Ursula Buchan on Aspects of Garden Design

August 4, 2009

in Articles, General Interest

Cutting edge is what most people do with a pair of grass shears, not a design aspiration,

argues writer and horticulturist Ursula Buchan

It’s still the same old story…

What is the good of garden designers? Or garden journalists, come to that? If those seem provocative remarks, let me explain what I mean. Although professional attitudes on how to design, lay out and plant gardens and public spaces have changed markedly in the last 20 years, these attitudes have had too little impact on the majority of gardens in this country.

Sure, everyone enjoys the show gardens at Chelsea Flower Show every year, but few people, it would appear, have the faintest desire to emulate what they see. Cutting edge is what you achieve with the lawn shears, not what you aspire to in garden making.

Many gardens, especially in suburb and country, are set in a Jekyllesque time-warp, or they are bedecked and water-featured. Perhaps most surprisingly, there are still many laid out in the ‘gardenesque’ style, a la John and Jane Loudon. By ‘gardenesque’, Loudon was referring to a way of garden making which definitely did not imitate nature, but where plants were considered for their intrinsic value. I find it fascinating that there are so many gardens still with standard roses (an idea imported from France in 1818, for goodness’ sake), conifers grown as specimens in lawns, symmetrical ribbon borders and island beds, filled with disparate colour; these were ideas promoted by John and Jane Loudon in the 1830s and ’40s.

These days, these ribbon borders and island beds are often still planted up twice a year with half-hardy annuals and then bulbs and biennials, as they were in the Loudons’ day. If you think I am overdoing this, you should know that bedding plants make up more than a third of the market in horticultural stock. Of course, that includes plants for the myriad containers that there are in our gardens, but containers are hardly a new idea either, even if they have never been more populous. The hanging basket, for example, dates from Victorian times, where it was used in glasshouses.

In the public sphere, despite the outsourcing of the maintenance and planting in parks, there are still many flower beds which are ‘bedded out’ twice a year, even though there are cheaper, more permanent and, let’s face it, more attractive ways to cover the ground. How often do you see a roundabout (except in Sheffield, obviously), which has been planted according to ideas that do not date from Sir Robert Peel’s time?

You may well think, what does it matter as long as people are happy with their gardens? And, of course, it goes without saying that what they do behind their garden fences must be their own affair. In my opinion, they can grow every kind of flesh-creeping begonia they want to, provided these are decently obscured. But – and it is an important but – when private gardens are exposed to public view, as they so often are, because of low fences, unbounded front gardens, open gateways, even a gardener’s pride which opens a garden to the public – then it is permissible to criticise.

I am unrepentant about suggesting that yellow-leaved conifers and purple-leaved maples and cherries, which are thickly scattered in ‘gardenesque’ gardens, are not suitable for growing in gardens in rural situations; this is because, if they rise above garden boundaries, they can all too readily draw the eye and spoil the tranquillity of a landscape, whose subtle beauty is dependent on the many shades of green foliage of native, or native-looking, trees. Bedding plants can also defy context, in a major way, particularly as they are almost all low-growing.
One of the reasons I think it permissible to criticise the ‘gardenesque’, is because it is extremely labour intensive (not always inexpensive). All that potting up of plants in modules, hardening off, planting out, and annihilating the weeds, takes a lot of time and it only works in its own terms if maintenance is very good. Frankly, it must be a slog.

Gardening journalists and, especially, broadcasters (since their reach is greater) should be more forthright and tell gardeners that they would probably enjoy their garden more if they had it designed well, and planted mainly with permanent plants. We live in an era where individualism is seen as aspirational, so criticism is not welcomed, but the problem with this individualism in garden making is that, like the individualism of teenagers, it can be drearily conformist.

The ‘gardenesque’ style was developed for modest-sized suburban gardens, which proliferated in their thousands in Victorian times. Gardens are now even more modest in size, although garden designers will assert, rightly, that good, interesting, practicable design of small spaces is perfectly possible.

It just needs thought and flair. The more it is done, the more (with luck) garden owners will come to see that it is worth asking a professional to help, rather than themselves carving out a few wiggly borders round the lawn and filling them with creepyImpatiens.. What garden designers and commentators should not shrink from telling the nation’s garden owners is how difficult making a garden is, so that there is absolutely no shame in asking an expert in; and, what is more, that some ideas are definitely better than others.

Ursula Buchan – writer and horticulturist

This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal July 2009 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
T: 01 989 566695
F: 01989 567676
E: sgd@assocmanagement.co.uk
Website: www.sgd.org.uk

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