Book Review: Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed by James Hitchmough


by Eric Hsu

Together with his colleague Nigel Dunnett whose work at the Barbican Center in London is his most visible work, James Hitchmough have put Sheffield University on the map for their pioneering work in plant communities and their horticultural application in public spaces. While Henk Gerristen, Piet Oudolf, and their peers have respectively publicized the ecological-based tenets of planting for aesthetic effect and lower input than traditional plantings, James Hitchmough, despite being a well-respected researcher and a valued consultant to garden designers like Tom Stuart Smith, has largely been under the radar. Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed (Timber Press 2017) may finally shift the spotlight onto his work. The book is a distillation of more than 30 years of research at Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture. In his introduction, Hitchmough makes it clear that the book is “about utilizing an understanding of how naturally occurring plant communities function ecologically, and then transferring this understanding to help design, establish, and manage visually dramatic herbaceous vegetation in gardens, urban parks, and other urban greenspaces that is long persistent.” In no way are the vegetation he envisages for these plantings are always exact facsimiles of the wild ones, as sometimes he liberally borrows taxa from congruent habitats because seasonal interest must be sustained longer than natural plant communities permit.

Hitchmough is aware of the native plant debate, recognizing that the inclusion of exotic taxa in his planting may be an affront to those who see the disparity between his lament of the biologically diminished landscape and his appreciation of wild landscapes overseas. For a country whose flora was left less diverse after the Ice Age, United Kingdom would be poorer without its garden flora, much of it introduced during the 19th and 20th centuries. Where would Cornish gardens be without their tree ferns, rhododendrons, and camellias, and how would the herbaceous borders on those palatial estates look with only native plants? Imagine Capability ‘Lancelot’ Brown creating landscape parks without the range of trees. Hitchmough points out that large countries like United States or China benefit from having a large native flora, yet the definition of ‘native’ becomes ambiguous if someone would use species with disparate distributions (East versus West Coast). There is a gulf between the political and ecological definition of what is native, and environmental stressors in urban landscapes may be unsuitable for native species where exotic species may be more resilient. Pollinators do not discriminate between native and exotic taxa as long as nectar and food sources are satisfied. Any concern about invasive species is negligible because these uncooperative species are incompatible with the complex vegetation Hitchmough seeks to create. Conscientious of his work within the political and social-cultural context, he will adapt if native species reflect more accurately of the site than simply having exotics. Whereas Hitchmough’s contemporaries depend heavily on plugs and containerized plants for their work, sowing seeds of the desired species is the crux of Hitchmough’s plantings. The immediate benefit is economical scale-wise since large meadows would have required generous financial expenditure. And there is a magic of seeing the ground once bare become awash with vegetation.

“Looking to Nature for Inspiration and Design Wisdom” addresses the ecological parameters one must consider for successful plant communities in gardens. These parameters include climate, soil types, degree of competition with other plants, and herbivore pressures. Any experienced gardener knows too well the heartbreaking travails of failing to grow plants that fit the climate. While it seems prescriptive to match climatic conditions to the plants that are engineered to thrive, it does save one from meaningless struggles, curtailing any unrealistic expectations. Operating on a sliding scale that can accommodate plants with different levels of climatic fitness may be a preferable approach than the dogmatic of sticking merely to ‘extremely fit’ plants. Unsurprisingly less productive soils generally produce species-rich meadows while rich fertile soils permit rapidly growing species to dominate at the expense of diversity. The morphological architecture of plants can indicate the type of environments they can withstand – large leaves can signal high moisture needs and shade. Hitchmough points out that plant communities possess canopy layering, and one can intuit the general appearance and character from each layer.


Traditional horticulture perspectives doled out in general gardening books can unfairly alter our understanding of garden plants – for instance, well-drained soil, moderate temperatures, and sun are cultivation perquisites for Kniphofia, but when evaluated ecologically, a gradient of different conditions emerges for the various species. The horticultural advice overlooks the possibility of Kniphofia being in drainage swales because it assumes that the plants will be used in planting strictly for visual impact, not ecological sympatry. Hitchmough stresses this distinction because ecological, not necessarily aesthetic, traits of plants are the main priority.

Hitchmough’s valid points come from serious studies during his visits to various plant communities in Eurasia, Western North America, Asia, and South Africa. These communities are described and analyzed for their relevancy to his designs. A major challenge from incorporating some of the plants is slugs, which flourish in the maritime mild climate of United Kingdom. There is an inverse relationship between slugs and altitude – the higher the altitude, the less the slug population. High altitude species are sometimes difficult to incorporate because of the slug pressure. Nonetheless Hitchmough does draw up examples of species with high design potential from the plant communities. Gardeners may already grow some of them; for example, Achillea filipendulina, Alcea rugosa (hollyhock), and Eremurus species are suggested species found on productive soils of the Eurasian steppe. How does one take inspiration by studying plant communities worldwide and translate it for designed versions?

Hitchmough lays out two approaches in ‘Designing Naturalistic Herbaceous Plant Communities’: the biogeographic method and the non-biogeographic, pick and mix route. The former results in a some facsimile of the wild community where the sense of identity is emphasized and the planting more likely sustainable long-term. In contrast, the latter exercises more creative freedom due to the lack of biogeographic constraints. It does require more complex understanding of the plants and their interspecific interactions. Hitchmough even proffers the species level rather than the community approach, although the conditions at the proposed planting site must be approximated first. The well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto has taken this species level methodology in which species sharing similar cultural requirements are grown together. Regardless of which approach one applies to their design, macroclimatic and microclimatic factors must be weighed. Latitude, altitude, and continentality define macroclimatic ones while degree of shade, aspect, soil moisture stress, and soil productivity and pH characterize microclimatic ones. Hitchmough has helpfully organized the environmental and management limitations for various natural meadow-like plant communities and species in a table.

Flowering is categorized interestingly in three ways, dramatic, intermediate and low key, driven by the ratio of foliage to flowers at peak bloom, the size of each flower, and the impact of flower color. Asclepias tuberosa would be dramatic because it elicits the ‘wow’ reaction from people otherwise indifferent to plants. Sanguisorba is considered low-key for its flowers are small and not vividly colorful. It may be easy to be dismissive of these systematic categorization, but a wide gulf exists between the public perception and the trained eye. If designed plant communities need to have the impact in public spaces, sometimes our aesthetic values need realistic reassessment for a dispassionate perspective. It is a telling reminder before design objectives can be formulated.

“Seed Mix Design, Implementation, and Initial Establishment” looks at the intricacies of seed mixes. For those outside the profession, using seed mixes seems a failproof technique of achieving the colorful beautiful displays. However, these mixes are usually made of annual species whose high germination rates and little or no seed dormancy enhances successful results. In contrast, mixes of perennial species are sometimes unreliable because lower germination rates and consequent lower density of seedlings are inherent. Seed quality and storage is the main culprit when one selects species for seed mixes – obscure or rare species tend to have the lowest germinability, leading to intermittent demand and longer storage time. Because assessing seed quality takes considerable expenditure, one must brace for paying higher costs upfront. However, the tradeoff is better viability and less variability, which is less costly than having to repeat orders and contend with erratic germination.

