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Gardening as Freedom: A Conversation with Dan Pearson

Dan Pearson is a British landscape designer, gardener and writer renowned for ecologically sensitive, place-driven, planting design. Over the past 20 years he’s worked on a wide range of local and international projects; from the 240-hectare Tokashi Millenium Forest in Japan to photographer Juergen Teller’s London studio, private country gardens and public spaces throughout the UK. Pearson has written five books and has presented several TV series. He is a quietly spoken and humble man, with chlorophyll running through his veins.

Georgina Reid: In your writing, you write often about ‘we’, referring to your partner Huw Morgan. I know Huw is very much a part of Dig Delve – your online magazine – and I’m wondering how you two work together? Was he a gardener before you met, or did you bring him to gardening?

Dan Pearson: We’ve been together for twenty-eight years. When I first met him, he was working in film, but he does lots of different things. He’d always had an interest in gardens and nature. The gardening for him, or the appreciation of gardens, was an easy thing to see and understand.

It’s quite rare to be able to talk gardens with people. When I studied horticulture, I went to Wisley and thought, at last, I’ll find people my own age. I felt like a freak when I was a kid because all my friends were ladies in their sixties and seventies who were garden fanatics. I didn’t find those people at Wisley at all – just kids who wanted to learn about horticulture.

GR: They wanted to talk about horticulture, but you wanted to talk about plants with old ladies. What’s the difference?

DP: Wisley was a really good thing to have done, but it was not about plants in the way I had grown up talking about them. A lot of students were bright kids, but they were learning a trade.

So, the conversation around plants and their character and essence and the feeling you get from something when it’s combined in a certain way, that was a language I was used to talking and that’s the language I talk with Huw.

GR: Does Huw ever say, ‘Dan, come on, that is a disaster, what are you doing!?’ Or does he have to defer to you because you’re Dan Pearson?

DP: We listen to each other. I really value his judgment and I’m really interested in how the result could be bettered. Most really good gardens have somebody behind the scenes saying, ‘Yes, but what about this?’ or, ‘Could it be like that?’ or, ‘Why have you done this?’

GR: It’s such a solitary pursuit in so many ways, but then there’s nothing nicer than when someone sees something in a different way – a garden is a lovely thing to share.

DP: That’s true. I have found a vocation which is so communicable – anybody can do what we do and they can do it in their own way and nobody can judge. Of course people do judge, but it doesn’t matter because it’s your own joy. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed through writing and then with TV was communicating something of this joy.

GR: To me, gardens are not about trends and aesthetics, or even design. They’re about atmosphere, expression and care. You’ve written about the idea of gardening as freedom, and the garden as the place that you feel the most at home and yourself. I feel exactly the same way.

DP: Gardening is a deeply practical pursuit, but at the same time it’s enormously cerebral. The combination is deeply meditative. Not wanting to sound too esoteric or New Age about it, but I think it’s the combination of the physical and the mind that is very freeing.

And the best gardens, the ones that have true spirit, I think, are where people have tapped into something quite deep.

Dan Pearson. Photo: Huw Morgan

GR: I think a lot about place, and how there are particular landscapes we carry within us that affect our way of being in the world. I think this is really interesting in relation to people who make gardens, because in some way we’re drawing on elements and feelings and ideas from these spaces, subconsciously or not, to shape spaces in our present.

DP: I have a few different spaces I carry. What connects them is something primitive.

We’ve completely fallen in love with Greece over the past ten years and have got this tiny piece of land on an island there and a pile of stones which we’re making into a place to stay. It’s the fact that nature has completely the upper hand that makes me feel most connected.

I always have this real struggle with myself because I’ve trained myself as a designer and, by default, I change an environment. What I’m trying to do is to hone that alteration into being often the smallest shift that makes the biggest reveal. To be lighter and lighter and lighter.

There’s a place called Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor in Devon. An old term for it is a clatter of boulders – it’s these boulders that have rolled off the moor in some previous ice age and they’re huge and very close together. Man has never been able to farm or graze or anything there. So, in the middle of this moor, there’s this extraordinary wood that’s dominated by boulders which have protected these oak trees. The oak trees sit over the top of the boulders which are then covered in moss because they’ve never been touched by man because you can’t get the wood out.

In the UK, those places are very, very rare and it just has a tremendous resonance. Those places – ruins where nature has overwhelmed man or where man has not been able to make a mark and nature has the upper hand completely – are the ones that I gravitate towards, and want to try and understand.

GR: All of these spaces you’re mentioning aren’t necessarily particularly planty kind of places, they’re landscape I guess. That’s interesting to me.

DP: I’m fascinated by the plants that have adapted to those places and why they’ve done that. It’s all completely connected. The oak trees, for instance, are an absolute part of Wistman’s Wood and then the ferns in the clefts and all those things that are the clothing. But they’re sort of not the first or the only thing … they’re just part of it.

