Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 16 November 2014 by Tim Ingram
'This extensive and brightly flowered hay'
'This extensive and brightly flowered hay'
('The Education of a Gardener' - Russell Page)
When critique is directed at something you love then it is the hardest thing but probably also the most valuable. Tim Richardson's talk to the Kent Gardens Trust this November (which I was kindly invited to by Elizabeth Cairns) was on the gardens he describes in his book 'The New English Garden'. His talk was not really about new gardens but about the new way of gardening that has developed over the past two decades or more using mostly perennials and naturalistic ways of gardening with them. Many of these gardens have developed from real skill and understanding of plants and idiosyncratic ways of using them by people such as Piet Oudolf, Noël Kingsbury and Tom Stuart-Smith: the new perennial garden; matrix planting; prairie planting. They result from extensive knowledge and experience, well presented in the book 'Perennials and their garden habitats' by Richard Hanson and Friedrich Stahl, with a sound ecological basis. They can work brilliantly on the larger scale and carry on some of the gardening philosophy of such great gardeners in the past as William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll (and probably also Russell Page) in its true horticultural ambition. In big cities they seem to be a way of bringing the natural world back into places that can so much lack connection with it. Yet from the personal perspective of your own garden and what you get out of it they are much more contrived; they lack greater variety, especially woody plants, and a sense of being involved with the garden day by day.
This is where the criticism comes in and it is not so much (or even at all) a criticism of the underlying basis of these styles of using plants, but the way that grand projects can take them over to the detriment (or at least ignorance) of those of us who like to view our gardens in a more personal and individual way.
Several of the gardens Tim Richardson discussed were on a smaller scale, including Bury Court where John Coke commissioned Piet Oudolf to design the planting, and Keith Wiley's Wildside, which he compared specifically with William Robinson in its derivation from natural landscapes.
For the historian of gardening and critic is a new and more personal culture of gardening set to re-emerge?
Russell Page's seminal book 'The Education of a Gardener' is to do with the more intimate interplay between garden and gardener, even if mostly he talks about, and worked on, larger gardens that few of us are privileged to own or make.
This was written in 1962 and it hardly relates at all to the alpine or rock garden - in fact he regards these as generally having no design or style (though he certainly appreciates the beauty of the plants). It's hard not to see some snobbery or simply lack of understanding in this viewpoint. There are certainly rock gardens with as much design and style as any of the more grandiose gardens he discusses - they are just few and far between and the aesthetic is very different. Part of this must be due to the fact that they often develop slowly, much in the way that 'cottage' gardens always have. And more fundamentally such a garden is personal; it can be whatever you want it to be and whatever satisfies.
None-the-less someone who writes that: '... green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart. A good garden cannot be made by somebody who has not developed the capacity to know and to love growing plants' is certainly worth listening to. His previous paragraph makes this more explicit: 'I think that creative gardening need not suffer from these [historical confusion], the results of a changing, if not disintegrating culture. It can begin from another point. A seed, a plant, a tree must each obey the laws of its nature. Any serious interference with these and it must die. It will only grow and thrive when the conditions for it are approximately right. If you wish to make anything grow you must understand it, and understand it in a very real sense. "Green fingers" are a fact, and a mystery only to the unpractised'.
A garden like Branklyn, which I have only mentioned so briefly in an earlier diary entry, does show the very 'style' that Russell Page searches for...
... and it has that detail so beloved by the plants-man or woman...
(this last picture is of a rare dwarf rhododendron, R. proteiodes, from China, which Peter Cox (in his book 'The Smaller Rhododendrons') describes as a connoisseur's plant that can grow well in the peat - now leafmould, fine bark and sand - bed or old hollowed-out tree stumps. There is style in thinking about growing plants in this way).
In Jim and Jenny Archibald's garden in South Wales plants were used with equal and wonderful sensitivity (my thanks again to David Stephens for scanning these slides).
Few people will immediately consider growing alpine and woodland plants in pots for exhibition, however much this may have become the raison d'être of the Alpine Garden Society. More might ascribe to Russell Page's 'verdant heart' which puts the garden at the centre of things. That is not a criticism of growing plants in pots and exhibiting them, but a question of how you may actually be led to want to grow them in this way in the first place.
How many readers have discovered the yearly online newsletters produced by the Ulster and Dublin Groups of the AGS? The 2013 edition of the former has some really good short articles: one on lilies by Margaret and Henry Taylor, and another on irises by David Ledsham, both beautifully illustrated (just look at the pictures of Lilium akkusianum and Iris prismatica... )