The Cool Conundrum

Amongst the various dilemmas and difficulties I face as a garden designer is how crippled I can feel when it comes to designing a garden for myself.

This can simply be a matter of having seen too much, and consequently having too many options. Choice nearly always becomes a hurdle, and in their professional lives designers quickly learn to minimize the options provided to clients. But that kind of limitation can’t be genuinely self-imposed, and wading through the choices, particularly if you’re a born vacillator like me, can be a huge burden and a serious time waster.

But the indecision is also likely to be driven by ignoble questions that take the form of ‘What will my clients, colleagues or even my competitors think of this?’ It’s almost unavoidable that a designer’s own garden will become something of a shop-front, revealing his/her capabilities and breadth of creativity. Hyper-awareness of this is the real killer.

The most obvious plaguing question confronting every design decision falls into the ‘Is it cool enough?’ category. I imagine standing in front of the finished product with the most discerning of my gardening and design friends, and trying to guess whether they’d love it, be impressed by it (two quite different things), shrug it off, or revert to some polite comment that condemns with faint praise.

But after writing about this at length, I realized the more recurring question for me is ‘Can I get away with being this uncool?’. For most of what I want to do in my own garden isn’t really about creativity, originality or current thinking as much as to test my skills as a craftsman with plants, and how well I can execute an already recognized design ‘standard’ of either spatial design, planting design or hard landscaping.

I should add that I’m not the only one in the family with these questions. My wife once told me, in full finger-waggling, teacher mode, that I would never be taken seriously as a garden designer if I used a plant as prosaic as Viburnum tinus for the hedges around here. Feeling liberated by the reverse neurosis, I just laughed, and went ahead with the planting.

When I can manage to swat those embarrassingly superficial considerations out of the way like a swarm of persistent flies, I’m faced with much deeper concerns. For I’m fully of the opinion that no amount of highly original creativity or stunningly executed pastiche is going to make the place I really long for.

I’m at my least self-conscious, and most confident, when I’m playing with planting design. Here the perennial Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ fluffs about amongst annual Ammi majus (Queen-Anne’s Lace), placed deliberately in a spot that maximizes the potential for late-afternoon back-lighting.

I’ve been doing some holiday reading (or re-reading in this case) about the early days of the Nicolsons at Sissinghurst, Kent. Someone sent me the latest guidebook available at the garden, in which Adam Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West’s grandson) writes, under the sub-heading ‘Hushed and Drowsy’;

Again and again whenever Vita wrote about Sissinghurst, the atmosphere she summoned was of that of embedded history, a certain rich slowness, even a druggedness, as if evening, when colours are soft and thickened, were it’s natural and fullest condition’.

Reading those words can almost make me lose balance – making me dizzy with desire. I know what I’m trying to reach here goes far beyond excellence or originality (in fact may be undermined by originality, certainly by originality for its own sake), and stretches into questions about the framing of, and connectedness to, place. And I recognize that that slowness – that drowsiness – has been an integral part of every garden I’ve really loved. How do I build that in?

In ‘Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History’, Adam Nicolson repeats an apparently famous (but previously unknown to me) quote by Gertrude Stein in which, referring to her home-town of Oakland, California she states, ‘There is no there there’. While a quick googling of the quote reveals that it’s not exactly clear what Stein meant, the implications in the context of this argument are clear: that I could make the most original and/or impressive garden on this site, and still find that ‘there is no there there.’

And just say I could achieve some real ‘here here’ via clever design, the question still remains as to whether I’d be free to love it, given that it was entirely my own creation.

I’ve often wondered whether any artist is really free to love his or her own work. Grabbing Picasso as an example, could he have deeply loved his own paintings? Did he hang them proudly on his walls, and lead visitors to them to show them off? I can’t imagine so. Every artist I know is creatively irritated by his or her own work – always driven to do better next time.

Garden designers can, to some extent, dodge this difficulty as our gardens are more like our children than our paintings – works of our partial instigation and influence rather than of our firm creation, but I know that I’m hyper-critical and highly unforgiving with my own work, and that this would likely taint my own efforts at home. Elsewhere I can manage my unrealistic demands, or at least assuage them with distance. In my own garden, every lame design decision lurks literally, and persistently, at my doorstep.

The only way around it – for me, at least – was to buy some embedded history – a degree of existing externality. Hence our purchase of this very daggy, senselessly designed old house that can’t help but invite smiles of affectionate criticism. Over the last decade we’ve made it pretty, which is the best it can ever be – it’ll never be cool. Attached to the house, and far more important than the house itself, is a grand century-old oak tree. My kids and I have run under it, climbed through it, swung from it, read in it, and generally lived the last ten years of our lives in its gargantuan embrace.

A few years back I found a piece of milled pine on which my son had drawn several fat-trunked versions of the tree and, by pushing hard with a blue ball-point pen, had etched the words

This legendary tree has been none as The Tree of Legands (sic). It’s a huge tree great of oldness and was named by a boy aged nine in 2009. His name was Theo McCoy.

This was a massive reality check.

Nothing I do here, no matter how wildly creative, original or impressive, will ever match the power of that tree. The tree trumps all.

That humbling truth provides the precise freedom my creativity requires to know that I can really love this place, whatever additions – possibly despite whatever additions – I make. Performance anxiety is beaten back into the corner of this cage, and I’m free to play.

The great oak, providing invaluable design freedom via its visual dominance and embedded history.
Raised vegie beds. They were cooler when I installed them seven years back. Now something of a cliché. I thought I was being very clever, making each bed out of two slightly different tones of colorbond, but it’s one of those ideas that should have remained as an idea.
Lumpy, bumpy box hedges. Not one bit original, but irresistible to try, once you’ve seen the brain-coral effects achieved at Marqueyssac in the Dordogne, France.
Having visited the Prieure d’Orson in the Loire Valley, France, I couldn’t wait to try a bit of stick-work. It’s unfinished here, but you get the idea. My feeling is that it has a biodegradable impermanence – a kind of organic fragility – that transcends any questions of ‘coolness’.
The cornucopic abundance of a well-planted vegetable garden is universally, and eternally, appealing. It makes it hard to start the picking, given that you can’t help but spoil the effect. Photo: Emma Goodsir
A dry-stone stone wall that I planted as I built it, following the century-old advice from Gertrude Jekyll in her classic Wall, Water and Woodland Gardens. Nothing cool at all here, but I just had to prove I could do it, and do it properly.