Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Green breathing space

Informal green space at Pettifers in Oxfordshire, a private garden created by Gina Price

Have you ever walked around a garden that is so full, hectic even, that you come out feeling exhausted? I have. Several in fact, but one in particular. I don’t like to show a photo of it because while I think he may have died, I am pretty sure a number of his friends will read this. It is an affliction more commonly seen in small urban gardens where the owner is so keen that they want to use every bit of available space. And uncultivated space is seen as wasted space.

I am sure that trained garden designers are taught the value of incorporating open space – part of what is often referred to as ‘negative space’, I think. I call it breathing space – a restful area which gives respite in a particularly busy garden. But not many of us use skilled garden designers and the notion that quiet areas need as much attention in planning as actively maintained areas filled with plants and colour may be a foreign idea.

Wild green space at Hestercomb

In practice, most of us use mown grass to achieve this. When I first wrote about green breathing spaces in 2010, I clearly had not looked past the garden lawn as an option. And we still have extensive grass lawns and pathways that we mow to fill this function. Mark is missing Lloyd during lockdown here as the mowing of the grass is his role. Yesterday, Mark hopped on the new lawnmower and headed over to mow our tenants’ lawns across the road. He came back somewhat stunned at how fast the new Walker mower goes. Slightly unnerved, he was, by its top speed, comparing it to a race the mower would win if competing against a sprinting human.

Mondo grass instead of lawn

I was recently asked about using mondo grass instead of lawn grass which had me finding a piece I published in 2015, showing the use Auckland gardener and photographer, Gil Hanly has made of mondo grass to give a green breathing space in her very busy and full city garden.

Lawns have a purpose if you have children who like to play cricket or any ball games outside. We used to play family badminton on our front lawn way back when we still undertook such wholesome family fun. It is a better home option than tennis when you don’t have a fully netted court. And lawns have a function if you entertain larger numbers of people outdoors. Beyond that, they are basically green space, framing garden and landscape views, or keeping the amount of garden space to a manageable level. It is easier to mow grass than to maintain most garden areas.

Pictorial green space as perfect circle at Sissinghurst 

Green space at Wildside 

Wildside again

But what if you have a wilder or more naturalistic garden and don’t want to mow green spaces? I found a few examples when I was going through photos for my last post. While Sissinghurst and Hidcote have very clearly constructed green breathing spaces integral to the garden, the modern gardens we have visited have their own take on the same need.

This area could have been all mown lawn but how lovely is that combination of mown grass and molinia meadow? Piet Oudolf at Bury Court

The combination of both lawns and green space in the molinia meadow at Bury Court may strike a chord with many, as it did with me. Definitely less wild, more designer-led and immaculate in its own way, it still fills the function of giving a calming experience in a complex garden.

Green space doesn’t have to be mown lawn.

I find Piet Oudolf’s molinia meadows a great deal more pleasing as green space 

… than his more formal green breathing space at Scampston that was altogether too redolent of a graveyard for my liking

Easter greetings from my corner of a locked down world to all of you in your lock down locations.

 

 

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.

 

Pictorial vs immersive gardens. Part one (subtitled: the trip we can no longer make)

At Hatfield House, though I think that is the Great Hall. It is not the house.


I received a letter from an English friend in January to which, I am ashamed to admit, I have yet to reply. It contained the sentence: “Of those gardens you have listed over time, I don’t remember seeing Mollie Salisbury mentioned: she is by far and away the best garden designer and gardener of my lifetime – maybe any lifetime.” To reinforce the point, he sent me the Garden Museum Journal honouring the late Mollie Salisbury – perhaps better known as the 6th Marchioness of Salisbury, doyenne of Hatfield House.

