5-10-5: Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley Garden

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matthew Pottage

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Please introduce yourself. My Name is Matthew Pottage, and I am the Curator of Wisley Garden, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

The arts or horticulture?  Horticulture.

What is your earliest memory of plants or gardens?

Making a den under a huge Hypericum bush with my brother, and the smell of it! (of the bush, not my brother!)

Any terrible gardening mistakes you wish to admit during your incipient gardening experimentation?

Planting a large Dracaena draco outside at my parents house in Yorkshire where it promptly died in the first frost! (I was around 12 at the time…..)

Conifers have become unfairly unfashionable and may be due for a resurgence in popularity. What are some of their qualities you admire about them?  

I love the value they add to a landscape, especially in winter. I love a garden that is a tapestry of colour, texture and form and find a landscape very bleak without evergreen content in winter so I find conifers really useful. I also think many of them are full of character and in the right position can be a real talking point.

How do you plan to proselytize them to the greater public?

By showing them off at Wisley to our 1.3 million visitors per year, and online through my twitter account @matthew_Pottage, that in a mixed planting, they can look really fabulous!

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Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’

Two conifers, Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir) and Araucaria araucana (money puzzle and Chile pine) appear to be your favorites. Why these two taxa in particular?

I really love the cultivar ‘Aurea’ of the Spanish fir because it is so tactile, colourful and is of great garden ornament. The monkey puzzle is a childhood love – I had a teacher in primary school who was really creative and artistic and she had some branches of a monkey puzzle tree in the classroom. I was fascinated by them and immediately started to research the tree, and then started spotting them all over the place! It became a complete geeky hobby.

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One of Matthew’s memorable trips was seeing the monkey puzzles in the lower volcanic slopes of the Chilean Andes.

Several years you were given a RHS bursary to travel to Chile where Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle or Chile pine) can form pure stands in volcanic mountain slopes at 600 to 1,800 m. As the experience of seeing plants in wild haunts often trumps seeing them in gardens, what did you take away from hiking among the trees?

It was an unforgettable experience, so much so I returned there in 2016 to visit them. It is like a prehistoric landscape of these giant pieces of living architecture. Seeing plants in the wild really helps the gardener understand the plants’ growing conditions and why plants behave like they do in gardens.

Another interest of yours is variegated plants, which can inspire polarizing opinions. At work, a variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’) is either admired or vilified by visitors. However, I imagine that variegated plants work well in UK’s grey skies – being beacons of light. What variegated plants can you not be without? 

I just couldn’t be without Pittosporum ‘Irene Patterson’ which has beautiful white, variegated leaves, or the exquisite Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Snow Bird’

What is a plant you desire to grow, but have not succeed despite repeated efforts?

Lapageria rosea. I love it, but need to admit defeat, it’s just impossible for me.

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Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’ at RHS Wisley.

Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley has approximately 43,000 accessioned plants and 25,000 taxa. It lists the following groups as its special collections: Orchidaceae, Epimedium, Colchicum, Galanthus, Hosta, Rheum, Cyclamen, Narcissus, Daboecia, Erica, Calluna, Rhododendron, conifers, heathers, Mediterranean and Near East bulbs, and apples. Outside of conifers, are their specific plants you find close and personal at Wisley?

We have many fine trees at Wisley, and they add immense character to the gardens, each with its own personality. Some of these fine trees include Quercus robur f. fastigiataPinus coulteri, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lutea’, Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’, and Eucalyptus dalrympleana. In total contrast, I really love the cacti and succulent collections in the glasshouse.

Within a short time, you have risen up from the ranks of trainee gardener to become the Curator at Wisley. You have held different positions that ranged from Glasshouse Supervisor, Team Leader to Deputy Curator. What did you take away from each position that informed your current role?

Always the same lessons, but with each step, a huge dollop more responsibility! Work hard, do your best, have a ‘glass half full approach’ and try to be fair and effective as opposed to always trying to be liked. Also, nothing is served to you on a plate, you have to make it your business to get things done, and all of the above has helped my journey to this role today.

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Wavy patterns in the mown turf next to the Canal at RHS Wisley.

I have not been to RHS Wisley since 2007, but it has been exciting to witness the development of garden areas (Tom Stuart Smith’s Bicentenary Glasshouse Borders Landscape, James Hitchmough’s steppe garden meadow areas, and Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden, designed by Robert Myers). What exciting projects should we see on the horizon under your tutelage? 