Hitchmough cautions readers not to confuse percentage germination with percentage field emergence. High germination can be offset by mortality in field emergence, the survival rate of seedlings visible to naked eye. What can break or make is soil moisture – seedlings, irrespective from dry or moist habitats, benefit with no or minimal moisture stress. All these factors must be weighed before numbers are made for the seed mixes. The mathematician in the horticulturist may delight at the opportunity to calculate the weight of seed for species for a 288 M2 plot. Hitchmough has provided helpful formulas for breaking down the results. Sometimes to bypass the unpredictable facet of direct seed sowing, one can grow plugs or semi-finished plants. Then the question jumps to the available planting spaces per square metre, but actually ends up the same as sowing. What follows is too unchanged. Site preparation, soil cultivation, and sowing mulches will influence the crucial period of seedling survival and establishment. Even the timing of the sowing has an effect as Hitchmough weighs in species with seasonal preferences. Primroses are best sown spring, but Aconitum prefer early and mid autumn to break deep dormancy. The chapter is rounded by an invaluable compendium of emergence data for different taxa.

The first season of sowing still needs diligent husbandry before anything tangible can be witnessed. “Establishment and Management” advises on this first season and subsequent years. Weeding is paramount to any meadow-like gardens since weeds are energetic opportunists. Hitchmough is adamant about weed control, having once hand-weeded an 800-m2 sowing of the prairie garden at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens in its first season. He discourages fertilizing, a self-defeating tactic unless soil compaction and nutrient deficiency necessitates a nitrogen-only fertilizer. Editing becomes a priority once the plants mature and spread. It is a challenge that involves reviewing and conceptualizing the changes because a certain threshold for density of plants is visually acceptable. This threshold comes down to the specific nature of each herbaceous plant community because climate exerts an inexorable effect on window of growth. Hitchmough lays out the community type (i.e. forb dominated and grass dominated for temperate, forb dominated and geophyte dominated for Mediterranean) because the system is no longer a garden where all species from different communities are simultaneously accommodated.

The last chapter contains several case studies in United Kingdom (one exception being in China). Each project is prefaced by a summary of the plant communities, seed source, client and conditions, project area, and timescale. Hitchmough’s scientific methodology is conveyed in the project descriptions where chronological photographs illustrated his points. It is enlightening to read about the successes and failures of each project because most garden designers do not convey the arduous process, focusing instead on the ‘glamorous’ or ‘soft-sell’ results. Having trained and skilled staff to oversee and maintain these complex plantings is another factor Hitchmough brings up – such plantings are not the simple ‘mow and sow’ variety. However, with the slow erosion of skilled horticulturists, the resiliency of meadow-like plantings may be more advantageous than the traditional schemes, like annual bedding. Hitchmough concedes that no amount of empirical data can accurately predict how successful each plant plays in their ‘designed’ communities as plants being living organisms are forever shifting in their longevity and reproductivity. Instead, what the data can achieve is to minimize the losses and increase the rate of establishment.

Sowing Beauty is Hitchmough’s visceral reaction to the environmental degradation of the mining town he grew up in northern UK. It is possible that the extremes we are frequently experiencing from climate change may mean the gradual decline of conventional gardening ideals. In no way should we wait for an ecological catastrophe larger than Chernobyl nuclear disaster or Exxon Valdez oil spill for our mindsets to change. One may discount the meadow-inspired plantings overwrought imitations of the Real McCoy, but for people whose natural connections are becoming fractured in an urbanized world, they represent a vital connection to nature. Thoreau once said: “We need the tonic of wildness”, and Hitchmough’s work brings not only that ‘tonic of wildness’, but an empathic respect for our planet.

Curators in Gardens

by Eric Hsu

The Botanical Garden by Raoul Dufy

What does a curator do in a garden? It is a common question visitors ask during meet and greet sessions.

In an art museum, a curator organizes exhibitions, writes educational materials, and oversees restoration. He or she becomes the spokesperson for the museum’s work as much as the director or CEO does. However, overseeing the management and direction of an art collection is not different from that of a plant collection. Depending on the institution’s mission, a curator may be focused on the aesthetics of plants, i.e. designed for color or texture, – after all it is the beauty after edible use that are the plants’ draw cards.

It may be implausible to point out the similarities because whereas art or artifacts are inanimate objects, plants are ever dynamic living organisms whose success or demise cannot be predicted. As custodians of plant collections, curators must call upon themselves and the talents of horticulturists to secure the survival and conservation of plants. They may lead plant hunting expeditions to expand the extant germplasm or uncover exciting ornamental plants. Their drive for conservation and acquisition is the same in art museums where collections simply cannot be ossified for preservation, but must be open or exchanged for interpretation. Plants, like artwork, are a reminder of our cultural heritage – when Ben Stormes, the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden’s Curator of the North American Collections heads into the Cascade Mountains, he is returning with new ideas to express the importance of  the forest ecosystems to the public. Or when Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley, sets out to educate the public about alternatives to boxwood, which is badly decimated from box caterpillar or box blight. Peter Zale, Curator of Plants and Plant Breeder, is building up Longwood Gardens’ boxwood germplasm as insurance. As the Head of Plant Collections, Matt Lobdell has access to different scientific and public education initiatives at the Morton Arboretum, Illinois.

Sunday Clippings


The mornings have started to become more crisp, the foliage is beginning to change and we are enjoying the beauty that autumn has to offer.  It is a chance to slow down, pull out your favorite sweaters and catch up on some favorite reading.  We reach far and deep with this weeks edition of Sunday Clippings, sharing some really interesting stories this week from around the globe.  Click on the links below to enjoy. Have a wonderful Sunday..- James

5-10-5: Quill Teal-Sullivan, Garden Manager at Meadowburn Farm

Quill is now the Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens, Seattle, Washington State.

Like her classmate Wonsoon Park, Quill Teal-Sullivan was a Longwood Graduate Program student whom I became acquainted at various public garden events in the Philadelphia region. Her graduate studies led to her current position as the garden manager of Meadowburn Farm in northwest New Jersey, a stone’s throw from the New York State border. A West Coast transplant from Seattle, Washington State, Quill comes from a very creative family – her mother is a garden designer and horticulturist, her father a potter and architect, and her sister an artist and designer!  Her boundless energy and enthusiasm comes across in her work and her personality! I was very fortunate to have her company during my too brief idyllic stay at the garden.


Can you introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is Quill. I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. I currently direct the preservation efforts of the 130-year-old gardens at Meadowburn Farm, which were designed and built by Helena Rutherfurd Ely.


Left unshorn for a long time, the boxwood have acquired oddly rotund shapes that only enhances the garden's character; the Virginia creeper is already showing its beautiful scarlet autumn foliage among the trees. The entire scene conveys the garden's pastoral settling and its age.
Left unshorn for a long time, the boxwood have acquired oddly rotund shapes that only enhances the garden’s character; the Virginia creeper is already showing its beautiful scarlet autumn foliage among the trees. The entire scene conveys the garden’s pastoral settling and its age.

The arts or the garden?
Gardens as art!


What is your first gardening experience?
I have been gardening alongside my mother for as long as I can remember. When I was around 5 years old she gave my sister and I our own little garden beds where we could plant anything we wanted. I planted sky blue delphiniums that grew so big!


Baking and gardening are analogous - both are gradual processes that can produce beautiful results.
Baking and gardening are analogous – both are gradual processes that can produce beautiful results.

You worked in Seattle bakeries prior to your full dive into horticulture. Baking and gardening are nearly analogous – both, being an art and science, require patience, nurturing, and senses. As far fetched as it seems, how has baking help you become a better gardener?

