Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Historical Gardens...My View.

In my gardening & grounds management experience, I’ve naturally spent much time trying to understand the spaces in which I work. I personally can’t help but study a garden when after all; I have to spend a good chunk of any day out & about in it! Whilst I have a strong interest in new garden design, my career on the whole has been focused on heritage sites, & I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in gardens that have become established for hundreds of years, & have been cultivated by generations of gardeners.

I know that during my gardening life, I’ve spent many a moment looking at how each garden was created, trying to understand why the owners, sometimes two or three hundred years previous, went to so much trouble & expense to achieve their vision. Occasionally, my knowledge has been quickly improved due to one of those amazing documents known as a Conservation & Management Plan, which can become the supporting document for working & developing any historic garden. I find these plans invaluable & fascinating, as they bring together all the research & information that directly relates to a gardens development over time, & they really help to put the garden in context.

I’m keen to point out that I try hard not to get bogged down in history, & I have a positive attitude for developing gardens, even historical gardens, to suit our needs in the 21st century. I am sure however that our understanding of a gardens past is vital in order to make the right choices when it comes to restoring, renovating, or maintaining an historic garden, & especially before adding new features. I guess this is the reason for this article, for me to display my thinking, my approach & understanding of a garden, which I believe makes me successful as a gardener, it is not through being a plants man or garden historian or such like.

Some of the people that I’ve worked with whilst caring for gardens have shown differing reasons for their involvement in them, & sometimes have seemed to have little care or appreciation for the hard work & ingenuity that has happened over time. Without this respect, not only for the garden but for the hard work & enterprise that has gone before, I don’t think an individual can truly care for a garden, or get the best results from it. I like to believe that my interests help me understand what needs doing, where, & when. For example, when a shrubbery needs to grow wild, or when it needs to be regularly pruned, or when a tree needs to be severely pruned, or removed completely etc.

Most important I believe, & crucial to restoring or maintaining an old garden, is to understand its original design, structure, layout etc; these are the initial & vital factors that ultimately determine a gardens success. Understanding the structural elements of a garden, as mentioned above are key: path networks, level changes, tree positions, viewpoints, locations of removed garden structures etc. If this information is sought, then other considerations, such as plant choice, (inc’ tree planting,) lawn management, & developing the garden further, will be much easier & hopefully more in keeping.

Most often, it is through my eyes & experiences as a gardener, that I gather my knowledge & information relating to the gardens where I work, & it is without surprise, that many of our knowledgeable head gardeners have proved invaluable with information about the gardens where they work. I particularly like the podcast produced for Compton Verney, which includes an interview with the previous head gardener John Schuman, & landscape historian John Phibbs. It clearly illustrates the different approaches to understanding & discovering a garden that has developed over centuries. Click on this link, to hear the podcast mentioned above.

I’d like to think that all gardeners in historic gardens extract the same satisfaction as I do, as they learn about the garden through everyday maintenance. I’d like to think they get the same enjoyment from trying to figure out how the garden was constructed & what the finished garden was supposed to look like; allowing for the fact that many gardens are never truly ‘finished’.

I ask gardeners to consider the following, as you carry out your daily tasks:

o When you see a mature tree in a garden area, try to think why it was planted exactly there, & how its changing structure through the years will have changed the look of the garden.

o Try studying the undulating ground, & figure out how much the earth had to be manipulated to create that land form, & work out how they achieved it?

o If you have large trees, decaying tree stumps or depressions/humps where trees once stood, mark them on a map & record their positions for information. Study these maps to see if planting patterns emerge.

o Should you be digging up old pottery or other man made objects, try to consider why they are in that very location. Record this information also, don’t let it simply slip away.

Learning about our gardening past is fascinating, & very engaging, & most definitely should affect the way we develop our gardens for us, & tomorrow’s garden visitor. Keep it grounded though, because if you get hooked on historic gardens, you’ll start to worry about digging the simplest planting hole for fear of destroying any underlying garden archaeology!

Above all - Happy Gardening!


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