I will admit we haven’t seen much of Mollie Salisbury’s work. We have been to Hatfield House and I know she had some influence on Xa Tollemarche at Helmingham Hall. When we visited that latter garden, I didn’t photograph the knot garden that I know was inspired and supervised by Mollie Salisbury. Knot gardens are culturally alien to us and neither Mark nor I find them of any interest, if I am brutally honest. But both of us remember that the Helmingham knot garden had personal relevance to the owners because it was laid out as the family crest and located so as to be visible from the upper stories of the residence. That made sense, even while the experience of a knot garden at ground level is a little underwhelming to those of us who prefer a more immersive experience.

Helmingham Hall. It has a proper moat and a drawbridge. We are a bit deficient in such things in NZ.

The extent to which a moat separates the residence from the garden was a revelation, even though we had already worked out that walled gardens are usually a totally separate entity to the main house.

We haven’t been to Cranborne Manor in Dorset which was her first notable garden though I am sure I must have seen the classic movie ‘Tom Jones’ (1963) starring Albert Finney and Susannah York, some of which was filmed there. I just can’t remember it.

I wonder whether it would be fair to describe the 6th Marchioness of Salisbury as the queen of the English, pictorial, country manor garden, while recognising that not all her gardens were necessarily of that genre. Mark says I should also note that aspects which came through the garden museum journal included her ability to motivate and inspire others and her pioneering work in organics.

The chimneys at Hatfield House

We see a few aspirational English country manor style of gardens in New Zealand but there is a big issue in that we lack the manor houses which act as the centrepiece in such gardens. Amongst other things, elevated views are an integral part of planning. Somehow a G J Gardner home with mock pillars at the front door doesn’t quite cut the mustard, even if it has an upper story and maybe a Juliet balcony.

Our friend, Glyn Church – originally a Somerset man who trained in horticulture in the UK but has long settled into his own big garden in NZ – once commented that with many of the fine UK gardens, if you take out the house and the historical features like enormous walls, the gardens themselves are not always great. I would say the same about the historic Italian gardens we have seen.

Pictorial gardens tend to be strong on quality structures and features. Seen here in a Yorkshire country manor garden.

Maybe it comes down to that differentiation between gardens that are pictorial and those that are immersive – a concept that I found in the writings of Tim Richardson. Pictorial gardens are those where you can stand back and take in a pleasing view with a sweep of your eyes, where design and structure and space and colour are in harmony. Often focal points will be used to draw you through. Pictorial gardens photograph very well and the best pictorial gardens have substantial structural features of quality.

Immersive gardens are more of a wrap-around experience. Richardson describes them as being “mainly about the close-up vision – that is, looking at plants at about a 45-degree angle from the adjoining path or lawn” (‘You Should Have Been Here Last Week’ page 83). That is a bit too specific for me but they are certainly more plant-focused. To me, it is about a more enveloping experience than a viewing experience. It is what I have set out to do in our new grass garden which has never been designed to be viewed from set points or to draw you through by focal point wayfinders. It is about the garden wrapping around you so that for a few minutes, you are immersed in the movement and textures.

It is that more immersive experience that has determined what we seek out on our trips to English gardens. Our latest one, planned for July, has fallen victim to Covid19 and who knows what the future holds? At the time we were planning this trip, I thought it might be the last one we would make. It was becoming increasingly hard to justify long haul air travel in the face of climate change. But now, there is a possibility we won’t ever get to make that trip, this year, next year, sometime – maybe never. I think it more likely that when we emerge from this pandemic, the new normal will not be the same as the life we knew – was it really just a few weeks ago? The speed of change is terrifying.

Our itinerary for this trip included some locations we had been to before because I have a particular interest in seeing how some of these newer, wilder, more naturalistic gardens last over the years. Do the weeds and thugs take control and smother the charm and detail that was evident when they were new and fresh? What are the techniques being used to maintain the integrity of these naturalistic gardens?

