Sunday, 28 May 2017


A few pictures from this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Fewer large Show Gardens than in recent years and (arguably) some were removed from gardens as we would recognise them and others were a re-working what has been successful in the past (albeit without the same flair - or perhaps budget!) A selection of my personal favourites, in no particular order, follows:

Monday, 9 May 2016


It has become somewhat of a cliche amongst garden designers to wax lyrical about the delights of the gardens at Rousham in Oxfordshire.

For this reason I have chosen not to write about it in any real detail as it will simply sound like so many other written pieces. So instead I’m simply going to capture my impressions of the best of it and leave the detail for others.

Depending upon how you approach it the walled garden may come first and, if you know little of the garden lay-out, this is not as anticipated - not because of the gardens lack beauty but that they are not the groves of classical figures expected. 

For this you must walk to the end of the large, open lawn offering vistas across the Oxfordshire countryside (to a barely visible folly on the horizon) and then head down into the woodland, surrounded by a seeming monoculture of laurel. 

From light into darkness the scene is set. 

Progressing through the garden the groves that open into the light produce a narrative structure and a theatre which holds you captivated. No flowers and no borders. 

Instead clipped plants and pools, statues, urns and the famous rill. Each is experienced in turn until you eventually climb back from the woodland and re-enter the sunshine.

It is therefore what can be created from a space many would consider as an uninspiring piece of woodland clinging to the edge of a river valley that is for me the true genius of Rousham. If we lift our imagination then what similar feats could we achieve in our own gardens - turning an area that does not meet the typical ‘garden criteria’ into a place of wonder; perhaps even a place of wonder that people will still be enjoying almost 300 years into the future?

Thursday, 17 December 2015


Most of us want to make a difference. This will vary greatly with every individual but in my case I want to create more wild places.

The notion of ‘wild’ is often used pejoratively and yet it speaks to the primal part of us as a place of excitement and adventure. Gardens are by their nature exciting places - with a multitude of plant and animal life there if we only slow down for long enough it see it. Why else become a garden designer?

Indeed, I am also drawn to the notion of re-wilding - an idea popularised by the campaigner and columnist George Monbiot - but I fear that it may not be a simple concept. A common error made when looking to return an area to nature is to seek to recreate a diorama of a past time. This is only natural. As progress ploughs through the countryside our notions of what is natural are found in our memories. Our own, those of our parents or grandparents or, if we are lucky, snapshots from the historical record, be they photos or descriptions (in some places stretching back 1,000 years where recorded in Anglo-Saxon Charters).

All of these approaches have one thing in common though. They are all artificial and subjective. They all make the worst of assumptions - that the tide of human change is not an expression of a natural process (we are after all simply another element in the ecology of the planet) and that there is an ideal that the clock can be wound back to.

Homo sapiens have been busy for 45,000 years influencing and changing the ecologies around them across Europe. The world we see is the result of humanity’s presence, as it has been for millennia.

There is therefore nothing wrong with a concept of ‘designer landscapes’ - a term coined in the book ‘Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World’ by Emma Marris. If a bird drops a seed and it grows this is deemed a natural process. If a human sows a seed then it is gardening - even on a landscape scale. I think we have to accept that humans are indelibly part of the landscape and that when we create spaces for wildlife we can have species both native and non-native, be they plants or carnivores. I have discussed why there is no such thing as native in an earlier post on this blog - simply put there is no baseline that we can objectively choose to revert to.

We should therefore be looking to manage the landscape around us for the benefit of all - and gardens form one part of the fabric of the land. Flowering plants and careful design create spaces that humans are psychologically drawn to - and research shows that overgrown and unmanaged spaces are not valued or appealing. A little planting design in our nature reserves and national parks can therefore only draw in more - more people, more pollinating insects, more invertebrates, more predators; simply more life. It may be the starting point for all sorts of ‘introductions’.

The time has come to change the prevailing notions of wild and natural and instead to actively create them as we want to see them - as vibrant places full of life, places we can be drawn back to again and again.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Intelligence of Plants

Working with plants on a daily basis it seems to me difficult to accept that they are not intelligent. Our philosophical inheritance however has never allowed for the intelligence of plants and the science backing this up is only now starting to be accepted within the mainstream. 

