Foreign Gardeners: Gabriella, from Hungary to England

An excellent designer and passionate plants-person, meeting Gabi is a memory that remains clear in my mind. Arriving at Great Dixter for the first time from the U.S., in the darkness of night during a horrible downpour, was an experience. By the time I made it down the long front path to the huge ominous house, with the crooked porch in front of me, I was sopping wet.  After some heavy knocking, Gabi opened the huge wooden front door, greeting me warmly. Once inside the house, it was all another world to me, like stepping back in time.  Gabi led me to a roaring fire in the Solar upstairs and brought out a tray of delicious homemade soup and tea. As I ate and warmed up, adjusting to the surroundings, Gabi could see and understand what was going on in my mind, the excitement of it all, since she too had been a newbie at Dixter once too. It was a surreal experience that night and from that wonderful moment on we have remained friends. – James


CurrentWork-C4 Hi, Gabi! That story always makes me smile, thank you again for your kindness that night.  As the first in the Foreign Gardeners series, can you tell others what country you were born and where you decided to move to?

Hello, I am Gabriella Nemeth and I am from Hungary and moved to the United Kingdom.

How long have you been living in the U.K. now?

I will be living in the U.K. ten years now this March.


Describe to us the beauty of the landscape in Hungary, your homeland, and your memories from your time there.

I was born on the Great Hungarian Plains. The landscape is flat. Flatter than anyone can imagine. The open land, the sand which moves around, scorching summers and extremely cold winters and very poor soil makes it difficult to grow anything. But the natural habitat, the most western edge of the Russian Steppes creates the most unique, colorful ever-changing carpet in the land.

I loved wandering through these meadows searching  beauty which hid in the details of Verbascum flowers or the delicacy of the bloom of Stipa borysthenica. I marveled at the wonder of how a small lichen creates a growing surface for moss, later a sedum, then a grass, which later gets replaced by perennials and later the beautiful silver poplars; the ongoing succession of plants.

I really miss walking barefoot in the warm sand in summertime, and catching the scent of flowering Robinia pseudoacacia and Asclepias syriaca.

memories of farm life in Hungary

When did you decide to make this change and why did you move to the UK?

I have studied Landscape Architecture in Hungary and after finishing University with a Masters in 2005.  I was made to be unemployed and did odd jobs for nearly 2 years due to my home country’s economic and social situation.  At the same time, the lack of encouragement for young professionals to express themselves,  the lack of appropriate jobs and the suppression of women who have a desire to build a career,  resulted in a desperate move to find my own path.  For years I was extremely keen to find a job in garden design or landscape architecture  but  my interest had been diverted more to the importance of plants and understanding their life cycle, appearance, texture, colour,  being the most important building elements of garden design.  I finally realized I wanted to learn more about succession planting and the proper and artistic use of these elements in the garden.

the mix of the Hungarian landcape
Stipa borysthenica

In the summer of 2006, I received a lovely gift from my best friend in Hungary( who sadly passed away in 2012, aged 33, due to cancer).  She visited the UK during that summer and brought me back an copy of Gardens Illustrated magazine.  I read an article about a nursery called Dove Cottage Nursery and I picked up the courage to write a letter, to ask them about a few weeks of training.  They were so kind and helpful and sent me a response very promptly.  They couldn’t take me on but they suggested to contact Great Dixter and Fergus Garret.  It was November 2006 when I sent out my email to Fergus and for my biggest surprise and shock he replied within 2 weeks and asked me when would I like to come and how long I would like to stay.  This email was the key for my future!  I decided to immediately leave my part time librarian job and fly out in March 2007 for a 3 month apprenticeship.   Shortly after my arrival I felt that this is the place and country where I was called to.  A few weeks before my finish date I asked Fergus if there would be a job a for me in the future since William, the vegetable gardener, was leaving and they would have a vacancy, which I was then offered.  I accepted it but on the result of this I had to make some very hard life changing steps in my private life.  It was the most difficult and the same time the easiest decision to make.  It has taken years to settle all the waves I  stirred up but it was worth it.


Quiet mornings in the vegetable garden at Great Dixter

Private client work

Can you explain to us a bit about your current job?

In 2010 I  moved on from Great Dixter with a plan to find a part time gardener job and concentrate on garden design and build up my own clientele in garden maintenance.  Since 2012 I have gone fully independent and became a freelancing professional gardener, a designer with a variety of jobs in the UK and abroad, including gardening advisory and floristry.

I had to go through a though learning curve over the last 3 years.  I am a freelance head gardener at 2 private homes in two different counties in the UK,  supervising independent contractors to complete all the tasks needed in the highly maintained gardens and am also responsible, personally,  for the border maintenance, vegetable gardens, lawn care etc.

