Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Mystic Garden

I could look at Heleniums all day!
Entering a garden, either public, private or domestic, is like stepping into a work of art. Certain differences are obvious: paintings, sculptures etc are finished pieces of work and once completed they never change. A garden on the other hand is never finished, and in fact should never be so! Its un-finished nature not only draws the visitor into the garden, but gifts the sightseer a portion of the space, allowing him or her the right to be its co-creator, completing the picture with their imagination for potential. 

I guess I visit gardens for the same reasons as many. I see it as a journey into art, beauty, and a natural aesthetic. I also go looking for the meaning in a garden… and maybe also for meaning in life too? As I walk around a garden, I try to pull as many strands together as I can in order to make the most of the experience. My experience of a garden is built on the two pillars of art and science, and is always underpinned by both appreciation and knowledge.

No doubt I go looking for what Alexander Pope (in 1731) called ‘the genius of the place’ or what the Romans referred to as its ‘Genius Loci’. 

My own personal interest in garden history has always focused from around the English Landscape Movement onward. Personally, I can’t really see how anyone with a love of plants and natural landscapes could be that interested in design styles which have taken pleasure in dominating nature (e.g. from Louis XIV’s Versailles to the garden rooms of John Brooks) and which have imposed architectural rules onto an ever-loving, ever-nurturing Mother Nature. Somehow, I can’t imagine the exploitation of nature, say the gross splendour of a renaissance garden, as having anything to do with the Garden of Eden as portrayed by Milton in Paradise Lost:

A happy rural seat of various view; Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balme. Betwixt them lawns, or level downs… flours of all hue’ (book 4).

Image result for stowe gardens
Stowe Garden - steeped in symbolism.

So, when I visit gardens, and what compels me to do so, is a motivation far removed from all the pretty flowers that I might see there – although pretty flowers are always a massive bonus! It’s the aesthetic, the natural beauty, the ideology behind its design; its allusions to (and maybe its reactions against) certain artistic movements, along with its historical and cultural context, as well as the mythology and spirituality I may encounter there.

As mentioned above, to experience a garden – as with any art form – a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. You don’t have to be a garden historian to appreciate a garden, but a little piece of prior research might just add to your appreciation of where it sits in the history of garden design. Is it an artsy-craftsy, cottage-muddle style of garden? Is it trying to mimic a natural landscape somewhere? Is it formal, informal, or an intelligent/creative mix of the two?

The formal and the informal at Bury Court.
So again, appreciation and knowledge underpin the art and science of a garden. I guess, being a gardener myself, I can also appreciate the skilled work and toil (blood, sweat & tears) that have gone into making a garden. A garden that offers up all-year-round interest, with plants that rise and fall, compliment and compete with each other, that offer harmonious and contrasting colour schemes, with variations of size, structure and texture doesn't just happen all by itself.... or maybe it does?

Some people (Nigel Dunnet) seem to make it all look so effortless.

To walk round a garden and only notice the pretty flowers is to miss out on witnessing a natural community of organisms, who, like us, simply want to get along with each other without too much trouble and whose only wish is to actualise their full potential.

Tim Richardson, garden historian, critic, author of around 20 (really great) books, and all-round horty brainiac, believes that garden design styles tend to move in cycles of decades and half decades. I’ve never really agreed with that opinion. Apart from the annual show gardens, that no doubt demonstrate certain ebb-and-flow trends, the average domestic garden of the UK hasn’t changed much in at least 100 years. We still garden trying to mimic in miniature the mixed cottage-muddles we see at places like Great Dixter and Sissinghurst: trees, shrubs, roses and herbaceous borders.... and maybe a few annuals for the gaps.

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Munstead Wood from 1912. Look familiar?

