Friday, October 21, 2016

Big ideas about small gardens

A friend's garden in Bristol - made too late to be actually in the book, maybe next time
 Small gardens - it wasn't the most obvious book for me to write. After all, our current garden is around an acre plus another three of meadow. But I used to joke about all serious garden writers having to write at least one book on small gardens in their career. Some write several, Sir Roy Strong I seem to recall, wrote at least two, back in the 1980s, although his definition of 'small' seemed to be just under an acre. All I can say is that I didn't start out aiming to do this. I remember meeting up with the Dutch photographer Maayke de Ridder, on her lovely houseboat on the outskirts of Amsterdam; she originally suggested to me that perhaps we should do a book together on contemporary Dutch garden design. Seemed like a good idea, except that the publisher we took the idea too, Frances Lincoln of London, took the view that having 'Dutch' in the title would not help sell the book; I did wonder whether the attitude would have been the same if we had gone to them with an idea about French gardens; as it appears anything French is generally regarded as chic and cool and stylish by the book buying public. I think the publisher's attitude might have been that the perception of Dutch + garden = tulips. Such is the power of branding, you could sell a book titled 'Dutch Tulips' or 'French Gardens' but not 'Dutch Gardens' or indeed'French Tulips'.

Joanne Bernstein's London garden - pic by Maayke

"What about doing a book on small gardens?" suggested the publisher's commissioning editor, adding something along the lines of "we haven't done one for five years". Indeed - most of the gardens were small. Maayke has some fantastic connections, enabling her to get access to some of the gardens behind those wonderful canal houses in Amsterdam, many of which are very inventive in the way that they use space. So, it seemed like a good idea. We'd have to include some British gardens as well though, so I set to, looking through the National Garden Scheme 'yellow book', finding innovative looking gardens and contacting owners. Originally, Maayke and I had the idea of doing the book around case studies with a strong focus on the relationship between the owner and the garden. The publisher did not care for that and gradually made us accept that the book would have to be more thematically arranged, with a double page spread case study at the end of each chapter. Of such compromises is publishing done.

An amazing tiny garden in Lewes, Sussex, David Cund & Sally Golding- pic by Maayke

 "Isn't writing yet another book on small gardens a bit of a hack job ?" I can hear some of you say. Well, I like to think that this one is different. The reason is this. If you look at many books on small gardens they include many pictures of show gardens. Photographers are under great pressure from magazine editors to cover the Chelsea Flower Show an other events with show gardens. So they end up with plenty of material which it is very tempting to resell to book publishers. The publishers' art editors love these images: everything is perfect, they are visually dense, with plenty to admire and talk about in each image. But, they are not real gardens. They are almost inevitably stuffed full of 'hard' elements: paving etc., which is very often high end and therefore very expensive. The planting is dense too, "more like flower arranging than gardening" in the words of one colleague. They are simply unrealistic. There is also the temptation to include gardens from well-known designers too, and since they tend to work for very wealthy clients, the gardens end up being so aspirational that they remain just that for most people, aspirational. Along with all the other things that you aspire to after winning the lottery. As an example, someone of my acquaintance recently asked a well- known London based designer to look at a possible garden job for a house in central London. "What's your budget?" he was asked. "£80,000" he said, "you'll need £250,000" came the reply.

Kwekerij van Nature, Frank & Charlotte van der Linde - pic by Maayke
 So, working with Maayke, we made sure that all those gardens featured were 'real gardens'; only a few show garden shots were enclosed, just some very close-to ones to illustrate some specific features. Of course, it being written by me, it is very much focussed on plants - selecting and combining them. Making the most of a small space involves not just choosing plants of a suitable size - and which will stay that size (tree planters please take note) but also fittting them in together (or as we say in English, 'shoehorning') - which is where my ecological approach comes in. I try to show how to learn from how plants fit together in a natural environment. Also of course, many of the readers will be first time gardeners, so inevitably this is something of an entry-level book too. Writing for beginners is a great discipline, a way of trying to cast aside assumptions, and put yourself in other peoples' shoes.

So, long after writing it, and captioning pictures, and getting to that point where you can't remember what picture goes where, it all comes together and it appears in the shops. What impressed me about the design and editing is how many pictures get put together on the page without it seeming crowded.

