Design and Country Gardens

Is it just me, or are modern designed gardens almost always urban in style and feel?  Some resemble stage sets more than places in the real world. Walking around the ‘gardens’ at Chelsea, I soon crave the sight of flies circling over a pile of dog poo, or a couple of forgotten tea mugs.  So many garden designer creations are too slick, too mannered and too clever, with contrived visual effects that are unsubtle and clearly owe their origin to something seen in a book. Such effects rarely reflect the place where you actually experience them – and to my eye they just appear affected. And besides, visiting a garden is more than just a visual experience; it’s all about smell and atmosphere – even the ground beneath your feet contributes – and how I loathe, detest and abominate walking through a garden in autumn where all the leaves have been blown away by one of those ear-splitting, mega-urban leaf blowers.  I DETEST those sodding machines! And then there are those ghastly designer clichés: so silver birches are always planted in tasteful little groups of three or five and vegetable have to be accompanied by box plants and rose bowers, even if their roots make efficient cultivation well-nigh impossible. Often those potagers reflect the fact that the vegetables in them are rarely harvested, let alone eaten.

Our garden hasn’t been designed, as such. Although yes, we decided on the bare, structural bones before we began the project, but that was only after several months of living on the site. Then we laid out the meadow, the main double border, the vegetable garden and of course the wood, which surrounds us on the two windy sides. Everything else arose spontaneously in response to ideas we generated while out there in the garden, gardening. When we began our current garden, back in the winter of 1992-3 we shared most tasks. Then as time passed we began to go our separate ways: I became more involved with the vegetable garden and Maisie with the borders. Today we share responsibility for the various shrubberies and for bulb-planting, but Maisie has also taken on two smaller formal gardens while I am spending more time in the wood, not just maintaining trees, but introducing decorative plants, such as shade-loving ferns, blue bells and so on. I won’t say the partition of responsibility is inscribed on tablets of stone – it certainly isn’t – but we’ve both worked together as part of small teams on archaeological excavations so we appreciate the importance of having clearly understood boundaries. As the old saying goes: good fences make for good neighbours. I suppose it’s all about conflict-avoidance and resolution. Anyhow, it seems to work for us.

So to return to the theme, our garden is constantly evolving and the control of two ‘designers’. We both admit to mistakes. I freely confess I made the paths in the vegetable garden too narrow, but again, these things can always be fixed. What you can’t alter is the basic layout of the place and on the whole I think we got that remarkably right. I’m amazed by how the screen of tall black poplars (Populus nigra) not only cuts the all-prevailing Fenland winds, but also by how it frames the meadow. And over the past five years we’ve also begun to get wonderful autumn colours. I also think the essence of a good country garden should be the absolute minimum of ‘hard’ landscape features, such as brick or stone walls. Yes, I concede the ancient stones of a ruined abbey wall can look lovely in a modern garden, but most people don’t have the luxury of owning such things. For me, modern garden walls and brick-built gazebos etc. betray a lack of patience – and with it too much money. I’d far rather walk around a hedge: leafy in summer, coloured in autumn and bare in winter. We’re too wet to grow beech, so we use hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) instead. And of late I’ve come to prefer its darker, more textured leaves. The hedges are my responsibility and each autumn it takes me six to eight days to cut them. And boy, do I feel stiff in the shoulders afterwards!

We tend to use wood for our few garden structures. I don’t think a garden can have too many seats, especially now that I’m getting a bit older. We drink our morning and afternoon tea out in the garden on one of our many often rather rickety seats. Some are shaded, others sunny, depending on the time of year, and day. We also both think a garden must be used. So we have a wooden chalet-style summer-house where we often sip wine of an evening. It’s built a bit like an old-fashioned site hut, with bolt-together panels and a felt roof, but it also has large windows and a small balcony at the front. The windows are shaded and seem to act like a bird-watchers hide, so that hares, partridges and pheasants sometimes come right up to us.  I could spend hours there. Sadly, snobby friends from London are inclined to sneer: they see it as ‘suburban’. Doubtless they’d magic James Gibbs back from the early eighteenth century to design something Grecian and O-so-tasteful for them. Stuck up prigs!

My advice to anyone about to plan and lay-out a garden is simple: first ask yourselves how you intend to use it. That should be your fundamental organising principle. Nothing else matters – and certainly not the opinion of your friends. When all is said and done, it’s your life and your garden.

As we’re lucky enough to live in the country, we’ve decided to re-introduce certain trees and shrubs that were once plentiful in the Fens. I’ve mentioned black poplars, but our wood also has hundreds of alders and willows of various sorts, and around the fringes we’ve planted native wet-loving species, such as spindles (Euonymus europaeus) whose vivid pink and orange fruit are particularly decorative at this time of year.

Spindle (gv)

The common spindle, a native wet-loving shrub (Euonymus europaeus)

Spindle (close-up)

Close-up of the spindle’s fruit

We love British plants, but we’re neither of us strict botanical conservationists. Put another way, we’re not purists, so I’m perfectly happy to plant non-native pampas grasses out in our otherwise entirely native meadow. And I think they look stunning in the autumn and early winter, By February, though, they’re starting to look rather tatty – at which point I cut them back sharply, using mechanical hedge-cutters.

Pampas grasses

Two pampas grasses (Cortaderia selloana, Sunningdale Silver) in the meadow frame the turning leaves of a yellow ash (Fraxinus excelsior, Jaspidea )

Our shrubberies used to be rather natural-looking, and we were soon confronted with a big weed problem in the summer, as we still lacked extensive ground-cover. So three years ago Maisie suggested inter-planting the shrubs with vigorous border perennials and the results have, I think, been stunning.

Shrubs and perenials

Part of a shrubbery with various evergreens, a weeping alder (Alnus incana pendula) (right), a large pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana, Goldband) and between them two border perennials, the tall, yellow flowers of Helianthus ‘Yellow Queen’, below it an elegantly collapsed Aster ,‘Calliope’

So is gardening an art or a craft? It has to be both, but as a means of expression it’s second to none. I suppose my one caution would be this: it’s a means of expression; it doesn’t have to be a means of self-expression, designed by one person alone. Exceptionally fine gardens often reflect the influence of several imaginative people on a particular place. Surely that’s why the truly great creations – places like Stowe, in Buckinghamshire – are so very magical.

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