The history books will always apportion roughly two hundred years of Italian influenced renaissance gardens across Europe, and will give approximately the same amount of time to the English Landscape Movement that followed it. Then, apart from outgrowths and diversions into the Picturesque and Gardenesque, history documents the next design chapter (let’s scurry past Victorian bedding schemes) as the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900’s…. and we’ve been gardening the same way ever since! So, apart from the occasional pendulum swing between the formal and the informal – a foray into modernism that never quite took hold in the UK – we’re all still pretty much locked into our mini Munsteads!

Anyway, I digress… back to our mystic garden.

Now, I’m not particularly religious…. but I know a man who is! Douglas Swinscow’s The Mystic Garden (1992) is an amazing book in which he writes about his search, and discovery, of the various spiritual meanings to be found in a garden. In the book he manages cleverly to weave aspects of garden history with advice on garden design, drawing in examples from many a famous, and some quietly hidden gardens, throughout history. As a committed Christian, allied to a strong belief in Taoist philosophy, Douglas takes the reader on a journey, his journey, as he explores how gardens can bring meaning into one’s life. Like most of us I guess, he is of course, trying to find a way back to that Garden of Eden: ‘the mystic garden shows us the way, or one of the infinite number of ways, by which we can attain a deeper knowledge of our existence….. the mystic garden itself has no place on the map: it lies in the soul of each of us’.

Image result for mystic garden book

I would certainly recommend the book as something very different from all the usual gardening books (historical or otherwise) out there. It was my holiday read recently, and my pencilled notes were written in the margins of almost every page! Cheap as chips on Amazon – do check it out. It helped me consider and consolidate what I’m searching for with my love of gardens: my art form of choice.

And as for me, in my own garden, the ‘spirit of place’ is to be found in the joy of its creation, the nurturing of its development, and the love of what it’s become… and yes, the toil in the continued labour of its maintenance.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, 11 March 2019

In praise of the skilled gardener.

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 if 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.


le Jardinier. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

Our Brexit Borders!

Image result for batemans gardens

Okay, so our domestic gardens are still in the grip of Arts & Crafts, Edwardian borders. Whatever effect the naturalistic movement has had over the past 30 years, it really hasn’t made much of a dent in the ‘average’ garden of the UK. There’s not many British garden owners willing to rip out entire borders and re-imagine them wholesale – not without their beloved evergreen shrub layer, peonies and delphiniums… and those ubiquitous roses: adjective’seeming to be everywhere’.

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A rose is a rose.... is a rose... is a rose.......ZZzzzz
I hate to say it, but maybe our attitude toward garden design, somewhat reflects our attitude towards the European Union and the Brexit vote. Maybe the truth is, that whilst the likes of Germany, Holland and Scandinavia have – in the last 50 years – been forging ahead with innovative, philosophical, ecological and ideological plantings, Englanders still believe they have the best gardens in the world. Trouble is, these gardens all  – pretty much – look the same. Yes, I know we have some gardens where conceptualism and land art have produced contemporary visions of what a garden ‘space’ could look like, but in plant-based gardens – those built around planting design - our gardens still tend to emulate the average National Trust garden, and once you’ve seen one, you’ve kind of seen ‘em all.

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A National Trust border.................... somewhere....????

I believe I had a 2-year membership of the National Trust that I let expire about 20 years ago. Always one to get my money’s worth, in that 2-year period I think I must’ve seen about 30 NT gardens, and whilst I’ve no doubt that they were all very nice, and reflected a huge of amount horticultural skill on the part of all those involved, I just tired of the ‘preserved in aspic’ feel to them: by the end of my membership they had somehow all blurred into one homogenous green jelly of trees, shrubs, climbers and herbaceous borders…. and those roses of course! 

Obviously, I realise that these gardens had to stay relatively in-keeping with the houses they wrapped around, but these are the gardens we Brits were exposed to every weekend, and unfortunately, these were the gardens we went on to emulate around our own homes. 
Now, this blog post is not really the place for a detailed look at what the rest of Europe was doing with garden design whilst we were still tending to our roses, but if you are keen to find out maybe Google search phrases such as: ‘German naturalistic planting’… or ‘Dutch naturalistic planting’… or simply just ‘naturalistic planting’. Either way, you’ll be taken on a journey far far away from the gardens of Sissinghurst, Nymans, Batemans… ZZZZZzzzzzzzzz…..…..?????