An Annie Guilfoyle garden in Sussex, the James Stewart garden - pic by Maayke

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Russia - gardening culture survives and now thrives

 Russia. Not a country particularly associated with gardens. Which is perhaps unfair. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and a lot of potential. There is a strong tradition of gardening in dacha (summer house) communities - see my blog post from three years ago.
For the last few years I have been amazed at how many Russian/Ukrainian garden and landscape people have asked to be my Facebook friend (most pass the rigorous selection process ha, ha) and so I became aware of a very widespread and interlinked web-based gardening community. I've taught in both Moscow and Kiev in the last two years, to groups of truly enthusiastic and information-hungry students. It's wonderful and actually very moving working with people who are so keen, and to be treated to really generous hospitality from organisers. It feels that there is a desire to catch up for lost time, for all those years when all you could manage was a few perennials on the side of the potato and cabbage patch, which you needed for sheer survival or at least bartering power on the black market.

On this trip I was in St.Petersburg, doing some teaching with Dryadas, a garden design and maintenance company. Its designers tend to feel that many of their clients are conservative in the expectations of what they want in a garden, and often unrealistic, but that's nothing unusual! However I feel that the interest in more contemporary gardens appears to be so strong amongst the design community that new ideas will inevitably get taken up. Contemporary and naturalistic planting is certainly making an impact in public spaces in Moscow, with the work of Anna Andreyeva. Meanwhile, my friend Annie Guilfoyle has come back from judging the Moscow Flower Show (or rather a Moscow flower show, as there is more than one) where she was very impressed with the quality of what she was looking at.

What fascinated me on this trip was a visit to St.Petersburg Botanical Gardens where my hosts from Dryadas took me on my day off. Unlike those of Kiev and Moscow which have had new funding, this one hasn't and is entirely funded from entrance fees. The greenhouses, some dating back to the early 20th century were in a very bad state of repair but the plants were maintained to an incredibly high standard with what is clearly a huge level of staff commitment, and sometimes better collections on display than at Kew quite honestly. Indeed there is here in St. Petersburg there is one of best collections of tropical ferns in the world. The passion of the staff was somehow almost palpable, I spent a lot of time poking around odd corners and photographing their work stations. The sheer number of species squeezed in is extraordinary. So many plant species packed in, to a level I have never seen anywhere else. Unlike most botanical gardens which feel very institutional this felt completly driven by the staff. According to my Dryadas friends there is no state money and the whole place is self-supporting. Staff earn peanuts. I felt very moved by it all.

Our guide pointed out to us the plants which had survived during “The Great Patriotic War” when the city was under siege from the Nazis (and its population being kept there to suffer and starve by Stalin). They were decorated by a little strip of medal ribbon. My friend Anna Benn has since sent me a picture of the staff who kept the place going during this terrible time. It is also worth pointing out that staff at the crop genetics institute starved rather than eat the potatoes in the collection – some of which have gone on to produce modern blight-resistant cultivars. 

There are nurseries here, with some good ranges of perennials, and Dryadas are in the process of establishing their own. There is a very rich flora further out east, and I only hope that some new introductions of Russian natives get taken into cultivation and find their way westwards.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Capability Brown - dirty money funds the IKEA of landscape design

This year has been the tercentenary of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, the eighteenth century landscape designer. So we have had lots of coverage in the garden, and other, media. As you have probably guessed, its not a subject that high on my radar otherwise I would have written about him before.

Brown was prolific, accomplished, technically skilled, highly competent and a good businessman. He also came from a relatively humble background, and we all like a good story of social mobility don't we? Especially in these times when this vital social factor is pretty bad, and even worse in the United States, which used to pride itself on this. As a topical aside, on the subject of social mobility try googling: Donald Trump, grandfather and brothel.

Brown has been labelled a vandal. I am sure anyone familiar with garden history will be familiar with the charge, but basically it is this: Britain, prior to his mid 18th century blitz around the landscapes of the wealthy, had a fine array of formal and quasi-formal gardens. Brown dug them all up, consigning the hedges and topiary to the flames and laid out rolling green acres, informal clumps of trees and lakes instead. His career did feature a series of style changes, and sometimes did work around existing features, but basically he did just do the same thing again and again. And again. And again. Very profitably, thank you.

The English landscape garden, of rolling green acres and little clumps of trees, was a huge innovation. But it was not Brown's. As Tim Richardson shows in his masterly and readable book The Arcadian Friends. Brown simply codified an existing trend, ironed out the originality and idiosyncratic artistry and commodified an idea. “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England” he writes, and “formulaic”. Indeed. Especially as one of Brown's great innovations was the combining of hay-making or livestock rearing on land which previously had supported only lines of trees and non-agricultural grassland. This helped feed people I suppose, but it was a jolly good line to sell to landowners – 'be trendy and utilitarian and make money at the same time'.

