Friday, August 11, 2017

Jimi Blake and Hunting Brook Gardens - Gardening's R&D Department

I recently took a day trip to Dublin, flying there and back in one day, which is not something I have done to anywhere before. To go to Ireland and not drink a Guinness seems sacrilege but sometimes needs must. All for a meeting with Jimi Blake and of course a look around the fantastic garden he has created over the last dozen or so years – Hunting Brook Gardens. I went with Anna Mumford of Filbert Press, as we wanted to talk to Jimi about the possibility of doing a book with him.

Jimi's garden is quite amazing. All the more so for its hidden almost unexpected nature. The Irish countryside is, famously, green, not as green as a Boston-Irish St. Patrick's Day hat of course, but a gentle quiet green, so when you drive off the main road up a very undistinguished looking side road up a hill, woodland on one side, and a field of cows on the other, you do not expect to suddenly turn off into a crazily-flamboyant botanico-artistic wonderland. There is something very 'Portland' about the garden: the defiance of obvious climatic boundaries, the combination of rich textures with strong colours, an obvious passion for diversity, the rather whacky sculptural elements – above all a clear love of plants and of things that show them off.

Gaining a reputation as one of our most consummate gardeners Jimi will undoubtedly fill the shoes of Helen Dillon, who has been gradually, and needless to say, gracefully, retiring for a few years now. Plantsmanship and a good eye so often do not go together, but with Jimi they do. He seems to have an eye for enough consistency to balance the more pushy and show-offy of his plants; bananas arise from a mass of lower herbaceous leafy stuff but are sufficiently far away from other bold exotica that you don't get the sense of overstimulating clash that you get in the gardens of many exoticists. In fact I think it is the combination of an interest in bold foliage and in naturalistic planting that makes Hunting Brook Gardens so good; the frothy chaos of the latter (or what is so often frothy chaos by August) is held together and given focus by the strong forms of the former.

Nurseries and plant hunters seem to be making more and more new cultivars and species available. Of these only a very limited number get a wide circulation. In particular there seems to be a wide gap between the sources of introduction and good creative use in gardens. Nurseries and plant producers only have a limited interest in design, and garden designers are rather infamously, often have rather limited plant knowledge. It is people like Jimi who fill the gap, creatively using new plants.

The imaginative use of new plants is most dramatically seen in the woodland garden. This is actually the newest part of the garden, or perhaps I should say that there has been a huge amount of new planting over the last few years, which will take a long time to really take off. For example, Jimi has been planting out a lot of the dramatic woodland plants being introduced by Bleddyn and Sue Wynne-Jones of Crûg Farm nursery in north Wales from the Far East and Central America: many are shrubby Araliaceae (ivy family) with big dramatic palmate leaves, ferns, hardy begonias and 'Solomon's seals' (Polygonatum, Disporum etc.). These are overwhelming foliage plants, with a vast array of form and texture around a limited range of greens; subtle but a very long season. Many of these might have potential as urban courtyard planting, but we need to see them in an environment nearer their native habitat first – like Jimi's woodland.

Some of the older plantings in the woodland have really taken off, showing what a perfect habitat this is: well-drained soil on slopes, but (it being Ireland) never short of rainfall, high shade from beech and sycamore. Rodgersias and Chrysosplenium have begun to run forming big patches with self-sowing Primula florindae dotted around.

One really important aspect of plant introduction is conservation; natural habitats are being destroyed at a terrifying rate in much of the Far East. Plant populations are often highly diverse with very localised genetically-distinct populations, which is not something we are familiar with in Europe, where the same species is found in the same habitat across vast areas. Each mountain top may have distinct species or at least clearly distinct populations. In many cases cultivation in the gardens of the western nursery trade and consumer may be the only chance of survival.

Less than an hour from Dublin, Jimi's garden is perfectly located for easy access. Its a truly inspiring place to meet new plants and see how they might be used, a true R&D department for horticulture.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travels in Iberia

Its at least a month since we got back from a trip to Spain and Portugal, but better late than never. Basically a holiday but also an opportunity to explore central Portugal, where we are thinking of moving to. One of the things that attracts me about living in Iberia (i.e. Spain/Portugal) is the very high level of biodiversity. It is thought that there are approximately 8,000 species of flowering plant, compared to 1500 in Britain. Many of these have never been seriously evaluated for cultivation, and the possibility of being involved in some pioneering work on this front is an exciting one. A more contemporary approach to garden design is beginning to take off in Spain, and there is the enticing possibility of doing some genuinely pioneering work which might have some fruit. 

