Sunday, July 19, 2009


There is no getting away from the fact that it is difficult to photograph many wild-style plantings – like my garden. I sneak around with the camera and I always seem to end up with the yurt in the shot. It adds scale and a focal point. Without it, so much seems to be, well, green porridge. There is very little formal structure in the garden, and although there is a variety of foliage shape, texture etc. there clearly isn’t really enough to make obvious focal points, which photographs seem to need. And there aren’t great blobs of colour, as in many more conventional gardens.

The fact is that wilder gardens are very experiential – they need to be seen in three dimensions to be appreciated; the experience of actually being there is even more impossible to convey with a photograph than with a conventional garden. Which is frustrating as we have come to rely so heavily on photographs to convey our experience of gardens. Maybe video?

So many strongly structural plants look so gardenesque, or suburban, or exotic, by definition if you are trying to create a garden that fits into the Herefordshire (Wales/England borders) then so much of this stuff isn’t going to fit in. The ethos here is to create a garden which whilst very global in its plant origins belongs in a very unspoilt rural landscape. Things like Sanguisorba species or Telekia speciosa are consequently very useful for their ability to provide foliage structure/texture but not stand out like a sore thumb - or a Phormium in a hedgerow.

Monday, July 13, 2009


For those you (American readers perhaps) who don’t know who Delia Smith is – she is our equivalent of Martha Stewart, except that she only does cookery, hasn’t done time, and is, let’s fact it, a bit of a frump. So it was a bit of a double-edge sword when I heard that Alan Titchmarsh said that “having Noel Kingsbury visit your garden is a bit like having Delia Smith to supper” on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show TV coverage. The person who was being threatened with a visitation was Joe Swift.

In the end I never did get to see Joe’s garden, but have had to write it up for a book I’m doing on designers’ own gardens blind. He’s very busy, I only come to London once a month etc etc. Plus there was the article I found online, in either the Mail or the Express website about his garden. Neither of these is my favourite publication, so I didn’t take it too seriously, to be fair the photograph was only of the front ‘garden’, and featured some bare concrete, empty beer bottles, a bag of rubbish and an upside own milk crate – and a couple of local types saying things like “that Joe Swift outa get down here and tidy up his garden (to be read in cockney accent). A total gutter press non-story in other words. You should have seen our ‘front garden’ in Bristol.

Its been an interesting book to do, as a lot of designers have gardens which are real personal spaces. Somewhat surprisingly, Joe Swift did not do his garden for a TV make-over, but Penelope Hobhouse did (well part of her old garden at Bettescombe). Its been interesting too, hearing about design approaches too. Like Joe Swift’s ‘modular gardens’ concept which sounds like a complete negation of what many designers see as design (genius of the place and all that) – but I now can appreciate the rationale so much better. Cleve West has been my latest victim. Again a bit diffident about letting me in, but a wonderfully green oasis in the suburbs type garden, tiny, very intensely designed, contemporary but very planty.

Some designers use their gardens for experimenting with lots of new plants, or trying out new concepts – but none of the living ones do this on anything like the scale of the late Mien Ruys in Holland, whose garden was several acres of design laboratory (but she did inherit her father’s nursery), or the late Roberto Burle Marx, who had what amounted to a private botanical garden. Others are just very personal spaces where they simply do what they want to do, without worrying about clients. None yet features a rectangular lawn with yard wide borders around the edges.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Trusting the National Trust?

At the Hay festival back in May, I was on a panel with Dan Pearson, Tim Richardson, and Simon Jenkins – the leading political commentator on The Guardian, writer on historic churches, castles and houses and now Chairman of the National Trust – and according to my spies, very much a new broom. “So” said Simon, innocently trying to make small talk before the event, “are you writing about many Trust gardens these days?” “No”, said I through gritted teeth, “its almost impossible to find a photographer to work in a Trust garden, your system of licensing has put them all off”.

What had happened a few years ago was that the Trust decided to try to make some money out of all the images of its properties and demanded that all commercial photography had to go through its picture library. Photographers were only allowed in if they had a definite commission or were given agency status. So much garden photography is done ‘on spec’ by a growing army of people, very few of whom could get the coveted agency status. The result of the regulations was the killing of the proverbial goose that laid the golden eggs. Photographers were either not allowed in, or couldn’t make much money when they were. Writers and editors began to see fewer and fewer trust gardens – which must have begun to have a pretty negative impact on media coverage of the Trust – and a loss of income. The trust is heavily dependent on this kind of unquantifiable goodwill and promotion – the kind of thing which the bean counters at head office never thought of when the whole system was instituted.

Now, I have a kind of shop steward tendency, so I gathered a few submissions from photographer colleagues, one of which was headed ‘National Distrust’, attached them to a letter to Simon, cc.ed emails to Head of Gardens, Head of Communications, Head of Publications. Most gratified to have responses in a couple of hours. Long conversation with Head of Publications on the phone – I’m not going to divulge details, but he was effectively saying that the Trust had screwed up big time and needed to renegotiate. What a relief. Felt a bit like I had pushed at an open door and cleared a log jam, to horribly mix metaphors. Lovely warm glow of goodwill all round after lots of bitchiness. So hopefully we can see a new more generous set of arrangements and we can all start writing about the Trust's wonderful gardens again.