What comes first?

2010_07300220What’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.

Stone House, Worcestershire

Stone House, Worcestershire

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.

Bryans Ground, Herefordshire

Bryans Ground, Herefordshire

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.

The Daily Telegraph Garden, Chelsea, 2010

The Daily Telegraph Garden, Chelsea, 2010

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!

44 Comments on “What comes first?

  1. this is something I never thought about when I first moved to my garden but with some of the magazines I did start to consider design though only in a very loose way, I’m like you Helen, the plants are what interest me, to me looking for a plant to fit in colour and shape is like buying a painting because it matches your decor!
    for me, now, when chosing plants for my garden 1 do I like it? 2 will it grow in my conditions? 3 is it good for wildlife? I do stray from this third reason if something really appeals to me and likes my garden conditions.
    having said that, I did, when I first started, plant some areas according to foliage combinations but that went astray when I had less time to garden and it is something I have been striving to get back, also I am starting to think more about flower colour and flowering period.
    I bought Carol Klein’s book Grow your own garden a few years ago and started with cuttings, mostly from plants that I like and know grow in my garden. this year I am getting serious about seed growing as well. Frances

    • Hi Frances
      For me the criteria are 1) do I like it, 2) will it grow in my conditions 3) will it go with the other plants I have in that part of the garden. I am getting better at the flowering period etc but thats because I have designed various borders to have certain periods of interest rather than trying to have borders that have interest all year round which I think is quite hard to do well

  2. I think the very best gardens combine design and plants in equal measure. This is why I particularly love Arts and Crafts period gardens – they tend to have a strong structure underlying loose planting, and the herbaceous border is usually stuffed full of different shapes and colours. I totally agree with you about a lot of garden design. If you see that structure before the plants, then it’s too “designed” and is better described as an outdoor space.

    • Hi Helen
      I know where you are coming at with the Arts and Crafts movement although having studied some old photos of these gardens when they were created some of them seemed to have the structure dominating. I think it depends on the skill of the designer in how the plants are used to soften the structure that is important

  3. Dear Helen
    For me, it is plants first (which is why my own garden is a bit of a muddle to say the least). I do appreciate good design in a garden and I really like formal hard landscaping which is filled with exuberant planting, but then again, I am drawn to the ‘cottage garden’ look with minimal hard landscaping, so probably I am the ‘I know what I like when I see it’ type of gardener.
    Best wishes

    • Hi Ellie
      I think you are exactly the same as me – I’m not so keen on hard landscaping and prefer the cottage garden look

  4. I agree with so much of what you say Helen. Like you, I am tempted by the plant itself and that very strong desire to own it (erm … I used to collect stamps as a child) and a lot of my planting is a happy accident. I did plan the ‘skeleton’ of the garden carefully, as I believe that is the crucial element. After that, it can be a moveable feast to get the planting right. The piece of design advice I really struggle with is “plant 3 of the same”- I cannot bring myself to do that when I could have 3 different plants .

    • Hi Jane
      I am getting better at the planting 3 thing mainly as I grow so much from seed. You are right that you need to plan the skeleton carefully, my problem is that my understand and knowledge has grown considerably since I started my garden so the skeleton is ivolving rather than going in first.

  5. This is an interesting post, Helen, and something I’ve been thinking about lately. My writing mentor, Margot, was very plant focused, while I’ve always been more design oriented. Before she passed away in 2008, however, Margot had great success reorganizing a part of her garden with more attention to design features, such as a stone path that broadened into a small sitting area and an arbor to lift climbing vines. My journey has moved in the other direction, more towards an appreciation for plants and authentic landscapes. Now, I think I strive more for an artful garden, rather than a contrived one. At least I hope so.

    As a postscript, I have to say I’m not a fan of many of the current trends in horticulture. I fail to understand why every flower needs more petals or why ornamental shrubs should bloom twice a year. And the prairie garden, so popular these days with top designers, is the antithesis of structure. Go figure!

    • Hi Marian
      I too am not that keen on prairie gardens but I think like many design phases, we will be left with the good bits and then move onto whatever is the next trend. I think I am like your friend Margot and I am starting to realise that in order to show off my plants I need to bring in more design its just working out what and how.

  6. Sorry Helen, I disagree with you. To look it’s best a garden must have a cohesive design in which the plants can then do their thing. The design can be planned or grow like Topsy over time but to me it provides the backbone. It can be very simple or more complex but it is a bit like a frame for a picture; it sets the whole off in the best possible way.

    • Hi LT
      I think structure is important and I have seen lots of plantsmen gardens which have been let down by a lack of structure. I didnt think I said I didnt think structure was important more I personally was more interested in the plants first over the design details.

