Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The show year begins...

I'm a bit depressed really.  Yesterday, travelling down to London for the first RHS flower show of the year at the Horticultural Halls in Vincent Square I was hoping for a bit of inspiration - the show is highlighting winter planting and small-garden and balcony design after all, and that seemed just right for a damp February Tuesday in the capital.
My co-designers (three in number) and I were, however, struggling to get enthused by anything we saw.  There were some very alluring plants, to be sure, but their allure faced stiff competition from the customary tat that I have come to expect at RHS shows.  That the subtle loveliness of such plants as Galanthus 'Fieldgate Prelude' and Salix acutifolia shone through is a testament to their capacity to enchant, for the setting was otherwise cluttered with ceramic pixies, piles of driftwood 'sculpture', trowels and assorted garden-themed knick-knacks.  It felt no more uplifting than a visit to my local garden centre - although the cafe there is immeasurably better.
Why is this?  The RHS has some terrific pluses - it is highly active, enjoys the loyalty of its huge membership and brand recognition way beyond.  The Society stands for excellence in all things horticultural, and its research, plant trials and gardens are great resources for those looking to use plant life to enliven their exterior spaces.  There is, however, an element of dowdy stuffiness about the whole thing - what feels like a mid-20th century patrician approach to the public that seems to sit very uneasily with anyone who doesn't feel about 70 years old, to judge by the reactions my friends and I had to the event.  The age of those attending clearly reflects the membership, and between us we four (mid-forties and up) felt that we reduced the average age in the room by a good 20 years.  The only people who were significantly younger were the designers of the show gardens, students from Capel Manor College, in attendance on their creations.  I spotted one black person - at an event for thousands staged in the heart of the capital. 
Now, as I say, this must be a reflection of the membership, but surely these shows should be the way for the RHS to engage with a wider slice of the populace?  They are the interface between one of the great establishments of the British cultural scene and the public - we're in the middle of the half-term holiday, so why not a children's show, or a show focussing on edible plants from the great variety of food traditions practised in Britain that could be planted in spring for use in the kitchen this summer?  Where is the excitement, the relevance?  And why, why, given the resources devoted to setting the whole thing up, does it last only two days?  The RHS would argue that if the shows and show gardens inspire their members to be more ecologically friendly and carbon-aware in their activities, the carbon footprint of these jamborees is more than offset by improved practice on a national scale.  That's a big 'if', in my view, and not one that justifies the two days for me, I'm afraid. 
The argument that the RHS deals in 'flower shows' is also misleading, I fear, for the Society has for decades muddied the clarity of its horticultural mission with its championing of garden design, to the point where the annual gore-fest at the Chelsea corrida (who died a death?  who will live to fight another show?  who triumphed unequivocally?) has become a national spectator sport.  It's great to have exterior design so high on the cultural agenda for one week a year, but is the RHS really the best body to promote it?  This subject deserves a whole blog posting or three to itself, so I'll leave it hanging here for the be returned to on another day.
So, why?  Is it the 'Royal' that's the problem?  We're back to the adjective 'patrician', yet the Royal Academy, as my friend pointed out, survives this handicap and manages to be vibrant and inclusive, to a point.  Is the Society simply too embedded in the cultural DNA to change?  Like the Church of England, it's a broad church, but with the added impetus of big business behind it.  With gew-gaws to flog, sponsors to appease and an entrenched conservatism in the way it does things, this ocean-going liner won't be turning any sharp corners soon, which is a great shame: I like the odd day out in London, but really don't think I can face many repeats of this anodyne stuff.
No-one would suggest that the current membership should be denied its pleasures, and for every person who dislikes pixies there are plenty of others who do, but I can't help thinking that the RHS is being dilatory, despite its attempts at widening the net, in encouraging diversity and wider interest in its work.
So lots of questions, with very few answers, I'm afraid.  Suggestions, anyone?

