Great Dixter – A Revelation

imageThere are some places that you dream of visiting. You study the photos in books or on-line and you create an impression, maybe a little gilded, in your mind’s eye. For me Great Dixter is such a place.  I have longed to visit for years but just as you hesitate to watch a film of your favourite book I was nervous that it would not live up to my imaginations.

As soon as I approached the house through the lawn/meadow area I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed but I was thrilled to discover the garden actually exceeded my expectations. I was completely bewitched by the area called the stock beds (above). The exuberance of the planting, the scale was fabulous.


But back to the real purpose of the visit – to attend a study day. I figured that if I was going to trek across country to visit the garden I wanted to get the most out of it and so a study day was the answer.  I booked the Succession Planting day, as although I had heard Fergus talk about this subject before, it was the only one which fitted with work commitments and I knew I would pick up lots more tips and tricks. The talk was held in the Yeomans Hall with its wonderful exposed timbers, the atmosphere added to with the crackling of the log fire which had been lit to combat the unexpected cold of the day.


I never tire of listening to Fergus Garrett, he has a quiet charisma and he is so knowledgeable, I just sat and soaked it all up. Whilst I had remembered somethings from before, either some of it was new or my gardening knowledge has improved so I can take on board more things. There is a mental list which I really need to write down of immediate changes I want to make but I think the real lesson was to look and consider. You need to assess plants, consider them from all aspects, what seasons of interest do they have and, most importantly, if they aren’t earning their keep ditch them for something better. In a small garden such as mine this is a really important lesson. But there is also the lesson that if you combine the plants better taking into account texture and shape and seasons of interest you might improve how a plant appears. Finally focus on one big moment of impact in an area, get that right, then think about how you can extend the season – maybe with bulbs earlier in the year, adding some annuals to create interest in the planting before (or after) the main plants have performed.


After lunch we split up, my group went off to explore and the two ladies I had met and I had a lovely wander. We went to the stock beds first, pushing along narrow paths past sodden plants. Then on to the exotic garden which was a surprisingly small space waiting for the seasonal planting to be done – we later learnt that Fergus plans to plant out conifers here which caused some sharp intakes of breath but I think it will be interesting to see how they combine with the bananas etc.


My reaction to the Long Border was interesting. It is the part of the garden that is always featured in magazines etc and you feel a familiarity with it. The border is beautiful and a real lesson in the art of mixed planting with shrubs, perennials, biennials, annuals, bulbs and climbers but it didn’t make my heart sing as the stock beds did. I wonder why? Aside from the stock beds the plantings that I also really enjoyed, although you understand all of the garden was wonderful,  were in the sunken garden area where there was narrow small borders with shade lovers which showed you how to bring the best out of them by combining the plants well; here I could really relate ideas to my own garden and the plants I love to grow.


We finished with a tour with Fergus so he could demonstrate the points he had previously made. The tour ended with the stock beds where we learnt some of the tall umbellifers were actually parsnips gone to seed – I am wondering if I could get away with anything so dramatic and big. The other tip I picked up was that you only need to add a handful of annuals in a large area, kind of running them through the plants, to make an impact and the poppies in this area were a good demonstration of this – so I only need to grow 10 of an annual at the most for a space such as my Big Border.


So that was my magical day at Great Dixter, which I will visit again, if not later this year definitely next year. I love the way the garden pushes the boundaries, it challenges the rule books and creates its own rules but they aren’t really rules – Fergus calls his approach a system which can be adapted. I think that is a fair description but I think ethos is a better word to system which sounds so hard and manufactured. And yes I did buy plants but I can’t remember what as they are hiding in the car. Tomorrow I am off to Sissinghurst which no doubt will provide an interesting contrast.

I also took masses of photos but am writing this post from my B&B and I have only downloaded a few from the camera so there may be another post soon covering things I have forgotten, such as the pots – I need more pots.

The Jaded Garden Visitor

Bryans Ground, Herefordshire - a favourite garden
Bryans Ground, Herefordshire – a favourite garden

I have run out of enthusiasm for garden visiting, a sensation I am finding quite surprising.

Garden visiting is something I have done for some 6 years or more on a fairly regular basis. Until the last year I felt excited and enthusiastic about visiting a garden. It was like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning; that feeling of anticipation, wonder and curiosity. Now that feeling has gone and instead when a garden visit is suggested my emotions are of reluctance and a feeling of ‘do I really have to’. The only thing that got me to visit Sezincote a few months ago was meeting up with friends, Victoria and Michelle and I struggled to write about it on my blog. There has been one further garden visit since to a garden I had heard positive things about which left me completely cold and very disappointed, to the extent that I couldn’t bring myself to write about it on my blog.

