It may be strange to start with someone else’s photo, but this picture really piqued my interest. It’s taken from a recent post from the excellent US gardener/blogger James Golden’s View from Federal Twist website. Look closely. As they’re passing by the gates, these people are aiming their cameras to catch every detail and nuance of their unfolding experience. They must be entering hallowed turf.
They’re visiting Hummelo, the private garden of new perennial guru Piet Oudolf. When I saw James’s blog post, I felt pangs of excitement and considerable envy – Trish and I had had every intention of making the same journey earlier this year – but all the work in the garden here at The Old Vicarage made that impossible.
I was also taken with this other picture from James’s post, with, as James notes, the juxtaposition of the airy grasses and the stiffly formal hedging. This may be a rather longer post than normal but, bear with me, I’ll come back to that – eventually.
My post is, ostensibly, about how our garden visiting has, through time, shaped our thoughts and ideas, and inspired us to create our gardens, both in North Cornwall (below) and here in Somerset.
But it may also be about something else.
If I think back over the years of our own particular growing interest in gardening, perhaps the most seismic shift in UK garden style (and I speak here as the partner of a serious garden historian, so I realise the consternation this assessment may arouse) was the ‘new perennial’ movement of relaxed drift planting. Instrumental behind this shift was the increasingly abundant supply of a far wider range of plants from small growers and enthusiast nurseries, on both sides of the Channel, through the 80s and 90s.
To get the real perspective on the history of this development in northern Europe I’d commend Noel Kingsbury’s brilliant book Hummelo. (No pecuniary interest – sadly.) It sits there in our over-large library of garden books, and of all the more modern titles Trish has collected, it’s the one that has given me the greatest pleasure to read. I think it’s because I’m reading something that charts the period of my own growing aesthetic interest in both the design, and emotion, of gardens.
It’s a history that reminds me of the many years that I have trailed behind Trish as she seeks out those little out-of-the-way nurseries – the growers and suppliers who can satisfy her desire and curiosity to have and grow the plants that have been such a mainstay of her gardens. Time and again I’ve come to love these plants and marvel at her ability to track them down, nurture them, and and thereby enrich our lives.
Mind you, I also wish we had the room on our library shelves to put all our large collection of another rather seminal publication from the time – Gardens Illustrated. Through the 90s and beyond, this magazine gave so much stimulus and pleasure. Currently the collection sits high up in a cupboard in one of the copious ‘not yet done’ bedrooms upstairs in The Old Vicarage.
I remember the excitement when each new edition of Gardens Illustrated came out – arguably the best and most eclectic glossy gardening magazine ever. It felt very very fresh, bringing a wonderful collection of inspiring domestic and continental articles, with mostly stunning photography as well – all with a serious feeling of discovery and expertise. It’s a publication that gets its rightful credit in Noel Kingsbury’s book, along with its founding editor Rosie Atkins, for its role in those years for supporting and enabling the growth of the new perennial movement.
Looking for inspiration from new styles in gardening and garden design is a very absorbing occupation. But inspiration from even the best magazines is only part of the stimulus – there’s nothing to compare with getting out there and making the thrill of discovery for yourself.
Throughout the late 80s and 90s, and into the new millennium, Trish and I frequently travelled through France (initially to and from our dilapidated barn that we once owned in the deep South West) and often tried to seek out inspirational new gardens.
We felt a little like new frontiersmen, but in those earlier years interesting new ideas in French gardening seemed few and far between, and what few there were were not well publicised. (Not like now, where their ‘Jardins Remarquables’ system encourages small garden visiting.)
There was of course the occasional wacky ‘conceptual’ affair, but most visitable gardens were in fact the grounds of old châteaux, in various states of repair, often with some charm, but little freshness of thinking.
This one we visited back in 2002, at Miromesnil, not far from Dieppe, showed promise however. Its grounds were beautiful and natural, the patterned grass mowing showed creative inspiration, and its walled kitchen garden was encouragingly active.
In this same year, 2002, we also took the chance to improve our knowledge and appreciation of the gallic fundamentals, from the impressive elegant formality of Villandry to the colourful extravagance of Monet’s garden.
But on this trip we did see something that felt really fresh and inspiring. We sensed times were changing.
The Prieuré d’Orsan is an old priory that’s been transformed into an intricate garden of rooms with elegant yew and hornbeam hedging and chestnut woven hurdling. There are many fruit trees, and vegetables, but few flowers – but it is a fun garden with surprise constructions in abundance, like these peepholes Trish is discovering. You can see more of this wonderful place in a previous post.
And also in the Autumn of 2002 we discovered the ‘Journées des Plantes’ at Courson. (This had started in 1983 with just 12 nurseries involved.) By the time we visited, this atmospheric garden festival, loosely laid out in a magical château setting, attracted growers and enthusiasts from all over Europe to exhibit their ever-increasing range of new plants.
To us it was a revelation. Courson opened our eyes to the new directions European growers were taking, with a wide and inspiring range of plants and grasses. Many new-to-us things, like exotically cloud-pruned shrubs and trees, yet to become fashionable in the UK, were being displayed on the more upmarket stands.
Like this well loaded-up couple above, we soon learnt that subsequent trips to Courson would result in a string of intriguing new purchases needing to be shipped back. The back of our estate car often resembled a travelling nursery. Bringing plants across the Channel in this way had only been allowed since 1995 – when the Schengen Agreement opened up ‘European’ borders.
