You are on page 1of 7

Questions for Noel Kingsbury Lecture at Grangeneuve le 18 february 2012. Which extraordinary garden did you grow up in?

Much of my childhood was spent in a garden – the address was ‘The Walled Garden’. It was the old walled kitchen garden of a big house. They sold off the kitchen garden. My mother was a very successful children’s writer and she bought the property and had a house built. My father had taken early retirement so he spent all his day gardening, so I grew up in a gardening environment. You had your own garden I expect I had a small piece but I don’t really remember. It was mostly just pottering around in the garden with my father And this exists now? No............Well, it exists. It is a garden and someone lives there but it’s not special.

Who gave you your link to plants?

Well, my father. My mother didn’t garden but she knew the names of all the wild flowers, so I was introduced to plants from very early on.

I think that you began your career as a nurseryman, specialising in half hardy plants that had been used in the Victorian era. This seems to be a total contradiction to your style of gardening today. How did it come about? How long did you have your nursery?

Well, looking back it wasn’t that long. 1986-1992 but it was a very crucial time because it was just before (gardening in Britain goes up and down) a big boom and this is always a good position to be in. You launch your career or are one of the first. Most of what I sold was perennials but also I had a polytunnel and I decided to grow some conservatory plants. At the time many builders were building conservatories and I thought that there would be a market for these plants. In fact, there wasn’t a good market as people didn’t want to grow plants in their conservatories. However, it was one of the things that enabled me to be different. I was able to go to Royal Horticultural Society flower shows and exhibit a lot of very unusual plants that just needed frost protection and so good publicity. It was also just at the beginning of the 20 yyear run of very mild winters. People decided to grow these plants outside and found that they were actually hardy. There was a huge expansion in what we grew. I was right at the beginning of all that.

At first did you learn perennial gardening?

No, I worked as an English language teacher for adults – English as a second language – mostly for immigrants. This was my work but it was unsatisfactory and going nowhere. I met some other people and decided to start a nursery. It was not a great success commercially but it launched me on a career of which writing has been the most important part.

What was your inspiration for the nursery? Did you have a model inside England, outside England?

No, no model. I suppose that the model that I never went to visit was Beth Chatto but she was on the other side of the country. Her garden ‘Unusual Plants’ was very much the model of small specialist nurseries for

unusual plants in the 1980s and there was a growth in this style of nursery. There was a feeling that garden centres sold a very limited range of plants with few perennials. The situation in Britain is that anyone can start a nursery, unlike Holland or Germany, the laws are much more relaxed and allow greater expression. There’s something very anarchic about Britain and the brits don’t realise how lucky they are. XA: You were alone in your nursery or working with others? NK: Effectively working alone. XA: do you have a copy of your catalogue? NK: perhaps somewhere

After I had read the book about colours and Sandra and Nori Pope, I was surprised to learn that the garden at Hadspen no longer exists, was bulldozed. Could you tell us about it?

Well, it’s a long story. What Sandra and Nori Pope did was completely dependent on them. They made the garden how it was. They left and went back to Canada. The owner, Neil Hobhouse, Penelope’s son had inherited it and didn’t really know what to do with it. What the Pope’s had done was so special, that no-one else could really take it over and keep it the same, it would have become mediocre. After a year, it was becoming overgrown so he invited all the gardening ladies of Somerset to come and dig up the plants. So the gardening ladies of Somerset came with their spades and their cars and their plastic bags and they dug up the plants, leaving holes all over the garden. Neil then had to decide what to do with it- He decided he would find a gardener who would come and make a new garden but they needed a blank slate and this is why the bulldozers came. I would have left the trees but think the bulldozer was a good idea. Whoever came would start without comparisons. It’s only a small garden – about 0,2hectare. Another piece of about the same size was left ad is totally overgrown. The trouble with Neil is that every week he has a new idea and keeps changing his mind. He announced a competition and 120 people sent in entries. I was on the panel. It was a disappointing selection. There were 2 ideas that we liked, a night garden which would have been difficult to make in the middle of the countryside.....who would come to see it. The other was a vegetable garden – vegetable gardening has become amazingly popular so this would have become an education facility. But the owner did nothing. The idea of getting somebody in who would live there and create – a garden designer – would have been very interesting and could have become a good business – people would have continued to visit. All this has now been lost.