I have a very versatile job, which keeps me highly occupied, since I have a very long commute between my jobs which means a lot of driving time beyond working hours.  I definitely haven’t got a 9 to 5 job but I have a lot of variety, a lot responsibility and lot of reward from my gardens as a result of long working hours and hard work.

CurrentWork-C3How did you happen to find your current job?

Both of my clients found me,  which is very surprising,  after all the job applications I sent out and interviews I attended.  My client in Wiltshire has been the best of all my career, I was recommended to them by their garden designer and I have been working for them for more than 4 years.  A record for  staying in the same job for so long, but it proves that it takes time to find the right kind of people to work for and the right kind of garden which needs me…

The other clients, in Berkshire, found me through an agency I was registered with.  I have been working for them 2 years now.  An interview with prosecco and prosciutto resulted in a great working relationship, together building a fantastic garden.


Would you say there are benefits to being a gardener living abroad?

Yes, I am living in heaven for any gardener/horticulturist. The UK is the place where everyone is so passionate about their green places, you can grow almost anything from all over the world and my job is the most appreciated here in the UK.

As a foreigner living abroad it’s not always easy at times. What, if any, have been some difficulties you’ve encountered during you time living in the UK? What have some of the struggles been?

Some of the struggles…a lot really…it’s part of getting stronger and resilient and succeeding.

In general, when I moved to the UK I didn’t have a car but from my first salary I bought a bicycle. Great Dixter is at least 10 miles from the nearest town and the public transport can be unreliable and scarce.  I needed to get to places.  I soon realized everyone uses cars to get around and has little respect and attention for a cyclist.  Later when I got a car I encountered the overcrowded motorways and traffic jams which now my daily experience.  So bad public transport services, little respect for environmentally friendly ways of getting around and too many cars.

Loneliness, lack of family or old friends support, new language, living financially on the edge and taking very big risks all alone,the physical challenge of my job, being in pain and being soaked in the rain for days in and out.  The language and cultural differences were hard the first few years.  I found it very hard to realize that it’s much easier to make friends with people from abroad than with the locals…it is still an ongoing difficulty.  I have more friends abroad who I keep in touch more frequently than with people from Britain.

Doing very insignificant jobs for years to finally make a tiny step up, being turned down from jobs many times, getting a job which didn’t suit me and leaving it, but because of the financial dependency I had to carry on working, sometimes with people who humiliated me. I had to learn that people like to take advantage of others, especially those in vulnerable positions. I definitely have been used over the years,  as result of the hard working Central European attitude.   I learned how to and how not to do things, manage staff, etc… But all this made me very strong and I know it was worth it.  And the rain is something which takes time to get used to, especially when one comes from a country where life stops at the first rain drop.

Favourite English Landscape_Dorset Coast
just one view of the many beautiful and diverse landscapes of England

On the flip side, there must also be some surprising change that you have welcomed and enjoyed. What would those be?

I think the love of plants and gardens was the best surprise.   I love the climate regardless of it’s raining or not.   I also love the countryside and the coast which is on a sunny day is unbeatable in beauty.

Mostly I have found so invigorating is the encouragement I get from the people to pursue my dream and career, to follow my heart and be myself, do my dream job and live my dream life.   Fantastic surprise after years of suppression.


Moving to a new place can have its challenges,  what preparations did you take to prepare yourself for this move from Hungary to the UK?

I was not aware of it but I have spent a lot of time and effort and money on learning English in high school…it was more like a pride thing…I was the only one when we started at high school at age 12. I had to write an introductory test which I failed with scoring 0 points, that I couldn’t stand and instead of despairing I took up extra language lessons and within a year I was in the advance class! So, yes it was all worth it…

Also my first cash in hand jobs in Hungary were garden maintenance for a Greek-English family and a bunch of Americans, though I didnt know it was the prep for the future.

 What advice would you give to others who are going to be making the same sort of life changes similar to your situation?

Seek and knock on the doors, be brave, take risks, try, don’t give up, try again and again…and again… Wait, work hard and you will succeed.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice for theses changes, what would  you want to tell yourself?

I think I would have told myself to be more patient with certain things but on the other hand don’t put up with bad employers, situations, circumstance as long as I did but it’s easy to be wise, the challenges of the moment always dictates your acts more than wisdom.

Mainly I would encourage my younger self to discuss and communicate more. I think that helps the most to find yourself out, to find yourself, your dream job and life.

