Gardens are weird entities, oddly historied. Some days, they’re the subject of a story, more often the background to navel-gazing human dramas. Each retelling, whether through stories or photographs or videos, gives a different impression to that which you’ll experience walking through the garden on any given day.
So, when you go to visit a garden that you’ve read about since you were an adolescent in sweatpants, there’s an aching fear that it won’t live up to your imaginings. After everything that I’d read about Chelsea Physic Garden - its historic significance and formative role in the lives of so many figures in European horticulture - how could the experience of the place live up to the weight of its history? A few weeks ago, I stifled that anxiety and twisted the brass handle on the 8-panel wooden door in a weathered brick wall.
As I stepped into the garden, my anxieties quickly slid away. I breathed in deeply the perfume of a massive Himalayan Musk Rose (Rosa brunoni), diverted my eyes from the weird rockery pond, and ducked through the intimate paths towards the rising plumes of a tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica).This garden isn’t just a scaffold for stories. There’s more to it than shreds of history and forgotten drama.
According to its website, The Chelsea Physic Garden is the second-oldest botanical garden in England. In the 1953 book Old London Gardens, Gladys Taylor writes of its founding: “It was not until 1673 that the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries (founded in James I’s reign) obtained the lease of a garden 3½ acres in extent from Charles (afterwards Lord) Cheyne."
"The ground lay in the remote village of Chelsea, and the rent was £5 per annum for a term of 61 years.” The apothecaries kept care of the garden over those years, building up significant collections of useful and medicinal plants. Taylor goes on, “By the time the lease of the Chelsea Gardens expired in 1722, Sir Hans Sloane was Lord of the Manor of Chelsea and owned the property. He granted the land to the Apothecaries forever for a yearly payment of £5, on condition that it should always be maintained as a Physic Garden. This arrangement lasted until 1899, when the Apothecaries gave it up, and the London Parochial Charities, supported by various smaller bodies, took it over.” Today, the Chelsea Physic Garden has the patronage of the Prince of Wales, as well as being overseen by a board of trustees (including the estimable landscape designer Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd) and a full-time staff. There’s an extensive archive of information about the history of Chelsea Physic Garden on their youtube channel.
Despite this lofty heritage, the spaces within the garden are intimate and charming. It feels like the kind of space where you’d set a mild British TV drama. Bits of the garden are broken up into different themed areas. Medicinal plants. Edible Plants. An Historical Walk. Global plant collections.
The bits of absurdity really engaged my imagination. The fuzzy blue towers of echium, straight from the Canary Islands. Tree ferns and fan palms shaking in confusion at the chilly breezes of the City. Absurdity is a quality that we don’t see enough in contemporary gardens. Given the pressures to create gardens that are cost-effective and high-performing, there’s an incredible tendency for garden designers to stick with ideas that are safe and proven. Fantasy is displaced by big data and evidence-based design practice. We’re all too apt to ignore Martin Asslin, “The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” (Martin Esslin, Absurd Drama, 1965)
There are some elements of the Chelsea Physic Garden that seem startlingly fresh and almost modern. Wonderful bay standards are let to grow quite loosely, until their shaggy heads are nearly touching. Beneath a romping array of betony (Stachys officinalis) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). The exaggerated proportions feel like something that you’d find in a contemporary show garden.
Down by the glasshouses, a selection of salvias thrum with bees. Their flowers vibrate in grey light, all shades of purple and blue. Surprisingly to a North American, there are no hummingbirds here to enliven the collection with their frantic ballet.
As I walk back to that threshold to the mad city, past the clipped hedges and pelargoniums in ordered terracotta rows, I wonder - what will be the legacy of today’s public gardens? Will they continue to involve and influence gardens three-, four-, and more centuries out? Future historians will have these ridiculous treasure troves of public-access images from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, websites and blogs. Will the stories they tell about our gardens differ because they’re recorded in images rather than words? Will they be buried in the haze of electronic overload? Or will our legacy remain like that of the Chelsea Physic Garden, equally joyful and absurd?
I’m as immersed as anybody in the contemporary media of gardens. I love a good feature on a glamorous high-profile designer, a Facebook group virulently defending their favorite garden style, or a well-funded public garden project. Such recognition is exciting in a discipline that’s often dismissed as frivolous.
Media coverage and public attention, however, aren’t the core of horticulture, gardening or design. What makes for good horticulture, good gardening, good design is presence. Presence with place, presence with people, presence with plants. To give such presence, we need to adopt an attitude of humility.
Humility sounds like an odd attitude to take towards garden design. However, gardening is conversational. It involves a relationship between oneself and other people, places, plants and living beings. For all parties to benefit, garden design requires the gardener to enter fully into what David Whyte would call the “frontier” of conversational experience. It's a relationship that's typified by presence and openness - that is, humility. I've been thinking about what qualities might characterize a humble approach to garden design. On consideration, humility in garden design seems to reveal itself through three distinct faces: integrity, subtlety, and generosity.