We are currently working with Christopher Bradley Hole to completely redesign our entrance landscape and how you arrive at the garden. It’s a big undertaking, which will see the creation of a new shop and plant centre, and arrivals building. Within the gardens, we are creating a new Exotic Garden, due to open Summer 2017 and in 2018 we will be refreshing and redesigning the heather garden. However, generally, across all garden areas I want to build on, and improve attention to detail and plantsmanship.

Within the last few decades, the Royal Horticultural Society has expanded beyond its original flagship at Wisley to Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor, and now Salford, securing its representation throughout Great Britain. How do you see your role as the Curator of RHS Garden Wisley in relation to other curators at these satellite gardens?  

As part of the curators’ team of the RHS, we meet quarterly to view each other’s gardens, share best practice and learning and in recent days I have been spending time with the Curator of the new Salford garden, talking him through the way I am leading things at Wisley, to help him get off to a quick start.

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Box alternatives are showcased in a pleasing loose parterre style at RHS Wisley.

Great Britain’s tenure in the European Union dismantled bureaucratic and economic barriers to trade, hence the more porous borders ushered in an influx of plants and horticultural goods from continental Europe. The downside of this economic free trade has been the introduction of pests and diseases, such Asian box caterpillar and oak processionary moth, not seen previously in British gardens. How do you address these challenges at RHS Wisley and elsewhere in you work?

We are very much here to share the best in gardening, and support the gardening public, and through our science work, work closely to look at control, elimination or management practices which we can then share with our members and the gardening public. For example, box tree caterpillar very quickly appeared at Wisley, and while our science team can advise on control, we have laid out a planting of Buxus alternatives which we are trialing as we are finding many of our members are having problems with both the caterpillar and box blight and are eager to learn what else they can plant.

Much has been lamented about the waning interest among millennials in gardens and ornamental plants. The nursery industry in US has struggled to capture the attention of young people at a time when food, fashion, and design sectors successfully have done so. Much interest in ornamental plants have been primarily houseplants for urban dwellers and specialty cut flowers from young people seeking to diversity from edibles in farms. What do you see the horticulture industry heading in UK?

I really hope (and the RHS is trying to promote this) that people will start to understand that gardening and greenspaces is good for your health and well being, and people actually benefit from having plants in their lives, and that gardening can be accessible to all, whether through houseplants, window boxes, or just a simple planter by the front door.

A number of trainee programs in the National Trust, RBG Kew, RBG Edinburgh, and Cambridge Botanic Garden are now well established, and it is positive to see the number of young faces enrolled in these programs. How is the trainee program at RHS Wisley structured?

We have two programmes, a two year programme of intense study, coupled with a rotation through all the garden teams. It is a fully accredited course which is still very ‘hands on’ and is a fantastic, comprehensive, offer. In addition, we have a two year apprenticeship programme, which has a focus around introducing people to professional gardening, and grasping the basics. Many of our apprentices go on to the student course to continue their development.

Can you single out any of your peers whose work at other gardens, public and private, excites you?

I have a friend called Robbie Blackhall Miles (www.fossilplants.co.uk) who is growing different Proteaceae which have been collected as seed at very high altitudes, and could have hardiness potential for the UK climate. Robbie is a great planstman, and it’s always fascinating talking to him and hearing about his work.

What gardens outside of RHS, private or public, you find yourself visiting again and again?

I’m a huge fan of the National Trust gardens, two in particular, Bodnant in North Wales, and Sheffield Park in Sussex. Both have magnificent trees and have a wonderful atmosphere.

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Matthew’s London terrace is full of container plants, including a variegated clivia, arranged to highlight their foliage textures and colors – the only caveat is that pests flourish year round in London’s microclimate!

On top of your busy career, you manage to garden outside of work in London and Yorkshire. I imagine that London’s unique microclimate enables you to grow plants usually cossetted in glasshouses, but Yorkshire is no banana belt, being northern and colder. What are the two gardens like?

The garden in Yorkshire is very tough – heavy and poorly draining clay soil, constantly windy conditions and near the coast, so salt laded winds. However, the clay soil can be improved and when cared for, we get great results once things establish. My tiny London is great fun, and is full of plants we’d usually consider as houseplants, like Adiantum, Clivia and Platycerium. However, the drawback is everything is full of pests year round, typically aphids and red spider mite!

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Matthew’s beautifully-tended garden at his parents’ Yorkshire home.

