Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Japan - not just stones and raked sand.

Within the space to two days, the chance to see two stupendous examples of Japanese horticulture, but so totally different, and however superlative they were, neither of them the kind of thing I could live with myself. One of them was a recently made, but not modern (important distinction this!) version of a traditional garden – the Adachi Museum near Matsue, and the other the Vogelpark, also near Matsue, a popular visitor attraction, catering to mass entertainment.
The planting in the middle could well be the kind of habitat planting that is normally absent from Japanese gardens
 On my last trip to Japan, I wrote about some critical reflections on the traditional Japanese gardens that make so many visitors to the country go weak at the knees. Interesting to re-reflect. Part of the problem with looking at Japanese gardens is to see them afresh, as we have so many imitation or Japanese-inspired gardens that get in the way. One of the problems for Bris especially, is that we have virtually no 'real' Japanese gardens accessible to the public (unlike in the US or Germany), but instead some kitschy early 20th century fake ones and a plethora of truly horrendous recent fake ones – take one imitation lantern, a pile of rocks and a maple and you have a Japanese garden. 

Now, rather intriguingly, looking at many Japanese front gardens, there are many folk here who do exactly the same thing, except that they have niwaki-pruned trees too, which hardly anyone back home can do. The effect is the same though, a few rocks dotted about, with some dwarfed trees, a lantern and there it is – absolutely none of the sophisticated spatial relations we get to see in the classic gardens. And in many cases, with the equivalent of garden gnomes: little concrete statues.
The 'great' gardens of Japan express a sophisticated aesthetic of spatial relations. Designers in the US have always been well ahead of British ones in taking this on board. The ones which are perhaps most inspiring are the ones for small spaces: the iconic Ryoan-ji, and the much less well-known but equally sophisticated Ryogen-in and Daisen-in (the latter cannot be photographed). One my last visit, the larger ones, e.g. Tenryu-ji and Gingaku-ji, came across as like stage sets – look at them from the wrong angle and they seem empty and sterile, the right way and everything falls into place.
Little stone chaps like this are a big part of popular garden culture
It was interesting on this trip, to accompany a group, including several working garden designers (all Argentinian). The Adachi Gallery garden blew us all away on first sight: like the art in the gallery, it is simply a modern take on traditional forms, but done on a far more generous scale and in fact incredibly well done – and immaculately maintained (which always helps). In looking at it, I found a few places which were almost approaching what you could call 'naturalistic' planting, in that they consisted of low shrubby plants with no clipping – they could have been bilberries and heather in Scotland. They counterposed the über-control of the rest of it and the clean white, unraked, gravel that made such a good foreground. 

The Adachi garden is simply the most perfect and accomplished garden in the Japanese tradition, and is apparently widely appreciated as such. And yet, as one of my colleagues on the trip, Amalia Robredo, commented, it is completely lifeless, there being no movement. Unlike the Japanese countryside, which at this time of year seems to sprout miscanthus grass everywhere, there are not perennials and no grasses. Yuko Tanabe Nagamura, a horticulture colleague from Nagasaki, who was accompanying us on the trip, told us that the Japanese gardening public do not appreciate grasses and perennials, seeing them only as weeds. 

The Adachi garden did make me think of Mediterranean region possibilities. Back in the spring I went to visit a couple of gardens made by Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos, which made extensive use of low clipped native sub-shrubs, but with grasses and perennials as lively moving contrast. Clipped shrubs and conifers were the main element, and I realised how it might be possible to use Mediterranean sub-shrubs and conifers in a similar way, with rocks and gravel, but adding a more naturalistic element. If I ever get the chance to make garden in such a climate, this might be a good place to start. 

The other piece of superlative horticulture in the Matsue area was Vogelpark, designed to be a family day out visitor attraction, with bird of prey flying displays, twice-daily penguin walkabouts, etc etc., along with a vast greenhouse, the contents of which bowled us over. We walked in and our jaws just dropped. OK, none of us like big bright brash begonias, but to see them grown on this scale and this well, we could not but fail to admire them. Streptocarpus, coleus, fuchisa, pelargonium and begonias too, all on a massive scale, all incredibly well-grown and in many cases clearly quite old plants. It was all very old-fashioned, like something out of the Victorian era. But inspiring to see so much good horticulture, and particularly re. the amazing collection of begonias, so good to see such a good collection of plants, such genetic diversity. It made Wisley seem very tame and unambitious in comparison.