Vlinderhof in Holland. Now compare that to the average National Trust Garden!

Such a search might lead you towards the trial gardens of Hermanshoff, Germany, where the current curator Cassian Schmidt continues to trial site-specific mixed perennial plantings, revolutionising what can be done in moist, fertile soils, with the constant aim of creating harmonious and attractive, low-maintenance borders.

Maybe a Google search (other search engines are available) will take you back to the likes of perennial and grass breeders Ernst Pagels and Karl Foerster, two hugely influential nurserymen responsible for much of today’s naturalistic planting design. Then there’s the Ruys legacy emanating from Deedemsvart, Holland.  Mien Ruys – daughter of Bonne Ruys - took over the running of her father’s perennial nursery and began experimenting with hard landscape materials, bringing elements of Bauhaus and Mondrian formality to some very informal plantings: naturalistic exuberance within a strict modernist framework.

Of course, there are many criss-crossing links of concatenation that connect our European friends with what we were doing in our own Arts & Crafts borders. Ruys had spent time in England (Tunbridge Wells in fact) observing the borders of Gertrude Jekyll before returning to Holland to re-imagine a similar aesthetic back home. 

Mien Ruys. The informal, within the formal.

A nice little Mien Ruys touch.

Even Piet Oudolf, with his obvious flare and genius for planting design, would gladly admit to the huge influence the gardens of England (Beth Chatto, Dixter and Blooms of Bressingham) had on his early design vision. In combining the fundamental design of an English herbaceous border with the steady influence of German naturalistic planting, Oudolf re-exported a contemporary version of Robinson’s wild garden to a nation grown tired of high-maintenance, colour-themed borders.  Also, by merging the formal with the informal, taking in design influences from all around Europe, and by using the robustness of many a prairie plant, Oudolf recreated a vision of naturalism that seemed to represent a version of meadow inherently  lodged in our primordial psyche somewhere.   

All within a formal framework....

What ‘naturalistic planting’ tries to achieve is something resembling natural plant communities from around the world. Say, the Russian Steppes, or North American Prairies etc. That’s the aesthetic. The ecological aspect aims to create low-maintenance borders which reduce the need for labour (staking, watering, feeding), and by selecting non-invasive, neighbour-friendly plants, aggressive weeds (so prevalent in our fertile soils) can literally be squeezed out of our borders.  Naturalistic planting design is both an art form and a science with the likes of James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett creating seed-based naturalistic vegetation that offer a low-cost, carbon-friendly solution to the problem of public plantings.

Oh, why can't our street planting look like this? Naturalistic planting in Utrecht, Holland.

I do feel that the naturalistic (New Perennial?) bandwagon might be slowing down somewhat. Those cultish gardeners who (like me) have always questioned the possibilities and potential of moving away from traditional gardening, and looked towards global plant communities for their inspiration, are simply not seeing their interest reap dividends and influence the domestic gardens of England.

A lesson in 'less is more'.....
As with our attitude towards Brexit, my fear is that we’ll just carry on arrogantly thinking that we have the best gardens in the world, prolonging a garden style that has already been hanging around far too long, and all the while our European neighbours will be forging ahead with innovative, stylish design. We on the other hand will no doubt still be breeding new roses (like we really need any more!), staking our delphiniums, displaying hosta leaves in bottles and trying to win the local fete’s ‘Largest Pumpkin’ competition at the local village fair!

Until next time. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Naturalistic Design

My gardening ‘business’ hasn’t anything as fancy as a strapline, a mission statement, or even a business model come to think of it. I tend to keep my attitude towards the work I do pretty simple: I simply say that I just ‘go gardening’. I love plants and gardens, so why wouldn’t I want to work with both? 

