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Monday, 5 August 2013

Is less more? And for whom?

I'm always fascinated by people's reactions to gardens. What is it that makes a garden a good space to be in? Is there a harmonious combination of proportions and ingredients that could be analysed mathematically, like the golden ratio? Or are we predisposed - by memory, or education, or tradition - to like a certain sort of garden? Is the English Landscape style, for example, intrinsically good design, or have we just been trained to think that way because the rich landowners who employed it were the (unquestioned) celebrity trend-setters of their time?
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.

13 comments:

  1. I am laughing as we have the same photographs! It is interesting how different our reactions are to bits of the garden but I think that is what makes gardening interesting. It would be dull if we reacted the same to everything so I dont think someone is wrong and someone right, we just respond differently as we have different perspectives, points of views and experiences.

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    1. Exactly! It was fascinating! It really made me question why I liked a particular bit.

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  2. A wonderful and introspective post. I know I would love this garden. I do find a bed of one plant such as the hosta quite soothing. Wish I had visited with you.

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  3. Ha! Slug-stakes :) I should think that such sculptures would prove quite popular. Your point about the grey/purple foliage got me to thinking. Many people, when I bring up the subject of gardening, don't consider cabbage or beets to be part of a garden. When I ask if they garden many respond with details about flowers & shrubs. But If I ask about vegetable, or anything edible, I get the Blank Look. It seems that 'vegetable' & 'garden' don't occur in the same thought. For them, the foliage is of greens while flower color must needs match the house color. Edible gardens are too much like farming, & isn't that why we have grocery stores & farmer's markets?

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  4. I love the slug stakes, too. Now that would be a statement about victory gardening in Great Britian!

    Funny thing about us across the pond, when I say I am building a garden, people here always assume vegetables. Some of my elderly neighbors think I am bringing down the neighborhood because I am planting hedges and roses instead of only lawn and trees in the front garden. If friends from England came to visit, they would probably think my garden boringly derivative of traditional English gardens, but it is what I love and what feeds my soul. Isn't it wonderful that gardens are as different as gardeners?

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  5. Hello Victoria. I admit I haven't been to Veddw, but from pictures I've seen of it here and elsewhere, several factors make it stand out for me. The design is unique, personal, fitted to the site. It has a quiet wow factor. Its 'monocultures' are soothing. It seems to be a garden to be in, not just one built to dazzle. It's this 'being in a garden' that's the rarest of qualities. An inviting timelessness and a feeling of just wanting to stop and take it in means more than an exhibition garden where I'm obliged to spend my time rushing to see everything. I like too the very softness of some of the foaming forms contrasted against the more definite, 'backbone' forms.
    Thank you for your very literate writing!

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  6. To use the oft-overused marmite analogy (damn those advertising bods at DDB) I know you are either meant to love or hate Anne, but I find myself sat on the fence. I agree with her that if garden design is to be respected and appreciated as an art form then why should it not be open to criticism like any other? It is absolutely right that we each appreciate different aspects of gardens, and should be able to say publicly which parts we liked and which parts we didn't. I also accept the point she made in TBTG that being opinionated makes editors take notice of you. However I think that gardens are a public declaration of an individual's taste, and therefore to criticize a persons private garden is to a great degree to criticize the persons taste. And who's to say one person's taste is superior to another's? Regardless of if they are charging a fee to visit. I don't like nylon day-glo shell-suits, but am I a superior human to those who wear them? I sometimes play piano in public, I am not by ANY measure a good pianist (why would I be? I've yet to put in the required 10,000 hours). But I always get plenty of praise and encouragement from those listening when I play. If I got a very public, albeit truthful, note my note critique on all my deficiencies, I'd struggle to be able to play in public again. (My areas of improvement are left to my piano teacher to give me in private, or where I've posted a vid online, to helpful friendly comments by some followers)

    I also think that once you go down the "bad-tempered" route you need to have a very thick skin, and be able to take as much as you dish out. People will want to hit back. I'm not so sure that Anne is as thick-skinned as that (especially as you say if she is 'extremely kind'), she is only human after all.

    I've yet to go to Veddw. I wish I had gone before I had heard of Anne, as it would have been nice to go without the reputation of the gardener preceding the garden. I find it almost impossible to separate a garden from the gardener, and I suspect most people do too. Will try to make a point of going though as we live so close.

    How long do they spend hedge trimming?

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    1. I think the key (if you'll excuse the musical pun, hoho) to garden criticism is to forget about what we like/dislike. I don't think it should be about taste - it should be about whether the garden works as a construct, both in the physical and philosophical sense. Does it achieve what it sets out to do, whether that is to provide a jungly, febrile mass of exotic colour, or a cool green oasis? Is there anything that jars? Is anything out of scale, or inappropriate in terms of material or period? Is there enough contrast in texture and shape?
      The best gardens, in my experience, are those that seem to have a sense of stillness, and I think this comes from the fact that they are in some way harmoniously arranged. It IS a bit like hearing a piece played beautifully - it needs no comment, but evokes a feeling of happiness and satisfaction.

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  7. Thoroughly enjoyed your account of a visit to Veddw, a garden I hope to visit too. So glad that you made it to the fling.

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  8. Now that I've read both your take and Helen's on your visit to Veddw, I too find myself with a lot to think about! It's a good time of year to do that here in Texas ... there never was a month as evil as August.

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  9. Looks like a really interesting garden. I'd love to see it. I got a good chuckle out of the spectacle of slugs on stakes above the hostas. I like that bed, too.

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  10. I have been fascinated by reading your blog and Helen's side by side. I, like you, love Veddw and have received great kindness and friendship from Anne and Charles. For me the reflecting pool is the still heart of the garden. The yew hedges and the overflowing abundance of planting which is yet restrained by the restricted plant choice is to me supremely beautiful. It manages to be intensely romantic and challengingly intellectual at the same time. I don't like the cardoons and heucheras though. I find the colour combination depressing, perhaps because I associate grey and maroon with school uniforms! To me it feels quite stagey. Where the rest of the garden in all its complexity is talking about place, that place and the history and landscape which surrounds it, the cardoons etc don't add anything and could be anywhere. I imagine it is playful in its intent but doesn't work for me. Having said which, I think Veddw is a magical, inspiring and deeply satisfying garden, one of the few places to which I could return again and again.

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  11. I'm wondering if I can work with the 'mown path, trees and tall meadow' idea - in my own garden. Reminds me of the Lime Walk at Sissinghurst. But my mown, is gravel. It has been interesting to see Vedww thru Helen's eyes, and now yours. Perhaps one day I shall see it for myself.

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