Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Green, green

August 23, 2015

Green, green grass of home

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The garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole at Bury Court

Back from over a month in England and Wales, I ask myself what those weeks of garden visiting mean. Or do they have to mean? I certainly felt at home living amid a garden culture with far more breadth and depth than our’s in the U.S., regardless of superficiality and tradition-bound conservatism I was made aware of from time to time, and I’m trying to resist a temptation to compare and judge the gardens I saw, unsuccessfully as you will see. What is this impulse to rank and group experiences as if they were commodities?

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The green oak pavilion and pool at the garden’s center are essential to its success

Visiting Bury Court, where John Coke has the pleasure (and perhaps burden) of having two significant gardens in one–on one side of the house Piet Oudolf’s first garden designed in the UK and on the other a superficially similar garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole–clarified some of my own preferences, quite unexpectedly. I preferred the Bradley-Hole garden. Though I don’t think it necessary to choose favorites, and I’m a long time admirer of Piet Oudolf’s work, my immediate realization that I had a definite preference was both unexpected and a surprise. So why?

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Parthenium integrifolium (Wild quinine), a plant John Coke pointed out as a particular favorite

First the Oudolf garden, briefly. After being gripped by, and finally throwing off, an initial feeling of something like “reverence” I usually experience on first seeing gardens I’ve long known only through books and magazines, I immensely admired the Oudolf garden for itself, though it’s been changed over the almost twenty years of its existence in ways I don’t know. I was especially impressed with the now “archetypal” Deschampsia meadow that has been widely imitated.

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Oudolf’s much imitated, and by now almost archetypal, Deschampsia meadow

 

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The garden is quite small compared to the much more expansive gardens we now expect from Piet Oudolf, though its enclosure in a courtyard had the benefit of imposing a structure lacking in the far larger and perhaps more ambitious garden at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Somerset, which we had seen just the day before, and which I felt lacked sufficient structure to satisfy my need for focus (perhaps a premature judgment considering the early state of that garden’s development; more on that in another post).

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A satisfying contrast of hard and soft, the green oak pavilion with miscanthus and delicate bobbles of Sanguisorba.

John Coke unexpectedly came out as we were about to move on to the Christopher Bradley-Hole garden on the other side of the building. I hadn’t expected to see him, and was very happy that he chose to walk with us to the Bradley-Hole garden and stay for the remainder of our visit. I had recently read the Noel Kingsbury’s reconstruction of the history of the New Perennials movement in his and Oudolf’s new book, Hummelo, where I’d learned John had a significant role in the development of this garden design movement that has been so close to my heart. I wish I’d asked more about that, but I limited myself to practical questions of plant identification and his own feelings about the garden.

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John Coke. How could you not like this man?

I’ve admired this garden, again only in photos, for years, but I was unprepared to be so powerfully affected when I first walked into it. It was like passing into another dimension, certainly a very different place–a place of transcendent greenness, green wildness anchored in a rigid, almost hidden (at this time of year) structure of 20 Corten steel squares. I felt the space suddenly open up and welcome me, envelope me. The garden is intensely immersive, though it works with such a light, airy touch it’s not at all claustrophobic or oppressive. The transition from the Oudolf garden, beautiful as it is, to the utter simplicity of this green, immersive garden was a minor shock to the nervous system, but one of unalloyed pleasure.

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A star plant, Datisca cannabina

So why did I feel a preference (most definitely it was an emotionally led preference, not an intellectual one) for the Bradley-Hole garden? Probably because it strongly reminded me of my own garden, I have to admit, though vastly different.

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Can you see the suggestion of a paradise garden here? My husband Phillip talks with John Coke near the pavilion

The central pavilion and pool create a dramatic contrast with the loose plantings and are critical to the garden’s effect. The space required for these central features is relatively long and large, and suggests, at least to me, the paradise garden of the Persians, an emotional resonance that further confirmed my preference for this garden. The linearity and openness of this part of the garden makes it possible to see a bit more of the structure of the formal grid of steel squares that anchor the garden into the highly structured gravel matrix. Within this open center, you can see, or easily imagine, vanishing points that suggest the enclosed linearity of a paradise garden, and the pool, the water so typical of such gardens. So, for me, a paradise garden in southern England in the 21st century …

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The garden is full of Sanguisorbas

… respite, restoration, un dolce ristoro.

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Helianthus salicifolius, a beautifully shaped and easily recognized form in the garden, appears in repeated colonies

Mostly green, the garden works through simplicity and repetition of shapes.

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Structural plants with distinctive forms, such as the Helianthus salicifolius (above), liberal use of Datisca cannabina, Miscanthus giganteus, Macleaya, Persicaria polymorpha, bobble-headed Sanguisorbas, Stipa gigantea, Molinia, Panicums, various other grasses and some perennials provide visual interest within a unified field of tranquil green. I can only imagine how colorful this garden must be in autumn; you can see a glimpse of it in this Stephen Lacy piece in the Telegraph.

