Tag Archives: Dan Pearson

Thoughtful garden media and the (belated) fall from grace of a garden celeb

My latest gardening book purchase has arrived – ‘Natural Selection’ by Dan Pearson. It is a collection of writings again, Pearson’s columns from the Observer over a ten-year span. I thought it would be excellent long-haul reading for we are off again in a fortnight. As New Zealanders, we fly longer and further than any other country in the world that I know of (except maybe Russia?). But it is too heavy to be wanting to cart around the world so I dipped into the month of June. Indulge me while I quote the first paragraph I read:

“The meadows are at their best in June, eclipsing the failing foliage of spring bulbs and fraying the edges of the fields. I’ll mow a path for contrast and ease of access and, for a while, I feel that is all I ever want of a garden. An environment gently steered, but a place that has a will of its own and infinite complexity.”

Not a Pearson garden, but the New Perennials style

I was entranced by the gentle lyricism from this man who is a first-rate plantsperson as well as a leading designer. It is a rare combination but you will have to wait until I have read more for more detail. The author first came to our notice back in 2006 . I say 2006 because that is when we were watching a series that starred him visiting gardens around the world. I see the programmes actually dated back to 1997 (called Dan Pearson: Routes around the World) – there is nothing more likely to make you feel that you are living in an isolated backwater than it taking NINE YEARS for a television series to reach this land. Fortunately, You Tube has dragged us into the modern times and I have got to grips with Chromecast so these days I can screen last week’s BBC Gardeners’ World on our TV. It has taken a little to adjust to the sudden leap forward of several years. Monty and Nigel have both aged a little and Nigel the Dog’s replacement is already on the scene. Longmeadow is looking ever more tightly groomed. But I digress. Back to Dan Pearson. He is a leading practitioner of the New Perennials movement (or naturalistic gardening or a return to the soft-edged romantic garden style – call it what you will). We are genuinely excited that we are able to see some of his work – both private and public – on our trip in a couple of weeks’ time.

Alas, this week saw a fall from our grace for another British gardening celeb. This is old news – but only three years old so the transmission of information is getting faster. Alan Titchmarsh supports UKIP. You could have knocked us down with a feather. And fox-hunting and the politics of envy along with Britain for the British but Scotland must remain united with England no matter what the Scots think. Oh that’s right, and women whinge and of course there is no injustice in the way older women are discriminated against in key presenting roles on television.

I did not need to know all this. I had always nursed some respect and a fondness for Alan Titchmarsh, even forgiving him his somewhat whining voice (ha!) as a television presenter while blenching at some definite aberrations in good taste. The first gardening book I ever read was possibly the first of many (many, many) gardening books he wrote – ‘Avant-Gardening. A guide to one-upmanship in the garden’ (1984). It is still witty and quotable, to the extent that when I saw it for sale in a second hand bookshop on the island of Patmos (where John the Apostle received his revelation) a few years ago, I bought a second copy for a friend. It was a totally wasted gift, as it turned out, but these latest revelations about Titchmarsh make me feel better about that.

It is one thing when a garden celeb like NZ’s Maggie Barry goes into Parliament as an MP for a mainstream party, although she may have lost more fans than she has gained in the time since. UKIP* is something different altogether. When Titchmarsh praised Nigel Farage for “saying what a lot of … politicians are frightened of saying”, he was not only spouting populist cliché. He appears to not comprehend that civilisation is but a thin veneer and some things are best left unsaid.

Why, you may ask, are we so focused on overseas garden media? Alas New Zealand television gardening appears not to have moved on from those awful gimmicky make-overs of the 90s and sponsorship dominates and intrudes on the programme content (here’s looking at you, Tui Products and, to a lesser extent, Yates). As for books, the local market is very small and the number of gardening books published are few. I can’t recall seeing a NZ gardening book worth buying since Lynda Hallianan’s “Back to the Land” five years ago and that was a book of its time, rather than a classic.   Ponder, maybe, about what happened to garden writing in our newspapers. That is one media outlet that could have continued to foster local interest without the costs that come with television and books. But sadly, it is clearly not a priority these days in this country.