It is so very true that gardening and baking have much in common, and it seems that people who enjoy gardening often enjoy baking. Although, in the early mornings when the sun rises and the birds awake, the bakers day is ending while the gardeners day is just beginning. This fact makes a world of difference. I would say that, more than anything else, my experience as a professional baker gave me great practice in putting my work out for the public to see, experience, and critique. This took me a long time to be comfortable with – to be accepting of potential failure for all to taste and see. I feel the same way about gardening sometimes. Especially as there is point in both gardening and baking when you have to relinquish some degree of control over your product: when the cake goes into the oven or the bulb is planted in the ground – you have to let go and hope for the best.

As important as the garden is, the bucolic setting is a crucial part of preservation efforts. The farm gained entry to Sussex County farmland preservation program in 2009, securing its future against future development. Unfortunately funding for this country farmland preservation program has dwindled, and subsequent open space and farmlands are likely shut off.
As important as the garden is, the bucolic setting is a crucial part of preservation efforts. The farm gained entry to Sussex County farmland preservation program in 2009, securing its future against future development. Unfortunately funding for this country farmland preservation program has dwindled, and subsequent open space and farmlands are likely shut off.

Deb Wiles, who has long been an advocate of garden history and design, lamented the fact that garden history is not offered as a separate discipline, like art history. Programs exist in UK, but not in US, yet you were able to tailor your dissertation at Longwood Graduate Program towards garden history and preservation. How did your topic come about and how were you able to convince your academic advisors/mentors about the topic’s merit?

One of the great things about the Longwood Graduate Program (LGP) is that students tailor their thesis and coursework according to their individual interest and career goals within public horticulture. I applied for LGP wanting to focus in garden history having been inspired by my time working in historic gardens. I liked the idea of focusing my research on one landscape – it was an opportunity to become intimate with a specific site. I asked Bill Noble, formerly of the Garden Conservancy, if he had any recommendations, and he connected me with the owners of Meadowburn Farm. It caught my interest, especially since the garden was designed by a woman. So, out I went to visit Meadowburn and fell head over heels with the garden. My excitement about it was enough to convince Dr. Lyons, my advisor, that this was the topic for me. The trickier part was convincing two very kind professionals to join my thesis committee and commit to reading and editing 300 pages of research.

The Pool Garden remains remarkably the same as it was depicted in old photographs.
The Pool Garden remains remarkably the same as it was seen in old photographs.

Gardens seem to still take the back seat behind art and architecture in our culture. I would have loved the opportunity to take more focused garden history courses in school. In LGP, I complimented the more traditional coursework with general architectural preservation courses, and used individual assignments to apply the lessons to gardens and landscapes. In a sense, this likely helped me be more rounded in my knowledge than I would have been in a strictly garden history course. But, it does not provide the stimulation of working with a professor and classmates in the same discipline. Attending historic landscape symposia was another way I could learn more about the field. I also reached out to several landscape architecture historians at universities throughout the country, all of whom were very supportive and gave of their time and thoughts generously – almost like private tutorials.


Historical photographs are priceless for seeing the original designs and the changes afterwards. Had Mrs. Ely not published her books, sole dependency on secondhand personal accounts is not reliable for re-imagining the garden in its former self. Quill's meticulous research has unearthed exciting documentation.
The Formal Garden at Meadowburn depicted in A Woman’s Hardy Garden; Historical photographs are priceless for seeing the original designs and the changes afterwards. Had Mrs. Ely not published her books, re-imagining the garden in its former self would have been difficult from sole dependency on secondhand personal accounts. Quill’s meticulous research has unearthed exciting documentation.

In our digital era, the notion of talking to people first-hand and leafing through dusty volumes for research seems archaic. But researching a history of a garden is a fun mystery! What aspects of the research did you enjoy the most? And what fascinating information did you discover about Helena Rutherford Ely during your research?

Such a fun mystery! Researching the history of Ely and Meadowburn was the most exciting and rewarding part of my thesis project. In the beginning I was told there was very little information out there about Ely and Meadowburn. There are no ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’ papers in a library anywhere. The Garden Club of America created an archive on Meadowburn at the Smithsonian in 1999, which compiled the limited information that was known to exist. In it was a reference to Ely’s grandson who I was able to find. He and his wife were very generous with sharing the information they had on Ely – including a guest book from Meadowburn dating from 1899 to 1917!! A treasure! This [lead] opened a Pandora’s box of new things to look into. That was a very exciting discovery.

I often followed strange leads – like researching people that she mentions in her books, or the publishers she worked with, or the seed companies she ordered from. This meant there were very frequently days spent in libraries that turned up no information at all. But, oh! the joy when I found something! One time I came across a box of original photographs of the garden in an archive with not a single mention of Meadowburn or Ely – just sheer luck. I started shaking from excitement and overwhelm – I had to put the pictures down because I thought my shaking hands would shred them.

Digitalis (foxgloves) fill the cold frames as seen from the inside of the greenhouse now emptied of its seedlings.
Digitalis (foxgloves) fill the cold frames as seen from the inside of the greenhouse now emptied of its seedlings.


Now and then - This image from Ely's A Woman's Hardy Garden shows Digitalis seedlings grown on in a seed bed before being transplanted to their final positions. It is an overlooked technique nowadays, although Great Dixter still raise plants this way and then bed them out in the borders.
Now and then – This image from Ely’s A Woman’s Hardy Garden shows Digitalis seedlings grown on in a seed bed before being transplanted to their final positions. It is an overlooked technique nowadays, although Great Dixter still raise plants this way and then bed them out in the borders.


Dahlia 'Helena Rutherford Ely' is one of the Meadowburn dahlias named after its creator. The plants easily top 6', but its decorative flowers are a butterscotch apricot color.
Dahlia ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’ is one of the Meadowburn dahlias named after its creator. The plants easily top 6′, but its decorative flowers are a butterscotch apricot color.

Historic cultivars, such as the Meadowburn dahlias, are always prone to falling out of favor and lost to cultivation. How do you plan on safeguarding the historic cultivars at Meadowburn?

I believe the best way is to propagate and distribute the Meadowburn cultivars to other historic gardens, botanic gardens, and collectors, and encourage others to grow and safeguard them, too. The dahlias are particularly precarious as they are easily wiped out in one season. This is why there are not many dahlia cultivars still in existence that date to the early 1900’s, where as there are many old peonies cultivars from this era that are still widely grown and readily available on the market.

Dahlias in the Picking Garden
Dahlias in the Picking Garden

We are fortunate at Meadowburn to have had three generations of the same gardening family caring for the grounds since 1883. Albert Furman, Sr., the first generation gardener, was especially fond of the dahlias, a sentiment inherited by his son, and then passed to his grandson as more of an obligation to legacy than a fondness. But Walter DeVries, third generation gardener, has continued to take great care of the Meadowburn dahlias because of the tradition. He is now teaching me about Meadowburn dahlia culture, which comes with many funny anecdotes and stories from over the years – this makes the task of hammering large cedar stakes into the ground quite enjoyable.


Gardens on the East Coast tend to be rooted in classical tenets of Europe, whereas those on the West Coast combine different cultures, leading to distinct regionalism. What Pacific Northwest perspective do you hope to bring to Meadowburn?

This is a tricky question. Since Meadowburn is a historic landscape inspired by classical tenets of Europe, it would be hard for me to take too much liberty in introducing a Pacific Northwest perspective. But what I appreciate about West Coast gardening culture is that people seem more willing to take risks and work outside the box than on the East Coast. When I first moved East for LGP, I was shocked by the incredible amount of mowed lawn. Never in my life have I seen so much turf! Perhaps this response is indicative of a free and informal West Coast influence – and I imagine this will manifest subconsciously in my work at Meadowburn. Stay tuned!