This kind of full-on public horticulture is every bit as Japanese as the classic raked sand and clipped conifer gardens, the same total commitment to quality, and yet a side of the country's gardening we rarely appreciate. The fact that to us it is unfashionable is no excuse for ignoring it.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Big ideas about small gardens

A friend's garden in Bristol - made too late to be actually in the book, maybe next time
 Small gardens - it wasn't the most obvious book for me to write. After all, our current garden is around an acre plus another three of meadow. But I used to joke about all serious garden writers having to write at least one book on small gardens in their career. Some write several, Sir Roy Strong I seem to recall, wrote at least two, back in the 1980s, although his definition of 'small' seemed to be just under an acre. All I can say is that I didn't start out aiming to do this. I remember meeting up with the Dutch photographer Maayke de Ridder, on her lovely houseboat on the outskirts of Amsterdam; she originally suggested to me that perhaps we should do a book together on contemporary Dutch garden design. Seemed like a good idea, except that the publisher we took the idea too, Frances Lincoln of London, took the view that having 'Dutch' in the title would not help sell the book; I did wonder whether the attitude would have been the same if we had gone to them with an idea about French gardens; as it appears anything French is generally regarded as chic and cool and stylish by the book buying public. I think the publisher's attitude might have been that the perception of Dutch + garden = tulips. Such is the power of branding, you could sell a book titled 'Dutch Tulips' or 'French Gardens' but not 'Dutch Gardens' or indeed'French Tulips'.

Joanne Bernstein's London garden - pic by Maayke

"What about doing a book on small gardens?" suggested the publisher's commissioning editor, adding something along the lines of "we haven't done one for five years". Indeed - most of the gardens were small. Maayke has some fantastic connections, enabling her to get access to some of the gardens behind those wonderful canal houses in Amsterdam, many of which are very inventive in the way that they use space. So, it seemed like a good idea. We'd have to include some British gardens as well though, so I set to, looking through the National Garden Scheme 'yellow book', finding innovative looking gardens and contacting owners. Originally, Maayke and I had the idea of doing the book around case studies with a strong focus on the relationship between the owner and the garden. The publisher did not care for that and gradually made us accept that the book would have to be more thematically arranged, with a double page spread case study at the end of each chapter. Of such compromises is publishing done.

An amazing tiny garden in Lewes, Sussex, David Cund & Sally Golding- pic by Maayke

 "Isn't writing yet another book on small gardens a bit of a hack job ?" I can hear some of you say. Well, I like to think that this one is different. The reason is this. If you look at many books on small gardens they include many pictures of show gardens. Photographers are under great pressure from magazine editors to cover the Chelsea Flower Show an other events with show gardens. So they end up with plenty of material which it is very tempting to resell to book publishers. The publishers' art editors love these images: everything is perfect, they are visually dense, with plenty to admire and talk about in each image. But, they are not real gardens. They are almost inevitably stuffed full of 'hard' elements: paving etc., which is very often high end and therefore very expensive. The planting is dense too, "more like flower arranging than gardening" in the words of one colleague. They are simply unrealistic. There is also the temptation to include gardens from well-known designers too, and since they tend to work for very wealthy clients, the gardens end up being so aspirational that they remain just that for most people, aspirational. Along with all the other things that you aspire to after winning the lottery. As an example, someone of my acquaintance recently asked a well- known London based designer to look at a possible garden job for a house in central London. "What's your budget?" he was asked. "£80,000" he said, "you'll need £250,000" came the reply.

