Tag Archives: naturalistic gardening

When is a wild garden too wild to be comfortable?

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.

Resorting to photographing photos in a book….

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.

From ‘The New English Garden’ by Tim Richardson

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.

Sunset Garden near New Plymouth

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.

Sunset Garden again

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.’

Sunset Garden may not be sufficiently gardenesque for some tastes

 

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.

 

Dispensing with the big pond

Everything grows so quickly. Back in the 1990s, the whole area was much more open

The big pond is a good example of how conditions can change over time. Sometimes decisions need to be made rather than fighting nature to try and preserve an increasingly unsatisfactory status quo.

The pond had ceased to have a function. Originally, it was our swimming pond where we used to gather as a family for summer dips. That stopped when we built a swimming pool which didn’t carry the perils of resident eels.

Our son Theo used it in his middle childhood. He and his mates built a bike jump and it became a show of macho youthfulness to see how high up the hill they could start their run with an old pushbike. The aim was to build up as much speed as possible, hit the launch pad and part company from the bike in mid-air, both boy and bike landing separately in the deepest part of the pond. It was the responsibility of the rider to dive to retrieve the bike and get it back to shore. It sounds dangerous and maybe it wasn’t the safest of childhood pursuits but there were no major injuries.

By last spring, the water had all but disappeared from view

Over time, the weed infestation took hold – possibly because of increased nutrient loading in the water from upstream farming activities. It was several years ago that I figured that it was unwise to get into the water when I had open skin wounds, even just minor abrasions. It only took a few hours for fungal infections to start getting a hold. It is not water that I would swim in these days.

With the growth of weed, we lost any reflective qualities of the water.

It was only three years ago that Theo did a major clean out for us.

Three years ago, Theo was at home for a couple of weeks, en route from Amsterdam to Melbourne. He did a trojan job clearing the pond of accumulated weed but short of finding somebody willing to do that every year – volunteers are not so much thin on the ground as entirely absent – we needed to concentrate the flow of the river into a designated channel and abandon the pond.

The platforms that enabled Lloyd to reach the middle of the pond

I missed the photo of Lloyd walking on water. By last Monday, he had reached the point where the pond narrowed sufficiently for him to stretch from the banks. We have an extra-long handled rake and have put a long handle on the drainage fork. All I can show you are the platforms he was using made from corrugated iron, linked by wide wooden boards. The principle is of spreading the weight so the human on top does not slowly sink into the morass of water weed and silt. With the water level dropped as low as we can get it, the silt layer is still about a metre of soft, floating soil particles. With resident eels. Lloyd hauled all the weed to the sides of the pond and has basically created terraces which will compact and solidify over time, leaving a winding channel in the middle.

Lloyd hauling out large swathes of Lousiana iris 

The wakendorfia have all been removed this week and the oxygen weed raked out of the smaller, upper pond.

At the same time, he and I removed 2/3 of the Louisiana iris (ratio of foliage to flower is much too high to justify massive swathes of them). I dug out the remaining Wachendorfia thyrsiflora. It is showy in bloom but too invasive and free-seeding to keep by running water. We try to manage what we may be spreading downstream. I took a rubbish bag down with me to load all the bulbs of the weedy montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) and all the bits of Tradescantia fluminensis  – both invasive weeds that repeated floods keep delivering us from upstream. Readers may know the tradescantia by its common name of ‘Wandering Jew’, or maybe ‘Wandering Willie’. We have decided that the Jew epithet is nothing short of downright offensive and Willie carries other connotations so we have trained ourselves to refer to it as ‘Wandering Trad’. Let’s lay the responsibility for this plant where it belongs – which is presumably with plant collector, John Tradescant, not with the Jews in the millennia when they lacked a homeland.

We have reached this stage of narrowing the pond to just a stream channel. The water is very low at the moment because of unusually dry conditions

There is still a clean-up to be done around the stream but fortunately, we are in high summer and it is dry. All the plant material is being left out to be dried by the sun and we will then stow it beneath established trees and shrubs where it can rot down. It has to be dried out so that it doesn’t take root and grow again. The mud and silt will be raked out along the sides where necessary. And we will let the grass grow long again. I am hoping the result of some pretty solid work across the past couple of weeks will be a greatly improved meadow display this coming spring and water that is more bubbling brook than sluggish stream morphing into swamp.

