When I first took an interest in garden design, it was all about the look. Some combination of colours, textures and forms would jump out at me from a page and I would ooh and aah about how beautiful it was.
And beauty is still extremely important to me. But it’s now only number two on the list. When I started ‘serious’ (or perhaps I should call it ‘serial’) garden visiting, I realised the really significant factor, in the very best gardens, was how they made you feel.
A number of years ago, I viewed a beautiful 1870s stone house in Bungendore, NSW. Having not long stepped off the plane from Heathrow, I was naive to Australian Saturday pastimes and was actually viewing with an interest to buy. As we finished up with the agent, our minds whirling with thoughts, she said ‘if it keeps coming back to you, you’ll know it’s for you’. It was the first time I had heard that phrase, but now I realise it applies to so many situations.
The lumpy act of garden visiting, for one. I say lumpy, because in spring or when you’re travelling (if you have a kind spouse) or during garden festivals, you often see lots of gardens in quick succession; unlike in winter when you may barely see a plant beyond your own garden fence for some weeks. And it’s very true that when you see a lump of half a dozen, there is always one that ‘keeps coming back’. The garden that, as I explored it, quite definitely made my heart sing the loudest.
It’s the one where time stood still for me. It’s the one where I forgot about my to do list. It’s the one where I felt so at peace with the world that I never wanted to leave. The feelings gardens provoke in you, whilst not completely divorced from their beauty, are what really have an impact on you; what really make them stick. We instinctively feel how special they are.
So what do these exceptional, ‘coming back to us’ gardens all have in common? Can we define it? Can we bottle it up and release it into our own gardens?
If I think through which gardens have most lightened my mood and brought me joy, at first they seem quite a disparate collection.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s Cruden Farm, is one that filled me with delight when I visited earlier this year. I could sense Dame Elisabeth in everything I saw, the words of Anne Latreille’s wonderful book of the garden coming to life. The focus was on colourful, exotic flowers, delivering beautiful scenes, but the values of its owner, of hard work, persistence and unpretentiousness, were what really touched my heart.
Then there is Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the UK. I remember walking around for the first time, in a state of disbelieving surrealism. The site, dating back to the Middle Ages, that I had read about so many times; the paths that Vita Sackville West had traversed so frequently; the corridors that Harold Nicolson had designed. It sent a tingle down my spine.
Te Kainga Marire, a native garden in New Plymouth, New Zealand, is a very different garden, developed from scratch over forty years by its owners. It is chockablock with plants–feeling like two or three acres rather than its true half acre–each looking so comfortable in its place that you’d struggle to believe it (or its parents) hadn’t been there forever. I felt like a small child exploring a newly discovered den in the woods.
In contrast to these longer term gardens, is the designer, Cameron Paterson’s, Toorak garden. Having worked with his clients at their previous home, he knew them inside out and upside down and was given a free rein to design something fitting for their new property. What he has created, over the space of just a few years, sits so perfectly in its setting. You see it and you take a deep breath in and at once the busy roads behind you fade away. It’s not fussy, but it’s interesting and you just want to pull up a chair and soak in the peaceful atmosphere.
Great Dixter, in the UK, on the other hand, shouts ‘hello’ to you, as you approach the front door. The vibrant colours are certainly not restful, but they are so cheerful and so joyful that they awaken your inner soul, somehow. The plantings are exuberant and so much fun that you seem to lose all inhibitions and can’t help but want to dance about the place. When I was there in October, I was luckily enough to chat to Fergus Garrett, the Head Gardener (and so much more), and the quiet passion and immense love and skill just radiated from him, leaving me quite literally buzzing.
Two recent gardens I saw just last month, whilst not having world class status, have also remained prominent in my mind. The first, British Columbia Government House gardens, I visited at the end of a warm, brightly lit, summer’s day, almost no-one but my husband and I present. Having just visited the ‘in-your-face-bright’ Butchart gardens, the subtly of planting here was utterly magical. I felt as though I was floating about between this wonderful, ephemeral, exuberant, delicate plant life and as I look back over my photos more and more layers reveal themselves. Each segment of this large, diverse garden nestled perfectly into its space.
The other Canadian garden that remained with me is the Japanese Nitobe garden in Vancouver. Everything moved into slow motion as soon as I entered the garden. No-one shouted, no-one ran, everyone, of all ages and nationalities, was in a state of contemplation, just taking everything in. Quite a static garden, with no dramatic seasonal change, it somehow gave a reassuring air of continuity. It certainly wasn’t the most beautiful garden I had ever seen, but I was staggered how it affected me emotionally.
So what are the themes that run through these gardens?
I think there is something about history and an ongoing story. These are not instant gardens that have popped up. They have developed out of true connections, with the land, with the people, with a cultural philosophy. But I wondered if there could be exceptions to this.
Dan Pearson’s Chelsea garden this year, is missing from the list; it does things to me every time I see a photo and I didn’t even get to experience the garden in the flesh. But this was an instant garden, assembled in a matter of weeks, disassembled less than a week later. So how does that fit in?
The question, I think, is, “was it really instant?”. The inspiration came from the long established, natural landscape on the outskirts of the Chatsworth estate. The wildflowers were seeded many months earlier, grown and transported as intertwined sections of turf. The rocks, however many millions of years old, were ‘borrowed’ from the estate and the depth of true understanding of this landscape by the designer, second to none. There is history, a story and connections in abundance.
I still wonder if different things prompt different feelings in different people. I’m quite fascinated by this subject and would love to hear what is it about a garden that really makes your heart sing. Perhaps it’s the haven of your own garden that makes you feel truly at peace with the world? And if you mention a garden I haven’t yet seen, I’ll no doubt be reaching for my car keys before I’ve finished the sentence!