Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Winter Garden

The winter garden is a great resource for photographers.  The decaying flowerheads of shrubs such as Hydrangea and Viburnum, the skeletons of umbellifers (now the Apiaceae) and the occasional flowers of witch hazel and wintersweet offer a surprising range of plant material, often in striking juxtapositions.

Without the clothing of leaves, the plant structure is more apparent, and it is easier to get close to your subject for macro images.  Light is often at low level, particularly on overcast days, but if you can get out on a bright day then you have the option of silhouetting twigs and flowerheads against a bright background. 

 Even better, in snow or heavy frost, the light will be reflected from beneath, giving a pearly glow to your subject.  As a backdrop, snow can show up the tracery of plant skeletons to great effect. 

These images were all taken in the depths of winter - some have been edited using the monochrome editing suite Silver Efex Pro, from Nix.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Late-season Colour

By the middle of November it would not be unreasonable to expect gardens to be looking well past their best.  There are some gardens created expressly for winter interest, but most gardeners take a pragmatic approach: the winter months are a time for planning and plotting the coming season, the weather is usually inimical to long periods of garden maintenance or to much time spent admiring the garden.

However, the autumn in Oxford this year has been extremely mild so far, with warm sunshine in abundance and relatively little in the way of wet or windy weather.  Bonfire Night on November 5th is often a cold, wet trial - not so this year.  One or two gusty days in the last month or two have been all that central England has had in the way of seasonal gales, and there are still a number of well-coloured leaves on deciduous trees waiting to fall.

The warm weather has allowed birds to continue feeding, so the winter berries have not yet been decimated and the plentiful sunshine permits the colours to shine out.  There are some remarkable colour combinations out there, as some plants survive a bit longer to appear with others that have begun to turn.  Tree leaves will be heading towards uniform brown by now, but the foliage of many perennials has only just begun to adopt the yellow-green cast that precedes the plants' dormancy.

Combine these with the very last flowers - some last-gasp Rudbeckias, miniature red pom-poms of the Ricinus and a few dahlias in deep red or pastel orange and there is the possibility of something really eye-catching in the garden at this least likely season.

I think the trick to getting the most out of this season is to treat every chance combination as a bonus - relish the different shades of brown and enjoy the quietness of the fading year whilst welcoming any other colour that happens by.  In the absence of large areas of bright colour it is the small, intense incidents of berry or solitary surviving flower that draw the eye.  We also become more relaxed and less demanding - given the opportunity to experience any colour at all we ignore clashes of colour that would earn a disapproving 'tut' in high summer whilst also welcoming subtleties that might seem insufficiently dramatic at other times.

Even so, it can be seen from these photographs taken this week that there are still some great combinations to be enjoyed out there while the weather holds, with some cast-iron perennials such as Verbena bonariensis coping well with current conditions.  The weather will inevitably worsen, of course, but it will be worth getting into gardens while the weather holds over the next few days - enjoy the show while it lasts!

Images and text copyright Paul Ridley Design

Friday, 28 October 2011

Miscanthus malepartus

Miscanthus, a varied genus from Asia, especially Japan and Korea, is an immensely valuable grass for garden designers.  Offering late-season interest, the grass flower stalks arise from clumps of narrowly strappy foliage in the summer, flowering in mid- to late-summer, but then continuing the show into autumn and winter.

Varieties have different capacity for withstanding the rigours of winter, but typically the grasses colour up in autumn before turning sere and straw-coloured in the winter months.  The familiar fluffy flower tassels emerge in a range of different muted shades from cream to dusky red, but fade to soft white during the course of the season.

The grass pictured is Miscanthus malepartus - a lovely species growing to 1.8m.  The flower colour is dark plummy red when first open, and the leaves have a silvery central rib.  A graceful plant, M malepartus turns a wonderful golden yellow in late autumn - the leaves retain minor variation in the yellowing, but this is most apparent when the plant is backlit by low autumn sunshine.

