The practicalities of making a garden by Mary Keen

November 8, 2010

in Articles, General Interest, My Favourite Garden

Second of two pieces by Mary Keen. The first discussed what Mary’s favourite gardens are like. This piece discusses how to make them.

Photographs by Charles Hawes

Part Two of ‘My favourite gardens and why they work.’

From the cerebral to the practical……

In my design work with Pip Morrison, how do we start to make a garden that means something? The process starts by looking – it is a kind of worship; a way of understanding the feeling of a place. In the end, your best tools will always be your eyes so ‘look’ and ‘look’ again. You need to develop the basilisk stare that can spot when something is out of sync with the whole composition. Gardens change with time and as you move through them, so you need to look from every corner. When I was on the National Trust’s Gardens Panel with Kim Wilkie, he used to run from one corner of a place to another to see what it would be like from another angle. I like a picture made up of tiny angles and fragments, that you never see all at once and which changes all the time.

Like painters, gardeners select, discard and re-arrange. Like them, we are making something that needs vision and patience and skill. We bring out what lies under the surface. If we were painters, we would start by choosing a subject, a theme and that is what I think makes a garden true to itself. Some people call that a narrative, others call it unity. Call it what you like, it is the organisation of your vision, the focus – the staring – that brings it to life. When we meet clients, we get them to think about what they want the garden to feel like. What they want it for. And instead of making lists of plants I ask them to give me lists of words to describe how they would like the garden to look and feel.

If we go back to our idea of painting a picture and the unity of vision: even non-painters can see that a canvas which has a little gentle watercolour corner, plus a patch of Rothko purple and a Picasso person with a nose in the wrong place is never going to make a masterpiece. You have to restrain the hotchpotch of influences to make it work. I find it helps to write down a few words that describe what you are aiming for. Our kitchen garden next to a Saxon church is not a place for show-off gardening. I made myself a mantra of the words humble: ‘peaceful’, ‘ancient’, ‘green’. Anything that jars with that is banned. We grow vegetables in straight lines with cutting flowers and chickens peck about the place.

I am not sure how painters produce the atmosphere that for me makes a garden special. The best compliment I ever had from a visitor to the garden was when I found two girls whispering in a corner under an apple tree. When I asked them why, they said ‘We don’t want to break the spell’! So what are things that work the magic, the spell? Nothing is certain and everywhere is different. I can only tell you what I do at home. Slowing people down is one way to produce the effect I want – the aim is to get them to stop and stare. If you study garden design, you probably get taught about making quite wide paths leading to a vista. But the gardens I really like, the ‘linger-in-the-head-otherwordly ones’, have narrow paths and sometimes things that make you duck and weave. You can’t walk fast and you can’t see what is ahead – this makes for mystery and surprise.

At home the place I like best is the dell. Steep banks curve round a circle of mown grass in a bowl – you can do that in the Cotswolds where hills are everywhere. In the Fens it would be deeply suspect. In February, the banks of this dell are spangled with snowdrops and then with blue anemones that look like fallen patches of sky. Wild roses for summer are followed in autumn by berries. All year it feels protected and a place where I want to stay. If I try to analyse why it works, why I feel what I can only describe as an undertow, it sounds so silly. A circle has a simple, sacred magic. But like everything it should not look as though you have tried to impose a circle. It should look as though it had just happened. As though it was meant to be there. Here I should say that in the gardens I make for others with Pip Morrison, our first aim is to make a place feel true to itself.

We were asked by English Heritage to produce designs for an Edwardian flower garden at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of White. We turned it down because we felt that a cosy flowery garden would be at odds with the atmosphere and enormous scale of the castle, with its sad history. This solid and lonely fortress is the place where many have suffered; it was a place that reeked of grief. Huge topiary might have worked, but flowers were what was requested and we felt too strongly to cave in to pressure from EH, so we declined to be involved. (Chris Beardshaw has since made a please-the-public-pretty-planting there.)

In the country using local materials makes for wholeness, for a strong theme. You need to develop a sense for rejecting plants or materials that are out of sync with where you are or what you are trying to do. I never feel comfortable and settled in one of those gardens of rooms where you wander from one plant-packed enclosure to another. Often I get sent as a journalist to write about gardens which have been exquisitely photographed and are full of high horticulture. No space and no contrast between drama and peace, like at Le Jardin Plume, France.

Old wisdom decreed the odd punctuation mark. A hosta or an upright evergreen they said would provide a lull in the planting, but I want more than that. Grass, or water or a view of sky and the chance to see out allow a place to breathe, to come alive. Lifting the crown of a tree to frame a chink of hill and sky, or adding a gate on your boundary that connects with a field, will extend the view. Even if you never use the gate, the sense of possibility helps to make a place feel unbounded, giving you the feeling that something might happen on the other side.

Water provides a rest, a chance to open the eyes like Kim Wilke’s Orpheus pool. (picture) It does not need an RHS Chelsea Flower Show water garden. Light and dark are as important in a garden as they are in a painting. At Rousham, Antinous (Hadrian’s lover) is framed against the sky. But that effect need not be restricted to grand places. At my home, steps lead up to light beyond. Two of our clients own Gormley sculptures. We were worried when one of the client’s told us he had bought one and that he would be put it on an important axis. We wanted the sculpture to be apart, a found object – not a focus. Luckily, the sculptor placed him exactly where we wanted him, where he looks unsettled but part of the place.

In the end, these things are only pointers. But looking hard and cultivating an instinct for atmosphere, for the feeling of a place, is vital, so that you can be true to the whole picture. Slowing people down so that they are aware of something deeper than human concerns can help. Local distinctiveness is important. The choice of plants, the way of planting, the moving from dark to light, the spaces and rests – all of these are only there to underline something that has a life of its own….. the real otherwordly life that breathes and fades and lasts. People say gardens are ephemeral, but I can still see the Berkshire garden I ran through as a child. Ditto a later garden when I had babies, and had to get up to them in the night and I saw the garden from the landing window and could not go back to bed. The otherwordly ones will always be there. In your mind’s wide-open eye.

Mary Keen – garden designer and writer

See also Otherwordly gardens

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