5-10-5: Gina Price of Pettifers Garden

I first met Gina after I saw her garden on the front cover of the 2007 Good Gardens Guide and then reached out to schedule a visit in person. On weekends when I wasn’t occupied with my postgraduate research, I would often drive out to visit historic houses, gardens, and nurseries. Nonetheless, a date and time are agreed upon and I tentatively knocked on the door upon which I had embarrassingly mistaken her husband James for a friend. The Prices ended up having a good laugh about the episode, and I ended up staying for much of the day, cementing my friendship with Gina. We’ve kept in touch over the years as the garden has evolved beautifully.


 

When you first started gardening, you mentioned how your influential friends were merciless in their critiques of your early garden. I can’t imagine that you didn’t feel slighted at that time although the memory of those times appear funny now. What were some of the memorable lines?

Betsy Muir, Dianey Binny’s 80 year old sister was ruthlessly critical about a small curved bed opposite the kitchen door:  ‘Gina, that is a damn dull bed.  Just a lot of acquilegias, and not even special ones.’ I had not realised how much they seeded, and I was near to tears, but she was right. Everything takes so long gardening, and I felt exhausted. When Betsy saw my hostas eaten by snails, she remarked: ‘is that hailstone damage?’ That did make me laugh. And that was the end of my growing hostas as the snails would crawl out of my low stone walls near the house to decimate them. Betsy told me the greatest enemy in the garden was wind, and I opened it all up to embrace the landscape. However the plants I planted, for example grasses, and herbaceous perennials did not really mind wind.

Arabella Lennox Boyd told me how ugly my steps were, and what was I going to do about them.  They had just been laid, and were not a feature of beauty due to inexperience on my behalf. I then covered them with Ivy, which has just been taken off now at least 23 years later. They now look better, and we have placed on the bottom flat bits stone balls that was my Christmas present from James!  Polly [my gardener] thinks they look Dutch.  The colour of the stone has weathered beautifully. These remarks were not all as harsh criticisms as they sounded, as both Arabella and Betsy followed their visits up with very encouraging letters, which I have kept and treasured.

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Alliums, like Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, are an essential part of the garden, although they do sometimes need editing as the bulbs have become too successful in multiplying.

Gardens, like their owners, evolve to reflect changing or mature tastes in plants or styles. Comparatively speaking, what would you have liked to say to your inexperienced self through a time machine?

I would like to say that it was not a waste of time growing all the different plants that I grew in the beginning. I learnt how they all behaved in the ground, which ones were thugs, and which liked the conditions of my garden or not. It took years to develop a taste of my own, and a style of my own, and then to stick to it and not be swayed. I learned to look for interest in the leaf and not just the flower. I like plants that look good for a long time, e.g. six months, but these plants are difficult to find. I buy maybe five, and learnt not to have it look too bitty. I try to have it not look too studied – for example, when we are digging out the bluebells of the beds, we leave some in the right hand side which is more woodland-like.

Rather than take the customary approach of dividing the garden into rooms to prevent the countryside view from dominating, you took the opposite, not easy tactic of allowing the garden embrace the view. How did you keep the garden balanced with the wider panorama?

I always knew that I did not want rooms in my garden, though some people tried to pressure me to divide it up, as that was the fashion at the time.  We have gone on and on opening it up particularly by taking out the big rose bushes of Rosa californica ‘Plena’ which were at the end of the lawn stopping the eye. Now we have two yew domes, which is simpler and picks up the picture of the yew in the parterre down below. To keep the garden balanced, not only have the chimneys in the parterre grown a lot and matured (beautifully clipped by Polly), but also we have enlarged the Autumn border and swept it on round to the right to incorporate the landscape. We have taken out the Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ on the right hand side, and the hedge of Rosa glauca, and planted two separate yew hedges which are going to be tapering with the lie of the land, for it all runs gently downhill.

