What comes first?
What’s more important to you – plants or design? For me its plants every time and always has been. Originally I started with some bedding plants and hanging baskets then as my confidence grew I started to grow a few perennials and shrubs. The real leap came when I moved to this house with a blank canvas of a garden and more time as the boys had grown up. I love the thrill of germinating seeds, it gives me a pathetic sense of achievement. If I do really well they eventually grow into plants which I add to the borders.
In recent years I would like to describe my taste as eclectic but I suspect in reality it was more a case of “oh I like that, and that, and that” and so I have all sorts in my garden. One of these, one of those – all very bitty. Over the last six months through joining some societies and local groups and meeting many skilled plantsmen my interest in plants has really been piqued especially in particular groups of plants such as Primula, Delphinium, Digitalis, succulents and more recently snowdrops. I realised the other day that I had a bit of a collection of Primula beginning and so I have bought my first real monograph on a species to help me learn more about Primula.
As for design – well this is something that is very secondary to me. I do appreciate good design and the skill behind it but it just doesn’t hold my attention and doesn’t excite me. I look at the showgardens at the local Malvern Spring Show but really my heart is in the plant marquee. The gardens that I enjoy visiting whilst having varying degrees of design are often the gardens of plantsmen – Stone House, Cothay Manor. I don’t tend to like gardens that have been designed as a set piece as for me they often lack that extra something – maybe its passion, maybe its soul. I prefer gardens that have evolved, gardens that are very personal; although I fully acknowledge that a personal garden can be very designed – I love Bryans Ground.
The reason I have been thinking about this is due to a conversation I had last weekend when visiting Victoria. We were talking about shows and I was saying more or less what I have said above. Victoria said her approach to plants was different. For her it was about finding a plant that give her a certain look – maybe a particular colour or size of foliage, texture, flower to fit a particular gap. She enjoyed researching what plants would fill this requirement. I found this interesting as it is the opposite to my approach.
To me horticulture, particularly in the media and at shows, often gets split into two distinct areas – design and plants/plant care (which to me is what horticulture really is). Gardening magazines are full of articles about this garden or that garden and how it was designed and who by etc etc with less so about plants. Just as it seems to me that the focus of shows like the RHS Chelsea Flowershow is around the showgardens and less so about the nurseries and plants in the floral marquee. More and more people are signing up for garden design courses and less for horticultural courses. I think this is terribly sad especially when you consider that if it wasn’t for the nurserymen with their skills at breeding new plants or in holding or bringing forward plants for shows the designers would really be limited in what they can do. Personally I feel that the garden media, including the makeover garden television shows of the 1990s, is to blame for this shift and it is exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of sponsorship paid for the big showgardens and the pressure for the designers to then repay their sponsors with lots of media coverage. How can the nurseries, never a cash rich industry, compete with this.
However, having said the above and had a bit of a rant, I have learnt to appreciate the fact that many a plantsmen’s garden, including my own, can appear very bitty due to the disparate group of plants in it. I have started to want my garden to feel more cohesive and for there to be more impact from groups of plants rather than a bitty look. I will never fully embrace the whole design approach but I have started to consider focal points, sweeps of plants, stronger lines, journeys and the rest. The trouble is that every time I start thinking like this I get distracted by something germinating or a Primula flowering – its truly is a lost cause!