Intelligence, whether defined as the capacity to understand, the ability to grasp relationships and meanings, or knowledge of events, can all be seen across the plant kingdom. It is true though that plants lack an organ that is identifiable as a brain. Instead they have developed a modular system where they can lose up to 95% of their bodies and yet still survive. The functioning of their intelligence is therefore more akin to a computer network (being able to survive the loss of parts of the system without a loss of ability, intelligence or memory).

Plant roots are particularly fascinating and can also be described as functioning like a hive intelligence, similar to ants. They swarm to detect not just water and chemical gradients (able to grow towards needed nutrients and away from chemical toxins) but they make value judgements as to how they should develop for the good of the whole - prioritising finding water if the plant is not receiving enough or nutrients if these are in short supply. Add to this abilities to detect gravity, temperature, humidity, electric fields, light, pressure, sound vibrations, oxygen and carbon dioxide, as well as whether neighbouring roots are from plants with the same parent, and it is difficult not to see such complex processing as intelligent.

Internal communications within a plant are a crucial aspect of intelligence but that is not the whole picture. Control exerted by plants over members of the animal kingdom has been evident for millions of years. All of the flowering plants have used bees, beetles, ants, hummingbirds, and quite probably the smaller dinosaurs as well, to transport pollen to other flowers - ensuring their continuing genetic diversity and success. It seems small wonder therefore that by adjusting flower colours, scents and sizes our ‘ornamental’ plants have been able to enslave horticulturalists and gardeners in their quest to spread their genetic code far and wide - certainly much further and much quicker than if they weren’t using us!

So next time you look out into your garden perhaps you’ll consider it differently and maybe even with a little more wonder!

Enjoy your garden.

(For more information about the intelligence of plants a good starting point is ‘Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence’ by S. Mancuso and A. Viola)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

National Apple Day: 21st October

Acklam Russet, Fillingham Pippin, Flowery Town, Greenups Pippin, Nursery Asses, Ribston Pippin, Yorkshire Greening - the names of apple varieties are many and diverse and these are just a selection of apple varieties local to Yorkshire, where I’m based, but each county has its own unique selection.

Today (21st October) is National Apple Day. A day for apple bobbing, cider, apple crumble and, most importantly, the apples themselves.

Indeed from a gardening perspective the two big things at the moment are a desire for a low maintenance garden and a hankering for a productive garden - as Grow Your Own becomes an increasingly popular ideal. At first glance these appear to be mutually exclusive but, with fruit trees, nothing could be further from the truth.

Fruit trees are amazing in their diversity - offering not just a bountiful autumn harvest but also providing both spring blossom and a rich wildlife habitat. If grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock they can remain tiny and grace any size of garden. If they are trained into cordons (which simply means planted, and supported, so that the trunk is diagonal to encourage fruiting) or even step-overs (trained so that their stems grow upwards for 6 to 12 inches and then grow parallel to the ground) they can crop well in even a tiny space. Add to this their relatively trouble free nature and when combined with a suitable ground cover to suppress the weeds (perhaps wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) or Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor)) they can reduce time spent actively gardening considerably!

Also people with larger gardens are frequently unsure how to cope with the space they have -particularly when their children have grown and mowing becomes an unwelcome and laborious chore. In this case the lure to create an orchard is strong. A variety of trees - not just apples but pears, cherries, plums and also nuts in the form of hazelnuts - can be included and seasonal flowering can be prolonged by training none to vigorous roses and other climbers into the boughs of established trees. Beneath the trees a wildflower meadow, mown twice a year, or for the more horticulturally adventurous, a productive forest garden of soft fruit, shrubs and perennial vegetables  can be grown. Alternatively the grass can simply be allowed to grow long with new footpaths mown into it each year creating secret pathways or even mazes.

So on National Apple Day why not plan a few changes - perhaps get someone to prune your old apple trees into their original goblet shapes or even plant a new tree (make sure you like the taste of the apples you plant though)!

Enjoy your garden.

Friday, 21 August 2015

A Garden Review: Alnwick Garden

In the first of a series of garden reviews, I wanted to discuss the Alnwick garden in Northumberland.

It was with high hopes that I visited the Alnwick Garden in August 2015. With a design by Wirtz International and significant investment I went with an open mind - by which I really mean I knew of it by reputation but had no idea what to expect!

