Commercial at what cost? by Anne Wareham

July 5, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

I’ve thought a lot about what Troy Scott-Smith is up against at Sissinghurst and I gather he is appearing on Gardener’s World this week (8th July) to talk about it. These are some of my reflections about on Sissinghurst’s revitalisation and the issues it raises.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham






Sissinghurst books 2 SAM_5656

Commercial at what cost? 

People visiting the garden at Veddw are sometimes heard to say things like ‘it would be a great garden is it weren’t for the weeds’. Not so often to our faces, mind – people are far too polite. We are more often told that people love the informality and idiosyncrasy in contrast to the National Trust or Royal Horticultural Society garden they’ve just visited which was ‘gardened within an inch of its life’.

The head gardener at Sissinghurst, Troy Scott Smith, said to me on twitter “When I say to people my primary focus at Sissinghurst is romance and beauty, they are shocked and seem unbelieving. Folk generally consider gardens to be about plants and horticulture.”

Interestingly, Sissinghurst was one of the primary influences on the Veddw at the beginning – that classic combination of generous, informal planting with a framework of clipped hedges setting it all off and making sense of it all. However inferior and less important than Sissinghurst Veddw is, both are gardens that were made by two people, with great difficulty, on small budgets. Personal, unusual, experimental, with a fair degree of successes and failures – and weeds no doubt – partly as a result of the lack of funds and partly as a function of the obsessions of the people involved. What neither garden was shaped by was the desire to entertain the public, make money or sell lemon drizzle cake. Or display fine horticulture and plants.

Sissinghurst books

So both we and Troy are up against a resistant and perhaps illeducated public. A public brought up on NGS plant mad gardens, and large Royal Horticultural Society and National Trust gardens which pride themselves on their fine gardening, extensive plant selections and tidiness – and all of them on their lemon drizzle cake. It is not by chance that Mary Berry has become the new National Gardens Scheme President.

Troy is attempting to restore the spirit and vision of a garden created over 50 years ago by and for the two people who were making it – as an expression of their responses to the place and their love of beauty. Indifferent and indeed quite scornful of their National Gardens Scheme visitors, there were no adjustments there to satisfy tourist expectations and the demands of health and safety. Will Troy succeed in turning back the clock, and will he, for example, be allowed to reduce visitor numbers to make that more possible?

So, we may at this point ask – what do we open gardens for? What do we want from open gardens? Do we want unique and sometimes troubling self-expression? Or do we want a day out with a good display of plants to choose from, a shop with those meaningless things called ‘gifts’, presumably because no-one would want to buy them for themselves, and some lemon drizzle cake? It may not be possible to do both.

Most owners or organisations are possibly principally wanting or needing to make money. Twenty years ago, when I first came across it, the NGS was, I believe, mostly concerned with opening good gardens which were worth visiting. I felt supported and encouraged in my garden making, unusual as it certainly was. But now I frequently hear that making money has become the driver.

Plas Brondanw Copyright Charles Hawes

Fountain at Plas Brondanw

This may be at the cost of the integrity and uniqueness of our gardens. I knew Plas Brondanw, the private garden of Clough Williams-Ellis, when entrance was via an honesty box. Williams-Ellis did not see flowers as an interesting aspect of design, so there were few. And it was a special, individual, beautiful place. If you visit now you will find a tidied up garden, full of roses, geraniums, hostas – all the usual suspects – along with an excellent tea room, plants for sale and a small shop. The garden is no doubt beginning to pay for itself and all this helps to guarantee it a secure future, but, we might think, at a high price.

When I first visited Aberglasney in Wales it was a recently unearthed historic garden, still a little astonished at itself, trying to make sense of its history. Now it is well polished, with a chaotic design attempting to add any and every style of gardening to its thoroughly if not always accurately labelled plant collections. I took visitors from America there last year and found myself embarrassed by its banality.

Aberglasney with American visitors - I wonder who?

Aberglasney with American visitors – I wonder who?

There are good, unique and interesting, even beautiful gardens still to be found. The nursery at Special Plants near Bath has one, and Tony Ridler’s garden in Swansea is another. But they tend to be smaller, more personal and uncommercial. They have to be uncommercial – the owners couldn’t usually cope with larger numbers of visitors or the traffic that might create, and neither do they want to get into keeping a gift shop or donning an apron to serve teas. Or pleasing any other of the usual expectations of the garden visiting public.

Tony Ridlers Copyright Charles Hawes

Tony Ridler’s Garden

I met an American tour organiser last year (at Special Plants..) who told me she has to include gardens like Highgrove and The Laskett to fill up the places on the tour – and then after that she can take them to the really good gardens. It can be hard to find those really good gardens, as all gardens, as we know are ‘lovely’. Hidden amongst those ‘lovely’ gardens are some gardens which are essentially personal rather than commercial, where people are struggling to realise a vision simply for its own sake, and which are not necessarily open often or widely advertised. But it’s worth seeking them out and finding ways to support them. They are our national treasure, well hidden amongst a mass of tea rooms with plants.

And I wish Troy success in his perhaps impossible task at Sissinghurst.

Anne Wareham 

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