Clockwise starting left: Miens Ruy; Beth Chatto; Beatrix Farrand; Marian Coffin (Image Credits:;; College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Winterthur)
Clockwise starting left: Miens Ruy; Beth Chatto; Beatrix Farrand; Marian Coffin (Image Credits:;; College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Winterthur)

When we think of eminent women in garden design or landscape architecture, we often think of those overseas, especially Gertrude Jekyll, Beth Chatto, or Mien Ruys. It seems that our rich tradition of American women in garden design and landscape architecture (i.e. Helena Rutherfurd Ely, Rose Standish Nichols, Beatrix Farrand) has not been accorded the same recognition and fame. Why do you suppose that this oversight is such?

Europe had a head start in the field of landscape design and horticulture, and gardening continues to play a much more central role culturally, at least in the U.K, than in U.S. Europe is also more advanced with issues of gender equality than the U.S., which plays a big role in the recognition of women in any professional field.

On another note, prominence in garden history for women might be correlated with the interest of an individual or group who recognizes the significance of her work. Is it my understanding that Gertrude Jekyll’s return to fame was in the second half of the 20th century when her papers, which had been saved by Beatrix Farrand, became accessible. This allowed scholars to research and publish on her work, and thus revive her story. And there is now new light shown on Beatrix Farrand with the work of organizations like the Beatrix Farrand Society. In time she will be increasingly recognized. So perhaps women in garden history need champions to resurrect and tell their stories. I hope to be Ely’s champion.


Modern petunia hybrids lack the fragrance of older varieties (the scent inherited from Petunia axillaris) that likely existed in Ely's time. In the picking garden, the old-fashioned climbing petunias line the gravel pathway. So rambunctious is their growth that Quill have to prune them!
Modern petunia hybrids lack the fragrance of older varieties (the scent inherited from Petunia axillaris) that likely existed in Ely’s time. In the picking garden, the old-fashioned climbing petunias line the gravel pathway. So rambunctious is their growth that Quill has to prune them!

Historic gardens are often criticized for being ‘ossified’ or ‘frozen in the past’. It’s a difficult task for horticulturists to innovate without disrupting the historical precedents, yet had the original owners or gardeners been alive, they would have moved forward, using better plants or even removing overgrown trees. How do you plan on keeping one eye on the garden’s historical legacy and the other on the future?

I hope to balance the preservation of the physical aspects of garden with the preservation of her greater gardening philosophy – one of experimentation, trial and error, change, conservation, practicality (more or less), and nostalgia. Ely was on the cutting edge for her time, and she would certainly be the first to rip everything out and change the garden up, I am sure! Ely had a very strong vision, one that influenced gardens throughout the country at a very formative time in the history of American horticulture. And the historical context in which she built these gardens and wrote about them is an important element in the garden’s significance. But to recreate the gardens as they were in 1903 or 1916 would be impractical. The bones of the garden still exist – hedges, hardscape, fountains, statuary, etc., and restoring these elements is important. But within this structure there is flexibility to creatively interpret her vision and philosophy.

The stump of a deceased beech behind the house - a young beech tree has been planted to take its place nearby.
The stump of a deceased beech behind the house – a young beech tree has been planted to take its place nearby.

Historic preservation and public access are never easy bedfellows yet both must coexist if support for our historic heritage needs to be gained - the stone reliefs in the Evergreen Garden are fine for the time being, but increased visitation may cause irreparable damage through unsupervised handling.
Historic preservation and public access are never easy bedfellows yet both must coexist if support for our historic heritage needs to be gained – the stone reliefs in the Evergreen Garden are fine for the time being, but increased visitation may cause irreparable damage through unsupervised handling.

Opening or preparing a historic garden for public visitation is not without its challenges. Heavy foot traffic can damage turf, plants once flowing onto the paths become hazards, and wheelchair access is difficult in some parts. How do you aim to preserve the atmosphere of Meadowburn without compromising public access?

Whatever changes and improvements are made to the landscape must be in keeping with the character of the garden. That is what makes Meadowburn special. As one of the owners says, “We do not want to look like an institution”. This may mean that we will never be 100% accessible. We do not have a complete plan yet for visitor amenities and circulation, but my hope is to have one accessible route through the garden that is interesting throughout the season. We plan to ease into public visitation – starting with limited tours by appointment. This will help inform us of the limitations of the garden, and what further changes should be made. A critical part of our plan, and my job, is to generate revenue from the garden. This means that some areas will need to accommodate events in a way they were not originally designed for. But we are fortunate to have a lot of open space, both in the garden and surrounding the garden, so I do not anticipate it will be difficult to integrate these new uses.

What advice do you offer to those interested in garden history and conservation?
Read a lot. There are so many great books about historic gardens and designers available. Attend lecture series and symposia. Get involved in a historic garden or conservation organizations. Reach out to people in the field and ask for advice. Take your favorite garden historian out for coffee. And most fun of all, visit lots of gardens.


Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill's inspiring natural areas
Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill’s inspiring natural areas

What gardens and places have inspired you?
The redwood forests of Mendocino, California. The wildflower meadows of the Talkeetna Mountain range in Alaska. My mother’s garden in Seattle. Quirky nurseries owned by passionate plant nuts.


Dahlia 'Meadowburn Byba Vincenza' named after the Italian woman who loved and gardened at Meadowburn.
Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’ named after the Italian woman who loved and gardened at Meadowburn.

Ely is a well-seasoned traveler who interpreted what she saw overseas in her garden. What are a few of the gardens overseas you wish to visit and want to take from them?
More than anything I want to visit the gardens abroad that inspired Ely. This will help me better understand her work at Meadowburn. I also want to spend time in Italy researching the current owner’s great Aunt Byba Vincenza Giuliani who owned Meadowburn after the Ely family. She was Italian, and spent the winters at her villa and gardens in Florence. She introduced her own flare to Meadowburn – she planted all of our bearded iris in the 1940’s. I would like to understand her influence and this part of Meadowburn’s history. And then I would like to go to Jeju Island in South Korea to see my friend Wonsoon Park, which he says is the most beautiful place in the world. Then to South Africa to visit my friend Martin Smit at Stellenbosch Botanic Garden, and see him float his baby girl on a water lily pad.

What is your desert island plant?
A giant redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, because I could climb up to a nice branch and make a big nest to sleep in. And the canopy is an ecosystem in itself – berries and rhodies and little trees grow in the nooks and crannies, and little animals to make friends with. Then I would climb to the top and wave to the rescue plane overhead.

The view towards the gate from the wisteria arbor is the same as it was from Mrs. Ely's time.
The view towards the gate from the wisteria arbor is the same as it was from Mrs. Ely’s time.

What do you look forward to the most?
I look forward to the day when I have a garden of my own, and the time to make it everything I want it to be. And then, to have people come and visit me in my garden and to serve them lime popsicles. Eventually I look forward to gardening with my children and grandchildren, but that is a long way off.


Thank you Quill!


Sylvia Crowe

 sketch of Paleis Het Loo, the Netherlands, 2009 - J.McGrath


   Of all books written on the subject, Sylvia Crowe’s,  Garden Design, published 1958, remains top of the list, held high and praised by others for a reason.  Dame Sylvia Crowe was an English landscape architect and garden designer who wrote so clearly about how to decipher and understand the design process. Offering insightful information and advice on how to read historic garden styles, she also made it clear how to apply these principles, which still hold up in contemporary garden design today.  Her book stands the test of time since she clearly knew her subject well and  how to translate the ideas in a way for others to easily comprehend and understand. If you’re a gardener, landscape architect, architect, or enjoy design,  Sylvia Crowe should be on your reading list.