More from Hatfield House

Is it worth travelling 20 000km to look at English gardens? For us, yes but we have evolved our own focus over several visits. While at home, we can enjoy almost every garden we visit to some degree – albeit some more than others – we don’t travel that huge distance to see unremarkable gardens or ones where the lasting impression is less than delight or even awe. Our expectations are high and we have seen some pretty average gardens in England. We have also visited a number of the famous and historic gardens both there and in Italy. They are certainly interesting, often very impressive, but not necessarily inspiring to us at a gardening level. We much prefer the energy, vibrancy and challenge of the more contemporary work

Why England? Is it so much better and more innovative and skilled than, say, the Netherlands, other parts of Europe and parts of USA? Probably not but we are more comfortable getting ourselves around England and that makes the trips much easier. We can’t see everything so we have to pick and choose.

Over recent years, we have leaned more to tracking the work of a few selected designers rather than sticking a pin on the map and seeing what gardens are open in a particular area, or going on the recommendations of others. I am sure that there are many highly skilled designers that we know nothing about whose work is equally impressive but again, we can’t see them all on our brief visits.

I had a cracker of an itinerary worked out for our July trip. More of that in part two.

Hatfield House again.

Helmingham Hall

Lockdown day 9: ennui, rats and the Old Masters

Canberra daughter posted a few days ago: “Garden Australia just legit suggested encouraging carpet pythons to live in your garden as a means of controlling rats.” We are New Zealanders. We don’t do snakes. At all. Ever. I looked up carpet pythons and all I can say is that you maybe don’t want to encourage them if you have a domestic cat or small dog.

The visiting kitchen rat finally succumbed to the temptation of peanut butter on Mark’s homemade bread

Mark quite liked the idea of a biological control for rats. At this time of the year, he is doing daily trapping rounds to try and reduce the population. In a household where we try and relocate house spiders outdoors rather than sucking them up the vacuum cleaner, we don’t get sentimental about rats. That said, even vermin deserve to be despatched quickly, efficiently and without undue suffering. Mark uses cage traps from preference. He carries the trap out to an open space and opens the door for a waiting Dudley. Despite being a town-bred dog, Duds is a whizz at instant rat killing and the victim rarely hits the ground before it is dead. Man and dog  then leave the carcase out in the open for the resident hawk who has taken to doing daily rounds looking for such carrion. This is another reason to prefer cages and a quick death over slow-acting poison.

The inspiration, back when Tecomanthe venusta was in bloom

I have an entire photo file devoted to rats and rat catching, both alive and dead. I find this slightly bizarre but it indicates the role rat incursions play in our life here on the land. It was the poignant mummified rat in a blackbird’s nest that sent me down a different track. We pick up spent nests when we find them, mostly to admire the craft. I assume this rat had climbed into an empty nest and died there because it is such a snug fit. And there was something haunting about it. One day, I thought, I may try and stage a scene inspired by the Dutch and Flemish old masters and their sombre still lives.

That day came a little sooner rather than later when a combination of self-isolation and forced inactivity coincided (the inactivity related to my dodgy back deciding to make its presence felt). The backdrop is just the mantlepiece in our dining room but I expect you at least to admire the detail of the mouldy oranges. Designed to channel the spirit of the old masters. I very rarely use filters on photos but I admit I indulged in a few here. In the spirit of the topic, you understand.

When I had done with the dining room setting, I walked into our drawing room and thought well, the stage is already set for Rattus in the art deco revival fireplace that we never use on account of the chimney not drawing the air very well. No additional staging required here.

Ned Kelly Rattus

The bleak humour of the Ned Kelly rat may elude some of you. But if you find it quirky and you have not yet met Henri, le Chat Noir, may I point you in his direction? It has very little to do with rats – just a brief walk-on appearance by one – but instead the struggle of the tuxedo cat to cope with existential issues and extreme ennui. Ned Kelly Rattus, by the way, was found like that. Mummified in a stack of plastic nursery pots where he became trapped despite his best efforts. There is a metaphor there somewhere but I do not think it would be uplifting at this time.

