What is garden design?
What is garden design? by Robert Kennett of The Potting Shed, Shaftesbury
“It’s not exactly rocket science” commented one learned customer of the Potting Shed recently.
Our esteemed visitor was of course referring to the ancient profession of garden design, whose principles have been explored since the hanging gardens of Babylon but which is perhaps today less understood than ever before.
Throughout history, from the ancient Persians who used their gardens to receive diplomats, sign treaties and for feasts and celebrations, through the romantic styles of Capability Brown to the naturalistic, sustainable approaches of today, garden design has always been at the heart of contemporary culture and an important reflection of the zeitgeist.
So why the current misunderstanding? Perhaps it’s the undermining effect of garden makeover programmes such as Ground Force, a populist garden revolution that made us all designers and which convinced us that gardens could be transformed for next to nothing (labour charges were never shown) in a matter of days. Mind you, they also convinced some poor victims to introduce some rather extraordinary elements into gardens such as Venice-style blue-and-white striped poles, which really takes some explaining to neighbours in a suburban setting! At the other end of the scale are the RHS shows (Chelsea, Hampton Court Palace) and programmes such as Channel 4’s Landscape Man both of which pervade an association with great expense and wealth.
Would the true meaning of garden design please come out of the shadows and reveal itself?
Like architects, the best garden designers offer solutions that provide us with a physical and psychological connection to the space in which we reside.
Part civil engineer, part horticulturalist, part artist and part architect, a garden designer has to be the GP of garden (rather than plant) ailments at the physical level. But it is at the spiritual or psychological level where his contribution is perhaps most underrated. Only yesterday I went to see a client south of Shaftesbury who was looking for advice on why her front garden, though abundantly planted, just didn’t seem to give pleasure or connect with her. She expressed what many truly feel when they ask for something that is “low maintenance” that gardening is much less of a chore if the end result gives us great pleasure.
One of the problems in this instance was that little thought had been given to the overall effect of the soft landscaping. Plants, mainly evergreen shrubs, were used as space fillers and there was little sense of an overall evocative mood. In other woods there was no emotional connection to the garden.
Which brings me back to rocket science. There is certainly a lot of science to garden design in terms of tackling drainage issues, specifying safe, effective retaining walls and creating robust, weather-proof landscaping in harmony with its surroundings and soil type, but it is the less tangible art of creating spaces that take our spirits to another dimension away from the trials of everyday life where the profession has the most to offer. As we are squeezed financially and compressed into ever more densely populated residential areas, a little inexpensive advice on making outdoor spaces that lift the spirit, harmonize family life or support wildlife is surely a more worthwhile pursuit than sending more satellites into space!
Robert Kennett is an award-winning garden designer and proprietor of The Potting Shed garden shop and nursery in Swans Yard, Shaftesbury. He can be contacted on 01747 858215.