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Though the garden is relatively small, the plants are overscaled to create a sense of enclosure and protection, refuge and prospect, but an illusory refuge of thin veils of vegetation. The big sky and the see-through quality of the plantings prevent any sense of claustrophobia. The formal structure of the garden, too, allows glimpses out (where the plants haven’t blocked or fallen across the view corridors, a natural and desirable occurrance).

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The garden invites the viewer’s eye to enter in a specific way. First, you see the setting, the sky and natural fields and woodlands surrounding it, and which the garden imitates in a more structured way. Then the pavilion attracts attention with its tall, hard structure, and invites contemplation of the complexity of that structure, consisting of two-interlocking cubes slightly offset vertically and horizontally. The pavilion’s structure can work subconsciously or consciously to create the idea of movement, a kind of metaphorical stepping aside, perhaps suggesting dance, and this is picked up by the plantings, both in the ground rhythm of the squares within squares, and more loosely, by the dance and swirl of the grasses and perennials, which even when still, also suggest movement.

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As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room looking out a wall of windows. The morning is unusually cool for this season, about 68 degrees, with a light breeze, and outside the view of the garden is blocked by a brightly lit scrim of miscanthus in flowery plume and greenish yellow Patrinia scabiosifolia. Sunlight glints off the miscanthus foliage, almost blinding in its brightness. This scrim, only twelve feet or so from the house, is echoed by the tall woods on the far side of the garden. Sunlight pours into the woods making an abstract chiaroscuro of dark trunks and bright green going deep into the trees, like some magical, extremely complicated lantern no human would ever think to try to invent. These two shapes, the scrim of miscanthus and Patrinia, and the looming hump of woods, make the main garden down below totally invisible. The beatific buzz of cicadas rises and falls in a calm, meditative rhythm. All of this brings the Bradley-Hole garden back to mind–the interplay of large grasses, especially miscanthus, with the sunlight streaming lavishly down, the gentle, random movements of the plants, the tranquility.

It’s good to be home.

 

 

 

 

 

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen August 23, 2015 at 12:10 pm

It is interesting how our preconceptions colour our view of a garden we have admired from afar. I visited Gt Dixter for the first one in June and I really disliked the long border which is the view you see reproduced all the time, but I loved the stock beds an area you rarely see. Like you I loved the feeling of being engulfed in plants albeit more colourful than Bury Court; although I had been repeatedly told I would dislike this area. I think when we read about gardens the views that we are shown are limited and often give a false perspective or idea of the garden.

I have never visited Bury Court but will seek it out now having read your views of it.

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James Golden August 23, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Helen, I had the opportunity to visit Great Dixter two times this spring and summer. It’s a garden I first visited almost 30 years ago, so I have old memories, with many intervening years of books and magazines. I’m perhaps more enamored of the idea of Great Dixter than with the actual garden, but it remains a garden I love, though there are parts that give me pause.

As to Bury Court, be sure to combine it with a visit to a more recent Oudolf garden, perhaps the one at Hauser & Wirth.

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Michael B. Gordon August 25, 2015 at 7:04 am

James,
Excellent comparison of the two parts of the garden. I think the Oudolf part is more easily articulated in photos (I’ve seen many) which makes me wonder if it has more successful “design”. The Bradley-Hole part hasn’t had as much press, but I can see how it feels like home to you. I’d love to hear which parts of Great Dixter aive you pause. Interesting that you feel the Hauser & Wirth garden needs more structure (you wrote that somewhere I think?) and the Bury Court design has so much of that. I am all for your observatory! Can’t wait to have a bird’s eye view at Federal Twist. Welcome Home!

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James Golden August 25, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Michael, because we visited as noon was approaching (mid-day sun is the bane of garden visitors who want photos), neither garden was easy to photograph, but I think the Oudolf garden was the easier of the two, in only because it had more physical “features” to shoot. Comparing my experience with the photos after I got home, I was surprised the photos of the Bradley-Hold garden were the more problematic of the two sets. As to Great Dixter, I liked it better in May than in July, but more on that when I get to that post. I liked it in July too, or course.

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Benjamin August 23, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Thank you for this patient, welcoming, honest, and sensitive first glimpse into your travels. I always enjoy your take on things.

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James Golden August 23, 2015 at 12:28 pm

Thank you, Benjamin. I decided before going that I would not force a tour of great gardens, and instead let some randomness and chance guide me. The most enjoyable part of my stay there was the people I met, I think. A hard thing for this introvert to grasp.

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Pam/Digging August 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm

Beautifully written. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of your glimpses of these gardens, both the design and your emotional response. I’m in the midst of the Hummelo book, so your post has particular resonance for where my head is right now.

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James Golden August 23, 2015 at 9:50 pm

Pam, there’s so much information in that book, it easily will take a second read, or perhaps a look back through a chapter now and then. It’s changed the way I view the New Perennials movement. Before reading it, I didn’t realize to what extent the movement was influenced by the dramatic social changes occurring during the 60’s.

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Pat Webster August 23, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Forcing a tour of great gardens: great phrase, James.