One groovy biennial umbellifer - Thapsi villosa, would make  a very dramatic garden plant.
Having got off the ferry in Bilbao in our rather elderly camper van we crossed the Cantabrian region to spend a few days in the Picos de Europa, a region which is deservedly legendary for the richness of its wild flora. How many plants can you think of with the specific name cantabrica? Mostly 'rockery' plants. Much of the region is limestone, which means that it has a particularly rich flora – for some reason, which no-one has yet been able to explain, European wildflower diversity is at its richest on limestone – which does not necessarily apply elsewhere in the world. 

Walking through what is basically a fairly rocky countryside, the richness of the flora is soon apparent, with old walls and rock faces being particularly richly varied habitats. A lot of nice looking plants which are too small for borders or perennial plantings but which you could grow on …. well, rockeries. Which begs a question. Who now has a rockery? They were all the rage in the early 20th century and slowly fell out of fashion. They were still popular when I was growing up in the 1970s; I remember my father was particularly good at building them, and filling them with a wide range of plants. I am not quite sure why they have fallen out of fashion. Maybe it is because so many of them were so downright bad, and once they have gotten out of control, with weeds and rather over-vigorous plants, like the infamous 'silver strangler' Cerastium tomentosum. they were just an embarrassing mess which was singularly difficult to clean up, or remove. Perhaps it is time we took a new look at the concept and develop the neo-rockery, the post-modernist alpine garden and look at using second-hand construction materials instead of rocks. Some Dutch growers have started on this route – ideal for the urban environment. Northern Spain has certainly got a wide range of species which would be perfect.

The Picos de Europa has some fantastic meadows, and what looks like just about enough small-scale agriculture to support them. Most remarkable was a wet cliff face we found on a walk which we did when we had to leave the poor old camper van to cool down after it over-heated on a particularly steep mountain road. Here, on a jumble of limestone was an extraordinary mix of species from a wide range of habitats all growing together: woodland Anemone hepatica, peat bog Pinguicula vulgaris, dry meadow Eryngium bourgatii, alpine Erinus alpinus, woodland Helleborus foetidus and tall-herb flora Aconitum sp..
Erinus alpinus and Pinguicula vulgaris

Presumably this mix was growing the way it was because of the almost unique combination of circumstances: plenty of water (enough to flush excess calcium out), perfect drainage (or at least highly oxygenated water), and a reasonable amount of nutrients. I was reminded of another gardening concept which looks like it is going the way of the not-much-lamented rockeries of old - the living wall. Killed off by Patrick Blanc's absurdly expensive and over-ambitious creations and a whole run of appallingly designed systems sold, or built, by many others, the living wall is a great idea which needs to be recovered, perhaps by amateur growers who have the time, the plant knowledge and the enthusiasm to really make something of it. 

This little charmer is Hispidela hispanica - an annual with garden promise.
Driving across the increasingly hot an sunny plains of northern Spain in April, it is the annuals that grow on patches of waste ground that seize the botanical attention, mostly daisy family, or species of Silene. Plenty of things here which might belong in annual seed mixes, if only someone would get around to trialling them. On that front, I am glad to hear that there is a chap in Madrid, Miguel Garcia Ovejero, who is working with the Sheffield annual mixes in some Madrid parks and now some perennial mixes too. There is plenty of biodiversity here which could potentially be included.
Somebody asked me recently about new developments in Spain (maybe Portugal too). They should check out Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos as designers

I haven't seen much sign of innovative garden design in Portugal yet, though there is a Chaumont-style garden festival at Ponte de Lima, and a lot of the new small urban landscape projects you see around are stunningly good, the hardscaping and concepts at least – I am seriously impressed.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Can we have a sensible discussion about Roundup?

Roundup. Incredibly useful stuff. You've got to plant an area up, but how do you get rid of the existing vegetation, specifically all the persistent perennial weeds like couch, ryegrass, bindweed etc.? Or if you are trying to establish a native wildflower meadow mix on a site dominated by pasture grass? Or deal with Japanese knotweed? Or deal with a persistent weed problem which is threatening to overwhelm an existing, perhaps otherwise very successful planting? Or cope with a weed problem deeply rooted into paving or other hard surfaces? Roundup is usually the answer.

