Does garden design need a narrative? Photograph: Reuters
January is that awful time of year which demands a bit of introspection, a looking back at the past year’s highs and lows.
Resolutions are a step too far for me, as I just can’t keep them. So instead I stood the other day at the kitchen window contemplating the dead, jumbled mess that passes for my winter garden. I thought, well I’m not Piet Oudolf, but I came to the fore in spring and summer when the garden looks amazing. I cast back my mind back, expecting some rather good memories but was faced with the reality that although the borders are lush, they are essentially just chaotic.
I was struck by the sudden thought that I wasn’t in fact very good at gardening. This was a rather unpleasant surprise as it’s meant to be my thing. Occasionally I’m lucky and get a great combination – last year it was red geum with tall green astrantia, blue nigella and fading forget-me-nots. Even at the time, I realised this was a happenchance event and in no way planned. If I’m honest, I thought I would just “do design” because I love plants, and a good, beautiful garden would fall out from that. However, that doesn’t seem to be happening.
After this revealing look at myself and my own garden, I started to think about the notion of garden design. At one level it’s easy. Garden design is done by people who have a qualification and make money out of it. They take another’s vision and requirements and bring them to life. They design to order, under scrutiny and with time and money pressures. On the other hand, there are amazing gardens designed by amateurs by and for themselves. This disjunction is interesting: I was delighted when I came across Anna Pavord’s article in The Independent about the writer Rory Stuart. Firstly I was struck by this:
In this country (though probably nowhere else) it’s a particular badge of honour to call your patch a “plantsman’s garden”… But our emphasis on plants has often been at the expense of the spaces in which they are put. We’re not as comfortable with design as we are with decoration.
Photograph: Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy
So has Anna got to the essence of what garden design is? It makes sense in relation to what I find with my own garden. Putting together a pleasing combination or border does not a designer make. To design a garden you have to create a whole, a dynamic narrative that leaders the visitor through the space in a coherent, cohesive way. I agree with that, and yet if that is right I could never be a garden designer with my standard London garden. You can see from one end to the other and the only narrative is a line from the back door to the shed. Rory Stuart tackles this issue like this:
Even if you are just growing lettuces on a balcony, you can still try to make the most of the lettuces. Choose different colours. Different leaf shapes. Arrange the pots in a different way. Symmetry or asymmetry?
This reminds me of a friend being told by their careers adviser “never mind if you end up with a job at McDonald’s, you can always try and be the manager”.
Although the basis of this lettuce thing was probably right, I felt it was patronising. Which is one of the problems with design. Those who do it and know about it can talk with a confidence and knowledge that excludes those who don’t. It has always been the case that language and qualifications have been used to prevent the amateur from getting into the “club”. However, with so much knowledge at our finger tips now we can all learn everything. We have the internet and blogs and websites, so there isn’t a moment of the day when we can’t inform ourselves.
Our age has been dubbed by some as the age of the amateur. This makes me think about MasterChef. The standard of cooking on the program is extraordinary, and it is ridiculous to say the winners fall short of professional standards. Imagine if you had the same thing for garden design – the results would be similar I’m sure. I suppose this leads me, personally, to believe that it is the thinking and caring that marks out a garden designer. As Anna continues:
The writer Rory Stuart wonders why we don’t approach gardens in the same way as we might an exhibition of sculpture, why we don’t take more trouble to analyse why some things work and some, in our opinion, don’t.
I would say that the garden designers among us do approach the gardens in exactly this way and it is that which makes them designers. Design is an artistic endeavor but it is also intellectual. This is not a final note in the great garden design debate, it is only another string to its bow. I like that: it’s an ongoing debate which will keep us all talking and interested. I hope to write another article soon with a totally contradictory and valid opinion. For now, however, I leave the last word to the American garden designer Joe Eck as he seems to know what he’s talking about:
“The more one looks at gardens, actually or in books, and the more one thinks about them and tries to isolate what is pleasing about them (or not), the better one’s own garden is likely to be.