The first face of humility in garden design is integrity. A garden of integrity is true to itself and to its surroundings. A garden’s integrity to place can be manifested by using materials that are easily found and readily available. In rural areas, a garden can establish a sense of integrity to place by using plants or materials that are also used in the surrounding landscape. Just look at the way the garden above melds seamlessly into its surroundings on the coast near Lymington, England. You can't tell where the garden ends and the beach vegetation begins. In urban gardens, a material palette might relate more to the built environment - does building in your city favor wood, brick, stone?
In the photo above, you can see these wonderful woven-twig tuteurs and other plant supports created from woven tuteurs at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Such supports are constructed from the prunings of willows, hazel and other plants growing in the garden. If twig-weaving isn’t your bag, or you need something more contemporary in style, consider sophisticated uses of materials readily available in a hardware store - or to modify hardware store products. I’m thinking of Carrie Preston’s incredible Lace Fence in her Stinze Garden at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower show. Or, back to the plant supports - my clever friend Kim has recently taken to crafting beautiful mesh cloches out of chicken wire. Here’s the Youtube video where she picked up the technique. Ignore the well strange finish, unless you enjoy having a fern-behind-bars at the center of your dining table. Kim put these cloches to a less dubious use, protecting her young hydrangeas from ravenous suburban rabbits.
Seaside gardens, particularly in the tropics, have a distinct palette of regional materials. Consider the extensive use of sea shells, whale bones, and driftwood. This fountain at the Historic Spanish Point in Sarasota, Florida, is encrusted with shells that were gathered on the peninsula’s beaches. I’m not sure that I like it. To steal a phrase from the Spirits Podcast, it’s “kinda creepy, kinda cool”. But it has integrity - the use of shells relates to a local tradition of building and decorating with objects found by the seaside.
The second face of humility is subtlety. Subtlety is about the execution of physical interventures. Subtle interventions are simple, clever, and non-obvious. They’re pared down to the most important elements. Nothing fussy or overcomplicated. Basically, the opposite of an HGTV garden. I often look to installation artists for inspiration in how to achieve subtlety in garden design. You’ve all seen photographs of Andy Goldsworthy’s stunning transient arrangements of leaves and flowers. You’ve probably also encountered some of Richard Serra’s towering copper planes or Ursula von Rydingsvard’s equally staggering craggy cedar bowls. Or even the strange multiple reflecting panels of Beverly Pepper’s Ventaglio III above (shoutout to my friends Gretchen and Liz for modelling in this photo). Such simple and graphic forms offer insight to garden designers on how to employ subtlety in shaping space and arranging plants.
One of the most memorable examples of subtlety I’ve ever seen in a landscape was at a client’s garden in central Louisiana. A late summer monsoon was crashing down, with thunder and abundant rain. Driving up through the ancient live oaks, I noticed something interesting - rather than wide swathes of the flat landscape being inundated, the water was channelled in shallow swales running throughout the lawns. Just a few feet wide, maybe 6 inches deep, these swales created glittering silver ribbons throughout the landscape. Next day, when the rain had passed, these shallow impressions simply blended in with the rest of the green waving lawn. Some earlier designer had recognized the need to channel the water, and solved the problem in a way that created delight - rather than going the obvious route and installing a single massive ditch. Such subtlety requires thought and attention.
The third face of humility is generosity. A garden which opens its arms to others. I’ve been thinking about generosity as a quality of garden design since getting drawn into a bleak argument about the bad behaviors of visitors to public gardens. It’s important to protect our work - and there are also limits to what we should tolerate from our guests - but the last thing we gardeners need is to perpetuate the stereotype of angry old men and women yelling at children to get off our lawns. Maybe we all should be more like my friend Riz Reyes. He once told me that his childhood dream was to have a garden by a bus stop, so the people waiting to go to and from work could enjoy beautiful flowers while they wait. Today, Riz is a gardener at McMenamin’s Anderson School in Bothell, Washington, where his work is shared with many visitors on a daily basis - just look at those stunning borders in full autumn color (photo above).
Generosity in a garden isn’t just about opening the gates to other humans - it’s about supporting non-human beings as well. The Biodiversity in Urban Gardens Project has consistently revealed the value of gardens for supporting wildlife in cities. Whether you’re growing a few hostas in a pot or have a country garden with acres of rutabagas and carrots, it’s time to move past the Peter Rabbit/Mr. McGregor relationship. Designing gardens to be alive with the movement of animals, insects, plants, all other beings sets us gardeners apart with a positive vision for the future.
There’s undoubtedly more to humility in approaching gardens and garden design. But start with subtlety, integrity, and generosity. Then go out and sit in the garden for a bit. Doubtless the garden will reveal new aspects, if only we’re present and paying attention.