Having lived in the UK for a while now, tell us some of the greater memories you have made so far…

I think taking off the ground in Hungary with the plane in March 2007, it felt like being pulled out from a sticky mud hole which almost swallowed me up…  Driving up to Great Dixter first time which was surrounded with spring flowers and occupying my room with a 4 poster bed…yeah…unforgettable….unbelievable.  Meeting you Jimmy!  On that spooky windy November night!   Makes a smile on my face each time I think of it with all the trimmings of story of that day. And leaving Dixter, packing up my car and driving into the unknown future again. To 3 years ago the feeling of moving into my flat, which I rent, but it is only mine!  Walks in the countryside wherever I have been living over the last 8 years are  some of the most wonderful moments of my life in Britain.

Rosa ‘Cecile Brunner’ & Rosa ‘Olivia’


Turning back to gardens, tell us your new favorite plant that you can now grow that you weren’t able to before?    

Compared to Hungary I’m so happy to be able to grow healthy old English roses and sweet peas, on the veg line artichokes and brassicas. All very traditional but still a special treat for me.

Rosa  rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed and for sharing your story with everyone.  If you would like to reach out to Gabriella, ask a question please do so by commenting below or see and know more about her work please click on the links provided below. Thank you Gabriella! – Plinth et al.

Website: Gabriella Gardens

Facebook: Gabriella Gardens 

5-10-5 Jonny Bruce / The Germ

A wonderful thing about the horticulture world is that it is small one, so you often meet fantastic people of all sorts.  I met Jonny through my friend Tom, the head gardener at Gravetye, who put us in contact through email. Jonny spoke about seeing Plinth et al. and suggested I might be interested in receiving a copy of his publication, since it covers subjects that he knew interested me. The interview was a way to get to know more about Jonny, and the work that he does on this personal project of his.  I am sure you will find it interesting. – James


Cerinthe major, J. Bruce, watercolor
Cerinthe major, J. Bruce, watercolor

The Arts or Horticulture?

With an artist mother my life has been grounded in the arts but as I developed my own thoughts about art and horticulture it seemed that any distinction was a superficial one. Really the two collide and coalesce to such an extent that I really could not say either way. 

2014-04-08 10.46.14

Thanks Jonny, can you introduce yourself to us.

    London born but I grew up first in Stockholm and then Oxford where my family still live. Following this frankly idyllic upbringing I spent three, slightly fraught, years at Cambridge University studying History of Art. To combat the endless hours spent behind a desk I started an allotment in the grounds of my college, Girton. The joy I derived from the time spent on this small plot, as well as some formative gardening experiences had during my long university vacations, convinced me of the need to pursue a career in horticulture. After a year working at the beautiful Aberglasney Gardens in Wales I managed to secure a placement at Great Dixter in East Sussex as the new Christopher Lloyd Scholar, which I began in September.

    I also moonlight as a botanical illustrator and edit a small publication about art and horticulture called The Germ.


Your first gardening memory?

    Aged 10 stealing Irises from my mother’s garden to plant in the school car park as part of an unofficial ‘gardening club’ – really it was just an excuse for water fights away from the watchful eyes of the teacher on break duty. 

What about the first time captivated by a piece of Art or a color?

    It is difficult to pinpoint but in terms of a shift from looking at art to thinking about art then Georg Basetlitz’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2007 was a pretty seismic event. 

contents of The Germ, Issue 2. Quercus phellos

What is The Germ and how did the name come about?

    The Germ is a small, handcrafted publication containing words and images intended to explore the relationship between art, horticulture and the wider natural world. The contents are unbound and contained within an envelope that carries a unique impression of a wood engraving by Duncan Montgomery (

    The name has its precedence in the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood who published a short-lived journal under the same name accompanied by the subtitle “thoughts towards nature in art and literature”. However it really refers to how, hopefully, this small collection can stimulate the germ of new ideas in others.   

What are you looking for The Germ to accomplish, for yourself and others?

    In an increasingly virtual world I hope that people will find in The Germ a comforting tangibility. There is a joy in receiving any post that hasn’t originated at the bank or phone company but when the package has been crafted with such care I feel there is more chance of engaging the reader. The unbound pages are intended to encourage people to dissemble each copy, sticking an image to the wall or passing an article to a friend, without a sense of destruction. I hope that The Germ’s pages may find their way into new envelopes and with such a limited print run we depend on this organic dissemination to engage with a wider audience.  

The Germ, 2. Quercus phellos: Image by Flora Arbuthnott and words from Sean Hewitt
The Germ,  Issue 2. Quercus phellos: Image by Flora Arbuthnott (here) and words from Sean Hewitt (here)

It’s a beautiful mix of content, what’s the thought process when putting an edition together? Is there a theme or common thread that runs through it?

