Monday, 16 November 2009


Nice things: Still nearly a week to go before Stir Up Sunday whose Collect begins: 'Stir up we beseech thee, oh Lord, the wills . . .' Nevertheless, the Photographer General got to work early and spent the past weekend making and baking the family Christmas Cakes.

On Saturday, huge bowls of benodorous - no such word, I've just made it up - dried fruit sat soaking up alcohol and on Sunday afternoon, amid a great deal of grunting, whisking, stirring and creative macrame work with baking paper, the PG managed to manoeuvre what looked like half a ton of dark, stiff, fruit-rich, spicy mix into two substantial baking tins. And that followed, I might add, the production of a delicious lunch of roast chicken including all the 'fixings' and bread and butter pud with custard to follow. What is Sunday for, if not celebratory feasting?

From mid-afternoon, the house gradually filled with the delicious aroma of baking Christmas cake. I'm sure that smell is the best part of the whole cake fandango. It even drifted upstairs and when we went to bed, I dreamed of bakeries and confectionaries where fantastical cakes, big enough to dive into, were iced with glorious designs in royal icing that melted delectably on the tongue. This was about as sensual as a dream can get, but not a hint of eroticism anywhere - a sure sign, that advanced old age and general decreptitude is creeping in.

Landscape in microcosm A lichen-coated rock face with tiny succulents growing in the crevices.

Now for the rant.
I happened to be speaking to Mr Hat, the other day, having been absent from Bloglandia for a while, and was prompted to get up to date with his latest post about trying to find contentious issues and looking, albeit quite gently, at ThinkingGardens. He seems to have caused a mild kerfuffle.

After reading his post and having been, in the past, exhorted by various bods, both illustrious and humble - and in a few cases both - I finally got round to visiting the site. You probably know far more about it than I, so I won't bore you with details but one message comes through strongly. Fun is not in the repertoire. It's all a bit disdainful, at first glance, but perhaps if I'd bothered to read more carefully, and gone further into the website, I would have got a little better tuned in.

The pieces that I skimmed included an excellent description of Cesar Manrique's work and Fondacion in Lanzarote, which I know well and like immensely. Manrique loved a bit of fun and rudery, and therefore gets my vote, despite some distinctly dodgy giant mobiles on roundabouts.

Another, by Tim Richardson, suggests - and I paraphrase - that professional garden designers must be miffed that the most iconic gardens were made by non-professional designers. He cites, among others Derek Jarman and Julia Trevelyan Oman who, I thought, were both trained artists famous for set designs.

It made me wonder what you actually have to do to be a 'professional garden designer.' What is the dividing line between rank amateur and qualified professional? Could an architect be a professional garden designer? A structural engineer? One thing seems clear, from this website: real gardeners need not apply.

But that's not the rant.

This is.
What REALLY gets my goat. REALLY PUSHES UP MY BLOOD PRESSURE AND MAKES ME WANT TO SMASH THINGS, is this ridiculous notion that there's some kind of an idiotic conflict between garden design and horticulture or gardening.

I don't know who originally tried to trump up such an ludicrous notion but I remember there were some, frankly, rather silly debates staged by the RHS on this. I ought to remember them because I was one of the speakers at the first one and got quite a bit of flak, afterwards, for being rude about designers, which I wasn't.

May I make a statement here?


Got that? Good! Some gardeners are atrocious designers. I'm afraid my designs are, by and large, puerile and riddled with defects. And some designers are absolutely crap gardeners. But that doesn't make a conflict; it merely causes deficiencies on both sides.

Gardens are, of course, art forms. All of them. It simply depends on how you perceive them and to suggest that a semi-detached house in Swansea, with lawn, gnome-ridden pond and bedded tagetes isn't art, is just plain snobbery. It may lack challenging shape, philosophical content or cunning conceits. The colour scheme may make a bad thing worse, but it is still the garden owner's expression and as such, IT IS ART. Good or bad, it is art. So are a good many allotments; so could be the plantsman's array of primula cultivars or snowdrops. So is the ludicrously topiarised hedge, near where I live, which has been fashioned into a steam train. Good or bad, they are art. Like graffiti, the coca cola sign, Degas' ballet girls or Rembrandt's self portraits, they are all art.

And another thing. You can create an artistic installation, indoors or out, but it may or may not be a garden. This is just semantics, but to me, if it grows things, it's a garden; if it doesn't, it isn't.

Gardeners make a huge contribution to design. They ensure that the design's soft bits - the plants - survive and thrive to make sure the artistic expression is as intended. You can't do that unless you know how to garden. Gardeners who design, know what can and can't be done.

Designers who can't garden are as inadequate as painters who don't understand how to mix pigments or sculptors who can't carve. They may construct wonderful outdoor installations but, however artistically valid, those won't be gardens.


I'm listening to one of Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartets.

This week's film was Ordinary People. Agonising to watch a family disintegrate, but a brilliantly crafted tragedy, easily - but unjustly - written off by some as trivial or melodramatic. Donald Sutherland at his absolute finest; Mary Tyler-Moore gut-wrenchingly tortured and Timothy Hutton's teenager with a guilt complex was an immaculate performance.

This time two weeks ago I was visiting Double H nurseries and will tell you about it soon.