Kwekerij van Nature, Frank & Charlotte van der Linde - pic by Maayke
 So, working with Maayke, we made sure that all those gardens featured were 'real gardens'; only a few show garden shots were enclosed, just some very close-to ones to illustrate some specific features. Of course, it being written by me, it is very much focussed on plants - selecting and combining them. Making the most of a small space involves not just choosing plants of a suitable size - and which will stay that size (tree planters please take note) but also fittting them in together (or as we say in English, 'shoehorning') - which is where my ecological approach comes in. I try to show how to learn from how plants fit together in a natural environment. Also of course, many of the readers will be first time gardeners, so inevitably this is something of an entry-level book too. Writing for beginners is a great discipline, a way of trying to cast aside assumptions, and put yourself in other peoples' shoes.

So, long after writing it, and captioning pictures, and getting to that point where you can't remember what picture goes where, it all comes together and it appears in the shops. What impressed me about the design and editing is how many pictures get put together on the page without it seeming crowded.

An Annie Guilfoyle garden in Sussex, the James Stewart garden - pic by Maayke

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Russia - gardening culture survives and now thrives

 Russia. Not a country particularly associated with gardens. Which is perhaps unfair. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and a lot of potential. There is a strong tradition of gardening in dacha (summer house) communities - see my blog post from three years ago.
For the last few years I have been amazed at how many Russian/Ukrainian garden and landscape people have asked to be my Facebook friend (most pass the rigorous selection process ha, ha) and so I became aware of a very widespread and interlinked web-based gardening community. I've taught in both Moscow and Kiev in the last two years, to groups of truly enthusiastic and information-hungry students. It's wonderful and actually very moving working with people who are so keen, and to be treated to really generous hospitality from organisers. It feels that there is a desire to catch up for lost time, for all those years when all you could manage was a few perennials on the side of the potato and cabbage patch, which you needed for sheer survival or at least bartering power on the black market.

On this trip I was in St.Petersburg, doing some teaching with Dryadas, a garden design and maintenance company. Its designers tend to feel that many of their clients are conservative in the expectations of what they want in a garden, and often unrealistic, but that's nothing unusual! However I feel that the interest in more contemporary gardens appears to be so strong amongst the design community that new ideas will inevitably get taken up. Contemporary and naturalistic planting is certainly making an impact in public spaces in Moscow, with the work of Anna Andreyeva. Meanwhile, my friend Annie Guilfoyle has come back from judging the Moscow Flower Show (or rather a Moscow flower show, as there is more than one) where she was very impressed with the quality of what she was looking at.

What fascinated me on this trip was a visit to St.Petersburg Botanical Gardens where my hosts from Dryadas took me on my day off. Unlike those of Kiev and Moscow which have had new funding, this one hasn't and is entirely funded from entrance fees. The greenhouses, some dating back to the early 20th century were in a very bad state of repair but the plants were maintained to an incredibly high standard with what is clearly a huge level of staff commitment, and sometimes better collections on display than at Kew quite honestly. Indeed there is here in St. Petersburg there is one of best collections of tropical ferns in the world. The passion of the staff was somehow almost palpable, I spent a lot of time poking around odd corners and photographing their work stations. The sheer number of species squeezed in is extraordinary. So many plant species packed in, to a level I have never seen anywhere else. Unlike most botanical gardens which feel very institutional this felt completly driven by the staff. According to my Dryadas friends there is no state money and the whole place is self-supporting. Staff earn peanuts. I felt very moved by it all.

Our guide pointed out to us the plants which had survived during “The Great Patriotic War” when the city was under siege from the Nazis (and its population being kept there to suffer and starve by Stalin). They were decorated by a little strip of medal ribbon. My friend Anna Benn has since sent me a picture of the staff who kept the place going during this terrible time. It is also worth pointing out that staff at the crop genetics institute starved rather than eat the potatoes in the collection – some of which have gone on to produce modern blight-resistant cultivars. 

There are nurseries here, with some good ranges of perennials, and Dryadas are in the process of establishing their own. There is a very rich flora further out east, and I only hope that some new introductions of Russian natives get taken into cultivation and find their way westwards.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Capability Brown - dirty money funds the IKEA of landscape design

This year has been the tercentenary of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, the eighteenth century landscape designer. So we have had lots of coverage in the garden, and other, media. As you have probably guessed, its not a subject that high on my radar otherwise I would have written about him before.