For years, since 1974 in fact, Roundup has been an essential part of the toolkit for the landscape and horticulture industries, and increasingly for nature conservation workers too. Now, in the European Union at least, it appears threatened. It needs to be re-registered by EU rules - a process required for all agrochemicals, and designed to ensure that all materials used are regularly reviewed for safety and environmental impact. Re-registration appears to be being constantly delayed. 

There is an incredible amount of hypocrisy round Roundup, and indeed many other agrochemicals. Well-known designers hoe their 'organic' plots in magazine articles and TV progammes but out of the limelight specify herbicide clearance for many of their clients' gardens. A lot of us love to eat in organic 'artisan' restaurants, buy organic food when it suits us, but carry on buying conventional produce the rest of the time. Conventional agriculture, for all its faults, does a remarkably good job of feeding us, on a steadily diminishing global stock of arable land. 

After a very long time in use, there have been countless studies showing Roundup to be, ok, not something you'd pour over your cornflakes, but pretty well harmless to humans. Then a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer came up which claimed a cancer link. The organic lobby, who having ignored the science on the active ingredient glyphosate for years, grabbed this with both hands and ran with it. Only the other day I read a Facebook posting from somebody describing how she accosted a neighbour and accused him of poisoning the neighbourhood. Now there is a story, see here, about how unpublished evidence of glyphosate's safety has been ignored. The cancer scare should perhaps have never seen the light of day, and a lot of unnecessary controversy and worry avoided.

For us in the garden and landscape industry there are two main questions here. One is the safety of this very widely used chemical, specifically of glyphosate, its active ingredient. The other is, given that its safety record has actually been remarkably good over 42 years on the market, why is re-registering so politically fraught?

It is always difficult for those of us outside a narrow scientific circle to really assess whether a chemical is safe or not. Scientific and medical research uses a jargon which can be impenetrable and rarely gives the clear answers we want. Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so. There is a further problem, which is a political muddying of the waters. Environmental campaign groups have long had it in for all agrochemicals, and their well-funded press departments are all too quick to fling out press releases on the latest research findings giving their own point of view. Journalists overwhelmingly react to these, rather than research on their own, they written in plain English, and inevitably take up no more than one side of A4.

Every now and again, I try to take a look at what the scientists are saying, and I have a chat with a colleague who is a plant sciences prof. and does work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What I see and hear is not, to be honest, hugely worrying. You can check it out for yourself on wikipedia – which gives a good dispassionate summary with lots of references. I personally use Roundup, mostly on nursery plots, for which I find it incredibly useful.

Roundup's being in the dock is largely political, an example of how the garden and landscape world is getting blow-back from other, bigger controversies. Many environmentalists hate Roundup because it was invented by Monsanto, an American multinational. It is very hard to have a sensible conversation about this company with many people, largely because of the genetically-modified crops issue. Has there been a single negative impact on human health because of GM crops? No. So, why the almost-hysterical opposition? The sheer irrationality of much of the debate has seeped into and poisoned sensible discussion of so much else. Of course need to discuss how and when we use agrochemicals in the managed landscape, and to continually review this. But we need to look at the evidence and take it from there.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moving on?

“You should have seen the garden last week” is a comment often heard from the lips of gardeners. In fact it has become something of a joke, about nature's unwillingness to perform on cue, or the inevitable tendency of gardeners to express dissatisfaction with their creations. How much sadder however is “you should have seen the garden last year” or worse still, “... several years ago”.

I have, in my time, been to more than a few gardens which are past their best, and not in a good way. Certain gardens just seem to decay gracefully and still maintain their dignity. Others though decay badly, and sadly. I particularly notice this with gardens which are the result of their owners overextending themselves and being unable to keep up with the maintenance of their own creations. Or being unable to downsize and adjust to changing circumstances.

So, this is one reason, amongst many, that we are planning to move on from Montpelier Cottage. We have been there for twelve years and achieved a lot, and I have certainly learnt a lot. But it is time to move on. I have always seen my personal garden making as much as a process of learning and experimentation as anything else, and I now rather feel that the learning process is plateauing out. There is so much else to be gained from being somewhere else, with different potentials and challenges of soil and climate.