However, on my travels, little logos and quirky straplines do often come to me. I imagine a flowery and colourful van displaying such lines as ‘Working in partnership, with both you and your garden’. Good one eh? Or, another one I came up with is… ‘To get a great garden… get a great gardener’. I really like that one! I like it so much because it’s true.

There’s always been a bit of a divide between the role of garden designer and that of gardener.  Of course, for some strange reason – and it’s probably a class/ego thing – it’s the role of Garden Designer that always seems to attract the fame, status and kudos. It’s the garden designers who hit the headlines and our TV screens during Chelsea week and who publish those huge coffee-table books. Over the years, I’ve met countless people who want to become garden designers, yet very few who want to devote their working lives to mere gardening.

Of course, there are many types of garden designer, and many types of gardener, with a wide shade of grey to help blend and blur the two together. Many garden designers know very little about plants (in terms of both identification and habitat) as do the many maintenance ‘gardeners’ I come across.  I’ve met so many gardeners who will gladly tell you that they’ve received no formal horticultural training, yet feel themselves to be excellent gardeners because they have some kind of ‘gardening instinct’…. a green-fingered intuition! 

Now, I’m all for gardening intuition. In fact, once you’ve been gardening for a very long time, you do begin to work on an intuitive level. It’s hard to put into words, but (over time) the relationships you form with plants can become rather intimate and personal, and very soon you find yourself relating to them in ways you never imagined possible, with the confidence to prune shrubs, move and divide perennials etc at times that you know are right for the plant itself, and not just when the books tell you. When asked the correct time to do a particular garden task, the great Christopher Lloyd once said the right time is when you, a) remember to do it, b) when the plant is right there in front of you… and c) if you happen to have the correct tool on you at the time!

I’ve never really understood the role of garden designer. By all means call in someone to help design and arrange the space in a garden: someone who knows how to organise space; who also knows about the myriad of hard landscaping materials one can use. In fact, I have met a few ex-theatre and film set designers who have used their skills and talents in this very arena. However, when it comes to the planting, give me a knowledgeable plantsperson any day of the week: those horticulturists who have an affinity with plants; who know how they work, what their individual demands are, how they behave in competition with each other and the natural communities they come from.... and so on!

Also, let’s be honest, once designed - by a designer - the garden is often left in the hands of a gardener (competent or otherwise) who, following 10 years of maintenance and editing, now maintains a garden very different from the designer's original creation: maybe the dead perennials have been exchanged for others more suited to the site and soil, or the box hedging that failed spectacularly (Box Moth or blight) has been ripped out and replaced.

The creative gardener may have taken out the roses, adding ornamental grasses and annuals instead: they may have planted the odd small specimen tree – who knows? Good gardens can be achieved by design, but truly great gardens are created with knowledge, skill and love! 

There’s a garden I work in – a huge, richly-diverse garden – where i’ve worked for just over 8 years now. In that time, the owners have been great, and have allowed me (almost) complete and free reign with regards the plantings. I’ve made many, many changes to the borders in that time. Luckily, the ‘lady of the house’ has a great eye for other things in the garden and can visualise the empty spaces within the landscape and knows very well how to fill those spaces. Anyway, recently I came across some planting plans for the garden. The plans date back about 10 years and show how the borders were originally planted up and what plants were used there at the time. As I say, I’ve been there about 8 years, and looking at those plans now, I reckon the percentage of those original plants probably runs at about 10%.... and I’m being very generous in that estimation. That’s 90% of the plants disappeared in just 10 years!

I recently attended a 2-day Beth Chatto Symposium held at Essex University. The first of its kind, the symposium acted as a kind of meeting place for high horticultural thinkers; like-minded, ecologically-inclined, naturalistic plantspeople (growers and designers) who gave some amazing talks, panel discussions and numerous creative insights into the current state of all things horticultural. The learning potential there was huge, and no doubt many of us there for those 2 days will be thinking about the issues and ideas raised there for a very long time indeed.