    Our relationship to the natural world is the only common thread, I find specific themes can often have a frustratingly restrictive effect on submissions and tend to appear contrived. 

When it comes to the artistic content you said that there must be some connection, albeit a loose one, to the natural world. When looking for submissions, what is it you look for and how can people submit?

    Diversity and innovation are important however when submissions strive for the latter they often end up appearing superficial and really the best submissions I receive are the ones that seem most honest. One of my favourite submissions was from a nine year old of a Birch under a yellow sky, it was perfect. 

The Germ envelope

When my first copy arrived in the mail, I was astounded by the details printed on the envelope alone. How do you get the images and content so beautiful?

    The envelope I have to credit to Nigel Williams of J.W. Thomas & Sons in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire and his original Heidelberg Press. Without his skill and patience no copy of The Germ would have appeared and I am sorry to think that, with no one to pass on his trade to, his is a dying art. 

    In terms of content the best answer is time. The Germ is not monthly or quarterly, I simply wait until I have enough material that I can put together to produce something exciting. 

How often do you produce The Germ and how or where can people find it?

    The Germ is published as and when I am happy with the content, that can be a few weeks or a few months but considering its lack of price tag I hope that does not put people off. The best way to find out about The Germ is to contact me by email ( or, preferably, by letter at: Jonny Bruce, Great Dixter House and Gardens, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex, TN31 6PH.

We love your passion for two subjects that we greatly admire. I’d love to hear your explanation on why you think the connection between art and horticulture is so important.

    Horticulture represents our most dynamic engagement with the natural world. At a time of unprecedented environmental change it is vital that we reconsider our relationship to the nature and with the fickleness of politicians and the media I feel art has the ability to shine a revealing light. 

Cardoon and Crocosmia, Jonny Bruce, watercolor

With botanical illustration, which plant subjects catch your attention? And your preferred medium?

    As a gardener you spend a lot of time simply looking at the plants and every so often one just seems to leap out in such a way that I can imagine it on the page. I like to think of botanical illustration as a conversation so really it is about choosing which plant I want to talk to. My preferred medium is watercolour. 

Great Dixter, the garden creation of Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett

You are now a Christopher Lloyd Scholarship recipient, Congratulations. Great Dixter is a phenomenal place for creative minds. How are you enjoying the beginning of your 2 years living, working and learning at Dixter?

    I have only been here a few weeks but already whole areas of the garden have changed and the colour is astonishing. In my first week Fergus had us moving enormous clumps of Aster, Crysanthemum and Helianthus, mostly in full flower, from stock beds to revitalize those tired corners that would be left in many gardens. It is certainly an incredibly stimulating place to work and I just hope I can get as much from my two years here as possible. 

Great Dixter Topiary Lawn, end of summer season

What or who, artistically or in the world of horticulture, is inspiring you?

    Dixter is an amazing melting pot for all sorts of interesting ideas and people who provide a constant source of inspiration. Few gardens achieve such an exciting visual result whilst maintaining such genuine concern for wildlife and the environment. Walking along the Long Border, the vibrancy of all the plants and animals makes you see and connect with nature in a different way. Artistically, although totally devoid of life, I find James Turrell’s work have a similar power to change one’s perception of the world.

Prospect Cottage, the garden of Derek Jarman

A garden, public or private, that continuously inspires you?

    Being on the Sussex/Kent border also means I am close to one of my greatest influences, Derek Jarman. His garden at Prospect Cottage formed the focus of my university dissertation and continues to be source of inspiration. Aberglasney Gardens in Wales, where I spent the past 12 months, has also been key in forming my ideas on horticulture and the direction the current head gardener, Joseph Atkin, is taking the garden is a very exciting. 

Do you have specific creative outlets that you often turn to?

    Drawing and painting are my main outlets. Drawing is a totally meditative experience and really the only time I lose total awareness of the clock. The Germ is also wonderfully creative, I love bringing together and engaging with other people’s thoughts, it never fails to stimulate new ideas.  

Gardening and engaging with the natural world, what is it that appeals most to you?

    A connection to something physical. There is something essential in the act of gardening that draws you into a closer conversation with the nature, a conversation I find deeply comforting. I feel a great deal of the anxiety associated with modern life is tied up with the loss of the natural in an increasingly virtual world.

Left on an island you must choose one plant and piece of art to keep with you, what would you choose?

