Speaker’s Corner Piece for Gardens Illustrated

Holly and hellebore at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Last year we spent a bleak winter’s day removing and burning many yards of maturing holly hedge. It was a bleak day not so much because of the weather as because of the task. It had taken ten years to grow the hedge and it was gone in an afternoon. This was the price of asking for criticism of our garden.

It was not a penance; it was a result of the recognition of something that was not right and seeing a way in which the garden could be quite dramatically improved. The hedge surrounded steps, which opened up a view of our garage block which is not at all the garden’s best feature. We had never noticed the price we were paying until the garden writer, Stephen Anderton, pointed it out to us, and drew attention to the benefit of focusing the view on the pattern of yew hedges that the gap had until now distracted from.

This was the gain I had hoped for from opening the garden to the public: fresh eyes freshening our own vision. When you live with a garden you inevitably lose the possibility of seeing it clearly. Most aspects develop a veneer of inevitability and my focus tends to be on the immediate changes brought about by spring, weather damage or rabbits. I was disappointed to discover that the public’s reaction to the garden was almost always a variation on “lovely garden, what a lot of work, what’s that plant?”

I began to specifically ask some garden visitors for two things that would improve the garden, and this helped – it provides a kind of positive way in, and once away people have often found a great many more than two things. I cannot pretend that this is a comfortable experience: it is painful to hear what’s wrong and hard to take comments in and give them house room when the impulse is simply to rush to my own defence. The challenge is then how to judge whether the criticism is valid and whether it can be acted on. Clive Nichol’s (photographer) suggestion that we get rid of the house offered a test that we haven’t yet risen to.

But surprisingly often the effect is instant. Someone points something out and straight away I can see that they are right, and immediately I want to be doing whatever is necessary to put it right. We have a small enclosed formal garden. We used to have a fountain near the entrance which immediately took your attention, distracting from the view down the path into the garden. As soon as that was pointed out it was obvious the fountain had to be moved. Expensive, but obvious. Such criticism is exciting and relatively easy to respond to.

It is more difficult when I can’t see what the reviewer is getting at, or if I don’t agree. This requires careful thought and consideration, and the next visitor is likely to be asked what they think. Sometimes I understand and the challenge is to discover how to respond. Tim Richardson (garden writer) gave me a sensitive and detailed critique, and at the heart of it was advice which should be etched into every garden maker’s spade: “edit and focus”.

I am still struggling continuously with this one. The struggle is partly between the beauty of simplicity and clarity, and my attachment both to what we have made and to a proliferation of different plants. What is right will be what pleases us best but that can be hard to work out, especially in the face of loss. The acid test is the sense of relief and satisfaction that follows a positive change. Pleasure is not a straightforward thing and it can be easy to persuade myself, especially when something has cost a lot of effort, that second-best is really all right. But it’s not.

Anyone who is serious about their garden, as opposed to their plants, can benefit from an outsider’s eye. It could raise your garden from ordinary to exceptional. If you enjoy someone’s taste in their own house and garden, they are the person to ask. Then begin to “edit and focus”.

Anne Wareham

This piece first appeared in Gardens Illustrated, February 2005.

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