Brown was prolific, accomplished, technically skilled, highly competent and a good businessman. He also came from a relatively humble background, and we all like a good story of social mobility don't we? Especially in these times when this vital social factor is pretty bad, and even worse in the United States, which used to pride itself on this. As a topical aside, on the subject of social mobility try googling: Donald Trump, grandfather and brothel.

Brown has been labelled a vandal. I am sure anyone familiar with garden history will be familiar with the charge, but basically it is this: Britain, prior to his mid 18th century blitz around the landscapes of the wealthy, had a fine array of formal and quasi-formal gardens. Brown dug them all up, consigning the hedges and topiary to the flames and laid out rolling green acres, informal clumps of trees and lakes instead. His career did feature a series of style changes, and sometimes did work around existing features, but basically he did just do the same thing again and again. And again. And again. Very profitably, thank you.

The English landscape garden, of rolling green acres and little clumps of trees, was a huge innovation. But it was not Brown's. As Tim Richardson shows in his masterly and readable book The Arcadian Friends. Brown simply codified an existing trend, ironed out the originality and idiosyncratic artistry and commodified an idea. “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England” he writes, and “formulaic”. Indeed. Especially as one of Brown's great innovations was the combining of hay-making or livestock rearing on land which previously had supported only lines of trees and non-agricultural grassland. This helped feed people I suppose, but it was a jolly good line to sell to landowners – 'be trendy and utilitarian and make money at the same time'.

I can't help feeling that we have lost an awful lot thanks to Brown. One only has to look at early 18th century Kip and Knyff landscape prints to realise just how much. Most of these would of course have changed or been degraded in time without Brown, but his impact must nevertheless have been enormous. The results are a kind of fake naturalism, looking rural because there are no straight lines. The average Brown landscape is successful because it takes the savannah-parkland look we are arguably hard wired to appreciate (thanks to our out-of-Africa heritage), and opens it out, giving it a stamp of the artistic.As any hedgerow ecologist will tell you, trees and grass are not necessarily  a particularly natural or biodiverse habitat.

Photographing Brown landscapes is remarkably difficult. They all look so unintentional, which is part of his skill as a designer of course. The pictures here are all of Berrington Hall, near Ludlow, Shrops. The little cloth figurine and teacup plantings were all from an exhibition there earlier in the year. (details sadly lost).

It was an African heritage friend (and garden historian) who asked me “where did all the money come from to employ Brown?”. Slavery of course. 18th century Britain had an economy that benefited enormously from slavery and the sugar trade, which was itself built on slavery. This was not by any means the worst episode of slavery in the world – the Romans and the Muslim world have been far worse, but it was the most hideous period in European history. So, next time you admire a Brown landscape, think about where the money comes from.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Time to mingle? Getting it right in naturalistic planting with perennials

'Intermingling' has become the buzzword of the moment in planting design. Here is a piece I wrote for the Ecological Landscaping Alliance e-newsletter......

    I remember, back in 1996 showing the late James van Sweden around a public garden project I was working on at the time, over here in England. I was trying out an approach that intermingled the perennials I was using, rather than using the block planting which was customary at the time. He was sympathetic but very definite that “the American public aren't ready for this”. Things must changing, as the idea of creating mixes or blends seems be gaining ground – the concept is key to the kind of naturalistic design promoted by Tto homas Rainer and Claudia West's Planting in a Post-Wild World.
to read more turn to the ELA newsletter here.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Weihenstephan - German planty paradise

Weihenstephan: meet a German gardener or landscape designer, and the chances are, they studied here. Its a unique institution, with no real equivalent in the English-speaking world, a whole campus, which sprawls attractively across a couple of hills and the intervening valley, and unlike most such places it is not the buildings that make the impact but the gardens, research plots and fields of crops. The 'Sichtungsgarten' (Show Garden) occupies one of the hilltops, the famous brewery another, while very nearby is another hilltop, the Domberg of the little town of Freising, with its 'Dom' (cathedral), one of the most fabulous of all the fabulous Baroque churches of southern Germany.
To read more go to the Gardens Illustrated website... and its in the magazine this month too.

Various pictures taken since my first visit in 1994 ....