Sunday, December 28, 2008

Working for the council ..... again

Another big planting scheme for Bristol City Council. This time at Brandon Hill, an early C20 park around a monument commemorating the fact that a Bristolian was the first European to land in the Americas (since the Vikings). So roll over Columbus. The existing planting is all very much overgrown dwarf conifers and once-fashionable shrubs. Nice atmosphere though, and a very much loved public open space. A whole bank of shrubs has been cleared away and the idea was for me to create a big perennial planting - slightly odd site though as there is little direct public path access to the site, but it is visible from a variety of angles - but with quite a distance.
So, I thought it needed something very visible and graphic, colourful obviously, but also strongly structural. And given that this is Bristol with a very balmy climate, I thought I'd go for lots of South African thingk like kniphofias, which will have the all-important graphic quality for months, crocosmias, agapanthus, plus lots other things but with a visual matrix of lowish grasses like Stipa arundinacea, deschampsia and the shorter molinias. So something that might look like a southern hemisphere montane grassland.
The general idea is for me to turn up before the planting crew, who arrive at 8am, set out as much as possible, and then hope we get it all planted in time. Setting out is very intuitive, I try to do all the larger and or very structual stuff first, filling in with less strongly structural. It is blended intermingled planting, virtually no groups of things, so quite difficult to get a large area done and then let the guys on to plant - you don't dare let anybody plant stuff before you have finished an area as otherwise you can't see what you have done and you cause a lot of confusion to the planting team. So you have to work real fast, and make instant and irrevocable aesthetic decisions.
very stony, had to use a pick axe in places but we managed to get 1365 plants done in 20 man hours.
We are all looking forward to what its going to be like in the summer.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Winter is here - garden still looking (not bad?)

Globe artichoke making new growth NOW! adding a touch of life to an otherwise wintery scene. Solidago rugosa to the right standing well. The first stages of a prairie planting behind - actually part of a septic soakaway scheme - same idea as a reedbed, soaking up nutrients.

Grasses (mostly Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' and perennials in November sunlight. Anything which has collapsed into a soggy mess by now has been cleared away - leaving things which should stand a few months more. I'm re-organising and re-planting around these surviving stems - so much easier working around landmarks than a site cleared of all above-ground growth, especially since these are all the good long-season structural elements.

Box blight - latest idea from Germany

Thought I had better pass this on. This is a summary of a letter to GartenPraxis which I recently spotted.

The fungicides Chlorthalonil and Prochloraz are carcinogenic and persistent enough to possibly present a danger to water supplies – both are in the process of being de-listed from the EU list of permitted fungicides

Acute cylindrocladium infections  have been treated with a thick dusting of rock flour on the foliage. Apparently the results are surprising in their effectiveness. It is suggested that the high pH of the material is what is negatively affecting the fungus. The article goes on to suggest that soil acidity is detrimental to box health – it is a plant of calcareous soils.

From GartenPraxis 11-2008, p. 7

So – what the **** is rock flour?? Can I make bread with it?
Rock flour or rock dust is finely-ground rock which bio-dynamic companies are promoting – don’t ask me where you can get it. The bio-d brigade claim that soils are deficient in essential minerals after years of cropping which this stuff puts back in - fair enough, but since this gardening methodology is inspired by the  quite honestly barmy Rudolf Steiner philosophy, there is an awful lot of guff about “life-force energy” in any of their literature. On this occasion though it looks as if one of their products may just do the trick.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

To stake or not to stake

Whether to stake or not? Or give it the Tracy Chop.
This is our so-called big border, with in the centre of the pic, the plant that everyone always asks about. It is a form of Eupatorium fistulosum, originally from North Carolina. It always grows to 3.4m every year and never blows over or flops - wonderful architectural plant. But the Sanguisorba tenuifolia to the left is embarassingly over - which it always does, and did in the last garden too. I have decided that it is one of those things for whom border conditions are simply too good, and it grows too well and cannot support its own weight. This winter I intend to dig it up and move into the meadow and see what happens; I assume competition will reduce its growth and height and it should stay upright.
The sanguisorba is probably not a candidate for the Tracy (DiSabato Aust) chop, as I think it would just produce lots of flower heads lower down and look a mess. The infamous flopper Campanula lactiflora however has done very well with a Tracy chop, bushing out and flowering for more than 2 months. But the rain will have helped.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Not really a gravel garden but a load of subsoil covered in gravel