One thing that really impacted on me though – and verbalised by almost all of the speakers – was the way in which they held garden maintenance in such high regard: the highest regard. I really wasn’t expecting that.
The point that was stressed (time and time again) was how maintenance needn’t be that of household drudgery. With highly naturalistic plantings, and ecologically-inspired design, the role of the gardener becomes elevated to that of co-creator, pivotal in the evolution and future direction of the garden. 

In such an environment the skilled gardener uses his/her talents to manipulate the landscape; to edit the borders, to sculpt and direct the beauty contained within. Through correct identification, it’s the gardener who decides what happy accidents (self-sown seedlings) to leave in, take out, or transfer elsewhere. It’s the gardener who chooses how to manipulate a plant’s growth (Chelsea Chopping or Hampton Hacking), and in doing so, enhancing the plant’s natural beauty. For the skilled gardener, suddenly maintenance becomes artistic…. creative. In my opinion, this can only really happen with highly ‘naturalistic’ garden design that has been built with ecological intentions and a naturalistic aesthetic.... together with that constant quest for what is beautiful.

So, there are garden designers…. And then there are garden designers! I regard true garden designers as those individuals who love plants; who have studied plants; who have looked at their growth habits and natural habitats, and who have then taken inspiration from those habitats. These are knowledgeable plantspeople who want to emulate nature and natural landscapes, and who also want to deliver us a version of enhanced nature, bringing this into the realm of what we call, a garden.

Here's some of my little border creations from this year.....

From this small empty bed, to......
..... this! This is just year one, so it needs to fill out into next year!
The bed next to it was also created from scratch. I filled it up with these little darlings!

The end result for the entire border. All in one year!

Even postage stamp-sized beds can be improved.....

Just a few months later.
My exotic border creation.
I think the bamboo is the only plant left over from those 10-year old plans.  
A raised bed in desperate need of some TLC.
A work in progress this one!

And finally, a small (9sqm) patch turned over largely to grasses. This was only planted in May this year.
Me skimming off fancy curves!
My rough plan.
As I say, very early days, but next year looks promising!
Oh well, that's it for now. Thanks for reading!


Monday, 25 June 2018

The not so 'New' Perennial Movement

Without wishing to let daylight enter in upon magic, and also not wanting to discuss the findings of my recent dissertation, I thought I would take a few moments out to discuss how (and whether) the New Perennial Movement has had any real influence within the average domestic gardens of England. Now, the history of the NPM dates back a very long way indeed, but for the benefit of this rather short post, let’s just say I’m talking mainly about the small band of Dutch Wavers (Piet Oudolf and friends) together with their extended English family, the likes of Noel Kingsbury, Tom Stuart-Smith, Christopher Bradley-Hole, and many many more!

Similar to its history, the design style of the movement is also far too complex to discuss here: the NPM stand upon philosophies, sociologies and ideologies that go back a very long way indeed. But again, for ease of use, and by taking incredible liberties with over-simplification,  let’s just say I’m talking about that rather naturalistic look of late-season daisies and swaying ornamental grasses you’ve seen creeping all over our public spaces over the last decade or more. You now see such naturalistic creations sat upon many a roundabout, new housing developments, and with large Oudolfian-like borders now a feature in many of our famous public gardens. Even the likes of Homebase and B&Q now sell a variety of button-daises and ornamental grasses, squeezed in amongst the Begonias and Pansies.

The New Perennial Movement... coming to a roundabout near you soon...

Now, we can’t really refer to the ‘New’ Perennial Movement as such anymore… it’s simply not new: it’s been around for a very long time, and many a high-hortic commentator has been saying it reached the point of cliché a good few years ago… the point of cliché always sounding the death knell for any new fashion. In many respects it’s a bit like the punk fashion of the late seventies. Great when it’s slightly counter-culture and still being developed by the young, creative, angry and deprived, but as soon as you could buy factory-ripped ‘punk’ clothes on the high street, torn tartan trousers adorned with their own safety pins, then all the energy was kind of taken out of it. Of course, counter-cultural street movements will always be picked up and monetised by big business, and in many respects it’s the same with the New Perennialists. Anyway, I digress. Have the New Perennialists had a major influence in the domestic garden of the U.K?

