2018 - A good year?

Is 2018 - a good year to remember, or not? Maybe not for some reasons, but, politics aside, ignoring natural and man-made disasters, bad tempers and bad news in general, here is the good news round up of 2018 in the small corner of the world occupied by Arthur Road Landscapes.

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A new year, a new day and a new camera on the beautiful island of Barbados. Not too much in the way or horticulture here but when the landscape looks like this who needs a garden?

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But of course I couldn’t resist another visit to Hunte’s Gardens.

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Having cleverly avoided the Beast from the East, but running full pelt into the Mini-beast, I made a beeline for the Palm House at Kew for a bit of warmth and humidity.

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The cold winter and the sudden arrival of a very warm, but late, spring (who knew what was to come?) meant a very good year for bluebells. This little woodland of oak and ash was discovered by my parents in deepest Berkshire.

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May means Chelsea. This was my favourite garden, by Sarah Price. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but definitely mine, I’m just waiting for a commission for somewhere in the Med…

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At the end of May I visited Lukesland on the edge of Dartmoor. Spring was a little later here so this Wisteria was still in its full glory.

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June sees the climax of our native wild flowers. Driving around Surrey I love the road side verges covered primarily in ox-eye daisies. Parts of the M25 are quite spectacular, something to enjoy whilst sitting out a traffic jam. It’s quite tricky finding somewhere to park and photograph them (I haven’t stopped to take any photos on the M25 I hasten to add).

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The heat wave started around the middle of June I seem to remember. I went to Loseley Park before the weather began to take its toll and the White Garden here was looking splendid. Of course the thing about white gardens is that they’re not completely white.

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July and August seem to have been swallowed up in a blaze of sweltering heat and guilt about using a hosepipe (sorry/not sorry) but at the end of summer I went to The Homewood in Surrey. I hadn’t expected much of the garden but even I was charmed by the heather, Scots pines and rhododendrons.

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A very busy autumn meant little time for visiting gardens but I did manage to get the odd half hour or so on Wimbledon Common. Being outside in bright sunshine whenever possible is my way of dealing with short days and long dark nights.

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This is beginning to sound like I haven’t done much work in 2018. Well it’s been a funny old year, a mixture of feast and famine. This sweet little courtyard in Twickenham was completed early in the year. The owners are bird mad so hopefully this spring will see a few new residents in the bird boxes.

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A large back garden project which has taken a couple of years, was finally planted in October. There’s not too much to see plant-wise at the moment but I’m looking forward to seeing it develop next year.

Maybe not a vintage year but not a bad one either.

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Chelsea 2017 - the best bits

I don't quite know when the RHS knew that some of it's most constant sponsors had pulled out of the 2017 show, but there was no attempt made at reducing the ticket prices. However, it was still sold out.

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In theory this should have been a good year for some designers as arguably there was less competition. There was only one really big gun in the world of tv horticulture - Chris Beardshaw. But even though his was clearly the most popular garden with the public he could only garner a silver-gilt. I didn't see enough of the tv coverage to find out why but if I had to guess I would say the planting was a bit "busy". Though this is precisely what a lot of people liked about the garden - the sheer range of colour, texture and form.

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It was a garden of two halves, one bright and colourful, the other more textural and green. It was impossible to get a photo of the garden as a whole, mainly because the crowds here were the deepest and most constant through the whole day I was there.

Best in Show went to James Basson, a designer based in the South of France. In the well-known game, I have only two degrees of separation to James Basson as he is designing the Provence garden of one of my London clients.

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His gardens are rarely everyone's cup of tea as they are based on Mediterranean plants put together in a sustainable way that requires very little in the way of soil improvement or irrigation. This is precisely what my client wants for her new garden, but it's not exactly traditionally "English". This garden rekindled the debate about where gardens end and wild landscapes begin. In an era of increasing awareness about sustainability in general and the effect our changing climate is having on gardens in particular this is a trend that is likely to continue and develop.

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One garden that combined traditional English with a wild landscapes was the Welcome to Yorkshire garden. I've not been to the bit of the coast, Whitby, that this garden represents but I find it hard to imagine how this would survive some typical "northern" weather. I loved the boat but the mural in the folly was quite naff.