Looking towards the Pavilion, across the so-called gravel garden. This was quite a nice gravel garden, installed by the previous owner, until the builders trashed it. Trouble is though, it had been installed over terrible heavy subsoil and a variety of weeds (horsetail, creeping thistle, bindweed). A classic example of ‘instant garden design’ – cover soil with geotextile, plant through holes, send in invoice, scarper. The weeds won’t appear for a year, and not become a real problem for 2 years. Which is when we bought the place.

It’s a slow process re-making a garden here. I’ve decided to rely on self-seeding. Stipa tenuissima just about does it, Verbena bonariensis does a great deal, Deschampsia cespitosa comes up from the soil seed bank (classic Welsh borderlands). California poppy does well, Knautia macedonica. Lot of other plants here just linger. So, I don’t really know how it’ll turn out. A case of slowly working with what works, if you know what I mean.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008



    Having just visited Little Sparta (for the second time) and The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and been twice to Plaz Metaxu  in the last year, now is a good time to reflect on the distinctly off-beat pursuit of the garden which tries to be seriously intellectual. And to think about all three at once.
    Little Sparta (LS) is probably the best known of the three, created by Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (GCS) has been made by architectural and cultural critic Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick (and landscape architect). Plaz Metaxu (PM) is in Devon. The first two are well-known from articles and books, the latter only from one article in the Feb.2008 issue of (British) House and Garden magazine; its owner/creator is an intensely private man who wishes to have no more publicity; I rather feel I flushed him out into a too-bright glare of publicity, while inept handling by some colleagues has resulted in his desire to resume the life of an immensely thoughtful recluse.
    To summarise, almost barbarously briefly: LS is about poetry and text, GCS an illustration of the principles which underlie the universe and PM about a personal philosophy which ranges from the metaphysical and spiritual through to the literary and psychoanalytic – that each part of the garden is named after a Greek deity is only the beginning. OK – I have used far more words to describe PM than the other two. Why  is this? Because its actually got a lot more to say than the other two – indeed it makes them feel almost shallow in comparison.
    The first thing which strikes me about these gardens is their privacy. LS was never easy to get access to, although the trust which now runs the garden has made it much easier, GCS is made very difficult to get to (you have to know people in the business to get the magic entrance documentation) and PM can be visited by appointment only. Inevitably these intellectuals are not directly addressing the (general) public, although Charles Jencks has written an exhaustive (and exhausting) book on his garden – one almost feels that he and Maggie made the garden to  be photographed and filmed, but never visited. Finlay at least made his work available for exhibition. PM as the most private of the three is very much one man’s intimate working out of a personal philosophy, one too personal to be publicly engaged.
    Related to a seeming lack of concern for direct public access is the lack of obvious routes in all three. There is nothing remotely dictatorial in how these three intellectuals wish their visitors to see their gardens. Which, given that visitors are not who these gardens are made for, is not surprising. At PM, it is easy to wander around, there are paths and obvious routes, there is a lot of lawn and grassland and the feeling of the place invites exploration. It melds beautifully into the countryside – it is actually a visitor friendly place. There are also some deliberate linkages across from one area to another.
Being at LS feels like walking the pages of the poet’s notebook, it is a complete jumble, stuffed with inscriptions, dotted at random around the garden with no seeming relationship to each other and only very rarely to the surroundings. But this is to take the garden on as an art-object – which it is not. It is a very personal garden which was not necessarily designed to be viewed by others – as such it creates a feeling of intimacy and spontaneity, of a privileged look into the mind processes of the poet. Apart from the one much-photographed view, where a quotation from the architect of the French Revolutionary terror Saint Just, is laid out in stone in front of a pool, with the Lanarkshire hills behind, this garden tends to look inward; much of Finlay’s work is overshadowed by the trees he planted to fend the wind (and sight) of his patch of blasted heath. There is the feeling that this garden is not meant to relate to its surroundings.
    GCS provides remarkably little in the way of routing from one area to another, at times we were floundering around in bushes or muddy grass. Which somehow encapsulates my feeling about this garden. That despite its awe-inspiring content, its courage, and its sheer inventiveness, it is utterly cold, designed as an intellectual exercise with no emotion whatsoever. It is not actually designed for real people. But as a physical illustration of the mathematical workings of the universe it has extraordinary power.
    Both LS and GCS have attracted comments such as “the most important garden of the 20th century”. In fact, what this illustrates is that the person concerned has shown themselves up as having very little knowledge of gardens. In a peculiar way, none of these three feel like gardens. LS in particular seems to alienate gardeners but entrance everyone else. None of these three have much plant interest (PM has the most), none really address the central intellectual nexus of the garden – the relationship between art and nature, although PM does relate very strongly to art and cultural landscape (ie. farmland). LS is a garden as space for poetry – I suspect that if Finlay had beached up making a garden in Mustique, it would not have been that different. GCS is a garden as a vehicle and site for illustrating and making concrete equations – again, if Maggie Keswick had inherited a slab of Hong Kong instead of Scotland (it was in HK that her ancestors made the money which enabled them to create and maintain what must have been/still is a phenomenally expensive project) then we would have had a tropical version, which would have looked very much the same.
    By the way it sounds like I don’t like LS – in fact I do, but not as a garden; it makes me think and gives me ideas, and many of the individual works are marvellously creative and witty. All three of these gardens do that. And make you think, which is far more than most gardens do.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008


