Magic meadows Posted on July 14, 2010

To supper on a June evening with Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith in their garden near St Albans. We were talking about garden eye-catchers; objects that represent conclusion or resolution in the same way as a predictable final chord. I can’t resist them. But am I, as it were, talking down to my visitors, saying ‘look over here’, rather than trusting them to see things in their own way?

This seems to be pretty much what Tom thinks. His garden makes theatrical use of tall beech hedges pierced with openings, some of them surprisingly narrow, that inevitably engage your curiosity. You are bound to go and see what lies beyond. Some lead your eye on to another opening, some to a rich patch of planting, some to relative vacancy:
a plain boxed-in lawn you can mentally furnish as you wish.

The main axis from the terrace leads invitingly on through such hedge-gaps, repeated several times, to more green space beyond. It’s hard to tell how far beyond because the end is left blank: the distance is just green. It would be fun to put an urn there, or a gate or an obelisk or any of the conventional conclusions. Tom would rather leave you wondering.

In June the generous blocks of herbaceous planting (‘borders’ gives the wrong idea) were like magic meadows – as though Hertfordshire had an endless flora of tall, short, feathery, gesticulating, creeping, aspiring, pale, dark, transparent or solid herbs in generally complementary colours. More than anything I was reminded of Beth Chatto’s celebrated stands at Chelsea in the 1970s. The unusual (her term) plants she put together always spoke quietly to one another. It was an intelligent conversation among flowers that had no need to show off. She was making you look at what till then you had passed over: the ingredients of a hay field, a stream bed or the early flowers of a coppice that disappears in summer in drought and shade. Her lessons gave many of us a permanent distaste for the cosmetics of the nursery business. This is Tom’s taste too, I fancy – with significant exceptions when a perfect peony, shall we say, is called for.

Beth Chatto had a quiet celebration, an open day for friends, on June 28th; 50 years to the day since she opened Unusual Plants at Elmstead Market, near Colchester. I have watched nearly forty years of its evolution, from an unremarkable stream under some senior oaks to a landscape emulated wherever people garden. Beth’s dry garden, never watered, come what may, is an extraordinary one-step lesson in ecology. Her bog gardens around shining ponds are the same. Perhaps in her writing I discern most love of all in her description of the woodland she developed later and the plants that flourish before oaks cast them into shade.

Eye-catchers? I think I know what Beth would say about a statue. ‘What a waste of money’.

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