The English garden is well known. Christopher Lloyd is not the only one but one of the few who goes against tradition. Beth Chatto has contact with Europe, with Germany, with travel. Why do so few English have contact with the exterior. You are an exception. You work in Holland, Germany, America........

British gardening changes. It has swings up and down with the boom and bust economy. Also it has swings with inward looking and outward looking. In English gardening for hundreds of years, there have been phases when it is more open than others. The importation of foreign plants has been a constant. In the early 1920s, Japanese gardens were popular. Everyone had a Japanese garden. This was followed by a period of inwardlooking-ness. Early in the 20th century it was decided that gardens were necessary for national identity and so they became a bit nationalistic. In the 1980s and 1990s, British gardening was very inward looking. Beth Chatto is interesting because she has fairly good German and that generation had a better relationship with Germany than the next generation. So she went to Germany and met Countess Zeppelin, whereas the next generation probably didn’t have the language or the interest to do that. There was a phase when British gardeners had nothing to learn from anybody else. An incredible arrogance. Some things were said that were quite appalling. One well known gardener came back from Germany and said that there was nothing worth looking at. (how embarrassing) – laughter - and the idea that the Americans could even garden was an alien concept......and of course the French! All they could do was plant trees in straight lines. That’s not a garden. I was one of the first to start looking abroad and then there has been an enormous amount of interest.

In french, we speak of ‘jardin naturel’ and ‘ jardin naturaliste’ . Naturaliste is used for gardens inspired by nature – like Oudolf’s. When I try to communicate this to others, they don’t understand. Even well ‘educated’ events like Coppet use natural instead of naturaliste. It’s a great problem in French. Is it so in English?

Yes, natural is a hugely abused word. Anything natural is good, natural shampoo, natural food. It is a marketing word to sell something green and feelgood. A garden by definition is not natural. I don’t use the word. I use natural style or naturalistic which invokes inspiration from nature. We make a distinction between a wildlife garden which is managed for wildlife and a naturalistic garden which is more of an aesthetic garden which will probably benefit wildlife but is basically inspired by natural communities. XA I prefer on one side, the new romantic garden as in America or new German style. It’s clear what you mean but natural, naturaliste, naturalistic is confusing NK Habitat gardening? XA In French, when you say jardin naturel, it means organic, no herbicides or insecticides. NK in American English, natural gardening is often used to mean organic gardening too. XA In French it’s the same and in the 17th century, siècle de lumière, people collected plants and trees and these people were called naturalists. This is understook but I explain that it’s not the same. For me it is not a garden style. NK Nature inspired? Wild style?

With nature shrinking every day, will the gardens replace it?

If you add up all the gardens, that’s a lot of space – a large area- People are managing them. Gardens are very important for wildlife even without trying. A very interesting study was done about 10 years ago by Margaret Owen, en entomologist. This was an academic study over 20 years of all the insects and birds that appeared in her very average suburban garden in Leicestershire. She wasn’t managing the garden organically or for insects, Just a normal ordinary garden. There was an astonishing amount of biodiversity. We can argue that because cities don’t have much space and that the countryside has to be managed for agriculture, then gardens are an extremely important place for wildlife.