The Gardens Illustrated tour of Sweden rolls on. We have just visited a series of public plantings in Gothenburg created by the two of the best planting designers anywhere – Mona Holmberg and Ulf Strindberg. We walked through a number of areas of public housing looking at perennial borders and pocket-parks, many of them centred on a barbecue point. Nearly all have a notice with a plan and plant list – virtually all un-vandalised. They are all colourful, but not overwhelmingly so; there seems to be as much an emphasis on foliage as on flower, and in any case, the plantings have to look good over as long a season as possible. Plant longevity is very much a feature of the couple’s work, with nearly every square millimetre covered in dense foliage.

The most extensive planting was a park in Backa, supposedly a problem estate, although we saw none of the burnt-out cars and graffiti which we would expect in Britain or the USA. A series of wide paths wend through densely-planted borders, dominated by summer-flowering perennials, but with enough trees and shrubs to give longer-term and structural interest. Everything is so beautifully layered, the kind of plant combining which only those who really know their plants can carry off. A key part of their success seems to be in using ground-covering species like bergenias or alchemillas to fill in space between more upright species.

Yesterday we went to two of the four sites for the second Gothenburg garden festival. The general feeling from the group was that the show was a lot more stimulating than Chelsea, where all the designers seem to be trying to hit a target. There was a feeling about the Gothenburg show gardens that designers felt unconstrained and uninhibited. The standard of construction was excellent throughout. ‘Grandmother’s Jewel Box’, an extraordinarily colourful array of bedding plants within a framework of dark pink painted wooden frames set the tone for colour impact. A number of gardens tackled a theme of global warming from an attitude of exotica-driven adaptability to doom-laden pessimism. There seemed to be a fully expressed gradient from practicability to ‘show garden as installation’ – with one of the latter showing a white-tiled hospital room filled with medical paraphernalia, and plants mysteriously growing in a few small boxes.

The show is on until 28th September - so make it if you can.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Chelsea Flower Show welcomes back gardening

