New thinking behind garden design

Garden designers are seeing opportunities for fewer limits and more imagination, says Matthew Appleby.

A new avant garde is entering garden design after several rather unexciting years.

The Channel Five programme I Own Britain's Best Home and Garden - featuring Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and judges, including garden writer and founder of ThinkinGardens Anne Wareham - criticised garden design, which was a first for TV.

Llewelyn-Bowen, speaking when launching a range of garden furniture at Glee 2008, said the current financial downturn means homeowners will not be moving house and therefore are looking to personalise their homes rather than go for the bland magnolia decor promoted by property TV shows as the best way to sell your house quickly. He said the everyman look was obsolete if you could not sell your house because there were no buyers around. Now is the time to show your own, individual tastes in your house and garden.

Wareham's has been around for a couple of years but the programme has raised the company's profile as an explorer of the contemporary aesthetics of gardens and how they relate to other art forms.

She said criticism leads to innovation: "We've been trying for years to be critical about gardens in the written media but advertisers want novice gardeners to read and be encouraged to buy a lot of products. But on TV that shouldn't be the case. I don't think Channel Five knew what it was getting. They live in a world of food and restaurants where they are used to robust criticism - they're not used to the horticulture world and just pushed Laurence as a big name. They didn't know someone was sticking their neck out on this."

The RHS backs Thinkingardens (RHS shows panel chairman Michael Balston is a founder), and the society has hosted conceptual gardens at Hampton Court for the past two years.

Adding to the trend, Future Gardens has announced its 12 designers, who include an international mix of contemporary garden thinkers whose inspiration comes from diverse sources such as opera, science fiction, chalk hills, the Greeks and pet dogs.

Future Gardens is the successor to The International Festival of the Garden at Westonbirt, the UK's answer to French avant-garde garden design show Chaumont. The Westonbirt show became defunct in 2004. TJM director Therese Lang explained the ethos behind Future Gardens, based at the Butterfly World Trust/National Gardens of the Rose site in St Albans: "The garden has become a sanctuary. People's approach to gardens and their function is changing. Outside space has never been more precious than it is today.

"In my creative brief designers have been encouraged to use plants that are both drought-tolerant and attractive to wildlife, particularly butterflies. Visitors will have the opportunity to become 'part of the gardens' - to interact with them, enjoy them, wander around or sit and reflect. This project will make a real difference, not least in inspiring the custodians of our future - our children."

And selection panellist James Alexander Sinclair, who starred at Westonbirt with a garden in a hole in 2004, said: "Occasionally it is good to let the imagination soar. That is what Future Gardens is all about: to allow flights of fancy and to give the offbeat room to roam. Let there be no constraints and let us throw convention to the four winds."


Garden designer Dan Pearson is embracing the place between garden design and restoration with his innovative plan for Lowther Castle & Gardens Trust in Cumbria.

The designer has been supported in his thinking by Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) committee member and Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward.

This is important, because avant-garde garden design is expensive and not very saleable until it is incorporated into mass design, a bit like taking fashion from the catwalk and bringing it into the high street.

Future gardeners each receive £25,000 to design their avant-garde garden from sponsors.

The lottery's Heritage Grants programme has received a £5.3m application for Lowther. Capability Brown and Thomas Mawson designed gardens at the ruined castle. Now it could become a 150,000-visitors-a-year attraction, if the lottery backs the scheme. The cash will help rediscover 22 hidden gardens, many of stunning beauty that has been enhanced by the encroachment of nature on the site.

Pearson hopes for a soft opening in 2009 and full launch in 2010. The designer said: "This is an innovative way to conserve it and I'm using the word 'conservation' carefully because this is not a conventional conservation project."

Lowther is more like an Aberglasney Gardens in Wales or what was proposed (but vetoed) for London's Alexandra Palace - a garden built inside a beautiful ruin. Woodward said: "Dan Pearson's scheme is a masterpiece. It has almost a 'secret garden' quality. It moves gradually and sensitively through the moods of the woods."

Pearson added: "This is not like the Lost Gardens of Heligan, as Heligan is no longer lost. It's very important to see the garden overwhelmed (with plants) and (as a feast) for the senses. For instance, the rose garden has been annihilated and is now a sitka spruce garden.

"We want to do something romantic and inspirational - to create naturalist/romantic planting just holding onto being a garden rather than being too ordered.

"The public is ready for this. You don't have to be a gardener. The magic is the sense of desertion and being lost in time - everybody always loves that feeling."

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