Friday, October 21, 2016

Big ideas about small gardens

A friend's garden in Bristol - made too late to be actually in the book, maybe next time
 Small gardens - it wasn't the most obvious book for me to write. After all, our current garden is around an acre plus another three of meadow. But I used to joke about all serious garden writers having to write at least one book on small gardens in their career. Some write several, Sir Roy Strong I seem to recall, wrote at least two, back in the 1980s, although his definition of 'small' seemed to be just under an acre. All I can say is that I didn't start out aiming to do this. I remember meeting up with the Dutch photographer Maayke de Ridder, on her lovely houseboat on the outskirts of Amsterdam; she originally suggested to me that perhaps we should do a book together on contemporary Dutch garden design. Seemed like a good idea, except that the publisher we took the idea too, Frances Lincoln of London, took the view that having 'Dutch' in the title would not help sell the book; I did wonder whether the attitude would have been the same if we had gone to them with an idea about French gardens; as it appears anything French is generally regarded as chic and cool and stylish by the book buying public. I think the publisher's attitude might have been that the perception of Dutch + garden = tulips. Such is the power of branding, you could sell a book titled 'Dutch Tulips' or 'French Gardens' but not 'Dutch Gardens' or indeed'French Tulips'.

Joanne Bernstein's London garden - pic by Maayke

"What about doing a book on small gardens?" suggested the publisher's commissioning editor, adding something along the lines of "we haven't done one for five years". Indeed - most of the gardens were small. Maayke has some fantastic connections, enabling her to get access to some of the gardens behind those wonderful canal houses in Amsterdam, many of which are very inventive in the way that they use space. So, it seemed like a good idea. We'd have to include some British gardens as well though, so I set to, looking through the National Garden Scheme 'yellow book', finding innovative looking gardens and contacting owners. Originally, Maayke and I had the idea of doing the book around case studies with a strong focus on the relationship between the owner and the garden. The publisher did not care for that and gradually made us accept that the book would have to be more thematically arranged, with a double page spread case study at the end of each chapter. Of such compromises is publishing done.

An amazing tiny garden in Lewes, Sussex, David Cund & Sally Golding- pic by Maayke

 "Isn't writing yet another book on small gardens a bit of a hack job ?" I can hear some of you say. Well, I like to think that this one is different. The reason is this. If you look at many books on small gardens they include many pictures of show gardens. Photographers are under great pressure from magazine editors to cover the Chelsea Flower Show an other events with show gardens. So they end up with plenty of material which it is very tempting to resell to book publishers. The publishers' art editors love these images: everything is perfect, they are visually dense, with plenty to admire and talk about in each image. But, they are not real gardens. They are almost inevitably stuffed full of 'hard' elements: paving etc., which is very often high end and therefore very expensive. The planting is dense too, "more like flower arranging than gardening" in the words of one colleague. They are simply unrealistic. There is also the temptation to include gardens from well-known designers too, and since they tend to work for very wealthy clients, the gardens end up being so aspirational that they remain just that for most people, aspirational. Along with all the other things that you aspire to after winning the lottery. As an example, someone of my acquaintance recently asked a well- known London based designer to look at a possible garden job for a house in central London. "What's your budget?" he was asked. "£80,000" he said, "you'll need £250,000" came the reply.

Kwekerij van Nature, Frank & Charlotte van der Linde - pic by Maayke
 So, working with Maayke, we made sure that all those gardens featured were 'real gardens'; only a few show garden shots were enclosed, just some very close-to ones to illustrate some specific features. Of course, it being written by me, it is very much focussed on plants - selecting and combining them. Making the most of a small space involves not just choosing plants of a suitable size - and which will stay that size (tree planters please take note) but also fittting them in together (or as we say in English, 'shoehorning') - which is where my ecological approach comes in. I try to show how to learn from how plants fit together in a natural environment. Also of course, many of the readers will be first time gardeners, so inevitably this is something of an entry-level book too. Writing for beginners is a great discipline, a way of trying to cast aside assumptions, and put yourself in other peoples' shoes.

So, long after writing it, and captioning pictures, and getting to that point where you can't remember what picture goes where, it all comes together and it appears in the shops. What impressed me about the design and editing is how many pictures get put together on the page without it seeming crowded.

An Annie Guilfoyle garden in Sussex, the James Stewart garden - pic by Maayke

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Russia - gardening culture survives and now thrives

 Russia. Not a country particularly associated with gardens. Which is perhaps unfair. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and a lot of potential. There is a strong tradition of gardening in dacha (summer house) communities - see my blog post from three years ago.
For the last few years I have been amazed at how many Russian/Ukrainian garden and landscape people have asked to be my Facebook friend (most pass the rigorous selection process ha, ha) and so I became aware of a very widespread and interlinked web-based gardening community. I've taught in both Moscow and Kiev in the last two years, to groups of truly enthusiastic and information-hungry students. It's wonderful and actually very moving working with people who are so keen, and to be treated to really generous hospitality from organisers. It feels that there is a desire to catch up for lost time, for all those years when all you could manage was a few perennials on the side of the potato and cabbage patch, which you needed for sheer survival or at least bartering power on the black market.

On this trip I was in St.Petersburg, doing some teaching with Dryadas, a garden design and maintenance company. Its designers tend to feel that many of their clients are conservative in the expectations of what they want in a garden, and often unrealistic, but that's nothing unusual! However I feel that the interest in more contemporary gardens appears to be so strong amongst the design community that new ideas will inevitably get taken up. Contemporary and naturalistic planting is certainly making an impact in public spaces in Moscow, with the work of Anna Andreyeva. Meanwhile, my friend Annie Guilfoyle has come back from judging the Moscow Flower Show (or rather a Moscow flower show, as there is more than one) where she was very impressed with the quality of what she was looking at.

What fascinated me on this trip was a visit to St.Petersburg Botanical Gardens where my hosts from Dryadas took me on my day off. Unlike those of Kiev and Moscow which have had new funding, this one hasn't and is entirely funded from entrance fees. The greenhouses, some dating back to the early 20th century were in a very bad state of repair but the plants were maintained to an incredibly high standard with what is clearly a huge level of staff commitment, and sometimes better collections on display than at Kew quite honestly. Indeed there is here in St. Petersburg there is one of best collections of tropical ferns in the world. The passion of the staff was somehow almost palpable, I spent a lot of time poking around odd corners and photographing their work stations. The sheer number of species squeezed in is extraordinary. So many plant species packed in, to a level I have never seen anywhere else. Unlike most botanical gardens which feel very institutional this felt completly driven by the staff. According to my Dryadas friends there is no state money and the whole place is self-supporting. Staff earn peanuts. I felt very moved by it all.

Our guide pointed out to us the plants which had survived during “The Great Patriotic War” when the city was under siege from the Nazis (and its population being kept there to suffer and starve by Stalin). They were decorated by a little strip of medal ribbon. My friend Anna Benn has since sent me a picture of the staff who kept the place going during this terrible time. It is also worth pointing out that staff at the crop genetics institute starved rather than eat the potatoes in the collection – some of which have gone on to produce modern blight-resistant cultivars. 

There are nurseries here, with some good ranges of perennials, and Dryadas are in the process of establishing their own. There is a very rich flora further out east, and I only hope that some new introductions of Russian natives get taken into cultivation and find their way westwards.