Letting the landscape loose

Forest oaksThis one requires some thought. And it may take a few days to get things down onto the blog. Also, my notes have just been buried under a pile of finished jam jars. So that is going to take a bit of extracting.

Last week I attended a three day course at the London College of Garden Design. My first ever effort at persuing any further education on gardening and design. (Further education? I haven’t had any yet, this is a self taught gardener.) The title of the course was Battle for the Border and I had hoped it would give me some direction in the work I was attempting here.

Aust picIt did more than that. And it has given me a sense of direction; one I don’t think I had articulated before.   Does one have an idea before planting or sowing or plowing ahead with a project?  It’s a garden. Things grow.   And it just takes time to work out which.   I agree with this wholeheartedly. But now at least I am armed with some new insights.

The biggest insight has been influence.   I had always imagined I would try and emulate an Australian garden of sorts. These, after all, are the plants that have the most emotive pull on my spirits.   Odd plants, alien almost and not always beautiful.   But the very first winter here had convinced me that frosts are going to see off all but the hardiest grevellias, banksias and desert pea.

And the planting of eucalypts in this very French countryside? What purpose, apart from a strange sense of garden identity. I don’t think the trees would appreciate the harder winters, and nor would my neighbours who have a strong sense of plant and place.Aust pic 1

That little dream has died, but I keep it alive in the prints of Margaret Preston I have just hung in my office.   The reproduction isn’t brilliant using a digital camera and a flash, but you can see her compositions and her colours I think.   And I will have to be satisfied that my Australian ‘garden’ will be encapsulated on my walls and not the borders of the property.

So, twenty years of living in the Europe. Influence there? Russia hardly tickled any horticultural yearnings. But the English garden has been a focus of my research for a few years now. Not because it is the most appropriate. I have learned that now. But because it is the most accessible.   Beautiful magazines, beautiful books. Private gardens to visit, huge RHS gardens to marvel at. And of course nurseries to plunder.

Aus pic 2The first lecturer from the garden design course was a very engaging Professor James Hitchmough who showed the group of designers (plus amateur in the corner) how to read the gardens designed by current practitioners. And how to think about humans in the landscape. There is more here that I want to say but my notes are inaccessible. I threaten to return.

And then there was a rather diffident talk by Brita von Schoenaich. Her method of delivery wasn’t brilliant, but I have been thinking quite a lot about how she said that horticulturalism has reigned as a style of gardening in Britain and one who’s spell most of us have fallen under.

Actually all three of the lecturers mentioned this. But I loved the way this designer boldly stated:  ‘In England, everything grows.’ And she is right. No wonder the borders are sublime. There is plenty of water and if you nurture your soil you really can’t fail.   In her native Germany it is ecology one studies first. And only then moves on to horticulture. Frustrating for a woman who was already keen on English style gardening. But perhaps all of us who garden in challenging places ought to go back to this approach.   No surprise that James Hitchmough is Chair of ecology [find this] at Sheffield University.   He researches where his plants come from before contemplating whether they ought to appear in any English context.Aus pic 3

This is the introduction from Andrew Wilson’s lecture on his part of the course. I will leave it here as I need to head out into the wintry night and join friends at a restaurant. I return to this subj anon.

‘For decades the English flower garden has been the option of choice for garden planting around the world, luxuriant and romantic, but costly and time consuming to maintain.   Over the last decade or more ideas have been evolving as part of a pragmatic response to lower maintenance needs and in stylistic terms as times change and new generations come into garden ownership.

As a hang over from the arts and crafts movement the flower border is becoming a thing of the past as more naturalistic planting takes over our gardens whereas in some urban locations plants are virtually absent as minimalism and conceptualism grow in popularity.Aus pic 4

This course aims to address these changes aiming to help the designer deal with new demands, ideas and philosophies as they affect planting design and the wider garden.’

And that is the end of the first lesson: gardening has got in the way of pontificating.