Monday, 6 December 2021

The Legibility of Gardens

Grasses around the American Embassy in Nine Elms


Of course, one could call it a cliché to say that men have always favoured the formal elements of a garden and that the women folk feel more comfortable creating beauty from the chaos of free-wheeling plants. Yes, you could say that, and in many respects you’d be right. Apart from the many famous examples of male/female partnerships which exemplify this (Lutyens & Jekyll, Vita & Harold, Lawrence Johnson and Nora Lindsey) I have also witnessed it countless times within the sphere of domestic gardening. It’s true to say that it’s virtually always the man of the house who concerns himself with the orderly nature of things: the stripy lawn, the re-pointing of paths, the walls, the hedges, the pleached limes etc. Indeed it’s very rare to find a man who would admit to finding any beauty whatsoever among the beds and borders, or the colours and combinations contained therein.



In fact, whenever I try (as I often do) to gain a male opinion, or an appreciation of what’s on view from within the flower beds, I always end up feeling like some kind of mischievous therapist, trying to tease out a sentence or two, hoping for a confession of feeling, any feeling whatsoever, towards the obvious beauty there on display. Very rare!


Most men like orderliness in the garden. I remember hearing a saying once – in relation to office work really – but it kind of went something like, ‘tidy desk, untidy mind…. untidy desk, tidy mind’.  Obviously, the quote itself alludes towards a belief that those who struggle with a monkey-mind-mentality look for areas such as their desks in which to try to gain and impose some kind of order and formality to their lives - allegedly. Think of men and their tool sheds, or garages, with every tool held neatly in its place. Some men seem to like nothing more than to take out all their tools, clean the drawers and cupboards, only to replace all the tools again, once cleaned and sorted! Maybe life seems to make more sense once some kind of order has been restored? Traits of OCD perhaps? 

In a similar vein the history of garden design has long been deconstructed and analysed from the world of environmental psychology. Many discoveries have been made. For example, gardens have always had the need to be legible. By that I mean, as a work of art, and upon being viewed as such, the on-looker has a need to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that what they’re looking at (and experiencing) doesn’t overly confound or disturb the senses.  For example, relatively chaotic plantings can be accepted when planted within a formal framework. The seeming mystery and randomness of an herbaceous border is somehow allowed when contained with certain boundaries: hedges, walls and parterres. Again, from the Arts & Crafts garden to the gardens of Mien Ruys and John Brookes, informal plantings within a formal framework somehow give us an acceptable way in which to view that which we know little about.  

Bauhaus inspired naturalism within Mien Ruys' garden

 The same can be said of contemporary naturalistic plantings. Relatively ‘modern’ design movements, such as the New Perennial Movement may often lack the common formal signatures of an Arts & Crafts garden (trees, hedges and shrubs etc) yet the safety, security and legibility is provided by the easy-to-read allusions towards the parental archetypes they’re often trying to emulate: meadows, prairies, steppes, woodlands and so on. 

Many naturalistic writers have spoken about how such plantings tap into our hard-wired DNA: forgotten, trace elements of our agrarian past; running through waist-high meadows, feeling safe under vast blue blanket skies, with open and safe sight lines that stretch out towards the distant horizon. These are of course, gardens that represent nature: a nature enhanced.

Cambo Gardens - incredible combinations of colour, form and texture. 


Cambo's yummy umbels!

Obviously, the marching chaos of nature needs to be removed from our designed spaces. Gardening is, after all, still a triumph of humankind over the encroaching nature of wilderness. Unless of course you’re quite happy to grow your very own climax community: a forest!

Naturalistic plantsman, Dr Noel Kingsbury, recently moved to Portugal from his home and garden on the Welsh Borders. I’ve met him in that garden before, and boy, what an amazing garden it was too! Very Henk Gerritsen. However, one of the reasons he moved (although I rather suspect Brexit also had something to do with it) was the sheer task of managing the weed situation in his garden! Our oceanic climate is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to the success of plant growth in this country.

Noel's Garden

.... and another pic of Noel's garden.

 So let’s recap. An evolutionary link to our agrarian past, open sight lines with knee-high plantings and an easy-to-read association towards its parental archetype. All these elements help us to recognise these environments, and to feel safe within them too. 

