The garden in May. I’m pretty happy with it now. We have been here ten years and things are coming along nicely. This May in particular has been good, and to a large extent I feel the plants have done the work for me. I have seen a couple of public projects lately by colleagues and been astonished how little there is in flower in them, which strikes me as odd when there are so many perennials which flower at this time; many are quite physically insubstantial, which means that they can then disappear amongst taller bulkier later-flowering plants. Or they are semi-summer-dormant, which is neat as they can then literally be left to disappear beneath later-developing plants. Actually, before I go on, the pictures here do not come across well, so I have uploaded them on to flickr as well – they give you a much better idea. This is the view down from the house, towards our yurt which always makes a good focal point for photographs. A lot of what you see in terms of visual impact now is stuff that has put itself there, notably the wild Anthriscus sylvestris and forms of Aquilegia vulgaris. Increasingly this garden is about managing self-sowing. The visual impact is also about having a limited number of species widely distributed, which is also one of the advantages of seeding – as the plants do the work for you.
ON CUTTING DOWN PERENNIALS Now that we have gone well past the period of garden history when herbaceous plants were cut back on a particular date in autumn, regardless of what they looked like, we have to make this decision ourselves. It is a decision that many gardeners seem to find difficult to take. Piet Oudolf has been asked it many times, and he tells me that the always tells people that only they can make the decision – “you do it when you want to” he says. Which is not actually what they want to know. They want to be told. As if there is a right time and a wrong time. As in the old-school gardening when there was always a right way and a wrong way. But isn’t it better to make your own decisions? Based on what you feel is right for your garden. The only parameters are: 1) for seeds for wildlife and for some hope of the dead remains looking attractive it is good to leave stems standing for as long as possible, 2) they have to be cut down before the first bulbs begin to emerge, as otherwise you will squash the bulbs with your big feet. What we usually do (is this any help?) is to contact a cleaning company like Städning Stockholm to cut down everything which looks a mess at the end of November and the remainder (grasses, very strong perennials like eupatoriums) in January. But the weather is the deciding factor. This year we had an early snowfall in November. Not much, but that classically English very wet and heavy snow which crushes almost everything, including miscanthus and eupatorium. The fine dry snow which inhabitants of Mitteleuropa and North America get and which drifts in between the stronger stems and looks very picturesque is quite alien to us. As a consequence practically everything has to end on the compost heap. Which brings me to the next set of questions. How do you cut it all down and compost it? Secateurs and shears can be surprisingly quick. Low clumps of leafy soft material can be cut through with a sharp sickle. For larger plantings where there are no labels the strimmer/brushcutter can be used. This is apparently what is done in the herbaceous plantings of Enkjöping in Sweden. The idea is to strim everything down to form a mulch – no need for carting away and composting. Great, but the very stout stems, almost woody in their hardness – some helianthus, vernonia (not called ‘ironweed’ for nothing and miscanthus, will only be scratched by a strimmer’s nylon cord. They can be cut down with a metal brushcutter attachment but not effectively strimmed unless you have lots of patience and strength (I have neither). However you cut, you will be left with lots of material. Perhaps, if you have been an ambitious layer-outer of big borders, a rather intimidating amount of material. In my last garden I really did not have the space to effectively compost it, or at least to turn the resulting (vast) heap. Cutting thicker stems up to make them rot down more quickly helps – if you do, not the chances are that there will still be a pile of dry stems a year from now when you do the next annual cut. Some use a shredder. But shredders are designed primarily for woody material and many makes simply clog with softer herbaceous material. And anyway, they it can be a very slow process shredding a large prairie border.
