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Gardens and Nature

The Forest

In early May we walked in the Forest of Dean near Symond’s Yat. It was sunny but with a cold north wind blowing in the tree tops. The dominant tree there is beech. In open clearings, sunlight struck the leaves, bathing the landscape in a bright, light, glistening green. In other places we walked beneath the tree canopy. Here the sun backlit the leaves above us and, in the gaps between the leaves, the sun streamed through and cast shadows and patterns on the forest floor.

As well as beech, there were other trees: dark green, shiny, prickly holly and various conifers, oak trees with half-opened leaves, the young green leaflets tinged with bronze and, by the river, alders with their round, matt-surfaced leaves of mid- green.

Beneath the trees, the forest floor was green also: the leathery rosettes of hart’s tongue ferns were abundant as were great masses of dog’s mercury. We saw flowers too: the wood anemones were fading when we were there but clumps of primroses were still in flower and bluebells cast an azure haze over large areas.

We felt at peace and, at the same time, exhilarated by the overwhelming beauty of the forest

 

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Wildflower meadow with Oxeye Daisies

 

 

Meadows

And if forests are shade and enclosure in the landscape, then the bright open counterpart-the yang to the forest’s yin – are fields and meadows. There can be few things more blissful than to walk through a flowery meadow on a warm sunny day. Perhaps my best memory, of what is now an all too rare experience in Britain, was in Spain’s Picos mountains where, as we walked through the meadow, clouds of moths, butterflies and other insects fluttered in among the myriad flowers.

If only, I thought ,we gardeners could capture some small part of the magical atmosphere of these places for our gardens. Very difficult, I know. But well worth trying and I do believe there are some fairly simple steps that can be taken to make at least some progress towards this goal.

 

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The Heseltine Garden

 

 

Green Leaves Make Green Peace

First, it seems to me that gardens which exclude gold, purple and variegated leaves and use only green foliage can have an atmosphere akin to that of forest and field, a mood which is both tranquil and refreshing to the spirits. No coloured leaf (I have used “coloured leaf” throughout this website to indicate gold, purple and variegated foliage) garden, whatever its virtues, however elegant, ever achieves this most magical quality. So my first recommendation is: use green foliage in your garden.

 

Great Gardens

At this point, I expect many readers of this website to rebel. “I am not going to get rid of my beloved variegated plants on the say- so of this writer.” Before writing me off as an eccentric obsessive, consider this: great gardens never, ever contain indiscriminate scatterings of variegated, gold or purple leaf plants . The very occasional coloured-leaf specimen, or, even more rarely, a coloured-leaf enclave (the gold garden at Blenheim, for example) are all you will ever see on your garden visits.

Furthermore, almost all of the most sublime gardens in the world are completely free of variegated, purple and gold leaf plants. Should we not learn from the best?

 

 

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Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor. Ancient miniaturised oak trees festooned with ferns & bilberries & wrapped in moss

 

 

The Seasons

As well as emphasising the use of green leaves, my other main theme is that gardens can only be truly satisfying, if they reflect the passage of the seasons

The eminent Spanish designer, Fernando Caruncho, said “Very few people today make a life through farming. As our civilisation loses contact with agriculture, it loses in turn the natural rhythms and traditions imposed by the seasons. The garden also offers a means of renewing contact with these natural cycles.”

However, many modern gardens are, it seems, in denial of seasonality.

Many (most?) present-day gardens are dominated by hybrid plants which are in flower for unnaturally long periods. This distorts the passage of the seasons.

To make matters worse, these hybrids are often double- flowered and therefore useless to bees and other beneficial wildlife and (another black mark!) they all require copious amounts of water and fertiliser to fuel their unnatural existence.

 

 

Japanese Gardens

There really is nothing new in the idea that gardens should be in harmony with the seasons. Japanese gardens, famously, and for many centuries, have emphasised the flowering of cherries in spring and the colouring of maple leaves in autumn. Other lesser floral happenings in Japanese gardens also tie in with the seasons: Camellias and Edgeworthia in early spring, Iris ensata in early summer, Platycodon later on.

The Japanese tradition celebrates the evanescence of cherry blossom and sees in it a metaphor for our transient lives. Certainly, flowers of great natural beauty and brief life span (peonies or irises, for example) can pack a heavy emotional and aesthetic punch: the excited anticipation of flowering, the brief enchantment of the flowers, already shaded by the regretful knowledge that, all to soon, they will be gone and then the sadness of faded and shattered blooms. A pretty exhausting business for the gardener– all these love affairs with flowers!

 

 

 

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Ginkakuji, Kyoto, Japan. The mossy floor is decorated by freshly fallen Camellia flowers - no decayed blooms allowed to spoil the picture.

 

 

Green Leaves and the Seasons

In a way, my championing green leaves also reinforces the emphasis on seasonality in the garden. The glory of autumn, the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn leaves, can only be fully appreciated if it is preceded (and followed, where evergreens are concerned) by green. A garden spattered with year- round gold, purple and yellow will never do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

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Jaques Wirtz's private garden at Botermelk, near Antwerp - the perfect "cloud" hedge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gardens and Society

 

Enthusiastic gardeners probably find it difficult to understand why the majority of the population (especially men) seem so immune or indifferent to the charms of their gardens. Could it be that the overwhelming artificiality of most gardens (all those gold, purple and variegated leaves, all those long season hybrids) is distinctly off- putting to anyone with any feeling for nature? Is it possible that a return to the use of natural leaf colours and normal seasonality in the garden might inspire more respect for gardening and gardens in society? A large body of academic research makes it clear that green spaces – even the typical small back garden – are an important contributor to the emotional well being of society, which makes the recovery of this respect no small thing to hope for.

 

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The orchard at Orchards in late May

 

 

 

 

What To Do

 

So garden to evoke or perhaps echo nature. Have a meadow- however tiny- and have a wood even if it consists of no more than one tall shrub (is this conceptual gardening and therefore very modern?). And make it a truly green space with bright flowers to lift your spirits – and to mark the seasons.

 

 

 

 

"The planting........is overwhelmingly green - monochromatic but with infinite variety- ........village houses disappear behind foliage, the greatest beauty being the effect of sunlight filtering through the leaves.  There are hardly any flowers, except for wild hibiscus,ipomea, jasmine, mugerin and alamanda - all casually planted and giving an occasion pointilistic moment of varied colour against the green background."

 Geoffrey Bawa 1990    Lunuganga

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Copyright 2010-2014 Graham Cousins

 

"The planting........is overwhelmingly green - monochromatic but with infinite variety- ........village houses disappear behind foliage, the greatest beauty being the effect of sunlight filtering through the leaves.  There are hardly any flowers, except for wild hibiscus,ipomea, jasmine, mugerin and alamanda - all casually planted and giving an occasion pointilistic moment of varied colour against the green background."

 Geoffrey Bawa 1990    Lunuganga