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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John Schucker July 9, 2016 at 12:31 pm

And, I am referring to the fact that the 3 of you look just like little garden elves in that photo at Aberglasney, if that wasn’t clear…..

annewareham July 9, 2016 at 7:29 pm

Now I never ever thought of myself as elvish….

John Schucker July 8, 2016 at 2:29 pm

I had hoped I would win a prize for identifying Phil and James dwarfed by the gunnera in that photo at Aberglasney but I am too late. Careful, Anne. You wouldn’t want to be mistaken for the aforementioned (and threatened) garden elves…..

annewareham July 8, 2016 at 11:31 pm


John Schucker July 9, 2016 at 12:28 pm

Nicky Fraser, above, seems concerned about unwanted elfin activity in her own garden and is prepared to do them harm. Lemon drizzle cake would be a great incentive, but I would happily enjoy seeing your garden without it, if I ever had the opportunity. I always enjoy seeing photos of it. .

Paul Steer July 7, 2016 at 9:28 pm

Great article – encouraging to hear so many who have responded here are looking for what a garden is about rather than just the planting or cake. Having opened for NGS for the first time a fortnight ago – the visitors I had seemed to appreciate the small space and the lack of flowers – it was understood that it was a personal space and they were not even bothered about having cake ! Weeds were an issue for some – but I have no intention of digging them up. The most encouraging comment was that it is a ‘real’ garden and immediately made an impression of being a peaceful space.

annewareham July 7, 2016 at 11:01 pm

Excellent, Paul. Xx

Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD July 7, 2016 at 1:04 am

I am at something of a disadvantage, not having traveled to the British Isles – yet. However, we open our gardens here in the Pacific Northwest, and in many other locations around the US. I’ve also been to many gardens in other European and Asian countries. Perhaps this comes as no surprise, but I learn something from every garden – even if it is that the garden could have been more unique. I prefer to find gardens that reflect the personality of their owners and do not meet a specified design criteria-only that it be good design. If the design is predictable, it becomes trite and boring. Give me a garden with imagination any time…even with a few weeds.

annewareham July 7, 2016 at 10:34 am

I don’t know – but the UK may be particular in having so many of these historic gardens of great repute, often made by committed people with a very personal approach, which have posthumously been taken over by institutions.

Victoria Summerley July 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

If only they would put as much thought into retaining the spirit of the garden as they do into health and safety, and parking, and so on, or – far worse – economising. Last time I went to Nymans (National Trust), which used to be one of my favourite gardens, they’d ripped out all the hardy geraniums in the rose garden, which left it looking awful. Apparently they were too “high maintenance”. This was a few years ago and I’m glad to see they’ve now replanted with nepeta (catmint).

Victoria Summerley July 6, 2016 at 11:23 pm

I agree with a lot of what Nicky Fraser said, but especially that atmosphere is important in a garden. I love plants, I’m interested in design, but the idea that being in a particular garden can change someone’s mood is fascinating. I don’t have to open my garden (tho I do, for the NGS), and I don’t have to make it look a certain way for an employer or a client, but one of the joys of opening your garden is seeing how other people react to it. Will they sit in the seats you think they’d like to sit in, will they be fascinated by the pond, or the view? I don’t think weeds, or edges, or deadheading really matter that much if the scene you have set is a convincing one. I think gardens are like narratives – they have to involve some sort of story or journey, otherwise it’s just a jumble of words or plants.

annewareham July 6, 2016 at 11:26 pm

I like the story/journey thought. Now we could go somewhere with that one……

Tristan Gregory July 6, 2016 at 9:43 pm

If what we do is not of interest for its swagger value then those who like to swagger will not invest their money in it. Sunday cake shops we must remain for the time being.

annewareham July 6, 2016 at 11:25 pm

Certainly true for some… Xx

Joe Lewis July 6, 2016 at 2:31 pm

There is a difference between gardens made for their makers and those made for profit. But once the former begins to turn into something more than its makers intended or have the funds to indulge, there needs to be a nod to the latter. Making that work without losing the garden is the skill. I felt this as a lone visitor in the pouring rain at the Veddw, where that garden is so utterly true to its makers it almost feels as though one is intruding. I’ve felt it too at gardens where the makers are long gone and, I feel, so is much of what they made. Gardens including Hidcote, Sissinghirst and East Lambrook Manor spring to mind. Those have so much to prove, to live up to, that a lot of the romance has gone. Then there are those inbetweeners, like Rodmarton, where the family keep the garden going with reduced labour and the result, now, is utterly romantic abandon but the feeling is that in another ten years it may be actual abandon.
I agree that the garden behind Special Plants is a gem. A rare exquisite design stuffed with a plethora of exciting plants. It too has its makers on hand.
NGS may have its faults but it might also be a cakey Sunday afternoon visit that trips a switch in a new garden maker. I was grilled by Joan Loraine about an omphalodes on an NGS day at her incredible woodland garden before she let me take that plant home. It sparked something in me.
Troy S-S had a big job ahead of him and I applaud his endeavour. One day someone else will be in the Garden explaining why he or she is chopping and burning at the Veddw. I hope nobody resorts to lemon drizzle to keep that garden going but I don’t condemn those that do. I’d rather we had more Miss Loraines to inspire the next bunch of garden makers and tell them that it’s ok to love plants as much as they love gardens!

annewareham July 6, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Is there anything that strikes a greater chill than the expression regarding a garden that ‘they’ve let it get away from them’? Maybe that’s The End.