Herefordshire is pretty wet, has very fertile soils and an increasingly we are all having a longer growing season. Stuff grows furiously well, and it has been a great place to grow perennials and learn about their habits and cycles of growth. Unfortunately the weeds benefit too, and I now feel that I spend so much time weeding, or paying others to weed, that it is becoming rather counter-productive. Part of what I have done here however, has been to set up some trial plots looking at low-maintenance weed-resistant planting. They have been very successful and I can confidently say I can now design and recommend plant combinations that will do this. However I am also looking for people who might be able to take on some of the plot combinations for further evaluation. Any volunteers?

The proviso with the weed-resistant perennial combinations is that they are rather restricted in the number of species they use: so these combinations are great for clients such as landscape designers but unsatisfying for the gardener who wants to grow lots of different plants. A few ornamental perennials really do work together to suppress the incredibly effective unwanted plants we have to cope with: mostly pasture grasses, creeping buttercup, nettles etc. However, like many gardeners I want to grow stuff I can't at the moment, or cannot, without a great deal of (mostly weeding) effort.

Now, Jo's daughter and family are decamping/emigrating to Portugal. Total disgust with Brexit, fears for the future of our country, realising that the open society we all fondly thought we were in is in fact something else. A chance for the children to learn another language and get European passports. We think we might join them, and are provisionally thinking of renting a property somewhere most probably in central/northern Portugal next year, as a first step. Maybe a garden there? The sunnier climate is an attraction, but one without a severe water shortage. The country feels like a backwater which is beginning to go good places, whereas I fear Britain is at the top of a long slippery slope towards becoming a backwater. Interesting things are beginning to happen in garden and landscape design both there and in Spain. Some of the new landscaping one can see in Portuguese towns and cities is amazingly good and cutting edge.

I went through several months of feeling very sad about leaving where we are, but the frustrations of trying to keep the garden at an acceptable level with my limited (physical and financial) resources have driven me more and more towards thinking positive about leaving. One pull factor is the very rich flora of Iberia. Yes, I know I complain endlessly about eucalyptus in Portugal, but having just come back from two weeks travelling around (Picos de Europa down to Beixa Alta) I can only look forward to being somewhere much more botanically exciting than Britain: there are c. 7500 flowering plant species here, compared to Britain's 1500. There is a great deal of stuff there which could be good garden and landscape plants. I've always been attracted to the trialling of new plants for cultivation. Not the old-fashioned 'plant hunting' but something much more systematic – looking for species to fill particular functional or aesthetic niches, particularly those which might perform well in drought-stressed or dry summer climates.

For now, this year will be the last one to be able to see the garden. Let me know if you want to come and visit, remember we do B&B. Also, come the autumn there may be plants to dig up if you want to give them a new home. Or indeed a property to buy if anyone is interested!

I shall be very interested in hearing from people already garden making in Portugal or Spain.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

RHS Shows - A Requiem for a great institution

I've taken some time to get this post up, seems ages that I was down in London to do a lecture for the Royal Horticultural Society Spring Show. I'm surprised that I have never done a blog about RHS shows before as they have been a big part of my life, and have been for many other garden people, but unfortunately the way things have gone they won't be for a younger generation. So this posting is a bit of a requiem for what used to be one of London's great institutions.

This particular show was a joint effort with the Orchid Society of Great Britain (quaint that, we used to be Great Britain but at some point we became the rather anodyne United Kingdom; soon of course we probably won't be that either). The Early Spring Show always was a joint enterprise, as there never used to be an enormous amount out in March, but a lot of orchids were looking at their best. This year, much to the disgust of many RHS members, the show in the 'Old Hall' was run separately by the OSGB and everyone, including RHS members, had to pay to go in; traditionally membership entitled you to go to every show. Much grumbling at the gate.

It was a fab show, but then orchids are pretty fab anyway. What was interesting was to see how orchid growing has changed over the years. It is now far more democratic, although the social changes that have happened over the years have been in play for a long time. Once the preserve of the very wealthy, orchid growing has come down the social scale nicely over the years. Centrally-heated houses, cheap methods of mass-production, mass tourism to Thailand where people can see the things in windowboxes - all must have helped.

And one of the most intriguing aspects of the democratisation of orchid growing was here, the Writhlington School Orchid Project, a truly wonderful enterprise, especially since it is at a state school not a private one. Read about it here. It's a wonderful example of integrating hobby orchid growing with science teaching.