But also, let’s not forget the plants commonly used in New Perennial plantings. Of course, within the domestic New Perennial garden the naturalistic plants will, no doubt, be bigger, perhaps more colourful, and somewhat blousier than those you would see in the fields, and of course that’s only to be expected when you have to work within a comparatively tiny arena. You haven’t the luxury of several acres of awe-inspiring pasture grass, Ox-Eye daisies, Scabious and yarrow! However, look at the plants being used in the garden and you will see obvious associations: many a single-flowered daisy (asters, heleniums, rudbeckias, echinaceae), ornamental grasses, along with a few umbellifers (Ammi, Anthriscus) to help remind us of the cow parsley lining the edges of woodlands and roadside verges. It’s all about triggering a subconscious emotional response to a pastoral past that, in truth, very few of us have ever even experienced!

I’ve heard it said by many horticultural commentators, Alan Titchmarsh for one, that New Perennial planting is a bit of a one trick pony. Now, I’m not saying that such comments come from a place of ignorance – or am I? – but to say such a thing is to totally misunderstand the philosophy, psychology and ideology of what ‘should be’ trying to be achieved within naturalistic design.

Such a flippant comment says nothing of the continuous striving for harmonious plant communities skilfully encouraged within the garden…. or the years of scientific research that have gone into studying the habits and habitats of plants…… or the noble aim of creating beautiful, ecologically-inspired gardens that are virtually self-sustaining and requiring little or no maintenance. The list goes on…. and on.

I'm in heaven...... Totally immersed in naturalistic plantings

 Of course, ultimately I guess, every garden maker has to decide for themselves just what a garden is…. and God knows what the answer to that question is?! For me, it is the emotional response to plantings that resemble the real, or imagined, plant communities I see represented in nature. That’s why an Arts & Crafts border (though still very nice to look at) simply doesn’t float my boat any more. If anything, for me at least, it is the Arts & Crafts, cottagey mixed ‘n’ muddled border that is the real one trick pony – discuss??

le Jardinier

Take care & happy Xmas!


Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Woodland Edge



Following a horticultural path unique to me, led me to a certain curiosity. Always one for taking a hobby or an interest to its nth degree, a few years ago I found myself becoming intrigued by the ecology of neglected wastelands. I would pass a fenced-off builder’s site, where perhaps a house or two had been torn down, and would make a habit of either stopping by occasionally or passing very slowly to see the vegetation that was developing there. Over the years I’ve developed an interest in the ecology of natural grasslands (meadows, pasture etc) and how this relates to scrub and woodland settings. All I need to hear is one throw-away comment such as ‘of course, it goes without saying that  our gardens mimic the woodland edge’ and my curiosity soon becomes an obsession – I simply need to know more!

Having said that, the natural competitiveness of plants (esp perennials) has, for a long time, been of special interest to me. Ever since I first put several clump-forming perennials in the same bed have I been engrossed by the ensuing battle: it’s not the fight i’m interested in you understand, it’s more an ecological and aesthetic curiosity to see how some kind of natural beauty might be created in the fight for supremacy. Also, I guess there’s a slight interest in the whole behavioral science of plants: plant communities working in parallel with our own ways of being. Many years ago I remember telling [insert blatant name drop here] Noel Kingsbury that I had a keen interest in the competitiveness of clump-forming perennials. Hand on heart, I can honestly say that – at the time – I knew very little about Noel’s work and of his own area of expertise. I honestly didn’t know that he had studied (at Phd level) that very subject, and that he, together with a long line of academics and nursery folk, had also considered how plants (mainly perennials) built and sustained communities of their own.

Of course, Noel is a true pioneer of this field, and no doubt will be remembered as such when history looks back and recounts the naturalistic design wave that has swept across the world since the early eighties. What I thought of as simple clump-forming perennials, Noel went on to describe as either clonal or non-clonal competitors, using a language of pioneer plants, short-lived perennials, woodland edge and climax forest communities. Rather humbly, he himself admits that much of his work was launched from the shoulders of many a high hortic who went before him (e:g, Prof Richard Hansen) but he certainly needs to take huge credit for assisting the lay gardener in understanding plants as communities, and of the symbiotic aesthetic one can create with them.   