The Laskett, Herefordshire - A garden I like but many don't
The Laskett, Herefordshire – A garden I like but many don’t

In fact I am wondering whether it is the blog which is to blame for this aberration. I know that a few years ago when I had press passes for various RHS shows in order to write posts for myself and also the Guardian blog, I found this completely destroyed my enjoyment of the show; I spent the whole time thinking about what I should write about rather than enjoying it. I am not aware of that sensation when I visit gardens but I am keenly aware that many readers seem to expect a critical review of a garden rather than a post saying you had a jolly nice time and really liked this plant or that.

Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire - another good but traditional garden
Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire – another good but traditional garden

The garden media has been criticised in recent years, by myself included, of being dull, banal and not at all critical. There is also a movement which calls for gardens to be considered and reviewed as works of art which I think has some merit in it. Now I do not profess to be, nor do I want to be considered, a part of the whole garden media world so why should these arguments bother me and what and how I write about the gardens I visit? I suppose it comes down to peer pressure and a feeling that you want your writing to be taken seriously and not seen as yet another garden blog, saying I sowed these seeds and visited this lovely garden. But is that right? It comes back to that oft repeated question of why we blog in the first place. For me, my blog is a personal record, a weblog in the original sense of the meaning of ‘blog’. As such I try and write for myself and hope that readers like it, I don’t try to be clever or elitist but for some reason when it comes to garden visits it isn’t working.

RHS Rosemoor, Devon - interesting ideas
RHS Rosemoor, Devon – interesting ideas

I am deeply conscious when I write about a garden that there are some, often quite vocal, who criticise the ‘lovely’ approach. Consequently I have found myself driving home from a garden considering its design, planting, ethos etc not something I did a year ago. I agree that it is good to visit gardens to get inspiration and ideas but I do believe that this need to constantly analysis and criticise stops you enjoying a space for what it is – a garden: a place to relax, to be, to enjoy the outside and plants. What is wrong with that? If we go through life constantly analysing and dissecting everything to find some deeper meaning, which often isn’t there in the first place, we run the risk of missing out on so much more.

The Wave Garden, San Francisco - wonderful inspiring planting
The Wave Garden, San Francisco – wonderful inspiring planting

The last gardens I really enjoyed visiting where those in San Francisco and I think this is partly because they were, in the whole, very different to English gardens and also because of the company. But again despite enjoying them I have found it hard to write about them, feeling that I need to be erudite, considered, intellectual etc. I need to throw off this feeling and get back to my blogging roots. I also need to stop worrying about what others think, something that has plagued me throughout my life and that I have to work hard at since it has periodically caused me a lot of unhappiness.

So I doubt there will be many garden visit posts on the blog for a while, anyway they aren’t that popular with readers who, if the stats are to be believed, are more interested in day to day things in the garden. I am hanging up my garden visiting boots for a while with the hope that at some point in the future my interest and curiosity will return but this time if, and that is a big if, I write about the gardens there will be a good dose of ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’.

Book Review: The New English Garden

New English Garden

“A garden is inseparable from its legends. It needs, as well as walking, reading” Alasdair Forbes, Plaz Metaxu

At first glance The New English Garden by Tim Richardson looks like your typical coffee table book. Large, heavy and full of stunning atmospheric photographs by that well-known garden photographer Andrew Lawson. However, it soon become evident that the text is not along the lines of the predictable and polite articles on gardens that appear in the glossy garden magazines. I shouldn’t be surprised as Tim Richardson is not only a writer but a historian and wrote Oxford University’s first garden history course which I completed at the start of this year.

The introduction, unlike many that seem to go through the process, sets out the remit of the book in clear terms but also signals that the book will raise questions such are how we should look at gardens and whether they should be considered in terms of art. It is clear that Richardson is a proponent of the increasing movement which argues that gardens should be viewed in the same way as we view other works of art be they painting, books, sculptures or plays. His stance is that “Gardens bust the boundaries of art, science, craft, and hobbydom (as well as social class, on occasion), often to the chagrin of the guardians of those particular bailiwicks”. Richardson is clear in the criteria he used for choosing the gardens featured – they are all in England, as opposed to Britain, and have been made or re-made in the last decade. He goes on to set out a brief summary of the changes to garden design since the 1990 noting the move towards more naturalistic planting but also commenting that there is a quiet move back towards the more traditional English style “under the radar ‘traditional’ English garden style has been quietly developing

Turning the page from the introduction the first garden you encounter is Armscote Manor designed by Dan Pearson. I was dismayed at this point as the first three paragraphs were all about Pearson and not the garden; plus I’m not a Pearson fan. Taking a different approach I decided to read the chapters on gardens I knew. There are 26 gardens featured in the book with most of the key current designers also featured. However, I decided to look at Highgrove and The Laskett both which I know well. I chose them as they are gardens that cause a difference of opinion and some quite strong views and they are also both designed by either their owner or the owner and a collection of designers.

