Tag Archives: Nigel Dunnett

White gardens for the new age

I have only seen the white garden at Sissinghurst once and, to be honest, it did not inspire me at the time. I need to go and have a second look but certainly leading English landscape designer, Dan Pearson’s comments on white gardens in general and Sissinghurst in particular, rang true for me. “Too many whites together in one space”, he wrote. Vita Sackville West called it her ‘grey, green and white garden’. Maybe over the years, more attention had been given to the white flowers at the expense of grey and green tones?  Or maybe it was just the sheer size of it and the tight constraint of all those neatly clipped hedges and edgers that did not inspire me. And the memories of all the customers I met in the trendy nineties, mostly of the Ladies Who Lunch brigade, buying plants for their white gardens. There must have been an awful lot of such gardens going into aspirational New Zealand real estate back then.

Sissinghurst white garden from the tower on our one and only visit in 2009

I opened my heart more to the contemporary white gardens we saw on our recent trip.  The Sissinghurst model is not the only style and it is now an historic garden from a different era. Too often the reinterpretations of Sissinghurst White can be stiff and contrived, relying mostly on clipping and rigid shrubs. Such style is not ‘timeless’. The original is historic. The copies and reinterpretations are more likely to be ‘dated’.

The white entrance to the functions barn at Bury Court. Eagle-eyed purists may note the touch of pink in Lilium regale

Bury Court,  south of London had a big wedding market – and the best setup I have ever seen to accommodate weddings and functions without compromising the essentially private nature of the garden and its residence. It was entirely appropriate that the small garden at the entry to the functions centre (a converted barn of some antiquity and great style) be white. So too were there white feature plants in strategic places which allowed for photos, but these were integrated in wider contexts of colour. The emphasis at Bury Court was on contemporary plantings of frothy or bold  perennials and grasses.

The white avenue of Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy was an ephemeral affair – a good photo opportunity, Mark calls such plantings. Spectacular, the essence of simplicity and of brief duration, but no less charming for that on the day.

 

The white border at Parham

Parham House had a white border, too. Here the context was one of colour controlled, contemporary, herbaceous borders. These were generous borders, both wide and long, one in blues and another in yellows while others were mixes of hot colours. There was also rather a lot of white statuary. Similar to the smaller white garden at Bury Court, Parham’s white border is a summer feature of voluminous perennials – soft, full and lush.

 

Simplicity at La Torrecchia

La Torrecchia, near the more famous Ninfa Gardens south of Rome, was an early Dan Pearson garden and showed a restrained use of white plants. The artfully simple self-seeding plants in the full light at the back of the villa were mostly white or grey and a delightful example of understated charm. I liked even more that the pale blue chicory was allowed to remain. The white purist would have pulled it out for failing to conform to the colour requirement but it added to the simple charm. There were plenty of white flowering plants used at La Torrecchia but not in the formal, contained style of Sissinghurst. Rather, they were spaced to lead the eye through the garden – plants used as markers for garden wayfarers.

Dare we mention that the white rose opens from yellow buds? Purity in white is rare

The pinnacle in my book is the advanced gardening skills that see the colour composition change over the seasons. We looked at Beech Grove Gardens at the Barbican in London in June (the work of Professor Nigel Dunnett and his team) when yellow phlomis, tawny kniphofia (red hot pokers) and Verbena bonariense were dominant. I was astonished to see photos of the same garden in the first week of September when it was largely white with Japanese anemones, the white wood aster (A. divaricatus) and the white barked birch trees (betulas).  It was a dramatic change to what we saw in early summer and an interesting design decision to turn a cool autumn garden to white. When you think about it, the light levels start to lower dramatically in autumn in that northerly climate, so a white autumn garden possibly shines even more.