Anyway, enough sucking up to The Kingsbury, and back to that woodland edge scenario. Of course, the woodland edge as analogous to the domestic garden is quite a simple concept to understand. Simply stand and look at a woodland edge, and there you have it! Trees in the background, working their way down to an understorey of a shrub/scrub layer, down further to the perennial material, then ground cover, and then finally grassland acting as a transitional/managed landscape (meadow/pasture etc) before it once again reaches further woodland.

Ring any bells? It is of course, the classic design template for most domestic gardens, certainly in the UK at least. The ABC of garden design teaches and preaches ‘tall plants at the back, short plants at the front’…. Now skip merrily across the lawn and do the same on the other side – simples!

Now, is it just me (don’t all shout YES!) or does knowing something as simple as this also seem incredibly profound? In wanting to know how to design borders, why we design borders, and where did our idea of the ‘contemporary’ mixed border come from, the topic of the woodland edge nudges us towards some very interesting areas of investigation. It is of course, a HUGE subject, and one far too large to discuss here. We would all do well to re-read those early pioneers of Arts & Crafts and Cottage Garden Muddlers. 

In reading and dissecting any garden, the amateur garden historian can easily identify common elements of garden design stretching back hundreds of years: discuss lawns, topiary, the herbaceous border, statuary, and so on. And it’s always worth remembering that seismic changes in garden design nearly always fall into just a few handy categories such as ….

·         Garden design as a reaction to what went before: – think of the Arts & Crafts movement being a reaction to the mechanised, industrialised threat inherent within the industrial revolution. Also, maybe consider the vast and expansive English landscapes of Cap’ Brown, and Humphrey Repton arising as a direct counter to the highly-formalised renaissance gardens of France and Holland.... and England of course. Garden history is littered with such examples of one style evolving as a reaction to what went before.

·         Garden design imitating art: – Whether it be the influence of painters Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin upon the gardens of William Kent; the drama of a Salvator Rosa painting on the Picturesque movement, or the Bauhaus-inspired  gardens of Mien Ruys, it goes without saying that garden design has long been inspired by artistic fashions.  

·         Garden design as a simulacrum of a natural landscape: – Of course, our current, let’s say, naturalistic style of gardening now has a long heritage stretching back to William Robinson, and beyond. For over a hundred years now, we have been somewhat kinder to plants, sympathetic to their needs (right plant, right place) and nearly always trying to set them within a context that often tries to replicate their natural habitats: meadows, steppes, prairie, and to come full circle….. the woodland edge! 

Our multi-layered, mixed borders do indeed mimic the woodland edge. Is this a coincidence? I don’t know. Obviously, it’s a design style that allows us to combine trees, shrubs, perennials and ground cover, but as to its links to the design styles that came before it? Well, that would require a deeper investigation I imagine: maybe my next project?

So maybe next time you’re in a garden – famous or otherwise – have a think about the woodland edge and ponder the similarities. Think about the height and scale of the planting. See how large mature trees interact with what’s planted underneath.  See what is trying to be created there..... and if it’s successful.

Always look to see how and what a skilful planting scheme (ignore the unskilful) is trying to achieve. Think of any design references that might have links and allusions back to historic garden design movements.  Again, a measure of design ‘success’ should always be considered against the question ‘what is trying to be achieved here?’ Once you feel you have some kind of answer to that question, then ask yourself further, ‘is the aim being achieved - successfully?’

However, always be humble, and always remind yourself that.... everyone's a critic!


Friday, 28 August 2020

The low-maintenance (no money) Garden!

I remember speaking to a self-employed gardener once, on the subject of weeding.  I’ve always been a very conscientious weeder, and I’m always keen to get the roots of perennial weeds out. I’ll always remember him saying that he himself didn’t do that. Instead, he simply hoe’d off the top (visible) growth. His attitude was ‘why would I get them out completely?.... those weeds are my livelihood’. UUUmmmm? Although his attitude was indeed morally questionable, I did kind of see his point in a way. You see, weeding was part of his bread & butter, and he was keen to carry on earning, keeping busy with as many tasks – weeding being one of them - as possible. I’ll come back to this story towards the end of this post. It’ll make more sense then.

