Tag Archives: gardens

The Art of Gardens

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.

Chairs and Chelsea

A most enjoyable day yesterday, as the guest of Gaze Burvill at their home in rural East Hampshire, just a stone’s throw from Gilbert White’s Selborne. Simon Burvill, Managing Director of the company, and his team were previewing some of their new outdoor furniture to an invited audience, and I was there to represent Horatio’s Garden. Gaze Burvill have been generous supporters of the Horatio’s Garden project from the outset, and the relationship continues as we expand into new gardens in Glasgow and Stoke Mandeville. The company celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

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Simon Burvill, describing some of the complex design forms which can be achieved using his workshop’s state-of-the-art equipment.

We were treated to a fascinating tour of the company’s workshops, which combine traditional craftsmanship of the highest standard with astonishing hi-tech machinery and design facilities. The attention to detail in the furniture, as well as the company’s commitment to sustainability – heat is provided at the workshops using wood-shavings from the production process, for example – are hugely impressive. The beautiful oak, much of it sourced from France (where the tradition of ‘farming’ trees for furniture is still strong), has a scent which fill the workshops. If I closed my eyes and inhaled gently, I could have been back in the wood-turning workshop where my grandfather worked in my childhood.

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As well as seeing the production process in action, we were given a preview of this year’s Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea. One stand, sponsored by Gaze Burvill, is designed by Aralia Garden Design and Patricia Fox spoke about her journey from brief to finished design, and how Gaze Burvill’s furniture has been showcased in the garden. Catherine Macdonald of Landform Consultants was present too, speaking about her Artisan Garden design, sponsored by Seedlip. Her design incorporates a range of references to 17th century apothecaries’ manuals alongside the process of distillation, and the ingredients which go into Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirits.

The other Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea 2017 were on display too, with sketches, plans and planting schemes to pore over. As one person said, it’s very helpful to be able to see the gardens on paper before the show, as you can see the subtle changes that occur when designs are being implemented, and also have a clearer idea of what to look out for amidst the whirl of the event.

Thanks to all at Gaze Burvill for a thoroughly enjoyable day.



Christmas Reading

Gardening doesn’t leave as much time as it should for catching up on reading. Yet gardening books and journals are the way for most of us to keep abreast of developments in planting style, garden design and general horticulture.

Every year I make two mistakes. Firstly I imagine that I’ll get through lots of reading on holiday in the summer. It never happens, of course. I go away with a pile of magazines and books, and end up looking at few of them – being too busy doing all the other things one does on holiday. One of which, of course, is visiting gardens – the only opportunity I really get. Norfolk, where we have taken our family fortnight every year for more than a decade, offers a good few excellent gardens – so there’s plenty to see. To say nothing of the birdlife – my other great enthusiasm – which keeps us occupied in between fish and chips, ice creams and sitting on the beach. Norfolk has a huge amount to recommend it as a holiday venue – our children have known nothing else, and don’t complain or show signs of tiring – but all those books come back largely unread.

The second mistake is similar (identical), but at the other end of the year. I have an idealised vision of Christmas, stretching lazily from Christmas Eve en famille at the cathedral (having finished our annual watching of John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights’) through to some time in mid-January. Candlelight, log fire, armchair, and that pile of books again – this time coupled with all the Christmas issues of gardening magazines. And, yet again, it fails to happen. Not because I’m not enjoying myself, but because I am busy doing loads of other equally enjoyable things.

The garden reading I do get through in the year is – like any other reading I do – squeezed into the minutes between bedtime and sleep, or snatched over breakfast before anyone else is up (a good time for magazine browsing), or possibly a few stolen moments on a day when it really is too wet to be outdoors.

There’s another error I commit annually as well: asking for more gardening books for Christmas. I never learn. In case you’re looking for some inspiration, here are three books I’d ask for this Christmas if I didn’t already have them…

Rhapsody In Green: A Novelist, An Obsession, A Laughably Small Excuse For A Garden, by Charlotte Mendelson (Kyle Books). Already a pick in many garden writers’ lists, this is a fantastic book about what you can do in next-to-no space, if you allow yourself to give in to a fanatical love of plants- specifically, edible crops. Why have one variety of tomato if you can have five? It’s not remotely a ‘how to’ book – but it’s infectious, engaging, funny, beautifully written (Mendelson is a novelist by trade) – and also a lovely book in design and feel.


The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination, by Richard Mabey (Profile). Mabey is the true heir of naturalist-writers such as Gilbert White (whose biography he wrote), WH Hudson and Richard Jefferies. I’d gladly sacrifice most of the (so-called) ‘new nature writing’ if I could hold on to Richard Mabey. His latest book is a fascinating collection of writing about the relationships between plants, people, art and history. Tim Dee described the book in a Guardian review as “the summation of a lifetime of looking at plants and reflecting on them” – what more, given Mabey’s depth of knowledge and insight, could one ask for?


Container Theme Gardens, by Nancy J. Ondra (Storey). An absolute gem if you have planters to work with -as we do at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury – and want to make the best of them. Ondra sets herself a strict rule of using only five plants, but manages to produce some fantastic and unusual combinations to suit styles and seasons. Sadly, her ‘Hummingbird Haven’ (Begonia boliviensis, Cuphea ignea, Fuchsia, Canna and Calibrachoa) won’t entice the diminutive birds across the Atlantic (the author is from Pennsylvania) – but would work brilliantly as a tropical scheme all the same.


Finally, a journal to recommend. Rake’s Progress is a rather glorious thing – apparently available in selected shops, but easily obtained direct from the publisher www.rakesprogressmagazine.com. It’s full of fairly sumptuous photography and terrific words – all printed on heavyweight paper, which makes it a ‘coffee table magazine’ if such there is. Treat yourself to a subscription.



