I was thinking about this when I visited Anne Wareham's garden at Veddw, just across the Welsh border, the other day. As befits the founder of the Thinkingardens website, Veddw is a garden that makes your brain do a few stretching exercises before embarking on a full-scale workout. It is full of metaphors, contrasts and allusions.
I have to declare an interest here. I love Veddw, but then I adore Anne. She has built up a reputation in British horticulture as the Bad-Tempered Gardener, but I have only ever found her to be extremely kind. (Whoops, there goes her credibility. Sorry, Anne!) Her garden is just like her: challenging, stimulating but oddly restful. An afternoon in the company of Anne and her husband Charles is like a large gin and tonic - refreshing and relaxing at the same time.
This is the iconic view of Veddw; the Reflecting Pool, with its curving yew hedges. To me this represents the essence of the garden - a space that visually references the local landscape (hedgerows, hills and woodland) while at the same time transcending those references to become something with a character all of its own. I find the reflecting pool incredibly satisfying and relaxing. I could sit there all day.
So I was astonished to find that Helen, who was visiting with me, disagreed. She said it made her feel uneasy. (You can read what she thought of Veddw here.) She's not alone. Another blogger said they found it sinister. Comments like this make me question my own view. Am I being uncritical by liking it? Do I like it because I like Anne?
No, I think I like it because it satisfies some need in me for stillness and calm. The strong lines of the hedges gaze back at themselves from the pool, providing a visual dialogue uncluttered by flowers or sticky-out bits. It doesn't demand minute inspection of each specimen or analysis of the planting plan - just that you sit down and take it in.
The beds of hostas were also the subject of debate. Was this taking a monoculture too far?
Helen thought it was. I thought not. Look at those leaves! So varied in texture and colour. Anne suggested that perhaps it needed a vertical punch from something like scarlet crocosmia (Nectaroscordum siculum does the job earlier in the year.) I'm not a huge fan of representative sculpture in the garden, but I would be very tempted to commission a row of stakes with lifelike slugs impaled on the tips, like the severed heads of traitors displayed on London Bridge in the olden days.
This view of the yew rooms and beyond, the tithe map parterre - which represents the ownership of local land in the 19th century - is another example of the way in which Anne has distilled the character of the Welsh countryside into an ultimate abstraction. It looks a bit like that sort of pixellation you get when a photograph is building online.
Veddw is not just about representation and metaphor, however. There are areas of planting that appear to justify their inclusion by sheer exuberance. These inula, combined with Campanula lactiflora and the physocarpus (Dart's Gold?), were a delight. They seemed to be going down well with the bees, too.
Formality has a place even in the "meadow". An avenue of Turkish hazel and a mown path makes a strong statement that sets off the frothy informality of the grasses and seed heads. Earlier in the summer, the meadow was a sea of buttercups, punctuated by the tall spires of camassia.
One part of the garden is dominated by this white persicaria, almost shoulder-height. I'm always very admiring of designers who can restrict themselves to one plant, because I think it takes the sort of strength of character I know I haven't got. In this case, however, standing in the middle of a sea of persicaria just made me feel good.
Rectangular topiary monoliths rise above banks of wild flowers. Below them, out of sight behind the hedges, are gravestones, each marking the evolution of a local name over the centuries.
This is the area I call the faux veg garden. It appeals to my sense of humour. Yes, you could eat the cardoons, and technically you could eat the purple heuchera (the leaves are supposed to be edible, if somewhat bitter). That's not the point, though. It gives the impression of being a kitchen garden, without actually performing that function, and without all the backache-ing labour. (I've got a better picture of it, taken earlier in the year, which I will post as soon as I can find it.)
I also happen to like the combination of grey and purple foliage, but according to Anne it is not to everyone's taste. This strikes me as odd. In a real vegetable garden, you very often see these colours - the purple of cabbage foliage, the dark red stems of beetroot or chard. What do people dislike about it, I wonder? Perhaps they feel that Anne has somehow got one over on them by either suddenly presenting them with a contemporary garden, or leading them up the garden path about the purpose of this particular plot?
The Bad-Tempered Gardener herself, looking remarkably sunny. I'd like to tell you that Charles put this T-shirt on deliberately to match the crocosmia but that wouldn't be true. On the other hand, they have put their Twitter names on the birdbath. Fabulous.