What is the Purpose of a Garden? by Tim Ingram

November 30, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

We have frequently discussed whether gardens could be art. This piece by Tim Ingram presents a totally different vision of what a garden may be.

Are these ideas of gardens contradictory? Mutually exclusive? Or do both miss the point?

Anne Wareham, editor 






What is the purpose of a garden? by Tim Ingram

This ‘purpose of the garden’ piece has been focused especially for me by a gardener I have met on social media, where I spend time engaging with gardeners around the world about plants and the specific challenges faced in different places, and also simply sharing in interchanges of ideas and thoughts.  The gardener I refer to is Anne Wareham, who with her husband Charles Hawes has made Veddw Garden in South Wales.

This gardener’s experience of making a garden is very different from mine. She views a garden as a work of art worthy of the same critical appraisal as fine literature, music or paintings. Whereas I see a garden more as a botanical collection that relates to the origins of plants and as a resource for propagation, and simply as a place to learn.

We have opened our garden for over thirty years for the National Gardens Scheme, so the aesthetic element has always been there, but only more recently have I thought more precisely about this, as we have been renewing and rebuilding parts of the garden that have become overgrown and neglected.

This is a reply to Anne’s emphasis on the garden as art, from a gardener who comes from a different, and more scientific, perspective on plants. The experience of gardening over five decades, and rebuilding and reinvigorating a garden and nursery after a time of serious illness, persuades me that a garden is more than art. It puts you in contact with the natural world in the most intimate way possible because of the understanding that comes of the plant, and how it grows.

The conversation here between Anne and myself arises specifically from participating in the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair and the way this event uniquely combines the artistry of a garden with the practicality of the propagation and distribution of plants – something I strongly feel that the Alpine Garden Society and shows could do in more imaginative ways, and by extension the Royal Horticultural Society too. Both of these societies at times emphasise the hierarchy of horticulture at the expense of its fraternity, just as art can become elitist and introspective and leave the ‘common’ man behind. Gardening for me is to do with people and place, more than medals.

Fergus Garrett and friends and students, at the end of the day

This and the next paragraph are the reason I place the nursery at the heart of the garden –

If I visit an art gallery I go to view the the results of vision and imagination, and skill. I may buy a book or print (or original) to bring that memory home. But if I visit a garden – and I’m not alone – it is very often the nursery and plants I will look for first, and those hidden practical places where the propagation and cultivation goes on. I’m not ignorant of the artistic skill and vision that has made the garden, but the nursery and plants are what inform my own garden and that presence or absence of a similar sensibility within myself.

The first of these following pictures is what excites me most – the fact that others enjoy this too, and primarily that it is their own gardens that they go back to with renewed enthusiasm. And at Dixter it is the nursery that gives Fergus Garrett and all the students who work with him the material to play their tune.

I suppose you might say that it is ‘folk music’ I love first and foremost, rather than ‘opera’. I find grand landscape gardens dull by comparison with botanic gardens. And the large RHS Shows (with the past exception of Chelsea perhaps) less appealing than smaller more intimate ones. I do see that artistic eye as an essential element of the garden but instead of looking for a Leonardo or Monet, I think of my own patch of ground. So a garden is undoubtedly a work of art but there is no way it can be achieved without that palette of plants and the constant refreshment that comes from their discovery and propagation.

Visitors to Autumn Plant Fair

View across nursery at Dixter towards the house

View of Autumn Plant Fair

Autumn Plant Fair from ‘behind the stalls’

A garden such as Great Dixter is unique, but it is as unique as any garden is. It only excels in its shared artistic vision and practice. And the same can be said of any garden society, whether the Royal Horticultural Society, the Alpine Garden Society or the Hardy Plant Society, all of which take ‘the plant’ and the natural origins and ecology of plants as muse.

For me the garden is a microcosm of the natural world from which the plants we grow originate and so as it grows is successful when it resonates more and more with its surroundings and climate. That artistic impression derives from the natural world, but the garden can only come about from the eye that observes and plants.

Artistic appreciation and scientific knowledge are the result of a critical and sceptical nature, but as John Ruskin also said: “The principle of all successful effort is to try to do not what is absolutely the best, but what is easily within our power, and suited for our temperament and condition.”

Tim Ingram

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Ingram December 6, 2017 at 12:28 pm

I’ve been wondering how to reply to some of those comments because it could be said that we are talking about ‘the two cultures’ here, and I don’t see these as separate and thus I don’t rank art and science in that way that Eric Sternfels implies, but equate them. Here is another essay I wrote which might clarify what I perceive as a democratic viewpoint: http://www.alpinegardensociety.net/diaries/Kent/+November+/633/, and this line from Russell Page – ‘If you wish to make anything grow you must understand it, and understand it in a very real sense. “Green fingers” are a fact, and a mystery only to the unpractised’. But we differ in our patronage and place in what we can acheive.