For us, the international perspective gives a wider view on the world of gardening that we can not get from NZ sources.

If you like a wry writing style, read Quentin Letts on Alan Titchmarsh and the horror of wooden decking. “He was so outraged by my impertinence — I had attacked a national treasure! — that he invited me on to his afternoon TV chat programme, where I was subjected to a show trial that would not have discredited Maoist China.”

*UKIP – the United Kingdom Independence Party is on the hard right in the mould of Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France. Fortunately, we do not have an equivalent that wields any influence in this country where we are more likely to describe this as fascism and white supremacy.

“A garden is really the gardener”

The woman on the left looked a little underwhelmed by Sissinghurst too

I have always felt I needed to whisper rather than shout that, while we enjoyed our one and only visit to Sissinghurst, it did not inspire us to return. Considering the huge influence this English garden has had throughout both the UK and, more surprisingly, little ol’ New Zealand, I have wondered if we were being overly critical, maybe “gardened-out” when we visited it.

The thyme lawn was not a crowning glory when we visited Sissinghurst

It seems not. I was just going to share the link to English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s latest blog  on our garden Facebook page  but then I thought there is a bigger context for this interesting post of his. Pearson is writing about his advisory work with the head gardener at Sissinghurst to re-personalise that famous garden, restoring some of the energy and also the intimacy of what started out as a very personal garden. Over time, Pearson observes, “The way the garden became was ultimately driven by the need to provide for increasing numbers of visitors and, in so doing, the intimate sense of place was slowly and gradually altered.”

And there is the conundrum when a private garden enters the public domain following the deaths of its creators. If it is successful and well-resourced, the expectations of the visiting public play an ever-larger role in determining how the garden will be presented and maintained.

… but the Sissinghurst tower did not disappoint. However, it is structural and therefore a permanent feature

I had been reading some debate about this in the book by Tim Richardson, “You Should Have Been Here Last Week”. As far back as 2004, he was sounding the alarm bells about Sissinghurst. Writing for the Garden Design Journal, he said: “Every day, coachloads of people turn up at Sissinghurst to experience Vita Sackville-West’s garden, yet what they get bears no relation to the original in terms of content or atmosphere”. Further on in the book is his 2015 update, welcoming the appointment of Troy Scott Smith as new head gardener with Dan Pearson in an advisory role.

We have watched with interest the developments of the “regional gardens” in Taranaki – the ratepayer funded gardens of Tupare and Hollards (both created as very personal visions with owners long dead now) and Pukeiti. When the takeover was first being promoted by the regional council, I wrote several strong pieces for the local paper (see below), frankly alarmed at what was being proposed, let alone the budget. In the years since, we have backed off expressing our views publicly about what is happening in these gardens. All I can say is that in my last visit to Hollards, I felt that the originators, Bernard and Rose Hollard, had pretty much disappeared, bar some faded photographic display cut-outs of Bernie.

The faded life-size cut-out of Bernard Hollard is a little poignant

I don’t think these gardens are a victim so much of their own success – we simply don’t get enough garden visitors to Taranaki to put extreme pressure on gardens. I think they are a victim of the drive to attract numbers of general visitors to justify the expenditure. If that means sacrificing the original ambience and character of these gardens, then so be it.

Matched by faded information boards, purportedly written in the first person. Was the term “food forest” even heard of when Bernard Hollard was still alive?

Mark knew Bernie, as he was known to his family and friends, personally and is adamant that he would never have grown yams in an old tractor tyre and indeed his tidy vegetable garden was hidden away from public view

Pearson captures it in a nutshell, when he writes: “Even when the blueprint is strong, gardens can easily assume a different character, for a garden is really the gardener.”

Hollards’ modest home was demolished to make way for a visitor centre, designed in the style I call “Utility Department of Conservation”

Earlier published columns on the topic of regional gardens:

1) A letter from a ratepayer. Published July 2010 I am not sure I would be brave enough to publish this piece in the newspaper these days. I must have been more fearless back then.
2) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March 2010.
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
4) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
5) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. (first published 2005). When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

A sense of place

I illustrate this column with a few photos of gardens that have struck a particular chord, enduring in my memory long past the experience of visiting them. What they have in common is a strong identity and sense of place. 