  7. I enjoyed your post immensely. I think that is why I love cottage gardens because they are more casual and can handle that slip or division of a plant that a friend gives you. 🙂 And, yes, I wish they would stop tweaking with all plant seeds – flowers and vegetables.

    • Hi Judy
      I suspect that is why I like the cottage garden style as well though I am trying to avoid what I heard someone describe as the shoe-horn approach – just shoehorning another plant in here or there

  8. I feel plants and design go hand in hand. Without a good structure , no matter how nice or unusual plants are, the whole garden looks lost and muddled. Good design shouldn’t be obvious, structure is there to enhance the plants and to show them off to their best advantage. It has taken me a long time to come to this way of thinking, to start with I wanted one of everything, now I feel it is far better to have drifts of happy plants within a formal structure.

    • Hi Pauline
      I think you are right but I am only just coming to this point of view. I am planting more plants in drifts or more than one than I used to and trying to be more discerning when I buy plants – but it can be a challenge!

  9. Having followed your blog almost since I started writing mine, what strikes me about what I read is your dissatisfaction with your garden (you are always moving something or saying something will be different in future ect.) Given that you lots of lovely interesting plants your dissatisfaction isn’t due to the plants but to the DESIGN! I have no problems with gardeners being more interested in plants than design but if this leads to them not enjoying their gardens more then perhaps giving some thought to the design might help. That said, I agree about the make-over show, they did nothing for design or plantsmanship. I don’t feel you have to choose between the two, the very best gardens are a combination of good design and good plants men/women. You only have to think of about Gertrude Jykell and Edward Lutyens! Christina

    • Hi Christina
      I’m not dissatisfied with my garden but the steep learner curve I am on keeps showing me that I can improve things. I don’t think it all comes down to design but to how you use the plants within the structure you have created. The combination of plants to contrast texture, shape, colour etc is just as important as design features. As i am coming from a plant orientated view I find the design/structure side of it more challenging just as some who have strong ideas about structure and design still dont create a garden to its full potential as they don’t have the plant knowledge and understanding. A combination of both is the best thing but as I dont have a Lutyens to do the structure I have to work it out for myself.

  10. I think you are right Helen. I just returned from our local garden show and have noticed over the last five or more years that design was the main focus of the show. When plants were featured it was for juried floral arrangements. There were some sellers of bulbs and the flower of the year, hellebore. There were no live plant sales of any variety and no garden magazines were at the show either. I am not sure who the target market was for, but it wasn’t me, a gardener.

  11. When I first started gardening, it was all about design and planning. Then I fell in love with plants, and design has gone out the window! I just squeeze plants in anywhere I can find a spot now – no regard at all for a plan. I guess the idea would be a balance of both.

  12. I did a small amount of design in the beginning. Since then, things have gone their own way. I like to participate in plant exchanges. I then find myself with diverse plants that need to go in somewhere.

  13. Hey Helen,
    Im definately a plant person- possibly even a plant-a-holic- i get into my head a theme or an idea (eg trying different types of squash for my allotment or as many different types of plants for bees) and then I make a list and then try and find and grow as many as posisble. So although i have a idea of what looks good together, i have no ability to be contrained in my planting schemes! I just cant do it! There are too many new plants id like to try! So my planting ends up as a nice jumbled group of plants which im sure to some eys looks a wee bit hectic!
    I may need your seed growing help this year- ive decided to have a go at growing perrenials from seed- now ive done annuals and vegetables before but never perrenials- ive always just bought them as plants. Ive got Salvia, Scabious, Agastache, Erigeron karvinskianus , Echium Blue Bedder to try this year. I jsut dont have much confidence I can get them from seedling stage to a nice plant- i wonder if its due to low light levels i have inside my house- perhaps i need to keep them in a cold frame outside once they have germinated? Eitehr way its a new thing for me and I may need your advice!
    Hope your well!

  14. This is a great post! It gets at something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Like you, I am about the plants first. Design I came to more as an afterthought, though I am trying to make it more of a priority. I would argue that a garden needs a love of plants as its foundation.

  15. It’s a tricky balance. Like you, a love of plants drives me and means that while I only have a modest garden it will always favour too broad a range of plants for true modern design. But I do try and shape and plant the garden with its structure in mind, and in our small front garden aim for repetition of a limited variety of plants with sharper definition. In the back garden, though, while I hope for a coherent overall design, the plants really do the talking, and drifts or repetition of key plants are limited to fit the scale and allow me to squeeze in more. If I had the acreage, I’m sure I would be much more design-driven, while still being able to indulge my plant addiction. Ho hum.