Monday, 15 February 2010

Elements of Design 2: Space

All garden design, whether by a professional or not, is an exercise in arranging space.  It is the way in which the available site is divided and managed that dictates whether it will succeed as a design.  Some people are happy with the haphazard result of piecemeal changes to their gardens - and this might even be at the scale of individual plants, added as and when they are acquired - while others need to control their space more thoroughly and work to a plan.  I would argue that even if you are the type to let the garden evolve around you in spatial terms, a ground plan is still useful.
The space we have to play with is governed by three planes.  The ground, which supports structures and plants, is the key to a strong design, the vertical planes surrounding the space are the place to play with the apparent distances of the boundaries and the overhead plane, often forgotten, is where the gardener can manage the quality of light and enclose the space more fully.
The ground has to be divided up - paths, terraces, planting, lawns and water all have their place here, and to manage the space successfully they must be in balanced proportion but should also relate to each other in a coherent way.  There is no point installing a lovely place to sit if you can only get to it by wading the pond or trampling the flowers.  Pathways should be wide enough to cope with the number of people likely to use it, as well as the mood you wish to evoke - will the path be wide enough for two to walk abreast or will it be designed for single-file use, increasing the sense of adventure, anticipation and adventure?  Terraces need to be sited within the space to make the best use of the amenity most in demand - in a British garden this would invariably be to maximise exposure to the summer sun, in a Spanish garden to make best use of the shaded areas.  Are lawns and plantings arranged where they will thrive, or do special types of plants need to be used in order to clothe the ground?  Have the routes of flow been considered, and are the recreational spaces big enough? 
The walls, fences and hedged edges to the plot can seem nearer or further, depending on which is used and how they are planted up.  Used within the space these verticals can screen off areas of the space for practical and/or aesthetic reasons, and can make a powerful contribution to the mood of the garden - it's always good to have an area that is not immediately visible or apparent to the visitor: mystery and surprise are everything.
The overhead plane can be controlled or indicated by trees or overhead structures - arbours and pergolas, sunshades and beams.  Two main purposes are served - there is the possibility of introducing shaded areas if these are needed, and there is a subtly implied enclosure.  The endless space of the sky is divided just above head level and, in wide open spaces, comfort is derived from an implied human-scale space.
If all of these planes are sensitively managed, and the design fits the requirements of the users, then the only thing to worry about is the planting, and there are whole encyclopedias about that!
The photograph shows the grounds of the chateau at Amboise, on the Loire.
Next: Materials

Friday, 12 February 2010

A garden designer? What's the point of that?

Over at 'Successful Garden Design' Rachel Mathews recently posted an article boldly stating that the best gardens are created by owners with no design training, on the basis that their intimate knowledge of the site and interaction with their creation trumps anything a designer can do.  Well, yes...and no.
In support of Rachel's point, there are and always have been highly talented people who have no specific training in design who have, even so, designed wonderful gardens and landscapes.  Tim Richardson who writes lucidly and coherently in the Society of Garden Designers journal about design issues identifies the very greatest gardens, of iconic status, as creations of just such individuals.  I wouldn't deny it - but there are, in any field of activity, talented people able to create gardens, paintings, interiors and clothing (for instance) at the highest level without formal training.  A natural affinity with their chosen medium and, crucially, a lack of restraint fostered by the analysis and other baggage associated with the teaching process, allows them the freedom to express their ideas fully.  Given that gardens are expensive luxuries for most people, the trend-setters of the garden design avant-garde over the centuries have invariably been wealthy individuals as well.  These people are rare - one or two in a generation - but will have enormous influence over time.

Others, with vision but perhaps limited design ability, have worked with designers to create great gardens. These partnerships, developing over time, have allowed the designer to modify the initial design and enable the shared vision to evolve. I believe Dan Pearson and Tom Stuart-Smith work in very much this way, and no-one would question the exceptional quality of the results.  Gardens in sympathy with the site and the character of the client have a special feel - the space has been sensitively managed and the presence of the designer is evident, even if the effects are so refined as to be almost subliminal.  The designer is using the design grammar of the past to evolve something new, and with the support of a committed and discriminating client can achieve wonderful results.   For every Vita Sackville-West creating her Sissinghurst there will be dozens, maybe hundreds, of such garden owners, seeking to make a garden they can grow into with the guidance of a sensitive specialist in design.

