Well, you know me by now. I’m not the greatest believer in the work of garden design, or garden designers for that matter. On many occasions I’ve stated an opinion believing that all the best gardens are created through evolution and development: the garden owner cherishing their outdoor space with experimentation, creativity, nurture, love and a desire to create something of beauty.
Now, I can’t imagine many professional garden designers have those same sentiments in their heart. Well, not for your garden anyway! Yes, they may harbour a desire to create, but in the scheme of things, professional garden design will always be something of a quick fix. Perhaps more a reflection of our affluence and our ‘want-something-nice’ and ‘want-it-now’ culture. Many analogies spring to mind. So let’s just take one.
To me, having your garden designed – by a garden designer – is a bit like commissioning an artist to paint you picture. I understand this. You yourself couldn’t paint a barn door let alone create something of beauty, so you call in someone who can. You tell them the kind of thing you like. Whether you want something bold, dramatic, understated… cool, hot etc? They then go off and try to use their talent and artistic imagination to produce something beautiful for you…. and if that creation was a garden, then voila! Like an oil painting that hangs outside your kitchen window, there you have it, your Utopian vision re-created for you.
But of course, unlike a painting, a garden doesn’t stay still for very long. A painting will simply sit there and never change. However, the moment the garden designer walks away – in fact the very day the planting is complete – things begin to change. Guess what, the plants grow! Sometimes they grow bigger than expected, dwarfing and suffocating their neighbours. Sometimes they don’t grow as big as they should. Sometimes they don’t grow at all: sometimes they die! Sometimes so-called long-lived perennials turn up their heals at a remarkably young age. Maybe that shrub that the book said will have an ultimate height of 1.5 metres will eventually be larger than that 3 metre tree sitting next to it!
Plants spread and multiply in a variety of ways, and without a gardener’s (hard-earned) knowledge of how effectively they reproduce their progeny, you will find some plants acting like ever-increasing army invaders, marching across your soil, overcoming and consuming all other plants as they go. Others will self-seed like crazy giving you (or your gardener) hours and hours of (expensive) weeding. Basically, plants go up and down, move around, grow and recede, live and die... and to manage this in an imaginative, skilled and creative way, eventually you’ll need a good gardener. Even that good gardener needs to be you!
This is where the role of a skilled, creative gardener usurps the garden designer. I once remember asking a garden designer how I could break out of garden maintenance and get into garden design. Her advice? Change your business card to read ‘Garden designer’. That made me chuckle. I am totally convinced that there are people out there who, when it comes to gardens, really know how best to manipulate vacant spaces, similar to how theatre set designers can work miracles with what is essentially empty volumes of air waiting to be filled with shapes, solidity and perspective. This is a real skill and an incredible talent: something I’m not very good at.
However, if one definition of a garden is ‘an area of land usually planted with grass, trees and flowerbeds’ (Oxford OED) then I believe the complex relationship between plant communities are worthy of our study and consideration: elements of their aesthetic; the ethics of ecology and sustainability etc. Slowly building up a community of happy plants, acting as good social neighbours, where each citizen compliments the other – to me at least – is how great gardens are made. The skilled gardener, tailoring, manipulating, tweaking and editing borders to maintain and develop natural beauty.
Finally, when it comes to gardens, I don’t even know what a garden is anymore! Funny, I said that to a woman at a restaurant recently and she almost fell off her chair! She said that surely you of all people – with a Master’s degree in Garden History – should know what a garden is. Anyway, my response was far too long to write here, and who knows, maybe one day it’ll be the subject of a much larger piece of work – What is a Garden?
So maybe all I will say is this. Quoting Socrates: ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’.
Thanks for reading.