The Thinking Gardens Supper – what was it like? by Lucy Masters

March 5, 2014

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Suppers

At last – the account of the thinkingardens supper, which took place in London in the pouring rain and a tube strike. For all that sixteen people made it (see who at the bottom of this page) and it was excellently chaired by Chris Young, editor of the RHS The Garden.

It was a great evening and was followed by copious emails of everyone to everyone – clearly the wish for continuing dialogue was there, and there were questions about how to do that – maybe with online discussion?

With all that enthusiasm another one is clearly needed – so book the 18th of May, London, (Sunday evening before Chelsea) at 7 in your diaries and contact Lucy ( if you’d like to be there. Meanwhile, here is Lucy’s account of the evening.

Anne Wareham, editor

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

Yes, they are fuzzy pictures. Snaps. I was preoccupied with other things..

Lucy Masters:

Topic: do we need a revolution in the garden world? 

If I’m honest I was intimidated by the Thinkingardens supper. I don’t get out much and the thought of lots of strident horticulturalists round a table was terrifying. I also wasn’t sure what kind of debate would happen, would it be bad tempered or would it be pointless?

In fact it was immediately engrossing and lively. I hadn’t expected it to be so animated and passionate – not passionate in a dull and hectoring way but it a very inspiring way. I became too involved and my note taking went totally out the window and my memory of it isn’t all it should be. So, upfront I have to admit that this is a personal take on the event and not at all analytical and even handed.

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

Emphasis (no – not pointing the way to the bar)

It started off immediately with strongly diverse opinions as it quickly became apparent everyone wanted to address a different section of society. Some people wanted more youth, some people wanted more diversity, some wanted more discernment. That was interesting in itself and it showed a great wealth of passion and disparity that I hadn’t expected. I am all for diversity under my own definition of it and yet it was immediately obvious that this was diversity by anyone’s definition. Did that matter? It meant that we wouldn’t find a consensus, but actually I found sometimes dissent is more interesting and informative. For me it was eye opening and it crystallized my own idea about what I personally really cared about. It also showed that while there may be fusty elements in horticulture, there was also some fire knocking around too.

One of the first points to come up was about failure. Gardening programs or journalism generally never show the plants dying or things going wrong or being difficult. It was a really good point. Why is that? Is gardening unconfident, that if people see it’s hard they will be put off? Yet, it is fundamental to every popular reality television program, the Bake Off disasters, the Simon Cowell put downs. It’s the failures that draw us in.

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

Now you can see the way to the bar…

How can we change that? Horticulturalists can be an austere lot and that austerity can be intimidating. Is it worth admitting failure as well as acknowledging success? I can’t change program making but I thought perhaps one small way would be to have a blog. There is already a great #blackthumbs on Twitter. I have set up a blog –blackthumbsblog. This isn’t meant to be a traditional blog where one person narrates but is more a confessional. I have started by adding a couple of my own failures but twitter has some great ones which I have just put in a more accessible place – the home of failure. It makes surprisingly funny, heart warming reading. Please add anything to the twitter #, comment on the blog or email me and I’ll upload it – let’s celebrate failure. Or as Samuel Beckett would say – “try again, fail again, fail better.”

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

The only one I have of you, Helen..

In the same vein it was brought up that nothing surprising happens on gardening television or in gardening books. (clearly no-one had read The Bad Tempered Gardener, ed.) The Garden Revival might have been many things but it wasn’t ground breaking or innovative. This dissatisfaction with the media has clearly been going on for years. I recently found such a post on The Guardian blog from 2011 where Matthew Appleby complained , “The media sees gardening as a hobby rather than a profession.

That’s an interesting point – how important is horticultural knowledge in creating a garden? A discussion for a different article or supper perhaps?

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

Coffee time..

The craft of gardening is its greatest joy and its greatest limitation.‘ This was quote I did manage to write down because I thought it was so succinctly right and complex. On the one hand the act of gardening is what really engages a lot of people. The plants, the growing, the fundamentals, the joy of getting down dirty and gardening. On the other hand, the craft of gardening, alienates many. To the outsider it seems incredibly complex and daunting. I remember so well working in a garden centre and being totally intimidated by all the Latin names. It was a club impossible to break into. What was a perennial? and oh, how they laughed as I asked about Cotton Easters.

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

Yes, you can see Anne there, on the left..

However, more importantly the craft, the doing, precludes thinking. Because gardening is understood as a natural, innate act it resists analysis. It’s anti-intellectual. This means we have a problem when we come to try and evaluate gardens. The two – gardening and gardens – are so intertwined they are almost synonymous. Gardens as a great design or art form are always contaminated by the more gritty ‘how to’ of gardening. How can we begin to extricate the garden in order that it can be considered as a thing of beauty, a work of art?

The supper attendees agreed that there needed to be greater credibility given to the critical appreciation of gardens. How could we engage people in a true understanding of what makes and is, a great garden? There was an idea to create a competition. ‘Britain’s best/ worst garden’, to be judged by a mixed panel of horticulturists, historians, artists. I thought that was a good idea, but it would interesting, through the comments to see what anyone else thought. Also, should we have a star rating for gardens? Would that help? Would anyone care? What do you think?

Thinkingardens supper Copyright Anne Wareham

I haven’t credited individuals with particularly thoughts as I think others will be left out and that would be wrong because everyone who came to the supper was a really valuable and integral member. We may not have solved all of the horticultural crisis, but then there is always another supper. Hopefully.

