Looking at the Whole Picture

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?


  1. I am jealous of your new gardening club - the talks sound great.
    Thinking about it I think I would say that my garden is my favourite for the same reasons but also because it is my sanctuary and escape from the real world.

  2. This is indeed food for thought, VP! I have Mary Keen's book "Creating a Garden" (with, of course, lots of photos); now I guess I'll have to read it again and see what I think. Photoless as our own blog is, I can't imagine addressing a packed hall of avid gardeners without at least some kind of visual aids. Yikes! But I too am jealous of your lecturer lineup. Please give us more post-lecture reviews!

  3. Hmmm, VP, thought provoking stuff here. My own garden is the place I would rather be than anywhere too, but I need to look at pictures of other gardens. Those pictures are not something I try to copy exactly, that wouldn't be productive for each garden is different, as Mary Keen states. The use of different plants, the combinations, the placement of seating and pathways all can give us ideas for our own distinctive spots. I rarely see a full view garden photo that does not hold a grain of inspiration of some sort.


  4. I can't imagine attending a garden lecture without some kind of visuals, either photos or actual plants. But her ideas are interesting. I wouldn't say my garden is my favorite, because it's definitely a work in progress and far from the vision I have. Yet it is my favorite garden to spend time in! I agree with Frances, though, photos in magazines and books are something I consult often; while I may not try to copy them completely, I usually get a little inspiration for ideas to use in my own garden.

  5. Clever Mary, she did get you thinking! The use of slides may have stopped some people listening to what she had to say! I visit lots of gardens but would find it hard to name a favourite. I don't bring back design ideas from gardens I visit, I get plant ideas but then my garden is all about plants. In a small garden it is often a choice between design or plants, plants win for me and my garden design is about paths - where I want or need to walk. My favourite garden is the one of my dreams!

    Thank you for a great post. Best wishes Sylvia

  6. PG - I'm going to make you even more jealous - a year's membership is £12! I wish I'd found out about it sooner - Dan Hinckley was one of the speakers last year.

    OFB - it's quite startling isn't it. I gave a talk at the Food Bloggers get together without slides, but I did take a whacking great Air-Pot with me instead to show everyone what I was talking about!

    Frances - you've reminded me of something that Garden Wise Guy said in a recent book review he did recently. I can't remember the book's title, BUT his sage advice was about looking at the plant which you found inspiring and why it's so (shape, texture, colour etc). Once you understand why you'd like to use it, it's much easier to find alternatives should that plant turn out to be unsuitable for your garden. I think that's a good compromise between Mary's approach and using a garden or pictures as inspiration, don't you?

    Rose - my garden's a work in progress too and I suspect most people's are, even those of the great and the good which we might aspire to. Like PG in her comment above, it's my sanctuary too.

    Sylvia - I'm sure you're right, but I'm also sure that had she used slides in her talk, those of us still listening (whilst trying not to giggle in mine and Threadspider's cases) would have concentrated more on the images rather than what she was trying to say.

  7. Interesting toughts there, though I rather feel that your blog is enough for me, I do not like that style of lecture (it makes me feel really thick). Anyway My garden is my favourite - my hubby and I cleared it back to absolutley nothing when we bought the house and then he made a beautiful space for me with many of my favourite plants and a hidden away feeling. I need to hear a garden, to me that is highly important, it drowns out my thoughts, plus I need texture to photograph. Its all out there, though i still don't use it enough.

  8. Carrie - there's no need to feel thick. From your comment I can see you're instinctively doing at least some of the things Mary Keen spoke about. I particularly like your point about being able to hear your garden.

    BTW everyone - did you spot I deliberately chose not to illustrate my post in any way? You nearly got an overhead view of my garden, but I felt I needed your thoughts about what's being said rather than how my garden's looking at the moment!

  9. i use photos to remind me of what plants i want to investigate further. i'm still not familiar with proper names to be able to recall & visualize what it is that i might want to plant. i don't want to *copy* an idea, more i want to get the same *effect* of colorplay or texture. while i understand mary keen's point of not copying another's garden, i see no reason not to be inspired by another's visuals of their garden.

  10. What a great programme of speakers VP - I am most envious. Interesting to hear that she did not use slides but then I suppose that really makes you hone on what is being said. I have her book 'Colour Your Garden' and must admit to being seduced by some of the photos of plants and suggestions for planting combinations. I think at the end of the day my favourite garden is mine - not because it is well designed, ideally located (next to a busy main road:( or because I have achieved what I would like to and probably never will but because it's somewhere I can just be me.