In fact, the best use of this grass is in a position where the fading leaves and flowers are lit up in this way - if you can arrange it so that the backdrop is a dark hedge the effect is even more dramatic.  Miscanthus are robust and hardy plants - their varied height, flower and foliage offer a great opportunity to introduce structural long-season presence in mixed plantings or wilder schemes.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Serpentine Pavilion 2011

The creation of an outdoor pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens has become an annual ritual of the London summer season, and this year's offering holds special interest for garden and landscape architects.
Taking as his inspiration the idea of the medieval 'hortus conclusus', or enclosed garden, the renowned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has created a temporary building of strange power.
The medieval hortus conclusus was, it its original conception, as much an embodiment of the Virgin Mary as an actual garden.  Rich in allusion, the notion of the garden as a protected zone - as uncorruptible as the body of the Virgin, with each element of the garden (water, plants, trees) having symbolic resonance with the mythology of Mary is now largely lost to us.  We can comprehend it on an intellectual level, but few people in the post-Christian West would today have the spiritual response to such a garden that our medieval forebears, immersed in the cult of Mary the Virgin, would have enjoyed.
Zumthor, however, is noted for his buildings which have a spiritual as well as intellectual dimension, and the Pavilion is no exception.

The approach, while not exactly sinister, is far from encouraging.  Isolated on the turf of the park, anchored with concrete paths which lead to the openings, the building is a slightly forbidding black cuboid, the deep darkness of the entrances adding to the sense of separateness that the exterior conveys.  This is clearly a 'space apart', but it has rather unpleasant echoes, suggestive of places that it would be a transgression to enter, or in which nasty things might happen which we would rather not know about (for some reason I thought of an abbatoir when I approached it).
Once through one of the entrances, however, you are in a dark cloister, brightly lit at intervals by the other entrances.  The subtle rhythm established on the exterior by virtue of the panels of black suddenly becomes much more dramatically expressed, with vivid blocks of light crossing the otherwise dark passageway.

From here one passes through an opening in the inner wall of the structure into the garden itself.  Occupying the majority of the open space in the centre of the Pavilion is a garden planted up by Dutch master, Piet Oudolf.  Here, within the dark frame of the building is a tumble of plants, mostly restrained in colour, but with occasional splashes of (in September) bright blue Aconitum and magenta Geranium.  Grasses feature heavily, as do the robust perennials Oudolf favours for their capacity to 'die well'.  It is interesting to ponder the possibility that the structure, temporary, could be removed this month, with the plants left to outlive it, standing to decay over the winter.

The building proves to be something other than a cuboid - from the inside it becomes almost a tent, with an inward sloping roof sheltering the tables and benches set around the perimeter.  This roof is suggestive of the sloping tiled roofs of the courtyards of the Alhambra and other Moorish gardens, in which the patio gains its sense of enclosure from just such an arrangement.  The garden does, at this point, feel truly separated from its exterior and setting.  Only sky and the tips of nearby trees are visible over the roofline, and despite a smallish crowd of visitors it is possible to lose yourself for a moment or two, and feel alone in the space.

Despite nailing its colours to the mast with the title 'Hortus Conclusus', the Serpentine Pavilion this year seems to have as much in common with its Islamic, Roman and Moorish antecedents as the specifically Christian garden it refers to - but as a place to experience seclusion from the outside world, where, free of distraction, it might be possible to lose yourself in contemplation, it is as successful as any of them.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Chaumont International Garden Festival 2011

The Chaumont Garden Festival is a very different kind of garden show.  Forget impeccably manicured show gardens produced at vast expense for a few surreal days as at Chelsea Flower Show.  At Chaumont on the Loire the focus is on ideas - the show gardens are selected for their novelty and elucidation of the annual theme, produced to a small fixed budget and allowed to stand for a long season between April and October.  The show is located in the grounds of the Chateau, in a permanent setting which retains one or two of the most successful experimental gardens from past festivals.

The theme this year is 'Gardens of the Future', and the gardens all attempt to illustrate the importance of encouraging biodiversity as a means of improving the health of the environment.  In a way the theme is restrictive - clearly no one is going to seriously suggest that we should be reducing biodiversity at a garden show.  However, a garden that represented the logical outcome of continued over-exploitation of the environment would have made an interesting counterpoint to the plethora of pseudo-compost heaps and recycled mini-beast hotels that were widely displayed this year.

The most literal comment on environmental health was in the installation which had trees bandaged up, supporting 'blood transfusion' drips which ostensibly fed the ground and the red-dominated planting.  A hospital bed planted up with varieties of Sedum reinforced this clunky message.  More impressive was the garden of extinct plants - the labels showing the names of plants lost to us ranged in serried ranks as in a war cemetery.  Set in blocks with paths between, this was a true Garden of Remembrance and a very sobering illustration of the havoc being visited on natural habitats.