Lucy Masters Blog 1 Blog 2. Blog 3

lucy masters portrait






Mike Atkinson 

Toby Bull

Dave Green 

Helen Gazeley 

Jonathan Ward

Tristan Gregory 

Charles Hawes

Alexander Hoffman 

Lucy Masters 

Alison Marsden 

Sue Moss 

Jason Payne 

Paul Steer 

Anne Wareham

Helen Yemm 

Chris Young 


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Alison Marsden March 23, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Like everyone at the supper I want gardens and gardening to thrive in 21st century Britain and, as a result, to see all aspects of horticulture valued as a career choice.

We talked about gardens as art and about a manifesto. My manifesto would be:
• More wonderful, world class gardens
• Every garden to be the best possible for those who use it
• Everyone to engage with gardens whether owning, sharing, creating or visiting at some stage in their life
• People to appreciate gardens for aesthetic reasons as well as functional and productive spaces
This requires a common understanding of what makes a garden ‘Great’ with the givens that not every garden aspires to greatness and not every great garden has to be the same. There is a huge diversity of great music, literature, paintings but there is general acceptance of what criteria separates great from the rest. I believe that it is legitimate, even vital, to group gardens with other art forms and engage in constructive Art Criticism in order to establish what criteria make a great garden. It will rapidly become apparent that I know nothing about art criticism so I will let more knowledgeable folk pursue this area. Suffice to quote that “Art appreciation is the knowledge and understanding of the universal and timeless qualities that identify all great art”. Surely gardens are as universal and timeless as anything man has a hand in creating?

Of course on a practical note a great garden should also demonstrate environmental awareness and a sensible degree of sustainability. This if nothing else should be the contribution of the enlightened 21st century to garden making. And nothing can be great if it is not practical and maintainable but these are characteristics where lack rules a candidate out rather than presence ruling it in.

Not surprisingly I believe that there are huge benefits from active participation in gardening but I believe too that if gardening is to be art as well as craft then it must be acceptable to appreciate a garden without suggesting that everyone should rush home and start digging. I can appreciate music and paintings without feeling any need to learn the oboe or join a life class.

My final thought on the subject is that not only are gardens able to be art but I would go so far as to say that “gardens are five dimensional art” (you heard it here first!). By which I mean that as drawing is 2D, sculpture is 3D and theatre adds the dimension of performance then gardens exist in 3D space with the additional dimensions of Time as plants grow & ultimately die and Nature with the uncontrollable aspects of weather, animals, decay.

And what would be the benefit to the wider world of gardening from my suggested manifesto?
• More people experiencing the wellbeing effects of engaging with gardens whether they have their own garden or not
• An increased appreciation of the skills – artistic, scientific and manual – needed to create and maintain gardens large and small, leading to increased credibility and value of horticultural careers
I thoroughly enjoyed the supper and am happy to be proved wrong in all of this. Doubtless this discussion will run and run…..

lucy March 24, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Hello Alison, thank you for the thoughts here and at the supper. Is the 5 dimensions of gardening at the absolute nub of the positive and negatives of garden as art debate. The fact that a garden decays and changes allows for a really interesting aesthetic yet at the same time the very fact that a garden never stays the same makes analysis of a garden as a work of art hard (impossible?) In know there is the idea that a garden is part performance art and so you measure the appreciation of it in the same way. The trouble for me is that the play then closes down after it’s run, it doesn’t keep going but just with worse and actors taking the roles. It is a finite thing that doesn’t decay. Unlike the garden which maybe art one year and mediocre the next.

landscapelover March 12, 2014 at 9:05 am

Sounds like a fascinating evening. Like Tristan, I am not sure about the idea of a best / worst garden competition as a way of encouraging debate and engagement. Picking out the “best” leads to things like Britain in Bloom, Chelsea gold medals, the Gardens Illustrated garden of the year, etc – all of which have been criticised here and elsewhere.

annewareham March 12, 2014 at 9:38 am

True – full of pitfalls. Difficult to get a panel of judges who could visit a multitude of gardens all over the – world? – at least twice, in order to judge. And the problem of judging so many varied aspects of gardens, and varied kinds of gardens.. I suspect it can’t be done and never has been done. Good reviews is what we need, I think. But the other issue – is how to engage the non gardening public with the aesthetic merits of gardens….? (AW)

lucy March 24, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I feel a little sad about the idea of a great garden competition not being possible. I had envisaged a grand event (think big or go home) like The Stirling Prize and then a really wide public debate around it. I can see there might be the negatives to it but I thought that would be outweighed if the judging was sufficiently credible and the scope of people dragged into the discussion about gardens had been significantly widened.

Paul Steer March 10, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Lucy if you were intimidated, can you imagine what an ordinary boyo from the valleys felt like ! Not only that , I have no horticultural knowledge at all and there I am seated among such knowledgeable people. I have to say you all made me feel most welcome and involved. I was surprised and delighted to learn that even the experts have failures ! Even Helen Yemm who was charming.
The debate was stimulating. I love making my little garden and see the process as akin to making a painting or a sculpture, and perhaps that is why I identify more with the creative side of gardens/gardening rather than the how to, however I probably need more how to in order to be more successful!

Thank you, I would love to meet again.

lucy March 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Thank you Paul and it was great to meet you too! It was interesting to have people from so many different backgrounds and view points. I think that’s what made it such a lively and successful evening. Hope to see you at the next one.

Tristan Gregory March 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm

An excellent summary of a difficult to summarise evening and had a clear way forward emerged in so short a time I cannot imagine it being a long road.

Reflecting on the best/worst possibility I think I would be happier with praising quality with accolades than pointing and laughing at a failure to meet expectations. Criticism can be argued and refuted whereas condemnation alienates; more Oscars than Razzies.

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