The bars of a prison

by AnneWareham on June 20, 2013

What are Gardens For? on Veddw blog

There’s a convention in the cultural world that people shouldn’t respond to criticism of their work. That no doubt had its merits once, but the world is livening up and dialogue is increasing everywhere as a result of the web. For the garden world this should, at long last, mean that issues can get thoroughly aired and thought through.

If we are going to have that dialogue though, we need to begin to consider what is helpful and constructive and what is not. Name calling is not. It may have relieved Noel’s feelings to say of Robin Lane-Fox “He is one of a kind – the ‘crusty old fart’ who we do particularly well in Britain, annoying but in the end, rather lovable” but it doesn’t actually refute or address his criticisms of Noel’s book. (See  Noel Kingsbury’s response to Robin Lane Fox.)

Rory Stuart recently wrote a detailed appraisal of Veddw in his new book “What are Gardens For?‘ I feel complimented that Rory has thought so carefully about Veddw, and considered it a serious enough garden to write about at length. And, taking him seriously,  I want to respond. His comments are thoughtful and perceptive, and it was a great relief to find that I share most of them. So here goes, over several posts, – and – who knows? Rory may even respond and have the dialogue I’d like.

Crescent Border, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

The Crescent Border fronted by alchemilla bed.

Rory mentions the imprisoning effect of the Crescent Border: “The enclosure is achieved by plants of the same height, and their small leaves, too, are all a similar size, which creates a sense of claustrophobic repetition. Such strong verticals can too easily suggest the bars of a prison”

One person’s claustrophobia is perhaps another’s sense of safe confinement. Someone else once complained of our high hedges for a similar reason, suggesting we cut them so that you could see out of the gardens that they confine. Some people love open plan, and knock down walls and remove doors in their houses to create as open an effect as they can – the familiar ‘Grand Designs’ style. These are also the people, perhaps, who dislike ‘garden rooms’.

In contrast I even have my reasonably modest bedroom divided into two with a large bookcase. I always divide my spaces and feel comforted by being surrounded and enclosed. This seems to me to perhaps be one of those preferences you are stuck with, and my relentless pursuit of Charles to get him to close the sitting room doors demonstrates this. At least he doesn’t demand we remove the doors. (the house would just become a long corridor if we did).

Grasses Parterre and hedges Veddw copyright Anne Wareham s

Tall hedges shutting in the gardens

So I think I like the enclosing effect of the  Crescent Border and even of its tall plants, backed by taller yew hedges. But I understand how intimidating the border could be – exaggerated by the fact that it is also above a three foot wall.

Most of all though – Rory is so right about the choice of plants.

Buzzard cut out in Crescent Border, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

A buzzard trying to break up the small leaf effect.

I have tried for years to deal with the tiny leaf effect. I have planted hostas and Fatsia japonica in an effort to introduce variety. The problem is that the plants in the border are so well established and vigorous that anything added, even when a space is cleared for them, can hardly grow. They struggle and splutter and make little impact. I keep at it, because the alternative – to demolish the whole border and start again would be expensive in every way. However, one day, in the interest of a better garden, and even more, in the interest of an easier garden, I may do that.

Mid June 3 073 Crescent Border June copyright Anne Wareham

I have thought of planting it with a dramatic sweep of just one ornamental grass: wow!

And that would have …the same vertical, prison bars effect….

Or I’ve wondered about a sub Piet Oudolf effect (sub because of the enormous skill and knowledge that he possesses and I lack)

– but I suspect that the plants involved might possibly have …..rather small leaves and strong verticals….

At present, then, I continue to try to break up the small leaf effect. The buzzards were a part of that attempt too…

Part Two of this response to Rory will follow shortly. And thank you, Rory.

(See also Anna Pavord’s interview with Rory about the book.)

