Wednesday, 28 October 2009


The poet Philip Larkin wrote that he would have used water if called in to 'construct a religion', conveniently forgetting that all the main religions already make use of this essential substance in deeply symbolic ways.
In exterior design water has always played a pivotal role - indeed the very first gardens were devised as ways of providing access to water and the shade of trees thus enabled to grow in otherwise hostile desert environments. In these settings too, water played a symbolic role. Water can soothe, excite, reflect the changing sky, provide focal points and demarcate pathways and routes of flow. In the grandest gardens it has often been used to define a dominant axis. It can be still, offering a chance for contemplation and allowing the eye to rest after the stimulation of a crowded and visually busy part of a garden, or it can move, making noises from the gentlest murmur to a galloping roar - although the gardens where this is possible are necessarily on the largest scale. In the history of landscape design it has been poured, sprayed, sprinkled, dripped, channelled, dammed and, just occasionally, left to its own devices.
In my own small garden I am having a large, free-standing tank constructed. This will be the dominant feature in the garden, and it will have water plants, fish (if the cats keep their paws to themselves) and in a few short weeks an ecology of its own. I can't wait for my first dragonfly - I'm banking on May next year. It will also, as in the photograph above, bring the sky down to ground level, reflecting light.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Late colour

This autumn has seen long periods of wonderful weather, extending the summer for us all. The tree colours will probably be at their best in the coming week or so as temperatures start to fall, but there is plenty of colour in gardens still, with leaves, fruits and berries all contributing. Here the fading butter-yellow leaves of the Whorled Solomon's Seal, Polygonatum verticillatum, are offset by the red berries, perched in the axils of the leaf stems. This is a terrific plant for dappled shade, particularly at this time of year, brightening up the darker corners of the garden.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Last night I dreamt of...

...Venice. The city I know as well as my home town, and love above all others. It is nearly two years since I was there last - far too long.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Now the real work starts...

Well, my efforts this year have really paid off. It was great to get the news today that I had passed the Post-Graduate Diploma at the Oxford College of Garden Design with Distinction and an overall mark for the year's work of 84%. I have been very proud of all my projects this year, and can't wait to see more of my ideas reach fruition on the ground. The three core design projects all offered different challenges, but I ended up happy with the solutions I designed for each of them. They didn't win any prizes, but I believe they would all have made wonderful gardens, with strong ground plans, well-conceived underlying philosophies and magical planting.

So, thanks to all the wonderful staff and my fifteen female fellow-students - we had a great year and invented some lovely gardens together - real landscapes of the mind, which will never need weeding, and will always look their best...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Time out

I spent a great couple of days in Cornwall this week, cashing in a very late Christmas present - a two-day fish cookery course at Padstow - and enjoying the autumn sun.
These small fishing villages in North Cornwall are idyllic for the visitor - probably quite tough for locals struggling to afford property that is being bought up by wealthy outsiders, but wonderful for a short holiday, especially outside the summer season and in fine weather. There is always something to observe, and something to photograph. Returning to the harbour after an hour or so wandering the coastal path into the neighbouring coves, I was taken by the richness of this mustard-coloured hull in the low evening light, accenting the rust and red hues in the paintwork. The matching buoy and softly rippled water were lucky bonuses. I really love these sorts of colours, and the harbour wall gave plenty of opportunities for some more graphic compositions, exploring the textures of seaweed, concrete and iron.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Bones of the Earth

I returned on a recent afternoon to White Horse Hill on the Berkshire Downs, although the hill is now in Oxfordshire, thanks to the reorganisation of the old county boundaries in 1974. I taught at the village in the valley below for five years, but had not been back for two or three years since then.
This is an ancient managed landscape, which preserves the monuments created at the end of the Bronze Age in Britain, about three thousand years ago, in approximately 800BC. The rippled walls of the dry valley known as The Manger are offset against the level floor, carved into terraces along the looping sides of the valley. Nearby rises the artificially flattened cone of a natural outcrop, to which has accreted one of the many legends of the surrounding landscape. Now called Dragon Hill, it is reputedly the spot where St George slew his dragon - a patch of chalk, where grass refuses to grow, still marks the place where the dragon's blood fell. Beyond this lies the Vale of the White Horse, its parish boundaries still adhering to the pattern of ditches which marked the territories of those ancient communities of 800BC.
Even more enigmatic than Dragon Hill, however, is the chalk-carved figure of the horse itself. Dated to the same period, this stylised figure has its own canon of tales and associations. Long thought to have been carved to mark the victory of King Alfred over the Danes at the nearby Battle of Ashdown in 871CE, the figure was already ancient by this time. Among many other stories and traditions the best known is that which says that a person standing in the eye of the Horse will have a wish granted. It doesn't stop here. Above the figure of the Horse, on the brow of the hill, the highest point for miles around has the remains of a ditched fort, the earthworks now moulded to gentle curves by the passage of time.
Over everything is the sheep-bitten turf, the occasional crow, and, on this afternoon, a hawk, flying low in the wind.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Conference time

A packed lecture theatre at Imperial College yesterday for the SGD Autumn Conference, titled 'Heavenly Gardens in Hellish Places'. Five inspirational speakers throughout the day addressed the problems they have encountered in creating gardens and landscapes in difficult circumstances. Exposed roof gardens, huge projects in the US, gardens for large estates and for degraded urban environments were all covered. Lisa Delplace from Oehme, van Sweden discussed her work on the Chicago Botanic Garden, amongst others, with reference to her sources of inspiration in the mood and mutability of the natural landscape - the work, on an enormous scale, beautifully validated her approach. Nigel Dunnett showed what is possible in socially and environmentally compromised city-centre sites - his work on low maintenance meadow plantings to enrich the urban experience while mitigating the effects of unpredictably heavy rainfall shows that the evocation of 'wilderness' is something that can be achieved in the least promising sites. If not botanically accurate as meadows the plantings have far greater importance as areas for recreation and amenity, bringing the pleasure of wonderful landscapes to all. Anthony Paul closed the day with images of his iconic creations around the world - often in precarious situations and under difficult climatic conditions. I was thrilled that he used some of my photos (see above) of his own garden in Surrey in his final slide of the day.
There was a good turnout fom this year's Oxford College of Garden Design diploma course, there to see Sarah Naybour awarded the Student Designer of the Year prize - and to do the essential networking of course!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Future Gardens

A few images from this summer-long garden show, visited a couple of days ago, just before it closed. Featuring a dozen show gardens of very mixed quality, there was at least a lot of wonderful autumn planting to enjoy. The aim of the enterprise is to highlight sustainable, wildlife-friendly gardening and novel design. As a lot of butterfly and wildlife-friendly plants are late-flowering perennials or annuals there was a good mix of flowers still to see, and if the design was not all it might have been in each of the gardens, there were some great ideas to be mulled over in all of them. As always, it was the simplest, strongest statements that were the most effective. Looking forward to the new gardens next year...