What are you looking forward the most in the future?

I’m really looking forward to the coming years at the RHS while we deliver some projects at Wisley that will really help take it to a new level. The RHS is full of brilliant people and while each day can be incredibly busy, it’s always fun, productive and dynamic.


Thank you Matthew!

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.

Winterscapes

The pearly winter sunrise over the Cotswolds countryside

The pearly winter sunrise over the Cotswolds countryside

Dear Jimmy,

Snow had fallen at Chanticleer in the last few weeks. I remember a visitor interested in seeing Chanticleer during winter, only to have her hopes deflated upon discovering that we were closed after October.

The Pond Garden in Snow at Chanticleer

The Pond Garden in Snow at Chanticleer

It reminded me of how much I gleamed about winter structure in United Kingdom after the masses and voids of plantings have been stripped away, leaving little to distract the eye from the permanent elements. When I saw the Wyeth paintings at the Brandywine River Museum, their economical spareness of colors and subjects revealed a depth similar to those wintry landscapes I enjoyed in United Kingdom. The grays, browns, and dark greens may have a somberness that dampens one’s psyche, but they allow our eyes, loosened from the vise of bright colors and light, to relax. Your images of the Spanish farmlands carved with crop lines, mountains, and forests reflect that chromatic subtleties on our moods, and I returned to the moments of walking through empty Cotswold gardens and villages in early winter mornings.

Brown Swiss by Andrew Wyeth

Brown Swiss by Andrew Wyeth

Hidcote Manor Garden is not open during winter, but my friends and I gained access through the generosity of the Head Gardener Glyn Jones. Perhaps weary from the onslaught of visitors and luxuriance of its beds, the garden slips into a soporific stupor, acquiring a restfulness rarely seen at other times. The French and Italianate influences on its creator Lawrence Johnston are now more apparent – the pleached hornbeams, the holm oak cubes, the gazebos, and the pool take on the starring roles after having ceding to the lush plantings. Without these structural elements the plantings could fall apart and the intriguing secrets of Hidcote cease to exist – just as a woman wears a necklace, a plant is as beautiful as it can be in the right setting. The mystery and drama of Hidcote in winter is strong as it is in spring and summer.

Stripped and cleaned for the year, the Red Borders now frame the gate of the Stilt Garden by letting the eye hone on the geometric lines towards the top. In the Stilt Garden, the angular cubes of the pleached hornbeams echo the gazebo shapes while the two Quercus ilex tower behind like clouds above the hornbeams.

Stripped and cleaned for the year, the Red Borders now frame the gate of the Stilt Garden by letting the eye hone on the geometric lines towards the top. In the Stilt Garden, the angular cubes of the pleached hornbeams echo the gazebo shapes while the two Quercus ilex tower behind like clouds above the hornbeams.

Denuded of their leaves, the pleached hornbeams become wiry edifices that play off texturally the solid boxwood and yew hedges, and the grass panel, walls, and gravel paths are tonally different from the clipped plants.

Denuded of their leaves, the pleached hornbeams become wiry edifices that play off texturally the solid boxwood and yew hedges, and the grass panel, walls, and gravel paths are tonally different from the clipped plants.

Reflected in the still waters of the Bathing Pool Fountain is the cherub and the dolphin centerpiece.

Reflected in the still waters of the Bathing Pool Fountain is the cherub and the dolphin centerpiece.

The yew columns define the separation between the house and the Theatre Lawn.

The yew columns define the separation between the house and the Theatre Lawn.

The view through the yew hedge towards the Beech Allee

The view through the yew hedge towards the Beech Allee

Dwarfed by the beech trees, the gate looks comically out of scale, but forces our eyes to pause and compels to explore beyond its boundaries.

Dwarfed by the beech trees, the gate looks comically out of scale, but forces our eyes to pause and compels us to explore beyond its boundaries.

A lesson can be learned in the nearby villages, and Chipping Camden near Hidcote Manor Garden conveys well the architectural detailing that has long drawn out-of-towners and tourists to this region of United Kingdom. Weathered by the patina of age and time, its stone buildings bespeak not only of the area’s vernacular and heritage, but also the craftsmanship that once characterized the Cotswolds’ hub of the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. While the front cottage gardens are not at their best, all manner of the buildings’ scale and proportions, their walls, and the link with the outlying countryside held enough interest for a solitary walk.

