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.
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.
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:
- 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.
Two days later I saw a tweet from Dan Pearson*, the UK landscaper for whom I carry a bit of fan-girl torch.
Another inspiring day talking gardens with Troy at Sissinghurst. Sure progress with their project to key the gardens sense of place.
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 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.