    “I’m on a bubble” enthused Michael Balston, one of the Chelsea Flower Show judges I bumped into on the day the event opened. What had excited him was the sheer quality of the show gardens.
    It is definitely a good year for seeing quality planting at Chelsea. After years of ‘make-over’ gimmickry plants seem to be a focus again. Nearly all the show gardens had planting that had obviously been really thought through, and there was a refreshing lack of metal, plastic and concrete ‘features’. Green seemed to be the theme colour, with several gardens featuring rich tapestries of foliage. Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden for Laurent Perrier was almost entirely leafy, a ground layer of foliage given height by cloud-pruned hornbeams. Innovative training of the familiar was also a feature of Diarmaid Gavin and Terence Conran’s ‘Oceanico’ garden, where there was a backdrop of multi-stemmed Portuguese laurel. Much of this garden was green too, with a randomised pattern of box hemispheres of varying heights interspersed with low grasses and perennials – wonderfully simple and satisfying. My enthusiasm for this garden waned somewhat when someone pointed out the absurd metal daisies suspended over everything – a device apparently borrowed from a Westonbirt show garden of several years ago. Somehow I had completely failed to see them.
    Clare Agnew’s ‘Reflective Garden’ attracted a lot of favourable comment – cool greenery and white flowers set in geometrical blocks – simple but sophisticated, very restful, a good example of modernist-inspired formality. Shao Fan’s Chinese garden emerging from an archaeological dig proved very successful, and something of a Chelsea first for being a garden you looked down into – its diagonals and variety of spaces illustrates traditional Chinese  garden-making skills in getting the best out of a small space.
    This Chelsea was a bowing out of several veteran exhibitors: Jekka McVicar’s herb gardens will no longer be seen and George Carter will no longer be designed The Romantic Garden nursery stand. Good to leave on a high. A shame certain other designers don’t recognise the inevitable and recognise that they have run out of ideas – like Paul Cooper, whose stupendously ugly ‘garden’ looks like it has escaped from the atrium of a glitzy hotel in Dubai. Rhododendrons perched on stone columns do not make garden.
    Once a showpiece for gardening, Chelsea seemed to have been captured by the design profession for many years. Now there seems to be more of a balance, with a recognition of the importance of plants in garden design. Definitely a good year.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

In praise of propagators

    There is something magical about stepping into  a greenhouse on a cold day. That warm fug with its earthy whiff of healthy growth. A place apart, where the seasons are tricked, and we can grow what nature denies us.   
    This year is the first time I have an enclosed growing space (apart from the conservatory) for a long time. Not since I had polytunnels on my nursery, which was years ago now. As a teenager I shared a greenhouse with my father, of which I have very clear memories, especially of a Humex Big Top propagator, which I ended up taking with me to the nursery.
    Propagators have certainly come on – an interesting illustration of how technological advance lets us get away with using far fewer resources. The Big Top was a great deep tray of fibre-glass which had to be filled with sand in which soil warming cables were buried; its top was aluminium and sheets of (all too easily broken) glass. The one I have just bought is simply some aluminium hoops covered in a PVC sheet with zips. Seed trays sit on a foil sheet, in which heating cables are enmeshed. The whole thing struck me at first as rather flimsy, but actually it is well designed, and quite robust, and provides a very good heat. Everything the Big Top would have done at a fraction of the weight.And you can pack it all up at the end of the spring and put it away in a drawer. The Big Top just sat there taking up an awful lot of space.
    There is something deeply fascinating about a propagator. A bit like one of those perspex boxes they put premature babies in, a plastic bubble which generates new life. I love the sensation of opening it up in the morning, the thrill of seeing what has germinated, the excitement of watching the almost hourly advances in the growth of tomato and pepper seedlings. The draught of humid green-smelling air of the greenhouse within the greenhouse.
    It isn’t even a proper greenhouse, but a Belgian Filclair Serren PVC polytunnel, superior to polyethylene, but designed with some rather irritating draught gaps at the bottom – so some additional work needed. The growth rate on salad crops sown in January has been very impressive – but soon to be replaced by tomatoes, aubergines and peppers.
    Glasshouses in some ways are dinosaurs – all that heavy, fragile and energy-hungry material. Polytunnels have replaced them to all intents and purposes for unheated or minimally-heated work. Its common to hear people say that they don’t look so nice. True. But then isn’t that just nostalgia to some extent?