Andrew Wyeth could have enjoyed painting the front facade of this house - the damp gray cold has darkened the otherwise warm honey-colored stone.

Andrew Wyeth could have enjoyed painting the front facade of this house – the damp gray cold has darkened the otherwise warm honey-colored stone.

The zig-zag framework of this gnarled apple tree is etched in sharp relief against the mist.

The zig-zag framework of this gnarled apple tree is etched in sharp relief against the mist.

The West Banqueting House, a Jacobean building, looks forlorn among the remnants of the Old Campden House destroyed in a fire in 1645.

The West Banqueting House, a Jacobean building, looks forlorn among the remnants of the Old Campden House destroyed in a fire in 1645.

Textural contrasts of natural materials: wood and stone in the West Banqueting House

Textural contrasts of natural materials: wood and stone in the West Banqueting House

Framed by the arching tree, a porch light flickers like a beacon of optimism.

Behind the arching tree, a porch light flickers like a beacon of optimism.

As dispiriting as winter, especially its holidays, may seem for us gardeners, it teaches us restraint and sobriety before the floral excesses of spring engulfs our senses. There is something said about the ability of a bracing walk to contemplate and innovate. And there is always the promise of catalogs to dream, snowdrops, hellebores, and witch hazels to welcome, and a chance to breathe. See you in the New Year!

Take care, Eric

In this warmer corner of the house is the surprise sight of narcissi flowering. The neutral colors of the stone wall flatter the yellow flowers and green lawn.

In this warmer corner of the house is the surprise sight of narcissi flowering. The neutral colors of the stone wall flatter the yellow flowers and green lawn.

Dichotomy of a Modern Garden: Bury Court

It is rare to find a garden that is a product of two designers  – especially one runs the risk of creating a bipolar identity. Bury Court represents the fulcrum of two designers whose styles seem superficially similar, but upon closer inspection are different.

The Belgian granite setts are used for the pathway (in the far right image) and link to the architectural details  of the buildings (central image); Oudolf's early trademark herbaceous planting

The Belgian granite setts are used for the pathway (in the far right image) and link to the architectural details of the buildings (central image); Oudolf’s early trademark herbaceous planting

The trio of oasthouses, once used for drying hops, dominates the courtyard of the Oudolf garden. In the foreground the purple orbs of Allium sphaerocephalon and spires of Digitalis ferruginea bobble in Molinia grasses.

The trio of oasthouses, once used for drying hops, dominates the courtyard of the Oudolf garden. In the foreground the purple orbs of Allium sphaerocephalon and spires of Digitalis ferruginea bobble in Deschampsia grasses. Copied elsewhere by other designers, this highly influential Deschampsia meadow has been reinterpreted using the longer-lived Molinia caerulea in Oudolf’s subsequent work.

It is considered the first British commission that the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf designed in 1997 after John Coke, the owner of Bury Court, sought someone to collaborate on the courtyard garden. With Marina Christopher, John Coke operated the now-closed specialist nursery Green Farm Plants, one of the first nurseries to sell herbaceous perennials and grasses popular in today’s contemporary gardens. Coke found a kindred soul in Oudolf who combined plantsmanship and design (it didn’t hurt that Oudolf and his wife Anja ran a successful nursery selling similar plants as Green Farm).

Oudolf countered the asymmetrical shape of the exposed courtyard with curving beds book-ended with mounds and swirls of topiary. He filled the beds with his typical controlled compositions of perennials and grasses that are the defining norm for this style. The low to medium heights of Molinia caerulea and Deschampsia caespitosa are exploited for stylized meadows mixed with Dianthus carthusianorum and Allium sphaerocephalon and Digitalis ferruginea. Copied much elsewhere, these meadows have been reinvented in Oudolf’s subsequent gardens. Only the gravel garden and the formal pool feels slightly awkward, but exist as vestiges of the site’s former nursery.  If the garden seems humbling in the light of his later work, it is due to its domestic scale limiting the drifting style Oudolf normally applies to expansive spaces.

 

Recessed ditches filled with gravel break up the solemn, crisp formality of the rusted steel edges and timber boards (far left and central images); the black reflection pool is a visual eye-opener and contrasting note against the predominantly light hues ; the oak garage, too designed by Bradley-Hole, matches the weathered wood of the central oak pavilion (far right image).

