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.
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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.
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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:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Spain - a rich territory for new ideas

A trip to Spain, for the first time in more than twenty years. In this time, I have spent 2 months in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia and been to Mexico 3 times, so I am not used to hearing Spanish with a Castillian accent. Jo used to teach a course on the films of Pedro Almodovar, and so so I have seen most of his ouvre; the result is that in Spain, the sound of Castillian made me constantly feel as if I was in an Almodovar film, and therefore expecting to see all sorts of post-modern urban happenings - transvestite nuns making dramatic entrances etc.

Jo and I spent a week in the Alpujarra, the range of hills which act as foothills to the mightly Sierra Nevada in the south of Andalucia. It was disappointingly early for wildflowers, although we saw a lot of interest – this is one of the most floristically diverse places in Europe. At lower altitudes however there was plenty in flower. A good chance to appreciate the shrubby maquia flora which is so different to what I am used to, and in particular to see the range of textures its shows. There are so many differences between one micro-habitat and another – we may be thankful for our green and lush climate but at the same time it was interesting to be somewhere which did not have the same suffocating bright green grass on every piece of open land.

Spain is actually the highest country in Europe – in terms of the proportion of land at altitude. Which means that much of it has a very severe climate for gardening – a combination of Mediterranean and Continental, so winters are very cold, with icy winds and hard (but generally only overnight) frosts and very hot dry summers. The flora of stressful environments is often more diverse and richer than 'better' places to grow, a counter-intuitive fact I endlessly point out in my workshops. And of course Spain was less affected by the ice ages than northern and central Europe, so the flora is richer anyway. It really is very exciting botanically.
A Miguel Urquijo garden near Salamanca

So where is gardening at in Spain? Still very much undeveloped. Long a backwater, owing to its politics and poverty, it had a few years of prosperity (as good an argument for the European Union as any) before suffering an economic slump. Economic conditions in other words are not good. The garden world may be small, but has its bright stars. Two of whom I met: garden designers Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos. They are working in a similar genre, using plants appropriate to the climate, including many natives and responding to the landscape. They have both ditched the until-now-prevailing largely Italian model of clipped formal hedges, which “always look the same” in favour of clipped low shrubs and sub-shrubs and interspersed with perennials and grasses. If those of use from northern climes have an instinctive reaction against clipping then think of it in this way – there is not much weeding needed here, compared to what we do, and so frequent clipping is simply swapping one chore for another. 
Another Miguel Urquijo garden near Montfragüe

The clipped lavender, cistus, Pistachia lentiscus, etc. very much evoke the olive trees and Quercus ilex of much of the landscape, those endlessly repeated grey hummocks. Using a wider diversity of species is difficult as the nursery industry is very undeveloped and predictable in its offerings. More interesting plants have to be imported from Netherlands or France. There are though, according to Miguel and Fernando, a few Spanish nurseries beginning to be more adventurous, but they will only widen their range if they know they can sell the plants, so garden designers have to try to create a demand. Potentially a vicious circle if no-one buys new plants, it can become a virtuous circle if designers commit to buying new plants, so enabling other customers to see and experiment. It is a familiar story – the Oudolf story is like this – Piet and Anja started growing new plants themselves because no-one else did, and then retail customers liked what they saw, and the rest is history! Fernando tells me he is hoping to start a small nursery himself, so he can get what he wants. As an aside, I met my Chinese colleague Ye Hang in Sheffield this week, who tells me that her husband is back in China, setting up a nursery which is aiming to do the same sort of thing, growing plants of the Yangtze valley. 

I got the feeling that here is, possibly, hopefully, a whole new garden style, for a country that has one of the richest of floras. I feel very optimistic for the future of Spanish gardening. The other interesting thing about Spain, which really slotted in to place for on this trip, was just how relevant it is for us in Britain. For some time now I have been saying how the British climate has more in common with a Mediterranean climate than with the Continental one so many of our garden plants come from. We grow lots from both of course, but the number of days weather we have which is similar to that of a continental climate is quite limited, as we do not have their hot summers or cold winters. One could say that a typical day of a Mediterranean winter is like the typical British day – cool, bit moist - good growing conditions in other words. Mediterranean summers are so hot and dry that plants become dormant – in other words Mediterranean plants are in active growth in conditions which our climate replicates for most of the year. Add in the vicious cold winds and frosts of central Spain and it should be pretty clear that anything that comes from there is going to be both hardy and drought-tolerant. In the Alpujarra the very familiar Euphorbia characias was everywhere, often growing under trees in dry deciduous shade. A brief roadside stop in León revealed Stipa gigantea as a key part of the local flora, and Viburnum tinus lining woodland further back. A source of diversity for our gardens, but also a place to learn about how to use familiar plants as well.
A Fernando Martos garden near Guadalajara

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Gardener Abuse

Gardeners are underpaid. We all know that. They are also often not understood. All too often I have been involved professionally with a garden where garden staff are employed but those employing them only have the dimmest idea of what they do and even less of why they do it. Garden staff, of course, work outside – so tend to be in isolation from both any other staff employed or their employers. They work with living things in an environment which is never predictable, and which inevitably remains mysterious to those employing them. 

