The Daily Mail National Garden Competition is now in its 24th year and is a superb opportunity for you to share the pleasure and pride you have in your garden with others.
It’s also an opportunity for validation – we all think our gardens are special, but if you’re fortunate enough to be selected as a finalist then that is a pretty resounding endorsement.
Each finalist will get a blue plaque for their garden, and if you go on to win you’ll also receive a £2,000 cash prize.
Anyone can enter, with any garden, of any size or type. The judges don’t have any preconception of what a ‘good’ garden should be.
Previous winners have included a huge range of styles, sizes and locations.
British gardening expert Monty Don (pictured) shares his top tips for entrants as this year’s Daily Mail National Garden Competition opens for entries
Rooftop gardens, water gardens, formal, informal, conventional and thoroughly modern – all are eligible and all welcome.
The real joy and skill of amateur gardeners, with which this country is so richly blessed, is the way they adapt to the climate and circumstances they can’t control or change.
While show gardens, such as those found at the Chelsea Flower Show, are a blank canvas to display the designer’s vision and skill, a back garden has so much more to it.
It has to relate meaningfully to the house, neighbours and distant views, and flourish within the restrictions of the local climate and soil.
In this sense it is a true partnership between people and the natural world.
From that partnership extraordinary places are created that are nearly always so much more rewarding than the superficial gloss of a shiny show garden.
The one quality I look for in a garden above all else is charm. While this is very hard to define, it’s instantly recognisable.
It usually comes from a blend of idiosyncrasy and skill, allowing nature to flow and blossom without letting go of the reins of control that any gardener has to hold.
Monty says above all else, he looks for charm in gardens. Pictured: 2014 finalists Anne and Adam James’s patch in Staffordshire
Just occasionally a professional designer is brilliant enough to create charm from scratch, but much more often it evolves from the loving care of the person who tends and nurtures the garden.
Charm knows no hierarchy, no class and no wealth. It can be found in a little rooftop patch, an open prairie garden or a long strip in a street of long strips.
And charm always overcomes any shortfalls in horticultural expertise or exclusivity of plants.
The only entry requirement is that you do not earn a living from designing, building or maintaining gardens.
Any medal-winning garden at one of the RHS shows is the result of a huge amount of work – and often eye-watering sums of money – by an experienced and professional team of designers, growers and builders.
This is a celebration of the real, living, changing gardens that are to be found all over the country
But for this competition the work, from design to maintenance, should be primarily undertaken by you, although one part-time helper is allowed.
We are looking for gardens that have been created and maintained as a labour of love rather than bought in from outside.
I know from my own experience that there is always a balancing act between the privacy of a garden and a wish to share with others the pleasure that it brings you.
Gardens are a retreat from the hurly-burly of the modern world.
Yet a garden that is entirely private and never shared with others seems to me to be a contradiction in terms.
It is like painting a picture that is never seen or writing a piece of music that is never played.
Gardens are a celebration of all that is good in the meeting of man and nature, and celebrations are made to be shared.
Monty says gardens are pleasurable and fascinating because they exist beyond our limitations. Pictured: The Essex garden of 2017 finalists Martin Thurston and Fabrice Aru
Different people will lean one way or the other, and the showman in me wants to do a lot of sharing – which is just as well since more than two million people scrutinise Longmeadow on Gardeners’ World every week.
But perhaps this is the moment to share all you think is good about your garden – without having to worry about tea or parking for three million readers!
The desire to share a garden is obviously based upon pride in one’s work, but also on the fact you can never entirely possess a garden, any more than you can a landscape or a bird.
It is something that grows and exists beyond our limitations – and that is one of the things that makes gardens so pleasurable and fascinating.
Family and friends are likely to be polite about your horticultural efforts, but opening your garden up to a larger, unbiased audience both extends the pleasure and also validates your own feelings and skills.
My tips for success
To maximise the true effect of your garden and to show it at its best, it is important to focus your time and energy on a few basic things:
- Cut anything that needs cutting – be it a hedge, topiary or seasonal pruning such as wisteria or summer fruit.
Do not, however, be tempted to do such jobs unseasonably early just to get it in before the judges arrive – because they will notice!
- If grass paths, lawns or hedges are meant to be trimmed, then trim them.
