I’ve got a new book out – ‘Garden Designers at Home’ – about what garden designers get up to on their home turf. Got to admit it wasn’t my idea, but the publishers’. An obvious concept really, the sort of thing which publishers (we authors grudgingly admit) are quite good at thinking up. The title and the concept kind of hint that perhaps what they do at home is completely different to the gardens which we see in magazines or garden shows – that all they have is a patch of grass with a swing for the kids and a row of cabbages. Of course, none of the ones featured in this book are like that, although in researching one designer’s public profile online I came across a scurrilous article in a British daily newspaper (one of the ‘red-top rags’ of course) which claimed that neighbours were complaining that the front garden of a well-known television gardener was full of rubbish and old beer bottles. But no-one should believe what they read in these papers anyway.
Mostly what designers do at home is what they do for their clients, but they clearly have more fun doing it. You end up feeling that there is a kind of basic integrity to the profession, that what they get paid for doing is what they enjoy doing and what they would do anyway. The one whose commissioned work was the most different to what happened at home was the late Roberto Burle Marx, whose garden outside Rio de Janeiro was basically an artistically laid-out plant collection, and more traditional than anything he was paid to do.
The publishers gave me a pretty free hand about who I included (thank you Emily and Anna of Pavilion Books), and what was good was not feeling under pressure to pack the book with ‘celebs’ but to reflect a broader range of the profession. Such as Sue Berger of Bristol, who has recently retired after a successful career making very skilful little urban gardens, and Katie Lukas, who is one of those who is not a ‘drawing board’ designer but a knowledgeable plantswoman who works intuitively onsite with plants, whose job is as much about managing ongoing growth and development as laying out new vistas.
Doing the book made me meet several people whose names I knew well but had never actually met. Such as Tom Stuart-Smith whose work is well-known through the Chelsea Flower Show and is probably fair to describe as Britain’s leading designer. His clients include some figures from the now infamous and sullied world of high finance – in the corner of my mind’s eye I see a Hogarth print of ‘The Mob’ trashing one of his gardens. He is one of those whose work is instantly identifiable – very much in the Arts and Crafts mould the British find hard to leave behind, but with modern touches, and a distinctly Piet Oudolf/new perennial designed palette.
Another I was very glad to be made to meet was Arabella Lennox-Boyd, who is one who does not have a single style but is happy to work in a variety of ways, often involving large-scale restorations of historic landscapes. I discovered her to be a real dirt under the fingernails gardener, an incredibly knowledgeable plantswoman and someone who has a great thirst for practical and technical information – I think we both felt we could talk to each other for hours. Her own garden is a botanically-rich treasure trove, one of those places I shall never tire of visiting.
Then there are the extraordinary Bannermans, a couple whose gardens are best known for their somewhat over-egged architectural fantasties for clients like JP Getty and Prince Charles, but whose own garden reflects what they clearly feel most happy with – rose-bedecked and richly-planted romanticism. Their house fits the garden perfectly, a rambling fantasy of ancient stone with its own church attached. We later invited them to speak at a Vista event at the Garden Museum – I shall never forget my last sight of them that night, sprawled over a wine-splashed gravestone in the adjoining churchyard, Gaulloise cigarettes in hand – bohemian decadence down to an art form.
Writing any book like this involves a certain number of situations where things could go badly wrong. The worst in this case was a lady who had recently separated from her husband, who moved out, leaving house and, more importantly, garden, behind. She took me round there, it was clearly a very emotional moment for her, especially as the garden was not being well cared-for, “these roses, they are dying, without their mother to look after them”. Needless to say I had to keep the melodrama out of the book.
Also – needless to say – researching the book involved picking up a certain amount of scurrilous gossip. None of which of course I could print. Wait for the memoirs.
See my own blog for a report on the brilliant annual plantings in Sheffield.
I am now publishing e-books through Amazon, for Kindle, smartphones, iPads etc. There are currently two available, both collections of writings for Hortus magazine, from the early 2000s. Click here for Amazon North America and here for UK.