    An impossible question but possibly Agave for their delicious nectar and useful fibres but also for their fascinating structure and monumental flower spikes. There is a particularly nice specimen of A. victoriae-reginae at Prospect Cottage which has to be one of the best looking Agave species. 

Derek Jarmans garden, Prospect Cottage, end of May

Leave us with a favorite quote you admire..

    “The gardener digs in another time, without past of future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours. Lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time – the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer” – Derek Jarman, Modern Nature.

At present time, the next free edition of the Germ is complete and is ready and waiting to be sent out. If you are interested in receiving the 3rd edition, please send a message to Jonny saying so, either by email:

or by letter: Jonny Bruce, Great Dixter House and Gardens, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex, TN31 6PH

Thank you so much Jonny for agreeing to do this interview. What you do and what you have created is a treasure and I wish you continued success with your special and beautifully done publication, The Germ. – James

* Click here for an article written by Jonny about The Golden Age of Botanical Art*


a tête-à-tête

Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden
Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden

 Mr. Eric,

As I sit at my desk and write this to you, the Narcissus ‘Tete-a-tete’ that I have planted on my terrace are now fiercely glowing silhouettes, brightly backlit by the sun that is also shining warmly on my face.  The smiling sun is a nice change from the cooler temperatures and gray days and from this late winter flu I have been entertaining these days.  Spring is almost here, I can almost smell it hence this cold, but the last day of winter is officially March 19th, so we are just about out of the woods.  From the windows, I can see the leaf buds of Platanus x hispanica swelling up and pulling away from the branches, just about ready to open.


I haven’t been outside much the past few days but besides getting enough rest and drinking plenty of teas I have surrounded myself with multiple vases of these little striking yellow blooms to make myself feel better, a little extra sunshine inside. Who wouldn’t smile because of that?! Most everybody loves the Narcissus, for their own reasons, but for many it heralds the triumphant return of spring and an end to the long, cold months of winter.  But why else do we love it and what is it about them? Is it the piercing yellow color that demands the attention of our eyes in an otherwise still drab landscape? The color alone,  reminiscent of the sun,  invokes an uplifting feeling of happiness  and cheerfulness. Is it maybe because the rest of bloom parade is not far behind in the marching procession of blossoms known as spring? So while admiring them from my reclined position, the stories and symbolism of Narcissus started playing out in my medicated head….

Narcissus 'Fortune'


The Narcissus has been a subject for writers and artists for more than 20 centuries, often-symbolizing rebirth, new beginnings and  representing luck and prosperity. Could that be the reference in the cultivar Narcissus ‘Fortune’ as seen above? Giving daffodils as a bouquet  is said to ensure happiness to the receiver but remember to  always present them in a bunch  because though the cheerful flower is associated with good fortune it might forebode misfortune if given as a single boom.  Could this be why they are sold in florist shops in bunches rather than single blooms as other flowers?

Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter
Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter

There is one story about Narcissus and Echo that I love. I owe my introduction and love for Greek Mythology to  Edith Hamilton, when I purchased her book, Mythology, while doing research for a school report as a young kid.  I still have that same book packed away in New York, and escaped through all of the images those stories painted in my mind. But, yes, the story back to the story….

 Narcissus was a young man of immense beauty who broke the hearts of many lovers along the way, lastly in his mortal life was the wood nymph Echo. Narcissus not paying attention to anyone else and constantly looking at his own reflection in a pool of water, falls in love with himself, thinking of no one else. This is how he spends his time, leaning continuously over the pool and gazing, until he discovered he could not embrace his reflection and soon enough he fell into the water and drowned, with the gods immortalizing him as the narcissus. The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, is a sad one where the flower symbolizes self-esteem and vanity.

Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor
Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor

There is a wonderful poem to read of this story, written by the American poet Fred Chappell

Narcissus and Echo, a poem

by Fred Chappell

Shall the water not remember  Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above  of
its mirror my half-imaginary  airy
portrait? My only belonging  longing;
is my beauty, which I take  ache
away and then return, as love  of
teasing playfully the one being  unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure  Is your
moves me. I live apart  heart
from myself, yet cannot  not
live apart. In the water’s tone,  stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower  Hour,
whispers my name with such slight  light:
moment, it seems filament of air,  fare
the world becomes cloudswell.  well.

bouquet sketcbouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile,bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath
bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath

The meaning and symbolism behind this flower has inspired many writers to artists and will continue to do so for a long time to come.  In Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers –  it is listed twice, once by the common name daffodil where it means regard and in its latin form Narcissus we see it listed as egotism. You choose.   Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, John William Waterhouse, and Poussin, among countless others have been inspired when putting brush to canvas,  using the the subject and the stories behind it as their muse.

display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens
display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens

The blooms are out in full force here in Madrid, and hope they are not too far behind for you in Pennsylvania, spring will be banging on your front door    soon enough.   By the way, did you know that ‘tete-a-tete’ means a face-to-face meeting, or a private conversation between two people?  It’s been nice chatting with you and I hope  these images and stories find you well and smiling……      -James


the right direction

the white dusty paths set off against gray skies in Tuileries Garden, Paris

      Trivial details glossed over by some can be the plague of others; a friend once told me this is the disease of an aesthete.  Sometimes though, the best lessons we learn are often stumbled into by making a mistake, or in  better cases, a happy accident.

