What an odd concept, to separate enjoyment of gardens from the process of garden-making. A garden magazine article a couple months ago introduced me to this astonishing notion, when it profiled the owner of a complex garden who spoke intelligently about his garden, knew every inch of it, but had it all designed, constructed, planted, and maintained by someone else. Shocking. Yes, all these years, and that particular idea had never occurred to me. What a revelation. And then a book is published this spring by an Englishwoman living in Wales, Anne Wareham, entitled “The Bad-Tempered Gardener,” in which she declaims “I hate gardening.” Hates it, yet spends a good part of her adult life imprinting the landscape with patterns such as this:
Photograph by Clive Nichols
Finally, a garden book I had to read.
After I began the book, Janine Robinson of Laguna Dirt loaned me the documentary Women in the Dirt, on California landscape architects. Both Wareham’s book and this documentary dredged up for me the continuing problem with discussing gardens, and that is the paucity of language at hand to describe intentions.
The work of one of the landscape architects profiled in the documentary, Andrea Cochrane.
In the general garden media, vocabulary and scale of intent are at odds, terms are imprecise and often meaningless. Fundamentally, to make a garden is to sculpt the land, but there are vast differences in degrees of intention. We call a collection of pots on a balcony a garden and use the same word to describe Andrea Cochrane’s monumental work. I get the distinct impression from her book that Ms. Wareham’s approach is that of a landscape architect. (After visiting Beth Chatto’s plant-rich garden and meandering paths, Ms. Wareham’s response: “I realized…that I wanted strong shapes and pattern, straight lines, squares and circles — because they satisfy and please me.”) And in writing that, I know I’m dangerously straying into facile distinctions, including the age-old false choice of pitting design against growing plants for plants’ sakes. But for all the myriad reasons we choose to make a garden, if we invite and welcome criticism, as Ms. Wareham is doing, all that matters is the result at that moment in time when someone else views our efforts, not how many species of plants have been included or excluded.
Photograph Â© Veddw House
Now that Veddw is relatively mature, her writing expresses a feeling of being its prisoner, consigned to the tedium of maintaining its hedges and overall shape, tasks she apparently loathes. Someone needs to take over the maintenance of Veddw so this talented landscape artist can take on fresh challenges. A practical but glib suggestion, because her rootedness to Veddw rings out from every page of her book.
Grasses Parterre, Veddw copyright Charles Hawes
And like many landscape architects, Ms. Wareham deplores the plant collector mania that she feels ruins the design of so many gardens, the fixation on plants, their names, the “What is it?” nature of garden tours. She sets just a few rampageous species loose at Veddw to infill the grid of hedges, boundaries which she employs not only for structure but in some cases as historical allusion to the hard-scrabble agricultural life practiced by previous inhabitants on the fields of Veddw, deploying ornamental grasses as stand-ins for “crops.” Boisterous plants like fireweed, aka the Great Willowherb, Epilobium angustifolium, ribbon grass/Phalaris arundinacea, goutweed/Aegopodium are some of the plants she favors. Restraint in plant selection is her hallmark, and yet she says she’d like to pare it down even further, an approach bound to disappoint a garden-visiting public that craves plant diversity and the latest in cultivars. Image found here.
For me, the truest test of a book’s worth is if I find myself arguing with its author. On 7/28/11 Amy Stewart of Garden Rant reviewed this book, and the boisterous comments to her review prompted me to search for this draft post I had written but never posted on the blog. I’ve been arguing quite a bit with Ms. Wareham since reading her book. Like her garden, Ms. Wareham challenges and probes and asks: Why must it be so? It’s a voice out of The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.”
That a garden can be a life’s work rather than just a hobby is an idea running counter to its time. Hence, the bad temper maybe? Though I have to say that the only really bad temper encountered so far has been found in some of the book’s reviews. Quoting from the review in the May 2011 Gardens Illustrated by Christopher Stocks: “[S]he’s a product of the world she criticizes, and her scattershot opinions end up sounding like self-publicity.” Some of the animus directed at her seems to stem from an assertion she makes that magazine articles are sometimes written about gardens that the writer hasn’t personally visited but knows only through photographs. There’s been all sorts of controversy accompanying this book, culminating in the decision by Gardens Illustrated not to include Veddw on a 2011 tour of Welsh gardens, discussed here.
To be sure, the book reveals plenty of contradictions. A withering view of garden media, television and print, from someone who has participated in both. (“If you’re going to be part of a garden programme on television there’s one thing you’ll know from the start: the subject is not going to be treated in any depth.”) Whether her forays in television were failed attempts at wider communication or efforts to “monetize” the garden, who can say? Either one is valid. The juvenile level of garden discussion in the media, with its focus on endless how-to’s, infuriates her, which she likens to a musician learning scales but never graduating to let rip in the orchestra, or as Ms. Wareham puts it, “to separate the learning of the skills from the expression of the skills.”
Wareham admits she left her London apartment to find land with more “scope” for garden making and sought inspiration visiting British estate gardens like Hidcote and Hestercombe. For centuries has Great Britain thus been inspiring successive generations of garden makers. With rare exception (some botanical gardens, Monticello, Longwood, Wave Hill, Chanticleer, the Huntington) most of America’s inspirational gardens are relatively young and small in scale. Almost two decades ago, it was this British garden tradition that I needed to experience first-hand, exploring countless gardens in England, Wales, and Scotland (really just dipping over the border into Scotland to visit the Logan Botanic Garden). I don’t feel the need to go back to Britain for inspiration. I’d head to Germany and the Netherlands or South America. Is Ms. Wareham railing against a moribund state of gardening in Britain? Is the weight of that long tradition now throttling creativity and stifling criticism? Is Britain just one big outdoor garden museum? Reading her book, I did feel at times dropped into a conversation, the first half of which I missed. There really is no country on earth more rabid about gardens, whose newspapers still have good garden sections, where garden TV show hosts are celebrities, so there is a lot of conversation to miss, and much of the book details the “phoniness” of this world. Like a horticultural Holden Caulfield, Ms. Wareham writes: “The garden world is soaked in dishonesty of all kinds…” (Many of us are still waiting for our garden culture to become sophisticated enough for intrigue and dishonesty.)
Hungry for criticism beyond issues of proportionality, scale, mass, rhythm, in exploring the idealized relationship to the natural world we call our gardens, Ms. Wareham impatiently awaits a time when gardens are discussed as art, and she boldly offers up Veddw for such discussion. I fear that for most gardeners who lack “scope,” filling in the awkward spaces around their homes, coping with shade, depleted soil, lack of privacy, extreme weather events, the question of “Is it art?” is beside the point. But I do look forward to reading more of Ms. Wareham’s spirited inquiry on the subject. In writing “The Bad-Tempered Gardener,” she has thrown her well-worn garden gloves into the ring, asking us to join her in discussing why and how gardens matter and to be unafraid to draw distinctions between those gardens that matter more (and less).
It would be an oversight for me not to credit Ms. Wareham’s husband, Charles Hawes, in the making of Veddw. Mr. Hawes is also a talented photographer, some of whose photos I’ve borrowed for this post.