Monday, 22 March 2010

Garden Design showcase in Oxford

Between Thursday 25th and Sunday 28th March I will be at the Oxford Literary Festival showcasing garden design and my photography.  The festival has established itself as an important fixture in the spring calendar, and attracts visitors from all over the world.  With high-profile speakers giving keynote lectures and dozens of other events on all subjects, there is plenty to occupy anyone with an interest in books, stories and the processes of writing.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Gardening with heart, soul and mind

It has been a good week for mingling with the acknowledged greats of the garden design world.  Following the study day with Dan Hinkley last week (see below) the Oxford Botanic Garden yesterday hosted a lecture by Tom Stuart-Smith.
With a formidable reputation for creating sublime gardens, Tom Stuart-Smith is also a gifted communicator, lucidly conveying his philosophy of the place of the garden in the the context of human existence and within the wider environment.
For this designer, the garden is an intercessor for humans with the world outside, relating to both and a conduit for the emotions we project onto nature and our locality as well as a means of creatively elucidating the key features of the location in its form and style.
These key themes of Tom Stuart-Smith's work are revealed in gardens of great beauty, with his signature detailed plantings adopting the forms of underlying geographical features, locally significant flora or the history, purposes and associations of the site.  Evocations of the environment are contrasted with calm, cerebral spaces that offer relief from the overwhelming variety and volume of plant material elsewhere, or are graded towards an almost oriental clarity via structural elements that provide continuity within a changing continuum: chaos to order, order to chaos.
With a profound understanding of the historical context for his gardens, Tom Stuart-Smith and his team create spaces that appeal visually - the first reaction to a Stuart-Smith planting in full fig is usually overawed amazement - but that, with layered meaning, offer intellectual stimulus and an opportunity for the viewer to explore the complexities of the site. 

The images were taken at Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire last summer.  This garden is notable for the large walled enclosure at its heart, designed in 1999. There are also great views of the countryside around - countryside that I have been familiar with since childhood and representative of a type of perfect English landscape - intimate, human in scale, productive, varied and never better than on a summer afternoon approaching harvest.  The garden was the first big commission for Tom Stuart-Smith, but it exemplifies his approach - rich plantings within a framework of walls and evergreens, on one terrace adopting the vascular patterns found in leaves of the local trees, on another clipped into upright forms that populate the garden and symbolise our place in nature.

See images in greater detail on my Flickr profile and on my website.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

A busy 24 hours with John and Dan...

On Thursday I spent the evening at a masterclass given by the doyen of British garden design, John Brookes, for the Oxford College of Garden Design (OCGD) - yesterday I was part of a small group who spent a study day with the American plantsman, nursery owner and reluctant designer Dan Hinkley.
The evening session with John Brookes was great fun.  Laced with anecdotes and enlivened with his own personal charm, the time passed quickly as John discussed images of some of his design projects over the past few years.  These were mostly large commissions, often related to newly-built mansions or those undergoing extensive restoration.  Given Brookes' famously site-appropriate approach the similarity of some of these houses meant that there was a degree of crossover in the features used, but the absence of any plans on the screen made it difficult to envisage or appreciate the ground plans that he was working to.  His use of a strong ground plan based on the scale of the house is renowned, and is a pervasive and much-followed concept in garden design teaching.  My own training at the OCGD was based on just these principles, so it would have been great to have seen them in action in John Brookes' own work. 
Although he has been responsible for a number of iconic gardens, notably the revolutionary garden for Penguin Books in the mid-1960s which derived its ground plan from a painting by Piet Mondrian, these were not offered up for our scrutiny - an in-depth examination of one of these creations would have been an invaluable addition to the evening.  Even so, it was a thoroughly enjoyable session, and I look forward to the next masterclasses in the series, by Luciano Giubbilei on 29th April and Fergus Garrett on 17th June.
The Botanic Garden in Oxford last hosted Dan Hinkley as guest lecturer in 1999, since when he has sold Heronswood, the plantsman's nursery he built into one of the most notable in the US, made, with his architect partner, a new house and garden and achieved something akin to rock-star status in the garden world.  The three sessions across the day were fascinating - an in-depth examination of his influences and journey, of the principles that inform the design of his wonderful 'new' garden, and of the history of its creation. 
Dan Hinkley exudes passion and a profound understanding and knowledge of his subject, and the session on design allowed him to expand on the simple principles he employs to achieve the varied look of his garden.  The site is everything to this garden - a five-acre holding on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound in the far Pacific Northwest it has incredible views (even in photographs) of the sound, the Olympic mountains, Mount Ranier and the skyline of Seattle. 
The level of exposure to the elements is the other factor shaping the garden and planting - it's not called Windcliff for nothing - and Dan's approach has been to shape the site to bring the watery presence of Puget Sound right up to the house through the careful use of pools, to create surprise views through curtains of plant material while making suitable environments for the myriad plants that excite him.  Many of these plants are familiar to him through his extensive collecting trips in unpopulated areas around the globe, especially Asia, and the stories of how these trips to their native habitats have shaped Hinkley's approach to growing them were one of the highlights of the day - the magnificently exotic look of Windcliff rests on his passion for the plants he grows and a deep understanding of how they should be grown.  As such it is a very personal garden, populated with friends from the plant world, sensitively placed sculpture (usually created for specific areas of the garden) and a memorial to loved ones who are remembered in a grouping of prayer flags that send their blessings out in the relentless wind that passes over the garden. 
Such gardens are rarities - as are the individuals who create them - and a garden that manages to be both a collection of seductively beautiful plants and an aesthetically satisfying response to the site deserves to be at the top of any 'gardens to visit' list. I am plotting how best to take up Dan on his kind invitation to call in...

(Today's images are nothing to do with either John Brookes or Dan Hinkley - I just felt like something green...)

Friday, 5 March 2010


Don't look now, but things are on the move...
After weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and grey skies here in the UK, three days of sunshine have brought out the crocuses, and what a treat they are.  Vibrant blues and purples, with the characteristic yellow-orange stamens, these flowering bulbs are just what is needed to get the main display of spring flowering under way.  These photos were taken in the Botanic Garden in Oxford this morning, with a jay rattling around in the trees and the foliage of other bulbs pushing through the bare soil.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Oxford Artweek, May 2010

This is the courtyard space at Oxford Castle which will host the Oxford Artweek Sculpture Garden designed by Sarah Naybour and Paul Ridley in May 2010.  An exciting intervention in the old prison precincts, the garden will form the backdrop to work by local sculptors for the duration of the festival.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A small garden

This simple design is for a small garden of seven metres by seven metres.  Clipped box hedging helps to delineate the space, and forms a permanent structure around which further planting of perennials, ferns and, in the sunny spots, grasses, is arranged.  Rather than cram lots of features into this space, there is one main element to the design - a table of cedar cantilevered out of a two-metre diameter raised planter in brick.  The tree intended for this, the small snakebark maple Acer grosserii var. hersii, will provide the necessary light shade and establish the overhead plane, while the bellying sweep of the gravel allows the surrounding planting to conceal and shelter the dining area.  The timber structures supported out of the planter also contribute to this sheltering, and, with the hedging and bare branches of the trees, provide structure and interest in the winter season.