Tuesday, March 28, 2017

William Robinson - a reputation (un)deserved?

I groan inwardly everytime someone mentions William Robinson and 'The Wild Garden', which he wrote in 1871. His name is all-too often mentioned as if he were some secular saint – such as the 'father' of ecological planting.

I'm minded to write about Robinson as over the weekend we were at the very successful Gardens Illustrated magazine Festival at Westonbirt School – once the house of which the famous arboretum was the garden. People kept on mentioning “the anemones... you've got to go and see the anemones”. So off we went to see the anemones. We were greeted by one of the most spectacular spring flower naturalisings I have ever seen. Anemone blanda in various shades of blue, as well as white over a very extensive area in grass under a high tree canopy. Kerzillions of them!

I have seen this before, on a much smaller scale, at Bryans Ground garden in Herefordshire, where they could not have been there for much more than 20 years – interestingly I seem to remember the same blue to white colour palette. The Westonbirt plants must have been there decades, and in fact I suspect since the early 20th century. The species is one of those, very similar to our native A. nemorosa, which do naturalise in humus-rich soils in light shade, but take their time over it. Once established however, they seem to take off at quite a rate - it was obvious that there were seedlings in the grass around the main clump. The key thing is that grass growth is light and weak – suffering competition from the shade of the tree and from its roots, and making it easier for anemones to flourish. Primroses, cyclamen and small bulbs like chionodoxas can naturalise in this situation too.
This wonderful display can probably be traced back to the ideas of William Robinson, a prolific garden writer of the late 19th and early 20th century. The idea of naturalising bulbs is one of the many ideas he puts forward in his book The Wild Garden. It certainly worked for daffodils, which take off in grass amazingly well, although to be fair it could have been Gertrude Jekyll who thought of this idea. The lifespans of these garden greats overlapped, and they were friends from the 1870s onwards.
Not much else of Robinson's ideas in The Wild Garden have had such success, although it is worth mentioning two others which have taken off: Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed. “Magnificent” landscape plants, according to him. Which indeed they are. Except that we now know more about them. The truth of the matter is that in the late 19th century there was no understanding of what we would now call 'ecology' or that non-native plants might spread and become problems. The idea of the 'invasive alien' would have been, well – alien!

Robinson suggested planting garden plants in wild surroundings and watching native species and exotic one mingle and spread. Very few did. British grass, whose photosynthetic maximum efficiency is achieved at below 10C, suffocates most interlopers very quickly, which is why we do not have much of a problem with invasive aliens. This is not something Robinson would have understood. Most of what he must have planted out, or which others planted out at his behest, must have disappeared pretty quickly.

Robinson wrote The Wild Garden at a time when he was doing an amazing amount of writing, on many different aspects of gardening. He wrote it as a polemic, not as a result of experience. He wrote it without really knowing what he was talking about in other words. His rhetorical style however still fires people up, at the Westonbirt event I mentioned, a member of the audience reported how he had been greatly inspired by reading him. There isn't necessarily a contradiction here, a lot of radical ideas have a hare-brained content and a workable content - it is up to the pragmatists, experimenters and 'doer's to see what works and what doesn't.

Robinson was a bombastic character who got into terrible rows with other writers, although sometimes I think these were deliberately stoked up, like the one with Reginald Blomfield over formal gardens. He denounced bedding plants in no uncertain terms but in fact never stopped using them himself. He comes across as someone who jumped on and off his soapbox to sell his magazine and books and well aware of the power of publicity. Like many such people, he did a great deal to move things forward, shake up complacent thinking and challenge received wisdom. His prescriptions however were often contradictory and not necessarily what we would today call 'evidence-based'. Take him with a pinch of salt in other words.


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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Educating gardeners and designers part two

More thoughts on garden education

Following on from my last post, more thoughts on how we learn stuff. I've lost count of the number of people I have interviewed over the years about their gardens, mostly for magazine articles. First few times I did it, it was quite nerve-wracking, as no-one knew who I was, and sometimes it was quite posh folk, and I couldn't help feeling that they were probably thinking “who is this young whippersnapper?”. This was the period around 1990 btw. Anyway, I usually established credibility pretty early on in an interview, as I knew my plants. There were some difficult moments though, and I actually was thrown out of the odd garden, despite having a magazine feature lined up. I will tell more in the memoirs.

What I actually wanted to say was that the vast majority of the people I have interviewed picked up their love of gardening from a relative, if not a parent, then a granny, an uncle, or a family friend. In most cases they will have picked up knowledge and skills too. In the past most garden knowledge would have been passed down this route, or professionally, from master to apprentice. Enthusiastic amateurs could always pick up more from books and magazines, or from local gardening clubs. Nowadays of course, the knowledge content of books and magazines has dropped considerably, so it is much more difficult to pick up much this way, as noted before.

