Sally Gregson on “Girly Gardens – or not?”

March 1, 2008

in Uncategorized

Comment on Bridget Rosewell’s article by Sally Gregson

We’ve been here before…

I read the ongoing debate about ‘flowers’ versus ‘design’ among garden designers and commentators with a knowing smile. I remember the self-same discussion when I entered horticulture 25 years ago.

The perceived conflict between hard-landscaping, ‘designed’ gardens and flowers is I feel, just that: one of perception. To define it as a matter of gender difference is entirely subjective, and I fear fuels the dumbing-down of the art; the craft; the skill of gardening.

As a nurserywoman, as well as a garden-writer, I can confidently claim that the sizeable majority of my customers are, indeed, women. But there is an increasing minority of men who have discovered that the complexities of planting their garden entertain the mind as well as the body. Few private gardens that are open to the public under the NGS are ‘masterpieces of design’. But it is not a matter for despair. Many are well-designed. That is, the fundamental design of the garden provides a strong framework for the planting. The design does not scream ‘look at me’. Few want to live with minimalist concrete and the occasional well-placed Silver Birch. Surely the object of good design is to guide one’s steps through a garden, concealing and revealing planted areas, vistas, incident.

Some of my customers are public gardens. In many ways Head Gardeners too are more pre-occupied with planting than with the overall design. Perhaps public gardens are re-designed less often. (Hadspen will be an interesting one to watch).

So, we are mostly left with town gardens and show gardens where the designers have to prove something. And here I agree with Noel Kingsbury: good planting seems to be the province of a select few. And these few: Piet Oudolf; Christopher Bradley-Hole, Noel, (and I would add Dan Pearson, Mary Payne, Tom Stuart-Smith), are in my opinion taking us forward. They are using plants correctly chosen for their situation, as design elements. And they use matrixes of plants of similar heights, like “gorgeous” meadows.  And how much better than concrete they are! They change and perform throughout the season; they move; they have scent. Essentially they are dynamic. Concrete, and decking, are not. It is that natural element that is so attractive to the gardening public. And it’s these gardens that are invariably among the favourites at the flower shows, alongside the Sissinghurst and Hidcote look-alikes. They are not easy to emulate. And they need sensitive, informed maintenance. Is all that fluffy and feminine or is it for tough chaps?

I think the male/female analogy is irrelevant. And I think it’s time we concluded this debate between designers and plants-men and women. Of course good gardens are a balance between design and planting, but the weight of either factor is determined by the garden’s creator or owner. It is a unique expression of the creator’s personality, male or female. And if that garden communicates all these things to the visitor it is also worthy of the epithet ‘art’.

Sally Gregson

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