Oudolf at Hauser & Wirth

Recently, I had to invoice a client of mine my bill for the month of August. Obviously, we had some pretty extreme weather during August (heavy rain & extreme heat) and that caused me to work reduced hours with this client: both 37degree heat and pouring rain seemed to arrive on their allocated day. Anyway, when working out the invoice for August I was amazed to see that I had only given them 5 hours labour all month! Yes, it was August after all, and for the gardener, August can be a very quiet month indeed: in my opinion probably the slowest month of the year. In August gardens can simply sit, exhausted and puffed out with very little maintenance required. The ground can be hard and dry, with few weeds growing and with very few plants requiring any real meaningful interventions on the part of the gardener. Obviously, this is all dependent on the weather, but quite often, August is the one month you could allow the garden a holiday.

Anyway, back to these 5 hours of labour.  This particular client is very ‘planty’ himself, a very knowledgeable gardener; a man after my own heart, who’s a keen New Perennialist, a plantsman and with a very good eye for design. He has spent time working in the design studio of Tom Stuart-Smith and has created himself a lovely garden, including two large New Perennial beds that I now help to maintain. So, apart from the weather having hindered me slightly during August, it’s precisely this planting style that allowed me to work fewer hours there. I’ve said it many times before, but the New Perennial way of planting design sits on an axis of aesthetic beauty versus maintenance. In my opinion, it offers the garden designer a level of naturalistic beauty far beyond the prevalent cottage garden style, and nowhere near as labour intensive.

A little bit of prairie..... down in Sussex!

Now, it must be remembered that one reason for the term New Perennial relates to the fact that many of the plants that came with that movement literally really were ‘new perennials’ grown and bred by the likes of Piet Oudolf, or coming from many a German and Dutch nursery. It should also be remembered that Oudolf deliberately chose, and bred, robust perennials so that he wouldn’t have to constantly return to his many clients to attend to failing plants: time is money after all.

So, the need for planting schemes that could look after themselves, with plants that would make good companions, and wouldn’t fight each other for space, lies at the very heart of today’s contemporary New Perennial, meadow, naturalistic, prairie planting (call it what you may) design schemes. Clump-forming perennials do just that. They form tight clumps. Imagine circles of 12” vinyls being laid out on virgin soil, and whether they be flowering plants or grasses, very soon they’ll knit together, budge up to one-another, squeezing out any opportunity for weed growth. Annual weeds simply have no place to land and take root, and if the ground prep was done correctly, perennial weeds ‘shouldn’t’ be a problem either.

So, you have a matrix of robust plants that need no staking, no dead-heading and little (if any) watering. I guess you can see where this is going now?

Now, I plant using a very naturalistic palette, and by that I mean I mainly use clump-forming perennials, many from the asteraceae family, together with various grasses. I also employ many dots and spires thrown in for good measure; these help to add little dramas, surprises and accents to the scheme. Throw in a well-thought-out spring and summer bulb display, and Bob’s your uncle! One could say that I (along with others who design in this manner) am a one-trick-pony, and to an extent, they’d be right. But I believe, such an approach creates the highest horticultural beauty, whilst giving us a (relatively) low-maintenance garden. Of course, it’s also the ecology and the philosophy behind the aesthetic that appeals most, and it is those subjects that fill my bookshelves!

So, to come full circle, and to round up this little post, what has this got to do with that ethically-dubious gardener I introduced earlier? Well, I’m a man of integrity. I wouldn’t just hoe the tops off weeds – honest guv - or let annual weeds go to seed simply to help sustain my wages, and in the same way, I would find it very difficult to design borders that didn’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) create conventional, arts & crafts borders, consisting of roses, lupins, delphiniums and peonies etc. Even a single ornamental grass can sometimes be very hard to place in such a border….. and a border without a grass, or  seven….. well?

However, such integrity often comes at a price. For example, you may want to spend your life designing gardens for wildlife, but I doubt if you'll ever receive a cheque from a single butterfly!

As I say, designing New Perennial borders, from someone who also earns his living from garden maintenance, leaves one with a bit of a dilemma. Remember that, back in the day, a Jekyllian herbaceous border may well have had around 17 gardeners working on it. Arts & Crafts gardens are very labour intensive. By their very nature they generate plenty of work... and New Perennial gardens don’t....!

