Wednesday, 13 July 2011


My dears!

We've been buzzed by Spitfire fighters, Lancaster bombers and beautiful Hummingbird Hawk Moths.  

I have fallen off my bike and damaged it but apart from bruises, a sprained wrist, dented helmet and embarrassment, am fine.

Our darling swallows have hatched off four young which are now flying slightly inexpertly about in a northeasterly wind.  They are also turning the narrow passage between our yard and garden into a tunnel of ordure - but we're honoured, rather than offended.  It can be hosed down when the birds have flown to Cape Town.

We have eaten the season's first home grown tomatoes and delicious they are!  I've also scrumped wild cherries from a garden in the village because the owner says they're sour and nasty.  They're deliciously bitter-sweet, tasting of maraschino, but tiny.

As so often happens, the pictures on this post bear no relation whatever to the text. The joy of not having a strict editor is a mixed one but I hope you get double value from this illogical way of doing things.

Cheap, speedy colour, in my autumn border, with Lychnis coronaria and assorted forms of Papaver rhoeas.  This is almost as pretty as the autumn perennials show which will get going in about 6 weeks.  

I was going to tell you about the RHS International Trials Conference which happened last week but I’ve just been listening to Tim Richardson – author of Avant Gardeners – on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He was theorising about the political battlefields that gardens were and still are. (If you don't know his work, you might want a glance at the nicely turned piece here.)

Anyway, Tim R was suggesting that mighty British gardens such as Stowe and Stourhead, were biting satires on political situations of the day.  Lord Cobham, developer of Stowe in the early 1700s, was an old soldier and disenchanted Whig who had it in for the government of his day.  His garden was a demonstration of his disgust - perhaps even an expression of treason.  (You'll find an NT dumbed down history of Stowe here.)

He also suggested that public parks are designed as demonstrations of oppression.  Being well ordered and stately, furnished with plants looted from the British Empire and presided over by big statues of such personages as Queen Victoria, they're there to keep the populace in order.

We've enjoyed huge numbers of bees, in the garden this summer.  They love this purple toadflax almost as much as lavender.

Well pardon me, but I always thought that the inspiration to create public parks, in Britain, was the precise opposite of that.  John Claudius Loudon, a great horticultural philanthropist who died in 1843, championed the creation of landscaped public spaces where ordinary people might take pleasure and relief from the sooty, smutty city environment.  

It was Loudon who also developed ideal designs for model labourers' cottages, on large estates, and who insisted that such employees should have private gardens large enough to grow crops and keep livestock.  

And it was Loudon who brought a breath of country air into London’s squares, by planting them with trees and shrubs.  Anyone less bellicose or oppressive than Loudon, or his great friend Joseph Paxton, would be hard to find.

Hummingbird Hawk Moths Macroglossum stellatarum are constant visitors in our garden.  We counted five at once yesterday.

There’s no doubt that rebels and independent-thinking folk will do things in their gardens that may express contempt, or that might be intended to deliver strong messages.   After all, gardening is an art, and art is a means of expression - otherwise it’s pointless.  

For example, I admit to being tardy with trimming my roadside hedge and verge as a demonstration that wildflowers look prettier and are more biodiverse than groomed grass.  And I won’t pull the self-sown chicory up in my drive, partly because I know that it irritates persons in our village who are afflicted with excessive tidiness. 

Imagine the aerodynamics involved here, and the accuracy needed to extend a probiscis into the tiny opening of a lavender flower, and while stationary, on the wing.  Amazing!

Tim Richardson made a strong and convincing argument, on the radio, and I could visualise millions of Daily Telegraph-reading Radio 4 listeners nodding in hearty approval as they spread Tiptree Tawny marmalade onto their granary toast.  

But I tire of the current trend to try to make gardens something they are not.  Gardens are gardens are gardens.  They're outdoor places where you grow things.  And like any space, they can be substrates for design, and for artistic expression.  But if they do not contain living plants, they are not gardens.  A garden is a place where plants are grown. You can create an outdoor installation, if you feel so minded.  But if it doesn't grow things, it isn't a garden.

And I'm also sick, by the way, of the erroneous notion that garden designers are at war with those of us who garden, but who may be a bit crap at artistic expression, even though we love art.  

It's a stupid concept and arguing the toss about whether plant husbandry is more important or less, than artistic accomplishment in outdoor spaces, is about as fatuous and self-harming as trying to drink the Thames dry.

And before anyone calls me a Luddite stick-in-the-mud grumpy leek grower, I’d like to say that I believe the idea of Conceptual Gardens at Hampton Court was brilliant, even though, for years, they baffled horticulturally minded judges.  And indeed, it was I who suggested that Conceptual Gardens should be judged, not by garden judges, but by persons from the Arts world. Though there needs to be a qualified horticulturist present to make sure the designers’ offerings would actually work as gardens in real life, rather than for merely looking fabulous for 5 days at a show.  (I urge you to read Victoria Summerley's brilliant piece in the Independent, here.)

If you click on this, you can see the eye - it's a compound one, of course, but you can clearly see what excellent vision this insect must have.

I will be listening to Michel Thomas' German Course.  An attempt to converse with a Berliner in his or her native tongue, when I go in September, will immensely satisfying, even it it's only to order a beer rather than to explain that our postillion managed to escape being struck by lightning.

