Martha Keen is currently a 1st year student in Longwood Gardens’ Professional Gardener Program; one of her program’s requirements to design and plant a plot adjacent to their student housing. In the following, she shares her philosophy about her garden, which has a spectral, if not ethereal feel in its muted hues (namely blues, grays, and washed out mauve).
Confines free up creativity, I’ve learned. My classmates and I were each assigned a piece of earth, 15 feet across and 50 feet long, in the middle of a field. I pondered how to make a space from such a narrow slice, absent any backdrop or existing groundwork, devoid of even anything to erase. The single marked character of the site was its slight slope, and the more I tread my plot the more I seemed to notice it.
From this slope I carved three scalloped terraces, each to hold its own group of plantings selected to evoke, but not replicate a short grass prairie on the top tier, a dune in the center, and tall meadow at the lowest end. The hoop path and margins were mulched with blonde pea gravel, and the plants were sited in wide bands to echo the elliptical center bed. I mulched with salt hay, whose soft color and texture left no dark voids among plants.
As a gardener, but as a living creature, I would never begrudge a flower. But this a garden was a study in textures and repetition first. Among the color palette, I deferred to glaucous and muted foliage wherever possible; among the flowers, few occur that are not dusty too: cream and mauve, a smattering of burgundy. Looking up towards my garden this fall, from the southern side facing north, I could finally see what I wondered about all summer long: a series of steps from Panicum, to Leymus, to cardoon, to Schizachyrium, an a series of undulations filling the spaces between the plantings but hidden from view unless one is inside.
A garden is alchemy, something where once nothing was; a garden is willful too, requiring tremendous effort and input that we would flatter ourselves to call creation. Rather, this one revealed itself to a fortunate accident. I selected plants, and many of them expressed themselves so jubilantly in their places that to greet them everyday made this gardener feel a bit more steadfastly herself as well.
Wonsoon and I first met when he attended the annual pool and BBQ party for Longwood Gardens students at Chanticleer. After graduating from the Longwood Graduate Program in public garden management, he returned to South Korea where he now tends and designs plantings. It has been interesting to discover how horticulture is seen and practiced in Korea especially when much attention have been focused on China and Japan.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Wonsoon Park, a plant lover. I majored in Horticultural Science from Seoul National University, and went through several jobs as a book editor. Then I changed my career to be a horticulturist. Recently I have completed the International Gardener Training Program at Longwood Gardens, and Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture at the University of Delaware. Now I’m working for Samsung Everland company as a Senior Manager of the Park Landscape Center.
The arts or horticulture?
The arts based on horticulture
Despite graduating with a degree in horticultural science, you were a book editor prior to your professional development as a horticulturist. How did you first become interested in horticulture and why did you return to the profession?
I grew up in rural town where I helped my family to work for rice paddies and vegetable gardens, and this led me to choose Horticultural Science for my college major. Those plants in the gardens were not the fancy and showy ones but onions, sesame, pepper and cabbages, and my grandmother grew some grapes and persimmon in her backyard garden. So the first impression of horticulture to me was sort of farming or agriculture until I found its real charm later.
I became a book editor since I loved reading and producing books about science and nature. While I was exposed to many books about plants and gardens, I rediscovered horticulture, especially when I visited New York Book Expo in 2003. I’d like to learn more about horticulture not about agriculture but about flowers and gardens. Soon I was obsessed by the world of horticulture and I traveled to many gardens and natural areas whenever I had free time, before I moved to Jeju Island, the most beautiful and ecologically important island in Korea, not only to work in a botanical garden named Yeomiji but also to explore the island’s unique flora and nature.
What does your job involve?
I’m currently working for Samsung Everland Company, which has the largest amusement park in Korea like the Disney World. There are several display gardens including the Four Seasons Garden and Rose Garden within the park. As the Senior Manager, I’m mainly in charge of planting design in the park area including the Four Seasons Garden which is a year-round garden from tulip displays to winter holiday season mingled with garden ornaments according to various themes.
