I had a refreshing meeting with a client the other day and it was the last thing I expected. The client was a Russian businessman and his family; the location was a very exclusive private estate in Surrey. We have been involved in the project for a little while now, but this was the first meeting that we were presenting serious proposals. The first surprise was that top of their list on the brief was a decent sized vegetable garden. We had anticipated this and incorporated a quaint potager and fruit garden.
When we were going through the plans there was a lot of discussion (in Russian) before he turned back to me and said ‘This is fine for a few vegetables, but it is much too small – at the moment my mother in law looks after a kitchen garden of about 600m2 – where is she going to grow her potatoes?’Although I have quite a large vegetable garden at home, I was not used to this from most of my clients, and it was an interesting change. From there the discussion moved on to the play equipment for their three young children. ‘This looks a bit tame’ he remarked, ‘Can we have something a bit more adventurous? Also, will this trampoline take adults?’
I must confess that I never thought I would hear one of my clients say ‘Will this trampoline take adults?’ It just goes to show that you should never make too many suppositions or pre-conceptions about people. This was a client who despite all his wealth, clearly had his priorities straight! Nothing like a quick bounce on the trampoline after a hard day in the veg garden, I always find…
I was reminded of this plant recently when visiting a garden in Surrey. I bring it to your attention simply because I always think of it in terms of a shrub growing to about 2m or so. These were two beautiful specimens, each about 7-8m tall.
Not only that but they had unusually graceful, twisted stems and a low-branching form that most designers would kill for. They were tucked away in the corner of a somewhat overrun garden in Surrey. What attracted me initially was the pale haze of the flowers visible from some distance away.
At first I thought it was a Corylopsis pauciflora, it was only when I got closer that I noticed the familiar pale thread-like petals and the delicate fragrance, discernible even on a damp, cold, January day. A real delight and certainly a plant that will find its way back on to my ‘must use’ lists.
Why think about gardens now? The weather outside is terrible and the sun seems to set only just after it has risen. One reason to look forward to the spring is that it is a good way to cheer yourself up. This is of course famously the time of year to make resolutions and lists; clear one’s desk and mind of preconceptions, and move forward with fresh vigour (if slightly lower in the water after the Christmas period). It is perhaps for this reason that we often get new enquiries in January. It is not a bad time to start planning a project, if one can raise the enthusiasm. Getting stuck into the possibilities of what can be achieved is almost by definition an optimistic process which helps raise the spirits of all concerned.
I also find that one looks at landscapes and gardens in a different way at this time of year. In a sleepy winter landscape, the importance of what colour and life remains is underlined.
One becomes more aware of the contrasts between evergreens and deciduous plants; of coloured stems shining in low sunlight. Birds are suddenly much more noticeable, along with the need to cater for them. There is something particularly fascinating about the landscape laid bare at this time of year. Beyond the tiredness of the herbaceous plants and bumpy lawns, there is a leaner palette of colour and texture that gradually forces the casual observer to look more closely at a landscape.
The skeletal nature of the branches, and the tracery of the twigs can look very dramatic against a pale sky, and quite magical when picked out in frost.
The snow underlines the structure of a landscape in quite a different way. The surface textures are all obliterated, the contours smoothed out and the colour palette reduced to a simple, elegant monotone. The reflective effect of the white landscape also gives a different quality to the light.
The sun is often low in the sky which enhances the undulations of the landforms with subtle bluish purple shadows. All of these things allow us to look at the structural elements of the landscape with a detachment that is otherwise rarely possible, often revealing a hidden beauty and simplicity of form. There is also a stillness about a winter landscape that lends real serenity. Noise is muffled, but there are few leaves to rustle together anyway.
So instead of moping inside, look at the landscape through fresh eyes and reassess it. You may see simple beauty that you hadn’t noticed before.