So where do people turn to? Not the telly obviously, as Gardeners' World and any other TV offering is pretty basic stuff, and has much less practical content than it used to; almost everyone I talk to about the programme complains about it. Garden clubs and societies are one obvious source and must account for their continued popularity. Some of them may be a bit of an excuse for an over 60-s (yikes, I'm 59) get-together (and why not) but every meeting is always built around a speaker. And such gatherings are a great way for the less-experienced to meet the more so.

There was a worry a few years ago that online forums would displace the garden clubs, and to some extent there may well have been some erosion of their position, particularly for more specialist societies. Would be interesting to hear from somebody in the Alpine Garden Society if this is the case. But such fora are probably adding to the ability of people to learn more, and to ask questions and get answers from sources they probably would not have done in pre-internet days (doesn't that sound like a long time ago!).

I have a background in adult education, so this is something that interests me deeply. I used to teach English as a Second Language, firstly to Vietnamese refugees (the boat people), then to every other ethnic minority that ever showed up in Bristol (I'll have to write about this one day, some amazing stories and insights into the lives of others, as well as a sneak preview of Islamic fundamentalism). On our course we were taught that to be effective what people learnt had to be internalised. You can teach someone some information or how to do something and they can go off and do it, but unless they understand why they are doing it, they will be stuck in a dogmatic and repetitive rut, always going through the same procedure, and unable to vary it. This is what old-fashioned 'learning by rote' achieved. However the learner who has understood the underlying rationale for a course of action will be able to make allowances for different circumstances, think of improvements, adapt the procedure for different outcomes etc. 

For some years now I have run a very successful workshop, called with my rather mad whimsical sense of humour, 'The Rabbits' Eye View' (serious sub-title: Understanding Long-term Plant Performance). I don't think I have ever written a post about it. Should do soon. Anyway – the whole point of this is to provide information that empowers students to go off and look at plants (often at ground level, hence the rabbit reference), and then make up their own minds about how they will perform in years to come. 

What I'm leading up to is to give a bit of a plug for a course I do on MyGardenSchool
which covers much of the material we do on the Rabbit's Eye View course - Planting Design with Perennials. Students are encouraged to go off and take pictures of plants in ways which will help them understand patterns of growth, as well as deal with some basic design issues. Giving people tools as opposed to just saying “this one does such and such and this one blah, blah”. Part of the thinking behind this is that as so many parts of the world develop their own distinct garden cultures, using locally native plants, the traditional garden flora seems increasingly limited. 'New' plants are also of course something of an unknown quantity; everyone may agree some wildling is 'garden-worthy' but there will be so much to learn about it. Having a framework for interpreting its growth habit and lifecycle is vitally useful if we are to use it effectively. The 'Rabbits' workshop is intended to provide a way we can 'read the plant'.

Working with a designer presents other challenges. How do you explain a designer's work so that people can emulate or learn from it? I have for worked with Piet Oudolf for several years on just this. He is, like many artists, not analytical about his work – he just does it. It can be frustratingly difficult to pin down clear concepts about what he does that can be spelled out to others. I've made a pretty good try at it over the years, and worked out how t o do it for books. Last autumn I teamed up with MyGardenSchool to produce some teaching videos with him. All a bit of a leap in the dark, but we got some good footage, and they have been reviewed well by Gardenista

The course is available here – there are assignments, which I comment on. Here again we are up against the learning by rote danger. In the videos Piet shows how he selects plants on the basis of various characteristics based on plant visual structure. As an exercise we ask students to make their own suggestions for plants with these characteristics. That's the first stage. The more imaginative will go off and create some categories of their own. 

Yes, you can take up Piet's ideas and use the same plants in the same categories and make some Piet Oudolf-esque plantings. Many of these will be very good, some of them will use the same ingredients but mix them in very different ways – so no-one who knows their Calamagrostis from their Achnatherum could possibly mistake it for the master's work. Most let's face it, will make 'also-rans'. That's not necessarily a bad thing – the world is a better place for having them, let's face it, there are very few innovators, and most of our cultural landscape is made up of copycat also-rans. We do the same thing when we do a Delia Smith recipe (Americans read Martha Stewart). How many of us create a new dish every time we cook?

Anyone following the course in a climate zone where the late-season perennials and grasses that define the Oudolf look do not thrive will be forced to innovate, to find a different range of plants to fit the structure categories we talk about on the course. In many cases they'll have to invent some categories of their own to reflect the aesthetics of the local garden-worthy flora. And this where the internalised learning should really take off – understanding that the Oudolf look is not just about using certain plants or even plants with certain shapes but concentrating on long-season structure, and developing a design language that articulates and uses that structure. 

So far on the course, we've had people from all over, and what will be most exciting is seeing what people do with the information in climate zones with completely different ranges of plants.

Finally, check out the Garden Masterclasses I'm helping put on this summer: eight venues across the UK, 20 tutors, 13 events.