Monday, 21 September 2015

What do you look for in a garden?

I've been thinking a lot recently about gardens.....
No surprise there I hear you say, but what I have really been thinking about is what I find makes a garden successful and seeing if I could pinpoint the answer. Obviously stunning planting schemes help but often that isn't enough, and sometimes however beautiful the planting, I feel let down by places that I thought would be mind blowing.
Now there is no doubt that plants and the way they are used is a hugely important part of a successful design. For me, and this is purely a personal thing, I find too much hard landscaping often overwhelms me and that if the majority of the design isn't planting or plant related that I struggle. I'm not a fan of lots of stone, unless it's a drystone wall in which case I'm in heaven, and I think the decade of Titchmarsh blue we had in the 90's put me off coloured fencing for life!
And then the love for a drystone wall made me really think. It brought back memories of the North Yorkshire moors and the Dales that I spent my childhood exploring. It reminded me of my mum who became a bit of a drystone master and made many in her garden, often using them to differentiate between one space and the next. It made me think about the little cracks we found ferns on the moors and the mosses I was fascinated by. And it occured to me that this was interesting, not because I only loved a garden with a drystone wall, but because all the gardens I really admire and return to over and over, fit in the landscape they sit in. They feel like they should be there. They speak to and of the landscape that surrounds them, regardless of native plants or drystone walls. They feel like they have always been there.
And that feeling of belonging is a very clever and quite wondrous thing because not that many, or many that I have found, really have it. Large historic gardens, with their history and their traditions, often leave me asking why everyone raves about them, and I think this is why. Often they are a very beautiful space attached to their house, but often also they are not meant to be a part of any landscape that surrounds the gardens and hence ar just a well put together (or not), collection of plants.
So, I hear you ask, give us examples.......
Great Dixter is one such place with it's stunning topiary and mixed herbaceous borders that lead into meadows and in turn into the counrtyside beyond. There's the most incredible views from the area by the entrance gate and the way the meadows coccoon the main garden leads you gently out into the Sussex countryside beyond. At once you are held in the garden, in a safe and beautiful space that feels a little removed from the world, but always reminded of the countryside by the meandering meadows with their orchids and other native meadow plants that are rarely a part of the planting palette in a garden.
Veddw, the garden of Anne Wareham in Monmouthshire, does just the same and although I know Anne will hate me likening Veddw to Great Dixter, the way the gardens sit in the landscape talk directly of each other. At Veddw the history of the site that is spoken of in the garden, the woodland and the meadows again seat the garden firmly in the landscape and make it feel as if it has been there for a thousand years, overlooking the views; contemplative and at some points dark but always right and just.
The garden of the designer Tom Stuart-Smith is another space that sits comfortably, even though in the front garden is a reworked example of one of his RHS Chelsea gardens, with dark pools and Hakonechloa, as you walk through the space the boundary between the garden and the north Buckinghamshire landscape is blurred by meadow that leads into the farmland beyond. Whilst at once designed it is also seated to it's spot in the world, and speaks of the land around it.

This photo is of the meadows behind Great Dixter, leading up to the succulent steps, but it could as easily be a village green that the house sits next to or even fields leading up to the house. The meadows, while being part of the garden are a tool that seats the garden into the surrounding countryside, whilst still being very much a part of the garden. Considering the vibrancy of the planting, particularly in the tropical garden, it could also be seen as the meadows buffering the countryside from some of the garden!!
This picture of the Veddw shows a view from the garden across to the countryside beyond. The whole garden sits within the space as though it has been there for centuries which is not something that I find is either thought about often, let alone actually managed.
So thinking about all of these things I think for me a successful garden is far more than a design or a collection of stunning plants, but more about the space in which that design or collection lives and how it talks to and of it's surroundings.
With that in mind, off I toddle to see a botanic garden in a park I spent hours in as a child and which I had no idea was there-I wonder how that will fit into it's space........

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