‘Man needs nature and if the genuine country is beyond his reach, he must be given a substitute.’ -Sylvia Crowe

5-10-5 Deb Wiles

Reeves-Reed Arboretum
Reeves-Reed Arboretum, D. Wiles

Hello and can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Deb (in England they call me Debs) and I am the Director of Horticulture at Reeves-Reed Arboretum and a garden historian.

The Arts or Horticulture, which do you feel most associated with?

Both. They really go hand in hand, don’t they? Artistic ability runs in my family (the joke is it skips every other generation so my great-grandmother and my mom were/are talented artists. My brother and I decided to buck the trend and grabbed a bit of the talent as it tried to skip over us). I’ve always enjoyed drawing and would love to learn to paint. I’m also addicted to blank notebooks and the promise they hold, whether in pictures or words or both. I came to study horticulture later but as I delved into its history I found that art history and garden history are quite closely linked and give us a greater appreciation for each when you take the time to understand both.

Could you share with us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m a native of Southern California. I learned to swim in my grandparents’ pool before I could walk. A competitive streak meant I tricked myself into learning to read sooner than teachers thought I could and now I have a book addiction. I also taught myself how to knit and also suffer a yarn addiction. That competitive streak lead me to take up epee fencing after having knee surgery (my doctor laughed at me when I suggested the idea).  I’ve worked as a florist, shop girl, help desk girl, Sign Language interpreter, account manager, corporate training coordinator, and finally a horticulturist and garden historian.

Academically speaking, I have a BA in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Sign Language Interpreting, I studied Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at UCLA, I was a Professional Gardener Student at Longwood Gardens, did a 6-month internship at Great Dixter, and earned my MA Garden History with Distinction at University of Greenwich (London, not Connecticut).

Pasiflora flower

Can you recall your first gardening memory?               I remember sitting on a seat wall in my grandparents’ garden and pinching the Oxalis seed heads. Not knowing they were weeds, I just liked how they exploded when I touched them! In our backyard there was a Pasiflora vine that attracted Western Gulf Fritillaries so there were caterpillars everywhere, then chrysalises, then butterflies. That was the first time I connected an insect to a particular plant but didn’t understand the importance of that connection until much later.

azalea garden at Reeves-Reed Arboretum
Azalea Garden at Reeves-Reed Arboretum, D. Wiles

As Director of Horticulture at Reeves-Reed Arboretum what does your role entail?

I’m basically in charge of the 13.5 acres of historic and modern gardens and woodlands that make up Reeves-Reed. I manage one excellent horticulturist and an awesome intern, and there is plenty to keep the three of us busy! Besides working in the garden, I also develop adult education programs, write policies and grants, work closely with all the other directors and managers since the grounds are used for children’s events, weddings, parties, etc., and work with contractors. While managed independently, the Arboretum is owned by the city so I also sit on the city’s Shade Tree Committee and interact with various city administrators on certain issues.

Reeves-Reed Arboretum, naturalized Narcissi

What ideas do you plan on implementing while working at Reeves-Reed Arboretum?

We’re currently in the process of developing a master plan that will help prioritize projects that need doing. The past few years have been defined by storm damage where clean up and triage were the priorities in the gardens. Now (fingers crossed) we can turn attentions back to restoring the historic core which was designed by Calvert Vaux, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and Charles Pilat and improving the modern areas. In doing my research, I discovered that each of those designers was influenced in some way by William Robinson so I’d love to incorporate his philosophy of the ‘wild garden’ into the gardens and kick up the plantsmanship a notch or two. I also want to put to work the valuable lessons I learned at Great Dixter. Some of their methods are a century old but still work beautifully, are sustainable, and are still very applicable to a garden like Reeves-Reed today.

Future plans for Reeves- Reed Arboretum?

All kinds of horticultural mischief! I’m immersing myself in books by William Robinson, David Culp, Keith Wiley, Christopher Lloyd, and the journal I kept while at Dixter to get ideas for plant combinations and new things to try. I want the garden to retain its historic elegance but I also want to have fun and give people something new and unexpected to see.

A personal goal is to secure funding for our internships and establish a year-long apprenticeship. Currently the internships are unpaid which means we aren’t able to attract students from outside our immediate area. Managing a historic garden comes with unique challenges and we need to train up the next generation of gardeners so that they’re able to approach those challenges with confidence and skill and conserve our historic landscapes. You and I know how hard those in our field work and how much they have to learn so I feel it’s only fair that they be compensated, even when they’re still students.

GIbraltar Garden 109
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles

How does having an MA in Garden History benefit your role as Director of Horticulture?

My interests and training in garden history totally benefit my role as DoH in that I know how to do the research needed for restoration projects, and I know how to “read” the landscape. Being familiar with the players and styles of the American Country Place Era also helps me make appropriate decisions with regard to plant choices and gardening styles throughout the gardens, whether in the historic core or not, so that the gardens relate to one another. It allows me to look back in order to move the garden forward in a way that honors the historic significance of the place while fulfilling its new role as a public arboretum.


If I was interested in becoming a garden historian, what steps or direction might you give about becoming one?

Step 1: Read, read, read and then read some more! Lots has been written about the subject since it became an academic interest 300-and-some years ago. Like most disciplines, it’s possible to specialize in a particular era and you can find a wealth of information on just about every era of garden design there is.  Garden history encompasses more than the changes in garden design over time, it touches on social, economic, political, military, architecture, science, and art history as well. When I say read, I mean everything you can get your hands on!

 Step 2: Get thee to England. Tragically, there are no university programs focusing on garden history here in the States. While some degree courses in landscape architecture and related fields offer a class in garden history, it’s not offered as a separate discipline like art history. The only programs I was able to find are in England; even so, two of them have disappeared in the last five years.

Step 3: Get thee a passport! Sure, you can look at glossy pictures of gardens in books and read about how, why, and by whom they were created, but gardens are spatial works of art and to be truly understood they need to be experienced in that dimension and with all the senses first hand. I had no idea how big the amphitheater at Claremont was until I went there,  and you can’t be overpowered by the warm scent of jasmine smothering the walls of a courtyard at the Alhambra by looking at a photo, or feel how truly vast a High Baroque avenue is until you stand at one end and fail to see the other.

Step 4: Get Involved and make friends in the field. The Garden History Society is a good place to start, as are the Garden Conservancy, and Library of American Landscape History. There’s also the Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian, and the Institute of Historic Research in London offers excellent free lectures on garden history. And all those gardens that you’re visiting – talk to the gardeners and curators! Every one that I’ve met has been incredibly welcoming and keen to share the story of their garden.

Step 5: Don’t leave home without a journal, a pen, and a camera. Ever! And don’t keep the stories to yourself – share them with others. Keep a blog, write for magazines, submit scholarly articles to academic journals – something I’ve yet to do but I keep hearing my tutor’s voice saying: “Just add 50,000 words to your dissertation and turn it into a book!”

Step 6: Constantly cultivate curiosity. Sometimes being a garden historian is more like being a garden history detective. People mistakenly think libraries and archives are boring but that’s when it gets fun! I’ve had several ‘OMG!’ garden history moments in libraries!

Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles
Gibraltar Garden
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles

If you had your choice to live in a historically important house and garden of your choice, which would you choose?