There were a number of gardens with structures of recycled materials - orange boxes, timber laths and bamboo were in evidence, chosen for economy (these structures only have to last a few months) but also, it seemed to me, for the fact that they weather so rapidly.  Within a few weeks the timber starts to sag and colour with mould, the shapes settling into squashier versions of their original selves, the intervention beginning to decay and return to the earth.  Demonstrating the inevitability of death and decay these gardens were relatively subtle entries in the field.  In the cases where plants had started to scramble through the structures it was easy to see how the latter would rapidly descend into compost.

A few gardens used the idea of miniature environments - supported in plastic bubbles or planted up in floating oil drums, for instance - to highlight the fragility of a variety of natural habitats as well as the duty incumbent on us all to protect these.  Another garden acted as a sort of herbarium, with seeds trapped in resin blocks waving on tall wire supports - the point being, I suppose, to draw attention to the need to preserve plants lest they become merely a label and join those in the memorial garden.

There were other gardens that just revelled in the opportunity to have some fun - I think the message was still there, but what one really noticed was the colour or daftness of the installation.  I particularly liked the hanging ribbons with bells - in patriotic red, white and blue (tricolor or Union Flag - take your pick) this garden was a surprisingly reflective space in still weather, although the wind might make it a bit hazardous to negotiate, especially when crossing the stepping stones...

The celebrated Vallee des Brumes - an installation that has been a fixture at Chaumont for some years - was still a foggy delight, though less impressive in dull weather than in sunshine, when the mists are penetrated by shafts of light, and was joined in the wooded valley behind the show site by a sinister/comic group of figures clothed all over in jazzy knitted body-stockings.  

The festival continues until 16th October - if you are in the Loire Valley before then it is worth a detour to see how the theme of environmentalism and biodiversity has been interpreted by these thirty-odd garden designers and artists.

See more images of the Festival here.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Black and White Cottage

Black and White Cottage near Ockley in Surrey is doubly notable.  The home of garden designer Anthony Paul and sculpture gallery owner Hannah Peschar it reflects both their passions - the garden and sculpture are closely involved with each other in a mutually beneficial relationship.

The garden demonstrates Anthony's desire for calm, naturalistic spaces.  It is supremely well suited to the site with drifts of simple block planting sweeping beneath the old, often multi-stemmed, trees which the garden is is home to.  A subtly edited woodland garden with swathes of miniature bamboo in one area, skilful use of water and some wonderful sculpture, this place is very evocative, especially in early summer when the sun is filtered through fresh greens and puddles on the mossy floor in the gloom.
The sculpture - a mixture of materials and scales - is deployed throughout the garden with care.  The current display includes shimmering reflective globes, suspended oaken hoops which recall the wheelwright's craft and a variety of loosely figurative works.

The very best thing about this garden is, however, the sense of discovery you experience as you explore.  There are hidden corners presided over by abstract stone carvings, a limpid pool of still water which echoes to a faintly chiming sound sculpture, and a tumbledown mossy stone stairway leading to nowhere.  The division of space with greenery and trees makes the garden feel much larger than it is, with the focus always the water at it's centre.

Many gardens are called 'magical', but I think this one really justifies the adjective - serene, assured and quietly welcoming.

Paul Ridley Design

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Recent garden designs

Click the images to enlarge.

You can learn more about this courtyard design here.

This garden in Ely is maturing well - I'm visiting this weekend, so hope to have some further images soon!

A recently completed garden for a Georgian town house - more images to follow, when the planters have been installed.

Instant gardening - a new planting for immediate effect in a city courtyard.

A medium-sized garden due to be built later this summer - raised beds and shade planting.

A tiny courtyard to be constructed in August - a calm and ordered space.

Paul Ridley Design

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Current trends in planting and design

This was the title of the Gardens Illustrated lecture held yesterday at the Royal Geographical Society.  Jointly steered by Tim Richardson, garden historian and writer, and Noel Kingsbury, researcher and writer, the discussion between three well-known designers pointed out some of the directions that garden planting and design is taking.
The designers, Andy Sturgeon, Dan Pearson and Cleve West - officially up there with the big boys now, thanks to his ‘best in show ‘ garden at Chelsea this week – had interesting things to say about both their own practice and the future development of design, although it seemed to me that a number of points were  left unaddressed.

