Saturday, December 31, 2011

That was the year that was: 2011

As regular readers know, one of my freelance hats is as one half of the news team for the RHS journal The Garden. That means I spend an awful lot of my time trying to find out what's going on.

And this year it's been pretty busy one by gardening standards. So in the great tradition of New Year's Eve nostalgia: here's a look back at an eventful 2011.

It was a good year for...

Cleve West: there was no getting away from him. First his ridiculously good garden at Chelsea scooped Best in Show, and as if that wasn't enough the man goes and writes a book that gets shortlisted for awards and all sorts. One can only hope he develops a tiddlywinks fetish next year to give everyone else a look-in.

Giant veg: It all started with pot leeks the size of bollards at the Tatton Flower Show and went on to see records toppling left right and centre, both at the National Vegetable Show – home of the newly-crowned world's biggest swede (37.29kg) – and in back gardens: the world's heaviest spud, at 3.8kg, was grown this year by amateur gardener Peter Glazebrook in Nottinghamshire.

Disease: phytophthora (both lateralis, currently working its way through the nation's Lawson's cypress trees, and ramorum, now responsible for wiping out millions of Japanese larch across the West Country), citrus longhorn beetle, oak processionary moth: the list of imported invaders is lengthening almost as fast as their relentless march across the UK. Luckily Kew has built a whopping state-of-the-art quarantine centre to try and stop them getting in in the first place; and the RHS is also building a new scientific research centre at Wisley to try and figure out how to tackle them once they've arrived. The fight-back starts here.

Clumsy gardeners, who can now rest easy in the sure knowledge that they will never do anything worse than the American gardener who managed to drive a pair of secateurs through his eye socket and into his skull, and still survived to tell the tale.

It was a bad year for...

Weather forecasters, who must have given up on comparing anything to 'normal' conditions now as it's so long since we've had anything that can remotely be described as normal. This year it was a spring that was more like summer, followed by an autumn-like summer and a summer-like autumn, too. Confused? So are your plants.

The Queen who can't find herself a gardener. Possibly something to do with the fact that she lives in SW1A – one of the country's most expensive postcodes – yet is offering a salary that would barely pay the rent.

First-year British botany students, who no longer exist. The 2011 academic year began with not a single undergraduate course offered in the subject of 'botany'; these days it's labelled 'plant science' and more often offered as a specialism within a wider biological sciences degree. It's telling that Kew hasn't taken on a single British botany – or even 'plant science' - graduate in five years.

David Cameron – well, yes, for all sorts of reasons. But also for revealing that he equates gardeners with street cleaners in his estimation of the worth of what we do. Cue every pressure group in the industry bearing down on him in justifiable wrath. Serves him right.

Elks, at least the one who got drunk on fermenting apple windfalls and woke up next morning to find itself dangling from a tree with no idea how it got there. And no doubt the mother of all hangovers.

The Olympic Park appeared out of a vast stretch of wasteland somewhere in the east of London to become perhaps the most talked-about green space ever. Sarah Price did her stuff, as did James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett and Hillier Nurseries, which grew 2,000 of the legions of Olympic trees.

The Chelsea Flower Show got its very own spin-off as the Chelsea Fringe was conceived – can't wait to see what it comes up with on its debut.

Britain's 'finest landscape garden' rose from the ashes in probably the most talked-about restoration of the year: the shiny new Wrest Park comes complete with French parterre, rose garden and an Italian Garden. And it ain't over yet: the American Garden is unveiled in 2013.

And a new, if slightly dubious sport was born as gardeners male and female competed to grow the most unbecoming moustache, raising over £20,000 for Movember in the process. Slugs were involved. That's all you need to know.


Monty Don picked up his love affair with Gardeners' World again and stepped back into his battered Head Gardener boots; Alan Titchmarsh was back on our screens too with ITV's tentative foray into gardening programming, Love Your Garden; and the BBC's gardening team upped sticks and left for Bristol. 2012 will be the first time, I think in its history, that the BBC's green-fingered output hasn't come from Birmingham.

...and despatches:
Carol Klein's nursery in Devon closed its doors amid an unseemly row about trees and compost heaps.

The Blue Peter garden – and its capsule, not to be opened till 2029 – was grassed over after more than 30 years, ahead of a move to Salford that was meant to happen in time for the next series but has now been put on ice. We'll find out soon, I'd guess, whether the much-denied rumours that it's to be ditched altogether are true.

The recession killed off Stapeley Water Gardens in Cheshire, closing for good today, and put a huge question mark over the future of Trevarno in Cornwall which can't find a buyer. Staff find out in the next few weeks whether they've still got a job.

And Ventnor Botanic Garden is also awaiting its fate as the Isle of Wight County Council, bent on getting rid of its unwanted burden, decides which of two bidders will be taking it off their hands. Verdict in February.

And finally...
What's hot:
Forest gardening: and permaculture, and anything that involves growing food in among your other plants.
Foraging: getting food for free from all sorts of unlikely places, even the towpath of Regent's Canal. Though you can just stick to elderflowers and sloes if you want.

And what's not:
Peat: after many years of pontificating about the damage peat extraction was doing to the environment, the government finally committed, in a rather woolly way, to a voluntary deadline, whatever that is: 2020 sees peat-based composts disappear from garden centre shelves. We hope.