       During the two years I studied at Longwood Gardens, each student was required to keep a garden; an area designed and created of our own ideas. It was an exciting time, a blank canvas of a 15’x50’ garden plot to call my own but suddenly there were too many directions and ideas to choose from.  The design process seemed overwhelming and my mind felt like a glass of water, but without the structure of the glass to hold it all together, ideas spilling in every direction and with no shape or structure. Given instructions by our teachers that in order to keep the design process cheap, since we would only have our gardens for two years, they told us to ‘beg, borrow, and steal’ to get the materials needed for our plots.  We were granted access to an area of free but limited hardscape materials that were left behind by the preceding graduating class, which myself and the other students ravaged and put to good use.

finished student garden at Longwood Gardens, 2006
finished student garden at Longwood Gardens, 2006

        After nabbing some large bluestone pavers, but not enough, I had trouble deciding what to use to complete the rest of my paths.  Trying to keep free of spending money on materials that would just need to come out in two years, I was forced to get creative and resourceful. The best ideas sometimes emerge from the smallest of budgets, or lack thereof and this lack of budget taught me a valuable lesson, resulting in employing other senses in ways I had not anticipated in the garden.

cobblestone, pine needles and pebble set in concrete: imagine how it would feel to walk down a path of each material

       Remembering a grove of Pinus sylvestris not far from my plot, I collected and spread the fallen needles throughout my garden paths as mulch between the bluestone pavers. Pleasing to the eye in color and texture, and free, it was different from what I expected and as time wore on, I enjoyed the calm feelings I got while walking through my garden.

brick path in winter and grass path in summer, Great Dixter 2008

        I learned from my choice of material that what is under foot can have an effect on how it shapes our garden experience. The feeling of calm as I walked over the pine needles on my paths, as if walking through a quiet pine wood, connected me in a more intimate way to my garden, more so than if I had chosen stone or even left the paths as bare earth. This detail helped me approach future designs and layout of gardens in a new way.

a loose gravel path in the informal Spring Garden at Gravetye Manor, 2013
a loose gravel path in the informal Spring Garden at Gravetye Manor, 2013

       I took for granted that the senses we use in the garden are related to sight, scent and sound but what we cannot touch with our hands, we can still feel beneath the soles of our feet. Flowers are a sight to behold, and texture and form for that matter, but are these the only reliable tricks we can employ on the visitors experience? Plant based gardens are nice but seem one-dimensional and need to be more complex to stimulate me;  I love plants, but not obsessed with them as the only ingredient in the garden recipe. Experiencing gardens has always had an emotional impact on me. I don’t always want to think when I am in a garden but I want to feel , and what lies underneath my feet helps me do just that. A wise teacher once told me, ‘when visiting a garden, don’t just think about what is that you like about it, but think about what you would do better.’

a different path of bare earth in the informal Spring Garden, at Gravetye Manor, 2013
a different path of bare earth in the informal Spring Garden, at Gravetye Manor, 2013

       Budgets aside, one of the dominating factors in choosing path materials is largely based on the visual pleasure it provides but chosen materials do have the right places in which to use them, task accordingly and site appropriate of course.  Treat the garden in layers and these small details in garden design can help hijack our senses and lead us to have a different garden experience, not always obvious and often subtle.   Not everyone understands gardening to a degree as much as we would like, and some say its the slowest form of theater, but it’s up to us to set the stage and make it a more cerebral experience, attacking the senses on the sly and leaving the emotions tantalized by the interactions people can have in the garden.

paving stone at Gravetye Manor and a sand path littered with Beech tree bud scales at DeWiersse
paving stone at Gravetye Manor and a sand path littered with Beech tree bud scales at DeWiersse

          This  lesson I realized is not just in relation to paths but I have since applied to all areas of design, as someone obsessed with aesthetics, the details we employ in our gardens and spaces can’t just be visually attractive but must serve a dual purpose if possible, digging deeper to find it.  I find pleasure in thinking of gardens and spaces in this way; the layout of a place, the arrangement of the space within it; it is always an exercise for the mind. Thinking I was crazy to obsess about such things, I found solace, after Longwood, in a recommended book written by Sylvia Crowe, she wrote the book on garden design, still standing the test of time. Once realizing other people knew this language  too I was thankful that  such valuable lesson crossed my path early, due to my student garden, a lack of budget, and some pine needles.  See, the beauty is in the details, there are never problems, only solutions and always a silver lining if you know how to read it.       -James

setting summer sun on West Lawn of DeWiersse
setting summer sun on West Lawn of DeWiersse

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?)


