Thursday, December 6, 2007



Now that we have gone well past the period of garden history when herbaceous plants were cut back on a particular date in autumn, regardless of what they looked like, we have to make this decision ourselves. It is a decision that many gardeners seem to find difficult to take. Piet Oudolf has been asked it many times, and he tells me that the always tells people that only they can make the decision – “you do it when you want to” he says. Which is not actually what they want to know. They want to be told. As if there is a right time and a wrong time. As in the old-school gardening when there was always a right way and a wrong way. But isn’t it better to make your own decisions? Based on what you feel is right for your garden.
The only parameters are: 1) for seeds for wildlife and for some hope of the dead remains looking attractive it is good to leave stems standing for as long as possible, 2) they have to be cut down before the first bulbs begin to emerge, as otherwise you will squash the bulbs with your big feet.
What I usually do (is this any help?) is to cut down everything which looks a mess at the end of November and the remainder (grasses, very strong perennials like eupatoriums) in January. But the weather is the deciding factor. This year we had an early snowfall in November. Not much, but that classically English very wet and heavy snow which crushes almost everything, including miscanthus and eupatorium. The fine dry snow which inhabitants of Mitteleuropa and North America get and which drifts in between the stronger stems and looks very picturesque is quite alien to us. As a consequence practically everything has to end on the compost heap.
Which brings me to the next set of questions. How do you cut it all down and compost it?
Secateurs and shears can be surprisingly quick. Low clumps of leafy soft material can be cut through with a sharp sickle. For larger plantings where there are no labels the strimmer/brushcutter can be used. This is apparently what is done in the herbaceous plantings of Enkjöping in Sweden. The idea is to strim everything down to form a mulch – no need for carting away and composting. Great, but the very stout stems, almost woody in their hardness – some helianthus, vernonia (not called ‘ironweed’ for nothing and miscanthus, will only be scratched by a strimmer’s nylon cord. They can be cut down with a metal brushcutter attachment but not effectively strimmed unless you have lots of patience and strength (I have neither).
However you cut, you will be left with lots of material. Perhaps, if you have been an ambitious layer-outer of big borders, a rather intimidating amount of material. In my last garden I really did not have the space to effectively compost it, or at least to turn the resulting (vast) heap. Cutting thicker stems up to make them rot down more quickly helps – if you do, not the chances are that there will still be a pile of dry stems a year from now when you do the next annual cut. Some use a shredder. But shredders are designed primarily for woody material and many makes simply clog with softer herbaceous material. And anyway, they it can be a very slow process shredding a large prairie border.
My solution is actually to separate the material into 1) soft and/or easily cut and 2) recalcitrant near-woody. The former can be piled into a conventional compost heap, the latter stacked in an out of the way corner to rot down more slowly, or shredded/used as mulch. Or burnt. The stacking/slow composting route probably makes a good wildlife habitat in the same way that a pile of rotting logs does. The latter is more fun. Bonfires are a bit politically-incorrect these days, but a good burn up makes a fine centrepiece for a family evening. I haven’t done this yet, but the real American prairie types would probably burn in situ. More fun. Slightly scary. Actually very good for weed control (Sheffield University research) I’ll let you know when I do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

WHERE DO GARDENS END AND LANDSCAPE BEGIN? And what have bagels go to do with it?

This was originally written for Yue Zhuang, in an effort to clarify what some linguistic confusion about what we Brits mean when we go on about gardens. With any luck, there'll be some interesting stuff on Chinese gardens and garden concepts to follow on.

This a crucial point in the framing of discussions about gardens - more than in discussion about landscape. Landscape people have a longer history of reflection on their craft, and area of study – garden people have been unreflective by comparison, and are sometimes surprised to find that discourse about their subject has been ‘usurped’ by those who business is landscape.

This is also an important topic in any cross-cultural discussion – as every culture defines ‘garden’ and ‘landscape’ differently. These differences, once understood, can be very informative.

‘Landscape’ tends to include ‘garden’.
So it is not surprising that gardeners can feel that they are sometimes being spoken for by their more articulate subject-cousins.

‘Garden’ does mean different things in different languages, not just in
definition , but in nuance and cultural meaning.

