It is possible to be winded by a garden? For a place to feel so ‘breath-taking’ your body actually shuts down for a second or two?
I’d experienced something a little like this last year, as the view across Lord Howe Island revealed itself, upon reaching the top of a mountain climb. But in a garden? Clearly, I’m emotionally affected by magnificent gardens, but had I actually found it hard to breathe in one?
Whatever the previous answer to that question, a trip to Broughton Grange resolved the issue firmly and squarely. Better than Sissinghurst? Yes, I think I can even say that.
James Golden, of Federal Twist, had recently reviewed Broughton Grange (thanks Catherine, for sending me the link!) and pointed me towards a video by its designer, the incredible Tom Stuart-Smith. You’ll remember him from the very wonderful Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech. I’ll remember him for emailing me shortly after I posted that article, asking if he could use some of my photos!
Watching the video, the genius of Tom Stuart-Smith – and his incredible likability – is plainly obvious. But let’s explore the garden first and then come back to some of his throw-all-ideas-about-garden-design-out-of-the-window-and-start-again revelations.
As you approach the very solid gateway to Tom’s walled garden, you know it’s going to be special before your first step inside. It somehow oozes magic beyond its footprint. And as you enter, you see the beautiful rolling fields of the rustic landscape in front of you; the garden entirely integrated into this stunning backdrop.
Tom describes the garden as three-tiered, although I’d argue (probably because I’m trying to prove I’m better at maths than Tom, if not garden design) there are four.
1. THE Upper TERRACE
Passing the most beautiful – inside and out – greenhouse in the world, the upper level of intense, almost meadow-like planting reveals itself. Sited on impoverished soil, the dry Mediterranean plants form a field of growth – uniform in height but with stunning contrasts in texture, form and colour – punctuated by slender yew columns. Narrow pathways through the planting allow you to find your own journey of exploration and immerse yourself into, and almost be consumed by, the plants themselves.
2. The Middle Terrace
The middle terrace is dominated by a large, geometric pond, which Tom used to deliberately create a void; an empty space that you yourself can’t occupy, ensuring the garden takes primacy. The soil here was improved to encourage lush, vibrant growth of more prairie style planting and clever sight lines structure the visitor’s experience. Topiary figures are used in a ‘semi-anthropomorphic’ sense; to give the impression of some other presence to the garden. A hint to prior occupation, as if you are just a visitor observing other goings on.
3. The Lower Terrace
The primary-coloured bedding parterre of the lower terrace is nothing short of a shock to the system, after the sophisticated plantings above. But it is a bedding shock of a quite pleasant nature, for it is really like nothing you’ve seen before. The irregular hedges are laid out in the cell patterns of leaves from the wider garden – as seen under a microscope – although this design inspiration is subtle, not shouted about. Tom prefers visitors to be free to let their imaginations go in their own directions, and indeed mine told me the Buxus must be in the shape of neighbouring fields. The section of planting in the bottom right of the photo was a trial this year; amusingly, the gardener we spoke to enjoyed telling us that Tom’s recent experiment clearly hadn’t worked. I decided not to mention the obvious question of whether it was more of a design or a horticultural issue. But to be fair, often the two are the same.
4. The ‘Basement’ Terrace
Beyond the lower terrace, Tom has created perhaps my favourite area of all, which starts to blend garden and landscape. The most stunning ‘hedges’ have been formed with a mix of very complementary plants, providing both uniformity and variety. On the other side, a sloping lawn (OK, perhaps it’s not really a terrace) with perfectly manicured topiary is a cultivated version of the fields and shrubs beyond (shown also in the feature photo at the top of the page). Incredibly simple, but incredibly effective.
There is no question that this garden contains world class planting. But why is it so good? In the video, Tom describes three characteristics of great gardens:
i) permeability – the idea that you can discover a garden in your own way, without predetermined routes or instructions
ii) complexity – when Tom studied Zoology at Cambridge, he learnt that the more complex an object, the more responsive animals are to it. He describes complexity as “almost a moral necessity” in a garden (gorgeous!) and an essential element to ensure it “runs with the grain of nature”
iii) identity – that a garden has a distinct and memorable character and that it is defined, often by a distinct territory (as at Broughton Grange, as well as William Kent’s Rousham garden), i.e. delineated by clear boundaries that separate it from meadow or paddock
I was happily linking these three elements to my own ‘bold, fit and character‘ thoughts, forcefully moulding them into the same shape. But hang on. An identity with clear boundaries? Haven’t we always been told to merge garden with landscape? Indeed, hasn’t Tom delivered that here?