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Newcomer Charlotte Harris's garden for Royal Bank of Canada was also based on an interpretation of a wild landscape. I really liked this garden (even though it was difficult to photograph) and it would be easy to imagine it sitting well in parts of Scotland that have brief but intense summers with very long days.

One of the key plants in the Royal Bank of Canada garden was the Jack Pine and 2017 was surely the year of the pine in its many forms. The Radio 2 gardens were a welcome addition to the repetoire at Chelsea and helped fill some of the gaps left by fewer main show gardens. I particularly liked the Texture Garden designed by Matt Keightley.

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One of the most regular designers at Chelsea is Kazuyuki Ishihara. Ths was another garden that was really popular with the Chelsea visitors. It is an exercise in the minature with each detail exquisitely crafted, demanding close attention.

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I'm no expert on Japanese gardens other than knowing they are usually a stylised representation of nature and man's place in it. This garden was one an increased number of Artisan's gardens, demonstrating the combination of traditional skills with horticulture.

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i thought the overall standard of the Artisan gardens was higher than usual and some of them were entertaining. Some of my favourites included Dr Catherine MacDonald's garden for Seedlip. The copper piping weaving through the planting was fun.

The metal work continued into Graham Bodle's reclammation of an industrial site into a garden. I love a bit of rusty metal... and look, more pines.

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'm normally a big fan of Sarah Eberle, a former winner of Best in Show. This Viking Cruises garden didn't do much for me but I did like some of the plants, particularly this cactus.

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For my final garden there is only one degree of separation. The Breaking Ground garden was designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam; Andrew was my tutor when I studied garden design. The duo finally won a gold medal with this garden after several near misses (somewhat painful for Andrew who is a former head judge at Chelsea). It just shows what you can do with a lot of experience, a loyal sponsor, determination and ambition. And, what is that tree in the background?

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Chelsea 2016 - The call of the wild

It started last year with Dan Pearson's "barely there" garden based on a real trout stream and has continued at Chelsea 2016 with a slew of other show gardens drawn from nature.

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Cleve West's evocation of his childhood on Exmoor is a natural extension of the idea of bringing the wild into the garden. Although Dan Pearson's garden was literally drawn from Chatsworth, Cleve West's garden is slightly less literal. The fabulously atmospheric and architectural trees are Quercus pubescens or Downy Oaks, natives of southern Europe rather than the south-west of England.  The stone, however, is from the Forest of Dean, not so very far from Exmoor.

The garden moves from a wilder feel with rough stone paths and native plants on the outskirts to a more designed feel with sawn stone and more exotic species in the centre of the garden.

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James Basson has drawn on the landscape of his home in the south of France as the inspiration for his show garden. It is designed as a wild garden on the edge of a lavender field with plants typical of the garrigue of haut provence.  Some of the visitors to Chelsea found it hard to understand as a garden, thinking it scruffy and unfinished. The judges thought differently though and apparently it was a close runner-up as best in show.

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Other gardens, such as Hugo Bugg's garden based on the geography and flora of Jordan, have been slightly less literal in their interpretation of the idea of wild. His main aim was to draw attention to the scarcity and sanctity of clean water, the wildish landscape is the carrier of the idea rather than being the idea of wild itself.

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Rosy Hardy's first show garden was based on the fragility of our chalk streams.  I got the bit about dried up stream beds but not the bit about printing money. What are all those metal things?  This garden seemed quite a long way from wild, despite its message.

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One garden that I really thought had a wild feel was Sam Ovens garden for Cloudy Bay. The theme. the garden as a retreat, would probably have had more success if the site hadn't been on the busy triangular plot at the end of Main Avenue. However, the native pine trees and grasses, with the still water felt pretty wild and ungardened.  What a shame the heathers didn't quite come off...

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And the complete antithesis to all this wildness? Jo Thompson's Chelsea Barracks garden featured, of all things, a large and neatly manicured lawn. Described as a rose garden for the modern day, it didn't even have a whiff of the crematorium about it. It is a very calm, elegant and spacious garden - proof that a garden doesn't have to be wild for you to feel at one with the world.

