Tuesday, 6 October 2009


Ivan Hicks's work at Butterfly World and Future Gardens

It's terribly important, don't you think, that a committed and determined journalist should always be ahead of the game. The knack is to be on the spot almost before the balloon goes up so that when all the other hacks are all breathlessly trying to catch up, you can swan along, miles ahead of the opposition and file your story - which will be a scoop - to a grateful and loving editor who showers you with bonus fees, hugs, kisses and, if you're very, very good, a couple of Mars bars.

With such sharp-elbowed competitiveness in mind, I thought I'd avoid the rush and make my first visit to Future Gardens and Butterfly World, yesterday. Naturally, there wasn't a journalist in sight anywhere in the vast acreage, so my fellow visitor and I had the whole place to ourselves. The site has just closed for the winter, so although I wasn't the first garden writer to visit, it's a reasonably safe bet that I will have been the last. Hurrah!

Metal bull rushes in Nature's Artistry, Autumn's Edge.

There has been comment, in the trade press, about disappointing visitor numbers to Future Gardens and Butterfly World, and about payment problems for some of the designers. That's a shame because the concept is impressive and much has been done towards making the place a big attraction.

By the time I finally got there, this year's Future Gardens were run down and, to an extent, in disarray. But it's good to see designs with their curlers in, with cucumber slices over their eyes and mud packs over their visages. They are to be disbanded, we were told, but no doubt everyone involved learnt a lot from this year's experience.

It was raining, too, meaning that to take pictures, keep the camera dry and not fall flat on my face in the mud required a combination of co-ordination and concentration, neither of which I have.

Butterfly World.
A glasswing or clearwing butterfly - I think
it's Greta oto in the family Ithomiinae, from South and Central America.

Some of the features that remained were still lovely. The whippy steel bull rushes by, I think, Fiona Heron waved in the breeze realistically and their starkness, along with the white ground, put me straight into a cold, sleety afternoon in my local Fenland landscape. Andy Sturgeon's monolithic thingies made me wonder where the apes were and I felt positively uplifted in Bruno Marmiroli's H Garden. White wooden trees are a delight against the orange walls.

But these gardens hammered home repeatedly this point: however hard you try not to give them their way, plants are the kings. Always will be. And where the plants don't rule, a garden's design is lessened. Without plants it cannot, no it cannot be a garden. Interesting installation, possibly; an exterior interior, maybe. But garden it isn't. (Rude comments on this heresy welcomed!)

Ivan Hicks has been - is - the Big Design Honcho, in this monster project and I really enjoyed seeing his series of giant drainage pipe moon entrances, looking warm, tempting and terracottary, despite the rain. I love the way weeds have blended with pretties, in the walls and barriers.

The future's orange! The H Garden.

Indeed, I loved massive spread of dead 'wild flowers' all over Butterfly world. Among the brown, the sere and the yellow, startling pink cosmos daisies are still blooming in little clusters. Cornflowers, Phacelia tanacetifolia and other arable weeds are still hanging on, making tiny star-bursts of colour - just enough to prevent it all from looking like the Somme on a bad day.

I hope this project succeeds. The huge geodesic butterfly dome will house masses of the beautiful insects, when completed. Meanwhile, we had to make do with a polytunnel in which the summer's last, lethargic beauties are still listlessly fluttering. The big, blue morphos and startlingly eyed owl butterflies are impressive, but for ephemeral beauty, I was most taken with the glasswing or clearwing butterflies from the Americas.

Sad things: The frogs seem to have got ranavirus. Two dead ones in my minipond this week. Also, the sparrowhawk has eaten another robin.

Happy things: Wendy, reported on here, is now wired and watered. I can warm her, moisten her and gently coax her into propagation mode. But long before the services were connected, I managed to root a dozen or so pelargonium cuttings with neither bottom heat nor irrigation. What a fecund beauty she is turning out to be already, bless her!

I'm listening to Louis Prima singing Just a Gigolo and I ain't got no body.

This day in 1981, I was working as a part time consultant in animal nutrition, visiting clients in Oxfordshire. I spent the night with friends at an extremely posh address in Holland Park.

This week's film was Sunset Boulevard. The 1950 classic with Gloria Swanson and William Holden in crackling form and a wonderful script, and direction, by Billy Wilder. The claustrophobic, decaying mansion was perfect. Miss Havisham redivivus ain't in it!

Picture: Greta oto feeding on Tithonia.


  1. Harrumph - I so nearly went on Sunday, but got lured away to do some scrumping at Lacock Abbey instead.

    I like this type of garden event: we were discussing the other day how well a garden is performing in September/October shows the skill of a gardener. One which can withstand 4 months exhibiting marks out the skills of a designer perhaps?

    I'm interested in your remarks on the planting - did you glean anything on how it was maintained over the 4 months? Was it tended at all, or was everything left to slide into gentle decay?

    WV says Wergia, which sounds like a new species to me - do you think it might be garden worthy?