XA a number of years ago I read about an old garden in England with many non-native plants. The garden was full of insects, not just adults but also larvae. This was new information for me, I learned that diversity was more important than the plants origin. NK I think that the trouble is that this whole discussion of the relationship between plant origin and
biodiversity is driven by the Americans. They are notorious for taking extreme positions. Also in the United States, there is much more specialist flora and specialist insects. In Europe, because of the geography we have a relatively restricted flora because of the ice ages. In Britain , even more so, Thus we have a more general flora and insect species and the insect larvae will eat a wider range of plants – generally they are not specialist and so only growing native plants is less important – and still less important in the british isles. The most important thing, it seems, is to have a diversity of habitat and continuity – so trees, shrubs, climbers, perennials, routes that wildlife can take from one garden to another. In the research done at Sheffield, trees are very important. Having trees greatly improves the biomass that a garden can support. Prof. Wolfram Kirche did some research a few years ago looking at insect populations on European natives and non-natives and found very little difference. Here we must not listen to the Americans – perhaps we should never listen to Americans – (laughter) XA Here in Switzerland, we feel the same way! NK I have heard some extreme things said in Switzerland about native plants. I think there’s a Swiss mentality which thinks that Switzerland is a bubble and this is not helpful. In Germany during the Nazi era, there was gardening landscape of only native plants. You must look at the science, and this is bad science. (I think there’s a book to be written here about the German speaking world from the 1st world war onwards. ) There were a lot of interesting things happening with Rudolph Steiner and biodynamics, Will Langer and a lot of others. In the British popular press, they often speak of invasive plants using a language that 20 years ago would have been used to describe people. A sort of racist language which the popular press sensationalise – foreign is undesirable. XA Do you have a black list of plants in England? NK Yes but realistically we have few real problems with invasive plants compared to other countries. XA You know the position of Gilles Clément, closing the door after the horse has bolted? NK Really northwestern Europe doesn’t have many problems with invasive plants compared with other countries. (general discussion of fallopia) In Britain now, an insect has been introduced to eat it. It will not eradicate it but will hopefully manage it. Usually these plants arrive without an accompanying disease or pests. Eventually, over time, a fungus disease will hit it and then much more slowly an insect will learn to

eat it. In the case of fallopia, a biological control is quite sensible. However, these things are never wholly negative. Fallopia makes a very good otter habitat, also anemone nemorosa and other early flowering species from oak woodland are able to co-exist with fallopia. Fallopia is far and away the worst problem and the other is, of course, rhododendron ponticum. This used to be a british native before the last ice-age so of course it does well.

Some see the garden as another room with its furniture and carpet which are more important than the vegetation. Are there any counterpropositions?

At the end of the day, what you want from your garden is very personal. XA you find so many books now with this as the theme. It’s a garden but without plants – without a garden. NK It’s a seller’s market. Garden centres sell furniture. If you want to blame someone, blame Thomas Church, a Californian architect and garden designer from the 1940s to 1960s. The Californian lifestyle is very seductive, sun, swimming pool, barbecue – but we don’t all live in California! Thomas Church made kidney shaped swimming pools and organic shaped pools. (laughter). The idea of a garden where middle classes (which in America means everybody) can live outside. We all try to import the Californian lifestyle. I do think it sad that people don’t think of a garden as a place to grow plants and appreciate nature because often, that’s the only way to appreciate the seasons. Perhaps if you get people outside for the swimming pool, in time they will begin to appreciate the garden more. I don’t know about Switzerland, but in many countries now, the big thing is growing your own vegetables. A lot ot these people will go on to grow other plants. I think this is a big development.

In UK do you find this trend for old varieties like ProSpecie Rara brings back old varieties of fruit, vegetables, animals and even decorative plants used before 1950, here?

This is universal. The Americans are the worst. Taken to extremes, the Americans are terrible romantics and a lot of this is about romanticism. Old varieties have wonderful names and it is very important to keep the gene pool but often they are inferior varieties – new varieties by definition have to be better than the old or they would never be marketed. A lot of romantic rubbish is spoken about the old varieties but some are much more practical to grow at home if you don’t have to make money from them or they can be managed individually. I think they are rarely better plants or tastier plants. Often the attraction is the history which is a valid reason for growing them. I think they are not ethically better but again, a whole lot of ideology is involved.

Tell me the story of ‘Perennial Perspectives’. How was it started and how is it evolving?

Well, it’s long since dead! It was in the 1990s when the German plantsmen had become mainstream designers, working with perennials in Germany. The key men were Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl. In Holland you had Piet Oudolf and also an organisation called OASA which basically meant growing Dutch native plants, wildlife gardens and in Holland a very intensive movement for greenspace and nature in the city. The dutch are so good at integrating the absolutely artificial and the absolutely natural. This came together in the movement Perennial Perspectives, which was a series of 6 or so, international conference. Everyone was so busy and in this era pre-internet, communication was bad. Had there been internet, communication would have been easier. There was supposed to be a conference in America but no.one organised it so that was the end of perennial perspectives. A shame. At Sheffield, we’re trying to start a journal XA you work at Sheffield? NK I’m an academic visitor there. The journal is called Amsonia and will be a journal of planting design crossing the boundaries of academic and professional and maybe amateur.

