Gardening: Yew versus Non-Yew

In Britain, garden styles are decided by social class, says James Bartholomew
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The Independent Online
Different garden styles have always interested me far more than the horticulture itself. The style is the first thing to be decided upon when taking on a garden, or so it seems to me - before the cuttings, the rooting powder or the compost heap.

Probably most people do not consciously decide on the style of their gardens. They do not write in their diaries: "Today, I have decided to design my garden in the style of Oehme and Sweden, the modernist American team", or, "Dan Pearson, move aside. Today I have decided to make mine the most jungly garden this side of North Africa." A few really keen gardeners with time on their hands may behave like this, but not the majority.

Most people simply go along with a style that reflects their own cultural and social backgrounds. Italian people plant Italian-style gardens. Japanese people plant stones. And British people plant ... Well, they do not plant British gardens, since there is no such thing as one British style. Britain - as politicians regularly remark - is still divided into different social groups.

Our class system is reflected, perhaps even exaggerated, in the different ways in which we garden. This is still a country of "two nations", each with its own culture and values. Some of us take holidays in the Dordogne, aghast at the thought that others of us are in Torremolinos. One section of society likes discreet hunting pictures. Another prefers that print of a glamorous, dark, oriental woman that was available at Woolworth's for many years. Similarly each of these groups has a different gardening style: the U and Non-U, or, rather, as I call it, the Yew and Non-Yew.

Both of these styles are constantly evolving. I have an old book called Garden Ornament which shows just how dreadful (to modern taste) most upper- class gardens were at the turn of the century. They combined Italian formality with Victorian bedding-out. Although widespread, this style was already on the way out. The way to the future had been shown by William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Reginald Blomfield, towards the turn of the century. The first two argued for the natural look: real plants, allowed to grow in drifts. The later argued for a return to a more formal look, with knot gardens and the like.

The synthesis between their opposing views is the basis of modern upper- class garden style. It is exemplified by contemporary gurus such as Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey and, indeed, Anna Pavord, who normally writes in this space. The style is a mixture of formal layout and informal planting.

Modern upper-class gardens vary, but the classic of the type has a formal layout near the house. This is kept in scale with the size of the house itself - otherwise it might (horror of horrors) be considered pretentious. The formal lines are often marked by hedges - frequently yew for the high ones and box for the low. Within the borders, species plants or old varieties are preferred; they are considered more "natural". Their names are preferred, too. Rosa 'Comte de Chambord' is more welcome than Rosa 'Bobby Charlton' or 'Sexy Rexy', on the basis of its name alone.

In theory, the prejudice against modern hybrids is because they have "lost the unique qualities of the original". In fact, it has more to do with the Yew gardener's taste for the past and a determination not to be associated with "garish"or (worst of all) "suburban" displays.

The upper-class gardener has a certain idea of what he or she wants a garden to do. Gertrude Jekyll defined it as trying to create a picture. This picture is required to be restful, harmonious and in touch with the natural world. Even the furniture must be of natural materials. If, incidentally, this garden happens to reinforce the gardener's self-image as a squire or a lady of the manor, that is considered not unpleasing.

The other half of the gardening world makes completely different demands of a garden. Untroubled by aristocratic longings, the Non-Yew gardener is more practical. He - it is more often a he than among the upper classes - wastes no time in constructing a built-in barbecue to go alongside the substantial patio (made of pre-cast concrete slabs moulded to look like York stone - cheaper and less slippery than the real thing). On the patio, steel loungers coated with white poly-something-or-other provide real comfort (unlike the wood and stone benches on which the upper classes cannot sit at all if it has rained in the past week).

Not being quite so attached to nostalgia, Non-Yew gardeners use the latest, best, most colourful hybrids devised. What is more, they mix the colours together. Upper-class gardeners adored powerful colour in Victorian times, but have now lost the stomach for it. Non-Yew gardeners have picked up where the upper classes left off. Wholly immune to colour nausea, they feel that colour is good, therefore the more of it the better. Look through any edition of the weekly Gardening News for a positive colour-drenching.

I wrote along such lines in creating what I hope is a mildly humorous book about these contrasts in modern gardening styles (including a questionnaire for each reader to find his or her place on the horticultural scale). I had expected objections to the detail. I confess that I had not expected certain eminent members of the gardening establishment to jump up and claim that I was writing about a phenomenon that did not exist at all. "Absolute bunkum," one was reported to have said. Rosemary Verey said that the true differences in style were, instead, those between town and country gardens (an assertion, perhaps, not wholly unconnected with the fact that she has a book out on country gardens). Alan Titchmarsh said it was all a matter of fashion; snobbery was unknown.

I will defend my position. I call as my witnesses pink pampas grass, and multicoloured, oversize, hybrid dahlias and chrysanthemums. I ask them, "Where do you live? Do you come from a smart front garden in Kensington? Are you based at Sissinghurst or Hidcote? Are you anywhere in Rosemary Verey's own garden in Gloucestershire, with its discreet knot garden and avenue of pleached hornbeam?"

I think not. These plants will attest that they reside in suburbs, towns and villages (fashionable and unfashionable) tended by gardeners who are usually far more knowledgeable than their upper-class equivalents. The plants will say they are well looked after, colourful and bold. They have no pretensions, except to looking absolutely fantastic.

When Rosemary Verey grows them I will eat my gumboots.

Yew and Non-Yew by James Bartholomew is published by Century at pounds 9.99.

Anna Pavord is on holiday