I don’t know about you, but this time of the year always encourages introspection and navel gazing in this gardener. It’s partly the enforced idleness, with freezing conditions, snow and rain keeping me inside and partly the lack of sun, warmth and vitamin D. New Year parties have never excited me: I just want to get back to work and get outside in the garden.
I had been brooding yet again over garden design as a maligned and misunderstood art, when up popped an offer of work by email. I have been cultivating a valuable contact in China for many years and he has an offer for me. I was asked to come up with proposals and drawings for the landscaping of a 120,00 sq.m. luxury housing development; I had 10 days to complete it, no budget, no design brief, no visit or photographs: just a “read only” Autocad plan of the site with notation in Chinese. A rough sketch would do, I was told, with a design fee offer at around one twentieth my rate for the full plans. It’s a competitive tender and my drawings will be key to winning the contract. I’ll do what I can, of course; I can come up with ideas – I have theories and a rough scheme in mind – but give up Christmas to create a plan and visuals good enough to win a major contract? I don’t think so.
A scene in the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the Little Prince, comes to mind. The Little Prince demands that the narrator draws him a sheep. After three attempts at drawing sheep are rejected, he draws a box: ” The sheep you wanted is in the box” the narrator explains. Little Prince is delighted with the result. Perhaps I’m missing a trick here.
There is never enough time to achieve everything I wish to do in a week, but I have lately been sparing the odd moment to read Rory Stuarts’ Gardens of the World; with luck, it’s on your Christmas list. There’s a great quote towards the end from Men and Gardens, a book for the 1950’s
by Nan Fairbrother: ” …most of our gardening books are not about how to make gardens at all, but on how to grow flowers. For it has seldom occurred to us that they are quite different things, as building a house is different from arranging the ornaments on the mantelpiece.”
I’m not sure where this meditation is leading, accept to say that I understand that in the great scheme of things garden design is a luxury permitted the wealthy nations and if it disappeared tomorrow humanity would probably muddle through somehow; but if I am going to design gardens I like to do the best I can: it’s an art that takes time and patience, extensive knowledge across a range of disciplines, experience, proficiency and (in all modesty!) talent. As a result, it’s also going to cost you.
This is the time of the year when I write books and courses, design and redesign our web sites and plan our business for the following season. All of these things are connected and one of our big projects revolves around the gardens of the Loire Valley. We are introducing garden tours to the Garden Design Academy and being close to many of the finest, these are to be the subject of our next book and, we hope, a series of tours for garden enthusiasts. The web page is launched and a full site may follow. The Loire Valley region of central France is known throughout the world for its chateaux – the ancient homes of the kings and aristocracy of France. It is also an area of great natural beauty and it was in recognition of the regions balance between architectural heritage and the natural environment that UNESCO has listed the Loire Valley as a World Heritage Site for its cultural landscape.
The parks and gardens of the region are equally well regarded, often enhancing the chateaux which have made central France famous. Our home in northern Indre is surrounded by many of the great gardens of France. Several dozen of the best are within 2 hours drive and some are just around the corner. We are very excited about the possibilities and have already been approached by one UK-based company to lead tours in the region.
Creating a new garden is wonderful, but one of the frustrations of a young garden is the lack of cutting material for the house. This seems especially true during the winter, when it is delightful to bring a little home-grown colour and scent inside. We have planted evergreens and winter flowering plants of course, but there is not enough and they are far too small to spare the quantities needed for regular floral displays. We have therefore been looking to the countryside and to neighbours gardens for material, with limited success. Braving the snow and the cold we have cut flowering branches of Ivy from the boundary wall, Ruscus aculeatus (Butcher’s Broom) complete with a berry or two from the woods and huge balls of Mistletoe, which is plentiful in France. Holly, a common wild plant in the UK and a traditional Christmas cutting plant, is rare in these parts. I can think of none in the woods and hedgerows nearby and in the village there can’t be more than three or four cultivated plants; this year I have seen no berries either.