The Garden as Private Property
The definition in western European languages centres on its separation from its surroundings by the presence of a boundary, which stresses its essentially private character. ‘Garden’ in English, Tradgård in Swedish, Garten in German, Jardin in French, all relate to English ‘yard’. Tuin in Dutch, Zahrada in Slovak I don’t know – enlighten me someone please?
Gardens vary in size according to the wealth of their owners, so it is no surprise that C18 landowners could develop an artform which involved thousands of acres being called ‘gardens’. Their definition in the sense of a visible boundary was minimised, because part of the design concept of many landowners was to visually borrow landscape which belonged to other people. The key issue was private ownership and a design concept which flowed from this private ownership.
‘Landscape’ has always been a much vaguer concept, and whereas most cultures have a word for ‘garden’ (can’t imagine that the Eskimoes do, or maybe not even the Mongolians), landscape is a word which is generally of a more recent historic origin (it would be so interesting to know what words you use in Chinese and their origin). It is also a word which is, somehow inescapably, vague. Everywhere is actually landscape – wild nature, where there is no human impact gets called landscape, and it is possible to talk of a completely unplanned and dysfunctional place like a shanty town as being a ‘slum landscape’. Whereas ‘garden’ speaks of definition, in terms of both physical boundary, possession, and design-intent (usually on the most minimal level ) ‘landscape’ is just what is. So, if a landscape received the attention of a landscape designer, then that is a kind of bonus for it.
Gardens are part of landscape. So, whereas all gardens are landscape, not all landscapes are garden. So inevitably landscape discourse includes and subsumes garden discourse. No wonder that many people who wish to talk about landscape end up talking about gardens – in many cases they are the most interesting landscapes of all, because they have been intensively cultivated and designed. But to let landscape discourse subsume garden discourse is to lose a meaningful boundary – which is why I think we garden people are actually quite jealous of that boundary.

The Public Garden and Horticulture
We do of course talk about some public parks as ‘gardens’. It would be interesting to trace the historic roots of this. It is not just an English affectation: Jardin Tuillieries in Paris, Englischer Garten in Munich etc. ‘Gardens’ have always tended to be smaller than parks, have usually had a much clearer sense of boundary, and crucially would involve a greater element of horticulture than was customary for parks.
Horticulture then, helps to define what a garden is, at least in British culture. Indeed the ‘garden’ and ‘gardening’ are inseparable. In Chinese culture I understand that gardens are much more architecturally defined. It would be interesting to know the root of the word for garden, and whether different words are used for small architectural urban gardens and for larger rural ones. Does the word imply horticulture or not?
Gardens are so inseparable from gardening that most British people accept only with difficulty that a garden may not include any plants.I shall never forget my father having a problem with the Boboli Gardens in Florence, never mind the clipped hedges, where were the flowers? Martha Schwartz and her infamous bagel garden and the ‘installation art as garden’ of Chaumont and the late Westonbirt garden shows have at least broadened out the definition for the British gardening public. A rather moving publication from the USA some years ago also addressed the surroundings of homeless and vagrant people as ‘gardens’ as well – so we can perhaps reach a definition which minimises horticulture and instead emphasises management and design intent.
So far so good. We can for the most part define gardens as being physically defined places with design intent, nearly always privately rather than publically owned. The private/public definition is a crucial one too. Parks and other public space which is owned by corporate bodies rather than individual ones are seen in so many cultures as places where less care is taken. They have less respect, particularly in cultures where there is little sense of the social good, as in Middle Eastern cultures. As public property, they inevitably suffer from ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

Gardens and who designs them
The garden/landscape division then is not so murky. But it is one which is very important to the British, where so many people have private gardens, and where the ‘public garden’ seems almost a piece of historical anachronism. We have ‘garden designers’ a new profession whose numbers have grown like …. weeds? (the comparison in not meant to be unkind, only descriptive of their rate of self-propagation) in recent years. Landscape architects only rarely get to design gardens. “Jolly good thing too” – one can almost hear the gardeners saying. In most other countries, the profession of ‘garden designer’ almost does not exist or is synonymous with landscape architect.
For most Brits, gardens are synonymous with plants and the activity of gardening - it is only pretentious foreigners who scatter them with plastic bagels or fibre-glass installations. But, to be honest, gardening and plants are what we are good at. They are at the core of what makes the British garden what it is. It is why more and more people from abroad come and visit our country. Do non-Americans go to the USA to look at Schwartz’s bagels?