Hauser & Wirth

Durslade Farm in Bruton, Somerset, is the latest outlet for the international art dealers Hauser & Wirth. In 2013 they commissioned Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf to design a garden for the gallery. The plants were supplied by our favourite nursery, Orchard Dene, and the garden was planted in the spring of 2014, one of the wettest on record.

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Those of you familiar with Oudolf's style will not be surprised to see huge borders of long-flowering perennials with little in the way of traditional structural plants like evergreen shrubs. For those of you not familiar with his style the garden can appear unstructured and lacking in focal points. There tends not to be the huge summer climax followed by assiduous cutting back, pruning and tidying that we are used to in traditional English gardens.

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Rather the garden starts slowly in the spring. But once the perennials get going there is wave after wave of billowing flowers and grasses. As summer moves into autumn the seed heads of faded flowers start to predominate. Rather than cut them back Oudolf leaves the seed heads to stand as long into the winter as possible. Indeed, Oudolf selects his plants as much for the way they move into senescence as he does for their colour in high summer.

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September marks a shift in focus from colour to form. Here we can see the seed heads of Echinacea pallida silhouetted against the still frothy flowers of Deschampsia. Oudolf is not obsessed by mixing and matching colours but by combining shapes and textures.

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There are few tradtional English gardeners who would put orange and pink in the same view but here Oudolf is contrasting the cone shaped flowers of Helenium Moerheim Beauty with the flat heads of Sedum matrona with some fluffy Pennisetums and amorphous Asters.

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This way of designing with plants has been termed "The New Perennial Movement" and Oudolf is its pre-eminent practitioner. The most notable way of imlementing this idea is with "block" planting - single species in large groups to make a big impact. As an idea it has been going longer than I've been a garden designer and it has influenced my own planting design.

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Oudolf's ideas have not remained stuck in a rut however. He has picked up on the scientific developments in matrix planting. This is based on the work carried out primarily at Sheffield University by Professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnet and also by Dr Noel Kingsbury.

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Matrix planting combines plants that do not compete with one another. They may flower at different times and have completely different forms and, to a certain extent, different requirements in terms of light and water. A lot of their research was brought to bear on the summer meadow planting at the Olympic Park in 2012. Matrix planting produces more of a tapestry effect and at Hauser & Wirth Oudolf has used block planting in some borders and matrix planting in others, to great effect.

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Enough of the garden design theory. It was a beautiful day when I went with friend and fellow designer Lisa Cox. There was thick fog most of the way from London but it was just starting to lift as we arrived. The garden didn't open until 10am so we had to amuse ourselves with second breakfast and a walk around the gallery.

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The sun was hazy and at a low angle, perfect autumn weather. Its always a difficult balance between looking at the whole garden, taking it all in, and looking at parts of the garden through a lens.

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Photography does focus your concentration though and makes you look at things you might miss on a broad sweep across the garden. However, it does also mean that people don't always recognise the garden you are photographing as they are not looking at it in the same way.

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Taking photos does highlight some peculiarities. For example, I took this one of Verbena bonariensis. Beloved of New Perennial designers and these days ubiquitous, I suddenly realised that this was the only one in the whole garden. Surely this wasn't intentional? A mistake then - but by whom? Or is it a joke? We also saw one lone Lobelia...

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Hauser & Wirth in Somerset is primarily concerned with art. There is some sculpture outside, some more successfully placed than others. The giant clock in the garden is a bit wierd I think but the spider in the courtyard is striking. There is a book shop and of course, a cafe and restaurant.

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As we were there early there was time for second breakfast of coffee and toast and jam.  Reasonably priced, tasty and in an art-filled cafe, I enjoyed it all.  The farm buildings have been restored in a fabulously rustic/trendy style - lots of concrete, wood, clay tiles and old brick walls.

The Hauser & Wirth experience is not to everyone's taste of course, one client described it as "a pretentious place, nasty art and not at all my idea of a garden!".  I can't do anything about her taste in art but I do hope she'll go back and have another look at the garden.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset - http://www.hauserwirthsomerset.com/garden

Orchard Dene Nurseries - http://www.orcharddene.co.uk/