We were back in France, still searching, in 2004, and we travelled to one municipal garden, near Nantes, without great hope, and what we found was a stunning surprise.
Admittedly the weather was fabulous, but this Japanese inspired garden, the Parc Orientale de Maulévrier, would be impressive at any time. We felt that our often fruitless explorations had this time struck gold.
All was tranquil perfection. The garden buildings were as perfect as the landscaping and planting.
The mature ‘cloud pruning’ in the gardens had clearly been here for quite some time.
Over the subsequent years, France and the rest Northern Europe of course became very much a growing source for garden inspiration.
And as these years passed, we even conquered our fears of the ‘organised’ coach tour, and tentatively dipped our toes into the excellent trips organised through a very good little company, French Gardens Today (now Susan Worner Tours). In fact discovering gardens with privileged private access to their owners and creators, in the company of like-minded souls, proved to be brilliantly absorbing.
So it was that in 2011 we found ourselves driving back to the gardens of that château at Miromesnil, which was now being used as a base for a French Gardens Today garden tour. Our bedroom was at the top of the château, from where, once more, we could appreciate the patterned mowing.
By this time the younger generation was in charge at the château, and telling our party all about their plans and methods. Clearly the revitalisation of the gardens was well underway, and whole new range of colourful new plants were being grown.
The walled garden was now a stunningly productive and beautiful place.
Also on this tour we visited Le Jardin Plume, which had just won the coveted European Garden of the Year award. It really felt like France had come alive with gardening inspiration.
The house is partly enclosed by formal box hedging which itself encloses colour themed planting – predominantly red, orange and yellow when we viewed it. The hedging is kept at a low height so that it gives extensive views across the small square pond towards the flat open field beyond. That section itself has regular lines of fruit trees set in a grid system of unmown grass areas.
The grid system is flanked by striking, large stands of grasses, billowing out over the mown walkways.
There are of course other areas too, all displaying exuberant, expressive, but controlled design ideas. We were impressed by Le Jardin Plume, and of course Trish gave the plant sales area her usual scrutiny. She keeps a spreadsheet of all plants planted throughout the years (really!), so from this I can tell you she bought a Stipa barbata and an Althaea cannabina – the number limited by the space constraints of our chosen mode of transport – a 1959 sportscar. Both plants picked because at the time they were hard to find in the UK.
In retrospect, our whole experience of garden visiting in Europe engendered a very inclusive feeling – the civilising influence of common interests shared across boundaries. And the next year, 2012, we had an opportunity to reciprocate. Opening for the NGS puts you on the garden map, and we were contacted by a young woman organising garden tours to the UK.
So it was that we welcomed a group of German and Scandinavian visitors into our NGS garden, then in North Cornwall. Despite it being early in the season, the April visit was as enjoyable for us as it clearly was for them. As ever there were lots of questions for Trish, and many ideas shared.
We were back in France with French Gardens Today the next year too.
We had come to like the informality of the ‘tours’. You make your own travel arrangements to get there, which suited us fine as we could once again motor across the channel with ease, no passport restrictions and delays, and have a combined motoring and plant adventure – another voyage of discovery.
The gardens on this trip in 2012 were excellent, clustered around Britanny’s Armorique coast .
I love this photo of Trish.Two like-minded souls, enjoying each other’s company, in a perfect garden setting.
The garden in question has to be one of the most intriguing we visited on all our French excursions. It belonged to a French film director, and we felt privileged to be able to see it. We did meet many of the garden creators, but sadly in this instance the owners were away in Paris. As I remember it, the garden staff live in or nearby, and keep the intricate topiary at a state of perfection.
Rarely do private gardens have so many well executed and strongly controlled ideas. I was deeply envious of this garden. Sadly, for various reasons, Trish and I have moved house a number of times. We seem to create gardens and too often move on, and getting to this level of maturity and detail is normally only achieved over time, and with immense creative dedication.
Just look at this. A shot from the same garden.
The materials used, the granite cobbles and the grey pea gravel feel just right for the site, as do the substantial granite steps between levels, leading the eye off into the left distance. The whole is unified by the greenest, finest, grass out of which the delicate topiary (Muehlenbeckia complexa) winds its way up the trees – like a troupe of sea lions. Pure horticultural theatre. Gardens should sometimes be capable of taking your breath away. This one did.
And that’s why I felt envious of the garden visitors arriving at Piet Oudolf’s garden. They must have felt such anticipation and intrigue, about to meet someone who has been a huge inspiration in transforming garden style and form over the many years he’s developed his craft.
Here at The Old Vicarage in Somerset we’ve certainly been influenced by his themes and methods, but we’ve added our own twists – not least because Trish couldn’t be without roses and bulbs … And we’ve had to integrate these styles into a mature Victorian backdrop of high hedges and shoulder-to-shoulder shrubs. But as James Golden noted in his post, that juxtaposition can often be a good thing.
This is what we created in just the first year of the new garden section.
Here’s hoping next year is as enjoyable as this has been – and let’s hope the garden visiting thing, both welcoming many more NGS visitors and garden groups here in Somerset – and being visitors ourselves elsewhere – especially in northern Europe, features large in our experiences in 2017.
And let’s hope these years of change don’t damage the chances of the easy cross-border fertilisation of experiences and ideas.
You know what I’m saying.