Tim Richardson writes a regular monthly column for the ‘Garden Design Journal’. Many of his pieces, like this, warrant being offered to a different audience. So here we are:
‘Are ‘real gardeners’ deluding themselves in their continuing contempt of garden design?’ By Tim Richardson
Never underestimate the passionate disdain with which ‘real gardeners’ decry the idea of design in gardens. This was forcibly brought home to me yet again recently when I found myself in hot dispute with another garden writer who angrily claimed that garden design was a waste of time, an irrelevance to ordinary gardeners, a realm of pure pretension, wilful waffle. If she had her way, there would be a show garden at Chelsea entitled ‘My Garden’ which would feature dead and dying plants, evidence of neglect, hose pipes, green-plastic watering cans and other detritus redolent of horticultural life as it is actually lived.
Andy Sturgeon’s gorgeous bronze irises in terracotta pots at Chelsea this year came in for particular scorn, on the grounds that visitors to the show would be unaware that any single-flower display of this type will necessarily be short-lived and soon need replacing.
Does this garden writer have a point? Well, no. It seems to me to be patronising in the extreme to suppose that real gardeners’ might want to go to a garden show to see mirror images of their own plots, as opposed to fantastical extravaganzas or new ideas. As for Sturgeon’s irises, surely every single gardener (and non-gardener) on the planet is well aware that flowers die.
So where does this venom come from? The anti-design agenda of some parts of the horticultural world is in part based on a shires-gentry brand of anti-intellectualism which sees design, and talk of design, as essentially vulgar. The country-garden conceit is that you just throw it all together and then, as a result of genetics or feudalism or something, it happens to look good. Women gardeners are particularly susceptible to this kind of snobbery, since ladies of the manor – the Vitas. Rosemarys and Penelopes of this world – have become horticultural role models (not their fault). Even the late, great Christopher Lloyd went in for such disingenuous piffle (and so, therefore, do some of his acolytes) – the argument being that the ‘design’ (hedge system) he inherited at Great Dixter meant he was never ‘a designer’ and did not have to think spatially. Er, right.
Anyway, back to my barney. How amusing it was the next day when I saw the very same garden writer performing in a question-and-answer session about how to improve your borders at a garden show. There was a certain amount of discussion around soil preparation and mulching. The remaining 80 per cent of the discussion time, however, was devoted to abstruse topics such as colour theming, the use or verticals (especially white) in the border, spatial organisation, rhythm, massing and foliage contrast. I don’t know what this garden writer thought was under discussion, but it sure sounded like design to me, and design couched at a high aesthetic level, at that.
It’s true that gardening is, to an extent, a technical subject, and that planting design is just one element of garden design, but I do find it curious that so many serious horticulturists should be quite so antagonistic and aggressive about garden design as a topic. Garden writers, meanwhile, can easily lapse into a lazy pseudo-populism.
On our side of the fence (or galvanised sound-wall), I’ve never heard anyone from the design world suggest that ‘design-less’ gardening is utterly risible, that horticulture is not worthwhile in its own right. The strongest criticism one might hear is that ‘plantsmen’s gardens’ are often a bit trainspotterish and ‘spotty’. But designers don’t say they should be banned, or that they are a waste of space, or an affront to their own work.
‘Real gardeners’, on the other hand, often seem to fear that the very existence of garden design threatens their own plot in some way. It’s probably bound up with the extraordinarily strong emotional bond some people feel they have with their gardens, which can be as intense, if not more so, than their relationships with human beings.
Perhaps some of these down-to-earth types ought to take a step back and learn to live and let live a bit more. If they’re not interested in design (or like to believe they’re not), that’s fine, but why try to spoil the party for the rest of us? I’ve got this to say to ‘real gardeners’: chill out!
Tim Richardson – independent garden and landscape critic
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Tim Richardson’s recent books are “Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden” and “Avant Gardeners: 50 Visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape” see Tim’s Amazon page
This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal September 2010 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.
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