To London, and the Royal Geographical Society. I’d never visited Works on Paper Fair before, but this year the organisers have chosen Horatio’s Garden as their charity partner, so this was work. I did have a brief chance to look at some of the fabulous art on show – including some wonderful pieces by neo-Romantic and mid-20th century artists – including John Minton, John Piper and Edward Ardizzone – of whom I am especially fond. Sadly, all out of my league price-wise (one is, after all, only an ‘umble gardener).
The real reason for the visit was not to look at pictures, but to talk about gardens. Or rather, to listen to others talking about gardens. Horatio’s Garden has been consistently fortunate in having its gardens made by designers from the top drawer of British garden design. And here they were on stage, all five of them, being asked by an audience of 350 guests for their opinions, thoughts and ideas about ‘the art of gardens’.
Cleve West, who designed the first Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury in 2012, was joined by James Alexander-Sinclair (Glasgow), Joe Swift (Stoke Mandeville), Bunny Guinness (Oswestry) and Tom Stuart-Smith (Stanmore)*. Inevitably, the focus was on what makes a successful garden in the context of a hospital setting, and with an eye to accessibility and practicality. Slopes, for instance, are utterly useless for a garden which will be used mostly by patient in wheelchairs – 1 in 100 is just about tolerable, but nothing more or it ceases to be accessible. At the same time, the gardens must be good gardens which hold their own irrespective of the healthcare context: beautiful, thoughtful, rewarding places in which to spend time. Works, dare I say it, of art.
The rights and wrongs of raised beds (Cleve hates them, Bunny was quite keen); the necessity of encouraging insects to animate the garden as well as to sustain its ecosystem; the need for planting to appeal to all of the senses; and the glory of birdsong – all were entertainingly debated.
Tom Stuart-Smith was spot on when he observed that gardening observes two temporal horizons. On the one hand, there is the familiar annual, seasonal cycle of growth and dying back. But there is also, and must always be, the long view – which Tom felt some modern designers tended to forget, used as we are to immediate gratification and quick results. He likened the design and creation of a garden to the child’s act of pushing a toy boat off from the side of a pond or onto the open sea – it is no longer the child’s, and will follow a course which can not be predicted with any certainty. Nature will do its work – and nature is always the best gardener.
Interestingly, a question about the possible impact of Artificial Intelligence on gardens and gardening elicited a related comment from Bunny Guinness about the use of computer graphics to visualise Capability Brown landscapes. The software allows one to ‘wind back’ the garden to the day it was planted, and then play around with time as the trees ‘matured’ over decades and centuries – showing on screen what the Brown and his peers could only ever see in their minds’ eyes. Which does make their achievements all the more remarkable, I always think. Drones too have their place for the designer, allowing landscapes to be surveyed accurately and pared back to the contours. As to the merits of robot lawnmowers, I think it fair to say that the jury was divided.
As for the essential ingredients of any garden, the plants, each of the panellists was asked for a ‘must have’ plant. These were their choices: Salvia ‘Amistad’ (TS-S), Persicaria ‘Fat Domino’ aka ‘Fat Bastard’ (JA-S), Osmanthus heterophyllus (BG), Aruncus ‘Horatio’ (CW), Sarcococca confusa (JS).
The last word should go to James (he would have it no other way). Gardens should be about joy. If you find that you no longer enjoy gardening, the answer is simple. Stop.
*Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury opened in 2012, and the Glasgow garden opened in 2016. Stoke Mandeville will open later this year. Fundraising for the gardens in Oswestry and Stanmore is underway.