Gardening is a political act… Don’t do it in a bubble.

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Garden,  April 2017

Henk Gerrritsen was a brilliant garden designer who never got to see his full potential. His gardens are about the battle between man and nature; a battle that man should enjoy losing. In his gardens he lets weeds takeover: Hogweed; Bindweed and Hemlock… because their beauty and their terrifying triphid-like features mesmerized him …I would have loved to meet him… A bold, brave man who was ahead of his time.

The other day I attended a gardening course taught by a well-known old skool gardening guru… I knew she wasn’t organic or eco… but nothing quite prepared me for the utter ignorance and exclusion of all things environmental. This was gardening in a bubble and, to my horror; the middle class and middle-aged audience were lapping it up. I felt as if I was in some sickening seventies time warp as a woman with a variegated Cornus that was suffering on the edge of a riverbank (that often flooded) was told to give it a “good feed…some meat and two veg… Nothing organic… Lots of nitrogen.”…My inner “swampy’ took up arms and wailed like a banshee demanding a justice my British politeness was unable to dispense.

So, I bunked off the rest of the class and walked back to the car through the churchyard….IMG_1528

Once my blood pressure was restored by the primroses I spent the rest of the journey home having imaginary out-quipping conversations.

Here’s a breakdown of my argument:

A Cornus is a dogwood – a native shrub that grows by riverbeds and in our hedgerows, it is often grown for its colourful stems. Firstly, I have a problem with variegation. Variegation is an anomaly in a plant, it normally occurs because the plant has genetically mutated and then the nursery trade grows it on as a cultivar…. Variegation immediately puts stress onto a plant as its leaves have less green chlorophyll to photosynthesize and get energy with. By keeping a variegated leaved plant you will always be fighting nature’s instinct to revert back AND you will have to feed it (AND it looks wrong). –What’s the point?

Nitrogen is needed by all plants in order to grow and thrive. It is very soluble, and so, when crop yield is low or an area of land has poor soil or has been flooded, it is normally the nitrogen that has gone from the soil. But what makes nitrogen “work” is the bacteria in the soil that process or “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which plants need in order to grow. Fertilizers used by the agricultural and horticultural industries tend to be liquid feeds containing Nitrogen. The problem is that we try and make every bit of soil “work’ and we are all using too much fertilizer and nitrogen (often because we aren’t giving our bacteria a fighting chance in the soil to produce more)… Because the nitrogen is soluble, the excess is running off the land into our watercourses causing huge amounts of devastating pollution and contributing greatly to climate change.

Of course, one woman feeding or not feeding Growmore to her Cornus isn’t going to change the world, but, I am desperate that she and all the gardeners like her understand the consequences of what they are doing when they ’manage’ their land or “break” the ecosystem by intervention. We are all responsible for our own little plots in this great beautiful planet of ours…. And that means educating ourselves on what is within them and what reactions your actions will create…

I don’t pretend to have all the answers… or to be an eco-paragon of virtue. What I would like to do is make you raise your head from your herbaceous border and vegetable bed and look around you… what you do and how you do it has consequences… good and bad and indifferent… what if you could make your garden a living metaphor for how the earth could be if we respected it? How much more beautiful would it be then?

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Garden,  April 2017 (first year after completion)

The Romance begins

img_0340For me, Church farm was love at first sight. What I fell in love with was the sheer untamed brutal wilderness of the place. It was a site on the brink of ruin, brimming with the romance of a history lost and nature’s repossession. One thing was clear: I didn’t want to lose this romance and this marked connection that the site has both to the rural landscape beyond, and also to the spot’s industrial past.

The railway line was the wildest part when we moved here. Pockets of it were beautiful. I remember one heavily ballast-riddled area full of fennel, grasses and buddleia. I wanted to keep that feeling of a space that has been abandoned back to nature and is on the brink of tipping back into a complete wilderness. My first instinct was to have a dry river bed gravel garden sweeping from the old somerset coal canal tunnel (a listed monument!)out and around the house (which was the barn for the farm). This would then somehow ‘flow’ into water at the bottom of the lawned area in the ‘railway ditch’.

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South-west entrance to Wellow Tunnel. Circa 1800 for the Somersetshire Coal Canal. The surveyor for the canal was William Smith “the Father of British Geology”, under the supervision of John Rennie. The engineer was William Bennet. Coursed, squared rubble with freestone dressings. Semi-circular arch with keystone. Band. Pilaster strips to either side and high coped parapet. The interior of the tunnel is masonry lined. The southern (Midford-Radstock) branch of the Somersetshire Coal Canal was completed in 1798 but was abandoned in 1815 when a tramway was laid along it.

I always have thought that the planting on and around the farm needs to be naturalistic in style, matrix planting (as Piet Oudolf would call it): perennials and grasses that evoke a piece of derelict land. If I was being pretentious I would say like New York’s “High Line” (Pretentious? Moi?)

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What I would like to get to is a space that expounds naturalistic planting and the creation of gardened habitats that in turn flows out into the landscape beyond, but, also holds echoes of the previous industrial scars buried within the site. This should be a land that nature and the garden has reclaimed…. A garden within a ruin.

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The most exhilarating aspect about out plot is the view. It is a view across green fields and meadows down into the midford valley and up to the farmland beyond. It is a tapestry of fields and hedgerows, ancient trees, some woodland, and the wellow brook that divides our village from the hills beyond.img_1417

This plot is situated right on the edge of the cotswolds, between the lysricism of the Cotswold charm and the hardiness of the rugged mendips. It was really important that the view was incorporated into our garden and that our garden ‘responded’ to the view: that it seemed to extend it rather than ‘react’ to it. – So my preference for native planting and for naturalised styles of gardening would be put to work…..

Gardens within ruins have always been my favourite type/style of garden… Even when they are heavily contrived and gothic… I adore them and their styles have heavily influenced the way I like to garden…NINFA has the be the best most wonderful example of this… A secret garden that gives the visitor the feeling that they have happened upon a hidden world that nature has reclaimed. That they are the only ones that have found this secluded piece of land where nature is eroding away man’s presence….I honestly sometimes look at the pictures of The garden of Heligan before they were restored and find myself preferring the before photo to the after…. Similarly, I really do think that many graveyards are by far the best places to sit and be in.

So before I began planning the garden I  (grandly), wrote down the names of gardens that would influence the style and feel of the garden… that would be the building blocks of my ‘inspiration’.

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Ninfa gardens

Ninfa – has the rundown romance (on a much much grander scale).

Jardin de Plume –  Grasses and the mown pathways. Also love the transmuting ‘lightness’ in the planting.

Holt Farm– Has a brilliant gravel garden and views similar to ours. It also loves gardening for the sake of the moment rather than the after-glow and prestige.

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Perennial meadow at Bury Court

Bury Court – Piet Oudolf’s stylized meadows and herbaceous planting.

Beth Chatto’s gravel garden – Similar soil to mine and the doyenne of ‘right plant, right place.”