Tag Archives: Dan Pearson

“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