Gardening: Death of the English garden: What's happened to our talent for planting and design? Most ideas are gimmicky or decades old. More originality please, says Helen Gunn
Saturday 29 October 1994
Every summer, for the past 15 years, I have visited a dozen or so gardens, some grandly public, others endearingly private. While many contained aspects I was pleased with, hardly any have left me with a feeling of complete satisfaction.
I have seen truly memorable gardens, but they were Italian, not English. And that worries me. I have grown up in the gardening tradition of England and accepted it unquestioningly, but now it fails to move me. Am I losing my faith? Am I going over to Rome?
It seems to me that the English garden, as a vital, fresh and vibrant artform, is dead; or at least stuck in a coma. There are no new ideas either in planting or design.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, so let me try an experiment. Imagine you are going to visit a fashionable garden for the first time. What features of good gardening design would you expect to find?
If it was spring, you would probably want to see fritillaries and narcissi growing in informal drifts in unkempt grass; if summer, the herbaceous border would need to be colour-controlled. If you are lucky, part of the garden will be planted with a single colour, which both has dramatic impact and displays to full advantage a good knowledge of plants.
Finally, as everyone must now know, the garden is an extension of the house and so will be divided up into 'rooms', each with a different mood and atmosphere.
These are all good, sound ideas in garden design. But are they new? To take them in order: it was William Robinson who first advocated naturalising bulbs in grass in his book The Wild Garden, published in 1870. The idea of a colour-controlled border was first developed by Gertrude Jekyll, an exact contemporary of Robinson's. Her idea was to use cool colours on the ends of the border and rise to a crescendo of hotter ones at the centre. You see re-workings of this scheme everywhere you go.
Miss Jekyll also developed the concept of garden rooms and the one-colour garden, but it was Vita Sackville-West who made them famous when she created her garden at Sissinghurst in Kent.
That was in the Thirties. So, when you come to look at it, the mainstays of contemporary garden design are 60 if not 100 years old.
I think it is extraordinary that no one has come up with any new ideas. For a nation that prides itself on its gardening enthusiasm it is poor that we have done so little to further the form. We should be doing more than just harking back to precedents. As with the West End theatre, there is too much emphasis on reviving the successes of another age and not enough on being new and original. No one has come up with a better, more innovative idea than the White Garden. Where are the Vita Sackville-Wests of today?
Of course, there are some attempts at modernity. These usually involve the placing of suitably abstract bits of sculpture round the place. Nothing revolutionary is done to the planting: it is just hoped that an aura of modernity will rub off on to the greenery by its proximity to the art.
And then there is the problem of scale: large pieces of sculpture risk turning the garden into a modernist theme park while little ones play havoc with your shins.
Some people are so desperate to vary the prevailing monotony of English garden design that they even introduce foreign elements into the landscape.
Laudable efforts, but to me they just look wrong. It's no good trying to appropriate other people's style as a substitute for your own. No amount of combed sand is going to make me think I am in Tokyo.
Can we blame the gardening books, which slide on to shop shelves at an alarming rate? To some extent, yes. Surely it's not unreasonable to expect experts to come up with some new ideas, but they, too, seem intent on reiterating old styles and repeating tried and tested groups of plants.
Flicking through a recent handful of how-to-design-your-own-garden books, I found none had an original approach to the subject. And if we all follow their advice, no wonder we all end up with similar gardens.
What irks me about the tone of many garden books is the tacit implication that there is a right way and a wrong way to arrange your garden. If we all abide by the same rules, dogmatically laid down, we will have lost one of the basic impulses in gardening - the expression of the individual.
The other day I heard about a woman who lives in the Home Counties and follows so slavishly the advice of a particular gardening writer that whenever he pours scorn on a plant that she has in her garden, she rushes out and pulls it up.
This worrying need to be doing the right thing injects an unacceptable sneer into gardening. People talk about being gardening 'snobs', and thus disapprove of pom-pom dahlias. It isn't enough just not to like them: they have to be seen as somehow inferior.
I've even heard a group of alpines described as being 'highbrow'. What nonsense. Plants are just plants. Why inflict on them our own insecurities and need for social stratification?
This tendency, too, stultifies originality and growth and makes people cling to what is safe and approved of.
So what is the answer? When the received wisdom about how a garden should be is derivative, the thing to do is to look to yourself. At least then you will get something personal and original.
What I would like to see is a lot more individuality in gardens. Please let things not be so tasteful and predictable. Some risk would be appealing, even some whimsicality. What has become of English eccentricity?
One of the beauties of gardens is that they are time capsules. Like us, they can contain memories and associations. And the grandeur of plants is that they embody so much more than just their shape and colour. They are history and mythology, superstition and legend. They have strange Latin names and quaint English ones. They can have artistic or literary associations as well as highly personal ones. Palimpsests of meaning lie behind the simplest groups of plants. Bear this in mind when you look to stamp your own particular character on your garden.
If I had my ideal garden I would have clumps of blue agapanthus to remind me of a holiday in Antibes, and pots of parrot tulips to recall a bric-a-brac shop on the Ile St Louis in Paris. I would plant a lime tree in honour of Coleridge, and lilac, which was Jane Austen's favourite shrub. And scrambling stylishly together I would have honeysuckle and a rose, to recall the Fats Waller tune and remind me that I really must perfect my slow foxtrot.
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