 

I apologise for the fact that I can not recall the name of the creator of this very interesting house and garden landscape south of Blenheim but I understand he has since died. I have never forgotten this remarkable place

What is it that lifts a garden – a good garden – above other good gardens? I have seen that special character described with various terms over the years, including having ‘soul’ or ‘the wow factor’. Or, more pretentiously perhaps, possessing ‘genius loci’. I wrote about genius loci in a sharp column seven years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen gardeners, it now appears that the current term is that the garden has ‘a sense of place’. It is one that appeals to me more than the soul or wow factor descriptors because it is less subjective.

Gresgarth Hall near Lancaster in the UK

I came across the term twice this week, both from UK media. The first instance was a survey on the Thinking Gardens website, being carried out Janna Schreier. Searching for a more rigorous measure than the loose use of the descriptor ‘soul’, she defined ‘a sense of place’ as being one ‘with a distinctive character which fosters emotional engagement’. Her survey then listed possible attributes of that and asked the participant to rank each on a five-point scale. These were:

  • Uniqueness
  • Strong identity
  • Fit with surroundings
  • Thought provoking
  • Harmonious design
  • Brings back memories
  • Personal to the owner.

I would point you to the survey but it finished yesterday. In a subsequent exchange of emails, I commented that plantsmanship was missing from that list but was critical for us here when it came to top-level appreciation of a garden. I rank plantsmanship* as being of equal importance to harmonious design. But from that list, I probably ranked strong identity, personal to the owner and maybe uniqueness as most important. Though uniqueness is very hard to define – pretty much every gardener I have ever met who rates themselves thinks their own garden is both unique and original, though too few are. In my opinion.

Grahame Dawson’s small, urban, industrial chic garden in Auckland challenged my preconceived notion that such plots of land must, by definition lack genius loci

Two days later I saw a tweet from Dan Pearson*, the UK landscaper for whom I carry a bit of fan-girl torch.

Dan Pearson @thedanpearson 

Another inspiring day talking gardens with Troy at Sissinghurst. Sure progress with their project to key the gardens sense of place.

Could anywhere have a stronger sense of place than New Plymouth cemetery?

Aha! I thought. A sense of place is it, then. And I like that term. It is much more encompassing than just ‘genius loci’. Oddly, we have our own word in New Zealand. Our country is gently taking on more Maori words into our language, particularly when there is no word for word translation that captures the complexity of the Maori concept. The word is tūrangawaewae, about which Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says:

“Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.”

I recently described our garden as ‘our place to stand’. Must have been a bit prescient there? Though a “place to stand” is more about the personal experience of the garden-maker than the “sense of place” which is the experience of the fortunate garden visitor. Certainly there is something special that sets apart some gardens over others, that makes a few gardens particularly memorable. I am happy to consider that above design, context, plant content and maintenance, that special quality that sets them apart is indeed that they have a clear sense of place.

I have not often seen that special quality of a sense of place in public gardens but the Oudolf borders at Wisley are a notable exception

Footnotes:

*I continue to stick with Mark’s off the cuff definition of plantsmanship, even while I hesitate over the gender reference in the word: “The ability to use different plants in creative ways in the right environment and to feature unusual plants.”

*I subscribe to Dan Pearson’s weekly blog – Dig Delve. It is a gentle insight into plants and the very personal garden he is building with his partner, Huw Morgan.   There is no big-noting, self-promotion or even that faux modesty that is now favoured by many writers. Rather, it is quiet and modest, an insight into creating a garden from scratch that focuses on eco-systems, sustainability and soft-edged naturalism. I find it most refreshing and calming in this day and age when so much of gardening appears to be about whizzy-bang instant results to impress.

I had a special affection for Te Popo garden when it was in the hands of Lorri and Bruce Ellis and I now see that response as inextricably tied up with that strong sense of place that they created.

Te Popo again in Central Taranaki

Bury Court in the UK – much more than just beautiful buildings and an early Oudolf garden. A garden I wish to return to soon.

Wildside in Devon – a very strong sense of place is one of the defining features