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Most modernist gardens depend heavily on hardscaping and herbaceous perennials with grasses, whereas your garden is more accommodating of woody plants. What value do you see in having a diversity of woody plants?

I don’t like a lot of hardscaping in a garden. The advantage of woody plants is that the whole thing is going to look more natural. We are a north facing garden, so the plants are going to enjoy dappled shade, and near the house we have stepping stones taking you through the beds. It is only in the last five years that I have discovered the beauty of ferns. However, it is very difficult finding plants that will do well under the shadow of my two large yew trees on the right hand side.

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Agapanthus ‘Quink Drops’, a plant bought from Marchants Hardy Plants, with Hemerocallis ‘Margery Fish’.

British gardeners are spoilt for plant choices, which can be overwhelming for novices. How do you filter what will work successfully with your garden?

I go to two top class nurseries, which sell plants of my taste. Two of my favorite nurseries are Marchants Hardy Plants owned by Graham Gough and Lucy Goffin, and Avondale Nursery near Coventry. Graham and Lucy and I always have lunch together, when we never draw breath about plants!  Polly once went to Marchants, and Graham asked her if she needed any help, to which she said no, as she had seen them all in our garden (she did say quite that to Graham)!

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An allee of Malus transitoria in the Paddock leads out to a pale blue wash of camassias.

Why is the transcendent or emotional feeling elusive even in the gardens of UK?

Maybe the owner is not emotional, or too many gardens done by designers.

It takes a courageous spirit to apply for a tree preservation order to be rescinded and then remove the tree once the application is approved. Does the sentimentality towards trees prevent gardens from being better?

I don’t understand the sentimentality towards trees if it is going to spoil the overall picture, or stop things from growing by sucking up the moisture from the ground. To me it is totally obvious if a tree needs to come out.

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Cyclamen and hellebores are essential plants that lift winter blues for Gina.

Winters in the British Isles can be gray, damp, and miserable. What in the garden lifts your spirits during those leaden days?

The winter aconites, snowdrops, Sarcococca, Cornus mas, and hellebores, which flower for about 3 months. Particularly the snowdrops and the hellebores.

How often do you and your gardener Polly discuss the garden’s evolution?

Constantly.

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The Klimt Border at its midsummer peak.

You often allude to artists or their works when describing specific areas of the garden such as the Gustav Klimt border or the Bottecelli meadow. Does this artistic allusion help evoke the atmosphere you and Polly hope to achieve?

Yes it does , and it is not dissimilar to our description.

The inclination to garden or create a garden seems more persuasive in UK than it has been in Corfu, Greece where challenges like hard soil and dry summers appear insurmountable.

Here in the British Isles we have the perfect gardening climate, which is maybe why we talk about the weather all the time!   We have had a mild winter, a wet spring, some heat, and now cold again.     The plants are growing as you look at them.   Corfu is very difficult. It has cold wet winters, with a rainfall the same as London. Spring is beautiful with the soft green of the olive trees, and many wild flowers everywhere. But then follows 3 to 4 months of very hot weather, with poor watering facilities, and poor quality water that is salty. Again in the autumn everything freshens up and looks beautiful again. Before we bought the property, the garden was just an olive grove, without even a single cypress.

 

What are some of the plants you could not be without in the garden?

I would not be without the yew structure in the garden, and the Phillyreas, particularly Phillyrea latifolia that I grow.  I love the Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’, and Cornus controversa. The layout of the parterre has turned out much better than I ever thought it would.  My new favourite is my golden Cornus mas.

Again and again you have emphasized the effect of clipping your shrubs well so their forms become architectural after the borders have been tidied. What does it take to clip skillfully and beautifully without overdoing it?

Polly does all the clipping, and she does it all beautifully and by eye.  In the parterre the shapes tend to be on the large side, such as Daphne tangutica. It is huge but we are frightened of cutting into too hard as we do not want to lose it.    Our bushes of Sarcococca are pretty massive, but it all leads to more drama in the winter.