Anyway what I really wanted to talk about was not so much orchids but the RHS London shows. In the dim and distant past they used to be every two weeks and were even known to a previous generation as "the fortnightlies". My first awareness of them was my dad going up to London in the 1970s and coming back with catalogues of rhododendrons and pieris and all the other things which flourish on the acid sandstone of Sevenoaks where we lived. Now my dad used to hate London, so they must have been pretty good, and him a very keen gardener, to get him up there. By the time I had started going, they were down to one a month.

By the time I was running my own nursery, showing at the London shows was the obvious thing to do. So from 1988 to 1994 I used to show and sell plants for probably around six shows a year. There was always a fantastic atmosphere, a great way to get to know other growers, see new plants, meet all the top people in British gardening and make friends. Some of the people I met then are still really good friends. The thing I shall always remember was the smell as soon as you entered one of the two halls the RHS owned, a combined mix of flowers and foliage with, I suppose, an undertone of potting compost. You'd spend a day setting up, helped by whoever you knew in London you could rope in to help you. They you'd sell plants and catalogues and answer questions frantically for two days, before breaking it all up and shoving it back, minus the plants you had sold, into your van and the drive back down to - in my case, Bristol.

Shows would generally be in one hall, the New Hall, a rather splendid Art Deco edifice with a fantastic high arching ceiling and wonderful light. If they were really big shows - The Early Spring and the Great Autumn, they would be in the Old Hall and the New Hall. They generally ran for two days and were a great opportunity for people who either lived in London or would come in to London regularly, to buy plants, see what was new, meet people, use the RHS library and generally hang out. Traditionally it was the wealthy, and often quite aristocratic, folk who would have a London house or flat, as well as a country 'seat', who came. They would buy plants which would end up in their garden in the country. But they were also fantastic for people who live in London, particularly for those who were just beginning to get excited about plants and gardening. As my life began to turn from running a nursery to writing, I would quite often send people I met in publishing off to an RHS show. They always came back energised and delighted.

Sadly though, the RHS realised, around 15 years ago that they could make more money selling space in the halls to computer and antique fairs, or renting them out for exams. This coincided with the greater expense and difficulty involved in driving a van into central London, parking it outside for the duration of your setting-up, finding somewhere to park it the rest of the time you were in town, finding somewhere to stay, etc, etc. The number of nurseries began to drop off, and as they diminished, the visitor numbers began to drop too. It became a vicious circle. Many London RHS members were suspicious that the RHS were trying to kill off the shows, so they could make more money renting the halls out. There were accusations that they were not making much effort to market them. The sad thing was that as the shows began to die, the great boom in vegetable growing took off, and the RHS was no longer in a position to attract a new, and younger audience. In 2011, the RHS announced that they had leased the New Hall (now the called the Lawrence Hall) to Westminster School for 999 years, and it would be used for flower shows only four times a year. No doubt they will do good things with the £18million they got for the deal (which makes you think, what kind of school is it that has that money to spend ! the only person I ever knew who went to Westminster ended up joining the International Marxist Group - I remember him swanking around in one of those combat jackets the IRA used to wear). BUT to lose your London base, the opportunity to present gardening to one of the world's wealthiest and most dynamic cities, seems to many of us like selling the family silver for a mess of pottage. (for non-English readers, that means a bowl of watery soup). The loss of the shows has been a great sadness for many.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

William Robinson - a reputation (un)deserved?

I groan inwardly everytime someone mentions William Robinson and 'The Wild Garden', which he wrote in 1871. His name is all-too often mentioned as if he were some secular saint – such as the 'father' of ecological planting.

I'm minded to write about Robinson as over the weekend we were at the very successful Gardens Illustrated magazine Festival at Westonbirt School – once the house of which the famous arboretum was the garden. People kept on mentioning “the anemones... you've got to go and see the anemones”. So off we went to see the anemones. We were greeted by one of the most spectacular spring flower naturalisings I have ever seen. Anemone blanda in various shades of blue, as well as white over a very extensive area in grass under a high tree canopy. Kerzillions of them!