You were a graduate of Longwood Graduate Program, which gave exposure to North American horticulture. What aspects of North American horticulture did you find interesting?
Networking. It seemed to me all the horticultural professionals and plant lovers were well connected each other from the east coast to the west and to the south. It was very easy to communicate with people since they were willing to share their knowledge and experiences, which I really appreciated. I liked the fact that there were so many great public gardens and nurseries to visit, as well as organized plant record systems, books and other valuable resources.
South Korea is better for its Korean pop (as seen in ‘Gangnam Style’) and Samsung, but less so for its fine arts and culture. The Western audience are familiar with Japanese and Chinese gardens, but less so with Korean gardens. Without resorting to broad generalizations, how would you define or characterize a Korean garden to a first-time visitor?
Traditionally, Korean gardens are harmonized with the surrounding nature according to the balance of Yin and Yang and geomancy minimizing possible modification and artificial factors. Since seventy percent of the Korean landscape is covered with mountains, I guess it’s a lot easier to build architecture and gardens using existing topographical properties. As for the planting design for Korean gardens, there are some rules choosing proper trees and shrubs at the right place around the garden, while those ornamental trees and shrubs don’t have artificial shape which can be seen in Japanese garden style. You can find the Korean palace garden style when you visit royal palaces in Seoul such as Changgyeonggung Deoksugung. Besides, one of my favorite Korean gardens is Hee Won garden of Ho-am Art Museum in Yongin city.
Because the Korean peninsula is a geographical juncture between China and Japan, its flora is similar with those of neighboring countries. Ulleung-Do and Jeju Islands, as well as Seoraksan, frequently appear on the canons of planting hunting exploits. Where would you take a horticulturist to see plants in the wild?
Jeju Island would be a great place to explore, since there are many diverse habitats within a relatively small area at different altitudes from the seashore to Mt. Halla. Those habitats include Gotjawal (a uniquely formed forest vegetation on the lava terrain), 367 Oreums (volcanic cones), seashores, wetlands and alpine regions. My favorite plants include Lycoris chejuense, Allium taquetii, Lycopodium integrifolium, Aruncus dioicus var. aethusifolius, Crinum asiaticum var. japonicum, Rhododendron weyrichii, Euphorbia jolkini, Abies koreana, just to name a few.
Korean plants, like those from China and Japan, are popular garden plants. For instance, we grow Abeliophyllum distichum, Acer triflorum, and Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana here. What are some of your favorite native species?
Recently I found Jeffersonia dubia, Heloniopsis koreana, Epimedium koreanum could be those of my favorite ones. I love Abeliophyllum distichum, Disporum sessile, Rhododendron schlippenbachii, as well as Matteuccia struthiopteris, Chloranthus fortunei, and Primula sieboldii.
South Korea is considered the most wired, if not one of most high-tech, country. How does one disconnect from the virtual world and engage with the natural world? Is garden visiting popular among Koreans as it is for Europeans and other nationalities?
The gardens and their cultivation are still less popular in Korea compared to other nations. There are over 60 public gardens on the list of Korean arboreta and botanical Gardens. But many private gardens have been struggling with their operation due to the lack of revenue source, while municipal or national arboreta and botanical gardens are relatively doing fine since they are supported by government. People prefer the latter since they have free or low price entrance fees.
Speaking of engaging the natural world, the baby boom generation loves mountain hiking, while families with young children like to go out for their daily exercise during weekends and holidays. Public gardens are just one of those places. I don’t know much about how teenagers and younger generation are exposed to the natural world.
A Korean recently said in Conde Nast Traveler Magazine: “Korean people happily embrace anything that comes off the plane at Incheon Airport, but we won’t eat a pig’s feet restaurant unless it’s three generations old.” Given how Confucianism is ingrained in traditional culture, are Koreans more receptive to wild-looking gardens than ‘big bang’ displays commonly seen in U.S. and Europe?