From earlier times – Spike the dog in his younger days, wearing his Julian Clary coat, attempting to climb the shed walls after an escaped rat

Another little carcase from another time

 

Lock down day 7 – about personal space

The face of privilege today – a personal space of about 10 hectares or 25 acres

Never have I felt more blessed to be living in a big personal space. As Mark and I live this new life where we are keeping to our own little bubble* of two, there is no shortage of things to do. We breakfast together and then disappear into our own spaces, coming together for coffee at 10am – a pattern that we repeat all day.

Personal space in Hong Kong is extremely small but at least these apartment dwellers get to look out over some greenery

I feel embarrassed by our privileged position. It was perhaps relief I felt when I read English designer and gardener Dan Pearson’s latest blog  and he was working through exactly the same issues and thoughts that we are here, albeit from 20 000 km away.

New Zealand has been built on the idea that land is not in short supply, although that has changed in our largest urban areas now. With a land mass which is a similar size to the United Kingdom and a population still under five million, the norm until recently was to build suburbs with detached houses sitting on their own quarter acre (1000 square metres). Not without reason were we known as the quarter acre pavlova paradise (the pavlova – or meringue cake – having been first created here, not Australia). It is only recently that urban sections have reduced in size but there is still little appetite for semi detached housing, let alone terrace housing or even apartments.

Never has there been a more stark illustration of the need to retain public, green spaces in cities. Maybe not subsidised, private golf courses but every public space possible.

Big, country gardens used to be common. Back in the early days of our garden festival, we were just one of many. I dug out my old programmes to see what the ratio was of large to small gardens. My definition of a large garden is anything larger than an acre (0.4ha) but, reader, my dedication to accuracy soon waned. Best guess, without accurate analysis, is that it was probably 40% large gardens back in the early 1980s. Most have gone. We are great one generation gardeners in NZ.

We remain a historical relic here at Tikorangi – a legacy from different times when large, country gardens were not the preserve of the wealthy. But when I think of people locked down in tiny apartments, I feel a little as though my privilege is an affront.

Many cultures usually enjoy a lifestyle where individual space may be small but much of life is led in the community of the streets – the passieggata in Cefalu, Sicily

I looked through some of my overseas photos to find examples of high density living and all I found were a few images that perhaps convey the difference of lifestyles where people spend much of their time living in the streets, which is all very charming and exotic to us when we travel. Not so great in lock down situations.

Foshan in China – not as grim as the Paris ghettos but it would hardly lift the spirits to be confined indoors in this situation

Seared into both Mark’s and my memories are the grim, ghetto-like apartment blocks that border the railway lines where the trains leave Gare du Nord in Paris. At the time, they struck us as the epitome of misery. Anyone who has travelled on the Eurostar will have seen them. So too, some of the old tower blocks in London. I can’t even imagine what lock down in India must be like.

From our bubble to your bubble, may you be in better personal situations than those. Humour, kindness, forbearance and vicarious pleasures are what may get us through this bizarre new world we all share at a distance.

Dense living on water in Hue, Vietnam. Not a recent photo but it is interesting to see how people develop different styles of life in more populous areas

*** About ‘bubbles’ for overseas readers: this is the approved NZ government term to describe the closed group of people living together in lock down. Some are in a bubble of just one. I had to adjust my old brain to accommodate the virtual ‘date’ to meet a real friend in his solitary bubble for a pre-dinner drink yesterday, where we chatted for an hour by Messenger video link while drinking gin. Usually I meet him in town for lunch. I laughed when I saw someone on Twitter asking if it was permissible to expel somebody from your bubble.  Mind you, our bubble includes our two dogs but I was wondering about expelling Dudley from the bubble when he was inflicting the most appalling farts on us all the other day. He had clearly not been staying close to home and found something revolting to eat. He doesn’t understand bubbles.

Dudley, dicing with possible expulsion from our bubble