A thinkinGardens symposium at The Coach and Horses, Greek Street, Soho
Do gardens have to include plants?
This summer thinkinGardens has begun to organise a series of events intended to thrash out some of the issues affecting attitudes to gardens today. Run in collaboration with the new London College of Garden Design, the series began with two symposia, held before small invited audiences from the world of the arts and gardens in the private dining room of the Coach and Horses, Greek Street.
Building on the success of these two evenings, further symposia will follow in the autumn, operating again on the age-old principle that an open conversation over a good meal – a true symposium – will always encourage good, outspoken thinking
Here’s a question that appears on the lips of more and more people as conceptual gardens and garden installations loom larger on the public stage. The conclusion of this first symposium was that gardens can be made without plants, but that it is both harder to do well and at the same time side-steps the ambition of working with plants (which are intrinsically delightful) and with all the uncertainty and changeability that plants bring with them.
Where does this conclusion leave that extreme form of installation garden, containing no plants? In a separate place, undoubtedly: having everything to do with the experience of provocative outdoor space (something which can of course be shared with gardens containing plants) but not being what every dictionary definition of gardens would propose that a garden should be – a place for plants. (Perhaps the word garden needs redefining for a wealthy modern society?) The most ambitious gardens share the provocation and conceptualism of an installation but include the further element of plant life: the Orsini garden at Bomarzo for instance, as it stands today almost an installation of carved symbolic monsters, but owing much of its atmosphere to its sylvan setting. But this does not mean installations and simple flower gardens with no conceptual agenda cannot be enjoyed in their different ways. And indeed, in some circumstances plants alone can be used conceptually to shock people, perhaps through insistent rhythms or claustrophobic proximity or colour.
How did the symposium reach the conclusion that a garden is possible without plants? Well, assuming one can make a garden without plants, it considered what is gradually lost (if anything) by the removal of plants, as the balance tips from a garden with plants to a garden with none? Answer: so many things.
One being that plants can stimulate all the senses, with sensitivity and a subtlety that it would be difficult to recreate through artefacts.
Another more vital factor is that gardens containing plants involve the different dimension of time and the change that growing things bring with them, the fluidity of change. There is pleasure and great skill in working with that change, in being in control but not in control, about managing uncertainty.
What, then, about the Japanese gardens of gravel and rock, which contain no plants? That may be a fair description, but nonetheless such gardens do emulate nature and its slow erosion over the aeons, and of course the physical actuality of the gardens themselves is hugely controlled. Ironically, even these gardens will attract plants, in the form of weeds, whether we like it or not, and they have to be managed; change is always there. Where (tongue in cheek, now) does this leave artificial rock which, of course, is still made from natural materials? Answer – a garden expects a connection with nature, tamed or untamed, and therefore benefits from natural rock, not moulded concrete.
A garden, then is a balance between ideas and plants. But it is also a balance between the physical demands which the plants make on the garden maker, and the emotional effect of those demands on the garden maker and thereafter in return on the plants themselves.
A garden maker’s involvement in a garden can take many forms: as an outlet for artistic creativity or for a controlling personality, as an assumption of responsibility, physical and emotional, for plants, some of which may be delicate and require protection, others of which may be the aggressive cause of that need for protection. It can be a desire to nurture and have a love affair with nature that is impossible with man-made artefacts. Or plasticine.
The effect of a garden’s energy upon the maker is to impose a connection with nature, ecosystems and weather, to arouse all the senses, to draw the garden-maker inexorably into the long, slow process of making and keeping a garden, occasionally to disturb the maker or create a sense of awe.
All these things can be done with plants.
Inevitably the conversation moved to the all-plasticine garden at Chelsea Show this year, a representational attempt at a cottage garden. In a sense it worked, but what a wasted opportunity to do something truly innovative and exploratory with the idea. Perhaps the RHS should actively make space for one plasticine garden free of living plants every year, actually soliciting designs from previous Chelsea Gold Medal winners and designers of the highest quality – even sculptors and painters – rather than accepting a garden from an undoubtedly imaginative television celebrity. That could be a most positive move forward in the education of the gardening public toward s the idea of a plant-free garden – there, at Chelsea, rather than in shows such as Westonbirt, Chaumont and Future Gardens, which have yet to make the mainstream consciousness of gardeners.
How good it would be also, to bring to popular gardening the idea that those things in gardens other than plants can also be real arts and crafts of the highest order, that gardens without plants do not mean gardens stuffed with commercial, mass-produced paraphernalia of garden maintenance and leisure. Perhaps the RHS could overturn the conservatory furniture makers’ tables and bring in some of the very best art potters and metal workers and sculptors, makers whose artefacts which show off their individual creativity as the use of plants does a garden-maker’s.
Do gardens, then, have to include plants? The symposium said no, but it is more satisfying for everyone if they do, and a darned sight more difficult for the maker.