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Some people dismiss dahlias and tulips as too much effort – especially lifting and staking for the first, and topping up for the latter. What is it about these two that you and Polly find invaluable for the garden?

Dahlias and tulips are certainly not too much effort. The garden looks beautiful at this moment and it is the tulips making rivers of colour in the borders. Then later on the dahlias in the parterre flower until the end of October, and they are also done to a colour scheme, flowering endlessly, being deadheaded, with flowers for the house.

People gardening in tropical and even Mediterranean climates use scented plants to greater effect than those in temperate climates. What is it about scent you find enthralling in a garden?

Scent in a garden is one of its many joys. James [my husband] has no sense of smell at all which is a shame.

You often get a strong smell particularly in the evening.  My favourites are Monarda, and Dictamnus when you brush your hands up its stems.

 

Book Review: Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman

by Eric Hsu

All images are the courtesy and copyright of Isabel and Julian Bannerman.  


Garden designers are like fashion designers in that they memorialize their work through books. Their books are either modest affairs or expensive productions. The former can become deserving classics for their information dispensed with wit and poetry. The latter can lapse into the clichéd interior design format – large two-page photographic spreads, minimal or no text, and glossary to matt paper. A brief introduction may preface the photography. They have their sole purpose of mindless dreaming and fantasies of what money or time can achieve. Isabel and Julian Bannerman’s Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press 2016) toes these two categories of being informative and visually slick.

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In a NY Times T Magazine profile of their Cornish garden, Tim Richardson describes the husband and wife team as to-go ’90s landscape designers for high profile clients that included the Prince of Wales (at Highgrove), Lord Rothschild (Waddesdon Manor), John Paul Getty Jr. (Wormsley) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (Houghton Hall). Their projects veer heavily towards grandiose ones rather than the townhouse and urban gardens other designers take on.  Their gardens have the bold armature of wooden or stone structures embellished with anthers, finials, and carvings that are dramatic peers to their plantings. Grasses are seldom used as they are in contemporary gardens, but roses, aquilegias, tulips and topiary, all archetypal elements of classic country gardens, are liberally deployed. As prescriptive as this look may seem, the Bannermans have developed a knack for blurring the lines, muffling out the formality with self sowers, perennials that flop decadently over the hedges, and curvaceous topiary forms. They admitted this feat a slippery one: “Trying to make it look as if gardening is not happening particularly is a very tricky deception, full of contradiction since it is actually tuned up and put on steroids.”

Cultivated wilderness as seen in these garden scenes from Tremarton, the Bannermans' second personal garden in Cornwall.

Cultivated wilderness as seen in these garden scenes from Tremarton, the Bannermans’ second personal garden in Cornwall. Image credit: Julian and Isabel Bannerman

A foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales opens the book with an enthusiastic acknowledgment of the Bannermans’ interdisciplinary talents in architecture, landscape, and interior design. This royal endorsement hardly adds to the book apart from the seal of approval to readers unsure about the book’s contents. What follows is an autobiographical chapter in which the Bannermans recount their upbringing, early influences, and philosophy. Their reminiscences are revealed with surprising candor especially about people whose lives happened to collide with them. Reading passage after passage unwinding about these quirky individuals is like a communion with the fantastical characters who populate Alice in Wonderland. DV or David Vicary is described as [a] magical scarecrow of a man, beautifully turned out in his uniform of dark brown alpaca long waistcoat – a sort of subfusc outfit after Doctor Johnson – had a mop of excellent hair definitive nose, and wry vivacious eyes.’ Coincidentally the Bannermans allude to  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for its ‘illusory, hallucinatory quality’ they strive to instill in their work.

Detailed sketches for Wormsley, one of the Bannermans' commissions.

