Pictorial or immersive gardens (part 2) – mostly immersive style because that is what interests us more

Part one is here.  You may wish to check the definitions of pictorial and immersive gardens. 

The designers whose work we seek out – often travelling great distances across England to do so – are Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson, James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett with the work coming out from Sheffield University and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Bradley-Hole.

More pictorial than immersive – the Oudolf borders at Wisley RHS

We started with that giant of the New Perennials movement, Piet Oudolf. Who doesn’t? We have seen Oudolf’s work in several places – including Wisley, Trentham Gardens, Scampston, Pensthorpe and Bury Court. I like the controversial glasshouse borders at Wisley (though not so much on the last visit when they had all been freshly mulched in gravel which I found a bit too utility) though I acknowledge that they are more pictorial than immersive. Mark finds them a bit stripey. Our least favourite was Scampston which led me to think that he is probably a better plantsman than designer. Mark is given to describing some of his work as being ‘contemporary Gertrude Jekyll on steroids’ – particularly the large-scale work at places like Trentham and Pensthorpe.

Immersive Oudolf at Bury Court – also the difference between a domestic garden and public work

My absolute favourite is his very early commission on the walled garden at Bury Court. It really is magical and part of that is the scale which is much smaller, more detailed and domestic in nature. What designers create in private commissions is very different to what they do on large scale, public projects and it is interesting seeing both, even though our main focus is domestic gardens. The third aspect is what they do in their own private garden but we have missed the opportunity to see that with Oudolf. He closed his private garden, Hummelo, in the Netherlands last year.

On our July trip, we had scheduled in a visit to the much acclaimed new Oudolf gardens at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset as well as his early work at Potters Field in London that we have not yet seen.

Stuart-Smith at Mount St John in Yorkshire

We first saw Tom Stuart-Smith’s work at Wisley, too – the border plantings that edge the glasshouse lake. It was a bit early in the season and more recently planted, I think, and we weren’t blown away by it on that first visit. Subsequent visits have made us appreciate it more. The privilege of visiting his private commission at Mount St John in Yorkshire was different altogether. The sunny parterre immediately in front of the rather grand residence was sublime. Sure it was large scale and big budget. From memory, it is the home of a supermarket magnate. But it was a garden that invited you in to experience walking through it while it stretched out to the wider landscape beyond. My photos don’t do it justice.

More traditional  pictorial design at Mt St John – still the work of Stuart-Smith

Immersive design. The hedge at the far side is all that separates this garden from the more traditional one above

Just by way of illustrating the difference between immersive and pictorial gardens, look at these two side by side. It was the fully planted parterre that drew us in and made us catch our breaths in delight. Immediately adjacent to that, also in front of the house and looking out to the view was a more conventional lawn flanked by twin borders. Same designer, same location – two very different experiences. While admiring the horticultural excellence of the latter, it didn’t draw me in and make me want to linger as the more detailed and planted parterre did.

We have also seen his work at Trentham Gardens where most photos I have seen don’t do it justice. The photos I saw on line and in books all made those enormous parterres look very bitsy. In real life, the plantings are large and exuberant and they wrap around, obliterating that bitsy look that is a legacy of historic design features. Visiting a garden in person is a very different experience to looking at photos or videos.

On our July visit, we were planning to rush down from Shropshire to catch the Wednesday opening at Broughton Grange – another private commission of his. We really wanted to visit in person because we have only seen it in photos and it features that Stuart-Smith trademark of clipped caterpillar hedges undulating through a parterre. It was the inspiration for our own caterpillar garden at home which has nothing to do with caterpillars but is defined by the undulating internal hedging.

Bradley-Hole at Bury Court

So too was Christopher Bradley-Hole’s grass garden at Bury Court a direct inspiration. There is another private garden of his design and execution that is sometimes open by appointment. I found it last trip – in Surrey, I think – but we just ran out of time. I was planning to find it again and see if we could include it this time.

Early Pearson at Torrecchia Vecchia

We came to the work of Dan Pearson a little later. We have seen an example of his early work at Torrecchia Vecchia in Italy, his public sector work around the Kings Cross redevelopment in London and the perfection of a smaller, private commission in the Cotswolds. It is such gentle, but inspirational gardening. On this visit, we planned to go to Chatsworth Castle, specifically to search out his part of the garden. As I recall, it was a re-creation of this that won him gold at Chelsea a few years ago. Then we were heading north to see his ongoing work at Lowther Castle. My impression is that it is a softer, more English take on a romantic garden in the style of Ninfa in Italy but I have only seen photos.

Pearson perfection in a private Cotswolds garden. This was my first choice of image but then I went away and thought I have done exactly what I have referred to – picked the one section of the garden that is full of sharp detail and more pictorial in style.

Parts of the garden were like this…

and this. Maybe what made this garden so successful is the sensitive marriage of both pictorial and immersive styles in the one domestic space.

While in the north, we were going to take in the historic topiary at Levens Hall because we are not only going to look at the modern gardens and experiencing some of the historical work gives  context to what followed. I would happily have gone back to see Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s private garden, Gresgarth, which is in the same area (roughly speaking) if time allowed.

The enchanting Hitchmough meadow at Wisley in its early days

I have written often about the magic of James Hitchmough’s Missouri Meadow garden at Wisley when we first saw it in 2009. Magic is not too strong a word, even 11 years later. It was enchanting. We also watched it disintegrate and lose all its charm on subsequent visits and that is what made us interested in seeing how some of these looser, more naturalistic plantings mature over time. It made us realise that no gardens are maintenance free though some are lighter on maintenance requirements. And different skills are needed to manage such plantings. Given that Wisley is staffed with some of the very best and keenest horticulturists in the country, I am sure that major lessons have been learned. We wanted to see what those lessons were and how management of these plantings has evolved both by the designers and those tasked with their ongoing maintenance.

More recently, Dunnett at Trentham Gardens

Hitchmough and his colleague, Nigel Dunnett, were both leading lights in the much-acclaimed Olympic Park landscaping which we visited several years later. Also Dunnett at the Barbican rooftop garden in London, though it was the unexpected discovery of his work at Trentham Gardens that was the greatest highlight. That has been extended greatly (Trentham extends most things greatly, really) and we wanted to see both the newly planted areas and how those original plantings had matured.

We were also planning to spend two nights in Sheffield to look at their public sector work on greening the grey of the inner city. But the real highlight was when I found that their private, home gardens were both opening one Sunday afternoon for the National Gardens Scheme. I structured the whole itinerary of our UK leg around that Sunday afternoon. This would complete the set of having seen public sector work, private commissions and how they choose to garden in their own space. Maybe even meeting them and being able to talk briefly. We were also planning to see James Hitchmough’s borders at the Oxford University botanic gardens which are reputedly excellent and lasting the distance better than his earlier meadow at Wisley.

Wildside – created by a master gardener and plantsman

Finally, we had arranged to return to Wildside, one of the most innovative and exciting gardens we have seen, created not by a designer but by a plantsman. We are really sorry to miss the opportunity to meet with Keith Wiley again, especially as he has now started work on the last area he had to develop.

Wiley at Wildside in 2014. Keith was explaining his plans for his last area to be developed – now under way.

When an unsolicited invitation arrived to visit the private garden of a leading designer – you don’t ask for such a privilege, you understand – we were a-quiver with excitement. In the end, we couldn’t make our dates fit so it was not to be. This is perhaps just as well because it would have escalated our disappointment to a whole new level when everything had to be cancelled.

And that was the trip that was not to be in this strange era we are living through.

NB: If you want to know more about any of the gardens or designers mentioned here, a Google search will bring up a wealth of information. Putting the name in the search box on the top right of this page will bring up more information and photos on most of them from our personal perspective. 


Alliums at Mount St John. It was interesting going through my photos. In pictorial gardens, I tend to have framed landscape views and vistas or photographs of man-made focal points. In immersive gardens, I mostly take photos on a close-up scale – and many more of them at that. My photos are much more about colour, plant combinations and plant forms.


16 thoughts on “Pictorial or immersive gardens (part 2) – mostly immersive style because that is what interests us more

  1. Elaine Bolitho

    Sorry I missed the moment earlier! Thank you so much Abbie for these two fascinating posts and for sharing your pictures and comments from the gardens and designers you were so looking forward to revisiting or exploring. I feel with you and Mark for your treat postponed. I can really see now what you mean about immersive gardens. I like the ones with the suggestion of a path taking you into it – must be a legacy of Mum’s ‘Don’t walk on the garden!’ injunctions!
    On a completely different note- I am currently working on writing about Trelissick House and Gardens (National trust site in Cornwall) to complement an article on Trelissick Park in Ngaio for our local Historical Society Journal. We visited in 2000 and how I wish now we had taken more pix of where Captain Edward Daniell grew up during his father’s ownership of Trelissick. (He named the early Ngaio farm after his home and the Ngaio land is now being restored to native plantings) I am looking for any pix I can find of the Cornish Trelissick, and immersing myself in how it feels to be there. Please do you happen to have any pix that you could share from having visited there?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the posts Elaine. What a fascinating project you are working on but I am sorry – we have never been to Trelissick so no photos.

  2. Pat Webster

    Your distinction between immersive and pictorial gardens gives me much to think about. I don’t think there is a hard line between the two and you made that point clearly in the Mount St. John photos. It’s interesting to note that by reviewing your photos you discovered that the two types of gardens produced different results. Does that suggest that each is succeeding on its own terms?

    I’ve visited most of the gardens you mention and at some point I may review my own photos to see if I responded in a similar fashion.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Hello Pat. I don’t think one is better than the other but our personal interests have us looking more closely at the immersive style rather than the more traditional pictorial style. And I think some gardens can successfully integrate both in different areas at the same location. But I still lean to the view that it is generally either immersive or pictorial but rarely both in the same immediate space. However, I am open to debate on this. Another aspect that I haven’t even touched on is that the immersive style is typically a great deal more environmentally friendly, at its best ecologically sound. That is where the Dunnett and Hitchmough work really comes into its own. Many of the dubious practices related to controlling nature are more commonly seen in pictorial gardens – spraying lawns to keep the immaculate, mowing them frequently to ‘keep them sharp’, excessive attention to control and tidiness. And I am quite possibly rebelling against a gardening hierarchy here in NZ which has placed that very English pictorial garden approach on a pedestal at the top of the class.

  3. James Golden

    I recognize The Old Rectory at Naunton, which I visited several years ago and blogged about (https://federaltwist.com/the-old-rectory-at-naunton/). I’ll have to revisit it in light of your distinction between pictorial and immersive gardens. I can see your point about its blending of the two approaches. Coincidentally, I also heard James Hitchmough talk about his Wisley garden at the Klinta conference in Lund, Sweden, a couple of years back. He specifically addressed the inability of the Wisley staff to understand the ecological needs of his garden there, and its resulting failure, which he covered in detail. It’s such a pleasure to find these connections in your writing.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      That is such a beautiful garden, is it not? Our responses to it are completely in tune. I recall the skill that went into maintenance too – such a deft hand to keep the place so perfect but not intrusively starched, as many immaculate gardens are.
      I recall reading something via Timber Press, I think, when James Hitchmough expressed his disappointment at the maintenance techniques. That is why we were looking forward to seeing more, a few years down the track – including how his African meadow at Wisley has matured. I can’t imagine the same mistakes being repeated. At least, I wouldn’t expect them to be.

