Peter Dowdall ponders what makes a great garden and if you need to have a formal training to design one.

Herbaceous borders are the quintessential gardening thing aren’t they? I’m working on designing a herbaceous border for someone who already has a lovely garden. 

Lovely because it has been created by herself.

First to admit that she had no technical knowledge of gardening or garden design before she starts, it doesn’t matter in this instance as the garden, after only seven short years, looks great.

So good in fact you now couldn’t imagine this site without the garden. 

Too much store can sometimes be put in formal training and knowledge, sometimes it just takes the confidence to plant. 

Make the mistakes and see what happens.

What is a mistake in this situation: clashing colours? Is there such a thing in nature, can colours clash in the garden? Too many or too few plants?

Mistakes can be made. It might not be pleasing to everybody’s eye, but is that a mistake if the person who created it and planted it likes it? 

Much of the time it just takes confidence, the courage to take up some lawn and create a new bed. 

But you know what the great thing is? If it doesn’t work you can just take up the plants, put back the grass and use the plants somewhere else.

A garden's beauty is in the eye of the beholder

This gardening lark is simple. After breathing, eating and drinking it is probably the most basic thing that we humans can do. 

I have always thought that all you need to do is put a plant in the soil and it will grow, but maybe there is slightly more needed, maybe you need to have that energy to make it work. Does everyone have that connection to the soil?

I have often taught gardening to children and they pick it up instinctively. You show a child a flower bulb and they know nearly automatically which way is up. 

Show the same flower bulb to a class of adults and many will need to ask which way to plant it. Why is that? Is it that life and the passing of years knocks the confidence out of us? 

Do we begin to doubt ourselves on everything unless it is explained to us or we have read it in a book? Are we all born with that energy that connects us to mother earth, but only some of us retain it?

I remember my father explaining to me many years ago that if five people standing next to each other all witnessed a road crash and the police came and took statements, they would get five differing accounts. 

If you gave the same outdoor space to five different people you would certainly get five different gardens.

However, is any garden more correct than the other? Would they all work well? Would all the plants grow or does it actually depend on who plants them? 

Do you need that inherent skill or to possess that energy for the plants to thrive and is it something that can be learnt?

I actually think it is inherent. You need to feel the plants and feel the garden, that’s much more important than formal training. 

Training and learning will improve the ability obviously, same as with any trade or skill, but if the love or the understanding isn’t there in the first place, then no amount of education will work. 

I have often seen gardens created by professionals which don’t work, they’re just wrong, and I have seen many gardens created by amateurs which work very well, because they were created by people who were interested and who had a love of what they were doing.

Which brings me back to my herbaceous border statement at the start of this piece. 

I am to design an herbaceous bed for this lovely lady to hopefully enhance what is already a beautiful garden, and my query is this, do I stick to the rules and make it strictly herbaceous or do I do what I like — which is more of a mixture to ensure some winter interest?

Do I add some roses maybe, will it work if my influence and my feelings and my energy are to become part of this garden? Will it improve it or will it stand out like a sore thumb? 

The trick is to get to know the client, get to know what she likes and what she feels.

Forget about the rules. 

Obviously I can’t abandon that which I know to be correct in terms of design and plant combinations, but it needs to work in the overall ethos and feeling of the garden.

There are certain things which need to be correct in terms of design such as balance, texture and structure.

I owe it to the client to try my very best to get under her skin so that I can help her in this most personal of space. After all its her garden, her creation, her private space.

I have been invited in but I need to tread carefully, sympathetically and ensure that we are all at one, me, her and the garden.


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