  11. Petoskystone - I don't think she was knocking inspiration as such, just slavish copying. I believe it's understanding why you're inspired that's key because then you can make it work for you in yor own garden.

    Anna - a second mention of Mary's book today - I must seek it out for myself.

    BTW everyone - having read Mary's Telegraph article I've linked to, I believe she's a much better writer than speaker...

  12. Oh, I am so jealous! What a line-up. i was very interested in what you had to say about Mary Keen. I first met her when I was a junior subeditor on the Evening Standard -if I was very good, I was allowed to edit her column.
    At first, I didn't warm to her - she came across as very grand and not really on my wavelength. Then as I got to know her and her writing a bit better, I began to be a fan. I love her column in the Telegraph.
    I think she's a bit like Vita S-W - she comes across as grand because she IS very grand (she's the daughter of the 6th Earl Howe, so she's actually Lady Mary Keen). However, I've never heard her use her title or do the "do you know who I am?" thing. While she's very good on garden design, I think her biggest skill is in interpreting the spirit of the place when it comes to gardens, so her lecture sounds fascinating. Lucky, lucky you!

  13. Mary Keen is right about the whole 'shopping' aspect of garden articles - no garden is ever presented as good in its own right,worth seeing for its own sake: only a showpiece for ideas and plants to get = preferably buy.
    But she's as stuck as the rest on gardens as plant shops = http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenstovisit/5933493/Garden-visiting-through-fresh-eyes.html

  14. Such good points, Victoria. I was aware of her background and she certainly didn't tell us about it - in fact Threadspider was surprised when I told her afterwards because she'd been quite disparaging about 'posh people' and what they wanted in their gardens.

    You're so right about her focus on capturing the 'spirit' of the place, which would be really hard to convey in slides wouldn't it? That came over most strongly in her talk. I think her clients must have a lot of trust in her though, because she doesn't seem to have much truck with using design drawings or anything (apart from words and the odd picture) to convey how their precious commission's (and probably very expensive too) going to look.

    When she mentioned some of the other well-known garden designers, I think she was the most admiring of Dan Pearson because she felt he also tried to capture a place's spirit and because she didn't think you could tell a Dan Pearson design as being Dan Pearson's.

    One of the audience asked if there were any examples of her work open to the public. Sadly there doesn't appear to be any. I'd really like to see the kind of garden she creates. But I suspect I wouldn't be able to do that either if she really does capture a place's 'spirit' would I?

  15. Think idea of lecturing without pics is great (Robin Lane Fox does it too.) I give talks, use powerpoint and find that I'm creating the talk round the pictures. I'd never write like that and I think talks suffer for it. And there you are - whatever you may be saying everyone's staring at a picture which may or may not be relevant.

    You can see an MK garden, but you might be shocked: her own. Open under NGS and - umm, well,go and have a look!

  16. Anne - your first comment came in whilst I was replying to Victoria, but thankfully it means I can answer both of your comments in one go :)

    Thanks for the additional link, if anyone's interested in following it, you can go via here

    I think her garden's a must see for next year don't you?

    Interesting point about the use of slides - as I said earlier, I really think they would have distracted from what MK had to say. In my own experiences of giving talks I've used both approaches. Sometimes I think of really strong images to make a statement, but I'm just as likely to use no image at all, or just 3 bullet points on my powerpoint presentation and waffle on around them. I like using mind maps too for talks and for gathering information. Ooh, I could go on about those for ages...

  17. I kind of agree with her. My favourite garden isn't my own, but only for the fact it's far to small. I must do something about it . . . move! If only it was that simple.

    The problem with guest speakers is that they often, not always, project their views on to the audience. But if it has made you think and reflect on your thoughts and in turn learn something, in fact learn anything, then it's worth the fee!

    It's a shame I didn't live closer!


  18. Anne's absolutely right about Mary Keen's garden! Not one for neatniks - but I owe her a great debt as she turned me on to scented geraniums. I still have this image in my head of her courtyard overflowing with pots of Lady Plymouth.