The first section of the auratum lily border gets planted and mulched

I have never coveted a white garden myself. I have, however, recently planted a new border. Most of it is beautiful, bold auratum lilies of Mark’s raising – pushing towards 40 metres of them so that took a whole lot of bulbs. The lilies are in many shades of pinks, whites and deep carmine reds. But because they will all flower at the same time, I have added white umbellifers to flower either side of their blooming season. White umbellifers have been a hot fashion item in UK gardens for at least the last decade and show no signs of abating popularity. Think cow parsley and carrots – give or take. So far I have only put in two different ones and I still need a tall one to tower above. Plus any other white umbellifers that come my way. I just want them to seed down and gently fill the space around the lily stems. They will be my white garden.

Umbellifers! Still at peak popularity

This particular column was started as my contribution to the January issue of NZ Gardener magazine (yes, contributors are required to work some months in advance). With recent events culminating in my resignation this week, I have adapted it and decided to post it to follow on from last weekend’s work on white flowers

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A garden destination for all tastes and expectations? Trentham in Stoke-on-Trent

Trentham Gardens shows that it can get pretty close to being all things to all people. Even on a cool, grey Monday afternoon, the place was humming. Mark and I have a running gag about the “sense of arrival” at gardens. One day I will explain the origin of our cynicism about this but we worked out long ago that the greatest “sense of arrival” is a full carpark. And on this Monday afternoon, I photographed our rental car so we could find it again later. As an aside, you can have any colour of car you like in Britain, as long as it is black or grey. And one grey rental car looks pretty much like 80% of the other cars.

Trentham had a long and illustrious history before falling on hard times. Very hard times. The splendid Capability Brown lake apparently became the smelly, festering sewer for the Trent River and all who lived and worked nearby – especially the potteries for which Stoke-on-Trent is famous – resulting in the family vacating the grand home. When nobody wanted to take the estate off his hands, the 4th Duke of Sutherland committed an act of great vandalism in 1912 and had most of the house demolished. Why? Many must have asked that question down the years.

Why? The remains of the original house

St Modwen Properties certainly must have asked that question when they took over the property in 1996 and declared a brave mission statement:

“Regenerate and restore the historic Estate and gardens turning it into a premier tourist and leisure destination of national significance.” 

The shopping village – Swiss chalet naff?

Those plans included extensive gardens, monkeys, a luxury hotel on the site of the original house (yet to materialise) and a whole lot more. Are they on track? They sure are. Moving from the well-filled carpark, you first encounter the retail village. True, it is what I might describe as ‘Swiss chalet naff’ in style but it appears to pull the punters and I bet the main street retailers hate it. We are not good shoppers so we passed through quickly.

The Italian terraces where the main plantings are by Tom Stuart-Smith

We were there to see the Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf gardens and then we found there were extensive new plantings by Nigel Dunnett. Three modern stars of the gardening scene is pretty good. And add in the David Austin rose border to make it four stars. But if ever there was a destination that fitted the “but wait there is more” descriptor, it is Trentham. There are summer concerts (see my footnote *). We did not go to the Monkey Forest (with real monkeys). Nor did we find the maze or the show gardens or go on the model railway. We should have taken the boat ride because the walk around the lake was closed for some reason so we could not get access to all the new Dunnett plantings. But honestly, there is enough there in the gardens around the site of the old house to keep most of us happy.

Looking across the Stuart-Smith plantings to a surviving original gateway

Tom Stuart-Smith planting

Put briefly, Tom Stuart-Smith has been given free rein on the original Italianate terraces. The planting is typical of his signature style that we have seen – big, bold and handsome combinations. The phlomis, Stipa gigantea, eryngiums, geraniums, tall campanulas and thalictrum all  come to mind at this time of the year. We saw his beautiful terraces at Mount St John in Yorkshire a few years ago and the Trentham plantings are in a similar mode but on a much bigger scale. The earlier photos I had seen of the Trentham terraces had looked a bit bitsy but these have matured to generous plantings that envelop the visitor.