Dear Jimmy,

Your post on the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla had me contemplating about light. We should practice ‘luminism’ more in gardening. Light is perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly considered element in gardens. Only are the plants’ cultural requirements weighed does it become significant. While we may appreciate its effect in interior design and architecture, for some reason we fail to apply the same priority in gardens, concentrating instead on hardscaping and plants. Focusing on hardscaping and plants is like deciding what furniture and decor will be without thought to the wall color and floors. Yet it is light that noticeably alters the mood and atmosphere of the garden – the silhouettes of trees and shrubs, the long shadows cast onto the walls, and the reflections in water features. Sylvia Crowe once wrote: “There is always a delight in looking out on to the sunlight from within a dark wood, or from between the columns of an arcade, whether they be the pillars of an Italian pergola or the trunks of a lime walk, and there is the unfailing effect of light falling on some special spot from surrounding shade.”

As dark as the yews may be, they compel us to seek the light towards the end of the pathway (Yew Walk, Tregrehan, Cornwall, UK).
As dark as the yews may be, they compel us to seek the light towards the end of the pathway (Yew Walk, Tregrehan, Cornwall, UK).

Studying the various nuances of light has revised my approach towards combining plants. Just as theatrical lighting affects our attention on the stage performers, the right light can accentuate plants. Simply it seems sensible to design a planting through light. I recall Nori and Sandra Pope explain how they observed where the light fell at various times against the curvilinear kitchen garden wall at Hadspen, letting it dictate what colors decreed the garden. Their tonal plantings modulated from light to dark, proving again that light underpins color. The same principle pertained to Great Dixter, renowned for its virtuoso color combinations that either soothe or excite depending on the time of day. In the High Garden there, the intense colors of tender perennials and annuals were heightened in the evening light than they were in the morning.

Salvia confertiflora pulses brilliantly in the low evening light at Great Dixter.
Salvia confertiflora pulses brilliantly in the low evening light at Great Dixter.

To bring light into the garden is to embrace the luminous quality of grasses. What makes the gardens of contemporary garden designers like Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart Smith, or Wolfgang Oehme, appealing is the interplay of light between grasses and herbaceous perennials – the buoyancy of the former enliven the perennial flowers, propping up their decaying seedheads later. A friend cleverly interplanted Sanguisorba officinalis (burnet) among Stipa gigantea where the first rays of sunlight hit the garden. The grass has the kinetic and translucent magnetism, a perfect foil for the opaque dark Sanguisorba in summer and autumn. It is a magnetism seen hundredfold in a field of Miscanthus sinensis  I once waded through at Yangmingshan National Park, Taiwan. High above the urban smog of Taipei, the clear skies highlighted a shimmery silver sea of plumes, a memorable sight that linked landscapes to my light fixation in gardens.

The garnet orbs of Sanguisorba officinalis spangle the metallic oat-like flowers of Stipa gigantea (private garden, Australia).
The garnet orbs of Sanguisorba officinalis spangle the metallic oat-like flowers of Stipa gigantea (private garden, Australia).

Being serious about photography taught me about light as well. Garden and landscape photographers often register the light carefully for the best pictures. Doing so slows you down as you walk around and observe the garden from different angles, and then the garden’s personality becomes more apparent. It always dismayed me to visit a garden at midday for the resultant photographs were washed out. Soon I reluctantly started to wake up before dawn and venture out when people were still asleep. That reluctance disappeared into contentedness – the still mornings, unsullied by nothing but birdsong, promised moments of beautiful repose. Those moments induce a dream-like state, suspended between surrealism and reality, fertile for creativity.

The light breaks through the mist behind the black walnut tree at Chanticleer.
The light breaks through the mist behind the black walnut tree at Chanticleer.

My appreciation for gardens and landscapes went deeper beyond color and form. I paid heed to Crowe’s finer points of light in the garden – the long shadows cast by trees across the lawn, the shafts of light splintering the morning mist, the backlit beauty of a solitary flower heavy with dew. It is an experience immensely private and not immediately apparent during the process of gardening – sometimes we are deeply engrossed in the mundane tasks on hand, forgetting to look up.

