Tuesday, 28 October 2008
At the age of 21, study fine art at university, I had little idea that I would end up becoming a garden designer and writer. Sculpture drawing, painting - wrestling with colour and form as art and as essay - that was all I wanted to do.
I grew up taking gardens for granted. We always had beautiful gardens at home, and my grandparents owned a gorgeous one in Surrey; it was overflowing with camellias, cherry blossom and love-in-a-mist. Looking back, I suppose a love affair with landscape dragged around "yet another garden". I used to moan and grumble and feign illness. Inevitably, as I got older, I started dragged my family out instead.
I'm not sure when it clicked. I tend to say it happened in my second year at Oxford, when I was making a seres of drawings for a show at the Botanical Garden, but, in truth, there was no epiphany, just a gradual realisation that the themes I was exploring - colour, form, space, time-were equally applicable to the garden. I have always been rather private about my artwork, but the two disciplines - painting and garden design - fit together better than I ever imagined.
Writing is an important part of the creative design process for me. Putting things into words helps me to process the myriad ideas and requirements involved in any garden or planting design. It helps me to come up with new concepts. As an art student, I used to fill my sketchbooks with as many words as images, and that hasn't changed over the years.
I'm still saving up for my acres in the country so, at the moment, I garden where my project take me. Perhaps one day I will become a tenant for the National Trust and help it to restore a massive historic garden, but for the moment, I lovingly tend to begged, borrowed and pilfered pockets of land.
At my family home in Nottingham, I garden on serious clay, We have improved the soil beyond recognition by double digging and adding plenty of local mushroom compost. This is where I try out new plant introductions and experiment with planting combinations - you could say "painting with plants", I love the contrast of crisp hedges, old walls and topiary against the blowsy forms of cottage or prairie planting, and we are lucky to have old brick walls in the garden. The main borders combine traditional herbaceous perennials with swaths of ornamental grasses and plenty of roses. I have inherited my mother's love of old-fashion roses, so I squeeze in as many as I can. I am particularly interested in designing planting with the relaxed painterly look of a traditional herbaceous border without the intensive maintenance and this is where I try out my ideas to see what really works.
At my grandparents' house in Surrey, I garden on the Bagshot Sands. The garden is prone to summer drought but can support a wider range of tender plants that thrive in the Midlands. It is a great garden in which to experiment with drought and flood tolerant perennials and to lean about planting that look after itself. Interestingly, hostas seem to be happiest in this sandy, free-draining soil because the leaves don;t get so lush - so they don't get eaten.
At my Birmingham flat, I get to experiment with vegetable container gardening. The large glass windows create a sun trap, so I can start off my seeding inside. The balcony is a compact 5m x 2m, but I am self-sufficient in fresh cut-and -come-again lettuce, pak choi, chicory and herbs. I am having a lot of success with sugar snap, peas tumbling tomatoes, blueberries, redcurrant, purple sprouting broccoli and leeks. I am trying to grow mushroom, too, but the mushroom logs are not playing ball.
It's amazing how productive a small space can be - and there is still room for sunflowers and other ornamentals. My boyfriend Jule's ban on "girlie planting" has given me the chance to experiment with a more dramatic colour scheme that I get to employ in some of the larger country estates I work on. Black terrazzo, bright red furniture and bright red flowers set off the lush green vegetables and deep purple foliage. The only "girlie" exception to this rules is the gorgeous Salvia verticillata 'Purple Rain' which I managed to sneak in because Jules is a Prince fan.
In many ways, this varied approach to gardening is a real stroke of luck. It enables me to experiment with a broad rage of habitats. Every year when the plant catalogues arrive, I drool over them like a child in a sweet shop and order newly introduced plants to try. My gardens are a test bed for my work: it would be reckless for me to recommend plants I haven't grown myself, so all the garden spaces I commandeer are in a constant state of flaux - with me constantly tweaking and re-planting to see what works, and what doesn't.
This year, we have been attacked by slugs in their thousand and I have taken the opportunity to experiment with aromatic substitutes for some of my favourite border perennials. As a result, I have discovered a new favourite in Teucrium hircanicum, which has, this year, replaced Salvia nemorosa 'Schwellenburg' in the Nottingham borders. I am becoming almost evangelical in my product from the rooibos tea industry, called Fine Naturals, that is brilliant at deterring slugs.
The most thrilling part of designing gardens and planting schemes is when I get o come back a year or two later and see how they have matured. There is noting more satisfying than t see the concepts and ideas that I spent so long playing around with in my own gardens bear fruit - but realised on a much lager scale.