A little piece of Hummelo

As for one of my typical border designs? Well, to be honest, and without much exaggeration, once established, you could simply go out into the garden in early Spring and cut it all down with a scythe, or even run a mower over it. In fact, within the conclusion of my Master’s dissertation (which investigated how successful the New Perennial Movement had been at infiltrating the average UK garden) one of the reasons as to why it hadn’t successfully crossed over into our domestic gardens was that it offered the hobby gardener very little opportunity to actually practice their love of gardening!  Watching clump-formers rise and fall throughout the growing year isn’t much of a hobby, not when you want to be out there staking, dead-heading, sowing annuals, watering and so on!

The growing habits of many cottage garden plants differ greatly from perennial clump-formers. Your rose, peony and delphinium etc, allow for weed growth around the base of their stems, and very often, because they’ve been so over-bred, produce top-heavy growth that require even more attention.

So, in conclusion,  if I were as sneaky as that gardener, really I should be designing borders that would keep me in work throughout the year.   

However, although he may be able to sleep soundly at night knowing he’s assured an income, I would rather sleep well, contented in the knowledge that I’ve created something beautiful for people who appreciate it.


Speaking of which, i've copied a few images of a recent border I designed and planted up in April/May of this year. It was done during lock-down, using the only trade nursery that was open at that time.... so plant choices were a little limited. However, what you see is the result of planting up a 30sqm bed, using 2Litre pots, and given just 2 months growth, the results are pretty darn good.... if you ask me! 

Take care.

Le Jardinier. XX

Sunday, 12 January 2020

2020 Predictions

Writing in his iplantsman blog, a friend of mine, Lewis Normand (of Bernhard’s Nursery) has recently been giving some of his design predictions for 2020. An experienced and knowledgeable plantsman and garden designer, who also supplies plants for many a top garden designer, Lewis is in a very good position to give his opinions on the future direction of garden design. For example, he believes 2020 to be the year of the flowering shrub, an opinion shared with many. The likes of Stephen Lacy (writer & broadcaster) have long championed the return of the much-neglected shrub. Now, I love all plants, and believe there’s a home of aesthetic beauty for each and every one of them, but personally, I’ll always favour the transitory nature and dynamism of herbaceous material over shrubs any day. 

Lewis also foresees a boom in indoor gardening (I couldn’t agree more) together with the ever-growing popularity of grow-your-own: food to fork and all that. Whereas in my opinion i’ve always thought that everything I need to know about fruit and veg can be found in the first two aisles of any supermarket. I’m all about beauty, not sustenance!

Stourhead - A living work of art.
However, when considering future design trends, I wonder if it might be worth contemplating other aspects of what often brings about change: the social, economic, cultural and political changes that motivate shifts in art and design. Historically, artistic changes have often been social and political reactions  to whatever had come before: the English Landscape Movement sweeping away the formality of the renaissance garden; the arts & craft aesthetic that reacted against the mechanistic threat of the industrial revolution, and so on. Anyway, no guesses as to what I’m leading you to here… the dreaded ‘B’ word I’m afraid. Yes, you guessed it – Brexit…!

Now, without trying to get too political - for what is after all, a horticultural blog - for me at at least, Brexit does have a rather inward, ‘pull-up-the-drawbridge’ kind of feel to it and I wonder what implications, in a garden design context, this might have for the shape of our future gardens? I mean, it’s not as though the average domestic garden of the U.K has changed much since we first joined the EU, or the Common Market as it was known back then, but the influence of the New Perennial Movement (coming just a decade following our Common Market membership in 1973) certainly tried to direct us away from a garden style that had been with us for well over a 100 years. 

You can't deny it.... we do know how to create a rather nice herbaceous border!

For a very long time, us Brits (and the English in particular) have believed our gardens to be worldly superior, and in truth, our horticultural history, does justify this view. Pushing aside the enormous success of the English Landscape Movement, who invented and cultivated a view of England the world still imagines us to be – that of rolling fields fringed with majestic Oaks - the cottage garden style of Gertrude Jekyll & William Robinson created an aesthetic that surrounds most domestic houses to this day. Subsequent dabblers in the crafty arts may have moved the style on slightly giving it the odd tweak and twist, but generally (despite Rosemary Verey, Lawrence Johnson, Margery Fish and Vita Sackcloth-Vest) we still garden in a very similar way with mixed herbaceous borders, layering material from ground cover, up to the herbaceous level, before rising steadily to shrubs, climbers and trees. I guess we all wanted a little of that National Trust look around our homes. It’s a wonder we all didn’t go the whole hog and install gift shops, selling pencils, rubbers and cream teas, with lashings of ginger beer!

