A few degrees of greenness

Three years on, Michael Leapman talks again to garden design graduates to see if their ideals have changed
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The Independent Online
Just under three years ago I went to Capel Manor, the garden demonstration aid teaching centre just north of London, to see the beginning of a brave experiment. A group of 21 excited but bewildered students, aged from 18 to 52, were being taught the rudiments of measuring a flower bed. It was the first few weeks of Middlesex University's three-year degree course in garden design - one of two such courses introduced in 1993, the first ever offered at British universities.

Until then, teaching garden design had largely been the preserve of costly private institutions that specialised in instructing well-heeled owners of large private gardens in traditional techniques. The instructors sang the praises of the great planters - Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, Vita Sackville-West - and turned up their noses at anything smacking of modernity.

The Middlesex course was going to be different. Its director was David Stevens, who in 1993 tossed a pebble into the calm ornamental pond of garden design by saying that the art was 50 years out of date. The declared aim of the Middlesex course was to blow away the cobwebs that cling to the concept of the English town or country garden.

In the event what it succeeded in blowing away were most of the students! More than half of them quit the course during the first year and by this summer only eight determined souls remained.

"A lot of them decided it was too much work or not really for them," says Hilary Thomas, one of the lecturers. "One or two switched to interior design. Money was a problem - they all had to fund themselves."

A few weeks ago, the eight survivors held their degree show. It provided the first chance to assess whether garden design is a discipline that lends itself to a semi-academic course of this kind. It also allowed me to judge whether the students, who had spoken so optimistically in 1993 about breaking down the barriers of the conventional English garden, had kept the faith over three challenging years. In those early days, Hilary set out her stall clearly: "Everyone is looking back too much - back to knot gardens and all that. Nobody is coming up with fresh, new, imaginative ideas to fit in with the next century."

Now she says: "I'm pleased with the eight who stayed. It's quite different from the work you see at private garden schools. I'd wanted them to get away from historic designs and I think they have done that. Their ideas and presentation are art and design based, rather than horticulturally or practically based. We thought they should have more freedom to express their ideas."

David Stevens is enthusiastic too. "I'm delighted with the work they've produced - it's not quite like your average garden designer and not quite like landscape architecture, but a real mix of the two: interesting and dynamic. When I started, the only way you could get any kind of training in form design was by doing landscape architecture which in many ways is quite different, dealing with larger spaces. Anyone can design 3,000 berberis and 1,000 elaeagnus into a car park but garden design has always been more subtle. I'm very proud of the students. They turned out some cracking things, and I'm thrilled to bits."

What do the students themselves think? In the original article I quoted six of them, and four of those saw it through until the end. They are critical of the course structure, especially in the first year, but overall they are glad they stuck it out, and they say things have improved as a result of their experiences. There has been a much lower dropout rate in the two courses that have begun since.

In 1993 Richard Foote, who quit an office job when he was in his early 30s, told me he wanted to pursue this interest, explore "new ideas and approaches". He added: "I'm getting such a buzz about this course already." The buzz persisted. showing me his degree design for a defiantly untraditional garden for a home for handicapped children, Richard said: "If you look at all the work today, you'll see that the key is individuality. There isn't a house style. It was the tutors who drew all this out of us. Remember that we were all guinea pigs and more or less had to mould the course for ourselves. The tutors were learning as much as we were. We've done marvels to achieve so much. We're pushing at the boundaries of garden design."

Three years ago Annie Guilfoyle, who already ran a small garden maintenance business in London, said she was looking for experimental and avant-garde approaches and was "desperately excited about this course being innovative and forward thinking". She has certainly endorsed that in her design for a small garden outside a Victorian house in north London, with walls of varying heights and a stunning rectangular fountain. The design has come in for high praise from David Stevens.

"The whole course had a modern theme," Annie says today. "Coffee table books and television gardening programmes show traditional designs, not modern ones. We had influence from landscape artists and learned about architecture, which I found very useful."

Rachel Bassett, at 25 one of the youngest students, has also kept to her, ideals through the three years, still preferring to work on public open spaces for the masses rather than on private gardens for the few. "Many city parks are out of date," she observed in 1993. Consistent with that, her degree project involved redesigning the space around the Nottinghamshire council estate where she grew up.

"This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do when I joined the course," says Rachel, who used to work as a landscape gardener. "It comes out of my concept of the community. Before I came here I didn't have the technique or the confidence, or the knowledge of how to research plants and materials."

The rules for the degree project were that it must be a plan for an actual site and that cost should not be a factor, because it was not going to be built (one design for a roof garden could cost more to implement than the house itself is worth.) But, although the exercise was purely theoretical, some students - having invested so much time and effort in their designs - are now lobbying to get them built. Rachel sought the views of residents on her estate before starting work on her scheme, which includes generous plantings of trees and shrubs and some new play equipment for the children.

"Not many people sent my questionnaires back, but I grew up on the estate and know people on it," she says. "I'd love to put it into practice and get the community involved."

Richard Foote's playground design also has a strong social theme. "I was aware," he explains, "that these physically and mentally handicapped children had an environment that wasn't being used, around the building where they were learning to understand their world. It was just some grass and a few trees.

"I decided to speak to the manager and ask him what he thought was wanted. He talked about movement, excitement and an environment that would allow the children to develop their skills. And it had to be safe, although the manager said he didn't want a cotton wool world. I had to be aware of texture, colour and smell. I took some of my inspiration from Kandinsky - one of the things about the course is the ability to make you think about art and its relationship with garden design."

Because the children have problems focusing on specific images, there had to be strong colours and shapes. Choosing the right materials is an important aspect of all design and Richard made use of perforated aluminium, seldom used outdoors, for his central feature, a sculpture resembling the sails of a boat.

He arranged the plants in groups according to colour, going through to range as in a rainbow. Muted shades - purples, blues, greens - were used in areas set aside for rest. These included eucalyptus (smell is important too), alliums, lobelia and stachys, chosen for its tactile silver foliage. From there Richard moved to "sock-you-in-the-eye colours" - bright red and orange buddleia, tulips and day lilies, then yellow rudbeckia, the large daisies that are "very much a child's view of what a flower should be".

Another of the students designing for people in special need was Amanda Rutkowski, in her scheme for a garden at a day care centre for Aids patients. She explains: "I had a friend who was HIV-positive and during his illness he started to notice plants and running water and natural things that he hadn't noticed before - things he had taken for granted before he became ill."

Her garden has areas for meeting and talking, with a pergola to provide shade and protection from being overlooked by the nearby high-rise flats. There is a water feature and a ramp leading down to a sunken garden. In her planting she has emphasised the theme of renewal, with several plants that die right back in winter but grow with fresh vigour in spring. "It works on a physical and emotional level," she says. "I'm going to do all in my power to raise the money to get it built."

Like Annie, Amanda already had her own garden maintenance business before she embarked on the course. "The degree came along at an opportune time for me," she says now. "No matter how much horticultural experience you have, you also need some design training. I could see that there was more to designing a garden than taking down the washing line and restocking the beds. The course has worked well for me, in spite of the problems."

Annie and Amanda will now seek to expand their businesses, using their newly acquired skills. Other students will start to look for private clients or take jobs with landscaping firms or local authorities. "It's a tough world," David Stevens warns. "There are a lot of garden designers now and people have to survive on their creativity, credibility and skills."

Richard concludes: "Before I started here I was a keen amateur gardener. I thought you just had an idea and went ahead and did it, but it isn't like that. The design is the key element: the planting is secondary.

"One of the wonderful things about the course is that we've learned from each other. I'd never have believed it when we started." !