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.