I can't help feeling that we have lost an awful lot thanks to Brown. One only has to look at early 18th century Kip and Knyff landscape prints to realise just how much. Most of these would of course have changed or been degraded in time without Brown, but his impact must nevertheless have been enormous. The results are a kind of fake naturalism, looking rural because there are no straight lines. The average Brown landscape is successful because it takes the savannah-parkland look we are arguably hard wired to appreciate (thanks to our out-of-Africa heritage), and opens it out, giving it a stamp of the artistic.As any hedgerow ecologist will tell you, trees and grass are not necessarily  a particularly natural or biodiverse habitat.

Photographing Brown landscapes is remarkably difficult. They all look so unintentional, which is part of his skill as a designer of course. The pictures here are all of Berrington Hall, near Ludlow, Shrops. The little cloth figurine and teacup plantings were all from an exhibition there earlier in the year. (details sadly lost).

It was an African heritage friend (and garden historian) who asked me “where did all the money come from to employ Brown?”. Slavery of course. 18th century Britain had an economy that benefited enormously from slavery and the sugar trade, which was itself built on slavery. This was not by any means the worst episode of slavery in the world – the Romans and the Muslim world have been far worse, but it was the most hideous period in European history. So, next time you admire a Brown landscape, think about where the money comes from.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Time to mingle? Getting it right in naturalistic planting with perennials

'Intermingling' has become the buzzword of the moment in planting design. Here is a piece I wrote for the Ecological Landscaping Alliance e-newsletter......

    I remember, back in 1996 showing the late James van Sweden around a public garden project I was working on at the time, over here in England. I was trying out an approach that intermingled the perennials I was using, rather than using the block planting which was customary at the time. He was sympathetic but very definite that “the American public aren't ready for this”. Things must changing, as the idea of creating mixes or blends seems be gaining ground – the concept is key to the kind of naturalistic design promoted by Tto homas Rainer and Claudia West's Planting in a Post-Wild World.
to read more turn to the ELA newsletter here.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Weihenstephan - German planty paradise

Weihenstephan: meet a German gardener or landscape designer, and the chances are, they studied here. Its a unique institution, with no real equivalent in the English-speaking world, a whole campus, which sprawls attractively across a couple of hills and the intervening valley, and unlike most such places it is not the buildings that make the impact but the gardens, research plots and fields of crops. The 'Sichtungsgarten' (Show Garden) occupies one of the hilltops, the famous brewery another, while very nearby is another hilltop, the Domberg of the little town of Freising, with its 'Dom' (cathedral), one of the most fabulous of all the fabulous Baroque churches of southern Germany.
To read more go to the Gardens Illustrated website... and its in the magazine this month too.

Various pictures taken since my first visit in 1994 ....

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Summer tasks - managing wild-style perennials

Stachys macrantha at the centre. A solid clump-forming perennial it is in the company of a blue Geranium pratense behind a white Chaerophyllum temulum, a wildflower which has introduced itself.
Summer, especially a wet one like the one we are currently having a fuels some prodigious herbaceous growth. Visitors are often astonished at how lush everything is and ask what I feed with. The soil is naturally fertile however and holds moisture. Weed growth is prodigious too, indeed I have written before of my never-ending battles with weed growth - at times I wonder whether it is time to move on and garden somewhere where I don't have to spend so much time battling such determined opposition. In the past I have let perennials just grow but I am increasingly interested in more active management. Here I would like to look over some of the ways I have been using and managing perennials during this very active period of summer growth.
Campanula lactiflora flopping badly, as this weak-stemmed two metre perennial usually does, but the upper half has grown into a hedge which is supporting it - a clue for good placing if you do not want to stake.

I stake virtually nothing, and indeed not staking is almost a 'new perennial ' shibboleth. The modern range of perennials tends not to need staking, but there are exceptions as some species just seem to weak stemmed by nature such as Campanula lactiflora. In rain many do hang their heads and since I rather like narrow paths that creates obvious problems especially when we have groups coming round. This year I have done a lot more 'Chelsea chopping' to manage things like the campanula. I am also doing some lighter and more frequent trimming back of herbaceous growth particularly along paths. I got this idea off the wonderful Jardin de Berchigranges whose ultra neat lawns are edged by neatly shaped border edges before the plants are allowed their head further in. Their borders, like ours, are very dense, with almost solid perennial growth.  I use a light battery-powered hand-held strimmer to do this, and in many stretches of border which in the past drenched the legs of passers-by are now nicely graded. Most perennials, only excepting monocots like grasses, lilies and agapanthus, send out new shoots if cut back and bush out.