I have seen this before, on a much smaller scale, at Bryans Ground garden in Herefordshire, where they could not have been there for much more than 20 years – interestingly I seem to remember the same blue to white colour palette. The Westonbirt plants must have been there decades, and in fact I suspect since the early 20th century. The species is one of those, very similar to our native A. nemorosa, which do naturalise in humus-rich soils in light shade, but take their time over it. Once established however, they seem to take off at quite a rate - it was obvious that there were seedlings in the grass around the main clump. The key thing is that grass growth is light and weak – suffering competition from the shade of the tree and from its roots, and making it easier for anemones to flourish. Primroses, cyclamen and small bulbs like chionodoxas can naturalise in this situation too.
This wonderful display can probably be traced back to the ideas of William Robinson, a prolific garden writer of the late 19th and early 20th century. The idea of naturalising bulbs is one of the many ideas he puts forward in his book The Wild Garden. It certainly worked for daffodils, which take off in grass amazingly well, although to be fair it could have been Gertrude Jekyll who thought of this idea. The lifespans of these garden greats overlapped, and they were friends from the 1870s onwards.
Not much else of Robinson's ideas in The Wild Garden have had such success, although it is worth mentioning two others which have taken off: Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed. “Magnificent” landscape plants, according to him. Which indeed they are. Except that we now know more about them. The truth of the matter is that in the late 19th century there was no understanding of what we would now call 'ecology' or that non-native plants might spread and become problems. The idea of the 'invasive alien' would have been, well – alien!

Robinson suggested planting garden plants in wild surroundings and watching native species and exotic one mingle and spread. Very few did. British grass, whose photosynthetic maximum efficiency is achieved at below 10C, suffocates most interlopers very quickly, which is why we do not have much of a problem with invasive aliens. This is not something Robinson would have understood. Most of what he must have planted out, or which others planted out at his behest, must have disappeared pretty quickly.

Robinson wrote The Wild Garden at a time when he was doing an amazing amount of writing, on many different aspects of gardening. He wrote it as a polemic, not as a result of experience. He wrote it without really knowing what he was talking about in other words. His rhetorical style however still fires people up, at the Westonbirt event I mentioned, a member of the audience reported how he had been greatly inspired by reading him. There isn't necessarily a contradiction here, a lot of radical ideas have a hare-brained content and a workable content - it is up to the pragmatists, experimenters and 'doer's to see what works and what doesn't.

Robinson was a bombastic character who got into terrible rows with other writers, although sometimes I think these were deliberately stoked up, like the one with Reginald Blomfield over formal gardens. He denounced bedding plants in no uncertain terms but in fact never stopped using them himself. He comes across as someone who jumped on and off his soapbox to sell his magazine and books and well aware of the power of publicity. Like many such people, he did a great deal to move things forward, shake up complacent thinking and challenge received wisdom. His prescriptions however were often contradictory and not necessarily what we would today call 'evidence-based'. Take him with a pinch of salt in other words.


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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Educating gardeners and designers part two

More thoughts on garden education

Following on from my last post, more thoughts on how we learn stuff. I've lost count of the number of people I have interviewed over the years about their gardens, mostly for magazine articles. First few times I did it, it was quite nerve-wracking, as no-one knew who I was, and sometimes it was quite posh folk, and I couldn't help feeling that they were probably thinking “who is this young whippersnapper?”. This was the period around 1990 btw. Anyway, I usually established credibility pretty early on in an interview, as I knew my plants. There were some difficult moments though, and I actually was thrown out of the odd garden, despite having a magazine feature lined up. I will tell more in the memoirs.

What I actually wanted to say was that the vast majority of the people I have interviewed picked up their love of gardening from a relative, if not a parent, then a granny, an uncle, or a family friend. In most cases they will have picked up knowledge and skills too. In the past most garden knowledge would have been passed down this route, or professionally, from master to apprentice. Enthusiastic amateurs could always pick up more from books and magazines, or from local gardening clubs. Nowadays of course, the knowledge content of books and magazines has dropped considerably, so it is much more difficult to pick up much this way, as noted before.

So where do people turn to? Not the telly obviously, as Gardeners' World and any other TV offering is pretty basic stuff, and has much less practical content than it used to; almost everyone I talk to about the programme complains about it. Garden clubs and societies are one obvious source and must account for their continued popularity. Some of them may be a bit of an excuse for an over 60-s (yikes, I'm 59) get-together (and why not) but every meeting is always built around a speaker. And such gatherings are a great way for the less-experienced to meet the more so.