    The delight in raising plants from seed is far from pathetic though, I will always thrill at the sight of new seeds breaking through.

  16. It has always been plants first and foremost for me Helen. I have been known to circuit the floral marquee up to three times at show – the initial reccie, the buying circuit and then finally a last look to make sure that I’ve not missed any treasures. I would though dearly like to get to grips with design but it does not come easily to me. I must echo Sara’s remarks above about raising plants from seed which after years of sowing/germinating is still as exciting as ever 🙂 I just got back home again last night and almost the first thing I did was check on my new seedlings and what was left in the heated propagator. Thanks for including the photo of Bryans Ground – a timely reminder for me to check on opening times.

  17. Plants AND design have to come first in Texas. The sun is so hot, we have to put plants in very strategic place or they simply die. 😦

  18. I agree, a garden is very personal. It might be said that it is an outward manifestation of who we really are – a window with which to peek into the personality of its creator… ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So if we plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills’.
    Othello : I.3

  19. I can and do appreciate the kind of gardens that are designed to impress – most of them are way beyond my capabilities. If I see an element I like – I have been known to adapt to something more fitting for the size of my garden, not always a success as they never quite look right!
    I’m more of a see a plant/buy a plant kind of gardener. So long as I think I can give it the conditions it requires I’ll give it a go. My planting schemes are a wee bit to ‘bitty’ because of this – but it’s my garden and for most of the time I’m quite happy with it.

  20. Hi again Helen; I think you are misunderstanding me to some extent; design has as much to do with plants as the hard landscaping and structure. I know you read ‘Federal Twist’ and you wouldn’t think of that has a ‘designed’ garden but he thinks all the time about design issues. I wasn’t criticising only that what comes over in your blog is that you aren’t happy with the garden and I think that is sad as you have so many good ideas but seem to get distracted from carrying them out. Understanding about design gives you some ‘rules’ to help not to make things difficult. Christina

  21. Hi Helen, very interesting post and a subject I think about quite often. I’m also very much a plantswoman but I think Christina is right in saying that you cannot totally ignore the design factor. Looking at showgardens with a lot of emphasis on hard landscaping and plant combinations that do not always ring true can be a bit off putting. One year I had looked at so many show gardens I was pretty tired of them and sooo glad when I came home to my own garden. Even if your priority are plants the garden doesn’t have to look “bitty” – just look at them and combine them to best effect using not only one but a couple of each. I love gardens with soul and I feel it straight away when I enter: that special something that makes my heart sing! It’s mostly the work of a passionate gardener that has an understanding for his plants and the way to make them shine, the design.
    The latter doesn’t have to be like a fist popping out knocking you over but can be subtle and give the impression that it just belongs or that it has always been there. Well, the main thing is to be happy, to experiment and to enjoy! One day you’ll wake up and say that’s it. My garden is just wonderful and I wouldn’t change it for anything…

    • Hi Annette
      I see where you and Christina are coming from and I think it is a direction I am moving in albeit hestiantly but that is due to a lack of confidence. There are elements of my garden that I love and I find myself looking at those to try and understand why I love them so much so I can try and extend whatever it is to the areas of the garden that are more challenging – like the slope!

  22. Goodness, you have certainly provoked both thought and discussion with this post Helen! Before I add my tuppence, I must echo what others have said, nothing pathetic about getting excited about growing things from seed. Or a lot of us are very pathetic! Hard to beat taking something from seed – or cuttings – and nurturing and worrying over it until it becomes a much-loved plant in the garden.
    As to the main topic, I fall in love with plants all the time, I can wind up positively drooling over a new plant on a blog post, in a magazine article, or most dangerous of all, at a show. But almost immediately I find myself asking “what would it look good with”. I have resigned myself to never having enough room – or the right conditions – to grow everything I fall for though, and I do find an extra magic in combinations that make my heart sing. I love the process of getting to know a new plant, how it grows, when it looks good, what it looks good with, though I get very frustrated with myself sometimes too when I get it “wrong” – by which I mean I am not happy. Is that caring more about design than plants? Certainly it is always the planting that gets me excited about a garden, far more than beautiful sculpture, though I can go a little weak kneed at the sight of a beautiful piece of walling. I get tremendously frustrated with the lack of information about the plants used or on sale at shows like Chelsea or Tatton, and get positively nauseated by the blatant bling of some of the big show gardens, but then someone like Tom Stuart-Smith creates planting that takes my breath away, where somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – or plants. And I realise that part of the magic comes from using a fairly limited palette, and grouping plants together to make enough of a tapestry that they have genuine impact. The rest is all about not distracting from the plants, having somewhere to sit, and being able to get around well enough to look after it all…

