Can Gardeners be Considered Artists? by Gary Webb

January 24, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

No, this is not quite the usual ‘are gardens art?’ debate, but focuses on the role of the gardener. Which is refreshing in the age of the celebrity garden designer, and is something that has occurred to me too. Whenever I work in the garden I am  making changes that will affect the aesthetic and the design, but not in ways that are often acknowledged.

Anne Wareham, editor

Meadow at Veddw - copyright Charles Hawes


Routine maintenance of a garden can, I believe, cloud the artistry that is actually being carried out as a garden matures – and whilst I don’t have anyone in mind while I type this, I do think many gardeners are artists in disguise. Good practitioners often make it look easy, in any work discipline.Even in their basic form, gardens can and very often are considered beautiful, and sometimes can appropriately be referred to as works of art, but can their gardener, apart from a labeled garden designer, ever be referred to as an artist, other than in a light hearted, almost mocking kind of way?

Larger gardens, especially those open to the public, most often attract professional gardeners who naturally wish to tend and  ‘grow’ the garden in a professional way. Shouldn’t almost every action or task that is carried out this way: nurturing, growing, pruning plants, blowing a path etc, be considered the work of an artist, even though it is practiced repeatedly & over extended periods – sometimes decades? I tend to think that in professionally tended gardens, the natural occurrence of targets, job descriptions, over-loading, – all commonplace in a busy workplace,- can quite often mask and tie up the creativity that exists within a gardener or team of gardeners.

Good gardeners develop the ability to really ‘see’ a garden, or an area of a garden even before they’ve planted it. This ability is developed whilst learning about the plants, their habit & form, and it’s also learned through knowledge of the site itself – its frost pockets, its exposure to the sun etc. Having said this, I know this knowledge can be acquired in a relatively short period, by a good designer with a good quality survey.

However it is the way that the information is interpreted, the way any new design is executed & maintained that will result in an average or outstanding garden. Whilst the hard materials are vital elements in most new gardens, I believe the planting, or more accurately the gardener’s use of planting, is where the artistry comes into play. An accurate visualisation of how one wants a flower border, a shrubbery, or a tree plantation to mature, is vital to the success of any project. The watering, weeding, nurturing, pruning, staking, protecting and nourishing – it is all vital but for what purpose?

The purpose, I think, is to produce an outcome that moves & affects people, be it good, bad or indifferent, (and some gardens can achieve all three) If real feelings are stirred, then the gardener as a crafts person is successful in their work. Yet being this successful takes not only horticultural education, but an artistic eye, a delicate hand, and an ability to imagine growth & progress over time.

If a person can acquire all these qualities, and become good at creating and maintaining gardens, then surely gardening can’t remain the simple job it’s often mistaken for? Gardening in itself I believe, needs to be recognised as the artform that it has become, and needs  to be valued more by the garden owner or visitor. Maybe a compliment given to an owner for a beautiful garden, could be followed up by questions about the artist who created and maintains it?

Gary Webb


Gary Webb portrait copyright Gary Webb

Gary is Ground Manager at Compton Verney


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