I have read much about Highgrove over the years, as well as visiting twice, but I found the article in this book, and they are all like individual articles that can be read in isolation, refreshingly honest. Richardson sets out a little of the background explaining how very few people had seen the garden until things changed and you could book to visit in a group. He surmises that the exclusive nature of the visits and the royalness of the owner have added to the kudos of the garden making it a ‘must see’ garden. His approach to many of the gardens is to walk you through it showing you the highlights. At Highgrove he identifies three areas which he considers excellent: The Thyme Walk, the Wildflower Meadow and the Stumpery. However, he then considers the rest of the garden commenting that its biggest issue is to incorporate the many gifts that the Prince of Wales receives which have to be included somewhere for diplomatic reasons which gives the garden “an eclectic and occasionally eccentric feel” and as Richardson says the visitor comes away “with no clear sense of the garden’s personality”. I was particularly interested in the idea that Richardson puts forward of a quiet design school in the 1980s who “promulgated a fashionable style of gardening based on a concept of the small formal garden or period garden.” The proponents of this style include most of the garden designers that have advised the Prince over the years including Rosemary Verey and Sir Roy Strong – the owner and creator of The Laskett.

I like the Laskett but I know I am in a minority. I was pleased to see that Richardson’s view of it mirrored my own (as with Highgrove) and included an acknowledgement that to understand and appreciate the garden you had to understand its references and acknowledge that it is deeply autobiographical and quite unique. Richardson describes it as “quite a disorienting garden, being in it is like getting lost in a mansion devised by Lewis Carroll” – this made me laugh as its so true. Richardson accepts that this is a garden many dislike “the relentless autobiographical focus of this garden as proved repugnant to some” but argues that we should be more open minded “surely it’s far better to be original in a garden than..almost anthing at all, in the fraught, authoritarian, conformist and class-conscious world of British horticulture.” Hoorah I say!

These two articles showed me that the book was an honest, intelligent and intellectual consideration of the gardens which made a refreshing change. The rest of the gardens are wide ranging – there are gardens which feature the mass of grasses and New Perennial style such as Mount St John and Trentham, both designs by Tom Stuart-Smith – these are seen as pictorial gardens. Then there are more intimate spaces where you become immersed in the planting such as Cottesbrooke and Temple Guiting (James Alexander-Sinclair and Jinny Bloom respectively). Gardens incorporating more symbolic sculpture are included and I wonder if this is a style which relates back to the landscape gardens of the 18th century – Througham Court and Plaz Metaxu both fall into this category and are both created by their owners. I was particularly taken with the article on Plaz Metaxu created by Alasdair Forbes, his approach (see quote at start of post) mirrors the way my own approach to visiting gardens is going.

There are well known gardens including Great Dixter and Gresgarth but also strangely, to me, the Olympic Park and the Living Wall, Atheanaeum Hotel which I would not consider gardens but then you get into a whole discussion on what is considered a garden.

When I first looked at the book I was disappointed to see that there was no information about visiting the gardens or even specific information about where they were located. However, having spent a couple of evenings dipping into The New English Garden it is clear that this is not a garden visiting guide instead it is a consideration of the best and most interesting gardens created in the last decade. It ways up the pros and cons of the gardens, comments on their context and their makers. I would love to see garden articles more in this style in the glossies but maybe that is just wishful thinking.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book to review by Frances Lincoln.

Nichols Garden – San Francisco


When I came back from my jaunt to San Francisco with the Garden Bloggers Fling I have to admit to being rather punch drunk and gardened out.  I wrote a couple of posts at the time but it is only now a month on that I have found myself with time and a clear head to look through my photographs.  I can tell which gardens I liked and enjoyed by the number of photographs and also I can tell which had interesting plants as there are more close-ups than views.


The very last garden we visited was the Nichols Garden in Oakland.  Having seen everything from arid succulent gardens to formal English style planting I think this garden was one of the few that was probably more typical to a typical San Francisco garden, albeit it at the highest level of horticulture. Throughout my visit to San Francisco I noticed an interesting dichotomy between planting that could be considered English: lawns, roses, apple trees, lavender etc and planting that was more relevant to the area and climate: succulents, sub-tropical plants, no lawn.  The Nichols garden really encapsulated this contrast.


The house and garden are sited on a steep hill which makes my garden seem quite flat by comparison.  I always find it interesting to visit gardens on slopes particularly those in suburban locations to see how they have dealt with the gradients and to see what tips I can pinch.  The front of the house is the most recently planted and is full of sub-tropical planting, with aloes, echeverias and a vast Canary Date Palm.  I liked this planting, it was exuberant and generous and I especially liked the way that is flowed down and filled the area between the pavement (sidewalk) and road.  Something I noticed in quite a few gardens and which I think we should copy here in the UK.

