Tag Archives: Gresgarth

When less may be more – restraint with focal points

We lack a cricket pavilion in our garden. To build one, even as attractive as this one, would look sadly out of place

We lack a cricket pavilion in our garden. To build one, even as attractive as this one, would look sadly out of place

I have been pondering focal points and garden structures. This was partly initiated by an email from an overseas friend who, while praising our garden, was lamenting the lack of “features”. By features, he meant man-made features. He mentioned such things as tempietto, summer houses, maybe even ruins in the William Kent style of Palladian garden architecture. I laughed. I do not think he has quite got to grips with the differences in New Zealand. This is a man, after all, who has a splendid garden full of substantial features including his very own cricket pavilion which was designed to be used for the annual village cricket match.

We lack an amenable village nearby. Such a pavilion might look a tad pretentious in our situation. And we have always subscribed to the view that it is better to have nothing than to have a cheap imitation. I have yet to see a New Zealand garden that imports classical European or indeed Asian antiquity-inspired features and settles them well into our New World gardens. Summer houses built out of tanalised timber – which are commonly favoured here – have never appealed to us. Painting them white does not necessarily improve them, either.

The tanalised pine gazebo is much favoured in New Zealand gardens, often as a focal point

The tanalised pine gazebo is much favoured in New Zealand gardens, often as a focal point

I have seen a fair few around the country in my time, and often situated where they are to be a focal point, a feature, rather than to be used as an outdoor entertaining area. I guess what it comes down to is that we have different spending priorities in the garden. A well designed garden room that is both functional and architecturally attractive would be nice to have but would cost a great deal more than a kitset, octagonal gazebo.

Maybe we are just too ingrained with functionalism because we would place a garden room in an area that is most convenient and attractive for use, rather than where it would serve primarily as a visual focal point. I find little gazebos marooned forever as an unused, ornamental point of interest a bit sad, really.

An outdoor seating area marooned forever as a focal point more than a social centre

An outdoor seating area marooned forever as a focal point more than a social centre

The same philosophy applies to seats, in my book. Seats are to be sat upon and therefore situated in a position where there is a reason to sit rather than to be cast in the role of focal point. But I am a lone voice in the wilderness on this topic. A brightly painted chair is often forced into fulfilling this function.

If you go back to basics, the purpose of a focal point is to focus the eye of the viewer. It may be to serve as a punctuation point to end a view, or it may be to channel the eye towards a desired feature, maybe a vista or a borrowed view if you are lucky enough to have one. It creates an illusion of depth but if you already have depth, you may not need one at all. If you clutter the place up with endless focal points (a common mistake in small gardens), it becomes bric-a-brac rather than a statement. Less is more. And remember that the focal point is what attracts attention, often to the detriment of the areas of garden that lead to that point.

Miscanthus and alliums gave a subtle end point to a long walk at Gresgarth

Miscanthus and alliums gave a subtle end point to a long walk at Gresgarth

Because we have always leaned more to plants than structure, we prefer the judicious use of plants as focal points. It is a softer, more naturalistic approach which does not immediately claim centre stage. We had watched a television interview with Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd, one of Britain’s foremost gardeners and garden designers. She was commenting about needing to terminate her herbaceous borders in some way, to create a visual end-stop. She would have liked water but that wasn’t possible and she didn’t want the cliché of a statue. Instead she decided to use miscanthus grass which, she commented, looked somewhat like water.

We remembered her comments when we visited her personal garden at Gresgarth. There was the miscanthus bed, with the globes of giant allium seedheads rising above and giant cardoons flanking either side.

It wasn’t a strong visual statement. It didn’t shout “look at me! Look at me!” It provided a gentle endpoint to what was a complex and highly detailed walk along battlemented herbaceous borders with interludes of detailed mosaic paving – an exercise in subtle understatement. We really liked the effect.

Similarly, a clipped or shaped plant can give a point of interest which keeps harmony with the surroundings while giving an accent point. Because we have a garden richly endowed with large, established plants, we have tended to head more in the direction of using plants as visual focus points rather than dropping in manmade objets d’art, or, worse: objets sans d’art.

Statues, urns and sculptures? Now that is a whole can of worms to be returned to at a later date. Decorating one’s garden can be a minefield.