As Bill Giles used to say, with a wink - ' That's it from me. Bye bye for now.


  1. Now don't you feel better that's off your chest?!

    I couldn't agree with you more! Why stereotype designers and gardeners? And how do you define either?

    On the whole people don't always agree and it is likely that some gardeners have had conflict with designers. But that doesn't mean ALL designers have issues with ALL gardeners. It's just an unnecessary statement and common misconception.

    With regards to art. It is a loose term. Always has been. Always will be. That won't change.

    Your rant has said everything I wanted to say. Thank you!

    On the subject of Christmas cake, I have been eating it since it has been available in the shops. Tea and cake in front of an open fire has to be heaven! Or at least it is in my book!

    Keep up the good work. Always a joy to read your blog.


  2. I think I am a good gardener but a rubbish designer.

    Designers need gardeners to grow the plants they need but can the same case be made that gardeners need designers? Whilst we would all like a beautifully designed garden I think I would hate it quite quickly as I wouldnt be able to tinker in it as I would spoil the whole over all effect. But then you have gardeners and those that like to potter do a bit of deadheading and maybe cut the grass, they do need designers!

  3. I have said it before but still think it works:
    You can be a gardener without being a garden designer
    You cannot possibly be any good as a garden designer without being a gardener.
    I am now temporarily retiring from this subject and leaving it in your capable hands.

  4. I second what The Hat said. And, largely, what you said.

    I think there is a kink in the think of some people that makes them driven to compartmentalise - so you can *either* be a gardener *or* you can be a designer. In my experience the reality is a great deal woollier than that.

    Most of us do a little bit of each with varying results, just because we love plants and we love horticulture and we love design. Nothing wrong with that if you ask me: if you love something you generally want to get better at it which means at some stage, unless you're a real klutz, you achieve a level of competence.

    Those who are brilliant at both (the likes of Tom Stuart Smith or Piet Oudolf) are the ones who achieve remarkable results. But I don't think you would (I hope you wouldn't) find either Tom or Piet being sniffy in a ThinkinGardens sort of way about either gardeners or other designers. Both, it seems to me, are also consummate gentlemen and Know How To Behave. Which means being nice and considerate to your fellow man or woman and accepting that everyone has something going for them, and there are always people who are better than you are at something.

    Which is a quality rather lacking in a lot of the people currently writing for ThinkinGardens who seem hell-bent on dissing as many people, attitudes and achievements as possible, presumably in an attempt to make themselves sound more knowledgeable/discerning/exclusive/intellectual.

    There are some more intelligent articles on there, really there are: it's just that you have to quell the rage and disgust engendered by too many of the other kind to find them. Actually the only thing I would praise ThinkinGardens for is its ability to get people talking - that is indisputably its main positive result.

    Anyway, that's me off my soapbox now. Entirely agree with you about Christmas cake too, though I baked mine about four weeks ago (smug, smug) and it has been steeping in brandy ever since. Stir-up Sunday, I thought, was for the Christmas pud: last year I tackled Delia's recipe for the first time instead of just buying one from M&S and discovered a whole new level of Christmas pudding rapture. Our house is now 100% home-made on Christmas Day and all the better for it.

    Which reminds me, must go and top up that Christmas cake...

  5. I couldnt agree more with your views on art 'versus' gardens. It seems such a shame to me that this debate has ended up seeming to be about the artistic versus those that scrabble around in the mud growing plants. I have said it elsewhere but gardening is a creative, artistic activity, no matter what the results, and we should be celebrating the fact that so many people are partaking.
    It all kind of reminds me of a talk our local park committe were treated to by an anti-graffiti campaigner in which she said 'We're not talking about future Banksys here. These are just mindless scribblers.' In other words: it's ok if you can put it in an art gallery and charge lots of money for it.

  6. Well done Nigel. Yes it's about time all this Gardeners vs Garden Designers nonsense was put to bed. A rift between plantsfolk and designers serves no purpose as it is mutually beneficial to respect each others' strengths and work together...that's where the fun is.

    Oops, I said the F word...wash my mouth out with saponaria.

  7. Sadly some (well, I think of one. It's too early in the morning to rack my brain to think of any more)gardener designers have managed to have a very high profile, glittering career, despite being absolutely terrible gardeners with a pitiful knowledge of plants.

  8. In my past, stir-up-Sunday was for making Christmas puddings for the following year. (Yes, following year!)

    And making Christmas cakes is even more satisfying . . . hours of work . . . followed by weeks of attention . . . followed by the art of the icing. When I was a child, one of my jobs was to take the skins off the almonds.

    About art and gardening . . . while broadly in agreement . . . I'd like to put in a gentle plea on behalf of people who simply like to grow things. No art, no design, minimal gardening skills - just the basic pleasure of seeing something emerge and flourish.


  9. Nigel,

    Thank you, thank you for writing this - I am a pure amateur at gardening and struggle to make my garden look pleasing from the angles that matter, but I do it only for myself. From what I can glean, this debate being constructed by folks who seek to create a rarified atmosphere around garden design is backed by a genuine sentiment. It seems they yearn to see, create and encourage the development of ever greater garden designs. Just such a pity that the negativity can't be expunged from the rhetoric, and that their critiques among themselves end up feeling like clumsy swipes at gardeners who aren't in and don't care to join the debate.