And I started to explore some of Tom’s exotic (think tree ferns) London courtyards and the – quite frankly – random parterre at Broughton Grange. Arguably the fit is terrible. But perhaps it is the contrast with their surroundings that makes them so wow. I’ve often viewed ‘bad fit’ gardens as bad taste, but you couldn’t call these bad taste.
Perhaps, as a garden designer, the next step on from ‘fitting as closely as possibly’, is actually to deliberately design in tension. A bit like a quote I read this week about brown shoes, which went, “the only thing posher than knowing the rules…is having the confidence to break them”. It seems I need to poshen up!
Tom quotes from the poet, Friedrich Schlegel:
“Contradiction is life’s main spring and core. If there was only unity and everything was at peace, then nothing would stir and everything would sink into listlessness.”
We see contradiction throughout this garden. The tall yews in the Mediterranean planting, the geometric pond against the rolling hills, the stark colours of the parterre. I’ve very much grasped the idea of contrast within planting, but I’m now thinking I need to expand my thoughts around contrasts within the setting. Perhaps it’s not always about making it look as though it’s always been there, as if it’s meant to be. Perhaps tension is what takes it to that next level. Tension without bad taste and without bad fit. Gosh, gardening is a never-ending learning! This latest thought seems quite a challenge to grasp. Possibly the thinnest line of all between genius and disaster!
Probably the one remaining question I have of this garden, is the fit with the walled garden ‘sides’ and their surroundings. The terraces roll down beautifully and work perfectly with the fields opposite, but I can’t help feel the “simple box”, as Tom describes it, slightly jars on the edges. Tall, straight lines down the slope of the land – a slope which meanders in every direction – just seem a little harsh against these soft, meandering curves. A little ‘plonked’, rather than nestling. Just on those sides. The sight lines out are wonderful, but I was very conscious there would be quite odd retaining walls looking back from the arboretum. Even if you couldn’t see them, I was somehow aware they must be there, jutting out of the space. Is this the one weakness in the design, or it is something else I’ll learn to appreciate in time?
Which brings us back to Sissinghurst. How does Broughton Grange compare as far as world class gardens go? I don’t think anything can touch Sissinghurst for history and atmosphere. The bare bones of the buildings give it such a head start. Even the splendid views of Broughton Grange don’t quite match this. But I think Broughton Grange is so exciting because it is contemporary. Tom has taken old ideas of the Arts and Craft style and recent ones of the New Perennial Movement and fused them to create something quite different. I think it’s that which makes this garden so exhilarating. It isn’t a museum, it’s current thinking, optimised for today without any baggage from the past. It delivers something original and fun, pure and thought-provoking.
I’d so encourage you to go, if you do get the chance, but just make sure you don’t forget to breathe – as I did – whilst you are there!
30 thoughts on “Tom Stuart-Smith’s Broughton Grange”
Wonderful writing as usual Janna. Your description of this lovely place speaks loudly of your own superior sensibility to the garden’s qualities without any hint of pretentiousness.
Thank you so much, Pam! That is very reassuring to hear. If my passion does ever veer into either ‘away with the fairies’ language or pretension then I do hope someone will slap me down immediately!
Looking at your superb photos of this superb garden, the thing that struck me was Tom’s judicious use of conifers to punctuate an otherwise fairly open and flat space. You can be transported by the abundance of flowers but it’s those upright conifers that anchor the composition, or show a clear way forward for the visitor.
It would be a very different garden without them, wouldn’t it? The low planting works well in this exposed position, reflecting the habits of nature, but without the undulating topography that would normally hold this type of open planting, the flatness would be too much. It’s very clever how it works so well!
Great photos, and an interesting post….. a lot for me to absorb and learn from this one. The garden look like an Impressionist painting in some photos…perhaps the soft English colours.
Thank you. I’m not sure I’ve absorbed it all yet! Tom’s videos were about an hour in length and my brain is still thinking about it all. I see exactly what you mean about the Impressionist resemblance; the colours are very muted and English. So serene.
This is one of favourite gardens, I try to go every year for their NGS day. It just gets better and better. Such a brilliant post, thanks Janna.
