Everyone has their idea of paradise: an interview with John Sales by Anne Wareham

May 7, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

I’ve been preoccupied with the gap between the professionally designed garden and the garden of the serious amateur for some years, particularly because I experience garden design as an ongoing process which I am involved with daily at Veddw, rather than a one off planning exercise.

Then I met John Sales, former National trust Head of Gardens, who indicated to me that he had thought a good deal about this. So I interviewed him for thinkingardens.

(With thanks also to Charles Hawes for his valuable contribution to the interview and text)    

Anne Wareham, editor    


John Sales portrait. Copyright Charles Hawes.

John Sales copyright Charles Hawes

John Sales:

Context and concept: maintenance is key to design

John began by saying that “the term ‘maintenance’ suggests routine, static procedures like dusting. But in a garden every repeated operation has a cumulative effect – even how you cut the lawn, rake paths, mend fences, or repair buildings. Everything you do in a garden contributes to and is design. Design is not just what you draw on paper. Designers start a process: their job is to formulate ideas which contribute to the concept.”

Rightly, and interestingly, John points out that we don’t have an adequate language in gardens. He told us he came across the notion of concept when he was thinking about why some designs don’t work properly. Then he was consulted on a project which had a ‘concept architect’ that the other architects reported to and he realised that design is a way of achieving the concept.

“Everyone has their idea of paradise. They may be bad at achieving it, but it’s there. You can always tell what someone’s garden will be like as you get to know them.

The job of the designer is to draw that concept out of the people, place, history, function and what exists…. There is probably no such thing as a blank slate – even the Olympic Park had a context.

A concept shouldn’t be imposed – sadly, some people spend time trying to pursue someone else’s concept. They may buy a ‘designer’s garden’ – for example, Broughton Grange is a real pic and mix garden, with no recognisable or consistent concept. (see also)

In comparison, Biddulph, for example, does have a concept, even if it’s bizarre – to grow all the plants of the world in their context. (link)

But big designers have become the big egos and the result is that you buy them and their style. Still, all you have bought is the starting point.”

Realising a design.

John elaborated the ways in which gardens are a process. He pointed out that whatever we do, we are designing – even when we are getting dressed in the morning. (I love this, and can see how our concept of who we are on any given day, -gardener, garden visitor, party person, desk worker,- informs how we put our look together.)

He pointed out too that even Brown (as in Capability) rarely seems to have drawn his own plans. The plans we have of his were actually mostly drawn by other people recording what he had set out on the ground.

“Most of our great gardens were developed piecemeal, on the ground over time. Gardens are processes, constantly changing. What is unique about them is their juxtaposition between life and death, the inert and the dynamic; the interaction between the weather, time and season. And light.”

People approach gardens as if they are objects or like interior design, but a garden begins when plants interact. Compare plants in pots indoors – there they aren’t interacting but are contributing as a static element. With gardens it goes deeper because it is a growing thing…..spiritual, creative, art. The joy of a garden is watching things grow and develop.”

Show gardens and Conceptual gardens

“Show gardens are very misleading. They are a good way of exhibiting how effective a designer is at a one off effect, but they are not gardens. Until the plants have interacted with one another and the other elements what you have is an installation. Some simulate gardens and they are very skilled, but it hasn’t got anything to do with gardening. It’s a tableau.

Conceptual gardens are a great addition, a new game, but they are not gardens. They are much more like sculptures. Art forms used to be in separate pockets but now they are all meeting, intermingling and have begun to blur.

There are things in common between different art forms: gardens are like choreography, a slow ballet.”


A final quote and summary:  “gardens are in fact highly contrived ecosystems which have to be sustained by constant adjustment towards a known ideal.”

John Sales  was Chief gardens Advisor of the national trust for 25 years before retiring.

He tells me he has written a memoir of his experience over more than a quarter of a century with the National Trust, covering fifty gardens (50 shades of green) and his personal philosophy for caring for gardens.

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Catharine Howard July 15, 2014 at 9:14 am

Hello Anne – you have sent me scurrying to this interview with John Sales. I like his whole slant on gardening and design -(BTW definitely designed my own muesli this morning). I have had too many visits to gardens that I have designed and overseen planting of and returned year or three in to be thoroughly sad that the plants are struggling with weeds, something has rampaged, another died and saplings have dropped in thanks to the birds. Customer still happy and – not a hand’s on gardener – cannot see this. I depart unhappy.

John is right – gardens are processes. No flick round with feather duster and vacuum cleaner here – assess, appraise and experiment. All the time.

annewareham July 15, 2014 at 9:19 am

Do we need wider recognition of this, for all our sakes?

Molly June 8, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Great post. Thanks. When we go on garden tours and tour public gardens we always learn something but mostly learn that we prefer ours at home. No doubt because we have spent 15 years planting and shaping its contours and seasons of bloom to match our taste.
I wonder if his memoir will be published and made available. I’d love to read it.

annewareham June 8, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Me too (Would love to read it.) A very interesting and – well – lovable man..

