Gardening has its heydays, and this is one of them. Do you remember how pessimistic we were about it in the 1970s? Perhaps not, but Trad was there, editorialising in The Garden about the lack of gardeners and the money to pay them, and the desperate need to conserve what little was left of our gardening heritage. Worried groups were forming to protect gardens and plants (the NCCPG was Graham Thomas’s idea), and to rekindle the very notion of garden history. 1978 was when we published the first Conservation Issue of the RHS Journal. How much has changed.
These were my thoughts in two gardens I visited recently, thanks to the Garden Museum and its super-charged director, Christopher Woodward. The first is a mere ten years old, and still a bit of a secret, but already gives Dorset a rival to anything in the country-house tradition, So timeless are its enclosures, its alleys and its 17th century style Wilderness that I half expected to meet Sir Francis Bacon stooping to sniff the roses. The Flowery Mead is the hardest idiom to perfect. To achieve it in perfection you must master meadows and marry them to the world of roses and peonies. You must starve the grass and bring in a banquet of wildflowers…. It was reassuring to know that there was a human agency in all this; someone drove a lorry with half the haycrop of Great Dixter to Dorset and spread it in the incipient mead.
The second modern Eden was at Petworth House, where Caroline Egremont has reimagined the appropriately vast walled gardens of one of England’s palaces. It was the setting for the museum’s second Garden Literary Festival. The first, at Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith’s garden near St Alban’s last year, was blessed with perfect June days – and so was the second. The pretty little marquees were called on only for shade from the sun of the longest day.
When you enter a garden through an orchard of apple trees smothered in roses that give them a second flowering, to follow long alleys of roses blending with clematis, to discover a dozen garden rooms of extraordinary variety, the ‘70s might never have happened. Gardeners have all the skills again. Everything seems possible. You marvel that anyone’s sense of scale and colour and texture can keep you keyed up, breathless for more. I’m afraid you can even start to take for granted the craftsmanship that realizes such ambitious plans. It all seems to be a dream. And the deer are gathering for the sunset over the lake. And 200 years ago Turner was here, painting this precise scene…. Yes, you can be carried away.
The talk that inspired me most, among a dozen teasing out the tangled themes of gardening and writers, and painters and their gardens, was Tom Stuart-Smith’s revelations of how a great designer plans his work. The interaction of place and personality (clients can be indecisive – or cussed), finding a graphic link between them that anchors the site, the values of contrast, concentration, contradiction. counterpoint, complexity, concealment… all sound very abstract. In this mesmerizing half-hour they seemed the necessary keys of creation. Gardening has brought out genius again, as it did when Kent and Brown and Repton were driving ideas.