The big lesson we have learned from this is that we need to do more to control the growth on the banks of the stream, not by stripping them bare or spraying but by strimming them twice a year when the park gets mowed. It is all part of the learning process on how to manage a more natural-style of gardening.

Six years on: meadow update

It is six years to the very day since we closed the garden to the public. And that means it is six years since we started to experiment with turning the park into a meadow. Up until that point, we mowed it all year – no easy task because it is undulating terrain across about four acres filled with specimen trees and shrubs and a stream. The areas that could not be mown – the stream banks and steepest gradients – were kept short with what we call a weedeater in New Zealand but many others know as a strimmer. It seemed important to maintain a similar level of control to that seen in public parks, even though this is a private garden.

Iris sibirica, Primula helodoxa and loads of buttercups

Six years on, how do we feel? We love it. It often makes my heart sing in ways in which the previous tight control of grass growth did not. It is a different mind-set altogether.

How it was, all mown, trimmed and tidy up until six years ago 

and how it looks today

We weren’t at all sure how it was going to work out. This is good dairying country which means we have verdant grass growth all year round, unchecked by summer droughts and winter cold. We have to mow grass twelve months of the year to keep it under control. And decades of gardening predicated on very tight weed control is hard to overcome. The love of meadows is inextricably linked to a higher tolerance for what are commonly called weeds. Buttercups, daisies, dandelions and Yorkshire fog, we have in abundance.

As it was before 

and as it is now. The orange azalea died and we removed the yellow flag irises on the grounds that they are a noxious weed by waterways

We were inspired to experiment with a softer edged, more romantic approach to gardening by our trips to the UK in particular, allied to growing concern that our approach to gardening carried a carbon input that was closer to a heavy hoof-print than a foot-print. We haven’t set about systematically measuring any increase in wildlife but we like to think that the changed approach is far kinder to nature. And as we age, we are also considering the labour input to the garden, given the fact that we have no plans to move off the property to a more suitable retirement home. We’d rather spend our energies on more constructive gardening activities than endlessly beating grass into obedient submission.

It is not a gardening style that will appeal to everybody. It is not neat and tidy. It does not show off man – and woman’s – ability to control nature to make it conform to the tight standards of suburban gardening. Some may look at it and think that it is uncontrolled, allowing the place to ‘go back’, although that is far from the truth. Meadows in the garden need management. It is not a question of just stepping back and letting it go. We still take out certain weeds, we mow paths, we manage the growth by mowing twice a year (in January and July), plant to enhance the richness of the meadow mix, we keep certain plants free from the rampant growth – so we keep an eye on it but with a much lighter hand.

As it was all mown (and scalped in places) with our much loved dog of the day, Zephyr

There is a problem with the frequent floods bringing unwanted weeds down from upstream which can then get established in the long grass before we have even spotted them. The war against wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) will be without end unless upstream residents eliminate them. I am not keen on the docks and there is a nasty carex I dig out. But that is a smaller price to pay than trying to control every plant escape except paddock grass.

Just two years ago, our son cleared both big ponds of water weeds 

and already, they are back with a vengeance. Time to stop fighting them?

The next issue for us is to decide what to do with the two big ponds Mark put in back in the early 1990s. Our son raked them out last time he was home a couple of years ago but they are now congested with water weeds again. I have gone through every few years and raked the weeds out of the stream but it is heavy work and my back no longer appreciates it. All three of us here nurse our backs and wrists these days. I am now thinking that we live with what nature gives us. The stream flows well all year round so maybe we should just let it determine its own path and allow the ponds to silt up and return to bog or swamp. The irises, lysichitons and primulas are happy in bog conditions so maybe we are better to just concentrate of enriching the natural bog gardens rather than trying to keep a larger body of water visible. The stream is high in nutrients from dairy farm run-off (we can tell this by the particularly bright green shades of the weeds growing beneath the surface, as a water ecologist pointed out to us) so the water weeds will continue to thrive.

In another six years time, we may well have mega bog gardens but time will tell.

Rhododendron Barbara Jury 

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii in the park meadow