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Letter to Uruguay

The following was written to Amalia Robredo, a pioneering garden designer in Uruguay, who is experimenting with designing with native plants and sculpting the existing vegetation of the Uruguayan coast - a dwarf shrub formation known as the Monte. It is pretty relevant to anybody in similar circumstances.

I am trying to think through what I would do if I beached up in a country with no tradition of ‘wild’ or naturalistic gardening or of using its native flora for gardens or landscapes. There is so much to do! But the rewards are to be a pioneer, to achieve a quantum leap, and perhaps even be remembered for it by future generations!

All too often a mystery - Plant lifespan
First of all, we often know so little about how wild plants behave in cultivation – there are certain basic facts that need to be established. So, even if you are planning to grow native plants only in wild-type communities, I think it pays to cultivate a few specimens of each species in the garden too, in order to learn about them. One of the key issues is plant lifespan, and the related topic of how they reproduce themselves. It is usually fairly obvious if something in the wild is an annual – they always produce masses of seed from a stem which enters the ground to connect to the roots at a single point. Less obvious are those short-lived perennials like Verbena bonariensis (which I am fascinated to learn from you is a wetland plant in its native habitat). They can play tricks on us – we think they are perennial but then die after a couple of years, a situation not helped by the inadequate terminology we have adopted for plant lifespan: annual, biennial, perennial – there is no recognition here of the ‘short-lived perennial’ category.

Annuals, biennials and short-lived perennials nearly always set plentiful seed which germinates rapidly (they would soon become extinct if they did not), and they do not form clear ‘ramets’ at the base. A ramet is a term (used by botanists and ecologists rather than gardeners) to describe a shoot at the base of a plant which grows its own roots and can become, in time, independent of the parent plant – such things sort out the true perennials from those of limited lifespan. Short-lived plants will generally self-seed, but are able to do so only on disturbed ground and are, over a number of years, replaced by longer-lived species. So, thinking about their ornamental effects, these may be spectacular but transient.

The Joys and Frustrations of Propagation
Growing a few native plants in ‘garden’ conditions is also an opportunity to learn about how they might be propagated. Becoming knowledgeable about propagation is something which is almost inevitable if you are experimenting with plants. There is something addictive about it – the thrill (and sometimes challenge – sometimes deep frustration) of making new plants – new life! Some people become obsessed with propagation – either they cannot stop making new plants or they take on the challenge of species which cannot be propagated so easily: cuttings which refuse to roots unless given some special treatment or seed which does not germinate unless likewise some magic is performed, even dipped in sulphuric acid!

Propagation ‘tendencies’ tend to go in families: compositae/asteraceae germinate quickly, labiatae cuttings root in a week; but herbaceous always tends to be easier than woody. Particularly frustrating are really beautiful plants you want lots of but where cuttings rot away after months of sitting in compost or have seeds which simply do not come up.

The truth is that you will end up with far more of the easy to propagate plants than the difficult ones. So cultivation ends up being dominated by plants which are easily propagated. For work with native plants, this tends to mean domination by the species which are important in the early stages of succession; species which dominate the established plant community (places which have been undisturbed for centuries) tend to be slower to grow and to spread themselves.

Whatever – you ought to make sure you have some good books on propagation!

The Cultivar Dilemma
When native plants are taken into cultivation, it is very often as cultivars – selections made for a variety of reasons: bigger, brighter flowers, longer flowering season, more compact habit etc. But behind these very obvious and prosaic reasons lies perhaps a deeper, cultural issue. Just as very few Uruguayans probably appreciate the monte, so few will appreciate native plant species. There is something fundamental about the human relationship with nature which demands that we separate ourselves off from it: so Australians despise the bush, Brazilians the jungle, Americans fear the forest (unless neatly packaged as National Park) etc. So, it should come as no surprise that ‘native’ plants are somehow made more acceptable once cultivars are chosen. They also help market the native plant as a product – consumers after all will be more likely to pay for a plant which bears a name they can relate to; this name also signals a kind of domestication: Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ is going to sell so much better than plain Solidago rugosa, even though it is practically identical.