Two examples of trimming perennials along the edges of paths to keep them clear and the mini-strimmer.

Astrantia again but in a more natural situation being partly supported by stronger aconitums and interwoven with geraniums which have finished flowering.

Planting here is very dense, and indeed it seems to be a general trend that planting over the years planting is getting denser in many gardens, although nothing like as dense as nature. In the past plants were grown more separately. It was widely believed once upon a time that planting had to show a plant's shape. But many perennials do not have a distinct shape as such, as they are growing so much cheek by jowl with other plants that they occupy whatever space they can. Geraniums and astrantias are two examples of plants with a very plastic method of growth, stems winding their way through other plants, being supported by them and sometimes penetrating right through them to emerge at the top; leaf stems for example can be very long and sinuous. 
Here is Geranium endressii beginning to climb into a bamboo.
Such fluid growth makes these very adaptable plants. Perennials with upright stems are less likely to do this and in many cases can be seen as literally the pillars of the border.
Geranium endressii at it again, clambering up Helianthus (left) and Solidago (right) stems.
Much of our border planting is a dense mass which includes many different perennial growth habits, and this is the secret: enough uprights to hold it all together visually and structurally and then others with the highly flexible habits of the geraniums.
MyGardenSchool offers certified gardening and garden design courses, all taught by best-selling authors.  Courses include my course on Planting Design with Perennials, as well as many more.  Others courses include Professional Planting Design, Planting Design with Grasses, Self-sufficient Vegetable Gardening and many more. You learn online so you can study whenever and wherever you want, alongside students from over 50 countries world-wide.   Each course has optional assignments so you can practice as you learn and get personal feedback.
Use Code: NOEL20 for a 20% discount
Simply using tall plants on their own is liable to create a very solid prairie effect in which most are simply invisible. I have done this in part of the garden and I must admit I have not got it right. However, such plants can be used to create a seasonal screen, a perennial hedge. This can be less than one metre wide. Species are needed that don't have untidy or bare lower stems, although a few can be slipped in. Grass Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' is a good basis for such a planting.

Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' with Veronicastrum sibiricum and Lychnis chalcedonica make up a perennial screen or hedge.

Primula florindae, in our damp soil thrives and seeds and makes a great edging between border and path.
Phuopsis stylosa, a pink-flowered sprawler with Geranium pratense and rose 'Grace'
Short plants are useful for creating space and for edging. This is quite a traditional use and can look a bit contrived and controlling if overdone or done too neatly.

Integrating smaller or ground-hugging plants into these lush perennial combinations is difficult, rather obviously as they are liable to get swamped by everything else. Ground covers are useful though where there are plants you need to give space too, perhaps like roses or other shrubs and don't want tall things. Particularly useful are those species which have the flexible growth habits of geraniums but on a smaller scale. Phuopsis stylosa is one, usually grown as a ground cover, which it does well enough and is very jolly with its bright pink flowers, but it is rather untidy, neither Jo, nor our gardener Diana, like it. It is in fact an exotic version of our native bedstraws and is not naturally a ground cover plant, but climbs and scrambles through other plants.

I'll end with a shot of a new planting which is an experiment in co-existence and matrix planting using 50% Carex muskingumensis; it's stiff and upright and helps form a solid mass that holds up weaker plants like the dark-leaved Lysimachia 'Firecracker' here. The light green shows off other plants well too.
Hemerocallis 'Golden Chimes' with Carex muskingumensis and Lysimachia clethroides.
If you want to find out more about perennials and how to use them in the garden, why not sign up for my course Planting Design with Perennials on MyGardenSchool. Use Code: NOEL20 for a 20% discount

Monday, June 27, 2016

News from this Benighted Kingdom

I haven't written a blog posting for ages, having been very busy, and a holiday etc. But I thought I should write something about our recent disastrous political collapse – there is nothing else to call it. Many of the readers of this blog, most in fact, are outside the UK, and given the strong admiration so many feel for the English garden, and the strong anglophilia I know many garden and plant lovers feel, I know there will be many of you who will be asking “what the hell is going on?”. Not only have British voters rejected membership of what has been described (by the Observer newspaper) as “the greatest democratic achievement of the post-war era” and which has also been an immensely successful trading bloc, but also seen the most mendacious and irresponsible political manouevering at the highest level, and the collapse of the political left – to be replaced by a noisy and nationalistic populist movement. Friends of Britain must be puzzled and worried. For those of us who live here, it is a truly traumatic and frightening time.

