Instead of choosing an evening class this Autumn, I've joined the University of Bath Gardening Club. I'm unsure of the exact connection with the University - apart from us meeting there - it's certainly not the reserved domain of dons or students and everyone's most welcome. The programme of speakers is put together by Derry Watkins of Special Plants, so the standard is extremely high. Fergus Garrett treated us to a tour of Great Dixter: Past, Present and Future last month and I'm particularly looking forward to future presentations from Keith Wiley, Charles Dowding, Catrina Saunders (Head Gardener at The Courts) and Derry herself.
Last week it was the turn of the redoubtable Mary Keen, garden designer and regular Telegraph columnist. I'm not that familiar with her work or her writing, so I didn't quite know what to expect from her talk's title Looking at the Whole Picture. She took everyone by surprise immediately by declaring her talk was to be without slides. I'm sure from the sighs which followed that at least half of the 100 strong audience were quite disappointed.
What ensued was something quite thought provoking. I may not have particularly enjoyed her style of delivery - it was haughty and full of name dropping, which made Threadspider (I'd persuaded her to come too) and I feel we were back at school being lectured by our headmistress, Miss Miller - but I've been pondering what she said ever since.
After asking us which garden we'd most like ours to be like - most people wanted Sissinghurst - her first challenge was to say this is impossible, only Sissinghurst can be Sissinghurst and if your own garden isn't your favourite, then you need to do something about it immediately.
She also dismissed using pictures from magazines to convey what's wanted, especially those sections called Get the Look. Here she argued that pictures are a waste of time because they only capture that instant, which constantly changes. Her dismissal of Get the Look was because it's what's right for that garden, instead of what's right for you. Whilst I can see her point, I think it would be hard for ordinary mortals like me to dispense with pictures because I don't have a vast experience of design or a massive knowledge of plants - yet.
Her alternative approach is more wordy than pictorial - which was quite strange in view of her talk's title and her initial description of a garden being the equivalent of painting a picture. She's much more focused on a garden's theme (aka narrative), mood and the selection of key words of what the garden should be e.g. a sanctuary, fun, secluded, sensual etc. She argues that this approach results in a garden that's distinctive, belongs to you and conveys a sense of place (echoes of Dan Pearson's talk at Hay here), particularly if the garden has a sensitive use of local materials and plants (the latter reminded me of my Listening to the Locals post last year). She likened plants to cushions: they're the finishing touches. She's much more interested in getting the spaces in the garden right first, those places without plants where the eye is to rest, pause and take stock.
A couple of days later Threadspider and I met for coffee as usual and mulled over what Mary Keen had to say. We talked about our gardens not just being a picture, and how we try to engage our other senses - something we felt was missing in her talk. I also said my favourite garden is actually my own. Threadspider was quite taken by surprise because I'm always displeased with something and I'm always wanting to change things - to make it a better garden. But yes, my garden is my favourite one. It's not perfect, but it is mine and if I could choose any garden in the world where I'd like to be, my choice is my garden. It's taken Mary Keen's talk for me to realise that. However, I believe I'd struggle to adopt her approach wholesale, because I don't have her experience and I think in a much more pictorial and practical way.
You can see the gist of her talk by reading this recent article from the Telegraph. What do you think about what she's said? Where's your favourite garden and what picture or mood would you like to convey with your own?