  2. I didn't even know about clear wing butterflies. How very beautiful.

    But I'm being very thick . . . in part, I suspect, because I hadn't heard of this project before . . . but how can the butterflies survive without plants?

    And what was the thinking behind non-living plants? By what you say, it can't have been because they are cheaper.

    Wish I'd seen a clear wing.

    Closed places can be lovely. Even in the rain.


  3. Sadly I heard the Future Gardens project has been abandoned for next year. I think they should keep the gardens they've got and see how they look after two years of public scrutiny. That's a real test of a show garden!

    And look carefully over your shoulder for lurking Tim Richardsons before you make such comments about gardens without plants. I made exactly the same remarks myself and despite lengthy discussions in which he tried (unsuccessfully) to convert me to his point of view and I tried (unsuccessfully) to convert him to mine I don't think he's ever forgiven me. Though I did get to understand what he was on about a bit better even if I still didn't believe it. I think what it boils down to is that it's a matter of personal preference - as with so many of these things.

    But hey ho. I do wish I could bring myself to battle the M25 and get around to visiting. My last foray into East Anglia is far too fresh in my memory for it to be any time soon, alas. Not that there's anything wrong with East Anglia (she says hastily) - it's just the wretched slog of actually getting there.

  4. Ahem, Constant G, but Futuregardens is most certainly not in East anglia. It's in St Albans! It's about two minutes from the M25! at the junction with the M1! I'm pretty sure that's Hertfordshire by anyone's road atlas... :-)

  5. You sound far too enamoured with Wendy. Isn't it a little crowded with three in your marriage - even if one is, in fact, an inanimate object? If I was the PG, I'd be lobbing some stones in her direction...

  6. Ivan Hicks has to be one of my favourite designers. I love this moon gate. Thanks for the picture.

  7. oh that's so embarrassing. I'm afraid I write off everything past about junction 16 as nightmarish to get to from my neck of the woods.

    I apologise unreservedly to all residents of St Albans and immediate surroundings and will try to overcome my unreasoning prejudice forthwith. And I hereby state that St Albans isn't nearly as far away as Norwich. Or even Essex (which is where I thought it was).


  8. Dawn - the PG says she's grateful for Wendy, because it keeps me out of her hair!

    Everyone else -- Can I just say that I have to go to Wisley on Friday, help out with a seminar there, and then drive home on the accursed M25 and the worst bit of the A1. On a normal, middle day trip, I can get from Woking to my Lincolnshire village in less than 3 hours. Tomorrow, because it's a Friday, it could take 5 hours.

    But we love Lincolnshire. Some facetious soul asked me why on earth I'd moved there. 'For the mountains,' I replied. 'There aren't any mountains there,' he said. 'Precisely,' I quipped.

  9. So right. Garden without flowers just isn't. I remember the hideous installation at Reford Gardens north of Quebec City that was supposed to represent the lovely Mrs. Reford's passion for salmon fishing. Some moron had taken a bunch of sticks (I suspect old Hespelar Gold Flashes - a Canadian hockey stick) taken off the top and bottom - painted one side bright blue and the other orange and then planted them in the ground with the blue side facing out, sort of like old painted hockey sticks without the tomoatoes, and we were instructed to walk along the path, then at the last gasp turn & to our utter amazement we learned the sticks were painted orange on the other side - does it get any better? Could only imagine Mrs. Reford spinning at the entrance gate. (That I would have paid for.) And, not too surprisingly not a butterfly in sight. This was just a temporary installation, but I know how very sad when display gardens like the fab ones in Montreal from a couple of years ago are sucked back into the earth. God bless Wendy, may she provide you with offspring for many years to come.

  10. Nigel - you deserve a medal for tackling that journey regularly. I live about a mile from Wisley, so this is precisely the route I'm talking about - the idea of doing it once a week makes me feel faint.

    I love Lincolnshire too (the bits with and without hills) and Norfolk for that matter, and indeed wanted to move to Suffolk at one stage (though am less enamoured with Essex). I do like East Anglia - I just don't like going there.

    Though Butterfly World, as we've said, is Not In East Anglia.

    By the way you just reminded me of a joke that used to be a favourite of mine when I was a kid:

    A man stood outside his house scattering white powder liberally around his front door and across his lawn.

    "Whatever are you doing?" asked a passer-by.

    "Scattering anti-elephant dust," said the first man.

    "But there aren't any elephants around here!" exclaimed the passer-by.

    "Exactly - it works brilliantly, doesn't it?"

    Har har "bonk"!!! (me laughing my head off :D)

  11. Nigel, was it the last day of opening or did you have to scale the fence to have a look around on your own? I'm a fan of project and think it's a great pity that Future Gardens hasn't worked out. However, I do believe that Lord Ivan of Hicks, a man with the most colosal imagination, will be creating a new garden at the site based on Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

  12. Better late than never I suppose. I'm sure that I bossily told you to go earlier in the year as well as now in order to see the contrast. Will you never listen?!
    There are some jolly good gardens there but I worry that the maintenance will let them down. No matter how good a show garden it needs to be looked after.