My Current Inspiration

My overgrown slope with a late summer focus and lots of textures
My overgrown slope with a late summer focus and lots of textures

This post is written in response to the latest prompt from the Grow Write Guild. We were asked to write about what inspired us to garden, or who our mentor was.

I don’t have a gardening mentor and I don’t really remember anyone in my past being very garden focussed.  I remember my parents clearing overgrown gardens so we spent a lot of time outside but they have a tendency towards lawn so that can’t have fuelled my passion.  I remember spending time with my aunt’s mother who had a small greenhouse and being fascinated by it but I don’t remember gardening with her so I have no idea where my passion comes from.

I am self-taught, I read lots of horticultural literature and over the years have picked up tips from various television programmes and a few day schools I have attended but I have had no mentor.  However there are writers who inspire me and I have pondered on this post trying to decide who I would like to be my mentor if I could choose and meet that person in real life.  My first choice was Christopher Lloyd, fairly obvious and I love his writing and his passion but I think he would be too intimidating as a mentor and my confidence is a fragile thing.  Also whilst I like his style and his ‘I’ll do what I want’ approach I’m not so keen on some of his planting.  I used to think I liked the big tropical  look but actually deep down inside I am a true English girl and I like the cottage garden look far more.

The patio border - its late summer appearance, it also has lots of spring bulbs
The patio border – its late summer appearance, it also has lots of spring bulbs

However, I have discovered someone else who I can completely relate to and whose book, he has written only one, encouraged me hugely last year.  David Culp is an American horticulturist and gardens in Pennsylvania.  He wrote a book called The Layered Garden which I reviewed last year.  Like Lloyd and others his approach is to build up the borders with layers and not just the border the garden.  So whilst each border has one or two seasons of interest when it isn’t at its peak it still looks good.  He gardens around the year and his book spoke to me as he not only loves plants but the same plants as me.  His garden is romantic, lush and quite wonderful – well if the photographs are to go by.

He made me start to think about how you use plants.  Yes he collects plants but he also understands about how to create a garden with them and how to show them at their best.  Planting so one plant picks up on the colouring of its neighbour or contrasts with the textures etc and this is something I am now trying to do.  I found his approach liberating, he states that you should garden for yourself.  You should forget about the current trends and what the neighbours will think. “Experiment, play with colours, do what pleases you, and do not be afraid to change things if you wish.” He talks at one point about how his grandmother when he was small planted a bed with hot and spicy coloured plants which was against the norm and how it had an impact on him at the time which has given him the courage in his later life to do what he wanted.  He says there is no rule book when it comes to planting, “Some gardeners get so hung up on all the “rules” that have been laid down by so many “experts” that they are constantly wondering, “What am I doing wrong”? My first rule for designing a garden is that there are no rules….” and I find this quite exhilarating.

Another view of the slope
Another view of the slope

There is a page in the book where he shows a border when he first creatred the garden and it now.  The first picture shows a border which I have to say I would be pleased with and looks a little like mine now (see photos of the slope) – he calls it dull.  But rather than be deflated by this I am inspired by the ‘now’ photo which shows a border with many of the same plants: irises, roses, geraniums etc but it is alive and exuberant because he has incorporated some fluffy grasses, architectural Phormium and there is a repetition to the planting and the colours. Not only does he look at the contrast or harmony of colours but also their values and as someone who has spent time painting this makes sense to me.

I spend ages peering at the photographs.  I really wish I had the book electronically so I could enlarge them and peer closer. There are archetypal herbaceous borders but with a twist, collections of pots, a gravel garden, a shady slope, a hellebore garden and rose beds.

Not only does David advocate an approach I aspire to achieve and which I admire hugely  but  he is a plant collector with passions for snowdrops, hellebores, narcissus, epimediums and many more.  Here is someone who has found a way to collect the plants he loves but to also create a garden with them which has a cohesive appearance and not a hotch potch as my garden had begun to turn into.

Having read David’s book last year I took a different approach to planting the front garden.  I thought about the structure of the borders as well as how the plants interplay and picked up on each other.  I have still got a very long way to do but I am pleased with the results already and I am finding that I am looking at the plants I love differently and my garden is benefitting from it.

So whilst I might not have, or have had, a real life mentor I am currently inspired by David Culp – his book makes me think but also makes me feel that the look I long to achieve is within my grasp.


22 Comments Add yours

  1. Pauline says:

    I agree , his book is very inspiring and a good read too! I would say that my mentor has been Beth Chatto, thank goodness hers was the first gardening book, ” The Green Tapestry”, that I bought to read on the train when I was coming down here from the north west househunting. She has a woodland in her garden and boggy borders, just like me but much larger! She has written books about each different area of the garden and they have been such a help to me when planting here. She also creates a tapestry with her foliage, flowers are a bonus. Its good that someone inspires us, I had been getting it wrong for years until my eyes were opened and everything then fell into place.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Pauline
      I have read a few of Beth Chattos and I like her right plant, right place approach but I do find her books less easy to rad. I havent read The Green Tapestry though so will keep an eye out for that one

  2. Catching up with all your recent blogs and lots of good things to read. I do love your skinny scarf! I have gone back to knitting and crochet and sewing since I gave up my job and am getting a lot of pleasure from making things. I have never heard of David Culp or this book but I think I will try to find it and have a read. I do very much agree that in gardening, as in other creative pursuits, you have to “find your voice” and his book sounds as though it helps you to do that. I am far from sure I have found my own voice yet!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Elizabeth
      Good to hear from you. I think you have found your voice – you just havent spotted it!!