A great many plants in cultivation are simple selections from the wild – good forms which are then propagated so that they are all more or less identical. This is why vegetative propagation is so important for cultivars: division or cuttings, or grafting. Seed-grown, ie. sexually propagated, plants will nearly always show a range of differences between each other and the parents – and so cannot be relied on to ‘breed true’. With woody plants: shrub and trees, this is why vegetative propagation is so important – as a way of ensuring that what is identified by a cultivar name maintains the set of characteristics for which it was selected in the first place.

So, I would argue that a key part of domesticating native plants and making them popular is the choosing of good cultivars: the great plant hunters very often did this in the wild by taking seed from individuals they knew to be particularly good. The garden owners and nurserymen back home would line out hundreds of plants grown from the seed they sent back, and then select just one or two to propagate from – and of course give cultivar names to.

However, there is a catch.

If you are interested in really using native plants to create a naturalistic style of planting, you want them to reproduce, to seed themselves around, just as they do in nature; if they do not then the plant community you have will be static, and vulnerable to incursion by less desirable weedy species – often aggressive, non-native weeds.

Cultivars do not always propagate from seed – sexual reproduction is often dependent on plants being genetically different; and if they do, the results will show little genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is important for self-sustaining ecologically healthy plant populations. So, the implication is, that for creating genuine plant communities, cultivars are not always such a good idea, however good they might be for getting people attracted to and interested in, native flora. Cultivars are fine for those making conventional gardens, but if you are trying to create something wilder, where the role of the gardener is more ‘hands off’, where you want a dynamic plant community which regenerates itself – then cultivars are not so good. Instead you want multiples of seed-grown individuals, ie. plants of different genetic make-up.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Great Gardening Challenge is to talk sense

Following on from an entry on garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair’s blog about the need to take gardening more seriously (ie. more intellectually). ……“Fudge_pit_props_what_an_astounding_notion”_said_the_engineer.html#

The debates you mentioned (Great Garden Challenge) are a good example of what we need more of – garden people talking about what makes a good garden – in plain English. Ie. without descending to talking “pretentious tosh”.
The great danger of our little campaign to take gardens more seriously, is precisely this; that thinking gardeners will start talking that peculiar dialect of English widely known as ‘art bollocks’. The sort of gobbledock that gathers like a grey mystifying fog over whatever is being presented to as us ‘art’. Or the arguably even worse dialect spoken by students and teachers of academic cultural studies. Of course not all art, and by extension not all gardens, should ‘mean something’ on first sighting, but the kind of art which can only be understood by reading an essay, usually ridden with jargon and clichés, before having any incling as to what it is about, stands as a warning. In the garden world, the gardens which have come closest to this are the conceptual gardens of Chaumont, Westonbirt etc. It looks as if they have not been very popular with the public. What a surprise – but still a shame. Maybe they have fallen between two stools - too gardeny for the art crowd, too much like installations for gardeners.
I have looked around a couple of seriously ‘thinking’ gardens in the last few years, including Little Sparta, and loved them. What actually interests me, wearing my hat as a writer for the popular gardening/lifestyle press is this: how do make this style of garden not just comprehensible to the general public but inspirational? The organisers of Chaumont always intended the ideas shown in the gardens there to be “ideas to steal” – the organisers of Westonbirt stole that slogan too. But people need to be shown how to think about how they incorporate ideas, from their lives, memories, thoughts etc. into conceptual and metaphoric gardens. I would love to do a book, of the ‘twenty weekend projects for your garden’ variety based on Little Sparta and similar. You could have people creating sculptures, mini-installations, pieces of text, and dotting them around their gardens. The results might often be risible, kitsch or embarassing, but it would be great just to get people thinking laterally and creatively.
Talking intelligently about gardens must keep clear of the pretensions of joining the art world. Yes, it would be nice to be taken more seriously by the art and media elite, but we will not necessarily achieve this by trying to join them on their own terms. Better we put our own house in order first: have some serious discussion about what a good garden is? What is the role of plants? Of hardscape? The role of the house? The surroundings? What is the relationship between the other arts and gardening? etc. etc.
I very much hope we can begin to discuss some of these issues at the events that we are organising as part of the Vista Debates in London. They are invitation only (have to keep out the riff-raff you see), but if you would like to come, then drop me an ‘e’ and I’ll put you on the guest list.
By the way, here is a thought. What are you doing when you put a gnome into a garden? Are you being conceptual? Because you are not planting, or making hard landscaping, or somewhere for the kids to play, or to barbecue, or relating to nature. Or doing any of the other things people do when they make gardens. What is the gnome installer doing? It would be interesting to get some answers. But not in cultural studies language please.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Gardening at 58.5˚N