Yet others, with little understanding of good design principles, recognise that their garden could be improved, but rely entirely on the designer’s interpretation of the site to achieve a satisfactory outcome.  The designer will supply a practical solution to the space, meeting the client's needs, and, probably, succumb to the request for a stainless steel water feature.  The garden will acquire some of the character of the people who use it, but it will always be the designer's hand most visible, for the client's involvement was limited - by lack of time, or interest. 

Those lucky few in the first group are outside fashion - genuine originals with the talent and means to successfully create the gardens they want.  Those in the second are the best sorts of client - committed to their project, open to suggestions, keen to work in partnership and willing to trust the instincts of the designer.  In the final group are, probably, the majority of clients - busy people who want to enjoy their garden more, have some idea of how they would like it to look, more or less keen to have a garden in the currently favoured style and placing their trust in the skills of the designer.  And this leads us to the crucial point - if the designer is simply churning out dull, predictable, uninspired work then these gardens will have no hope of reflecting the personality of the client - they will indeed be the clinical, spirit-less places that Rachel Mathews, among many, decries. 

The message is clear - if you want a great garden get a good designer and get involved!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


With the snowdrops in bloom (see last posting) the mood in gardens in temperate Britain is lightening. Today, after what feels like weeks of overcast grey sky, there is blue to be seen, and weak sunlight to enjoy. It won't be long before we see some real action in the form of narcissi, early tulips, bluebells - and before we know it we'll be into the fully-realised delights of early summer in England. The meadow, with fritillaries and ox-eye daisies was photographed in latest spring last year. Anticipation is everything - enjoy the delicious moment now...

Monday, 8 February 2010


They seem later this year - perhaps the prolonged cold of January held them back - but snowdrops are finally flowering locally.
The flowers are the familiar outriders of spring, emerging early to clothe gardens, verges and woodlands in advance of the later festival of bulbs that commences in March.  It is one of the happier facts of the garden year that these flowers are so gentle on the eye - a subtle introduction to the flowering season to follow, reminding us primarily of the beauty of fresh green.  Where they are left in peace snowdrops build huge colonies, drifting very like snow itself around the boles of established trees, pooling in wilder areas of the garden, running alongside streams and pathways.  The species, Galanthus nivalis, has the unadorned purity we all look for, and for a long time I was unswerving in my defence of this plant against the increasingly popular varieties championed by others.  Now I'm not so sure...the species is still top of the heap for me, but I have to confess that it has some wonderfully glamorous cousins.
Those that I like best preserve something of the simplicity of G. nivalis, and G. elwesii is a terrific plant - larger in all its parts than nivalis but equally poised and unshowy, as these images show.  G. 'Magnet' has large flowers, similar to elwesii, and an extra long pedicel, the bloom hanging far from the stem and trembling in the breeze.  If any snowdrop can be coquettish, it is this one. 
The jury is out on doubles, I'm afraid.  I have a demure, very green variety, G. 'Ophelia', which is very pretty, but bought only this season it needs to settle down - indications are that the outer petals may be insufficiently large to offset the inner green, but if it improves it will be a lovely addition.  The standard double, 'flore pleno' is a dud as far as I'm concerned - tubby, cabbagey little flowers with no grace at all - as are all the coarse large species and overly-flattened flowers.  As for those with yellow coloration, forget them - they miss the point entirely, and one may as well have white and red snowdrops, to be honest.
So, I'm not yet a galanthophile, but I can see that there are plants besides the familiar species that will enchant me as I get to know them better - as in all things, discrimination is the key...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Exhibition:Nine Photographs

A small exhibition of photographs in Oxford, February and March 2010.
These are nine images that give an idea of the scope of my photographic interests.  In editions of 15 they can be seen from 22nd February to 21st March at the Summertown Wine Cafe, Oxford.