  3. Jane Scorer says:

    I will check out David Culp, sounds interesting ! It is so hard to choose one person … I suppose Gertrude Jekyll has to come somewhere near the top of the list, as she is inspirational in her approach to gardening, and would have been a pioneer at the time. I often wonder how her planting would be influenced by the wealth of fabulous plants we have to choose from today. Piet Oudolf is another of my favourites, and he has created Scampston, which is an absolute joy of a garden. Every element is intelligent and thoughtful, and of course his prairie planting is lovely. Will Giles, in Norwich is an inspiration with Exotic gardening and had created a truly unique garden. … I’d better stop now, I think …I keep thinking of more people …

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jane
      I like Gertrude Jekyll as well as many others. I chose David Culp as his book was so relevant to me, well at the moment

  4. I agree with you about Mr LLoyd, although I love his writing. I enjoy Beth Chatto’s writing too – and since her garden isn’t far from where I live, I have the pleasure of visiting it regularly. Thank you for introducing me to David Culp – I shall try to get hold of a copy of his book.

  5. Holleygarden says:

    I love how a book can inspire us so much. I, too, have one book that I go back to over and over for inspiration. I’ve never had a gardening mentor and I’m not sure I’d want one. Like you, my confidence is a fragile thing, and I think a book is a much easier way to get a gardening education. That, and experience!

  6. What a great post Helen, you definitely make me want to read that book, I’d never come across David Culp before, but he sounds like my kind of gardener, and an expert in the kind of gardening I want to learn about.

  7. Anna says:

    I recently ordered David Culp’s book after reading your review Helen as well as a couple in gardening magazines. Have had a peek at the pages and am really looking forward to reading it but it may be a while before I get the opportunity to do it justice 🙂

  8. Annette says:

    Very inspiring indeed! You may like “Plant-driven design” by Springer-Ogden (husband and wife team). Gardening is not about rules – throw them over board and don’t fear experiments. Quite often you’ll see that rules lead nowhere and that you have to find your own way through the jungle, make your own mistakes and find out what works for you. Inspiration is good and can come from many sources but it’s ever so important to dig deep and finally discover your own style. Have fun! 🙂

  9. Helen says:

    Thanks so much for the info about the book. Have just spent my daughter’s Amazon Christmas voucher on a copy!!! Will look forward to its’ arrival.

  10. Shirley says:

    Very interesting, Helen. I remember reading one of your posts a bit back about how it was never about the design but the plants every time. I can easily see that David’s book is going to change that yet. I feel you can’t consider one without the other. I too have never heard of David but absolutely ‘get’ what you say about his thoughts on planting a garden as that’s the approach I’ve always taken. Planting for me has always been something that is open to change and experimenting and I have always done my own thing. Although I drool over images in quite a few books by quite a few designers it is garden visiting that I get my real inspiration from. Keep being inspired 🙂

  11. I agree that this is a fantastic book. I would lose track of time getting lost in the photos of David Culp’s garden.

  12. Caro says:

    I bought the book after your review last year, Helen. It is a wonderful read and truly inspiring. I adore the way Christo Lloyd wrote and love Dixter but, like you, am not fussed about big splashy tropical gardens, preferring the subtlety of cottage or wildflower plants. I’ve recently planted up a shaded walled border and tried to extend on the colours already there (a Viburnam x bodnantense) and introduce texture (Heuchera, Aquilegia, ferns). I’ve also painted (watercolours) and illustrated for many years and was delighted to find that was the basis for Gertrude Jekyll’s feel for planting. This has been a heartfelt post which I’ve really enjoyed reading, and your garden looks quite gorgeous to me. A lovely space.

  13. Janneke says:

    David Culp is totally new to me, I definitely shall try to find a copy of his book. Gardening is not a thing of rules, the structure of a garden is important, especially for winter times, furthermore, everybody can plant what he likes, it is your own garden. You even can fill your garden with gnomes, haha, but it is your own garden. I had no mentor and don’t want to have one, I have 40 years experience, did a designing course and like reading books, especially those of Gertrude Jekyll, I have them all. But also Beth Chatto, Margery Fish, Vita Sackville West, Chr. Lloyd, Piet Oudolf, Mien Ruys, William Robinson, Stephen Lacey and I can think of many more, are all favourites of mine. Let me not forget to mention : Russel Page – The education of a gardener.
    I stop now and wish you happy gardening!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Janneke – I totally agree with you. I have read many you mention but not Vita Sackville West or Piet Oudolf. Vita is on my reading list. I havent heard of Mien Ruys and Russel Page sounds interesting especially as I have visited the garden he helped to create at La Mortella which is quite wonderful

  14. Cathy says:

    Reading throught your post and the comments has definitely made me want to get hold of this book too! I was particularly interested in how you said he would have thought your very pleasing borders would be dull, but then showed how they could be lifted with the addition of grasses and the like.

  15. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Anna Kirby was my first ‘mento’ an old )to me) Norwegian lady who lived at the back of us and had about an acre of garden which she grew veg on and rented some to ‘The Chinaman’. She had chooks that created masses of flies for us – Day sprayed with DDT before it was banned. She had lots of fushias and they have always been a favourite of mine.

  16. Lauren says:

    The Layered Garden is on my wishlist. Sounds like I need to bump it up a bit higher on the list!

  17. Valerie says:

    I have not read The Layered Garden, but one thing I took away from your post was the statement that ‘we should garden for ourselves’. I don’t really have a garden mentor either and in my post I list some of the books that have guided me along. I will have to add this one to my reading list.

  18. Anna says:

    Your slope garden is so beautiful and lush! I’ll definitely have to check out David Culp…I live only a state away from him in NY, so I’m feeling a tad guilty he didn’t come across my path sooner. 🙂 Thanks! My Grow Write Guild post:

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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