Birches cast long shadows across the lawn studded with daffodils.
Birches cast long shadows across the lawn studded with daffodils.

When I was in Australia, I was startled by the country’s hard light – the textures and colors, the leaves of eucalyptus or the rocky formations, were clear-cut and reflective. The clarity of the Down Under light forced me to rethink my perceptions previously informed by the Northern Hemisphere. Landscapes became more sculptural, abstract, and wilder. Genteel places created by homesick Europeans paled in comparison with their surroundings – the demarcations between the domesticated and untamed were more sharply drawn than those blurred in Europe and parts of North America. The stronger light only compounded that difference.

Orange lichen-encrusted rocks at Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia
Orange lichen-encrusted rocks at Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia

Every detail seemingly asserts itself graphically in the Australian light – the orange lichen encrusted rocks, pockmarking the east coast of Tasmania and Victoria, are fully saturated, nowhere muted as they would be in the Northern Hemisphere. Clouds seem more alive – their fluffy contours indelibly etched against the antipodean skies.  Using Northern Hemisphere plants in these areas would feel too contrived and futile – they would appear discordant in the grand landscapes. More than anything, light sets the style of the garden.

Binalong Bay, Tasmania, Australia
Binalong Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Only in the higher elevations did the light wane, receding with more luxuriant plant-life and cooler temperatures. The mists chilled us as they would have elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, the Yorkshire Moors, or the Californian redwood forests. Here greens, grays, and muddy browns dominated, taking over the whites, oranges, and burnt sienna of the coastal areas.

Only minutes was the garden in full sunlight before the fog crept through the trees (private garden, Tasmania, Australia).
Only minutes was the garden in full sunlight before the fog crept through the trees (private garden, Tasmania, Australia).

Such ruminations on light can be turned on without going overseas. As I drive to and from work home, I watch how the light shifts into dawn and evening. The low-angled light in autumn is a profound difference from the high summer light, a more golden luminosity not seen in spring, and it is one advantage of residing in the Northeast U.S. In more northern latitudes, the light seems weaker, diminished by the geographical proximity to the Arctic Circle. You become habituated to the subtle changes in the same way plants begin to respond to longer day lengths.


Deciphering light in gardens is our capacity to envince the atmosphere of a natural place. We have the benefit that Sorolla and other Impressionist painters never had – we never need to reproduce the light. Sometimes the methodical aspects of gardening can leave us incapable of creating the feeling, the emotional limitations and longings that precisely characterize the beauty of creating a garden.  ~ Eric

Breakfast by the morning light in Corfu, Greece
Breakfast by the morning light in Corfu, Greece

10 with Tom Coward

Gravetye Manor
The Long Border at Gravetye Manor

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Tom Coward and I’m the head gardener at Gravetye Manor

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


Tom at Great DixterTell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I have worked as a gardener since I was 15 in various situations. My last job was assistant head gardener at Great Dixter before moving to Gravetye Manor nearly four years ago.

Can you recall your first gardening memory?

One of my first gardening jobs was for a rather rough but charming old man called Cornel Yule. He used to sit on a deck chair and bark commands as I worked, occasionally lashing out with his stick if I missed some weeds. At first he was a bit intimidating but he mellowed over time and I enjoyed it. He was a fascinating man.

Sussex Landscape

Do you remember the first time you were captivated by a color?

I can’t say I do. The colors that really inspire me are in the landscape that’s always around me.

Great Dixter
Great Dixter

What garden public or private inspires you?

Great Dixter of course, Wisley is pretty special, like a library of plants and I found my visit to Chanticleer a few years ago very inspiring.

Pond Garden at Chanticleer
Pond Garden at Chanticleer
Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion

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

Can I take the Brighton Pavilion as my piece of art please? Is that too greedy? And I would fill the grounds with asparagus or fruit trees.

Gravetye Orchard
Gravetye Orchard
Flower Garden at Gravetye
Flower Garden at Gravetye

What would your dream project be?

The work I have been doing at Gravetye is a dream project come true. It is a charming, magical, historic old garden that had suffered a lot of decay. To have the opportunity to try to pull such a special place together again has been so exciting and rewarding.

Horse pond at Great Dixter
Horse pond at Great Dixter

What specific sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?

Other Gardeners and gardens.

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

I think the most important thing is to never forget the reason why we love working with plants so much and the pleasure that can be shared through growing them.

VeraThank you Tom, and Vera

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