The Oracle of Jury

Mark was very taken by a succinct description of what makes a good garden – “I look for plenty of plant interest and good design to lead me through.” He was watching the County Organiser assessing for Britain’s Yellow Book scheme at the time, screened on Sky television. The quality of the gardens applying for assessment can be very patchy but the calibre of the County Organisers who manage the gardens for their region is usually high.

It is not that long ago that garden design ruled supreme and plants were mere soft furnishings. In fact the designers held such prestige that they felt completely justified in advocating mass plantings of a single variety as The Only Way to good design and completely dismissing gardens which preferred variation in the form of many different plants, often planted in groups of one. Patchy, spotty, formless, some would sniff. There was little expectation that designers and landscapers would know their plants. Indeed even architects could confidently wade into the area of garden design, bringing their knowledge of space, proportion, building materials and good design but knowing next to nothing at best (and often less) about plants.

Prior to the landscapers and designers seizing the prestigious higher ground in gardening, we had quite a lengthy era when the gardens of the common populace (which takes in most of New Zealand) were all about plants and very little about design. The zenith of garden design here was captured in what is now referred to as Kiwi Hosepipe Style. That, of course, is where the gardener laid out the garden hose to get a natural looking curve or a more radical series of undulating curves which gave the lines to follow with the spade. Many readers will still have gardens firmly anchored in that tradition. In those earlier days, garden prestige lay far more in being able to proudly display rare or unusual plants, a value we took on from Victorian England where plant hunters were revered for their efforts in delivering up ever more novelties for collectors at home.

The simplest explanation is that it is only in recent times that many property owners have had sufficient money to pay others to realise some outdoor dining and entertaining visions on their behalf. When there was a great deal less disposable income, the DIY ethic was deeply ingrained. The hard landscaping required by most good design was way beyond the budget of all but the wealthiest and there was little done in most gardens. But the home gardener certainly compensated with a detailed knowledge and practical experience with plants which would shame many modern gardeners.

So what is really interesting about the County Organiser’s comment, with which I started, is that it married the two aspects of plant interest and good design as being necessary in a garden of any quality. Not only that, but good design is not treated as an end in itself but as a tool to facilitate movement through the garden space.

There are precedents for this marriage of design and plants and one of the most illustrious comes in the form of two significant Britons around the start of the twentieth century. Edwin Lutyens was an architect who also turned his hand to garden design. His houses were truly beautiful, as was his mastery of windows and light. So too were his garden designs a gifted use of space and proportion, very formal and completely dominated by plenty of magnificent stonework and bricks in walls, terraces, steps, water features and all the rest. He also gave us the Lutyens outdoor seat which is now probably mass produced in Asia but at its best is a classic and well proportioned piece of furniture.

But, and it is a huge but, having designed a magnificent formal space, he did not then fill it with clipped topiary and only five different plants laid out like soldiers on a parade ground. No, he handed the space over to his colleague, the revered gardener Gertrude Jekyll who then set about filling all the spaces and softening the hard lines with a riot of flowers and colour through the seasons. Jekyll is famous for her work on herbaceous borders with big drifts of colour and texture put together with the eye of an artist, but she was also a plantswoman using a wide range of plant material to enliven and blur the hard edges of the otherwise somewhat sterile formal design.

The Lutyens Kekyll partnership would not have come cheaply. No DIY going on there. But 100 years on, we have seen the preserve of the fine garden extend well down the social and financial ladder so that it is no longer the preserve of the wealthy upper classes. The democratisation of gardening, we might call it. Firstly through the most fundamental skills of learning how to grow and show plants to advantage, secondly through learning to value the aesthetic of good design and ways to manage this on a much smaller budget and hopefully now into the era when we successfully bring together both the plant interest and good design in the domestic garden.

So should anybody ever advise you to simplify the plantings in your garden, you may wish to smile serenely and consider, according to the Oracle of Jury, that advice is just so last century. If your advisor knew more, they may well say that your plant combinations are not good enough – that is the way you put all your many and varied plants together in the garden. Or they may mean that the design and flow within your garden is not good enough to carry the collection of plants you have amassed. But it is a cop-out or a non-gardener’s solution to say that all will be rectified by drastically reducing the number of varieties of plants you grow. Really good gardens are a blending of many interesting plants grown in good combinations and held together by excellent design. It is all a bit like love and marriage and the horse and carriage.

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