Gardening at 58.5˚N

Always interesting to see what grows at the extremities or in places not normally associated with gardening, like Wick, where the RHS has just sent me off to lecture. It not particularly cold, in fact appearing to have a very long, maritime-influenced growing season. Wind is the overwhelming influence on gardening. Repeat – overwhelming.
Experience from other parts of Scotland and Sweden suggests that the high light values of April to August makes for very good perennial growth. In addition high rainfull and cool weather promotes vigorous growth – but with wind this may actually be bad news - more top-heavy soft growth to be battered to a brown mush. With shelter it is clearly possible to grow a huge range of plants – the little garden of the Castle of Mey shows what is possible, although they could achieve a lot more.
Much Mediterranean flora is surprisingly well adapted to north European coastal areas, the stiff twiggy growth and compact habit reduces wind damage, while the hairy or waxy leaves protect against salt spray and dessication. A small but perfect Cistus purpureus in the garden of my hostess in Wick suggests that this supposedly ‘tender’ genus could be made much more of. Montane South African flora should be worth trying too – montbretia appears to naturalise here with the gusto is does in Cornwall or Ireland, and it is well established that dierama does well by the coast. Agapanthus and schizostylis flourish too.
The principle that the further north you garden the more that ‘shade’ plants can or should be grown in full sun seems to hold true. Pulmonarias here make fantastic open border foliage plants, whereas they would be a mildewed clump of wilted leaves back home by late summer unless in reasonably moist shade. Cimicifuga looks lush in the open too, and aconitums don’t develop the stressed-looking leaves they often do back home.
Here are two plant lists, one was of species included at the Wick lecture, the second a list of plants used by Piet Oudolf in a very successful planting in a park in Sweden (at 59.5˚N).

Perennials that stand up for themselves
Wick and District Garden Club, 6.September.2007

plants featured:

Acanthus spinosus
aconitum species
Aquilegia vulgaris
Artemisia lactiflora ‘Guizhou’
Aruncus dioicus
Aster azureus
Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’
Astrantia maxima varieties eg. ‘Claret’, ‘Hadspen Blood’
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Brunette’
Cynara cardunculus
Deschampsia cespitosa
Echinacea purpurea
Echinops ritro
Eryngium yuccifolium
Eupatorium fistulosum
Eupatorium purpureum ‘Atropurpureum’
Euphorbia cyparissias
Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’
Geranium sylvaticum ‘Birch Lilac’
Helenium varieties
Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’
Iris sibirica
Knautia macedonica
Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’
Lythrum salicaria
Molinia caerulea
monarda varieties
Persicaria polymorpha
Phlomis russeliana
Physostegia virginiana
Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’
Salvia nemorosa/ x superba vars.
Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Tanna’
Sedum spectabile
Stachys officianalis
thalictrum species
verbascum species
Verbena bonariensis
Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’