In contrast, what the New Perennial Movement offered us was something so very different. It was of course the 1980’s; a time when accessible flights could land you in a German or Dutch town easier, quicker and cheaper than getting to say, Manchester or Leeds. I don’t know about you, but I grabbed that offer with both hands and went in search of something a little more diverse, and horticulturally speaking, I wasn’t alone.

(From the pictorial Arts & Crafts border, to the immersive style of the New Perennialists shown in these two pictures taken at Hermannshof, Germany)

The likes of the newly-published magazine Gardens Illustrated also looked to Europe for something new, and landed upon the likes of Piet Oudolf, Mien Ruys and Ton Ter Linden. At the same time, and writing in the Daily Telegraph, so too did the likes of Stephen Lacy. Top nursery folk also travelled to Germany and Holland, literally filling their boots (of their cars) with enough plant material to bring back home, propagate (usually from division) and begin selling in their own nurseries. Our very own Dr Noel Kingsbury began a literary partnership with Oudolf showing us what could be done when ornamental grasses were combined with clump-forming and well-behaved perennials. In many respects, the design aesthetic they gave us, reintroduced us to the forgotten remembrance of our primordial love and affection of the meadow: a naturalistic landscape. Eden perhaps? A garden that we’ve been trying to return to for a very long time.

Oudolf's Hummelo. I know one should never compare, BUT COME ON!!

Anyway, that whole New Perennial aesthetic was, and continues to be, a very European affair. In the eighties and nineties, the whole of Europe was opened up to us by the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair as they increased their European routes and took us to new destinations. What Mien Ruys was doing with her Bauhaus-inspired version of naturalistic planting, or the philosophical musings of Rob Leopold, or Oudolf’s plant breeding at Hummelo, or the grasses of Karl Foerster and Ernst Pagels…. Well, it certainly was a brave new world that gave us and our gardens the kick we both needed and deserved. Almost overnight, our gardens went from the pictorial to the immersive.

Image result for karl foerster nursery man
Karl Foerster
So, what now? Will Brexit have any influence on our gardens at all?  Well, as I say, although their influence can been seen mainly with regards designer gardens and public spaces, the New Perennialists have had some impact on our garden spaces over the past twenty years or so. However, seeing as the UK domestic garden still rests in its post arts and crafts cottage muddle, it’s not as though Brexit can ever return us to a style we’ve never actually left. More’s the case, I reckon, we might see a re-imagining of something quintessentially English. A romantic re-investigation and celebration of the cottage garden perhaps. A greater interest in growing ‘native’ plants, whatever that means. Maybe roses will see a huge renaissance? Possibly Delphiniums, Peonies and Lupin sales will surge?

At Pettifers where a New English (New Perennial?) influence is without question. Stunningly beautiful.

For me, January 31st will be a very sad day. I keep reminding myself that we’re not leaving Europe, we’re ‘only’ leaving the EU, but somehow that doesn’t help me to feel any better. I truly love our horticultural heritage. The English Landscape Movement changed the shape of our countryside and gave England something truly unique, and in doing so, finally released plants from the tyranny of formalism. In a very different way, so did the arts and crafts movement, successfully marrying the formal with the informal, combining plants from all over the world, and always within a framework of ‘right-plant, right-place’.

A simple carriageway in Utrecht. Why can't we do this?
However, I’m also very aware of what those European New Perennialists have given us since Europe became more accessible via the Common Market and Easyjet. For example. without the Dutch Wave, would we ever have had Dan Pearson, Christopher Bradley-Hole, Tom Stuart-Smith, Sarah Price, or even the likes of Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough? Without the naturalistic aesthetic they brought to garden design, maybe all we would’ve been left with were the garden facsimiles of the National Trust, Great Dixter, Sissinghurst and Hidcote…. And what a sad state of affairs that would’ve been.

Until next time. Thanks for reading.


Le Jardinier. xx

My idea of heaven. Two ol' blokes and one cat... looking at plants!

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’.

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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.