You then go up the side of the house and this was my favourite area although the shade may have contributed to this view, as you can see from the light in the photographs it was a very bright and hot day.  The side garden was a steep ascent of steps but full of interest.  One side there was a rill working its way down the slope to a small formal pool.  On the other side a screen made of old branches artlessly tied together and dotted with air plants.


However I was less keen on the main (back) garden.  This was terraced with brick walls and had lost that carefree feel that I appreciated in the front and side gardens.  Although, as you can see above, the retaining wall had succulents going into the garden from here was a rose garden, step-over apples and I suppose what I would call a psuedo-English garden.  You couldn’t fault the horticulture and plant health but somehow for me it jarred. I don’t think the planting combinations work as well in other parts of the garden and I wonder if this is because it is a style which is borrowed from abroad.  Often in the UK you find Mediterranean or Tropical Gardens and few of them really deliver.  It could be the light, the surroundings or just an unfamiliarity with the style being aspired to – I’m not sure.  I also didn’t like, and I do apologise for being so negative, the orange/apricot hues but again that is a deeply subjective thing and I know I am in a minority here as everyone was raving about the garden.


As I said I loved the side garden and the rest of the photographs are from that area or the front garden.  Not only did I like the thoughtful plant combinations but I loved the use of objectives to enhance and lift the planting.


In two of the photographs above you will see the use of mirrors and I particularly liked the second one which reflects the plants back adding extra depth to a narrow area.


I liked the contrast here between the broad dark leaves of the eucomis and the thin strappy light green grass whose name I know but I can’t for the life of me bring to mind at the moment.  We saw it frequently in the gardens I visited and I learnt from one of the gardeners that you have to be patient with it as it can take a number of years to really start looking good.


I liked the use of a gate in front of the side path.  I’m not sure  if it is actually used but I thought it helped to add a sense of mystery, a sense of journey and again there are air plants adorning it.


More air plants this time decorating a chair but this did make me wonder if anyone ever sat on the chair!


and again adding interest to the screen.  I must see if air plants would survive outside in the UK during the summer as using them like this really excites me.

As I have said in my other posts on San Francisco gardens one of the overriding impressions I got was the use of objects and found items in the garden.  I really like this idea and think that it  personalises a garden and brings it to life much more than an expensive sculpture could.  Certainly in my suburban setting it is more appropriate.

Finally a view of the front garden.  I found this area hard to photograph due to the steep slope and the light but here is one shot.  If you look carefully you can see one of my fellow garden botherers in the back ground and this will give you a sense of scale.


Victoria suggested at some point during the Fling that I secretly had a sub-tropical plant addiction.  I have pondered this and yes many of my photographs  would support this summation but I don’t think she is right.  I think I was more fascinated with seeing these plants grown so well and so much larger than anything I have seen similar in the UK.  I liked the casual style of planting that seemed to go with them, it felt much looser and relaxed than your traditional English style of herbaceous  border and I am moving in that direction.

The Nichols Garden was overall delightful and our  hosts were very generous laying on refreshments and letting 70 mad gardening people wander all over their garden.  Whilst  the back garden was for me only nice, the front and especially the side garden were wonderful.  Full of interesting plants, many I didn’t know, and lots of inspiring ideas and combinations all giving me food for thought and for me that is what a good garden should do – excite, inspire and delight.

Veddw: Trying not to say ‘lovely’

2013_08020003logoYesterday I finally visited Anne and Charles’s garden – Veddw.  I say finally as I have wanted to visit for a while but have been a little intimidated by Anne’s approach to how people view gardens and especially the glossy magazine articles on gardens where everything is ‘lovely’.


I’m not sure what I was expecting when I visited the garden.  I had seen some photographs but nothing prepared me for entering from the top of the garden and seeing the hedges and rooms laid out before me.  The garden is set out across a valley so as you look across the garden from the car park the ground falls away from you and then rises up.  It also slopes down to the house which nestles in the valley and I should add there is more garden on the other side of the house.


I was completely bewitched by the view looking across the valley and looking at my photographs there are lots of the tops of the hedges and the way the light works on them and how they relate to the landscape beyond.  At the top of the garden is the Tithe Garden, a matrix of box or I suppose for want of a better word a parterre but in this one each section is filled with a different grass.  It represents and reflects the pattern of fields that you see across the English landscape particularly in the hilly area along the English/Welsh border.  I loved the movement in this area and the contrast between the loose grasses and the strong outline of the box.