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Monday, March 10, 2008

They do things differently here - News from Mexico 2

Now in a stunning town (Zacatacas), UNCESCO heritage site, old Spanish silver mining place - It is all rose-red stone, beautifully restored, clear desert light, fantastic baroque cathedral - a uniquely Mexican take on Baroque. Were in Cruz's home town of Fresnillo y'day. Like the wild west, about 1/4 the men wearing cowboy hats, women in spangled/sequined denim, shops full of amazing cowboy boots - alligator skin with incredible pointed toes, elaborately embroidered and tooled, loads of big old dusty pick-ups, music blaring out of shop fronts, one group of ?Mennonites/?Amish looking around - huge aryan and pink compared to everyone else who is so dark and well just how you imagine Mexicans to look like. Clear bright light, dust. Warm in sun - just, but you can imagine this place to be roasting later on.

Met Cruz's family. His mum and 2 of his (6) bros and 1 (of 2) sisters, glad I was introduced, as bros,. had faint  air of menace about them - big men in black leather biker jackets. Drove out into the desert to see his childhood home, dusty little villages and then miles down a dirt track which gets worse and worse and eventually seems to disappear (I'm doing all the driving and worried  about trashing the hire car), to a collection of little one-storey adobe houses - his is now abandoned. Humble beginnings all right. But the landscape - a vast panorama of distant hills, one of those landscapes of truly epic proportions which is so American West and so utterly un-European, mile upon mile of dry scrubby trees and cactus. Breathtaking.

The lectures - well this is Lateeen America. If el jefe of the Architects Association wants to answer his mobile phone in the middle of your lecture he goes right ahead. And things never start on time. A general air of make-do, and lots of people who have to be made to feel important.

Y'dy in Fresnillo we started 1 1/2 hours late as nothing could begin until the mayor arrives. Whole occasion a bit surreal - vast old stone theatre, freezing cold. Audience mostly students, local dignitaries, some young architects, green campaigners and (groan) some drafted-in schoolkids. Cruz was not interpreting for 'political' reasons - an awful lot of my being here is in fact to do with the politics of what he is doing rather than what I am actually saying. Which is fine, because I am so happy and honoured to be able to participate. All part of 'Green Day' so various other speakers, inc. Cruz. Anyway - interpreter - Sexy Senorita with Big Hair, and thick coating make-up (and spangled denim). Learnt her English in West Virginia (!!!!) so found my accent very difficult, and to begin with my heart sank when she could not translate 'landscape'. But she was really inspired, and we got on really well, and given how late the mayor was, we went through the whole thing twice beforehand. She made a really good go of a difficult job and it was all just about ok. But I've insisted Cruz interprets from now on.

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

News from Mexico

Cruz is to lecture next. I concentrate on the screen, trying to figure out the Spanish powerpoint presentation. Then I look over towards him.In one hand he has a microphone, in the other a gun. Definitely, no doubt about it, a small silver pistol. I soon put 2 and 2 together and realise that it is his laser pointer, but the effect is well – striking to say the least. Saw some in the market later, and thought about getting some as presents for those who work in the further education biz , but then realised that a case of them would be a surefire ticket to Guantanamo. Which almost happened at the next airport security – Cruz had left it in his hand baggage and nearly missed the flight.

Lots of exciting new plant introductions seem to come from Mexico, so it is interesting to get an invite to do a lecture tour there, and see if they do anything with their local flora. Thanks to Cruz Gaali, an irrepressibly enthusiastic PhD graduate from the landscape department at Sheffield University. Cruz had organised a whole series of lectures to teaching institutions, professional bodies and public events - on public planting design. I am away that my main role is to show people that “Cruz is not mad”, that in Europe and in other countries landscape designers and horticulturalists are creating nature-inspired, sustainable and bio-diverse plantings. As opposed to the standard Mexican public space plantings: beds of brightly coloured annuals, and clipped trees. And clipped trees. Clipping trees is clearly as Mexican as drinking tequila or going on strike (February is when everyone goes on strike). Even shrubs in the middle of  dual carriageways are clipped – squares and blobs for the most part, with the occasional basket, or possibly even….. is it a handbag? Private gardeners of course are far more adventurous – mariachi bands in greenery are a favourite. Needless to say there are more Mexican natives in a British garden centre than in a public park in Mexico.