Detailed sketches for Wormsley, one of the Bannermans’ commissions. Image credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

 

The Bannermans are not shrinking violets when it comes to theatricality in the garden. They have marvelous fun poring over historical texts, paintings, and references to pierce together imaginative gardens that would have delighted garden goers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is precisely what they have achieved in half of the former walled kitchen garden at Arundel Castle, Sussex. From the Somerset House garden plan the Bannermans tailored the two-terraced garden – the upper terrace being a trio of courts interlocked by a oak pergola, and the lower terrace a miniature castle, Oberon’s Palace. Two graveled courts with a fountain and four catalpa trees each flank the central court with its canal of water. Oak urn fountains topped with gilded bronze agaves squirt water into this canal. A  large open lawn planted up with alliums transition between the upper and lower terrace. Oberon’s Palace, which takes after the Little Castle at Bolsover, is miraculously mounted on a plinth of Sussex ragstone rocks. The interior palace walls are encrusted with shells and corks, and the room centerpiece is The Dancing Crown. The Bannermans left no detail undone – dolphin, dog, and lion figurines adorn the fountains in the catalpa courts while deer anthers adorn the Park Temple. Sea monkeys guard the arch entranceway of Oberon’s Palace. One cannot help smile at the playful atmosphere of  all the features, even if the embellishment may come across over the top for some.

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Daniel Mytens’ portrait of Alathea Talbot painted in 1618 – the Bannermans enlarged the background detail of the garden with its hornbeam pergola, fountain and the doorway on which the Collector Earl’s Garden and Oberon’s Palace’s interior were modelled. Image Credit: Wikipedia

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A gilded crown is propelled into the air by the jet of water from a fountain at Arundel Castle. This water trick was inspired by the one the Bannermans had seen at Hellbrunn, Palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Image Credit: Julian and Isabel Bannerman


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The yellow Chinese bridge at Woolbeding. Image credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

If Arundel Castle is the court jester in the Bannerman design portfolio, then Woolbeding is the royal advisor who parlays a sensible and sympathetic strategy for problems. In tackling Woolbeding, the Bannermans realized: “Lightness of touch is an intangible quality, something we all always seek to achieve and can never be sure of finding.” The late Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw already established the formal and productive gardens since purchasing the property in 1970s. For a long time, they struggled with unifying the ‘Long Walk’ to the woodland garden, a large copse of trees, and a placid body of water. A painted Gothic pavilion was positioned listlessly on a grassy knoll without any incentive to visit it. To announce the change from open pasture to arboretum with its structural elements, the Bannermans constructed a Gothic ruin archway entrance. A visitor then would take this entrance as the cue to anticipate the next episode. Because the owners did not wish to move the pavilion, it became the reference point under which a 12′ cliff fashioned out of Sussex sandstone was created. Water would cascade from this cliff, breaking up the still waters and giving impetus to the pavilion views across the lake. A Chinese bridge painted yellow to echo yellow flags and skunk cabbages hovered enchantingly close to the water surface and provide views towards the pavilion. The Bannermans continued the ‘journey’ to a thatched hermitage and the cave of the Rother god, conceived to be the ‘father’ of the river. They installed a tufa monolith, which oozed water from the Rother through clever engineering, in the circular glade where Simon and Stewart had positioned statues of four seasons. This monolith,  “a strange and powerful beast, slumbering, closed-winged but latent”, introduces mystery and a note of danger without which a garden can be atmospheric. It is a light theatrical touch that brings cohesion to the woodland garden, lake, and the pavilion.



 

A view of the house and the garden at Hanham Court, the Bannermans' residence for 18 years.