Recessed ditches filled with gravel break up the solemn, crisp formality of the rusted steel edges and timber boards (far left and central images); the black reflection pool is a visual eye-opener and contrasting note against the predominantly light hues ; the oak garage, too designed by Bradley-Hole, matches the weathered wood of the central oak pavilion (far right image).

Open to the elements on all sides, the central oak pavilon allows spliced views of the garden, similar to a Chinese folding screen, a departure from the usual panoramic view in garden design. The large lime trees can be seen in the background.

Open to the elements on all sides, the central oak pavilon allows spliced views of the garden, similar to a Chinese folding screen, a departure from the usual panoramic view in garden design.

Like Oudolf, Christopher Bradley Hole favors the large-scale use of grasses and herbaceous perennials. In an interview with garden writer and designer Mary Keen, Bradley Hole admits a particular fondness for plants ‘invaluable in their ability to reproduce, in an abstract way, the unique forms and seasonal changes within a garden setting.’ It is where this similarity with Oudolf begins and ends. Whereas Oudolf strives for a rather effortless, but romantic feeling reminiscent of natural landscapes, Bradley Hole aims for a minimalist and abstract interpretation. His herbaceous plantings often are squared off by paths, paved or grassed, and blocks of boxwood, yew, and field maple reinforces their geometric patterns. He unabashedly mixes different grasses together than adhere to the conventional practice of block planting – Miscanthus, Molina, Hakonechloa, and Stipa gigantea. His love of grasses does not diminish his soft spot for British native trees, especially Acer campestre (field maple) for its flexibility as a specimen tree or hedge. The results come together in his signature look – a grid-like labyrinth of twenty beds flowing with herbacous perennials and grasses and cordoned off by hedges seen here at the Bury Court garden created in 2003. In its hearth lies a tall oak pavilion adjoining a black pool, and north of the garden is a weathered oak garage building anchored by a grand sweep of Calamagrotis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.

Intimate and abstract are not symbiotic, but they curiously come together here. As you enter the pathways, you disappear from sight as the grasses and tall perennials engulf you, creating that experience of being in a meadow or forest. One can imagine how transcendent it can be when the grasses become a shimmering sea of silvery plumes in  autumn. It is the same effect seen at another superb garden Le Jardin Plume, France.

Different grasses, including Miscanthus x giganteus, are mixed together, giving textural unity at different heights.

Different grasses, including Miscanthus x giganteus, are mixed together, giving textural unity at different heights.

Of the two gardens, the Oudolf garden, once novel and innovative, looks funnily dated (I remember being asked by a friend which of the two I liked better) as its look has become much emulated elsewhere in the UK and continental Europe. The diversity of herbaceous perennials and grasses has given it a semblance of the traditional herbaceous border. Oudolf’s current style has since evolved from that of Bury Court – the topiary here that too defined Hummelo no longer plays a seminal role as it did in his early work (the wing-like yew hedges emblematic of Hummelo no longer exists). Blocky plantings have become looser or to borrow the oft used planting vocabulary ‘intermingling’. Innovative or not, there is no denying the significance of Oudolf’s Bury Court garden as a pivotal example of his early work. On the other hand, the Bradley Hole garden feels more fresh, helped by its simplicity in the linear dimensions and more restricted plant spectrum. It is an outstanding example of how the ‘naturalistic’ look can be tailored to a modernist garden without compromising its ethos.

Related Links

Planting: A New Perspective (www.plinthetal.com)

Pettifers (www.plinthetal.com)

~Eric

 

Book Review: Contemporary Designers’ Own Gardens

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Professional garden designers can be an enigmatic breed – rarely are we permitted to view their personal or private work outside of rare public openings. Any public commission is impractical (i.e. show gardens at Chelsea or Hampton Court) or too large to be economically and effort-wise feasible (public spaces with staff for their upkeep). Barbara Baker’s Contemporary Designers’ Own Gardens (2013; Garden Art Press, an imprint of Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd.) offers a voyeuristic glimpse and evaluation of twenty designers’ private sanctuaries.

Despite confessing that her selection is not comprehensive and somewhat personal, Barbara Baker has cast her net wide and far for the book is not Brit-centric or Euro-centric as Australian, Kiwi, and Japanese designers are profiled. Her dialogue with them gives the text substance instead of the customary fluff read for coffee table books. She clearly has special affinity with sensitive and spiritual individuals, such as Dan Pearson or Antonio Perazzi, who create gardens of subtle and sensual beauty.