Out with the old

It’s that time for looking backwards and looking forwards at the same time, Janus-faced as we enter Janus’s month. Trying to avoid the same old mistakes, to do that which was left undone, and all the rest of it. So, here goes…

2014 was the most successful year of my professional gardening life. After a dreadful start, when the first three rain-sodden months yielded precious little work or income, things took off at Easter and my diary was full right up until mid-December. I enjoyed long summer days of mowing and weeding, and took on some new clients whose gardens have been a pleasure to work in. 

The new year looks set to be equally successful. I will remain a one-man-band – though I do occasionally think about taking on an apprentice at some point – but I will continue to learn and to grow as a working gardener. 

On the domestic gardening front, however, things went correspondingly less well. It’s a familiar theme of mine, but more paid gardening for other people only comes at a cost in terms of my own garden and allotment. So, my major resolutions for 2015 relate to this. I will get out in my own garden every day, even if only for 5 minutes, to check all is well, and to enjoy it. I will also get to the allotment at least once a week, again maybe only for a brief visit, but that will be better than the stretches of nothing that crept up on me in the autumn just gone. 

I really feel that, unless my own gardening is in order, it impairs my enjoyment of other peoples’ gardens, fuelled by what is, in effect, jealousy. Negotiating this – an inevitable consequence of doing something as a job that I also love as a pastime – is essential, and comes (I suspect) only with time. Nevertheless, I am determined to work hard at it this year.

Other resolutions are more confined and practical. There is an unattractive but essential job to be done in clearing the unacceptable amount of clutter which has accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I simply need to grit my teeth and get the rubbish – for it is essentially rubbish, even if most of it was left there ‘because it might come in handy one day’ – to the recycling centre. 

That job is a preliminary to demolishing the two increasingly decrepit sheds, and replacing them with a single bespoke building which will serve as garden/potting shed and store. At the same time I will create a modest ‘yard’ adjacent to the new building, which will provide a dry, hard-standing for outdoor jobs (such as potting-on) in good weather, as well as an area to store plants. 

That it turn will free space on the decked patio, which can then be better used as an outdoor living space for eating, entertaining and enjoying the garden. I will stop using the patio as a ‘holding area’ for plants en route to borders or clients’ borders, and thin out the pots around it to allow some nice plants to flourish and claim their moment in the sun (literally as well as metaphorically).

The lawns remain a question mark. Neither area of grass in my garden is of a decent standard to be called a ‘lawn’ really. But I am reluctant to lose them both. Over the past couple of years I have tried some re-seeding, but it’s not been a great success. I continue to toy with replacing the area nearest the house with artificial turf: which grates with my commitment to wildlife-friendly, organic gardening – but would keep the look of the thing, and is surely no worse than paving or gravelling the area? The other patch, under the large apple tree, and heavily trampled by children using the wendy house and the swing, may have to take its chances for a few summers, until such pursuits decrease and turf or seed has a half-decent chance of survival. 

I will try to buy fewer gardening books – though I cannot promise. I have always been a bibliophile, and will buy books whatever. 

I will make every effort to keep proper records of what I sow, plant and harvest – at least beyond the end of March, when previous years’ diaries tend to fall into neglect. I will also keep this blog more up to date – and use it as a diary, as well as a means to share my experiences with you, long-suffering readers. 

Finally, I will be a more generous gardener. My (sic) garden is actually our garden – my dear wife and splendid children own it too, even if their uses of it are often different from mine. The same is true of the allotment. Everyone needs to feel they belong, and that these spaces belong to them. That they sometimes don’t is my fault entirely, and I shall put that right. I will also be more generous with plants and produce. Visitors won’t leave empty-handed if I have young plants, cuttings, flowers or vegetables to spare.

I think that final resolution, which I hadn’t thought of when I sat down to write, will make me happiest of all.

I hope you have a wonderful 2015 in the garden and out of it.



Have you been working?

Is it just me, or is there something slightly irritating about being asked ‘have you been working?’ by folk you meet at the end of the day…? My hands are dirty, my clothes covered in a rime of grass clippings, earth and burs. Is this not some kind of clue? Similarly, gardening – yes, gardening – is actually my job, the thing I do to earn money. 

The other annoying thing at this time of year is the assumption made by many folk of my acquaintance that – my wife being a teacher, and my children both of school age – I too take 6 weeks off in the summer. In fact the summer holiday is a very busy time. Yes, I take a fortnight off for our annual family holiday (it has to be during the school holidays because three of the four of us have no option) – but the rest of the time – all of August usually – I am working harder than ever. Not having to do school drops and pick-ups gives me rather more flexibility about time than I have the rest of the year. Furthermore, August is a month with plenty to do – grass (and weeds) are still enthusiastically growing – but at the same time, the shades of autumn are already gathering and bringing deadheading and cutting-back in their train.

Enough grumbling. All is well. I have acquired a new client who wants me to work a full day each week, throughout the year. How nice to meet someone who recognises that gardening doesn’t stop when the clocks change in October – and that gardeners have to eat all winter long. And it promises to be a great job, developing and enhancing an existing mature garden to make it more interesting and colourful all year round.

Sedum spectabile is my plant of the moment. Mrs Gardener is not keen, as it always flowers just as the summer holiday ends and she has to return to the classroom. Nevertheless, we have several in our garden at home – and The Manor has lots throughout the herbaceous borders. I counted over 70 bees on one plant the other day, and it was not even fully flowering. It’s a wonderful plant at this time of year – a real ‘last hurrah’ in the perennial border.