I’m interested in the whole, I guess that’s what I’m saying.

Dan Pearson. Photo: Huw Morgan

GR: I was reading a recent article of yours, and you wrote of Hillside, your home in Somerset: ‘The big questions here are how much to garden, why, and what for?’ I wonder how moving from the city to a country garden has evolved your thinking around gardens and stewardship, and the big question of why garden and what for?

DP: I remember when Dad talked to me about training to be a painter, we talked about how you got to the point where you could do something that was freer, and he was always very strict because he’d been trained properly as a painter – you had to go through the process of really learning how to draw and learning the techniques and learning then how to use paint. And I felt, okay, my raw materials are my plants, so that’s what I did first, and in a way very obsessively.

When I started to understand how important landscape was in the whole story and that I wanted to try and capture an essence of those natural places in the gardens, I started looking at landscape in a very different way and the plants became secondary.

I’m interested in using plants in a way that feels so right that you almost don’t notice them. And what’s great about Hillside – we love this place because it’s not manufactured. It has provided us with a canvas to do something that connected very deeply with nature. I wanted to feel like a smaller part on the land.

GR: The way you talk about Hillside, it’s not like you’re gardening the whole thing, you’re being a part of a place and I think that’s an interesting distinction.

DP: One day when I’m older I’ll go and live somewhere like Wistman’s Wood but right now, I love using the tools of my trade and I’m crazy about plants. I love them and want to play with them, and so, a small part of this site, probably one acre of the twenty acres we’ve got, is garden.

The greater part, and possibly the most interesting, is where we’re working in the landscape in a gentler way. It’s about finding a place that might be a bridge across a ditch that just holds you in just the right spot to observe what’s happening, slowing you down enough to be part of that environment.

It’s that engagement with the process of looking and responding to what it’s telling us it needs, then fighting less and less with what it’s telling us it wants – that’s a really interesting push and pull. I’m trying to be more responsive to it.

GR: I’m so fascinated by your landscape ‘tweaks’– there’s kind of an austerity to that sort of intervention.

DP: We’re stewarding the land and I’m applying my gardening skills to that stewardship. They’re often informed tweaks, tiny shifts that make you look again. I’m fascinated by that.

The projects we’re working on in the studio are more and more like this. They’re the ones that have a meeting point with nature, where we are using the garden as a way into an environment, a way to journey into and connect to a place. The garden then becomes a conduit to something much wilder.

GR: In Natural Selection, you mention this line of snowdrops winding through the landscape connecting to various neighbouring farms. It strikes me as such a brilliant example of the madness of being a gardener. There’s no pragmatic reason to do it, but why would you not put a line of snowdrops winding through your property and linking to somewhere else? What’s happening with that?

DP: Well, it continues to be my mad obsession in February. The line goes internally through the property and then comes up to meet the garden. I have put in about 5000 snowdrops a year for over ten years.

Then it goes through the garden and along the hedge bordering the lane that runs all the way through our twenty acres. I’ve been very, very strict with myself that the ones that are on the lane are only from local snowdrops, so I only plant snowdrops that people have given me. That part is very slow – I’m only doing fifty metres a year or something.

We’ve got two lovely sisters in their eighties as neighbours and the snowdrops have mostly come from them – they’re completely delighted by the snowdrop lane coming to light. One day, it will be a lovely legacy and people will say, ‘How did these get here?’ And it’s just a private little thing, but it’s very nice to be doing.

GR: It really captured my imagination.

DP: If I was a proper naturalist, I wouldn’t be doing that. My neighbour said, ‘I can see what you’re doing, but I don’t understand it,’ so he’s looking at it from a botanist’s perspective. We’ve had quite a heated debate about it, he thinks I’m tinkering.

GR: That’s a very interesting debate.

DP: It is … we’re all working with nature in a slightly different way.

In saying that, the pendulum is definitely swinging away from horticulture to me. Horticulture is a wonderful tool, but understanding naturalism is the bigger journey in a way, it’s the thing that takes longer because it’s working on a different timeframe.

GR: It is really. My sense is that being a gardener can be a really powerful way of being in the world in terms of caring for the ground and caring for the lives that grow from it. You’ve been talking about this sense of perspective and connectedness that is a really valuable lesson that most gardeners, if they’re awake, will pick up. More and more I’m thinking the gardener is a really important framework for being in the world. I wonder what your thoughts are on this?

DP: When I started my training at eighteen, nineteen, my friends were going off to university or art college or whatever. And I remember feeling it was a really good thing that I was doing. I didn’t feel ashamed because I was learning something practical, because it was so much more than that.

If you take a formal training to be a gardener in Japan it takes twenty-five years which is about right, I reckon. You need that many cycles, and you need to have failed that many times and succeeded as many times as you have to know it’s not just chance.

You can engage with the world in a very deep way through the very simple activity of gardening.

