Meet the garden talent spotter
Penny Snell, recently awarded the CBE, has been the driving force behind the National Gardens Scheme for many years. Elizabeth Grice paid her a visit
’d absolutely slit my throat if he ever said he was going to leave me.”
I wonder if the man in Penny Snell’s life has any idea how much he means to her? He is, of course, her gardener. We women horticulturalists seldom speak with such public passion about our partners.
Penny is a clever, intuitive plantswoman and her romantic English garden had been evolving long before she and Andrew became an item, but now they are together it has an ongoing programme of “projects” – she has the mad ideas and he somehow makes them work. Her magnificent pleached hornbeam circle, like a green Stonehenge without the gaps, is testimony to the robustness of their partnership.
She devised it to replace her disappointing front lawn at Moleshill House, Cobham in Surrey, and she wanted to pave the middle. Andrew had other ideas. They should lay gravel, through which Verbena bonariensis, persicaria, agapanthus and other drought-loving plants would randomly grow. He won. “He plotted it all on the computer and got the scale just right,” she says. “I would have just gone out and started digging.” Penny is 75 so her days of excavating major earthworks are probably over, but in every other respect she is the inspiration and the slog behind one of the most beautifully carefree gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). Dovecote, climbing roses, pergolas, pleached whitebeam avenue, topiary box, pretty courtyard, conservatory, stumpery, beehives, a gipsy caravan, raised herb bed, asparagus bed, raspberries, green wall, chickens – all achieved with the help of a man who works just two days a month.
“I like structure in a garden, but relaxed planting,” she says, inspecting an invasion of campanula. “I’m not too keen on gardens where everything salutes and plants stand to attention. I like them to do their own thing.” Anyone who has ever opened their garden to raise money for nursing and caring charities under the auspices of the NGS will probably know the indefatigable Penny Snell. She was the woman who travelled the length and breadth of the country welcoming newcomers to the scheme and giving hope and advice to those whose gardens didn’t quite measure up but one day surely would. She was the one who pounced on shy gardeners, convincing them to join. Funny, down-to-earth, enthusiastic, difficult to ignore.
“She is the most theatrical person I’ve ever met outside the theatre,” says the landscape gardener Anthony Noel. “She charms everybody but is the most hardworking person I know. I was an actor and she started my career by persuading me to open my funny little garden in Fulham.” While she was London county organiser (which she still is) a whole raft of quirky, small and unconventional gardens were drawn in by the force of her personality and vision. She raised the number from 30 in 1980 to 300 today, with a corresponding rise in annual contributions from barely £10,000 to