Just done lecture no.3, in a tent in what appears to be a clearing in the jungle, but is in fact part of the best tropical zone public park I have ever been in. It is the tip of a wedge-shaped wilderness area which penetrates almost to the town centre of Uruapan in central western Mexico – it functions as a tidied-up, horticulturally enhanced bit of monsoon forest, with paved walkways and seating and other amenity areas around dramatic whitewater streams, waterfalls and water channels. A lovely way for people to experience natural environment in a very controlled way – very important in a society where very few appreciate wild landscapes or see native plants in a positive way. There is so much water, in channels, fountains and cascades that in some ways it is like a 1930s Villa d’Este. It is spotless.

There are nine of us crammed onto a long table on the stage, speakers and various Important People, who have to make introductory speeches for ‘Green Day’. Most important of all is ‘Il Presidente del Ayunciamento’, ie. the mayor, who I sit next to – as foreign mascot person for sustainable public horticulture I am clearly very important. I love that word ayunciamento – its where we get ‘junta’ from – I always think of sinister Pinochet type generallissimos. This guy has the well-oiled urbanity of the professional politician; I wouldn’t buy a second-hand car off him. He speaks, the event is opened, we all stand. Ohmygod, they are going to play the national anthem. No, they don’t. Whew! Then we have to get down from the stage while they get the powerpoint ready. This, as always it seems in Mexico, involves around 6 young men clustered around the computer and projector, huffing and puffing, pulling cords out, pushing them back in, arguing, gesticulating – it is clearly some sort of male bonding exercise.

The photographers of the local press descend, Il Presidente del Ayunciamento and I put our arms around each other’s shoulders and smile. He then departs. Lecture begins, and with Cruz interpeting, goes very smoothly – although he clearly has his own agenda, often elaborating greatly on what I say. Just as well I trust him. Occasionally the PA system flips over to a local radio station. No-one stirs. Clearly a normal occurrence.

 Anyay, come the end – we all get a basket of presents (avocadoes, coffee, local delicacies, big bottle Kahlua-type liquor). Last place delivered us a dubious-looking little plastic character in local costume and a handful  of slightly-leaking miniatures of the local mezcal. Oh, and a big certificate from Il Presidente to commorate our participation.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008


    I have always found the idea of doing public space planting a more attractive one than designing private gardens. Thousands of people see your work every day, its part of the public realm, a part of the landscape, not hidden away. You have to accept some heavy constraints though: limited funds often mean that projects are small scale and maintenance is still a major issue. And you just have to accept that work does receive a fairly frequent mulch of plastic bags, beer cans and take-away wrappers.
    In Bristol I’ve been working with the city authorities for some years now, usually creating two new perennial-based plantings each winter. I’ve done a few small beds in parks, but they tend to get lost in the great expanse of grass and trees. Far more effective is planting at key sites on commuter routes: traffic islands, roundabouts, junctions. There are real advantages to working on these, as they tend to be pretty vandal proof, and slug proof too.
    Working on these sites involves co-ordinating with contractors. Usually an 8.00 am start, parking on a  pavement and sometimes running the gauntlet of traffic wearing a day-glo safety jacket. Once wearing one of these jackets you realise you have joined a working class brotherhood  who look after their own – great trucks screech to a halt to let you cross the road for example, and it also gives you just about enough authority to stop the traffic if you want to. Crossing roundabouts is something of an art form – much better if there is enough of a grass apron to drive onto. Driving off again though is pretty hairy I can tell you.
    The plants used are resilient perennials which can look after themselves as much as possible, and once established, compete with weeds. Geranium is one of the obvious genera to concentrate on; in the mild and moist Bristol climate, many are in active growth for almost all the year. They are such a useful group that I almost have to make a conscious effort not to overuse them.  Clump-forming and late-flowering composites: helianthus, rudbeckia, solidago, aster, are useful for later-season and strucutral interest.
    Ideally plants will be allowed to spread and self-seed. The aim is a closed canopy of vegetation. Whether this happens is very much to management which is out of my hands. I have run an afternoon training course however, and found the team (from Continental Landscapes) had a better ability to spot the difference between weeds and seedling perennials than I expected. If regenerating perennials are left, the ground will eventually be covered with the vegetation you want, leaving little space for invasive weeds. However on some sites, ‘over-maintenance’ prevents this happening. Ornamental grasses too can be mistaken for weed grasses – so any species used need to be very clearly intentional.
    One new approach I have tried is plug planting, of species which flower in the first year. This is not necessarily designed for permanence as some species used are short-lived, but instead gives more intense colour more quickly. Examples of species used are Achillea ‘Galaxy Hybrids’, Malva moschata, Lychnis chalcedonica, Rudbeckia hirta, Physostegia virginiana, Stipa tenuissima. Planting is at random at 30cm spacings.

