Meet the gar­den tal­ent spot­ter

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

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

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