Although ‘big bang’ displays still work well in many public gardens, Koreans are getting more like to enjoy native plants in a natural setting. In addition, the number of people returning to home village or farming is increasing. They’d like to tend a vegetable garden called “teot bat” as well as enjoy the natural landscape. Also, urban farming and gardening is growing gradually.
If you were marooned on an island, what one plant would you take with you?
Camellia japonica. It’s a nice plant for temperate coastal climate. Camellias have many beneficial properties. Its seed oil is useful for skin care, while the flower bud purifies the blood and stimulates the heart. In addition, the flowers are good enough to please me during my lonesome life in deserted island. I hope for a Camellia forest to form in the future until people find that island and my traces.
What places and gardens inspire you?
Chanticleer inspired me a lot. Whenever I visited the garden, my mind was filled with special feeling by constantly changing flowers every time and different landscapes every year. Chanticleer was the first garden when I was writing a series of articles about the most beautiful American public gardens for a leading garden magazine in Korea. I loved to walk through Asian Woods and Pond Garden, and learned many ideas about containers and hanging baskets around the main houses. I remember Hidcote Manor Garden in UK was a great place full of inspiration and ideas with many different types of room gardens. Longwood Gardens, of course, is like my second home that gave me unforgettable experiences with so many good people and wonderful plants!
What advice would you give to your peers interested in studying horticulture in Korea? I noticed that a few number of Koreans have trained and studied in UK, especially RHS Wisley.
Studying abroad as a trainee or intern would be a great help to build a solid horticultural career. To prepare applying those international programs, it might be better know Korean plants and gardens first, as well as having some practical hands on experiences. I think Chollipo Arboretum runs one of the greatest internship programs in Korea to learn a good deal of plant collections including Magnolias, Acers, Hollies and many more.
What do you look forward the most?
I’d like to become a real professional in this field domestically and internationally, and make influential gardens throughout my career path. I want to be in charge of a garden like Chanticleer which I could maintain everyday and learn more about plants for the rest of my life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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
Winter has a charm all its own – some of us love it, some of us loathe it. Being in the former group, I wait patiently for winter to appear here in Madrid, and I forget that this is it, this what I get now, a mild season with January as its coldest month dropping to its lowest at 5.5°C (41.9°F). With some leaves still clinging to the trees and only wearing a light winter jacket, I have to say I miss the extreme cold of winter, the snow, the quiet and the beauty that it bears.
One favorite winter activity is going for long walks alone out in a garden or surrounding landscape to escape from being indoors. As a student at Longwood Gardens I often ventured outside where I used to visit Winterthur Gardens once a month to take some solitary time away from school, work and life in general, as a garden has always been an escape for my mind. I remember once driving to Winterthur a day after a storm, eager to see this beautiful landscape garden cloaked in snow, praying it would not be closed. It was open, and as I walked around crunching through the snow, I relished seeing the gardens empty, imagining them as my own private garden. All the paths were empty except for the telltale signs of beast and bird darting from one shrubbery to the next, through furry glimpses or imprints left in snow.
With snow crunching underfoot, I made my way to the Pinetum and walked excitedly underneath its dark canopy of snow laden branches. Seeing the dark undersides of the branches in contrast with the white surroundings was stunning, as if all of life was muffled, suspended, quiet with only the sharp cold piercing the silence. I continued all the way into the middle, leaned against the trunk of a pine and slid down to the ground. I sat alone in a foot of snow for what seemed like hours, absorbing the crystalline surroundings, staring into and through the dark wood, and having great admiration for the tree silhouettes in their true naked selves. There was that heavy silence in the forest from all of the surrounding snow until a hawk started screeching as it circled above, unknowingly making the experience more cathartic. Circling, calling, and diving, the hawk continued its flight over and over, closely with wings fully extended and wide eyes scanning. I stayed until the snow started to go gray from the dissipating evening light. Content and at ease, I made my way back, feeling as if I had taken the longest and most regenerating nap I’d ever known. – James
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Thank you Stephen, it was a pleasure to interview you and have a chance to let us see into your world.