Thanks, Kate. I think I’ll have to add it to my list of annual (or seasonal, if possible!) pilgrimages. I can imagine it is developing more and more character each year.
Another thought-provoking post Janna. I love Tom’s thoughts on complexity. For me, creating habitat in my garden is essential but I have never thought of it as a ‘”moral necessity”…but it is! I also find the notion of tension to enhance visual display a revelation. I assume this is why, when we saw the ‘field’ of everlastings in Kings Park last year I found it quite uninspiring but the same flowers in the wild amongst weathered long-dead timber amazing. However, I’m not at all sure about the parterre although the idea is very clever. Perhaps too much tension! Certainly a very beautiful garden.
It is amazing how different plants look in different settings, isn’t it? Although I had always thought they looked best in more natural settings and now, it seems, I need to think harder! The parterre is very ‘in your face’ but I couldn’t help but smile. It was so cheery and different and I think the solid ‘primary-colours-ness’ of it meant it was a little more co-ordinated and tasteful than many bedding areas you see. But I’m sure it’s not for everyone; good to get us thinking though!
I love this and have pinned three of the images. It’ll be a must see if we’re ever up that way. Strangely the quirky parterre took me straight back to Morocco and the dye baths of Fez.
Those colours are the intensity of Morocco, aren’t they? You are quite right! Hope you do get up there; would love to hear your take on it.
Guess what Janna? I do adore parts of this garden. The combinations of plants and heights are very appealing. This is definitely a garden I will have to add to my list to visit. I did spend quite a bit of time looking at individual photos trying to work out the plant combinations. Thank you for bringing another great garden to my attention.
I’d never have believed you’d like this garden, Louise. Oh, well, maybe I would! The heights are so clever aren’t they? I find it one of the hardest things because you just learn the ins and outs of a plant’s habits and then find a variation in the soil/light/exact specimen throws the whole thing out again! Most of the upper terrace would be great for Canberra though as they were highly drought tolerant species. In fact, your front garden has a bit of a feel of that area.
Guess that would explain why I liked parts of this garden! And yes the seeds deeply hidden beneath the soil are beginning to emerge. I wonder what surprises await!
How very exciting! Spring is such a wonderful time.
Being a fan of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden I guess I was always going to like this garden. It has a lot of those American pioneers of perennial gardening embedded in it. I especially love the level with the pool at its centre. But reading your review and looking at your excellent photographs there’s clearly a lot to love throughout the garden. Another one for the list. Hopefully next year I’ll be able to get out more!
It would be great to see your take on some of these gardens. The pool does make the whole garden feel very serene. We viewed a house that needs quite a lot of work, last week. Can you tell me if it’s all worth it in the end?!
Not today! We are overspent, over time and I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown on Saturday. Happily TFG Senior has come to the rescue but it’s still very precarious. I am not sure I would do it again in a hurry! New build all the way next time 😉
Oh, gosh. We need to think hard! Hope it all feels better (and is finished) soon.
I am trying not to let it end with a Grand Designs style ‘parting of the ways’ with the builder, but it’s taking a lot of patience on my part! There are those that love this kind of project and those that don’t. I recognise I am one of the latter and just want to buy cushions and put my books on the shelves! You may be completely different and relish the challenge so don’t let me put you off.
These are very good and timely warnings for me. The trouble is, how do you know if you are ‘that kind of person’ before you try it?! Keep up the good work with that patience!
Yes a great garden and it all looks so effortless – love the planting, not enamoured of the parterre nor the group of pots. Other than that a stunning garden worthy of a visit (another on the list – I’ll have to move to England at this rate – never see them all on a short holiday). Thanks Janna.
Yes, I’m now adding to your UK list at a great rate of knots! I’ll be dramatically slowed down soon though, as winter approaches. I do think you’d like this one though; the soft colours, rolling hills and just really thoughtful planting combinations. Can you imagine how busy you’ll be in your own garden, implementing all the ideas after a trip to Europe?!
Oh goodness me – yes!
One of the great recent gardens that has and still is being created. It is well woth going in tulip season as the parterre is full to bursting with tulips
I’d love to go back in spring to see all the tulips. Hopefully next year. I’m just sorting through my photos from a trip to Trentham Gardens this week: another masterful creation by Tom Stuart-Smith. He is so clever!