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!


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