  19. If we can't all attend your garden club...this kind of post and discussion is second best. I just need to have my coffee and toast and I will be ready. Is my garden my favorite garden?~~There are certainly moments, like this evening when the setting sun backlit it beautifully. gail

  20. At last, I can confess: I like my garden best. Wild and sprawly, unkempt, forever unfinished and rickety looking, I still find myself comparing other gardens and finding them wanting to my own and its peculiar brand of comfy homeliness.

    I've just never admitted that to anyone before.

    Oh, I think other gardens are wonderful, and they certainly are probably more lovely and refined than mine, but my garden is more than a physical space. It is a representation of a place that resides in my heart. There is no other garden that can do that.

  21. Ryan - I suspect most of us would like a bigger garden. I most certainly would, but my own garden is still the place where I'm happiest, no matter how it matches with the garden of my dreams. And I have orchard sized dreams!

    Victoria - I thought it might be so judging by what she said about how often she gets out in her garden. I'm reserving those snippets for when I get to see her garden for real.

    Gail - thanks - I'm really pleased when a post really takes off comment-wise. I think you've described perfectly why your garden's your favourite - it's those kind of moments which make everything worthwhile.

    Susan - thans for the confession. I love your description of your garden, especially the peculiar brand of comfy homeliness bit, it's made we want to come on a visit! Perhaps I could share some wine with your neighbours out front just like you showed us the other week :)

  22. I'd also like to know what Derry Watkins made of all of this. As a noted plantswoman, I'm sure she'd have some views about plants being likened to cushions and being the finishing touches to a garden!

    They're certainly not the finishing touches to mine, even though they were planted out some time after the design and hardscaping were done. Can anything which takes up so much space be a mere cushion?

  23. She starts off with a trick question I see. Of course there is only one Sissinghurst. However, most people want their garden to look like a favourite one because most people have a dream garden in mind - including me (roll on that lottery win).
    The plants are important in my present garden but I long for a garden with large trees and space - I would dig up my plants and move on in a second!

  24. Re what Derry Watkins made of all this: I don't know, but she's married to an architect, has a brilliant garden (near Bath)made in partnership with her husband and I believe would fully acknowledge that plants work with all other aspects of design to create a whole in gardens.

  25. EG - well spotted! MK actually said later that many of her audience had fallen into her deliberately set trap!

    Anne - thanks for coming back and saying that, because exactly the same thought struck me just after I'd posted my last comment. To have come back in to add it, would have looked as if I was chuntering away to myself ;)

  26. Now I am chuntering: the Special Plants link in this post is to my tale of visting Derry's garden in September :)

  27. Certainly Mary Keen's talk has prompted a fabulous response here, due to your immeasurable skill in condensing her points and making them so accessible.I have to say the only two points I brought away were about your own garden being your favourite and if it isn't, doing something about it, and plants being like cushions. I actually disagree with that point and not just to be contrary. But I do subscribe to her first, although I would rate my own garden even more my favourite if it were five times larger. See you tomorrow.

  28. TS - oooh five times larger would be fab wouldn't it?

    See you tomorrow - looking forward to it :)

  29. Oh and I've just ordered one of Mary Keen's books - 1p + p&p from Amazon secondhand!

    And TS - how about coming with me to see Mary Keen's garden next year?

  30. I echo all the envy of the gardening club speakers. I must have a look and see if I can find anything like it near it. I agree with a lot of what MK says. If you don't garden for your own site and space and light and views and history, you are not really making a garden, just a copy of someone else's or a plant collection (not necessarily bad things in themselves but a different thing from creating a garden). And I do love my own garden best, empty spaces, creeping buttercups, bindweed and all, and even though much of it is still in my head, not on the ground. I love all the comments here as well as your post VP, great stuff!

  31. Thanks, VP (and of course, indirectly, MK) for this provoking of thoughts. My own garden is sadly not my favourite garden, which is why I'm now wearing this thinking cap and stocking up on ideas. I suppose you could call it a stocking cap, too!

  32. Elizabethm - thank you :)

    Helen - glad to see this has provoked some thought.

    It's funny - I enjoyed Fergus Garrett's talk immensely, but of course it was cosy and comfortable becasue we had luscious images to sigh over. I learnt stuff too, such as the regular critique of planting combinations that the garden undergoes. Not sure I could quite do that with my garden - you'd need an immense backup garden of plants wouldn't you?

    However, I suspect that at the end of the talks season, it'll be Mary Keen's which will be the most memorable. For me anyway. It's good to have your ideas taken out and shaken up a little from time to time.


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