Gardening is not a skill you can learn overnight. There is a reason why many great gardeners come to our attention in their maturity, for example, Gertrude Jekyll, the great Victorian plantswoman and designer, because it takes a lifetime to understand the complexities of nature.
Gardening moves in yearly cycles, each of which is totally different, requiring different strategies to obtain the best results, depending upon the weather.
Many plants take a lifetime to grow to maturity, for example trees, so to try to begin to understand them, you have to start relatively young. I will never forget reading a quote from a famous politician who was asked on his deathbed what he regretted most about his life and what he would change if he could, and he said simply, “ I wish I had planted more trees”. This quote has remained in my subconscious, and as a result, whenever I move house to a new garden, I always plant new trees as a priority so that I can see their beauty develop before my eyes and learn about them.
Throughout the last thirty years I have been reading the works of great gardeners such as the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter, Beth Chatto, British plantswoman and Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer, pioneer of the New Perennial movement, trying to gain an insight into what skills they possess. I have visited their gardens and taken mental notes of what I have seen and photographed many plant combinations.
I attended a fascinating lecture by Beth Chatto. She spoke eloquently and movingly about her passion for plants and the environment, and her primary desire to understand the origin of a plant, its native habitat, in order to have the knowledge to place it in the best part of her garden to thrive. This was an important lesson for me, as so many plants in gardens are lost because they are planted in the wrong position. Her books on the dry garden and the damp garden are essential reading for any serious gardener.
From Piet Oudolf I have learned the value of grasses in a scheme. They are an amazing unifying plant, able to knot together a design like a tapestry. The unique way they move in the breeze brings dynamism to a garden. I was lucky enough to spot him in his border one morning at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Garden, where he has designed a breathtaking planting scheme, and we had a lovely chat, he was so friendly and open, happy to share his ideas and enthusiasm with me.
The late Christopher Lloyd’s garden Great Dixter has been a real favourite of mine for many years. I had read his books and wanted to see his creation, so when I first visited it, I was blown away by his use of colour and I loved the way he did not have any rules about colour, he just used his intuition, which worked every time. The vivid, contrasting colours of his annual and perennial schemes were revelatory to me, and I have learned that plant combinations are about so much more than colour. So many other elements are at play when you combine plants, colour being only one of them. I have also learned that if you understand plants as he did, and have an eye for design and structure, plants never clash, no matter what colour they are. Nature does not clash, and he understood the laws of nature.
What is so useful when you visit these great gardens, and they can also be ones that are open on the Garden Schemes or those of friends and family, is that they have a unique atmosphere, which is the result of the unparalleled creative talent of the creator. You cannot experience this atmosphere just by reading their book, but you cannot understand the philosophy of that gardener just by visiting their garden, unless of course you get a personal tour. So ideally you should both visit their garden and read their book, (if they have one), only then will you begin to understand the way their minds work and what inspired them to create their masterpieces.
I find that when I have visited a particular garden on a particular day when it was looking absolutely stunning, that picture remains in my memory for ever. There was for me a breathtaking beauty which actually only exisited for a short time, because gardens are changing constantly. However that feeling of being amongst the power and beauty of nature at its most vibrant was locked into my subconscious. I experienced that feeling when I visited Keith Wiley’s unforgettable planting at The Garden House, Buckland Monachorum in Devon during an eighties spring, I resolved to study horticulture from that moment on, when I visited Beth Chatto’s garden in spring, when I visited Highgrove, Prince Charles’s garden, in July 2006, when I visited Sissinghurst in high summer, and when I visited Great Dixter in late summer, when the garden was at its most exuberant, just before he died.
This year we are experiencing a particularly magical spring, after the unprecedented wet winter and the warm start to the year. The climate has unusually, echoed that of the Himalayas, where a lot of our cherished plants originate, prompting many to flower for the first time after many years of waiting. The plants are singing as loudly as the birds right now.
I would urge everyone to visit a garden this stunning spring to capture a moment of beauty in your life that will, hopefully, remain with you for ever.
Christina Angelucci has a Diploma in Plants and Plantsmanship from The English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden. She has gained the General Examination in Horticulture from The Royal Horticultural Society with distinction. Christina has the full City and Guilds Certificate in Gardening including practical modules - and has worked as a volunteer at Kew Gardens and for the BBC at the Chelsea Flower Show, assisting the production teams with the television coverage of the show gardens.