The area in the dip is made up of a number of enclosed rooms with high hedges.  I’m not one for high hedges particularly when they are used to create rooms and in some spaces such as the Cornfield Garden I felt a little claustrophobic but then I was in a small space with three other people and a dog so it is hard to be really analytical about it.


However, there was one area that really didn’t appeal to me and two others where I wasn’t so sure.  Anne knows about this and I know that she likes people to be analytical and honest so here goes.  I really wasn’t keen on an area in the valley were the only planting were grey leaved hostas.  As you can see in the photograph they are planted in a large block against the yew  hedges, and run both sides of the path.  Now I liked the generosity of Anne’s planting in other areas, I loved the Alchemilla mollis (below) around the conservatory which probably filled an equivalent area and also the ground elder (bottom photo) but there is something about the hosta planting that just didn’t work for me.  I think there are two possible reasons.  Firstly to me the planting is fairly flat and low in comparison to the height of the hedge, unlike the ground elder and Alchemilla mollis the foliage is  dense and large giving a very solid feel.  I wonder is adding something in a similar colour, maybe a grass, running through the planting would lighten it, maybe add some movement.  Anne’s view was that this was meant as a pause as you walked  through the garden somewhere for your eyes to rest before moving on to the next area and I can see that but it still didn’t work for me.  The other possible reason is that I seem to have an increasingly dislike to this glaucous grey colour.  I was very conscious of shying away from it in the gardens I visited in San Francisco and longing for a shot of brightness so maybe its something in my sub-consciousness that just doesn’t like this grey.


We had a discussion about my reaction to the reflecting pool garden.  Anne and Charles have created a space, again surrounded by high hedges, were the only thing in it is a large rectangular reflecting pool. (Sorry – no photograph but you can see it on their website) It has been beautifully constructed so the water is exactly level with the surrounding path. The water is dyed black to improve the  reflections from the clipped yew hedge behind which are shaped into curves. The only other thing in the garden is a bench; there are no other plants at all.  I felt quite disconcerted in this garden and uneasy.  It partly reminded me of a similar garden at Kiftsgate which I don’t like and I have put that dislike down to the silvery fountain at the end of their pool but the feeling was intensified in the Veddw garden.   I thought about this a lot on the way home and I think my disquiet was because I didn’t know how to react to the space.  There was nothing competing for your attention – no flowers, no scents, no noise even.  There was nothing to distract you and I don’t  think I have ever been in such a space before.  I am used to there being something and I think it is  worse than ever now with all the electronic gadgets we have around us demanding attention.  But, it has to be said that the garden serves a purpose it is somewhere you can go to completely tune out, to reflect and not have anything to distract you so it fulfills its purpose – it’s just me that needs to learn to turn off!


Finally there is the garden on the other side of the house which Victoria called the faux veg garden.  It is laid out in a grid and planted very simply with Heuchera Palace Purple and Cardoons.  In the spring there are deep purple tulips and in late spring Alliums.  Anne did say that it was this garden’s low point in the year and it was only because of the exceptional weather we have had that the plants were still looking good and hadn’t been cut down.  She likes this garden as it looks after itself and when you have 2 acres of intensively planted garden to look after you have to admit this is a good thing.  However it didn’t appeal to me and I’m not sure way.  I don’t know if it was too still for me unlike the Tithe Garden or whether it was the repetition of such a limited plant palate over such a large area.  Somewhere in my mind the image of bedding came forward but I  think that is unkind as this planting was far more sophisticated and elegant than any bedding so I think it was just the monochrome sense I got from it that I  didn’t really take to.

2013_08020023logoRight so now I have made some critical observations I can move on to say that I thought Veddw was one of the most original and thought-provoking gardens I have seen in a very long time.  I have been aware of Anne’s views on planting and other horticultural practice for years and I have to admit I haven’t always understood what she was saying when she said people had too many plants.  Now I think I have a better handle on it.  What I think Anne means is that people should restrict their plant palate. By doing this you highlight the plants you choose to use and draw attention to them more rather than them being lost in a mish mash of other plants.  This then gives a greater impact to the garden as a whole.

For some reason which mystified me yesterday I seemed to think that there wouldn’t be 2013_08020025logoany bright flowers in the garden.  I  have no idea why as I know Anne likes bright colours.  The garden behind the house is full of bright colours and has a different feel to the main garden which all its hedges and topiary.  But if you look closely you will see that there is a restricted plant palate.  In both these pictures one of the main plants is Inula, a striking and dominant plant.  In one area it has been accompanied mainly by Crocosmia and in the other Campanula latifolia, both planting work well.