Meerkats. 'Nuff said.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Seen in our local woodlands: no idea what type, but they were around 10" across, the size of side plates

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Designing history

Princess Beatrice's garden at Carisbrooke Castle:
Edwardian? Mediaeval? Or 21st century?

I’ve been wondering a bit lately about all these historic gardens we’re restoring.

I spend a hefty proportion of my days writing about garden restoration projects. We seem to be in a restoration frenzy: in the last two or three years alone we’ve seen Wrest Park rise from the ashes, the Elizabethangarden at Kenilworth Castle recreated, the Crystal Grotto atPainshill Park rescued from oblivion and Chiswick Park overhauled to within an inch of its life.

And that’s not even counting Hidcote, the Liverpool Garden Festival site, the Seafront Gardensat Felixstowe and Myddleton House, EA Bowles’s pad in Enfield, Middlesex.

I can’t prove it, but I'd be willing to bet we've restored more historic gardens in the last four or five years than at any point in the last 50.

A good time, then, to take a step back and really think about what we’re doing here.

Note the many different words we use for the restoration of a garden: recreation, revitalisation, reconstruction.... When we take a neglected garden and return it to something people will pay to come and see (and after all, that’s – at least partly – what it’s all about) – what, exactly, are we doing?

Ancient and modern: grass plats and mulberry trees

In a rather timely sort of way, the Professional Gardeners’ Guild held its annual seminar on Historic Buildings Parks and Gardens earlier this month, during which they considered this a lot more coherently than I can. They looked at the choices you make when you decide to restore a garden: do you restore them to a historic plan, perhaps the original design you’ve discovered at the back of some dusty cupboard in the Big House?

Or do you come up with a new design – perhaps echoing the style of the original garden, or evoking a historical reference but with a modern twist?

As it happens, I’ve been to visit one of each this year.

Hestercombe near Taunton in Somerset is a faithful restoration of what was there originally: and who can blame them. They had one of the most historically important landscapes in the country on their hands, including an iconic Jekyll-Lutyens design. They had lots of maps, documents, drawings, plans: so what you see now is pretty much an exact replica of what was there when each of the various parts of the garden was in its heyday. Double rills, terraces, pergolas and bedding in fancy formal layouts. Very beautiful; very late Victorian; very faithful.

Hestercombe: a truly faithful restoration

There is always, however, something of the museum about these gardens. I love Hestercombe, don’t get me wrong: and there’s something wonderful about being able to taste living history like this, to experience life as it must have been in the 19th century (with added tea-shops).

But it is Victorian life preserved in aspic, and gardens are living, breathing things that above all change: perhaps the essence of the paradox that lies at the heart of garden restoration.

At the other extreme: when English Heritage decided they wanted to return what was essentially a small field within the walls of Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight back to its Edwardian incarnation as the privy garden used by Princess Beatrice, daughter of Queen Victoria, they decided against a restoration, in the classical sense. Instead, they brought in Chris Beardshaw to design what you might call an evocation of the original.

Berkheya purpurea - it just looks historic

It does use the layout you would have seen in the original early-20th century garden, but the planting is noticeably modern. It does ‘reflect the feel and spirit of the period’, as the blurb says: there's something about Berkheya purpurea that always looks like it's been around a long time.

But superb colour combinations such as Agastache 'Black Adder', Sedum telephium 'Purple Emperor' and Geranium wlassovianum had the exciting, vibrant feel of 21st-century planting. There were subtle references – a blue, red and gold colour scheme reflecting Princess Beatrice’s crest, for example – but it felt like a modern garden.

And that was odd, because it wasn’t. Actually I think this was further complicated by the fact that Princess Beatrice clearly had a penchant for the mediaeval: I suppose it was all those castle walls looming over her. So there are grass plats, and flowery meads, and spreading mulberry trees over seating areas. Very lovely, and a relaxing space to stroll around, but undeniably in the vaguely Mediaev-Eliza-Tudor mould. So not Edwardian at all, then.
Again – I don’t mean to give the impression I disliked the garden: actually, I loved it, especially the enclosed, intimate feeling. The big figs in planters didn’t work for me, leaving one side of the garden feeling rather unresolved, but that wasn’t really Chris’s fault as he was trying to avoid sending roots into the foundations of a 13th-century building they discovered while creating the garden. By such compromises are history-riddled projects beset.

Sublime planting... though perhaps not what Princess Beatrice
would have seen. But does that matter?

But I felt that as a garden, it wasn’t really sure what it was. A celebration of Edwardian style and elegance? A modern take on the mediaeval tradition? Or a homage to a lady who lived in the early 20th century but rather preferred the 12th? Perhaps all those things.

It’s clearly possible to capture the spirit, or the essence of a garden: Chris himself is a past master at it, and has successfully converted bare plots at Chelsea into slices of Boveridge House in Dorset, Hidcote, and next year Furzey Gardens in Hampshire.

But when you take that to the actual place – the location of the original garden – you end up with something akin to pastiche, or at best a mildly uncomfortable dissonance.

The PGG seminar concluded that design, and designers, have an important part to play in garden restoration. But Lord Cavendish - who has I think a better solution by commissioning Kim Wilkie, of Orpheus fame, to build him an unashamedly 21st century earthworks in the late 18th century grounds of Holker Hall (opening next spring) – made the point that gardens these days are used differently now to how they were in the past.

And, he added, perhaps saying the unsayable, ‘Some gardens will be lost. But gardens are and should be ephemeral.’

Which puts a whole new slant on the question: should we be restoring gardens at all?
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