Piet Oudolf’s planting list for Dreampark, Enköping, Sweden

Acanthus hungaricus
Achillea 'Credo'
Achnatherum brachytricha
Achnatherum cal.'Lemperg'
Amsonia hubrichtii
Amsonia tab.var.salicifolia
Anemone levellei
Anemone 'Pamina'
Asarum europaeum
Aster 'Blue Star'
Aster divaricatus
Aster 'Little Carlow'
Astilbe 'Pupurlanze'
Astilbe 'Purpurlanze'
Baptisia leucantha
Briza media 'Limouzi'
Carex muskingumensis
Chaerophyllum hirs.'Roseum'
Cimicifuga simplex 'James Compton'
Crambe cordifolia
Datisca cannabina
Descampsia 'Goldtau'
Dianthus carthusianorum
Diarrhena japonica
Echinacea 'Green Edge'
Echinacea 'Rubinglow'
Elsholtzia stauntonii
Epimedium grandiflorum
Epimedium 'Lilac Seedling'
Epimedium 'Rose Queen'
Epimedium sulphureum
Eryngium bourgatii
Euphorbia griff.'Dixter'
Festuca mairei
Filipendula venusta 'Magnifica'
Galega orientalis
Geranium phaeum
Geranium phaeum 'Album'
Geranium phaeum 'Springtime'
Geranium 'Sirak'
Geranium soboliferum
Geranium soboliferum
Geranium 'Summer Fair'
Geranium wlassovianum
Gillenia trifoliata
Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis
Hakonechloa macra
Helleborus orientalis hybrids
Hemerocalis citrina x ochroleuca
Hemerocallis 'Little Grapette'
Hemerocallis 'Pardon Me'
Hemerocallis 'Princess Blue Eyes'
Heuchera 'Palace Purple'
Hosta 'Blue Angel'
Hosta 'Moody Blues'
Hosta 'White Triumphator'
Kirengeshoma palmata
Knautia macedonica
Liatris spicata 'Alba'
Limonium latifolium
Lunaria rediviva
Lythrum 'Blush'
Lythrum virgatum
Lythrum 'Zigeunerblut'
Molinia caerulea 'Moorhexe'
Molinia 'Edith Dudzus'
Molinia 'Heidebraut'
Molinia lit.'Transparent'
Monarda 'Ou Charm'
Monarda 'Ou Charm'
Nepeta latifolia
Nepeta latifolia
Nepeta subsessilis
Origanum 'Rosenkuppel'
Papaver or. Beauty of 'Livermere'
Persicaria bist.'Hohe Tatra'
Persicaria polymorpha
Phlomis samia
Phlomis taurica
Phlomis tub.'Amazone'
Phlox mac.'Delta'
Potentilla nepalensis
Potentilla x hopwoodiana
Pulmonaria 'Dora Bielefeld'
Rhazia orientalis
Rodgersia aesculifolia
Rodgersia 'Die Anmutige'
Rodgersia 'Die Stolze'
Rodgersia pinnata 'Superba'
Rodgersia 'Rothaut'
Rodgersia 'Rotlaub'
Rudbeckia occidentalis
Saguisorba tenuifolium red
Salvia 'Amethyst'
Salvia 'Blauhugel'
Salvia glutinosa
Salvia 'Smouldering Torches'
Sanguisorba C.D.C.
Sanguisorba canadensis
Sanguisorba menziesii
Sanguisorba 'Tanna'
Saponaria 'Max Frei'
Scabiosa lucida
Scabiosa ochroleuca pink form.
Scutellaria incana
Sedum 'Iceberg'
Sedum 'Matrona'
Sedum 'Munstead Red'
Sedum 'Purple Emperor'
Sedum telephium ssp.maximum
Selinum wallichianum
Serratula seoanei
Sesleria autumnalis
Sesleria nitida
Sidalcea 'My Love'
Smilacina racemosa
Stachys monieri 'Hummelo'
Stachys monieri 'Rosea'
Stachys nivea
Stachys 'Spitzweg'
Strobilanthus atropurpureus
Thalictrum 'Elin'
Thalictrum polygamum
Thalictrum punctatum
Tricyrtis formosana
Trifolium rubens
Trycyrtis formosana
Uvularia grandiflora
Veratrum nigrum
Verbesina alternifolia
Vernonia crin.'Mammuth'
Veronica 'Anna'
Veronica gent.'Pallida'