In truth I was both impressed and disappointed with what I found. My disappointment though stemmed from Alnwick being less a garden, in the traditional sense, and more a unique theme-park-garden. Clearly hugely popular, and with more visitors than I’d ever before encountered when garden visiting, it was simply not what I’d expected. My initial reaction should not however colour the overall impression - and nor should it be taken as a negative. It illustrates instead an insight into my expectations that a garden is a place for quiet relaxation (where a garden designer can wander and explore the site and plantings in quiet reverie) contrasting with my feeling that Alnwick presents what public gardens should really be - a place humming with life, engaging people of all ages and levels of horticultural interest. Certainly the children were in raptures amongst the water features (many in their swimming costumes, well prepared for the day).

To set the scene, the garden is based around huge, organically shaped yet formal falls with fountains, water sprays and the low throb of the water cascading downhill. Around this are based a series of garden rooms - different areas for different moods. A maze and a rose garden, an open lawn and a fenced poison garden (a true theme-park experience with guided tours and caged plants), a walled garden and a hillside of cherry trees, an area of water sculptures and fountains, for the children to run through, and a calm Japanese inspired area, and the obligatory gift shop and cafe.

Offering different experiences across the site each area had its merits but what held my attention for the longest were aspects of the planting. For example, within the walled garden at the top of the hill, structure was provided by the use of crabapple hedging forming parterres (using Malus ‘Evereste’, with its white blossom) and pleached walls (using red-blossomed Malus ‘Red Sentinel’). Although I was a few months to late for the blossom the design intention, juxtaposed against the less formal hillside of cherry trees, was clear.

Similarly the green architecture of the hornbeam tunnels and rooms - appreciated for their shade on a sunny day - possessed a grandeur that put me in mind of Versailles. The extravagance of this motif worked well against the cascade and provided structure to the vistas across the space. This use of hornbeam, and the adjacent areas of block-planted beech, created large areas of green texture, which provided a glimmer of the landscape at Rousham in Oxfordshire (although not as mature nor as subtly executed).

As for floral displays one corner - a corner that sadly felt as though it was an afterthought or an experiment allowed to a single gardener - was providing a fantastic show. A perennial planting full of colour and texture was set against the surrounding wall as though it had crept in and gone unnoticed against the larger garden elements. Sadly though it seemed almost invisible to most of the visitors - whose eyes were instead drawn to the cascade and the queue for the Poison Garden which dominated the vista.

There were a few things that I didn’t like - but they were small problems set against the overall feel - the walled garden provides a view of the Visitor Centre when leaving, sad roses draped the rose garden and needed some pepping up, and parterres, whose planting was limited to agapanthus in pots set upon mulch, signalled that something had failed to grow.

Overall though a visit to Alnwick is a worthwhile experience and demonstrates the power that a carefully designed garden can exert over its visitors. If only more gardens were this popular!

Friday, 27 February 2015

Colour theory: sense or insensibility?

If I said I was going to live my life by the beliefs and precepts which were followed 135 years ago you may think I was eccentric. Promenading in my best suit at weekends and no conception of the internet might well be perceived as strange! 

Long borders at RHS Wisley

So why do most gardeners still seek to adopt the colour theories of Gertrude Jekyll as their default? Why are so many gardens seeking a tonal harmony - using the colour wheel and grouping warm and cool colours? Perhaps it is part of the notion that gardens are art....

I suspect instead that it is to do with comfort - that is how gardens look because that is how we remember they look. The floral exuberance of the seeded meadow-like planting in the Olympic Park dispelled this though (as has research at Sheffield University) where the mixture of colours, randomly associated, left most spectators gaping in wonder. Indeed some garden designers have been heard to say that they wouldn't have put those colours together and yet they work....

Image Copyri James Hitchmough
Jekyllian theories of colour in the garden should definitely not be dismissed or belittled. But we need to recognise that they represent a "tasteful" approach which was seen as ground-breaking 135 years ago and as such were a radical departure from what went before. They are therefore of their time - in this case from the end of the nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century. As I have an interest in the history of gardening this taste was a reaction to what were deemed to be gaudy combinations of plants - but neither should be dismissed. Taste is a personal construct and should concentrate less on what we are told we should like and more on what we actually like.

Rules are there to be broken and in a garden that is often what brings the greatest pleasure - a self-seeded plant in the right place or an unexpected combination for instance. If you have the urge then go plant what you like where you want!