This Day in 1984 The PG, our four twins and I were driving through France without reservations and the only the loosest of plans.  We travelled to Evreux, Chartres, Blois and finally to Montrichard, in the Touraine which we liked.  We stayed in the village of Thésée, near Saint Aignon, and the children and I swam daily in the river Cher.  It was heavenly, and the auberge where we stayed served delicious Touraine cuisine including eels and pike cooked in various ways.
It was near there that I gathered seed of wild cornflowers.  I still have that particular strain which I sow, or allow to self seed every year. It is flowering gloriously here, as I write, 27 years later.

This week's film was Driving Lessons with Rupert Grint, Laura Linney and directed by Jeremy Brock.  I was persuaded by my brother to try it and despite some disappointing flaws in the screenplay, I greatly enjoyed it.  I even wrote an extremely pompous review which you'll find here.

Unusual sight - a Hummingbird Hawk Moth resting on our wall.

Bye bye - and thank you SO much for reading this far.  You deserve a decoration for endurance.


  1. Hello Nigel,
    I confess to being more interested in garden design than in the cultivation of specimens, and more interested in an environmental integrity than in growing whatever I want. But I also very much like gardens as gardens, as places of relief and joy, and I enjoy the humble and untheoretical practice of gardening. All that you say is down to earth and valid, and it doesn't bother me to encompass your point of view with others that are quite different, that I'm also partial to. There is room for all of us, I believe, in the Greater Garden. Regards, Faisal.

  2. Too much in the garden world is endlessly rehashed and the hoary hands of toil v the designers certainly gets overdone.

    But having sat, blood chilled, in a huge hall full of RHS members who groaned in unison at the mere mention of design, I am forced to believe it is a live issue for far too many..Plants or no plants.


  3. All good stuff - I like the idea of escaping somewhere that is smutty. The word smut seems only these days to be used in connection with tabloid newspapers and steam engines - perhaps there's a link there.

    Anyway, please do write about the ITC. I'd like to hear your thoughts.

  4. Oh my goodness, I'm blushing! Thank you so much for the link.
    I was talking to a garden designer friend the other day (a very pragmatic, sensible designer friend) about this very issue and she was saying that people are so intimidated by garden design terminology that their interpretation of what the terms mean is very rigid.
    Her argument was (as I believe Tim Richardson's is) that ALL gardens are conceptual, in that most aspire to suggest a certain sort of ambience, whether that is a woodland garden, or a cottage garden, or a tribute to Sissinghurst's white garden, or a sub-tropical I'm-on-holiday garden like mine.
    Yet if you said to people their garden was conceptual, they'd run shrieking in horror because they associate it with something that is antipathetic, or designed to shock.
    In the same way (she says, and I agree), every time you plant something, you make a design decision. You choose a red rose rather than a white one, for example. This is a conscious choice.
    I too get very tired of the designers-vs-plantspeople argument and I think if people could only think of the way they garden slightly differently, they'd realise that the two sides are not so very far apart.
    I agree with Faisal that there is room for all of us in the Greater Garden. And I apologise for taking up so much space!

  5. I'm never certain that I will agree with you but on this . .

    I've decided that I like growing things so my garden is a place to do it in.

    Public parks - yes, they were originally for liberation at a time when the offer of a dignified space, taste of another life, would be welcome for people whose ordinary-time was dingy and tough. However, now . . . there are parks which repress, oppress and restrain humans and plants alike. (Not all of them though!)


  6. Interesting post! I've been thinking about all this since my trip to Hampton Court - you, and the articles you link to, make some very good points. I certainly think there's space for various different tastes in garden design and as a planty-earthy person I've never felt antipathy to design itself (even considered going down that road) and don't quite understand why anyone would feel that way. The HC conceptual gardens may not be to my taste as gardens (or art for that matter) but I can't imagine suggesting banning them, or that others shouldn't like them. I think some people will get this way about pretty much anything though... 'Everyone MUST be the just like ME and MUST garden like me, live like me and eat like me or they are lesser than me.' Wierd.

  7. I am thrilled to hear the buzz of a hummingbird in the morning as we admire my garden togeter

  8. Nigel, Once again I enjoyed my visit and the words you posted. I think of my garden experience as art. I have done, oil painting, charcoal sketching, water color works, photography, poetry and music; but to me gardening is the most wonderful and interesting of the "arts" because it is a living art. It is never quite "finished" such as a painting might be. It moves, it grows, and yes some times it dies. It take a real artist with skill to keep the art looking its best. Work, skill, and and eye for design makes gardening so much more art in my mind. I am an eternal student of the art, but I keep trying. Thanks again for your thoughts. Here at Gardens at Waters East, art is always in process, and sometimes messy, but that makes it the hobby it is for me. Jack

  9. I've heard that local councils started up in Victorian times to look after issues of public health. The 3 main things they looked after were clean water supply, drains/sewerage and public gardens.

    So I'd go with associating public parks as a symbol of release rather than oppression.

    As for all this debate about art and gardens or designer vs gardeners and stuff, whilst I do enjoy a bit of a debate, thinking about it on a higher plane all the time like some people like to just makes me plain tired.

    I like to think that gardens are all these things and you choose which bits from the mix you'd like to have and to suit yourself.

  10. It's so unfair.. everyone seems to have hummingbird hawkmoths this year except me! I've only had one in our garden on the lavender a couple of years ago. The first time I saw one in France, I thought it was actually a teeny bird.

    I enjoy the Conceptual Gardens because they are invariably original and unique whereas, in what you might term the 'proper' gardens,it becomes harder and harder to find a really NEW ideas.
    (Unless you count stuff like Diarmuid's 'wonkavator' or Domoney's 'Naked' garden both of which might have been more acceptable within the Conceptual category.)