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Revisiting Hidcote

Re-visiting Hidcote

It is years since I went to Hidcote. I always found it strangely dry and soulless, but could never work out why. I know others found it similarly lacking in soul. Could never work out why. Perhaps partly to do with its rather disorientating quality; it is so easy to get lost, and can be a nightmare to get back to the entrance , or the tearoom or wherever it was you last saw the person you came with.
So, spurred on by having agreed to a piece for the Daily Telegraph about its centenary, I went again, for something like the first time in twelve years. And I must say, I found I liked it much more. Which probably says more about me than it does about the garden.
The garden has however has changed. The National Trust have been working on taking it back to how it was in the days of its creator, the reclusive Lawrence Johnston. Nowadays we’d probably call him autistic. He was famously difficult to get to know, his friends were all gardeners too, and he appeared to be happiest when talking shop with his head gardener. The garden at Hidcote was his obsession.
The Hidcote we have all got to know and love (or feel ambiguous about) is only partly Johnston’s. It got to be very run down in the 1950s, many of its garden ornaments were removed to other NT gardens. A mole tells me that Johnston’s collection of antique watering cans ended up with Alvilde Lees-Milne. Graham Stuart Thomas, NT garden supremo from the 1955, took it in hand. As with many other gardens, he made it his own; with lots of old shrub rose planting and a supporting cast of perennials. The more labour-intensive flamboyant annual and bedding planting of Johnston’s day was lost.
GST’s approach was arguably a rational one – it helped to reduce maintenance, but it meant that when so much of English gardening came to be ‘re-discovered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hidcote which became popular was not the original version. The garden became, with Sissinghurst, the twin pastel pillars of English garden taste – a romantic and highly selective vision of ‘traditional’ English style. As Thatcherism took hold, the upper middle-classes retreated into their fantasies of a gentler time, in which the English country house garden was a central part of ‘heritage’.
Hidcote today benefits from a very high standard of maintenance,and planting which is definitely more adventurous. Johnston may have been a gifted designer, but he was first and foremost an obsessive plant collector. This passion comes through in the extraordinary range of habitats which the garden provides, not just ecological habitats, but visual ones too, as the garden style ranges from wild to formal. It is an immensely stimulating garden, with so much to see – the kind of place which you feel you have to keep on coming back to, as it is impossible to take it all in on one visit.

Friday, June 29, 2007

On bulldozing gardens……

A ‘debate’ on the future of Hadspen House garden at the Museum of Garden History in London on June 27 was an interesting event. At long last, an event with some intelligent discussion about gardens, although it’s a shame that the gardeners in the audience felt at times somewhat overawed by the architects. Niall Hobhouse’s decision to start with a new garden at Hadspen following the departure of Nori and Sandra Pope with a dramatic ‘Year Zero’ has been congratulated and welcomed by many – the good turnout and richly textured discussion at the museum reflected this.

Niall Hobhouse is, and has been brave. It was also brave of him to have his mother on a panel discussing the project. And it was brave of him to end up the evening by having an email from Nori and Sandra read out; they supported him in his desire to begin again, but there was no disguising their dismay at the destruction of 20 years work and ‘300 years’ of garden history. The latter figure is of course hype – there is nothing extant within the walls older than a few decades.

The Popes pointed out how English gardens characteristically evolve, with one layer of history on top of another. They could also have pointed out how many great gardens have at least one period of neglect in their history. Quite so. All the more reason perhaps for the “now for something completely different” approach. Only the bulldozing of the garden could clean the slate. Whoever emerges from the design competition will be able to start afresh with their ideas. To not have bulldozed it, would have condemned the new gardener/designer to be shackled by the remnants of the Pope’s, and Penelope’s, work.

The delicious possibility was raised that perhaps other gardens could be bulldozed, in order to start again. It would have been interesting to have a straw poll of suggestions of targets from the audience.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Let’s face it, we all love a good row.

But in the gardening world, we don’t have that many of them. We go around being terribly polite to each other; bitching and sniping to be sure, but very little of the public dirty linen laundry that you see in many other fields of human endeavour. I suppose its because gardeners are basically nice people (pat on back).
Well now, here is a good one. The garden at Veddw House, the innovative garden created by Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes near Chepstow, HAS BEEN DROPPED FROM THE RHS GARDEN FINDER. Shock! horror! Apparently because of “poor maintenance and cultivation”. You can see Anne and Charles’s response at . They share with us some appalling examples of ruin, dilapidation, and weed rampages at some of the gardens the RHS Garden Finder editor, Charles Quest-Ritson, sees fit to include in his guide – an ‘also-ran’ to the Good Gardens Guide, for those who don’t know it.
Yes, Veddw does sometimes get a bit rough at the edges, but then they don’t employ anybody, and the garden is in fact overwhelmingly well-maintained. There must be other reasons why Mr.Quest-Ritson has seen fit to dump not only one of the most thoughtful and deliberately challenging modern gardens from his guide, but also one which bears nothing other than the stamp of the RHS itself, who work with Anne and Charles on promoting the garden and events held there.
Perhaps Mr Quest-Ritson does not know a wild garden when he sees one. Moving on from the frantic rubbing of hands at this particularly juicy bit of scandal and name-calling, there is a serious point here. How do you convey intention with wild gardens? Christo (the late and great) did it the classic way – you can see that that grass is meant to be grass is long because of the neatly clipped topiary scattered about. Cutting paths through long grass is another well-known way of conveying intention. But with wild borders it is more difficult, especially when you include plants which some might regard as weeds. Anne and Charles have been braver than I would be in letting rosebay willowherb loose in their borders – but it is a fantastic ornamental. The problem is that certain plants are labelled weeds and the unimaginative then see any place which includes them as weedy. And therefore not nice.
A ‘native wild flower’ only area might contain such ‘weedy’ plants and be passed as acceptable. But the mixing of the two, of the cultivated and the wild, creates an ambiguity, the question is asked – “is it meant to look like that?” Provoking the garden visitor to ask such questions could be a very worthwhile act in itself. And why not mix robust native flora with robust ornamentals? Creeping buttercup makes a very attractive understorey to shrubs and large perennials. Breaking down old barriers and celebrating ambiguity is all a part of modernity and experimentation. Perhaps Mr Quest-Ritson should let some Ranunculus repens loose beneath his roses.