Every country, as we all know, has a nasty, thuggish intolerant nationalistic element. In Britain it has been pretty small and apart from occasional eruptions, insignificant. There is though the so-called 'little Englander' way of thinking, in many ways no different to similar attitudes in every country. But the fact of being an island adds something, the illusion that we are apart, are different, that we can ignore our neighbours. One of the things which particularly incenses me is the way that so many people talk about 'Europe' as if it is over there, another continent which we are not part of. For heaven's sake, we are part of Europe, even if we were not politically so, even if we were as isolated as North Korea, we would still be part of the continent of Europe! Its a use of language which fundamentally betrays an island mentality, and a failure to understand our intimate connections with the rest of Europe.

One aspect of the 'little Englander' mentality, and this may be a rural rather than an urban aspect, is a paranoia that the EU is a kind of conspiracy, led by the French and the Germans to destroy Britain. I heard this from people during the foot and mouth disease crisis in farming 15 or so years ago – the EU response was regarded as part of a plot to wreck British agriculture. Far worse now is the racism, the growing hostility to the Polish and other people who have come here to work, and for the most part, have actually contributed to our national prosperity. That prosperity however has not been shared, and here perhaps is an important part of the problem.

Visitors to Britain, especially if they do not get beyond the garden-rich and rather genteel south-east and the Cotswolds, may not appreciate just how divided a nation we are. There is a lot of poverty, not real destitution poverty (starving children etc.) but a long-term grinding poverty in many of the old industrial areas, a cultural poverty as much as a material one. Whole towns without hope, their industries closed down, poor housing, second-rate education. A failure to modernise British industry in the 1950s and 1960s was followed by wholesale de-industrialisation under
Margaret Thatcher's government, which strongly favoured the finance industry. There was never an attempt to rebuild manufacturing industry. Whereas Germany has been able to re-invent its old industrial areas like the Ruhrgebiet, Britain never did. One of the ironies is that what regeneration there has been in these areas has often been thanks to EU money. Not that the voters paid any attention to that when they cast their votes last week. Voting for Brexit was just a way of protesting, against a succession of governments that have let them down.

The real culprit is perhaps the press. The popular British press is very right-wing, with lurid stories having being run on immigration for years; if you believe them you would think that we were about to overrun. This hostility, verging on outright racism, has been a drip drip of poison for years, despite the fact that the National Health Service (out most precious national institution) runs on foreign doctors and other staff, and everyone loves their local Polish builders and plumbers for getting things done. Immigration and all other problems are blamed on the EU. The anti-EU message has hammered home ruthlessly. Listening to the 'vox pop' on the television, poor badly-educated people, who probably have no idea of what the EU is about, mouth slogans about 'regaining our sovereignity' which come straight from the pages of the hate-mongering nationalistic press. They are a sorry spectacle, you feel sorry for them, but at the same time feel angry at their naivity and gullibility and the confidence with which they parade their ignorance.

There are silver linings to the cloud. The election of the first Muslim mayor in a European city, the Labour Party's Sadiq Khan, in London last month was a sign of a broad coalition, led by an increasingly restive young middle class, globalised and Europe-friendly but who are frustrated by rising inequality. Bristol ditto, with a Jamaican-heritage new mayor. Seen from this perspective, the anti-EU voters look like Trump supporters, the older, less educated, the 'left-behind' people. And then there are the Scots, who firmly voted to stay in the EU and who have seemed completely immune to the paranoias of the English. But then, the Scots were always better Europeans than the English. Many of us look forward to what must be their eventual independence.

We hope you'll still come and visit. The gardens of England, many of their plants of mainland European origin, their design frameworks often derived from Italian or French models, will still be looking lovely and rose-bedecked. You will still be able to have high tea in half-timbered houses or walk the green fields outside your country house hotel. But remember that you are in the front room, and that you may be hearing crashing and banging and shouting from elsewhere in the building as we become an increasingly fractious, divided, intolerant and badly-governed society. Just like all those politically unstable countries we used to sneer at from our stable and predictable island.

One of the best things I have read on the whole sorry tale is this from The Irish Times: