“He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”
Horace Walpole from ‘On Modern Gardening’ (1780)
In New Zealand, we tend to place a very high value on tidy gardens. Edges, hedges and lawns, as I once heard a prominent gardener espouse. Attend to those and the rest of the garden will look fine – although, if it is a garden open to the public, it must also be weed-free.
I call this garden grooming, the outside equivalent of housework. It is a never-ending task to keep a garden manicured, but it is a matter of pride for many. You will likely be judged by your neighbours, relatives and visitors on how tidy your place is.
All those sharp lines and tidy edges give a high level of definition to a garden that makes for good photographs but they do not make my heart swell with joy.
When I set out in 2009 to get to grips with contemporary summer gardens, primarily in the UK and parts of Europe, I was jolted out of that preoccupation with orderly, tidy gardens. There is a whole lot happening there and not much of it has to do with tidiness. I saw a generous profusion in the modern plantings, a fresh energy and vitality in the scale, the colour and the size of the plants that were never going to straitjacketed into obedience in a nice, orderly manner.
Current trends overseas are referred to as the Dutch New Wave, New Perennials, the new naturalism, naturalistic gardening, Piet Oudolf-inspired, prairie planting, the meadow revival, the Sheffield School movement and more. They all share certain features which come down to a principle of gardening with Nature, not gardening by controlling Nature. Many gardens sit on the landscape; these gardens sit within the landscape.
My gardening and life partner, Mark, and I landed on the term of ‘romantic gardening’ – a softer-edged, more naturalistic style that blurs the lines between the garden and the wider landscape. It is a different way of looking and it takes a different approach to managing the garden.
“You must go to Ninfa,” English friends and colleagues said to us when we first started talking about romantic gardening. The English love Ninfa, which is in southern Italy near the charmless city of Latina. Sometimes it is even described as “the world’s most romantic garden”. Essentially, it is a looser, voluptuous style of gardening set within the ruins of an entire small town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. How can the result not be romantic? It was very different to all the classic, grand Italian gardens where formality and structure gives the framework and the planting is largely an afterthought.
We also visited Torrecchia Vecchia nearby: a smaller, private garden which emulated some of the Ninfa style. It, too, was created around ruins, this time of a small village. On the day, I admit I was not blown away by its beauty, although it had some lovely areas. In retrospect, it has given me more to think about because it was a modern interpretation of what the Italians call the ‘romantic English style’. This is not surprising when you know it was created in the mid 1990s by leading English designer, Dan Pearson.
Given New Zealand’s distinct lack of abandoned villages, small towns or anything in ancient stone, we need to strip away the underpinning physical structures of these gardens to see what could work here. Trying to re-create the magic of historic Italy in tanalised timber or ponga logs is really not going to cut the mustard.
Without the human-made structures, the layers of history and romantic back stories that typically characterise ‘romantic gardens’ elsewhere, we looked to the natural landforms, plants and management strategies instead. “Enhancing Nature”, Mark likes to call it.
For us, a romantic garden is one where the overriding sense is of being in the garden, rather than looking at the garden. English garden writer, Tim Richardson, talks about the difference between pictorial gardens and immersive gardens. Pictorial gardens are those where your eyes take in a pleasing view, where design and structure are usually the key elements. That is why they photograph well. Immersive gardens are more about the wrap-around experience, enveloping you in the movement, texture and colour of the close-up view.
This softer-edged approach of working in cooperation with Nature is underpinned by increasingly important principles – sustainability, support for natural eco-systems, better environmental practices, harmony and respect – while placing a high value on both prettiness and beauty. It is sometimes a celebration of the simplicity, rather than grandeur.
Romantic gardening is not tied to a particular garden design style: it can work with cottage-style, woodland, meadow, sunny perennials, or even just a suburban section. The exception is a formal garden which requires strict maintenance and precision for its impact.
It is a way of looking with different eyes and a different mind-set translating into gentler ways to maintain the garden. Moving away from sharp definition and excessive tidiness means a softer-edged garden, a blurring of hard lines so paths and garden are more seamless, where plants are not corseted into submission but allowed to festoon – but within reason. Instead of focal points, we limb up taller plants to create views through and to highlight the play of light and shade. In some areas, we let the grass grow long and just mow paths.
We still have parts of our garden that are maintained to a high level, but not too many and generally closer to the house. I may look at the tidy areas with satisfaction when they are looking spruce but it is the looser areas that can make my heart sing.
The Higo iris in the meadow down in the park, the flowering cherries in the Wild North Garden dropping their petals on the water, the voluptuous helianthus with the tall grasses flowering in autumn, the disorderly jumble of colours and blooms in the bee and butterfly garden – all these make me happy in ways that tidy formality does not.
First published in Woman Magazine March 2022 and reprinted here with their permission