Cherie Southgate December 3, 2017 at 11:01 am

I love it when a contributor presses the buttons of so many readers, to me it’s a joy to read a different view point. It makes me reexamine my own. My view is that every garden maker has their own agenda and approach. It very much depends on their background and the route they took to get to the point where they make gardens for them selves. The difference really intrigue me. I don’t feel there is really any right or wrong way and enjoy the stimulus of visiting a garden which has developed Ina a way that is unlike my own. That’s how I can more effectively critique my own patch. I think I garner design ideas as much as I garner plants – Having said that, if a garden is selling plants I often have to give myself a good talking to before leaving empty handed so that I maintain the coherence of my planned plot.


Eric Sternfels December 3, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Indeed, the purpose of a garden should be what best suits the gardener, herself. That said, it behooves us to learn to step back from our own inclinations to try and absorb the lessons made evident by those who approach their domains from another angle. Sometimes that may strengthen our biases and at others it may liberate us from them.


Bob Hobnden December 2, 2017 at 12:06 pm

The purpose of a garden? Well if it’s my allotment garden then it’s to grow food mainly with a few flowers for the house although somehow I can never bring myself to cut any, they just look better on the plot. Even on the plot I grow stuff of interest so always experimenting with different varieties etc. that way it remains interesting and challenging.
The house garden, which is of modern small size, allows me to grow plants I find interesting in a good looking space which also has to be beautiful to complement the house. It is also somewhere to sit outside and enjoy with family and friends.


Mary James December 1, 2017 at 9:59 pm

Personally, I would always go for a garden which shows the Art of good gardening/design. It is the way gardeners combine plants that often inspires a plant purchase, the impulse buy or feelings of wonder while wandering around a beautiful garden. Obviously we all have lists and then we might visit Tim Ingram’s, which sounds just a series of plants. I guess the difference between the two different visions is that one is led by the heart and the other scientific?


Bob Hobden December 2, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Not sure about that, I also love plants and the whole garden comes second to that. Indeed it is a place to grow those plants. When designing our “new” garden I ensured I had as many different areas as possible in the small space to grow those plants but that it would still remain a whole.


Chris Woods December 1, 2017 at 5:05 pm

First, define purpose. Second, define garden.
One of the most disturbing gardens I have visited in the last year is the Miracle Garden in Dubai. I find it hideous, yet it is visited by millions, many of whom seem to enjoy it.

Purpose and garden are culturally biased words. The vast majority of people who visit gardens are not British and don’t go to the UK to see gardens. They go to Singapore, Dubai, Suzhou, Denver, etc. Millions of them.


Eric Sternfels December 1, 2017 at 4:50 pm

Until Mr. Ingram can visit a garden and require himself to focus on color, textures, harmonies, contrasts, movement, patterns, composition, etc. he will not see art. Such an exercise would be possible if he was accompanied by someone who would listen to his stream-of-consciousness perceptions. Should he regress into commenting on individual plant attributes (historical or horticultural) he should be smacked on the arm, HARD by his partner. Until he can leave a sizable garden without bruises, his retraining would not be complete.
His photo series shows various art supply stores, which are not often visually connected to great works of art.
His comment “a garden is more than art” clearly suggests that art is a low bar on his own ranking system. Until he looks for a garden to rise above all he traditionally has sought from them and become a great work of art, he will not see one.


Owen Dell, RLA, ASLA December 1, 2017 at 1:30 pm

A garden is first and foremost a part of the environment, a synthetic but hopefully functional ecosystem. It provides valuable ecological services such as carbon sequestration, oxygen production, erosion control, habitat, food, etc. All functions related to human desires, such as art, teaching, collection of interesting plants are secondary to the ecological performance of the garden.


Sarah Coles December 1, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Plenty of places, in the wild etc, which perform all those functions but are not gardens!


Cheryl Cummings December 1, 2017 at 6:56 pm

I completely agree, thank you!
I think we delude ourselves into believing we have created a form of art because when our gardens are performing well at an ecological level we are hard wired to appreciate that and the way we describe it is as beautiful. We can design, plant and ornament our gardens in a multitude of ways but they are dependant not on us for their success but on the processes of nature.


Sarah Coles November 30, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Tim Ingram is obviously a grower, collector and botanist rather than a gardener. He’s not even someone who enjoys visiting gardens – he goes to a nursery or plant stall to find an addition for his own patch which is an entirely different activity. Landscape gardens leave him cold – unsurprisingly.

Scientific knowledge may as he says be the ‘result of a critical and sceptical nature’, but artistic and aesthetic appreciation is another matter. Here, as when visiting a garden, the first essential is to let go, absorb the place, maybe even love it, and only then let in the criticism, what might be done better or grown more skilfully.


Katherine Crouch November 30, 2017 at 6:22 pm

A garden at it’s best is the true expression of the owner. Whether the owner is plant-driven or landscape-driven , if their garden is a personal statement without undue influence from current trends or opinions, I shall probably enjoy their garden. When that expression is diffused by later generations or new owners, I may not as much.
At the very least, a garden and its boundaries are a sign to the world that only chosen family, invited visitors and the postman are welcome to enter the domain and approach the house – a shame that so many small unloved gardens never develop beyond this point


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