This November, George Plumptre celebrates ten years as Chief Executive of garden visiting charity the National Garden Scheme. His forty-year career in gardens has included being the author of a number of books, extensive work as a journalist including a period as gardening correspondent of The Times (1993-96) and in 1999 founding the gardening internet start-up Greenfingers.com. Today he continues to write for The Telegraph and Country Life.
“The landscape has changed dramatically in terms of gardens, gardening and garden visiting since I joined the National Garden Scheme in 2010. While the British have always been a nation of gardeners and garden lovers the events of 2020 – both in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and environmental concerns – have given new importance to the role of gardens and garden visits that provide the National Garden Scheme with a strong springboard for future development and campaigns.”
In 2020, coronavirus restrictions forced the closure of over 3,700 largely privately-owned gardens that had planned to open for the National Garden Scheme at a time when the beneficiaries they help fund across the nursing and health sector needed the funding most.
“Never, since the National Garden Scheme was founded in 1927, had our gardens been forced to shut. They even remained open during the Second World War, so to say that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic was enormous is no understatement.”
Despite having to reduce the amount promised to its beneficiary charities at the beginning of the year (another first for the National Garden Scheme) in November, after a hugely challenging year, the National Garden Scheme will announce additional donations.
“Since 2010 income from our gardens has increased from £3 million to £4 million despite the numbers of gardens opening remaining fairly constant at between 3,500 and 3,700. This has given us an increase in the net funds available for distribution to our beneficiaries from £2.5 million to £3.3 million. Obviously, opening gardens to visitors remains our core activity and I like to think we have got better at it. The challenge is always to hold onto the heritage built up over more than 90 years at the same time as moving with the times and making appropriate changes.”
George has worked hard on many fronts to make the organisation more engaged and more accessible and these were key priorities in the rebranding that the National Garden Scheme carried out and launched in 2017 to mark its 90th anniversary. As important as the illustrative changes put in place has been the change in style and tone of voice.
Developing active partnerships with beneficiary charities has also been a key priority for George from the outset. In his view, he inherited a system of old-fashioned philanthropy in which, once a year, the charity gave out very substantial amounts of money to a group of nursing and health beneficiaries but thereafter there was little interaction until the next year’s donations were due.
“As a result, I believe we are now much more actively engaged with our key stakeholders – our volunteers and garden owners – and with a growing audience of committed supporters.
“Now we have ever-strengthening partnerships with our family of charities which are mutually beneficial, and which have formed the basis for a variety of joint activities.”
These new partnerships with the charity’s beneficiary charities have played a key role in what George considers perhaps the most significant development he has brought to the National Garden Scheme; the championing of the benefits of gardens to everyone’s health and wellbeing. This was formally launched in 2016 with the publication of a report commissioned by the National Garden Scheme from the prestigious health think tank, The King’s Fund, entitled Gardens and Health: implications for policy and practice.
“The report has become the acknowledged point of reference for the subject and enabled us to launch a range of initiatives which have grown ever since. On the one hand, we launched a new Gardens and Health strand of our donations policy, awarding annual donations to charities to build gardens to provide health and wellbeing benefits, such as Horatio’s Gardens for spinal injury units. On the other, our community of garden owners have increasingly embraced the concept of gardens being good for everyone’s health, both for themselves and as a cornerstone of their welcome to visitors.”
Gardens and Health have also influenced the National Garden Scheme’s focus on developing the diversity of its gardens. Without forsaking the watchword of quality which the charity has always proudly upheld it has consciously moved to encourage a range of gardens to open, a number of which clearly offer health and wellbeing benefits to people such as hospice gardens and community gardens. The number of allotment groups that open has also increased and the charity is constantly looking to increase the spread of small urban gardens that visitors find so engaging.
Gardens and Health have also provided an impetus for the National Garden Scheme’s move into the territory of influencing – both public attitudes and policymaking.
“I believe that our group of beneficiary charities and the long-term nature of our support for them puts us in a unique position to champion the extraordinary contribution they make to the nation’s health, especially community health. In 2019 The King’s Fund published a second report we commissioned, Investing in Quality: the contribution of large charities to shaping future health and care and in 2020 we commissioned a further report, Changing Lives: charities supported by the National Garden Scheme that will be published in November.”
“I certainly did not expect my tenth anniversary to be marked by a watershed of the magnitude of coronavirus and its challenges have been immense. On March 22nd, for the first time in our 93-year history, all gardens were forced to close, and they did not reopen again until the end of May. But like other charities, the National Garden Scheme very quickly demonstrated extraordinary qualities of tenacity and adaptability. Unable to welcome visitors physically to their gardens, our owners made short videos which we posted online on a weekly basis.
“By the time the gardens reopened, we had built up a library of 182 films, which had been viewed 650,000 times and produced donations of some £250,000. And, when gardens reopened it was with a totally new and very restrictive system of pre-booked tickets and limited numbers. But our garden owners adapted with wonderful determination and for these and many other reasons, we will end the year in a healthier state than anyone would have expected.
“Coronavirus has brought real sadness and hardship for many in the National Garden Scheme and our beneficiaries, but in numerous ways, our response has made me enormously proud and demonstrated our ability to change. One major outcome of the pandemic which I am certain will last and which the National Garden Scheme is uniquely positioned to nurture and champion, has been the huge public acknowledgement of the importance of people having access to gardens or outdoor green space. Faced with uncertainty, isolation and in many cases real tragedy, people discovered the extraordinary rewards offered either by their own gardens or by having access to somewhere, whether a public green space or a shared community area.”
So, as the National Garden Scheme heads towards its 100th birthday in 2027 CEO George Plumptre is absolutely confident that the charity will reach that momentous anniversary in fine health, raising and donating more money for its beneficiaries and thoroughly in tune with the times.
“Accessibility was a fundamental priority at the time of our foundation in 1927: the principle that for a modest donation to the charity of one shilling anyone, whatever their status in society, could have access to a range of private gardens, launched a cherished ideal which has remained with the charity ever since and which is core to its individuality. Today, we are positioned to champion the importance of gardens to society as a whole, at the same time as continuing to grow the virtuous circle of offering people the enjoyment of a garden visit to raise funds for our beneficiaries who are so fundamental to the health of the nation.”