For Bristolians, sites I’ve done some planting on so far are:
Snuff Mills,
Three Lamps Junction
Wells Rd. Oxford St. just up from the above.
Broadwalk Arcade, Knowle.
Redcatch Park
White Tree roundabout
Malago Lane, pedestrian island
Eastville Park, one bed near public conveniences at far western end.
St. James Barton
Novers Lane roundabout
Stapleton Rd./Rawnsley Park (something to look at while you wait for your crack dealer)

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Friday, February 8, 2008

'Girly Gardens' and Kim Wilkie links

I have a contribution to one of the discussions currently on the marvellous and stimulating Thinking Gardens:

Its part of an ongoing discussion about gender and the garden.

Also, the Vista Debates at the Museum of Garden History are now being made available as podcasts from the Gardens Illustrated website. The December Kim Wilkie session and an interview with Tim Richardson about the debates can be found at:

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

We have only just started

    It never ceases to surprise me how little the question of planting design is really understood, or expressed, or articulated. Few since Gertrude Jekyll have really spelt out principles clearly.
    A few years ago I came across a dissertation at Vienna's University of NAtural REsources and Applied Life Sciences (German 'Bodenkultur' sounds so much more pithy!)* in which the author had read all our books and critiqued us for failing to develop a language of planting design, in particular no agreed terminology.
    Many in the landscape design, and some in the garden design business may be surprised by this. But such surprise probably indicates that all they do is spray in 'green cement' in great monocultural blocks and leave it at that. Real planting design involves so much more, with a palette which is enormous, each element of which has a will of its own, and will react differently in each location. Makes painting seem a doddle by comparison. As does the Burle Marx approach, which to me now, feels more and more like Victorian bedding meets modernismo.
     My feeling that we have only just begun to really think seriously about planting design is strengthened by a visit to Piet Oudolf to look at drawings and pictures of recent projects. There was a point at which his public design work seemed like it might just get stuck in the distribution of monocultural blocks over a wide area. But then he started varying it with scatterings of specimen plants, that repeated like a rhythm, and then varying the rate of scatter, adn then using the scatter and intermingle approach to produce a whole level of transformation effects within plantings. As a consequence he is taking planting design to new heights of sophistication. His drawings are artworks in themselves and essential in order to understand what is actually going on beneath the richness of his plantings.
    The analogies to music seem so obvious, I find myself grasping for words to describe what Piet does, and always seem to fall back on musical ones. An analogy that Nori Pope really articulated. It is high time we found a common language to describe how we distribute plants across space. And started thinking a bit more analytically  about what we do.

* If anyone wants to see this (auf Deutsch) please ask.

Reply/correspond to :

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

You will soon have to learn German!

    The long process whereby one of the world's leading horticultural journals has been dumbed down to yet another magazine (albeit a very good one) seems to be complete. A member of the editorial staff admitted to me last week (regretfully and somewhat defensively) that The Garden is "no longer a journal of record". In other words no longer something you turn to reference or to back up a statement or argument.
    The whole process which began, I cannot remember when, 'The Journal' became 'The Garden' is complete - magazinification. I am all for breaking down the doors of elitism but I personally feel the process has gone too far. The Garden now seems to operate on the same principles as garden TV, that we are all beginners, that none of us want to know about the latest science, research results, innovative techniques or read what experts write (as opposed to in house journalists). There also seems to be an assumption that we are all interested in design. Hello! This is the Royal HORTICULTURAL Society - we are first and foremost gardeners. Design certainly has a place in the journal but I suspect many gardeners would like to see less snazzy decking and more horticultural know-how. Besides which, other magazines do the design side so much better. The Plantsman has taken over some of what The Journal used to do, but only partially. Can't we have something in-between.
     What `I think many of us object to is the assumption that a journal cannot cater for both beginners and experts alike, and that many people new to gardening or with little knowledge might actually be interested and stimulated by more in-depth 'expert' pieces.
    It is a relief to turn to Germany's 'Gartenpraxis' - apart from the fact that it is in German!, and therefore a bit of a slow read (though a dictionary on my computer helps a lot). It seems to combine a huge range of material, popular stuff and latest research, pieces by experts, and where to go on your holiday next to see good flowers and gardens. There seems to be an assumption in Germany that people should not be talked down to, that technical knowledge is something to aspire to. Is 'dumbing down' a peculiarly English phenomenon?
    The slow decline of The Garden is, I suspect, part of the commercialisation of the RHS. How many members want to be part of  a business as opposed to a society is an interesting question.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Alasdair Forbes garden at Coombe House