I think now that people are seeing what a terrible dent we’ve made on the world, that we do have a really serious responsibility to try and be less impactful.

It’s not a coincidence that naturalistic gardening is now worldwide. It’s a way that we can look at nature again as being something that needs to be cared for and protected and all those things that you do in a garden when you’re simply gardening.

When you’re gardening well, and I mean well as in not spraying, being water wise, all those things that you can do, you can be very responsible as a gardener in the world and mindful about what you’re using and why.

The whole lockdown – people have gone mad gardening-wise, certainly here, because we were in spring, and seed companies sold out and compost companies sold out. I don’t know whether they’ll all continue doing it, but it was a natural response from people.

GR: That’s a really important thing to see. Hopefully it does keep going, who knows? But certainly, it’s been the case in Australia, which I think has been really great. And hopeful – I guess that’s the thing about gardening, it’s ultimately a hopeful act.

This is more of a pragmatic question, but just thinking about this idea of landscape and the garden-making projects you work on … what’s your process of listening to land? Where do you start when you get to a place?

DP: When I went to Jerusalem for a year, I went out every weekend to look at landscape. I taught myself to read landscape through looking at the way that the plants were on the land. It was an extremely useful tool.

There isn’t always landscape at a new site, sometimes at the urban sites you’re looking at a different set of parameters and you’re trying to read the light, the way that light falls between buildings or the quality of the buildings and the mood it creates, but in that first five to twenty minutes, I’ve probably mapped it intuitively. And then I have to try and capture that feeling before it goes.

Most of us when we meet somebody new, we know pretty quickly whether we feel comfortable or not with them, and it’s the same sort of process you go through with a piece of land.

GR: I wonder about the relationship between your writing and your gardening. Often, when I’m stuck, I take my writing to the garden and let it simmer while I weed or something. Things usually settle and appear. I wonder how the two relate with you?

DP: Writing is important because you can distil an idea that’s often quite fugitive. I will have a thought about something in the garden that is fleeting, and then it’s gone.

Often, you take the thought further than you might if you were just letting it go during the process of a gardening afternoon. That can lead you somewhere else and then those thoughts become connected. It’s like a piece of knitting and it gets longer and longer and hopefully better as you explore.

GR: One last thing. There’s a sense of inevitability – the stories of you growing up and you’re having these great mentors and you had these gardens and went to Wisley, it’s like you’re absolutely on this path and there seems to be very little question in that. I’m interested in your path, not the world we see from the outside. I’m curious about the things that have shaken you a little bit or sent you somewhere else?

Tokachi Millennium Forest, From Tokachi Millennium Forest: Pioneering a New Way of Gardening with Nature by Dan Pearson and Midori Shintani. Published by Filbert Press.

DP: The TV thing was really interesting. I did some work in TV in the mid-’90s and until that point, I’d really been working very much on my own. I really enjoyed the process of making something with other people; we did a series of programs which you couldn’t do on your own. For me, it was the first time it had really come together like that and I really loved it. [But] I came unstuck because the TV was a voracious animal and just wanted more and more and more.

At one point, I had a crisis of confidence and fell off my bike and broke my arm. I was doing too many things. They were pursuing me to do another TV series, and I couldn’t do it, I didn’t have the resources. I said no and they simply went out and got another presenter. It was an absolute wake-up call where I just thought okay, I was just a commodity.

I recentred, and it was an incredibly useful thing to have happened, because it then allowed me to concentrate on my work. Move on another ten years and you find yourself in a situation where you’ve got nine members of staff and you’re having to take on some pieces of work just to keep the company going. You then find yourself in a different version of the same thing where actually you’re being run by something else.

The struggle, in a way, is to recentre yourself and the gardening is the thing which constantly allows me to. I’ve been incredibly territorial about the time I’ve had at Hillside, and not as social as I have been when we were living in London because I need this much time in the garden to reflect and to feel tethered.

I can see this big circle. It was the sanctuary I had when I was a child, gardening, and it’s the sanctuary that I have now and even more so. And the whole COVID situation which has meant that we’ve been here for the last four months, we’ve just decided we’re going to untether ourselves from London, and we’re going to find out how we might reengage our business in a more meaningful way. I just want to be really, really strict about working on projects with integrity.

GR: And you’re in a position to be.

DP: We’ve just finished a book about the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan – of all the projects I’ve worked on, it represents what I believe to be important about gardening. It feels like perfect timing to say okay, if I was to take on any more work, it has to have an essence of that project about it. There has to be truth, and there has to be an opportunity to better a place, make it more biodiverse, and more accessible for people to be a part of it.

I can’t remember what your original question was and I’m rambling again now, but it feels like the things I’ve struggled with – like when things get too big – the struggle goes away when I get back to the very simple act of being able to connect with nature through gardening. That’s my safe place. It’s such a beautifully simple thing.