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elizabethm June 21, 2013 at 10:29 pm

What a very interesting critique and response, particularly for me as both Rory’s comment and your response address the issue (which you know is my current obsession) of openness and enclosure. Ultimately I am a Charles on this but I know I have gone too far and got it wrong in my own garden. I didn’t however find the enclosure of the Crescent border claustrophic or in any way like prison bars. I found it soft, comforting, a colourful relief from the spare beauty and austerity of the yew hedges. I also like repetition in planting. In fact I sometimes have to give myself a kick to use more and different plants instead of more of the same so I didn’t find the repetition in any way claustrophic either. I do understand about the small leaved thing but for me the issue is as much about plant shape (spire, curve) as about leaf size. There is a lot of upward thrusting spire and some outward spreading curve would be good.

AnneWareham June 21, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Thanks for all that and – yes, I agree totally re outward spreading curve. Am still wondering what and how….

John June 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Were you George Plumptre, you would now be seeking to have Rory banned from every NGS garden because of his offensive tirade! Prison indeed! But, in fact, this is his opinion, just as you know my opinion and others’ opinions. Nothing more, nothing less. Just as others may disagree with me, so we may disagree with Rory, with each other.

But that is for us to debate. You do not need to justify your garden. It is your creation – you did what you wanted to do so rejoice in the fact that you have given us something to think about and debate. And I think, with the backdrop of the high hedges, the crescent needs to be high or it would look “twee” and Veddw is anything but “twee”.

If you’ve got to do something, shove some Ophiopogon planiscarpus nigrescens in around the front. It’s low, eye catching, minimal maintenance, probably evergreen (!) and curvy.

AnneWareham June 22, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Thanks John. No, I don’t need to justify anything about the garden – but I do want to keep the discussion open and to improve the place when and where I can. And to promote discussion about gardens and issues about gardens generally: which is why I hope this discussion is useful beyond Veddw.

Thanks for suggestion re O p n – but it is no longer physically possible to add anything at the front without wholesale destruction…

I have tried to imagine the Crescent Border with lower planting and concluded that too much hedge might show…

But it is entirely possible that inspiration will be offered or arrive one day or night (alcohol helps, I find) and all will change!


john lord June 23, 2013 at 10:14 am

I don’t understand why new plants won’t grow in decent sized clearings in established borders. I do this at times when for whatever reason established plants are removed. To a certain extent, a process of removal and replacement is necessary in any good garden. What’s important is the rate at which it’s done.
My view on planting now is to go by leaf size, colour, shape, texture, and overall plant shape. Flowers are a bonus, like the cherries on a cake.
I think some of the stuff said about your garden was said for effect.

AnneWareham June 23, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I’m not sure I understand, either. I have managed it – with Persicaria campanulata for example. But many failures and just finding plants to sacrifice is hard..
I don’t agree that Rory (if you were referring to Rory’s comments) wrote for effect. Very thoughtful and considered, I believe. Nor wrong.

Helen June 23, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I havent visited yet so cant respond to Rory’s comments. However, I sometimes find garden rooms and high hedges claustrophic but I have noticed that this feeling isnt the same with all high hedges and garden rooms so I’m not sure yet what causes the feeling. I find Hidcote very claustrophic and there is an element of fussiness in the planting which I hate. I suspect that it isn’t just the hedges that cause the feeling. I like open spaces more but only outside.

Interestingly I dont struggle with tiny leaf syndrome. I have a variety of leaves and structure but there is a lack of impact. It must be possible to have impact, cohesion and also different leaves etc I just havent worked it out yet

AnneWareham June 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Ah – review of Hidcote coming up soon on thinkingardens: you’ll be interested. If you do discover what makes some claustrophobic and some not, that would make an interesting article. I think the tiny leaf thing is partly a result of our climate – it takes tropical plants to produce the large, contrasting leaves we could do with. And/but they also often look weird in UK gardens.

Wm. Martin. July 14, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Acanthus/Bergenia …..and more.

AnneWareham July 14, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Teaching your grandmother how to suck eggs, Billy?

william martin July 17, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Sorry I mentioned it maistro

AnneWareham July 17, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Quite right. But you are as forgiven as ever. XXXX