  23. Hi Helen! I’m the same, I don’t think about design first although this year I did think about entering a veggie bed design competition and scribbled something that could look amazing! I’ll never plant it up like that though, the best I’ll get to anything really well considered is some straighter rows. I am completely compelled by the moment when it comes to planting, I see a plant or some seeds, love it or love them and grow them. I’d love to do my beds and borders better. Adam is better at this than me. My garden has just always been a complete mix of things that I like. You know what though, I do love it like that though too. Random and crammed full! I am going to try to design my ‘long border’ better this year though and I did copy a red tulip planting scheme once from Levens Hall in the lake district!

  24. I love plants and always will, but I became very dissatisfied with the way my garden looked, even with lots of lovely plants in it. So I started reading about garden design and some of it made a lot of sense. I am still in both camps, I guess: I sometimes design an area and look for plants of a particular size, shape and colour, but just as often, I’ll fall in love with a plant in a nursery or catalogue or another garden, and just have to have it. Then I think about where it might go, and the design is sacrificed for the plant. I could never think about plants as just elements to give certain creative effects, but I also love to think about spaces and voids, colour schemes, structure etc. I don’t think any of this is going to change, and I’m happy with that. It all adds to the richness of this fascinating hobby.

  25. I have to admit to being a fan of a planned garden. It’s just sticking to the first plan I make that I have a problem with. I think that’s only right though because gardens are supposed to grow and evolve over time.

  26. Great post! I hadn’t really thought about it — plants vs. design — but it explains a lot. I’m all about plants, and am glad we were able hire someone to give us an element of design. So maybe somehow I knew what I was lacking, since that is where I sought help.

  27. Lovely pictures, Helen (I particularly liked Bryan’s Ground, it looks wonderful, and I’ve never been there). What a good question you’ve asked. Got us all thinking. From my point of view. I started out as a plantaholic – couldn’t get enough of them, even in a tiny garden. Twenty years on (and many of my plant names forgotten!) I think that, for me in my garden, design is as, if not more, important. I think maybe I’ve always been like that but I actually just never noticed it. I adore a garden with a terrific strong structure – that could just be trees planted in straight lines and pattern of close mowing and long grass, doesn’t have to be fancier (does anyone know the grass mowing regime at Helmingham Hall, in Suffolk? Right next to the straight moat the grass is cut short in the most gorgeous wavy line). For some reason, I think if you have very strong lines in the garden, you can stuff more in without worrying so much about position.
    But actually – as I said in a previous comment – I think your own garden has a very strong framework (for someone who thinks more about plants!).
    I’ve observed with friends that they often wander over to the opposite point of view as they get older – eg, someone who is obsessive about veg, will suddenly become adventurous with decorative stuff. And someone who starts by loving informal, becomes addicted to lines. I think that’s healthy, it shows we haven’t stopped looking and absorbing.
    Which is why your question is so good – looking and absorbing is something you do a lot of. I need to do a bit more myself!
    All best,

  28. I am aiming for a certain level of design in my garden, but the starting point are the plants that are already there and that are two large to move – like trees, large shrubs and hedges. They are backbone, and around them I weave a structure that somehow makes the garden “work” – lawn space for al fresco dining or a game of croquet, a semi-concealed compost bin, a wood pile – and I have a clear plan for how the garden can evolve over the years as I dig away more and more of the lawn.
    However, what plants will go into which bed is not decided and probably won’t be before I see a pretty plant and NEED to own it. And another one. And another one. The structure makes my rather hap-hazard plant shopping seem a bit more orderly when planted in the garden, and I think that’s one of the main benefits of a plan – that you can do it as detailed or rough as you feel like.

  29. I am a plant lover and plunker from way back…but since embracing gardening with natives and for wildlife, I have studied plants more and am now moving to more design aspects.

  30. Gardening is like art. It is this amazing collection of things and feelings. There is no one right way, and more importanlty as you are deciding you have every right to change over time. A real gardener will not judge you, they are listening to you to see how that changes the paint they put on the canvas and their feeling about the results. I have traveled a very similar path to yours, I have no idea what my effort will look like next year or the year after that.

    • Hi Charlie -thanks and I agree with you. I find that as new plants grow and I learn about them I often think they would be better in a different location so I move them. I don’t worry about this as Christopher Lloyd commented that it was unlikely that the first place yuo plant something will be right. For me the interesting thing about gardening is how you can change things from one year to the next, experiment with plant combinations to see what results you get.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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