Thursday, 23 September 2010


This post is published as an apology and an explanation.

But first, an announcement:

I am not a garden designer.

Thank you.

Now the picture:

My micro pond last autumn.
This was not designed at all, as you can see. It was the result of mad Saturday impulse, motivated by the sight of a lonely frog which seemed to be in search of somewhere to swim. Construction involved feverish digging, by hand, lots of black plastic, spirit levels, sweat and pain. It was begun at about noon and completed by tea time three years ago. I'm staggered that it still holds water and breeds things that hop, wriggle and slither.

(The apples were carefully arranged at the request of the editor of a certain large circulation gardening magazine who wanted pictures of a 'natural looking water feature, warts, apples and all' but who then rejected the images on the grounds that the apples floating in the water might set a bad example. He was right; they do and I'm proud of it.)

Now then. . .
Yesterday, when browsing through my favourite blogs, I discovered my excellent and respected friend's latest post which you'll find here - if you haven't already seen it.

J A-S made some extremely well observed comments on gardens at Chelsea and elsewhere and elicited some interesting responses. His experience with show gardens is immense and his coverage of almost every garden-based event is deeply impressive. He has an eagle eye, a strong and unerring aesthetic sense and phenomenal designing talent. Also, less common than it should be among designers, he knows his plants really well and has an unerring knack for assembling them to their best advantage.

In short, his designs allow the plants he deploys to speak with eloquence. Furthermore, he's willing to accommodate effete objects like the weak-kneed Rudbdeckia 'Herbstsonne' and not break into a sweat if the stems drunkenly subside, when in full autumn flower.

But instead of commenting, politely, about his views, with which I fully concur, I suffered from a hot flush - or in American a 'hot flash' - and reacted rather emotionally to something else.

It happened like this:
He mentioned that he's been included in a list, drawn up by a magazine, of what they call The Twenty Best Designers, or something along those lines. He deserves to be lauded, and if there has to be a categorisation of this kind, I'd expect to see him absolutely up there. In the top five, even. But that's not the point.

This is the point: there's something about the current fashion for ranking things that really gets my goat. Broadcasters are particularly bad at this, holding big surveys of viewers, or getting gangs of intellectual knobs to discuss and come up with the best of this or that.

But how can you do that with something as disparate and multi-faceted as garden design? Indeed, how can you possibly rank the arts - and garden design is certainly one of them - at all?

Obviously, some artists achieve their objectives more successfully than others. Some have more original ideas than others; some are better at expressing themselves than others and so on and so on. But I just don't see how you can rank the people per se.

This does not mean that I'm against awarding prizes, or that I dislike the idea of competition - far from it. But although it's fine and healthy to have prizes, I just don't think it helps to compose lists of people. Prizes and accolades, I suggest, should be for specific works, or for collections of works.

It's pretty pointless, trying to line up Ibsen with, um, Shaw, say, and Chekov, and then try to rank them. And you have to remember that even Shakespeare wrote some turkeys as well as the finest literary gems. Supposing he was judged by King John, rather than Hamlet.

I suppose the thing that worries me most, about this kind of ranking is that it tends to spoon feed people, telling them what to think, instead of making them look and search their inner selves to find out which gardens/symphonies/films/plays/paintings/novels/tasting menus really, really, really get to their souls.

And if you stop being analytical, you are in huge danger of simply following the herd. I'm told that when a production goes to Broadway, its survival in the first weeks may depend entirely on the reviews of one or two key critics. What a shame, to condemn without even waiting for more information - more word of mouth from folk who paid to see the show and approved. In the West End, I gather we're a bit more adventurous. I've gone to plays or operas with stinking reviews and loved them; and also to things with rave notices that have disappointed.

And now I've probably offended absolutely everyone.

James - I love your designs.

That's it, really.


  1. What's even more pernicious about this ranking business (not only in gardening, but in other subjects as well) is that the people doing the ranking are often completely ignorant of anything that happened more than ten years ago. For example, those 100 best comedy film programmes that they run endlessly on Channel 4 always seem to end up with some teen-market turkey at No 1, while a classic like Some Like It Hot is languishing at No 57.

  2. I agree with you about the ranking. You may owe your friend a nice lunch, but still. The rankings are tiresome.

    By the way, I think your motivation for creating the micro-pond was perfect. Good going!

  3. Thank you, Nigel.
    The list should not, like most such things, be taken terribly seriously. It is somebody's opinion and nicer to be included than left out!

    You are top of my list of Masters Of The Rant.

  4. You are just the tops Nigel - forget this lists business.

    Two mini-rants for you.

    First I spent ages responding intelligently to your blog about (amongst other things) sarracenias, only to have my comment disappear into the ether.

    Second, I am in Madrid staying in a fab apartment with a view over the most beautiful square in Madrid, the Plaza Mayor. Unfortunately some beastly pavilions are filling the middle of the square with some dull exhibition promoting Argentina most of which seems to be about football!!!!!!
    Totally irrelevant to your blog but nevertheless a little annoying!

  5. We agree, rank the gardens, not the people, or maybe not even the people. You can say what might be your particular favorite whatevers, but that doesn't mean that same list applies to anyone else at all. But we do think JAS is a great fellow and very nice.

  6. Thanks for the responses.

    Arabella, I'm sorry you've had trouble posting comments. Not sure what I should be doing about this, being a technoprat, I'm only just competent at publishing my own blog posts and don't think I'd remember, again, how to actually set up a new blog. There - a split infinitive included as a bonus. Oh, BTW - did the Arg thing have lots of good beef?

    James - I missed you at Malvern. We were rather hidden under a giant pumpkin, so it's a wonder anyone found us. But find us they did, mostly by word of mouth, ie me yelling over the PA for everyone in the marquee to get themselves over to our auditorium, now, or their crops would be blighted.

    The Malvern organisation was not that brilliant, this time, which is most unusual. They're normally the 'tops' as far as I can remember.

    Elizabeth - point taken about the lunch and the invitation is about to be issued to the gentleman in question, gold-edged and on exquisitely recycled card.


  7. Sometimes the embedded comment box doesn't work! It is easier on the other system that has a separate box.

    How can you rank gardens or gardeners? Taste is individual