For the most part, the distinction between the designers’ public and private gardens are slim. Renown for his vertical gardens, Patrick Blanc himself lives in a house literally cloaked in plants. The structural grandeur of clipped hornbeam, beech, and box, a signature flourish of the Belgian Jacques Wirtz, plays out well in his private garden. In all, the private gardens nearly always exist as experimental areas where ideas can be incubated before refined and implemented for clients. Aggressively self-seeding or spreading plants are permitted as the designers will ruthlessly edit them whereas they are either persona non grata or eventually introduced if the client or the staff can monitor them. Certain colors disliked by clients are permitted without worry and concern.

Sometimes the garden designers’ private gardens are a sharp departure from their commissioned work. It seems a rude jolt to see the British landscape conceptual artist Tony Smith’s pragmatic cottagey garden. The Kiwi designer Ted Symth whose work is minimalist and contemporary has a 1.6 hectare garden outside of Auckland that is more lush, dense, and jungly than what his clients would consider permissible. The structural accents are noticeably few – some urns, large stones, a skeletal boat, and Symth’s stepson’s sculpture. Instead, cycads, palms, and bromeliads supplant the manmade architectural details.

Significant is the fact that the gardens give enormous pleasure and relaxation for their creators just as they are for anyone who gardens. Isabelle Greene, the Californian garden designer, remarked: ‘I love sitting in my gardens. I love to go back to them…I think that is my greatest joy, since I am such an intense person and so busy, to let my brain loose. I almost inevitably experience euphorbia.’ Tom Stuart Smith wrote in his book The Barn Garden: “Making a garden for yourself is very different from doing it for somebody else. So much of the pleasure is to do with the coaxing and tending, the daily observance of smalll details and the accumulation of change over the years.”

If there are any quibbles, it is that editing is slightly sloppy – nomenclatural errors and misspellings, as Nasturtium ‘Mahogany’ rather than Tropaeolum ‘Mahogany’ and Erysium instead of Erysimum, can be noticed. Photographs, which range from inspirational to mundane, can be mislabelled – a bromeliad in the Ted Symth’s profile is misidentified as the South African Aloe plicatilis. At times, the profiles suffer a bit from the repetitive language, as any book that aims to profile several garden designers or gardens is susceptible. Fortunately these shortcomings are minor and do not detract majorly from the insights gained from the private gardens of garden designers in Contemporary Designers’ Own Gardens (2013).

~Eric

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Book Review: On the wild side: experiments in the new naturalism

On the wild side

Since  on the wild side: experiments in the new naturalism has been published nine years ago, it is remarkably prescient in the current ecological ethos that pervades gardens. Keith Wiley is clearly a plantsman at heart, and his chief virtuosity is transcending just as his British compatriots William Robinson and Beth Chatto accomplished with their gardens. Wiley’s new garden, not far from the Garden House, combines plants unconventionally by exploiting microclimates and terrain sculpting.

The book’s major core lies in Wiley’s experiences visiting diverse habitats worldwide and his experiments evoking their beauty at the Garden House, Devon, United Kingdom. South Africa and Crete are particularly rich picking grounds for ideas. It is easy to see how the breathtaking wildflower spectacle in Namaqualand led to the inception of the African Garden, which borrows species native elsewhere.  And the Mediterranean flora, a source of garden plants in British gardens, form picturesque landscapes within rocky and arid terrain. Wiley does not ignore woody plants, and taking a leaf or two from the Chinese and Japanese, emphasizes skillful pruning as a transformative technique for naturalistic, wilder effect. As expected, grasses do receive their star billing in one chapter, but the choices are not restricted to the few genera, such as CalamagrostisMolinia, and Panicum in danger of being cliches in contemporary naturalistic plantings.

Outside of wild places, Wiley finds inspiration in unexpected ways. Who would have anticipated the stone pathway lined with Irish yews at the late Rosemary Verey’s Barnsley House to be a source of an idea? Whether intentional or not, rock roses (Helianthemum) and Acaena microphylla had been permitted to spill forth onto the pathway. Sometimes the tendency to fixate on the obvious sources cause us gardeners to ignore what is realistically achievable and within our local stomping grounds.

At times on the wild side does appear overextended, but such is the degree of Wiley’s enthusiastic knowledge that oversights in specific areas are easily forgiven. This book is a solid visual and informative complement to other books on similar subjects by William Robinson, Beth Chatto, and Noel Kingsbury.

~Eric