I’ve visited Bury Court twice, but both times were in June so I’ve missed seeing Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden in its full greenness. I like Oudolf’s garden very much, and was enchanted by an allium obliquum whose stem curved so dramatically that I thought John Coke must have used old-fashioned hair curlers on it. (He assured me it grew that way naturally.) I liked the hedges; when planted, they must have been a real departure from the norm. The little tunnel of pear trees was another aspect I liked, as well as the many plants that were all growing their hearts out.

But like you, I preferred Bradley-Hole’s garden. There is something magical about the repetition and variation of the squares that appeals to me enormously. I would love to sit in the pavilion on my own or with friends. Your comparison to a paradise garden is apt — sitting there, I’d feel like a ruler from one of those beautiful old Persian miniatures.

You write that you may have preferred it because it reminded you of your own garden. I understand that — and it makes me more eager than ever to visit Federal Twist. One of these years.

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James Golden August 23, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Pat, that little tunnel of pear trees is now a fully shaped structure rather amazing in itself. I really did like the Oudolf garden, and I was impressed with how well it has been maintained. John Coke referred to some necessary changes, which I assume were associated with the change in purpose of some of the buildings–making them suitable for weddings and various business venues–but I feel at a loss describing the garden since I didn’t see it in its original form. I think John said he has gardener help once a week–rather amazing considering the superb maintenance of the Oudolf garden.

By the way, my garden is an “abstract expressionist” garden compared to Bradley-Hole’s “Rothko” garden.

I’ve been toying for some time with the idea of a “tower” in my garden to enable a view across the sweep of grasses and perennials from above. A friend has suggested the term “observatory,” which I realize I much prefer. I’d like to take the Bradley-Hole pavilion as a starting point for a much smaller, far less obtrusive structure in my own garden. Not a copy but an inspiration. Maybe before you arrive.

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Zem August 25, 2015 at 3:47 am

Very interesting, this story about your visit Bury Court!
I love the photo’s too.
Greetings, Zem.

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James Golden August 25, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Thank you, Zem.

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Huw Morgan August 25, 2015 at 5:35 am

James, great to read this first instalment of your reportage. Very well expressed and of great interest. It was great to meet you and Phillip when you were here, and we really hope to be able to come and visit you both at Federal Twist before too long.

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James Golden August 25, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Huw, thank you for all your kindnesses. I really enjoyed stopping by the Studio and finally meeting you after an internet acquaintance of several years. Visiting and seeing gives it all a “local habitation and a name,” makes it real. I do regret we missed Dan, but I trust he was doing exciting things in Asia.

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Cindy at enclos*ure August 25, 2015 at 9:31 am

I’ve thought for a while that when you find a really good garden, you feel it bodily, as you describe above. When a garden review is really good, you pick up a pencil and start sketching out little ideas, as I just did.

I’m really looking forward to more reports.

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James Golden August 25, 2015 at 1:31 pm

I’m pleased you say that, Cindy. You do feel it bodily, a literal manifestation of “incarnation” but not in a religious sense, I think.

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Nell August 25, 2015 at 11:56 am

I’ve seen many photos of the Oudolf garden at Bury Court, but can’t recall any of the Bradley-Hole side. So glad the first were yours! That pavilion and pool picture exerts a powerful pull; the viewer longs to walk inside that enclosure and take in the paradise all around.

It’s clear that the Bradley-Hole garden is made to be experienced rather than viewed from any distance, so isn’t as pictorial. I’d love to see it earlier in the season, though I imagine the Datisca gains height pretty quickly; by June it and the grasses must be tall enough to give the immersive effect. Is there a bulb layer for the early, early season? (Fun to imagine a “parterre” with those squares…) Or is Bury Court only open to visitors from May on?

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James Golden August 25, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Nell, I don’t think photos make clear how different the two gardens are. I think I confused them at first, many years ago, looking quickly only at photos. In late July, many of the plants were above my head by several feet. Interesting question about bulbs in spring. I wish I’d asked.

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Nell August 26, 2015 at 12:18 am

I’m thinking there’s probably not be a bulb layer. Early gaudy color would have to co-exist with the stubs of all those grasses in March and April. The Bury Court site has a leaflet for this year’s ‘Plantsman’s Days’ (last Wed. of every month, April-September), which end with a tour of one of the two gardens. The Bradley-Hole Front Garden is slotted for May, July, and September; Oudolf Courtyard Garden the other months.

Went looking for other images of the Front Garden and found some Clive Nichols photos at Gardenista. One of them takes a lot of the appeal out of the pavilion, shot from a perspective that makes the house and barn seem to press in on it — the very opposite of a paradise garden. I’m just going to wipe that from my mind and gaze at yours…

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Tony Spencer August 27, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Well, the grasses are not always greener.

Loved reading your impressions of that double-headed garden with two great designers at work.

Interesting to consider how John Coke’s advice helped spark the early incarnation of the Oudolfian matrix effect, at least that’s the impression I also get in the book.

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James Golden September 9, 2015 at 10:00 pm

It IS where Oudolf first used the “Deschampsia meadow” model, which has had a long lasting life.

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