 than the same month in 2012 - a 17 per cent rise. In addition, the increasingly successful West Dean Chilli Fiesta in August attracted a record 22,000, with camping introduced for the first time.

Added to this, a new crossover event called Grow! Cook! Eat! featuring celebrity cookery and gardening theatres as well as children's activities benefitted from good press coverage because of the garden's close media connections and social media presence. It has also featured on television and hosted BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time. West Dean is also seeing growth in its garden courses and talks.

Recovery reported

"Things have been buoyant - it's gone back to where it should have been in a lot of places," says garden consultant Alan Sargent.

He adds that gardens have become a lot more consumer-friendly recently with, for example, more gardens allowing dogs on leads or providing activities for children.

"They seem to be a bit more consumer friendly, a bit more relaxed. There seems to be less focus on gift shops and that's probably quite right. People spend more money when they don't feel coerced. I think next year is going to be a strong year for gardens."

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