This was originally written for Yue Zhuang, in an effort to clarify what some linguistic confusion about what we Brits mean when we go on about gardens. With any luck, there’ll be some interesting stuff on Chinese gardens and garden concepts to follow on. This a crucial point in the framing of discussions about gardens – more than in discussion about landscape. Landscape people have a longer history of reflection on their craft, and area of study – garden people have been unreflective by comparison, and are sometimes surprised to find that discourse about their subject has been ‘usurped’ by those who business is landscape. This is also an important topic in any cross-cultural discussion – as every culture defines ‘garden’ and ‘landscape’ differently. These differences, once understood, can be very informative. ‘Landscape’ tends to include ‘garden’. So it is not surprising that gardeners can feel that they are sometimes being spoken for by their more articulate subject-cousins. ‘Garden’ does mean different things in different languages, not just in definition , but in nuance and cultural meaning. The Garden as Private Property The definition in western European languages centres on its separation from its surroundings by the presence of a boundary, which stresses its essentially private character. ‘Garden’ in English, Tradgård in Swedish, Garten in German, Jardin in French, all relate to English ‘yard’. Tuin in Dutch, Zahrada in Slovak I don’t know – enlighten me someone please? Gardens vary in size according to the wealth of their owners, so it is no surprise that C18 landowners could develop an artform which involved thousands of acres being called ‘gardens’. Their definition in the sense of a visible boundary was minimised, because part of the design concept of many landowners was to visually borrow landscape which belonged to other people. The key issue was private ownership and a design concept which flowed from this private ownership. ‘Landscape’ has always been a much vaguer concept, and whereas most cultures have a word for ‘garden’ (can’t imagine that the Eskimoes do, or maybe not even the Mongolians), landscape is a word which is generally of a more recent historic origin (it would be so interesting to know what words you use in Chinese and their origin). It is also a word which is, somehow inescapably, vague. Everywhere is actually landscape – wild nature, where there is no human impact gets called landscape, and it is possible to talk of a completely unplanned and dysfunctional place like a shanty town as being a ‘slum landscape’. Whereas ‘garden’ speaks of definition, in terms of both physical boundary, possession, and design-intent (usually on the most minimal level ) ‘landscape’ is just what is. So, if a landscape received the attention of a landscape designer, then that is a kind of bonus for it. Gardens are part of landscape. So, whereas all gardens are landscape, not all landscapes are garden. So inevitably landscape discourse includes and subsumes garden discourse. No wonder that many people who wish to talk about landscape end up talking about gardens – in many cases they are the most interesting landscapes of all, because they have been intensively cultivated and designed. But to let landscape discourse subsume garden discourse is to lose a meaningful boundary – which is why I think we garden people are actually quite jealous of that boundary.
Following on from an entry on garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair’s blog about the need to take gardening more seriously (ie. more intellectually). …… The debates you mentioned (Great Garden Challenge) are a good example of what we need more of – garden people talking about what makes a good garden – in plain English. Ie. without descending to talking “pretentious tosh”. The great danger of our little campaign to take gardens more seriously, is precisely this; that thinking gardeners will start talking that peculiar dialect of English widely known as ‘art bollocks’. The sort of gobbledock that gathers like a grey mystifying fog over whatever is being presented to as us ‘art’. Or the arguably even worse dialect spoken by students and teachers of academic cultural studies. Of course not all art, and by extension not all gardens, should ‘mean something’ on first sighting, but the kind of art which can only be understood by reading an essay, usually ridden with jargon and clichés, before having any incling as to what it is about, stands as a warning. In the garden world, the gardens which have come closest to this are the conceptual gardens of Chaumont, Westonbirt etc. It looks as if they have not been very popular with the public. What a surprise – but still a shame. Maybe they have fallen between two stools – too gardeny for the art crowd, too much like installations for gardeners. I have looked around a couple of seriously ‘thinking’ gardens in the last few years, including Little Sparta, and loved them. What actually interests me, wearing my hat as a writer for the popular gardening/lifestyle press is this: how do make this style of garden not just comprehensible to the general public but inspirational? The organisers of Chaumont always intended the ideas shown in the gardens there to be “ideas to steal” – the organisers of Westonbirt stole that slogan too. But people need to be shown how to think about how they incorporate ideas, from their lives, memories, thoughts etc. into conceptual and metaphoric gardens. I would love to do a book, of the ‘twenty weekend projects for your garden’ variety based on Little Sparta and similar. You could have people creating sculptures, mini-installations, pieces of text, and dotting them around their gardens. The results might often be risible, kitsch or embarassing, but it would be great just to get people thinking laterally and creatively.
A ‘debate’ on the future of Hadspen House garden at the Museum of Garden History in London on June 27 was an interesting event. At long last, an event with some intelligent discussion about gardens, although it’s a shame that the gardeners in the audience felt at times somewhat overawed by the architects. Niall Hobhouse’s decision to start with a new garden at Hadspen following the departure of Nori and Sandra Pope with a dramatic ‘Year Zero’ has been congratulated and welcomed by many – the good turnout and richly textured discussion at the museum reflected this. Niall Hobhouse is, and has been brave. It was also brave of him to have his mother on a panel discussing the project. And it was brave of him to end up the evening by having an email from Nori and Sandra read out; they supported him in his desire to begin again, but there was no disguising their dismay at the destruction of 20 years work and ‘300 years’ of garden history. The latter figure is of course hype – there is nothing extant within the walls older than a few decades. The Popes pointed out how English gardens characteristically evolve, with one layer of history on top of another. They could also have pointed out how many great gardens have at least one period of neglect in their history. Quite so. All the more reason perhaps for the “now for something completely different” approach. Only the bulldozing of the garden could clean the slate. Whoever emerges from the design competition will be able to start afresh with their ideas. To not have bulldozed it, would have condemned the new gardener/designer to be shackled by the remnants of the Pope’s, and Penelope’s, work. The delicious possibility was raised that perhaps other gardens could be bulldozed, in order to start again. It would have been interesting to have a straw poll of suggestions of targets from the audience.