Well, i'm afraid the answer is probably ‘no’ not really. I believe it’s had a major impact within the public arena, including some of our most famous gardens, and in other public spaces too such as roundabouts and new housing developments… but as to the Jones' back garden? Uuuummmmm? Very debateable!

New perennial planting along Nine Elms.

In fact, I put this very question directly to Piet Oudolf himself when I met him last year. I also asked many other ‘famous’ garden designers (Tom Stuart-Smith, Christopher Bradley-Hole) and top nursery owners for their views on this matter: people I met during the course of my research.

So, kind of knowing the answer already (I do live in England after all, and I work in domestic gardens every day of the week) I rather bravely asked Piet: ‘so, what impact do you think you’ve had on the average domestic garden in England?’…. and do you know what he said? Well, you'll have to wait for my dissertation to be read and marked by the tutors before I can reveal the answer to this, and many other questions! 

All I will say, as a kind of little teaser, is this... the English love colour – always have done! Think Gertrude Jekyll. Think Sandra Pope (Hadspen House); think of any arts & crafts herbaceous border: Sissinghurst, Dixter etc! We LOVE colour! Especially blue it would seem.

Also, us Brits actually like the process of gardening. After all, we are, as they say, a nation of gardeners, and although we moan like hell about it (along with everything else) we like nothing more than pottering in the garden, staking our plants, feeding them, tying them up and dead-heading them! 

Now look again at that roundabout, and witness its gruelling annual maintenance regime.....

No staking. No Dead-heading. No watering. No feeding ect...

Firstly, and quite unlike our traditional herbaceous borders, new perennial borders are designed with form and structure as their primary aesthetic – not colour! 

Secondly, they don’t require much (hardly any) maintenance, and once they’re ‘up-an-doing’ can sit quite happily there for months until, come the spring, you decide to chop them all down to the ground and wait for the cycle of growth to start all over again! Maybe British gardeners like to garden and simply don’t want to be deprived of the many pleasures this all-consuming hobby gives them.

Again, my research reveals many reasons as to why the New Perennial movement has struggled to make inroads into our domestic gardens, but its obvious lack of colour together with the virtually non-existent need for maintenance reveals just a couple of fatal flaws. Many a time I’ve been offered a ‘new perennial’ garden to maintain, but to be honest, although I much prefer naturalistic borders over traditional ones, as a self-employed gardener, I also know where my bread is buttered. Traditional herbaceous borders simply offer me so much more work throughout the year.

One lone naturalistic wolf in Sevenoaks... ready to stand out from the crowd!

Now, don’t let it be said that I agree with any of this criticism. I’m a new perennialist (whatever that now means?) through and through. It was ornamental grasses and clump-forming perennials that got me into gardening in the first place, and it’s the naturalistic plant communities (of both plants and people) that keeps me interested in horticulture to this day. However, a Miscanthus here, and a Rudbeckia there doesn’t mean you understand anything about new perennial planting, in much the same way that owning the famous Blue & Red albums means you know anything about The Beatles.

Ecology, sustainability, plant sociology and durability are just a few aspects of contemporary naturalistic garden design, but it’s not until you really start to tease out the historic strands of naturalistic planting philosophy (its people and places) that you start to get an inkling and a nudge of a direction worth moving towards. My advice? Read Noel Kingsbury… read Henk Gerritsen….. Allan Armitage…. James Hitchmough and Roy Diblik. Go and seek out these designers, and their creations, and then go see them for yourself. 

There’s an absolutely massive world of horticulture out there… a world far beyond pretty flowers and evergreen shrubs… and those bloody awful roses!

