I have never written about Waltham Place in Berkshire that we visited in 2014. To a large extent that is because there was a total ban on taking photos there – I have no idea why. But also, we weren’t at all sure when we walked out of the garden if we had just seen something cutting-edge as claimed by some or whether it was a case of the emperor’s new clothes. The fact that we are still talking about six years later suggests the former – that it was indeed sufficiently cutting-edge to challenge our preconceived notions.
I couldn’t find photographs on line that were available for reuse though you may wish to google the name and see more for yourself. I had to resort to photographing pages from ‘The New English Garden’ by Tim Richardson. These images are a fine example of how structure photographs well and gives form and solid shape to a scene that may not look quite the same to the naked eye. Make that ‘does not look the same to the naked eye’. This garden pushed the concept of naturalism further than we were comfortable with and it was considerably wilder, or rougher, than it appears in photos.
Thinking about it again recently, I figure it took the conventions of what I call the pictorial English manor style of garden design and turned them on their head. Most, if not all of the structure pre-dated the current garden and that suited the style of Dutch designer, Henk Gerritsen. He was heavily influenced by the famous Dutch landscape designer from the preceding generation, Mien Ruys with the philosophy of ‘a wild planting in a strong design’. Gerritsen was attracted to wild plants and his approach was to utilise many wild plants – what are often referred to as weeds. Memorably, his willingness to use plants like burdock, docks, teasels and bindweed (common convolvulus) in decorative situations is disconcerting. He was good friends with Piet Oudolf – these days crowned the undisputed king of the New Perennials movement – and drew on at least of the garden plants that Oudolf had picked out as excellent options but pushed his gardens right to the wild, most naturalistic end of the spectrum. Oudolf is far more controlled and painterly in his use of plants.
The twin borders also use strong design which looks far more effective viewed from above than at ground level – and indeed the main upstairs rooms in the house look down at them. At ground level, I remember them being very brown. This was not a pretty garden.
Although Gerritsen’s interest in plants started with looking at wild flowers in their natural habitats all over Europe over a period of quite a few years, his palette of plants had far more to do with wild plants naturalised at Waltham Place. I can not say that we recall much botanical depth in terms of drawing on many of the remarkable wild flowers especially bulbs, that occur in those parts of the world. It was more of an intellectual exercise looking at the plants used within that garden situation where it becomes survival of the fittest with a very light hand indeed on garden maintenance. So, as a garden, it lacked two of the elements we value highly – botanical curiosity and some level of prettiness and beauty in plant combinations. It is a garden that needs to be viewed through a different set of glasses altogether and we only partially succeeded at that. We did at least leave with an open mind.
As New Zealanders, these wild plants are introduced and often invasive weeds in our country. It is a bit different when they are in fact native to your land. Maybe we would feel more comfortable with this style of gardening were the emphasis on our indigenous plants. In fact, I have seen it done locally in Sunset Garden, I think it was called, on a chilly site set with some elevation on the flanks of our local mountain. I believe the site was once the home of the local naturist club before they moved to a warmer location down by the sea. That garden certainly had a charm of its own, albeit with zero hard landscaping and a light hand on maintenance but some may struggle to view it as a garden in the usual understanding of the word.
It is all food for thought when we consider how our garden practices fit in to the wider environment, what we value visually and our relationship with nature.
Finally two quotes from Henk Gerritsen which, I think, come from his renowned Essay on Gardening, published just before his premature death in 2008. I haven’t bought it yet (it is a book length essay) because I haven’t psyched myself up to spend $120 on a book with black and white photos:
‘What is straight, should be curved, what is curved, should be straight. Meaning: in a garden where everything is straight, the walls or hedges around it and the path through it, the secondary landscaping should be curved: sloping or freakish paths, hedges, lawns or borders and the other way around: in a freakish or shapeless garden the secondary landscaping should be straight, in order to obtain a harmonious image.’
‘Plants that can’t live without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides don’t belong in my garden.’