Thinking about Veddw on my way home and wondering what I would write about I was particularly struck with how much I liked the strong contrasts 2013_08020026logo

between informal and formal or to put it another way the looser/wilder planting and the very managed planting.  We have already seen this in the Tithe Garden, many of the other gardens with high hedges had loose planting within them and you can see it again in the Meadow (above) with the shaped Hazels (?) and very straight mown path through the middle.  Also as I have said I really liked the generosity of planting.  In one garden the only plants, aside from the surrounding hedge was a white Persicaria which, due to the excellent weather, had grown shoulder height.  We commented on the wonderful feeling of being completely surrounded by the plant.


Veddw is a garden I want to visit again. I  think it is the first garden I was disappointed to leave feeling as though I could easily spend another couple of hours just appreciating the atmosphere and thinking about the planting and how plants have been used.

How to translate this to a small suburban garden is another thing altogether.  If I was to recreate one of the garden rooms  I would probably use up my whole garden! But there are lessons to be learnt.  I think I understand Anne’s argument on a restricted plant palate and I will definitely think about this more.  I love the contrast between the wild and tamed planting styles and I think this is where the formality of hedges and topiary come into play and this could possibly be replicated through using more topiary to give structure in the garden.  I also loved the generosity of planting in the sense of the big blocks of one or two plants that were used, they delivered impact and a wow factor.  I think there is a  bravery to the garden and an element of not worrying about some rule book or other gardening styles.


This is a very personal garden, it is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking gardens I have visited.  Every element has been carefully considered and planned and Anne is still thinking and considering.  She takes each criticism and comment and reviews them carefully to try to understand how visitors relate to her space.  I don’t think I have met a gardener who does this before.   I have learnt a few things from Anne yesterday; I certainly think I understand her arguments and viewpoint better but if I have learnt nothing else it is to look and consider not just the texture, colour, shape of the plants but the overall effect and whilst Fergus asks what can you add to make it more exciting you also need to consider whether you should in fact be removing something to get the impact you want.

From the number of “I think” I have edited out of this post it is clear that Veddw has left me with a lot to think about and I am sure Anne would approve of this.

The Laskett

2013_07230016logoYesterday I visited The Laskett, nestling on the borders between England and Wales.  This is a garden I have been aware of for some time, reading both positive and negative reviews but had never visited as it is only open to group visits.

The Laskett is first and foremost a private and deeply personal garden; one of the most personal gardens I have ever visited.  It was created by Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, over the last 30 years.  To understand or even appreciate the garden you have to understand its creators’ backgrounds.  Sir Roy, a renown art historian and laterally a writer on garden design, was Director of the National Portrait Gallery and then the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Julia was a renown film, theatre and television designer and her understanding of using perspectives, leading and even forcing the eye down certain routes is very evident.

2013_07230020Sir Roy, during his introductory talk, stressed the private and personal nature of the garden.  He explained  how it reflected his interests in Tudor and Stuart history, Italianate gardens, the influences of Jekyll and also Ian Finlay Hamilton.  We learnt that, as with any mature garden, since his wife’s death in 2003 Sir Roy and the two gardeners had been reviewing and editing the garden.  Removing tall Leylandii hedges, cutting back to re-establish perspectives that had been lost and removing plants that were no longer performing.  He made me laugh when he said, addressing an audience whose average age was probably 65, that he did not understand why people over 60 were incapable of removing plants from their garden, if it didn’t work move it – all said with a twinkle in the eye.

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The garden has been created on a 4 acre plot and has developed over the years.  The areas closest to the house were done first, like many of us do.  And like many of us with a new home there was little budget so plants were the main investment with the hard landscaping added later.  This is definitely not a garden that owes its structure to the hard 2013_07230049logolandscaping which I, for one, found made a pleasant change in this era of paving, and more paving.  The structure comes from the hedges, topiary and parterres and there is a lot of it.  The influence of Hidcote which its arrangement of rooms is clear an influence acknowledged by Sir Roy who stated that if a garden looked good in January, as Hidcote had to him, then it must be good.  In his book The Laskett Sir Roy talks about various influences on him when he was thinking about designing the garden, and even before.

“For the first time I knew that if I ever had a garden it would be of this kind, strongly architectural, a paradise of different greens trained and clipped to form walls, entrances and a multiplicity of other shapes superimposing onto an empty space delight, definition and surprise.”


For me the garden was full of references to garden landscape history.  The parterres near the house reminded me of the Elizabethan knot gardens . There are long vistas with focal points at the end and a vast array of statuary and all of this reminded me of the 17th century approach to garden design where the visitor was led along walkways away from the house to discover delights, ornamentation etc in the surrounding woods, or bosquets.  Of course these were landscape gardens on the grand scale, think of Versailles, but if you take this idea and condense it down to the small-scale you can recognise its features at The Laskett and we are reminded of Sir Roy, the art historian’s, interest in the Tudor and Stuart period.