Nuff said. Oudolf is genius!


Keep cool. 

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Nonsense of What & When!

Recently, a colleague of mine commented that you only ever really need one annual subscription to a gardening magazine, as the tips and tricks, together with the ‘what to do now’ sections tend to repeat themselves with an almost same week accuracy, year on year. Of course, he was spot on. I once spent about 5 years tearing out the ‘what to do now’ sections of various gardening magazines and collating them in a folder. I know, very sad of me! Anyway, they acted as a useful reminder of what jobs I should’ve been considering in the various gardens I worked in. However, over time, I too noticed an obvious repetition of articles and tips... even using the same photos!

A small portion of my borders last year.
Now though, having spent many years gardening professionally, and having taught countless students the horticultural basics, I find myself having journeyed far beyond gardening as a pursuit allied to any calendar: I’ve discovered that the ‘what to do and when’ of gardening is something of a notional nonsense! In many respects, all gardening is made up of two elements: how to do something, and when to do it. We read articles on how to take hardwood cuttings and when is the best time to do so, or how to plant spring bulbs, and when to do so… and so on. The mythology of how and when, passed down from one generation to the next.

Well, obviously this is all good advice, and I’m not about to criticize its clear well-intentioned common sense, even though planting bulbs roughly six months before you want them to flower is kind of obvious really, as is choosing the ‘ripe’ time to take the ‘right’ cuttings. However, as with the huge degree of adaptability inherent within the ‘right plant, right place’ mantra, the law of how and when to do certain seasonal tasks also allows for a wide range of flexibility.

Dead seed heads still doing their stuff amongst grasses

That’s why, at times I must confess, I find myself getting a little tired and bored when teaching horticulture to new students.  I hear myself repeating the same information I was once told… 'all that stuff' in the books that tell you how and when you should be doing 'all that ‘stuff' in your own garden…. and so it goes on.... and on...!

I'm aware that i'm telling them of Magnolias, Azaleas, Rhododendrons and Camellias that love an acid soil, even though I’ve seen countless specimens absolutely thriving in some very average, Ph neutral soils. I tell them the importance of annually mulching their borders with a good organic compost, even though now I read that this task isn’t really necessary (except for rose-hungry borders) and how a perennial border actually prefers less fertility than previously thought. I listen to Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 and hear five different responses from five different panellists.

Here, i’m reminded of the wit and wisdom of the great Christopher Lloyd (the God of Great Dixter) when he wrote on the subject of when to do a certain horticultural task. Having just given us pages and pages of advice as to when is the best time to prune and plant, in good humour he tells us that he is also a ‘great believer in doing a job when I want to it, and to hell with the consequences’. He informs us that the best time to do any job in the garden is when the task itself is staring you in the face, when and if you have the time to do it, and (most important) if you happen to have the correct tool in your hand at the time. If all those stars are in alignment, then now is as a good a time as any to be getting on with it!

I think what it is, is that now I’ve been gardening for so long, and I have worked so closely to the ground, and with the many plants contained within it, I have come to witness first hand, that nature (climate, conditions and tolerances) allow for such a wide interpretation of what, how and when something can be done, you can ‘almost’ throw The Book out of the window, and just do it when it seems right to do so!

I mean, don’t be silly about it: don’t go planting anything into hard and frosted ground, or in bone-dry, high-summer borders! Do pay at least some attention to the laws of right plant, right place, but do remain mindful of the fact that, like us, even when denied favourable conditions, plants still want to live, flower and produce offspring: plants are very adaptable!

Lovely combinations at Lady Farm

Without wishing to sound like some kind of other-worldly Zen gardener, I guess what I’m saying is that providing your intention is a good one, and you pay some attention to the needs of the plant, cosset them slightly and make them as comfortable as possible in their new homes, you won’t go too far wrong. All the best gardens are created from love and nurture, coupled with a desire to create something beautiful. Just remember that young Grasshopper… wax on, wax off…!

le Jardinier x