I always dream of winning the lottery and restoring the estate at Gibraltar Garden in Wilmington, DE. Another Ellen Biddle Shipman design, the garden is still open to visitors but has suffered benign neglect and the house is in a sorry state. It’s such a beautiful yet heart-breaking place, I can’t help but crave giving it a proper restoration whenever I visit! There was also a 17th century manor house recently for sale in England at a bargain price; if I win the lottery I can have both, right?

What is it about garden history that really grabs you?

I like stories and I like gardens and the fact that all gardens have a story to tell (or several stories), how those stories came to be, and why gardens change the way they do is what interests me. Also the detective work; the gardens I studied for my MA have undergone such drastic changes over the last few centuries and some no longer exist but with a little bit of snooping, you can still find evidence on the ground of past iterations of garden design. And I always get a little of the ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling when I go to the library and hold an ancient manuscript, or visit a historic family castle and hold their ancestor’s 300 year old travel diary in my hands. It’s like time travel, in a way.

Great Dixter, Topiary Garden

Choosing a public or private garden, where inspires you?

Great Dixter is a given; Christopher Lloyd’s and now Fergus’s sense of adventure and experimentation with plant combinations and their respect for and sensitivity to old ways constantly inspire.

great dixter 059

I know how much you loved being at Great Dixter, what is one of your best memories?

Meeting you and Mark and learning about Longwood…attending the symposium 9 years ago and meeting Linda Smith, who would become one of my best friends…Fergus cooking dinner for us on a makeshift bbq in the nursery…the time we went to see native Narcissus pseudonarcissus in the woods with Dan Hinkley…being introduced to Beth Chatto…going to Devon to collect Helenium for a trial and seeing Whistman’s Wood…Thanksgiving with Rachael, James, Yannick and Emma making homemade pizzas…Bertrand and me being the first to stay in the new student rooms down at Dixter Farm and figuring out how to work the oven…Craig teaching me to use a lathe and turning my own mallet…seeing Lewis’s wolf hat (or was it a fox) bobbing over the Solar Garden wall as he walked through the Wall Garden below…pricking out seedlings in the nursery…6am pot display changes…wait, did you mean just one!?

If you were to be left alone on an island and could choose one plant and one piece of art to take, what would you choose?

This will reveal what a geek I am! For a piece of art I would choose a Gallifreyan painting (from Doctor Who; Time Lord art, bigger on the inside! It’s a stasis cube which captures a 3-D image of a moment in time that you can interact with). The image would, of course, be a fantastic garden at its peak that I could roam around in when island life became tedious. With that kind of painting I wouldn’t have to choose just one plant because there would be many in the garden depicted in the artwork! (Is that cheating?)

What would your dream project be?

One of the sources of my MA dissertation was the travel diary of Celia Fiennes, a 17th-18th century noblewoman. She remarkably traveled through every county in England, visiting several great houses and gardens along the way. I would love to retrace her journeys and visit all the sites that she did, studying how the gardens have changed since she saw them. I’m researching her biography and have been to a few of the places she noted, but I would love to spend a year or two just focused on her and her travels!

What  sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?

I knit, I keep a journal, I doodle, I daydream.

Deb Wiles

Words of advice that you care to share?

I guess the cliché is, “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams” but I think there’s more to it than that. Dreams are powerful things and that power can propel you in directions you may not have imagined and might not be prepared for. They can put you in the company of giants and take you to distant, foreign lands. They upset your life in wonderful ways. So don’t be afraid to follow your dreams, but respect the incredible power they hold, because sometimes you just never know where they’ll take you!


Thanks for the interview and for being an inspiration Deb. –  James          see more @: (gotsoil?)

Sunday Clippings

Autumn in El Retiro

Looks like Horticulture tips the scales in this weeks edition of Sunday Clippings. Hope you are enjoying your weekend and the beautiful Autumn colors wherever you might be. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!

Find the time, make the time..


“I try to find the opportunity to visit other gardens often. So much can be learned through constructive observation; it might be the way someone stakes something, strikes a cutting, or deals with weeds, the public, or deals with interpretation. It’s important to make time because it’s part of one’s continuing education to do that, to see what other people are doing, to see what they are up to, to learn the lessons both good or bad. Find the time, make the time, and organize the time so you can get to these functions and continue to educate yourself. All of these things you can learn at all different levels of horticulture.”  – Stephen Crisp

This weeks tip is brought to us from Stephen, and we leave you with a website that is great to utilize when searching for gardens to visit, wherever in the world that may be. is a great site that has been instrumental on planning many a day out to see, take note, and learn.

5-10-5 Stephen Crisp at Winfield House

vintage map, Regent's Park
vintage map, Regent’s Park

Hello and can you introduce yourself?

Hello my name is Stephen Crisp, and I am the Head Gardener at Winfield House in Regent’s Park,  London.

The Arts or Horticulture, which do you feel most associated with?

Probably horticulture, though with an artistic acknowledgement because I see horticulture and gardening as being an art form, but I guess if I had to tick one box it would probably be horticulture.

Winfield House, London
Winfield House, London

For those that might not know you, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I have been at Winfield House since 1987, in the role of Head Gardener. Prior to that I was at Leeds Castle, as horticulturist for the Leeds Castle Foundation, establishing some new gardens there and working with Russell Page, who was the landscape consultant there in the 1980’s. Training and scholarships to Tresco Abbey and Longwood Gardens in the U.S. Also, The Royal Horticultural Society which was a two-year program back at Wisley in 1979 through 1981 and was the first formal education I had in horticulture.

Gardening usually gets into our system at an early age, do you remember your first gardening memory?

My first gardening memory was my grandparents’ garden. I grew up living next door to them and my grandfather used to grow chrysanthemums in part of the garden, those big funny lollipop things. They looked like big balls on sticks, which I was intrigued by but couldn’t understand what the attraction was. They seemed strange to me because chrysanthemums don’t naturally grow like that but he never exhibited them at flower shows though I don’t know why. That was my first conscious awareness of gardening as some sort of recreation or vocation rather than people just growing green stuff growing in an open space. The other memory that registered with me as a child was one of my Aunts, who had a tiny garden at the rear of her house, in Winchester, that she lived in. She was always very proud of it with her pocket-handkerchief lawn and a little pool made of concrete with a gnome cemented to the edge of it. There were some geraniums and roses there as well, it was very proper and somehow that always resonated with me too.

Troika pottery
Blue detail of Troika pottery, collection of Stephen

 Do you remember the first piece of art or a color you were captivated by?

The color is BLUE, always blues! Art was probably William Morris as his museum collection was half a mile away from my child hood home and I spent a lot of time with my face pressed to the glass of cabinets or stroking pieces of furniture when the custodian was not looking!

Who, if anyone, would you consider your mentor?

I was asked this question recently and while there wasn’t a specific person, different people have and continue to pass within my orbit and me within theirs.  In effect, they become mentors in a passive way, in an inspirational way rather than someone who every time I have a question about horticulture I think I must ask ‘so and so’. It’s more about influences and people making you aware in thinking something you haven’t thought before. There have been certain people who have been generous and pivotal in where I have ended up; probably most significant is Peter Coats.  He introduced me to Winfield, as a result of doing an interview with him about a garden that I made at Leeds Castle and he put forward my name to work here (Winfield House). Rosemary Verey was always very generous, as well, and we would often meet or correspond and when I wanted to go to America, she wrote some letters of introduction for me.