      1. James Golden

        The two gardeners at The Old Rectory still help Dan with his own garden. They were there the day we visited. I believe Jacky (one of them) has an article in the most recent Gardens Illustrated. Did you see Hitchmough’s Merton Borders at Oxford Botanical Garden? I believe they have been a much greater success over the years.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Jackie and Ian, are they? We were envious of the levels of skills available in UK gardeners. I see from one of Dan’s latest posts that they come and work with him in his garden every Saturday. I had forgotten I had James Hitchmough’s Oxford borders on our itinerary, too. Must add them to my post. We were looking forward to seeing those.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    You have convinced me that the immersive style is what I have loved all along though, I must confess, that the eye is very easily taken by the pictorial, the good photo opportunity, the framed scene. I realise our own garden leans very much towards the immersive but that is because of circumstances – our finances have never allowed the addition of structure in the garden so we have always worked with plants only. We talked about this only yesterday as we worked in the garden and feel that it is most suitable as we are in a rural setting and formality and hard landscaping would jar with that.

    On Trentham: I enjoyed Piet Oudolf’s planting very much – something which surprised me a little – and I hated the treatment of the parterres as I felt the planting swamped them and they lost their design and definition. The planting was not at all sympathetic with the setting – and important historic design which was obviously considered important enough to be retained though a new planting was introduced. As it was considered important enough to be retained I think it should have been planted in a manner which better suited it.

    Also, re Trentham: having to endure the tattiness of the “retail village” before getting to the garden was a horror.

    Keith Wiley’s “Wildside” – simply divine! I first visited very shortly he started work, reshaping the ground and I thought he was crazy. Thank goodness for crazy people!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Ha! That is the conundrum of NZ gardens – few are sufficiently wealthy to get the high quality structures and ornamentation to do justice to the classic pictorial style they are emulating. Tanalised timber, ponga logs and hypertufa reproductions are never really going to be successful. Our garden, too, is very light on structures and much of that has been determined by budget.
      Interesting, your comments on Trentham and particularly the Tom Stuart Smith plantings. I would need to have another look. At the time, I was just relieved that they had not continued the naff bedding plant theme shown on the top parterre closest to the old house across the whole area. (Have you read my earlier post on Trentham? https://jury.co.nz/2017/07/27/a-garden-destination-for-all-tastes-and-expectations-trentham-in-stoke-on-trent/ ) I have never related to that bitsy, Italianate design so I didn’t mind it being somewhat masked. And the Swiss chalet naff style of the retail village was indeed tackiness personified.
      So glad you agree on Keith Wiley’s garden. It is one that is absolute stand-out for us though certainly not to everyone’s taste. It is not often that brilliant plantspeople and collectors are also brilliant gardeners.

  5. Christine Prebble

    I think you have hit the nail on the head when you say that purely immersive gardens are mostly plantsmans or gardeners gardens, or designers who choose to work in a plant-based naturalistic way. I visited the Hauser and Wirth perennial field in Somerset last year – very interesting botanically with plants from all over the world, and I took many close up photos of the clever and almost surreal combinations of perennials juxtaposed against each other. It’s a pretty dreamscape but that purely naturalistic style is lacking something for me, even with the spaceship classroom in the distance.

    Levens Hall is almost the opposite experience with every plant shaped by hand and I really loved this quirky and historic garden but not something to replicate.

    I find that some structure within the naturalistic (immersive) planting provides that counterpoint which balances it and brings it alive. That structure doesn’t have to be ancient buildings or expensive fountains or traditional parterres and certainly not Victorian bedding schemes. It can be some contemporary shape be it hard landscaping, an arrangement of trees, green structure such as a clipped blocks of planting but it is definitely something shaped by design ( such as T. Stuart-Smiths beech columns at Wisley which are amazing at the end of autumn when the perennials are finished).

    A little bit of structure goes a long way as a counterpoint but if it isn’t there at all, I find that challenging.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I see we are on the same page on this. If there is no structure at all, it tends to be more of a casual meadow and I have no problem with that. But structure gives focus and design to plantings that are not meadow style. And that structure can take many forms, as you say. Thanks for your comments.

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