- However, if you are deliberately encouraging a looseness to attract wildlife, or just because you like that style of gardening, do not compromise or modify it just for the judges.
Be true to your intentions and do not try to guess what the judges may like.
- Having entered, do not attempt anything new – no new borders or major planting, and certainly no new projects.
Do not try to grow plants you are unfamiliar with.
This is not the time for experimentation. Stick to what you and the garden are good at.
- Take a long, cool look at the garden and, ideally, enlist someone you trust who does not know the garden well to do the same.
Take stock. We all tend to focus on what is looking good and gloss over the less successful areas.
Now is the time to focus on them. I know that in my own garden I have a tendency to over-complicate or over-simplify.
There is a happy medium, so work on that.
- Remember that you will be judged on the whole garden and not just the bit you like best or that is the most successful.
Work on the whole plot rather than focusing on the section that is currently centre stage.
- Do any cutting back, pruning and trimming at least five days before the judges’ visit. Let the garden settle and breathe for a few days.
- Do not rush out to the garden centre the day before the visit and chuck in a load of plants to add some colour or fill spaces.
By and large that never works. Try to do any significant planting weeks rather than days ahead of the visit.
- Finally, relax and enjoy the experience. This is a chance, above all, for you to share all that you love about your garden with others and hope that they, too, are charmed by it.
Details of how to enter are given in the panel below. From the initial entries a selection will be made for the judges’ first round of visits.
Should you be selected for this stage you are bound to be delighted and apprehensive in equal measure.
But don’t let the apprehension take the upper hand.
Keep calm and carry on, and above all do not try to create the perfect garden moment for that rather daunting day when the judges visit, because it will be doomed to failure.
It does not matter where I go, from Japan to Johannesburg or New Orleans to New Malden, there is one common factor in all the gardens I visit.
Invariably I’ll be told that the garden is not at its best and that I should have come last week, next month, yesterday, anytime but now.
Some of this is pure delusion – there is a fantasy garden attached to all our houses, nurtured by the occasional moment when we have our rose-tinted spectacles on, the light is perfect, we are feeling good and the garden is absolutely lovely.
But mostly it is because gardens are never at their best. There is no best to be.
Monty advises embracing the fluidity that comes with gardens. Pictured: Michael Blood and Malcolm Bescoby won in 2016 with their plot in Nottingham
There are seasons you prefer and weeks when things come together very well and days when it can seem sublime, but the same day or week next year might be quite different.
Constant change is a given, and there’s nothing you can do to halt it.
Gardens are a process, not a destination, and you have to embrace that fluidity to get the most from them.
So entering a competition when judges are going to visit your garden on a given day with no control over the weather is an alarming prospect.
But the judges know all this. They know that they are not visiting or judging a show garden intended to be in a frozen state of perfection for a few brief days.
This is a celebration of the real, living, changing gardens that are to be found all over the country.
If you love your garden and are proud of it, then there is no reason why you should not enter.
How to enter… and what you can win
If your garden is your pride and joy, we’d love you to share it with us. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a flower-filled balcony, a tiny town plot or acres in the countryside, what the judges are looking for is a garden that uses imagination and ingenuity to make the most of the available space. Now all you have to do is follow the instructions below:
- Send your entry to National Garden Competition, PO Box 485, Fleet GU51 9FF by Friday 2 August and include the following:
1 Between four and eight photos of your garden (which cannot be returned).
2 A plan of your garden.
3 Your full contact details including name, postal address, contact telephone numbers (including mobile) and email address (if available).
- The judges will make a shortlist of gardens to visit, from which the four finalists will be decided. If the judges shortlist your garden and wish to visit it, you will be contacted by Saturday 3 August and visits will take place between 6 and 8 August.
- Four finalists will then be chosen and featured in Weekend magazine later that month.
- Final judging will take place between 13 and 15 August, after which the winner will be announced in Weekend magazine.
- The Daily Mail National Garden Competition is open to all amateur gardeners, i.e. those who do not design, maintain or build gardens for payment.
- The gardener should have designed and principally built the garden themselves.
- Entrants should maintain the garden themselves, with no more than one part-time helper.
- By entering the competition, gardeners should be aware that their gardens may be used for promotional purposes in conjunction with the competition.
- Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Usual Daily Mail rules apply. Judges’ decision is final.
- £2,000 first prize
- Specially commissioned plaques for all finalists.