Should we trust anyone’s opinion on a garden except our own?

October 25, 2008

in Articles, General Interest


by Tim Richardson

Now come on. Let’s have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Who is it that tells us the truth about gardens? Gardens, that is, we haven’t yet got round to visiting, or have only just heard about – because of course if we have visited the garden in question, we already know the truth about it. Right?

First up, I was on my way to Clacton-on-Sea for a tub of cockles (as you do) when I thought, ‘I know, I’ll drop in on Beth Chatto’s garden’, which 1 had never visited before. A shameful omission. Anyway, Beth Chatto’s garden was never going to be ‘my thing’, exactly, but I found it all rather underwhelming. The gravel garden was fun and brilliantly planted, but it was rather squashed up in terms of design. And I was positively aghast at the 1970s/80s-style island-bed layout of the main garden. Maybe I am not enough of a plantsman to see the virtues, or maybe I’m just a jaded design freak, but I found it all a bit dated.


The second ‘garden’ was Duisburg Nord near Dusseldorf, Peter Latz’s transformation of a disused steelworks into a public park, achieved with the lightest of touches. This was an absolutely extraordinary experience, with gargantuan rusted structures sprouting all kinds of decorous vegetation but again I was completely unprepared for the reality of it, despite having seen a lecture on the place given by Latz Junior at this year’s SGD spring conference. Why the disjunction?

First, it is about images. Photographers are not employed to tell us the truth. They arrive at gardens and landscapes with a singular mission: to make the place look good in photographs. That is why photographers are always so much more popular with owners than writers are. Designers are not going to tell you the truth (obviously), not least because a good number of them buy into their own hype about being a lone genius brought up in some kind of cultural vacuum. (‘Influences’ Me? How dare you!’) Owners? Too much personal baggage. Television? Oh, pur…lease. Radio has its possibilities but has been under explored so far.

Which leaves us with writers. Bloggers can be fun but tend to be over-fussy about their own plots (do I really care about your broad beans, or your trusty Felco secateurs you ‘couldn’t do without’?) or else nurture strange predilections about television personalities.


So we are left with ‘real’ authors, journalists and historians – are they telling us the truth about gardens? Er… no. But in addition to describing a garden, they can at least try to communicate what they personally felt about the place, and perhaps even venture a guess as to where it stands in the overall context of gardens. In the end one learns to trust certain writers, or else just enjoy their way of putting things. Good garden writing can whet the appetite, or make us think differently, or even make us laugh.

Why would we want anyone to tell us the truth anyway? If that could be done, there would be no point in discovering gardens for ourselves. On NGS days, it would also curtail the opportunity to partake of tea with cakes, jam and cream – which is, you have to admit, the whole point of being involved with gardens in the first place.

Tim Richardson – independent garden and landscape critic.

See also Old Fashioned? by Mark Laurence

Tim Richardson’s recent books are “Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden” and “Avant Gardeners: 50 Visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape

This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal October 2008 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.

Society of Garden Designers, Katepwa House, Ashfield Park Avenue, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 5AX
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