Angela Tolputt May 28, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Great piece and I couldn’t agree more with John’s thoughts. A garden design IS the beginning of the process of building a garden of a client’s dreams – their paradise. The real skill is drawing out how the client feels about the space and trying to involve them in the process, making them commit to its maintenance and future development. As garden designers we should never, in my view, impose our own will on our clients – it’s their garden and the garden design process is a collaborative process with involves us using our knowledge and design skills to guide them.

Show gardens are a stage set and are thought provoking. They give ideas but are not real life.

Clive Crawford May 15, 2014 at 9:45 am

I just googled “50 shades of green” …. At least 50 ironic takes on the grey book… If it’s not too late, marketing-wise John should choose a different title for his memoires ,

john lord May 12, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Great article

Sarah May 9, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Gardeners often apologize for creating piecemeal (I include myself) but as the revision continues over years there may be more unifying of the garden than we realize. We make adjustments as we discover micro climates, learn about light conditions, how plants interact, aspire to have a water feature, walled garden, eliminate the misguided rose garden, ugly fencing, whatever. Gardeners know their plots intimately . Designers don’t usually. Maintenance is a very layered and incremental process and I appreciate john’s recognition of it as integral to design. I have fantasized about quitting a garden and my client’s gradual realization of what I actually contributed to the garden. Many just don’t know because they don’t garden. So it’s the old “don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone ” syndrome that might clue them in.
And I can’t imagine that a designer wouldn’t be encouraged or expected to be present when laying out plants in the field for planting. Tweaking is paramount!

Chris Spencer May 8, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I like this piece, for me, I am the garden, and the garden is an extension of me, a concept rather than a design initially, constantly changing through the seasons and over the years. One cannot design a garden if one does not fully understand what one has work with.
I’m inspired 🙂

Susan Cohan May 8, 2014 at 2:37 pm

As a designer whose goal is to have the design become so integrated with the existing site so that my ‘hand’ is somewhat invisible, I find this fascinating. In the States, we have very few ‘ego’ driven designers since our garden culture is different than in Europe and the UK. The key though is that a garden/landscape is a living thing and changes with each passing moment so that intent in the interaction with it is paramount. It really doesn’t matter if that interaction is ongoing maintenance or a human stroll. The latter, however, is too often negated by ill-conceived, unskilled and practiced upkeep.

sbw158 May 7, 2014 at 11:22 pm

I loved this piece. More please, she said greedily. I wholeheartedly agree with much of what was written though am frustrated to repeatedly discover myself trying to force my experience of the garden into the box of “garden design” in the professional sense when, really, it’s just as John Sales describes.

Katherine Crouch May 7, 2014 at 10:56 am

a good piece. Just had a project appraisal by the SGD. Apparently nebulous planting plans of a woodland tapestry of plants to be arranged as I please on the day of planting and subsequently added to and amended does not count as garden design, but as the lowlier craft of gardening. Hhmmm. I do not want to hand over plans to a third party for exact planting of every snowdrop bulb, but unless I do it will result in landscapers planting them like little rows of soldiers, so I’d rather do it myself in Milk Way swathes, constellation groups and the odd solitary planet.. Design or gardening?

annewareham May 7, 2014 at 11:48 am

That is staggering and worthy of its own post. What are the SGD (Society of Garden Designers) thinking of?

paul hensey May 10, 2014 at 11:03 am

Appraisal, assessment and adjudication of any form is by necessity artificial. A snapshot of a candidates skill and appreciation of their trade and art. The requirements for membership to the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) are documented on the Society’s website (www.sgd.org.uk). The assumption is that, for the purposes of assessment, the designer should be able to communicate their intent in a clear and unambiguous way; essentially that the scheme presented be understood without the designer necessarily being present. In practice a designer may always choose to attend the construction or planting of their schemes, however the Society needs an objective process to assess a candidates abilities.
I do not want to distract from the thread of this very good and insightful article. If there is any aspect of the process or submission requirements for application for Membership to the SGD that anybody would like to discuss, I am ready to listen and represent an opinion to the decision making bodies within the SGD.

Paul Hensey MSGD
Chair Adjudications Society Garden Designers

Tristan Gregory May 6, 2014 at 8:20 pm

My agreement is absolute which is something of a relief given the calibre of both the interviewee and author of the piece.

Bernhard Feistel May 5, 2014 at 6:22 pm

These thoughts sum up my feelings about gardening and gardens, too. A wonderful piece.
Yet, it would never have occurred to me that getting dressed (in the morning) could be an act of design. I have to be careful now, since I am dressing for paradise now and then…

Paul Steer' May 5, 2014 at 4:14 pm

This interview has had a profound effect on me, perhaps I’m too easily moved, but moved I am. It just simply sums up how I feel about gardens and making gardens, much like your book did Anne.

I think you can sense if a garden has integrity, a reflection of the garden maker and the intervention of the ‘Third Actor’ as Tristan Gregory describes the hand of nature.

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