Camellia Elfin Rose, cloud pruned in layers to give an accent point

Camellia Elfin Rose, cloud pruned in layers to give an accent point

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

The Romantic Garden (part 1)

Good bones help but the contrast of plants and the simplicity of the daisies would work even without the hall in the background.

Good bones help but the contrast of plants and the simplicity of the daisies would work even without the hall in the background.

We have been talking about romantic gardens here. Not that commercially packaged ‘romantic’ imagery of twilight, candles, a bottle of wine and two glasses. No, we are looking back to the European Romantic period from the late 18th century onwards blended with what is often called naturalistic and gardenesque styles of gardening, but in the 21st century.

The gentle, at times sentimental soft focus of ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett has stayed with many of us all our lives. It was something of an anticlimax to me when I finally discovered that the history of those walled gardens in Britain has rather more to do with growing fruit and vegetables than roses. So too have I never forgotten the image of Elnora Comstock in ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ though I admit I mentally had her in an arbour, not beneath a willow tree*.

Gresgarth offered many small pictures of subtle detail.

Gresgarth offered many small pictures of subtle detail.

How does this translate to gardening? Forget the twee, the naff, the contrived sentimentality. That is romantic gardening in the hands of the wannabe. It started to fall into place for us when we visited Arabella Lennox Boyd’s garden called Gresgarth in Lancashire, north west England. The pictures today tell the story. It was wildly romantic though not, I would guess as a deliberate contrivance. Lady Lennox Boyd is renowned as both a highly skilled garden designer and a plantswoman. This is her private garden and a reflection of her personal tastes. Unfortunately she was away the day we visited. We would have liked to have met her because we loved her garden.

It was not a show garden designed to impress. We have seen enough of those to pick them instantly. This was a garden with soul, underpinned by a very deft hand and eye. There were many detailed little pictures as well as the grand views, a marriage of formality and informality with areas of gentle abandon. It was a garden which served multiple purposes including supplying the house with produce and replenishing the soul. It wasn’t perfect. There were a few areas which were certainly not above criticism. In short, it was a garden to be lived in.

It wasn’t until later that we came to the conclusion that the best descriptor was “romantic”. This was despite the coach load of visitors and others who were there at the same time. I can tell you that garden coach loads do not vary a great deal whether they are in New Zealand or overseas. There is a certain herd tendency to tour groups. But even their intrusive presence did not detract from our enjoyment.

I think it was the gardener’s cottage in days gone by, located in the walled garden.

I think it was the gardener’s cottage in days gone by, located in the walled garden.

Gresgarth gave us a reference point as a romantic garden. Even if the handsome residence and the old stone and brickwork were stripped out, it would still retain that sense of romance because it lay in the garden, not primarily in the wider architectural or landscape context. Though it certainly makes life easier if you start with some good bones, as they say.

Romantic gardening is pretty much at the far end of the spectrum from hard-edged contemporary garden design with shiny stainless steel, matt black and sharp white structures and plants selected solely as soft furnishings. It is also well away from austere, classically derived formality although it may have some formal elements.

It wasn’t all pastel and white at Gresgarth.

It wasn’t all pastel and white at Gresgarth.

What else defines it other than that distinctly nebulous and subjective description of having ‘soul’? We are still unravelling this here but romantic gardening brings together a number of threads we have been discussing in recent years – sustainability, support for natural ecosystems, better environmental practices in gardening, a respect for nature which involves a cooperative relationship, some level of prettiness, often a celebration of simplicity rather than grandeur. None of this is a surprise when you consider that the Romantic era originated as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the elevation of science and reason above nature.

Maybe it is time for Neo-Romanticism or maybe the Romantic Revival as a response to the elevation of economics and self interest above nature and community? Only time will tell.

* “One afternoon early in July, Ammon came across the fields. He inquired for Elnora at the back door and was told she was reading under the willow. He went around the west end of the cabin to her. She sat on a rustic bench they had made and placed beneath a drooping branch. Ammon had not seen her before in the dress she was wearing. It was clinging mull of pale green trimmed with narrow ruffles and touched with knots of black velvet; a simple dress but vastly becoming.”

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter (1909)

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.