There was a worry a few years ago that online forums would displace the garden clubs, and to some extent there may well have been some erosion of their position, particularly for more specialist societies. Would be interesting to hear from somebody in the Alpine Garden Society if this is the case. But such fora are probably adding to the ability of people to learn more, and to ask questions and get answers from sources they probably would not have done in pre-internet days (doesn't that sound like a long time ago!).

I have a background in adult education, so this is something that interests me deeply. I used to teach English as a Second Language, firstly to Vietnamese refugees (the boat people), then to every other ethnic minority that ever showed up in Bristol (I'll have to write about this one day, some amazing stories and insights into the lives of others, as well as a sneak preview of Islamic fundamentalism). On our course we were taught that to be effective what people learnt had to be internalised. You can teach someone some information or how to do something and they can go off and do it, but unless they understand why they are doing it, they will be stuck in a dogmatic and repetitive rut, always going through the same procedure, and unable to vary it. This is what old-fashioned 'learning by rote' achieved. However the learner who has understood the underlying rationale for a course of action will be able to make allowances for different circumstances, think of improvements, adapt the procedure for different outcomes etc. 

For some years now I have run a very successful workshop, called with my rather mad whimsical sense of humour, 'The Rabbits' Eye View' (serious sub-title: Understanding Long-term Plant Performance). I don't think I have ever written a post about it. Should do soon. Anyway – the whole point of this is to provide information that empowers students to go off and look at plants (often at ground level, hence the rabbit reference), and then make up their own minds about how they will perform in years to come. 

What I'm leading up to is to give a bit of a plug for a course I do on MyGardenSchool
which covers much of the material we do on the Rabbit's Eye View course - Planting Design with Perennials. Students are encouraged to go off and take pictures of plants in ways which will help them understand patterns of growth, as well as deal with some basic design issues. Giving people tools as opposed to just saying “this one does such and such and this one blah, blah”. Part of the thinking behind this is that as so many parts of the world develop their own distinct garden cultures, using locally native plants, the traditional garden flora seems increasingly limited. 'New' plants are also of course something of an unknown quantity; everyone may agree some wildling is 'garden-worthy' but there will be so much to learn about it. Having a framework for interpreting its growth habit and lifecycle is vitally useful if we are to use it effectively. The 'Rabbits' workshop is intended to provide a way we can 'read the plant'.

Working with a designer presents other challenges. How do you explain a designer's work so that people can emulate or learn from it? I have for worked with Piet Oudolf for several years on just this. He is, like many artists, not analytical about his work – he just does it. It can be frustratingly difficult to pin down clear concepts about what he does that can be spelled out to others. I've made a pretty good try at it over the years, and worked out how t o do it for books. Last autumn I teamed up with MyGardenSchool to produce some teaching videos with him. All a bit of a leap in the dark, but we got some good footage, and they have been reviewed well by Gardenista

The course is available here – there are assignments, which I comment on. Here again we are up against the learning by rote danger. In the videos Piet shows how he selects plants on the basis of various characteristics based on plant visual structure. As an exercise we ask students to make their own suggestions for plants with these characteristics. That's the first stage. The more imaginative will go off and create some categories of their own. 

Yes, you can take up Piet's ideas and use the same plants in the same categories and make some Piet Oudolf-esque plantings. Many of these will be very good, some of them will use the same ingredients but mix them in very different ways – so no-one who knows their Calamagrostis from their Achnatherum could possibly mistake it for the master's work. Most let's face it, will make 'also-rans'. That's not necessarily a bad thing – the world is a better place for having them, let's face it, there are very few innovators, and most of our cultural landscape is made up of copycat also-rans. We do the same thing when we do a Delia Smith recipe (Americans read Martha Stewart). How many of us create a new dish every time we cook?

Anyone following the course in a climate zone where the late-season perennials and grasses that define the Oudolf look do not thrive will be forced to innovate, to find a different range of plants to fit the structure categories we talk about on the course. In many cases they'll have to invent some categories of their own to reflect the aesthetics of the local garden-worthy flora. And this where the internalised learning should really take off – understanding that the Oudolf look is not just about using certain plants or even plants with certain shapes but concentrating on long-season structure, and developing a design language that articulates and uses that structure. 

So far on the course, we've had people from all over, and what will be most exciting is seeing what people do with the information in climate zones with completely different ranges of plants.

Finally, check out the Garden Masterclasses I'm helping put on this summer: eight venues across the UK, 20 tutors, 13 events.