More signature Oudolf than “Floral Labyrinth” and we were a little too early in the season to see its full glory

The Piet Oudolf gardens are styled as the “Floral Labyrinth” – do I detect the earnest hand of the marketing wing of Trentham in that name? Stylistically, they were similar to his work we saw at Pensthorpe in Norfolk on our last visit. Mark describes it as Gertrude Jekyll on steroids – carefully composed clumps of large perennials which will hold themselves up and not require ongoing dead heading, knitted together in a harmonious flow. When I say large, I mean a fair swag of them are shoulder or head height but no taller and a clump may be more than two metres across. We were just a little early for the full glory of peak flower but the veronicastrum and geraniums were lovely and there was plenty of other interest.

Piet Oudolf’s “Rivers of Grass” at Trentham

The Rivers of Grass were charming in a much lower key way. I deduced these were also the work of Piet Oudolf because there is a similarity to the meadow at Bury Court so I was pleased to be proven correct on that. Then I realised that Scampston in Yorkshire also has its Oudolf drifts of grass, though I was unconvinced by that one in a more rigid layout. All seem to use molinia which has a shimmering quality, seen at its best at Trentham on the day we were there, with the subtle inclusion of other flowering plants to add richness.

Dunnett at Trentham

More Dunnett and his Sheffield team at Trentham

The newest plantings are those of Nigel Dunnett and his Sheffield team. The photos tell the story. These are so fresh and deceptively simple. Just a joy. It is the first time I have seen a Sheffield planting that is so tightly colour-toned as the blue border. Consumer demand? Further round the lake, I understand it is more woodland which would have been interesting had the path not been closed because we have only seen Sheffield plantings in full sun so far. What a delight they are. I see their branding is as “Pictorial Meadows” which seems an appropriate descriptor.

The ‘Upper Flower Garden” – oops

What is really interesting on this massive project is that a private business has looked to some of the top designers and practitioners working in the field of contemporary landscape, design and gardening to turn a very old site into a modern attraction. We are lucky indeed that St Modwen, as owners of Trentham, had the vision to go well beyond the obvious Victorian bedding plant tradition. It is a brave decision. If you are looking at a mass market, the reality is that the average Joe or Josie Public is going to be quite happy with bedding plants of the floral clock genre – lots of tidy colour planted in patterns. These are not entirely lacking at Trentham, as witness the “Upper Flower Garden”. I raised my eyebrows at these but I bet poor old Tom Stuart-Smith has to avert his eyes in horror when he stands on this top terrace to get a long view of his plantings out to the lake. But in the hands of a less visionary investment company, this could have been the story of the entire place.

My photos are entirely ‘of the day’ – a snapshot in time. When top-flight plantspeople are given free rein, they are not planting for a small window of time. These are plantings that are designed to take the gardens through the seasons, or at least three seasons from spring bulbs through to autumn colour with a more static picture of winter rest. This is a high level skill but never more so than in public plantings predominantly of perennials, where one planting must gently age and fade gracefully as the next wave of plants takes over. Which is to say that should you visit a month or two months later, the gardens may look very different but should still look as if they are at or close to their peak.

There is a really complex entry charge system, depending on which areas you want to visit (the gardens count as one area). Goodness me, you can even use Tesco Clubcard vouchers (Tesco being a supermarket chain). It is worth looking on line – I found a two for one weekday voucher there though I then felt a bit mean when I used it.

Postscript *I do not want to overstate the evening concerts. In fact I looked at the programme boards and wondered if it was just the one contracted band in different guises. The amphitheatre stage was but modest. Maybe they are catering to a specific local demographic, this year at least? On our last visit we saw Hatfield House in London preparing for a major concert. U2? Or was it UB40? I have waited three years to use my photo of the portaloos at Hatfield. Trentham is not trying that scale of concert at this stage but give them time. I am sure they will be looking at it for feasibility and profitability.

Portaloos at Hatfield House in 2014

Because I had many more photos than I could use on this post, I have added an album on Facebook.

Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.