Visit the home of gardening guru Penny Snell, chairman of the National Gardens Scheme

PUBLISHED: 11:59 16 May 2014 | UPDATED: 17:41 17 March 2015

Topiary adorns the entrance

Topiary adorns the entrance


Surrey Life catches up with gardening guru Penny Snell, chairman of the National Gardens Scheme, at her pretty Cobham home

charm, talent and a sincere empathy for people come some way to describing the irrepressible character of Penny Snell, chairman of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), freelance florist, lecturer and masterful gardener. An icon of the gardening world, she is certainly my ‘go-to’ person for all things gardening, both here in Surrey and further afield. I have often heard her aptly described as the epitome of the expression, ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’!

After two very successful terms as chairman, Penny will be retiring from the position in October. “It is a full- time job, not that anyone told me that at the outset,” smiles Penny, who is also the NGS county organiser for London. Carrying on the mantle and continuing the progression of the NGS, which was founded in 1927, are responsibilities that have been gladly taken on, while putting her own stamp on the position. During her leadership, Penny is particularly pleased to have helped increase awareness of the NGS through initiatives such as the Garden Festival, the largest ever national garden opening that took place for the first time last June and saw 800 gardens open to the public. She also created a bursary in memory of the garden journalist and author Elspeth Thompson that provides funding for community projects.

“We are not well-known outside the gardening world, not seen as fund-raisers and money givers,” says Penny. “But that’s in spite of the fact that the NGS gives away more than £2.5 million each year to nursing, caring and gardening charities, and over £40 million since the NGS was founded.

“However, I feel improvements have been made over the years, particularly in the relationship with beneficiaries who now see themselves as partners rather than recipients of grants. Their support for the festival weekend was wonderful and helped increase the profile of the NGS.”


A Surrey gem

The opportunity to visit Penny’s own enchanting garden, Moleshill House in Cobham, which she has been opening through the NGS for 23 years, is one not to be missed – not just to come under the charm of the garden or see the latest projects, but to have the chance to chat to this eternally young doyenne of the gardening world and be inspired to try out some ideas in your own garden. “It’s lovely to share the garden, chat with people who are interested in gardening and opening gardens fosters a community spirit,” says Penny.

At the heart of the garden is structure, infilled and softened with a wide palette of plants. Trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants ebb and flow with the seasons, creating interest year-round. From spring bulbs and blossom, layered foliage, peonies and roses to the textures in the new gravel gardens, there is much to enjoy. Rustic touches, topiary, a conservatory and beehives complete the scene.

There is also a delightful balance of tradition, from elements such as a pleached avenue and garlanded cisterns, with innovation that keeps the garden evolving. A highlight is a new central grass garden, replacing much of the circular lawn by the lovely Victorian house. Here you’ll find a timeless take on grasses and perennials, with wafting stipa, spires of agastache and dancing crocosmia enclosed by pleached hornbeams.

So what’s the best piece of wisdom she can impart to fellow Surrey gardeners? “On light, sandy soil, consider a gravel garden,” says Penny. “It is amazing how plants thrive in gravel, particularly plants that wouldn’t grow anywhere else.”

Following this success, Penny demolished a rockery and created another gravel circle with a colourful gypsy caravan as a focal point.

“Gardens must evolve,” she concludes. “New projects make them more exciting for those developing the projects and for visitors.”



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Moleshill House, Cobham, Surrey KT11 1BG



5QJ. Sunday April 27 (2-5.30pm)

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