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The garden, as I  and Sir Roy, have said is deeply personal and this seemed to distract 2013_07230054logosome of the people I was visiting with.  Sir Roy and Lady Strong’s initials were on the statutes, temples, house and even in the parterres.  Some people found this strange and almost disturbing but to me it was like a horticultural scrap-book.  The ornamentation was not a collection of random pieces, instead they had belonged to close friends, reflected Sir Roy and his wife’s professional achievements, charted their lives, marked signficant milestones.  Sir Roy talked about how they had felt a need to escape London in the 70s, to have a retreat from what was a challenging time with various strikes and as he describes in The Laskett the end of the 60s was “a bad period for people in these islands, full of deep unrest.”.  The Laskett was intended to be their hideaway, their Arcadia – a rural idyll.  If you consider this the hedges and strong sense of enclosure make sense as do some of the statutory.


This is not a plantsman’s garden at all.  The herbaceous planting definitely comes secondary to the structural topiary and hedges, although where there are larger areas of herbaceous planting it is full and colourful.  Some have complained about the maintenance of this garden and yes there were weeds, there were plants that needed deadheading but then the same is true of my garden and most gardens.  The gardeners were busy when we visited clipping the hedges and topiary.  I suspect that this is given priority as it is such a dominant feature of the garden.  Personally the odd overgrown bit didn’t bother me it reinforced the fact that this was a personal garden and I much prefer this to the immaculately maintained National Trust gardens that you see.

I found The Laskett a garden that challenged me, it is an intellectual space making me think. Instead of looking closely at some plant I found myself considering the atmosphere and how it made me feel.  I sensed this was a garden to be at peace in, to sit and contemplate or to wander the various paths mulling some problem or issue.  It is a garden of refuge and retreat.

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I was reminded of a comment made when I was in San Francisco and we were discussing our favourite gardens.  One of my colleagues commented that, for her, the sign of good garden was one that had fulfilled its original purpose.  I think in the case of The Laskett the garden has definitely fulfilled its original purpose. Now with the introduction of The Colonnade Court, an area very classical in its appearance, which is designed for performance, the garden maybe helping Sir Roy move forward into a new period of his life – as he said we all have to reinvent our lives when we loss someone close and I think the garden has been key to Sir Roy in doing this.

My Dream Garden

Stone House, Worcestershire

Stone House, Worcestershire

This post is written as part of the Grow Write Guild – this week the theme is Your Dream Garden

When I sat down to write about my dream garden I closed my eyes to try to bring an image to mind.  Weirdly, it all went a little Disneyish and the fantasy garden was a cartoon with the blue birds tweeting! This quickly turned into the garden of Sleeping Beauty with vines and thorns spreading rapidly – quick time to open the eyes!!  Obviously my deep sub-conscious is fretting about everything I need to do in the garden.

East Lambrook Manor, Somerset
East Lambrook Manor, Somerset

Second attempt and this time I ended up in the hidden garden from The Secret Garden.  I remember this story from when I was young and I have always been fascinated by walled gardens and gardens that are overgrown.  They have a magical feel about them.  I remember when I was 7 or 8 I and a friend used to go off exploring in the summer to some woods near where I lived.  At the far side of the woods there was a big old manor house that was falling down but it was the garden we loved.  By this time there were no borders but I remember what I think were rhododendrons, azaleas and other exotic looking flowers; though at that age I had no idea what they were.  We used to pick the flowers and wear them in our hair on the walk home.  I also remember visiting Virginia Water, adjacent to Saville Garden a lot as a child and there were huge rhododendrons that you could go into the middle of.  Standing inside this huge majestic plants and looking up at the branches overhead is one of my few clear memories from that time. Interestingly my parents, being of a certain generation, always had immaculate gardens.  Lots of pristine lawn with neat borders running along the side, all very 1960s/70s and I wonder if my love of the wilder, exuberant garden is a direct reaction to this.

Hidcote Gardens
Hidcote Gardens
Bryans Ground, Herefordshire
Bryans Ground, Herefordshire

So coming back to what my dream garden would be now.  Well it would have to be the archetypal English garden by which I mean lots of roses, delphiniums, peonies, iris etc.  A sort of Cottage Garden style planting but on steroids and with no veg.  I like gardens that celebrate the plants, where the plants are allowed to do their thing rather than being clipped and shaped and tied up all the time.  I like generous planting, billowing borders, plants spilling over paths.  I like the sense of enclosure a walled garden gives but I’m not so keen on garden rooms as I find them quite claustrophobic and I don’t like it when they are themed such as white gardens.   I am a fan of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, Carol Klein and Beth Chatto.  I believe strongly in right plant, right place and that you have to work with the conditions nature has given you.  My dream garden has to have an element of escapism, mystery and surprise so there would need to be a sense of journey, obscured views and maybe interesting garden ornaments.