A meadow with unmanaged planting - other than grazing

In one sense the debate turned on the tension between ‘Modernism’ and ‘traditional’ gardening styles.  Part of the trouble in this debate is that the term ‘Modernism’ refers to a distinct artistic movement, with political and social dimensions, that emerged in Europe after the First World War and held sway for a quarter century and more, evolving as it travelled across the planet and finding its spiritual home in interwar Germany at the Bauhaus school and in the United States.  We all think we know ‘Modernism’ – but we use the term as shorthand in relation to any pared-down building, garden, painting or sculpture, and this is often an inaccurate way to describe what we see.  I think we need to seek a new term to identify our current creative trends  - ‘contemporary’ is insufficient.  But this is an aside – what of gardens?

Natural plant communities- the template for new developments in planting

Andy Sturgeon has written that the conflation of Modernist and Arts and Crafts styles in gardens is a ‘very British fudge’ – he’s right.  In a way most current ‘Modern’ designs of strong ground plans, asymmetrical and using up-to-date versions of old materials (sawn, honed and polished stone rather than riven slabs) still have at their heart the Arts and Crafts style – loose, romantic planting set within a strong frame.  The plant choices have changed over the years with the tides of fashion, but the great traditions of planting that have rendered the British style desirable across the world still hold sway.  We love our plants – the variety, the colour, the succession through the year.  Creating plantings which look good at any season, that combine wonderfully harmonising or clashing colour combinations with scent and structure is, as Tim Richardson reminded the audience, our greatest native vernacular art form.  The French have food, we have gardens.  For many, this fudge is an acceptable one – you can have a wide variety of plants and a funky terrace all in the same space, and call it ‘contemporary’ -  but what comes next?  If we are to identify and define a new style, what will it look like – and what will it be called?

Massed sunflowers as seedheads - an attempt at a natural community

The big developments are taking place outside the UK, it seems – the speakers referred to Eastern Europe and Germany as areas where exploration into new planting styles are furthest advanced.  These developments hinge on the the naturalism of wild plant communities, and this naturalism is something we are also exploring in the UK.
Through research into plant communities such as meadows, steppes and prairies, there have crept into our planting palette over the past 20 years the echinaceas, rudbeckias, grasses, eupatoriums and countless other varieties.  Wilder-looking than traditional garden plants (although, of course, hybridisation and selections mean that we are seeing increasing numbers of cultivars that are shorter, more floriferous, more brightly-coloured and more ‘garden-worthy’) these plants have been used widely in less formal plantings in the UK and beyond. 

Drifts of natural-looking plants evoke the combinations of plants found in nature
The New Perennial style, prairie plantings and drift planting all use this type of plant material, but such gardens need to be created on a large scale in order to succeed fully.  Meadows and ‘pictorial meadows’ are now equally engineered, and while we call them ‘naturalistic’ they are in no way natural – they are gardens, and as such are as much an artifice as a rose garden underplanted with catmint.  The fact that they emulate nature helps us to view them as ‘wild’, but in reality I think that they are emblematic of our current uneasy relationship with the natural world.

A roof garden in California - local flora massed for ornamental and ecological impact
While news regarding the environment is continually gloomy – climate change, deforestation and biodiversity issues continue to worsen it seems, no matter how much we say we want to make amends – we appear to be seeking a way of both salving our consciences as well as creating little bits of nature to return to from the pressures of the modern world.  That is what gardens have always been, of course, but the yearning to have a patch of ground that looks as though it could be a piece of unimproved nature seems to be getting stronger.  Seed mixes for meadows can be tweaked for their aesthetic value, and while they may help to improve biodiversity, a similar effect can be created in most traditional gardens by letting the lawn grow a bit weedy and leaving flowering stems to stand through the winter.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the new styles of naturalistic meadows and prairies, engineered plant communities and green roofs – I just don’t think we should fool ourselves that we are making anything less artificial than a traditional garden.  The biggest benefits come from the maintenance regimes we adopt, and these can become wildlife-friendly no matter what our preferred style of gardening.  The danger of ‘going wild’ is that, in small spaces, any sense of underlying structure is lost, and gardens lack focus.  On an appropriately large scale there is still scope for areas of naturalistic planting within an established layout.

Gardening with a light touch - drifts of plausibly 'native' plants in a woodland setting

Dan Pearson reflected yesterday that he hopes, in large areas of his new garden, to allow nature to have the upper hand – by careful editing, restrained addition and sympathetic management he aims to create his garden from what is there, on the ground.  Perhaps this is as close as we will get to a truly naturalistic garden  – but it will still be a garden.

Enhanced by Zemanta