Of course people who are employed, outside, doing things which remain a mystery, they will get asked to do other things, which appear to those in charge to be a) more urgent, and b) less of a mystery. In my experience of working with both large garden owners and gardeners I have come across too many examples of what could be called 'gardener abuse'. This takes many forms.
In many cases this abuse is exacerbated by the problems caused by employers with TMM (Too Much Money). Just because someone has been very successful in their particular field, i.e. has made a pile, in no way reflects on their abilities in any other field. The extremely successful/wealthy are often dysfunctional and chaotic in fields other than that in which they have succeeded – indeed are often more so, or they marry dysfunctional and chaotic people, or employ likewise. Having lots of money and being D&C can produce some pretty spectacular results.

General Dogsbody
Its winter and there are pile of chairs in the great hall that need moving back into storage after that wedding party. There can't be anything useful the gardener is doing. Get him to move them. Ditto painting, odd DIY.
As any gardener can tell you, there are plenty of things to do in winter. Try telling the average employer-of-a-gardener that and their eyes begin to glaze over. You can see they don't believe you.

Waste Disposal
Gardens are big places, often big enough to bury, or at least hide, large quantities of unwanted building materials or other debris, which the local authority rather inconsiderately charge for removing. And of course there is the gardener who, because he/she spends all their time outside knows the best places to bury or hide them. Or burn them. I once had dealings with a nursing home (since closed down) where one of the gardener's weekly jobs was to take away and burn all the old incontinence nappies from the residents. Yes, really.

Vehicle management
One thing those afflicted by TMM tend to do is to buy too many cars. These need to be taken out every now and again and 'exercised', though not as much as horses of course. Some gardeners quite enjoy taking the Bentley out for a spin every now and again, but it is not exactly horticulture. Sometimes it all gets a bit too much. I once visited a garden where, in an out of the way corner, I came across a Hummer parked next to a Ferrari: all their tyres were flat, they were covered in leaves, and grass was beginning to grow on the tarmac around them.

Animal Husbandry
The gardener is outside all the time, as are the animals, so it seems reasonable enough for the former to look after the latter. Not all the time of course, just sometimes. Animals are sometimes bought and installed without much thinking through basic welfare provision, like access to water or food; inevitably it is the gardener who notices and has to deal with the situation. Animals tend to escape and if they are sheep or horses, tend to gravitate to the nice juicy vegetables or tasty perennials which the gardener has responsibility for, necessitating the gardener spending rather more time on fencing than gardening.

Packing the children off to boarding school may strike the rest of us as callous (and is something which tends to horrify non-Brits), but at least (these days) they are kept amused, safe and stimulated at school. Not always so if they are at home, especially home and alone. I sometimes think that many of the children of the extremely wealthy are so neglected there should be a charity especially for them, a bit like the charities that have been established in India to look after the children of drug-addicted western hippies. So it is the gardener they hang around, either because they are the only other human being on the premises, or because the housekeeper has had enough of them hanging around their ankles and sent them outside. Fine, if they can be gotten interested in what the gardener is doing and in some cases this can be the beginning of a great gardening life, but not so fine if they can't be. Or, if they are, as I have heard more than once, “psychotic spoiled brats” who actually have to be supervised if they are not to wreak havoc.

Actually this is not so much a problem for the gardener, as the garden designer or consultant, who is more likely to be seen as a social equal and therefore someone who one can pour out one's problems to, especially if one is a neglected spouse (let's face it, usually a wife), abandoned in a vast house, with no neighbours in sight, with a load of responsibility you never wanted (managing the gardener for a start) and an overstocked drinks cabinet.

Garden Design
The distinctions between what a garden designer does and a gardener does are pretty hazy to people who don't really know what goes on outside anyway. The gardener comes in every day, plants stuff, grows stuff, they can do something with that new bit half way up the drive can't they? One could get a designer in, but that would be expensive, better get the gardener to do it.

The other side of the story
There are the lucky few who garden for employers who they almost never see, but who pay them well, resource the garden well, let them plant what they want and trust them with property while they are away (which is most of the time). The gardener may feel a bit unappreciated but if they have the run of an enormous house, can have their friends round every now and again, have lots of expensive kit to charge around the acres in, who can complain?

Then there are the employers who are dedicated gardeners themselves, who work their socks off, the ones who go to parties painfully aware of the dirt beneath their fingernails they can't quite get out, but who are afflicted by hopeless gardeners, who came with good references and solid CVs, who interviewed well, but are actually.... well what do they do all day? Sacking them is difficult because of employment protection legislation. 

Finally, there are those, not that common, but oh so wonderful when you do come across them, employer-gardener relationships which are truly synergistic: mutual trust, shared interest, goals you both agree on and understand. These have made some of the very best gardens.