Kiftsgate, Cotswold
Kiftsgate, Cotswold

In conclusion the photographs included in this post represent my dream garden.  They have been taken at various gardens I have visited and are what I aspire to create in my own garden given time, patience and trial and error.

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!

Restored parterre de broderie – Witley Court

Earlier this week I posted about my visit to Witley Court, an English Heritage property and I mentioned that the gardens had been recently restored.  As promised here they are.

The original parterres were designed by landscape architect

William Nesfield between 1854 and 1860.   The parterre is designed to be seen from above, for example from the ballroom window, and is called ‘de broderie’ is because it is reminiscent of embroidery patterns.  Parterres were very popular during the 18th century and Nesfield was often considered controversial due to his approach which often included a redirection of the Victorian approach and use of old ideas; such as the parterre.

The parterre de broderie is made up of clipped low edges with the areas filled with bedding plants and also coloured stones or gravel.  As I have said parterres had become very popular in England in the 17th century due to the fashionable gardens in France  such as Versailles which were seen as the epitome of good gardens.

Nesfield, like many landscape architects and garden designers of the past, has suffered from relative obscurity.  However, just as Lancelot Capability Brown has become a household name, well amongst the visitors to National Trust properties, due to the restoration of his gardens, Nesfield is slowly beginning to become better known. The restoration of his Avenue Gardens in Regent Street in the 1990s prompted press interest and now that English Heritage has restored the gardens at Witley, completed in 2011, hopefully Nesfield’s cannon of work will start to get more acclaim.

Interestingly there is now some evidence that Nesfield was responsible for coining the expression ‘landscape architect’ as far back as 1849, long before the American Olmstead who the phrase is widely attributed to.  If you are interesting in reading more on this then there is a fascinating article in Landscape History.

I have to say that parterres aren’t really my thing, they leave me a little cold but I find the historical side of the garden fascinating and it has led me to learn more about a landscape architect from the past.  This is particularly interesting given my dabbling in landscape history earlier in the year which dealt with, at length, the 17th century parterres and landscape gardens and to my mind skipped far to quickly through the Victorian period, overlooking the likes of Nesfield.

My only criticism of the garden is that, as you can see, it is very hard to get a good view of and I wonder if there is any way English Heritage could supply some sort of viewing platform – just a thought.

A Nation of Magpies

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the English are a nation of magpies.  We seem to have an innate ability to pick and choose the best bits of various cultures and make them our own.  You only have to look at the range of cuisines we enjoy on a regular basis to see what I mean.

In horticultural terms we have tracked down and collected plants from around the world for centuries to the point where our native flora isn’t always obvious.  However, I have also learnt this week that this ‘stealing’ also relates to our garden design history.  I have started an online learning course through the University of  Oxford Continuing Education Department.  It is a short 10 week course which looks at landscape history in England from Elizabethan times to the present.

It is quite an intense course.  You never know with distance learning courses what to expect.  I did my degree with Open University this way and it was a long slog but lots of interaction with other students on-line and way before blogs and twitter.  Last year I tried the RHS level 2 via distance learning and it was awful there seemed to be no interest from other students to interact and I really missed this.  This new course so far has already been a steep learning curve and participation in on-line discussions is a key part of it which is great.  There are students from the UK, S Africa, USA and Europe which makes for an interesting group.

The recreated Kenilworth Garden courtesy of GardenVisit
The recreated Kenilworth Garden courtesy of GardenVisit

This week we are looking at the background to formal gardens.  Starting with the recreation of Kenilworth garden and in particular whether it is possible to recreate a garden based  purely  on information in a letter.  Then we explored the canals and bosquets (wooded glade) of Versailles and the parterres of Badminton.  Moving swiftly on to Wilton House and ending the week with the work of London and Wise who seem to have the monopoly on garden design in the early 17th century.

I have learnt that the prevalent style at the start of the 17th century was Baroque.  However being English, and hence my opening comments, we  created English Baroque which took: canals, topiary, grid like orchards from the Dutch; elaborate parterres and tree-lined avenues from the French and fantastical rockwork, cascades, grottoes and water tricks from the Italian.  I have still quite a bit of reading to do on this section and lots of online plans and illustrations to peer at trying, such as the one of Versailles at the top of the post.  Oh and I have also learnt that there are three different types of parterre and the English replaced the much-loved coloured gravel of the continental gardens with smooth and beaten grass – no surprises there!

Next week we are moving on to look more specifically at the gardens of William and Mary period so no doubt the parterres and canals will be much in evidence.  I just hope I can keep up but I suspect the blog might suffer for a bit while I do.