Rob Leopold seems to have made a big impression on other gardeners of his era. For a long time, I have looked in vain for information, could you tell me a bit about him?
The only book published is Nature as Garden Art, which was 3 essays. I could lend you my copy, it’s not too big to just pop into the post. XA: was it translated into German NK: no just English

The trouble with Rob Leopold was that he existed in his own world. And it was difficult to understand what he meant. He was a very abstruse philosopher – a philosophy which didn’t relate to anyone else’s philosophy. XA: I dreamed about this man and his work. I read something by Gerritsen and Oudolf , just a few words about him but I asked many people. All I know is that he worked with seeds but otherwise, a total mystery. NK: He was an innovator, a business innovator. He was a hippy – the Dutch were very serious hippies in a way that the French would never understand. (laughter) When the Germans and the Dutch became hippies, they took it very seriously. The French just revolted, a cultural event. He set up a seed company with a colleague – Dick van den Burg and the company was working with Dutch wild plants, annuals. Their big invention was annual mixes that could be sown to give a wide choice of annuals. XA: like Royalfleurs now? NK: yes but also wild flower mixes. Rob then left Dick to run the company. Dick died quite young. Rob became a philosopher. He was a great connector. He was always at conferences and talking to people. He was very friendly and outgoing, a wonderfully warm man. The Dutch are very good at cooperating anyway but Rob was almost like a spiritual presence. Most of us couldn’t really understand what he said but there was something ‘good’ about him – like a guru or a saint. He was a real character! Inspiring but also exhausting. I stayed with him for nearly a week and he talked philosophy from the moment he woke up until he went to bed. A kind of madness. Just talk, talk, talk. You follow him for a bit and then lose it. It didn’t really relate to anything – perhaps a bit eastern. He’d certainly read all the Indian philosophy of 1960s and 1970s. His legacy is the annual mix, which Sheffield University has now developed into perennial mixtures too.

Have you a strategy to communicate plants to landscape designers? In Switzerland, there’s a great problem explaining to gardeners (paysagistes) You use the plants and they don’t know them. Do you have any hints?

As usual, nurserymen are often inward looking you have to work very hard and very long hours. I know that the 3 best wholesale plant nurseries in Britain have special days when they invite all of their designer and landscaping clients to have a lecture by someone like me, then a workshop, a good lunch and then everyone leaves with a catalogue. The only way is to get people into the nursery actively looking at plants. It’s not too difficult to organise. In Britain, since the 1990s we’ve had extraordinary growth of garden designers. It’s a new profession, and landscape gardeners are getting more interested in plants, with some people crossing from one to the other. Now the architects are being put under pressure thanks to people like Piet Oudolf who do big scale plantings with perennials. They are now starting to hire me to do workshops – it’s fantastic to have 20 landscape architects looking at plants all day.

Do you know if there are many other gardens in the world that are like Hermannshof ?

Hermanshoff is unique. The comparison is obviously with other German parks but the concept of Sichtungsgarten (?) is very German. There are places in Britain like Wisley (the nearest comparison) or the Chicago botanical gardens in America, but Hermannshof is very special and quite small. The fact that it had Urs Walser and then Cassian Schmidt as director make it special.

What is the future of native plants in planting projects?
Most of this has been covered but in Britain with our greatly restrictive wild flora, we still underuse native plants. I think of stachys officinalis which was not cultivated 20 years ago but now has a number of ornamental varieties commercially available. I think that within Switzerland there is a wonderful wildflower flora – a lot of which has garden potential with just a bit of cultivar selection. I think there’s a great opportunity for nurseries to use more native planting.

When you make a green roof in America, you can use native and non-native plantings. In Switzerland, you must use natives. It’s the same in Germany. I don’t know if it’s a government decision or tradition.

People have always used native plants and it depends what the roof is for. If it has a deeper substrate it will have some function other than just a green roof and then is more likely to have non-native species.

Kühn speaks of a morality which is impregnated in certain garden designs. Do you believe this?

Hm, Very interesting. I know Norbert and I’ve never heard him talk about this. I was saying earlier about gardens being like small nature reserves for insects and birds. I do think we have an ethical responsibility as we have destroyed so much of their natural habitat. We have a moral responsibility to put some of that back. We value gardens and if we value gardens we must look after them. Often in Britain, people take ethical positions on things that are not well thought out. For example, peat has become very political. Once the discussion becomes political it confuses all the other issues.

