This time last year I was in the UK…and what a wonderful time of the year it is for gardens. It’s that perfect point where growth is full and generous, yet still fresh and new; foliage unblemished, tall and strong with a mix of perfectly formed flowers and buds full of anticipation.
According to The Royal Parks, it’s also the best month of the year to visit the gardens of Regent’s Park.
Covering 197 hectares of central London, Regent’s Park has two key gardens: Avenue Gardens, designed by Nesfield in 1861 and Queen Mary’s Gardens, named after King George V’s wife, which opened in 1932. The park itself was named in 1811 after the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who planned a summer palace for the site, although this never did eventuate.
Everything tells me these gardens are not really my types of garden. Very traditional, Victorian layouts dominated by bedding plants and massed roses. All a bit contrived for my liking and, oh, so out of date. So I was pretty surprised to find myself quite taken by them.
The Avenue Gardens, designed to lead up to the future summer palace, are a series of symmetrical beds, planted out primarily with low, seasonal, bedding specimens. I usually find bedding very dull: a single glance and you’ve seen it all and it’s just too static and false for my liking; too far removed from nature.
But somehow it really did work. I walked up and down and found that I had some kind of connection with these static, false, bedding displays. And I realised that it was history that made them work. In ‘The Regent’s Park’, these gardens, designed in the 1860s, were completely fitting to their time and seeing them in the 2010s took me back to that time. It was great to have a connection with history, to think that something similar was here 150 years ago and whilst I appreciated the updating that had been carried out, there was just enough of the old to let your imagination take hold.
These gardens had a sense of place. They just looked ‘right’. And I realised that I didn’t dislike bedding displays per se, I just, unfortunately, usually saw them out of place. Planted on a roundabout, Victorian era bedding displays will never fit with their place or with their history.
The longer I think about garden design, the more I realise that a sense of place, or ‘fit’, is one of the most important factors of all. The best gardens cause an emotional reaction in us; a connection between garden and visitor. And more often than not, I think it is a sense of place than promotes that connection.
Of course a sense of place doesn’t have to be formed over a long period of time. It’s why, after five years in Australia, I’d probably say my favourite plant was Anigozanthos, or Kangaroo Paws. They just look ‘right’ here. Whilst they are only native to Western Australia and most cultivars are very newly developed, they loudly shout ‘Australia’ and fit well in almost any garden style here. In Sydney, I particularly love seeing them send their colourful, shapely flower stems up against sandstone walls; the combination has an incredible sense of place.
Back in London, as I moved on to Queen Mary’s Gardens, primarily a rose garden with over 12,000 roses all of types, the strong sense of place continued. The elaborate, gilded, Jubilee Gates, marking the silver jubilee of George V in 1935, lead through to quite spectacular displays. They reminded me why I discourage people from having roses in their Sydney gardens: there is just no comparison between a healthy, happy rose and a lanky, bare rose, stressed by humidity.
I was delighted to see some informal areas in Queen Mary’s Gardens, much more reflective of nature and with more of a sense of spontaneity. The diversity and seemingly random placement of plants create a scene of pure beauty to me; nature tweaked to maximise impact in a small space and eliminate the ‘rough edges’, without a feeling of overwhelming human control. Natural materials, such as timber and rope, complement this sense of nature.
I realised that as much as I am drawn towards diverse and naturalistic types of gardens, there really is a place for each and every garden style. Our challenge, is to find the perfect fit for our own piece of this Earth; a fit with ourselves, a fit with the architecture of our home, a fit with the surrounding flora and architecture. We can build in a sense of history, a sense of the wider area, a sense of our quirks and loves; the further and more broadly we look, the strong the sense of place can be. Once we find it, everyone who steps foot in our garden can feel that emotion and connection and we know we have effectively created our little piece of paradise.
And bedding displays? I’m very glad they are for me after all, given the right setting. How fun it is to learn, discover, open your mind and prove yourself wrong!