Joe Lewis July 6, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Possibly, at my end of the garden-making odyssey, when people disregard the result of a winter’s backbreaking effort and wonder out loud Why Haven’t They Tackled That Bit… J

Penny Lymn Rose July 6, 2016 at 12:29 pm

I do agree with what you say Anne, other than it is good to be able to buy a plant which you have seen performing in someone’s garden from the same source.
(Also I hate to admit it, but I do like a piece of lemon drizzle)

annewareham July 6, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Sigh. I like to buy plants and cake too. Think we all do! But we can’t all manage to offer them. And if we could? See above!

Katherine Crouch July 7, 2016 at 9:01 am

When I opened for the NGS 1995 to 2000 it was a small and fairly new garden without any Why Haven’t They Tackled That Bit or They’ve Let it Get Away From Them Issues.

I invited the local chapter of the WRVS to take over my kitchen with lemon drizzle cake (yum) and teas, a local nursery to sell plants on the drive and I spent the whole happy day in the garden holding court. In early May it was shamelessly pretty with tulips, aquilegias and forget me nots.

I was very lucky. Pretty much everyone was delighted to have the opportunity for a snoop and thanked me for it. In five years I never heard any dark mutterings bar one from a mad old bat complaining that it wasn’t flat….

annewareham July 7, 2016 at 10:32 am

Do you think anything has changed?

Tim Ingram July 5, 2016 at 10:40 pm

With you a lot of the way there Anne, except that I do love the diversity of plants and a sort of botanical/ecological ‘root’ to (my) garden. We used to go to Sissinghurst regularly when Sarah Cook was head gardener, and Troy worked with her, and it did have that romantic quality (especially the nursery area beyond the garden). My wife says our garden has something of this, largely because we run along after it rather than really being in control, and people (and large organisations) are not good at accepting this with their eyes on profit and loss. I think Miriam Heppell sums this up well (on Facebook ?) – we like to have a place we can nurture and ‘bring back’, rather than one that is very controlled and unrelaxed (but as I look at the brambles and overgrown areas there does seem to be some sort of balance to be found between the two!).

annewareham July 6, 2016 at 10:03 am

You can certainly garden the romance out of a place. Keeping it is real garden making….

Paddy Tobin July 5, 2016 at 7:43 pm

We are planning a week of garden visiting in the UK and have have looked at Trip Advisor for comments on and photographs of gardens. It is amazing how many of these concern the food on offer; so many photographs of cakes, dinners, delph etc. and it would seem many gardens are judged on the basis of the fare on offer.

annewareham July 6, 2016 at 10:01 am

We’ve not put Veddw on Tripadvisor – and that confirms what a poor idea it would be!

Nicky Fraser July 5, 2016 at 7:21 pm

The very best gardens, in my opinion, are those that create atmosphere. The feel of the garden is far more important than the rarity of the plants, the neatness of the lawn edges. As a professional gardener I have always felt the pressure to garden with a mind to what other people will think. And I’ve never had the garden that I actually want. I moved into a house 2 years ago with just an expanse of grass that hadn’t been cut for months. i stressed and worried that I needed to be ‘clever’ and incorporate lots of interesting vistas with fabulous plant combinations, fabulous pots and topiary to die for. I was scared to make a start. What if I got it wrong. Then I sat out in the middle of the space and thought about all the gardens that have really made an impression on me. ALL of them were created over a long period of time, with little or no money, evolving almost accidentally as the gardener moved on to the next bit. Broken bricks, old slabs, whatever was found lying around were transformed into unique patterns that said something about the person who created it. And really that’s what gardens should be about. The people who created them. They are personal spaces that have the mark of the creator all over them and the traces of them are felt even when they are no longer present. That is the garden I wanted for myself. My garden. That I felt completely at one with. So I’m creating it. It’s evolving. It’s heaven. It’s mine. It’s wild and wooly and full of life. If elves came in the night and tidied it up I would kill every last one of them.

James Golden July 5, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Music to my ears, Anne. When I visited Sissinghurst in May of 2015, I was disturbed by a patch of bare ground near the entrance to the white garden. Someone had created a lifeless bit of earth in trying to be overly neat. I wished for some weeds, or something living, to soften that harsh look. I took that as a sign of what Troy Scott Smith has to try to change. On a second visit with Phillip, in early August, we had a more leisurely visit to the garden, and I spent quite a while alone exploring and enjoying, thinking Troy Scott Smith was making a success of it. I finally saw Phillip sitting on that great Lutyens bench at the top of the moat walk, chatting with a couple from Hastings who visit Sissinghurst often. We passed a pleasant half hour talking with those friendly people in the gentle light of the waning afternoon. It was a very pleasant experience, and I’d like to think one thing I visit gardens for.

annewareham July 5, 2016 at 7:25 pm

And, as one of the mystery visitors in the photograph, I hope you endorse my reflections on the other gardens… Xxx

James Golden July 5, 2016 at 8:09 pm

I do … and thanks to you, I visited Aberglasny, Special Plants, Tony Ridler’s garden, and the Veddw!

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