Stephen at Great Dixter, 2013
Stephen at Great Dixter, 2013

Christopher Lloyd partly through looking to him for inspiration rather than entering into frequent dialogue with him because when I was a student I found him an inspirational writer. Visiting Great Dixter was a revelation for me, not so much the first few times I went there, but once Fergus came on board, there was a whole new energy that entered the place, that to me made it, and continues to make it, an inspirational place. Even though Christopher Lloyd is not there now, his spirit is still part of the mentoring process; so, I think its people rather than a person.

Winfield House
Winfield House garden
Winfield House
Winfield House

How did you come to be the Head Gardener at Winfield House?

It was through Peter Coats, then acting editor at House and Garden Magazine, and I met him about 3 years before I came here, in the mid 80’s. He came to write a story about a garden that I had made at Leeds Castle in partnership with Russell Page. Russell was responsible for the ground plan, the path system and the way the space was subdivided, and I did the planting design. Russell used to come along, waving his arms around, not being very specific which led me to just get on with it.  Peter Coats came and wrote a story for House and Garden Magazine and we stayed in touch. Occasionally I had lunch with him and he used to live in the Albany, a complex of apartments in Piccadilly, and it was always a bit of a trial because although I would enjoy having lunch with him, the food reminded me of school dinners. These meals were served in a freezing cold dining room, because he was too mean to put the heating on, served by Briggs, his manservant.  I think they disliked each other but both relied on the other for their existence, so it was a surreal experience. Peter wrote a book called ‘Gardens Around the World’ and one of the chapters was about Giverny. He didn’t have any images of the water lilies, which I did, and I lent them to him to publish in the book. Consequentially, it seemed to take our friendship onto another level.

Winfield House
Winfield House

When I was thinking about moving on from Leed’s Castle, I wrote to Peter, amongst one or two other people, saying, “If you hear of any interesting jobs, I’m in the market.” He responded that my predecessor was retiring here at Winfield and they were looking for someone and that I really ought to go and have a look and meet the then Ambassador and his wife, Carol and Charlie Price.  That’s how it came about and why I think a mentor is important but so are contacts because the best jobs are not often advertised and it’s all about that network. A telephone number or an email can completely change the direction of your life, so it is important to make the right impression and get information, so Peter was responsible, ultimately, for me being at Winfield House.

Green room, Winfield House
Green Room, Winfield House

How would you describe a typical at Winfield?

There is no typical day, but it normally starts out with speaking to my assistants and discussing what had been achieved the previous day and what needed to be accomplished for that day or even later in the week. It’s quite informal and I rely on them, as much as they on me, to prioritize what needs doing. I water the glasshouses or attend to things that need doing in the house by way of cut flowers. If there is an event on, we get floral decorations ready and the day spins off from there. It’s dictated by the weather, the time of year and what other priorities need my attention but no two days, two weeks, or two years seem to ever be the same.  There is no typical day really, just consistently busy.

IMG_5200 Often, sculpture is used throughout the grounds here at Winfield Place, so what approach do you take to its placement in the garden?

It’s the Ambassador and his wife’s prerogative of what sculptures appear here and, largely, where it is positioned. Normally, it would be in consultation with the artist and me. Collectively, we decide if something is appropriate and where the most appropriate position might be for it. We have things in the garden by Alexander Calder and Anish Kapoor. There are other pieces here as part of the permanent collection but sculpture must be in context and also that there not be too much of it. Sculpture has to have space to be appreciated, both physically and psychologically. It’s a dialogue between those people who are acting as the patron and the artist, with me pointing out things like having to mow around them, vehicles needing to pass by, so practical considerations as well as an aesthetic point of view.

What qualities do you deem most important when looking for a gardener?

Passion, empathy, training, experience, creativity, sensitivity, generosity, and other qualities besides those listed, in varying proportions. There are good gardeners who are practical horticulturists who practice the craft with knowing how high to cut a lawn, when to cut a hedge, what action is needed to keep a plant alive, healthy and thriving and sometimes that is combined with an aesthetic appreciation and sensibility but not always and you don’t necessarily need that with everybody. If you have a team of people, it is superb if different team members bring different qualities to the collective good. If you hate cutting grass and someone else loves it, then clearly the person who loves it is a valuable team member for dealing with that aspect of the responsibility, or if someone hates planting, staking or deadheading, they will do the job but not as well as someone who enjoys those more fiddly dexterous tasks. I think you have to try and guide the individual towards the task that best suits their skill characters and a combination of those things you sometimes find in an individual. You have to identify those qualities, using them best within the operation that you’re looking after.


 How does the collecting of art and objects intertwine and influence the way you garden?

        I am not sure if there’s a direct connection but a reflection of ones psychology or psychiatry that you feel the desire to surround yourself with objects reflecting different periods and styles, from the 19th through to the 21st Century. I collect contemporary art, 19th century things, and many other objects between but, for me, they are touchstones with the past. It affects the way I garden because you can’t take things forward unless you learn the lessons by looking backwards. If you make a new garden, it’s important to understand what came before. 

Summer Garden, Winfield Place
Stephens design, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Summer Garden at Winfield

You can take inspiration for design from what has happened in the past, depending on your interpretation of it but these things, through osmosis, have an effect on the way that you see the world. Good gardening is about seeing the world through a particular lens, it’s not purely about the culture of plants, and it’s about the context within which they are growing. Beth Chatto once wrote something along the lines of ‘People that just think about gardens, who live, eat and breathe plants are boring. I am interested in meeting people that are interested in art and literature as well as horticulture…” She felt, and I have to agree with her, that it makes for a more rounded individual, who has a more rounded view of the world and I believe this to be absolutely true, being aware of all of these different things.

Thames Barrier Park
Thames Barrier Park
Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf

Over the course of the next few years, in what direction do you see horticulture heading?

    Gardening with fewer resources and more in tune with the natural environment with sustainability being the keystone that is driving the design or the conception of new gardens, achieving more with less and with a lesser impact on the environment. Maybe the Sheffield School of Horticulture using pictorial or sustainable meadows, not necessarily native meadows, there is a way of creating big, bold, colorful statements without any need to raise plant materials in nurseries or under glass, which takes energy to achieve. The general public’s perception of open spaces and gardens and what’s expected from them is also changing, with us not necessarily needing to see beds full of roses, carpet bedding or even short mown grass. People are happy, comfortable and just enjoy being in green spaces. This is probably the direction that I think things will go because it all helps when you are trying to run an open space with fewer resources whether it is people, money, or even physical materials.

Who or what is inspiring you in horticulture these days?

I think people, individuals and I’m inspired by good design. If visiting a country or city, I would visit the botanical gardens but it would be the last place I would choose to see because it’s a collection of plant material, which is important, but the design is not always particularly inspiring. I could be inspired by the plantings on a municipal roundabout or a median strip down the middle of the road, if it was done creatively and originally. What’s recognized as being a traditional garden in a traditional context, the way the paving materials or lighting, or water, all used in original ways, are things I find exciting. There are some interesting things going on in the re-design of public spaces. Often gardeners think they can only draw something that is relevant to them in a traditional setting when there are so many different things that you pass through or pass by in everyday life, or in public spaces, that can still teach us lessons about the way a space or situation can be handled.

Gilbert and George
detail of Gilbert and George work, private collection

Do you have a favorite art period or artist that you tend to gravitate towards?