My critical review of Veddw can be seen at:

Gardening in straight Lines?

We moved two years ago. And of course quite a bit of the last garden came with us. Courtesy of a friend who was a National Trust head gardener at the time, who thought that helping me dig up the last garden (rendering the place into a passable imitation of a First World War battlefield in the process) would be a good ‘training exercise’ for her staff. (Thanks Deb!).
At the new place everything just came out of the back of the van and got planted in straight lines – individuals of a variety together but otherwise randome. And it was quite remarkable how at the end of the summer, when a lot of things were in flower, just how many people said to us ‘Oh what a lovely border’, as if it had actually been designed – it makes you think about whether there is any point in designing anything. Perhaps the key point was the plant selection worked together – a result of my plant choice over the years – largely an unconscious process, and NOT the actual putting together of the plants. It reminds me of the number of people who have said to me, or published in articles, that they love Piet Oudolf’s stock beds – which are a more or less random collection of plants. I am sure Piet laid them down with at least a subconsicous pattern, or intention. But the important point is that placing does not actually matter that much - sorry designers!! Plant selection is perhaps more important.
Ok – the straight lines look kinda naff first thing in the year, when you can see them. I mean, nobody actually likes plants in straight lines really do they – apart from cabbages; forestry plantations are derided because they are in straight lines, its fine to put hedges in straight lines, but definitely not herbaceous. Apart from those rather awful ranks of perennials at the 2005 BUGA in Munich. Mix them up a bit though and after a couple of months growth you don’t even notice they are in lines, at least until you are right on top of the line. There is a huge practical advantage for weed control – you can just hoe off anything that comes up between the rows – like in a field of crops.
In terms of keeping an eye on what is happening it is useful too. I am interested in how perennials spread, seed, and move within the border. It is difficult to appreciate this in a ‘normal’ border, but if everything starts off in a line, then it is possible to see when things start to move, or start producing seedlings. Could be a good research tool. So, for now, the straight lines are staying into their second season – re-arranged and partly randomised, some things taken out and put elsewhere. And from now I hope that we will start to get some self-sowing between the lines, and an increasing level of blurring. Once the plants you want, start to self-sow, then there is competition for weed seedlings and we start to move into the creation of an artificial eco-system, ultimately what I had in the last garden – which is an almost continuous vegetation canopy – very low maintenance and distinctly naturalistic in effect.
Planting in straight lines then is not a commitment to continuing to do so, but a good starting point, a pragmatic beginnning.

This Blog is meant to be........... read on.,....

This blog …. is meant to be an occasional source of interest and opinion, and possibly of irritation and annoyance; for anyone who may want to know what I am currently doing in my own garden and in my work. I have published much ‘conventionally’ and shall continue to do so… but this is a way of doing so which is entirely under my own control. Say exactly what I want. Garden publishing is very restrictive in many ways. This is an opportunity to supplement my published work with a body of work which would fit into the current options for garden journalism. Gardening of course links into so many other areas of life too, so there will be occasional digressions …. food, agriculture, environment, ecology. It will be a place to express opinions…. which I do not expect everyone to agree with. There is too much agreement in gardening, too much complacency, not enough debate.
This month’s Garden/RHS Journal (June 2007) includes a piece in which I argue that there is a role for non-residual weedkillers in the garden, especially for the promotion of wildlife. Red rag to the organic lobby, whose occupation of the moral high ground deserves to be challenged.