Could you tell us an anecdote about Ohme who left us so recently? He brought so much to the world of perennials.

A very strange character. He was a terrible lecturer, the world’s worst lecturer. He would stand with his back to the audience directly in front of the screen (he was very short sighted) and wave his arms about. Every picture was of another plant used on a huge scale. He was a man who probably had one good idea but because he met Jim van Sweden, with whom he had a remarkable chemistry, He had success. He was actually quite dysfunctional, a very difficult man, extraordinary. XA: his son works as a landscape gardener? NK: yes but not with his father.

How can you explain the great difference in perception of plants and nature between the ‘nordiques’ (English, german, dutch etc) and the ‘latinos’ (French, Italian, Spanish)?

This is very striking actually. It follows the catholic protestant split but I think it has nothing to do with it. The idea that nature was only beautiful when perfected by man. Man was made in the image of God. Man on earth has stewardship, control, management and responsibility of nature. Nature for our benefit. It is an actually fundamental belief and so quite logical. In renaissance Italy, gardening really took off, arguably influenced by ................. models and also by Islamic models. This has never been fully researched. Our model of a garden is the pre-Islamic Persian concept which is essentially about geometry. Latin-Europe always sees nature in a very instrumental way, whereas the Germans and Scandinavians (the Dutch and English are in a more hybrid position) never entirely lost their pagan culture which is in awe of nature. I think this led to a very different cultural attitude towards nature and gardens. The dutch are obviously special because they have had to fight nature to build their country and their language is really a variety of German (but we don’t say this). They have a garden tradition which is quite formal and they used a lot of French ideas. With their flat landscape and straight canals, it’s a controlled landscape so the French model works well and the dutch do it well. They have enough contact with gerany to take on the appreciation of nature as a balance. This is not what we do in Britain. We are an odd Germanic/latin hybrid and have a bit of both! XA: Hugin was at Cormérod twice. The last time, he said he would not come back. He said you live in a world where people have no idea about plants. I said yes, I know it is so but........... A bit like when Oehme went to America.

What do you think of the new generation of garden designers who are freeing themselves from the ‘naturalist school’ for projects more exotic and with brighter colours? fine, happy with that, you have to give people what they like, meet them halfway, bright colours can be sustainable and wildlife friendly too Are gardens using more verticals flower? Is this the new trend?

Do you mean Patrick Blanc vertical gardening? I think this is an expensive gimmick for expensive shopping malls, I prefer to promote climbing plants like Zurich MFO park I have seen your proposal of a lecture based on gay feeling for gardens. Do you think there is a great difference between hetero and gay perception for gardens? Interesting one! Dangerous ground! I have been to so many good 'gay gardens' in Portland OR, where it is almost part of a gay sub-cutlure I actually don;'t think there is a gay garden as such but I think there are many good gay gardeners, the problem now is to get more men interested in gardening, In my father's day it was mostly men who gardened now not so many do, which is a shame, some groups in England are very much dominated by women In your mind, what gives the ambience to a garden? Indefinable – the personality of the owner , avoidance of cliché and fashion? How do you manage to keep your links with the plants and gardens when you become primarily a communicator as you are today? I do garden actively and when I employ someone , now 1 day a week, I closely supervise, I am very 'hands on' Probably at least I am in the garden working 1 -2 days a week in spring early summer Christopher Lloyd was a remarkable gardener who seems to have been ignored by his peers. Was this to do with the father/son conflict? I don;t think he was ignored , at least not by younger generation Certain professional gardeners fear that the integrated mixtures of perennial plants, eg those from Wadenswil, do nothing to improve our knowledge of these plants. What are your thoughts? I think these mixtures may make it possible for there to be plantings where there were no plantings before, this is very important, and they may then stimulate people to try to emulate them by trying their own versions or just in growing perennials, anyway these plantings wil have to be managed, and in doing that, people wil learn about the performance of the plants I find interesting Gilles Clément’s comments about our efforts to eradicate invasive plants is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Do you feel the same way? we discussed this I think. I suppose I agree with him, we have to control these plants, but we will not be able to eliminate them so I suppose we have to learn to live with them, on this subject – Japanese knotweed, Fallopia is a very nice vegetable