A view of the house and the garden at Hanham Court, the Bannermans’ residence for 18 years. Image Credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

Hanham Court and Trematon Castle, the last two gardens in the book, are personal ones which the Bannermans patiently and diligently wrestled out of their derelict, overgrown status quo. Had not for the help of the antipodeans (one Kiwi who looked after the children and cooking, and seven Aussies who helped with the construction), the garden at Hanham Court would not have materialized given the sorry state of the property at the beginning. The inception of the garden at Hanham Court prompts a comedic recollection of a conservation officer who, initially horrified at the swimming pool within the remnant medieval ruins, was less than enthused about being duped by the architectural chicanery the Bannermans constructed. It was not simply enough to undertake the house and garden restoration for the impoverished soil needed earth backfills and compost additions before anything was to be planted. The ancient tangle of wisteria was forcibly pulled down to wire the house and retrained to maximize their flowering productivity, and roses like Rosa bankisae ‘Lutea’, ‘Felicite Perpetue’ and ‘Rambling Rector’ joined in the climbing chorus. Nonetheless each project led to another until Hanham Court became civilized with the requisite romanticism. It’s a place that is breathtaking in scale when you visit as I did several years ago on an open garden day. Like Alice who crawls into the rabbit hole or mirror only to end up in an alternate world, you first enter through the wicket gate that is a brief dark interlude before the colors, scents, and all that is the Bannerman magic overwhelm you.

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Native wildflower scenes at Tremarton. Photo credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

Despite its Cornish location, Trematon proved no picnic either. Archaeological restrictions (no duplicitous ruins and no gullible enforcers) meant no wanton digging. Years of neglect had allowed winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) to spread aggressively and smother out the native wildflowers. Sloping terrain doubled the time it took to complete projects. The Bannermans describe their first year as grey and disconsolate from the rain that fell incessantly. ‘Grey skies, grey granite, grey shaley soil, bitter and wet it was, and the boiler was bust, when we landed with a lot of furniture in a heap from Bristol.’ Just as they had done with their previous derelict projects, they valiantly persisted as they replanted their losses, wrenched out boulders, and excavated new planting holes. Bramble, ground elder, and heliotrope were either sprayed or pulled out from the banks. Judging from the photographs, much of their efforts appeared to pay off. The removal of the invasive and aggressive weeds allowed some of the native wildflowers to return, and made what was once impenetrable promising canvas to ‘paint’. Given how the castle walls already provided the essential backdrop, the Bannermans describe a dizzyingly range of plants, especially those scented, added over the last five years. Their emphasis on scent is purposeful for ‘Cornwall is good for scent, being warm and wet and, when the sun does appear, aromatic plants exude their turpentine tang.’

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Bannermans often turn to climbing roses in their work – Rosa ‘Albéric Barbier’, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’, and ‘Rambling Rector’ clamber over a ruined wall at Euridge Manor Farm. Photo credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

One of the admirable aspects about the Bannermans is their fluency with different plants, a skill that is becoming more uncommon among garden designers and landscape architects. They act like discriminating magpies who retain their proven prizes, experiment a bit, and fold in new possibilities to an existing scheme. Philadelphus (mock orange), old roses, pinks, lilies, sweet peas and lupines are always introduced to gardens with tour de force herbaceous borders.  It is easy to pooh pooh these plants in these gardens, but the Bannermans cherish them for their ‘lived in’ effect they inject in a youthful garden. They are familiar and sensual, evocative of the dreamy past.

If a criticism is to be volleyed at the book, the photography occasionally fails to match the exacting high standards of the garden. Either the authors or the editors have taken the unusual step of not commissioning a garden photographer to illustrate the text, instead opting for the authors’ photography. The downside of such photography is their uneven quality, which can be a letdown for those accustomed to crisp and sharp images in other garden books. Some of the photographs would have been culled to prevent repetition  – one or two close-ups of the plantings would simply suffice. On the upside, the ‘homemade’ feel of the photography gives the text a personal touch as if we were peering through a creative scrapbook or compendium of the authors’ work.

Landscape of Dreams is a book which deserves periodical poring for its sophisticated fluency in landscape and garden design. It demonstrates that truly talented designers do not produce products of hubris, but of respect and humility to the sites they are commissioned to work on. The Bannermans are sensible to realize that each site has its limitations that require their plans to be specific and individualistic.