Occasionally, while everyone was sitting around in the gardeners’ mess room, the topic of garden criticism, and specifically written garden criticism, would come up. Each time, it would be harshly denounced as unnecessary – ‘Would we tell artists they’re using the wrong colours?’ ‘How can we cast judgment on something as personal as a garden?’ – and the conversation would peter out. Frankly, I found it surprising that the same people who engaged in discussions on other gardens and planting styles, plants, etc., would then turn around and be so defensive regarding written commentary.
Maybe it’s a protective instinct or maybe it’s born from an appreciation of the difficulties of gardening. After all, so much in gardening is outside of our control, and when the garden is open to the public, all you can do is try your best to overcome climactic, pest and soil issues, not to mention human error, so that on most days the garden is looking good (or at least part of it is). But I also think that much of ornamental gardening is about casting judgment and making decisions based on taste, interest and expression – it’s a visual art form. And when the public is invited in to view a garden, and pays for the privilege, why should we not engage in criticism and reflect on how the garden works or doesn’t work. I know, I’m being reductive on this criticism argument (one could read for days on the purpose and merit of art criticism if they so chose), I just happen to believe that criticism of a garden has the potential to be insightful and thought provoking. Reading it and engaging in it myself has certainly changed the way I view a garden and sharpens my eye and mind.
Perhaps I should have prefaced this by saying that in the past 5 months, I’ve visited dozens of gardens with others, while also working in a pretty interesting one, Great Dixter. We visited gardens for many reasons, I suppose, but mainly because we like to see how people solve design problems and use plants. We’re always looking and talking about how the gardeners are growing, pruning and maintaining their material. On the ideal garden trip we get the full tour of tool sheds, compost heaps and glass houses, a discussion of their plant propagation and sourcing, and their design methodologies. Basically, we’re insatiably curious.
In England, there’s always another garden to visit. Many of the historic properties (of which there are hundreds) have some sort of garden or landscape park which is maintained to varying degrees. There are botanic gardens attached to universities and colleges, national collections of plants, nursery show gardens, and so on, not to mention the thousands of private gardens full of treasures and personality. As a Canadian, I found the sheer volume of gardens astounding. What was less surprising was how rare it was to find an excellent garden.
What does make a good garden and how much of our impressions are dictated by the circumstances of our visit? It’s such a broad question and one that better writers than I have lingered over for chapters. But over the next few weeks, as I sift through all the winter and spring pictures I took and post some, maybe some threads will become clear.
Or perhaps it will be a case of the less you know, the better… that pure enjoyment of gardens as beautiful spectacles, the passing glimpses through the hedge transporting the imagination, the instant gratification of a change in atmosphere, a sense of enveloping shelter, how when one is left alone in them they might imagine all the things they might do if they too had endless resources and a modicum of good sense.