Increasingly, I’m drawn to contemporary art, I don’t really consider an unmade bed or a pile of bricks to be a work of art, but there are a lot of really cool contemporary artists around that do interesting work on paper or with sculpture. I like being in a broad church of art, artists and mediums.  Sometimes I like something that one artist does, who does one sort of genre and then there are other works they will do that I just don’t get. It has been interesting working at Winfield with the changing art collection in the house, from one administration to another, and how working around contemporary art has changed my appreciation of and has broadened my mind to what constitutes art, a privilege but also part of ones personal development. 20 years ago the majority of the population was into figurative art forms and anything a bit ‘off the wall’ was considered nuts but there are many amazingly dynamic artists around.

Grayson Perry, to me, is one of the most amazing artists in the way that he sees the world. He makes these ceramics and tapestries that somehow encapsulate the ‘Now’, which will be important in art history because people will look at what he made at the beginning of the 21st Century and see that as being representative of these times. Brigitte Riley’s work too, she is an amazing woman in her early 80’s, still dynamic and interested in exploring art forms and new ideas that she was at the forefront of inventing back in the 1960’s. Here she is 50 years later with the same enthusiasm and energy for exploring color, the way it makes you feel, the mood it can create and the relationships with one color to another. Being around people like that energizes me. Seeing what people like Gilbert and George do, who also confront issues and events that are happening, and who then incorporate them into the work that they do. I can appreciate a Rembrandt, a Van Gogh or anything else, but you have this choice to feast on all of these different things and that is the luxury of living in a civilized culture, isn’t it really?

What organizations do you find are a great source for helping and educating people interested in pursuing horticulture?

You need to try all the nationally recognized organizations, the RHS, the National Trust, the English Heritage, and the botanical gardens. Perhaps after getting a general education in horticulture, you need to try and figure out which part of the field that you are passionate about and want to work in, whether it’s the nursery industry, maintenance, design, or retail. Once you establish which you think your niche is going to be, and then target individuals or organizations that might offer advice, mentor you or offer an employment opportunity.  It’s important to not be too general and to start focusing in a direction otherwise you bounce around all these opportunities and the Internet has transformed the possibilities of gaining information in a way that never previously existed. If you are passionate, do a bit of research, find out who’s doing what, who might offer employment, and how to train to do it, that’s the reality of it.

Great Dixter
Great Dixter , Long border

What garden public or private inspires you?

This is cliché, but I always enjoy going back to Great Dixter and seeing what is being done there. I said to Fergus recently that coming to Dixter is like having a dose of horticultural adrenaline. Dixter works for me, but that’s more about plants and vignettes. On a bigger palette, it’s the sort of things that Kim Wilkie, Tom Stuart Smith, Piet Oudolf and Dan Pearson are doing. It’s exciting to see, to learn, to read, and to discuss what those people are doing, to learn from their experience and know what their inspiration was during that project. I try to find the opportunity to visit other gardens often, they don’t have to be grand gardens, they can be open for The National Gardens scheme, or modest private gardens and unfortunately a lot of working gardeners don’t this. Sadly, I meet colleagues and ask if they have been to any interesting gardens recently and usually they say they haven’t had the time.

Wyken Hall
visiting Wyken Hall, Stephen (left) with owner

It’s important to make time because it’s part of one’s continuing education to do that, to see what other people are doing, to see what they are up to, to learn the lessons both good or bad. I see a couple of gardens a month and they might not be the scale of Blenheim Palace or Sissinghurst but even a casual observation of a garden wall is an education.  I make a deliberate target of trying to visit one or two spaces every month, gardens that I might already know and seeing them at different times of year. So much can be learned through constructive observation; it might be the way someone stakes something, strikes a cutting, or deals with weeds, the public, or deals with interpretation. All of these things you can learn at all different levels of horticulture. Also, going to a couple of lectures or conferences a year helps.  I go to a lot of the lectures at the Garden Museum, more than one a month on average.  I am signed up for Society of Garden Designers conference this autumn and though I am not a full time garden designer, it’s important to know what other people are doing, drawing lessons from them. There are things going on in London all the time so find the time, make the time, and organize the time so you can get to these functions and continue to educate yourself.

Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder in garden at Winfield House

If you had to choose one plant and one piece of art to accompany you on a deserted island, what would you choose?

Odd question….. Probably the plant would be Rosa glauca because you are able to have flowers, fruit, autumn color and it never seems to be affected by pests or disease.  As for a piece of art, it would be an Alexander Calder mobile because you would have the different light of the day, or the breeze to turn it and it would always be changing, moving. Always familiar but different depending on the providing conditions.

 What would your idea of a dream project be?

A new garden, and in the past I would have said a private house but that almost seems too exclusive now, so to be democratic, a landscape around a public building, with either a gallery or a museum, as its focus. I would make a garden around that and have it be a reflection of the architecture; if it were a modernist building I’d take a modernist approach to the scheme, because it is important that the landscape has some reference to the building that it’s adjacent to or surrounding.


What creative outlets do you often turn to for sparking ideas?

Books and people are my creative outlets. If I’m working on a design I’ll invariably browse books, flicking through pages, with a notepad or post-it notes to back reference. Sometimes when you are trying to flesh out the details you get to this point where your brain is not coming up with any new ideas or lacking inspiration, so by browsing books I find that helps. If I have no idea then I browse books anyway, depending on the challenge. If it’s a border then I might approach certain books or if it’s a contemporary challenge, there are certain designers or books that I will gravitate towards. Sometimes it’s things; I have come up with ideas for organization of space through patterns.  I remember I did a huge herb garden in the Ashdown forest, on a hillside and the inspiration for the design was from seeing an image of lavender in Provence. There were contour lines because of the landscape, the way it was striping down, and then I found a piece of fabric with a design that was doing a similar thing, and those two images became the catalyst for the approach to the design of the herb garden.  The rows of planting were almost like contour lines on the hillside that had an organic feeling but that was the germ of the idea. Another time, an art deco ashtray inspired the design of an ornamental pool.  If you get stuck, speak to people, and say, ‘I’m up against a brick wall here, what do you think of this?’ Critical analysis is important with what you’re doing because otherwise your vision can become a bit myopic in what is or isn’t right. That’s why or how a studio practice has great strength because when the lead designer surrounds themselves with other colleagues who they respect, they can bounce ideas off of each other resulting in a richer end product.

Any last words of wisdom that you care to share with others?

Always look , listen and learn

Stephen Crisp

Thank you Stephen, it was a pleasure to interview you and have a chance to let us see into your world.

Rosa 'Korisa'
Rosa ‘Korisa’

In Hindsight

Great Dixter Topiary Lawn, colored pencil, 2008
Great Dixter Topiary Lawn, colored pencil, 2008

The importance of moving forward is always best with a healthy dose of looking back, in hindsight, with the people and places that have helped influence and encourage along the way.   In 2008,  Great Dixter, home of the late Christopher Lloyd,  proved to be a learning experience unlike any other when I was fresh out of horticulture school, becoming an extended family that showed me creative ways to combine plants, see color,  and how to grow some of the best plants possible.  Even though that was  years ago,  the impact and weight of the time spent there is still significant and apparent in the techniques and skills that I use today, as I’m still doing things the ‘Dixter way.  Having been back numerous times, the feeling is always the same as I felt the first dark night I arrived with my bags at the end of the long front walkway, one of deep admiration and respect for the opportunity Great Dixter shares with passionate gardeners.   Friends should always support friends, family, artists,  teachers, and kind and creative minds alike. So, support those around you, whoever they may be…

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Great Dixter Topiary Lawn, 2013
Great Dixter Topiary Lawn, 2013