    Anyone who came to the 'Vista debate' at the Museum of Garden History on Jan 8th or has  a copy of this month's House and Garden  (February) will be aware of a very exciting 'new' garden.

   Alasdair's garden is completly unlike any other, although very much in the tradition of the 18th landscape garden in its use of trees, hedges, sculpture and landforms to make philosophical points. In the H&G piece I said that I thought that the garden was the most important intellectual statement in gardening since Little Sparta. Much to my relief Tim Richardson said he agreed with me  after  a recent visit.

    Visiting the garden.
    It will be open for a local charity first weekend of June. Not sure of day or time yet. Keep logging on to find out!
    We would also hope to be able to organise a Vista Outing to the garden. People could either meet there (North Devon) or if there was enough interest, a coach could be organised from London. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED PLEASE EMAIL ME, and let me know whether you prefer an April visit or a June/July one. And whether weekend or weekday is preferred.

    Alasdair has kindly sent me his notes for the lecture, but does not want them posted, but made availalbe to anyone who wishes to see them. So, please email me if you want a copy.

My email is

keep digging, keep talking!


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Saturday, January 5, 2008

If you can’t beat creeping buttercup, creep past it

In the mild British climate the real winners are ‘weedy’ species which can grow at low temperatures. Amongst the most problematic for gardeners are native grasses, particularly aggressive species of rough pasture, and creeping buttercup. Such is their ability to grow at any temperature above freezing, I reckon these guys can often grow 365 day a year. Anyone with a herbaceous planting that does not have a thick layer of mulch will begin to notice around this time of year that there is often a haze of young grass seedlings, or clumps of grass which you did not notice the last time you looked at the border (which was probably November) have begun to grow and spread. Most alarming of all is the relentless march of creeping buttercup, as it extends its runners out of the clumps of perennials where it often settles down, inconspicuously for the winter (or since when you last thought you had weeded thoroughly). In the milder and wetter parts of Britain bare soil in borders can be practically covered in this stuff, practically while your back is turned.
What to do about it?
First – ask yourself how much a problem this really is. Look at the plant – it may spread like a virus, but it doesn’t grow very tall. In fact so short is it, that by the time most herbaceous plants get going in May, they will soon overtop it and shade it out. Meanwhile the yellow buttercups in April are quite pretty – an added bonus. So, it may be a case of live and let live – dense planting of medium to tall, or very spready herbaceous perennials will outcompete the yellow monster – and peaceful co-existence will be the result.
Amongst smaller plants or where you want to reduce competition, such as amongst fruit bushes or new plantings, you will need to control the beast. The best way is to leave it, until it really begins to spread, with lots of nice healthy foliage. Then get out the Roundup ®. The herbicide will spread back and kill the base of the plants, which may be a good 20-30 cms from where you have treated it. Winter spraying is slow to take effect – it’ll be a few weeks before that yellow and wan look begins to spread, the yellow and wan look which brings an instant smile of gratification to the gardener’s face. There is something insolent about creeping buttercup, the way it so suddenly takes advantage of our winter lack of interest in the garden to make so much progress. Get it now, before bulbs have begun to emerge, let alone anything herbaceous and you can minimise its impact for the rest of the year, and even admire the pretty yellow flowers of the survivors. You will never get rid of entirely so you might as well stand back and admit they’re pretty.