I’ve always loved problem solving. In my first job, making McVities’ biscuits, my colleagues and I spent hour after hour, day after day, looking for ways to eke out a few more perfect biscuits every hour, motivated by the drive to please our wonderful biscuit-eating customers; oh and to avoid the particularly unpleasant experience of having to admit to 10% waste at the ops meeting the following day.
Fortunately, my predecessors had spent the last 100 years coming up with myriad cunning ways to gently massage the figures in case of the odd day of horror, so we were free – with these tricks in our back pocket – to merrily focus on the problems of actually making biscuits, knowing we were already fully problem-solved in how to lie, cheat and steal – at least in the short term – on the paperwork.
When I moved to BAA, I then worked on the design of the new Terminal 2, or ‘Heathrow East’ as it was then known. I loved the challenge of looking for ways to enable queue-free check-in, whilst not providing so many kiosks that walking distances were problematic. There’s something about boiling a task down to its essential deliverables, throwing out everything you already know about how things are done and then really engaging your brain to come up with a totally new, better-than-ever solution.
So when I became a garden designer, whilst I was super excited about being able to apply my creative side to a subject I loved – green growing stuff – I thought perhaps I’d need to find other ways to really stimulate my brain.
Of course, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Similar to the Terminal 2 challenges, I soon found myself trying to fit a trampoline, garden shed, peaceful reflective area, a London plane tree (“my favourite, favourite tree”), a dog run, water feature and football pitch into a three by three metre courtyard.
It didn’t finish there. How does one square the circle when the lady of the house wants neat, straight everything and the man loves the natural flowing contours of the land? And how do you find unity in design when the brief is to combine that London plane tree, teeny-tiny Saxifraga, a red-flowering cactus, enormous-leafed, tropical Gunnera and “oh, I do so love tulips”?
Both sides of my brain definitely get tested in this role: it’s quite a surprise that, looking back, designing an airport seems infinitely simpler.
But what I love most as a garden designer is that moment, after you’ve boiled down the essentials, you’ve thought and sketched and thought some more and suddenly – usually whilst in the shower – ‘poof’, the answer appears, jumping out at you unbelievably loudly and clearly.
Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. You just know it’s right. Until that ‘poof’ moment, the solution you had had lots going for it, but you always knew there were one or two dodgy corners – an angle that didn’t quite work, a clumsy seam between two areas, a missing something-or-other. But when that final piece of the jigsaw comes along, it’s the most satisfying feeling in the world to know the whole thing fits together perfectly.
Given how much I love this – now very familiar – process, it’s perhaps a little curious I didn’t jump straight in and apply it to our own garden when we moved in two years ago.
I’m not sure if I just fancied a bit of variation, if I found the lack of a deadline somewhat conducive to procrastination, or if I was a little overwhelmed by the thought of a four acre masterplan that I was to implement myself in my free time, but something stopped me.
I think it’s true that your own garden is always the hardest to design; most designers seem to agree. It’s harder to be objective when you know a place inside out, you have a few weaknesses around certain inappropriate plants and you’re also trying to please a husband whilst thinking your view is clearly more important/learned/relevant/thoughtful…(sorry, Paul), in a way that somehow you don’t with a paying client.
For whatever reason, instead, I just gently started to tweak this bit and that, remove nettles, take out dead shrubs and more than anything else, observe.
I’ve never had a relationship with a garden like the one I have now. I could just walk it all day, every day (actually that’s not true, I’m too excited about improving it, but I’d never ever tire of walking and observing). And when you see four acres of green growing stuff, day in, day out, it’s staggering how much you learn. How much that green growing stuff tells you.
You learn which plants really thrive where, you learn the natural curve of the lawn edge as it approaches the dark canopy of an oak, you learn whereabouts on the stream is the perfect place to sit and listen to the water trickling over the rocks and you learn about all of this as it evolves, season by season, year by year.
It’s the most magical experience imaginable, as if you are literally absorbing the garden leaf by leaf, taking it all on board via osmosis rather than by engaging the brain. The garden becomes a part of you and it seems to then be something in the heart which determines how the garden evolves. It’s somehow just there; I can feel, intuitively, what is right for each little space. I don’t have to think about which plant to use and whether it should go here or there. It’s just obvious. Of course this particular green growing thing is going to be at its absolute best, physiologically and aesthetically, right in this spot. Ridiculous to think it could go five metres further along.
There’s no doubt, this new approach of slowly feeling, rather than quickly thinking, has led to the happiest, most satisfying planting I’ve ever done, this autumn. And I’m wondering how I can translate this to gardens for other people.
Perhaps there are a couple of learnings. One, being the importance of spending time getting that brief really fleshed out, right up front. To properly get inside a client’s head; to start to feel how they do. To not just create a list, but to develop real, in depth insight.
And secondly, where possible, to try and let a garden develop over time. To plant some trees and get a feel for where it’s going, complete one section and see how it makes you feel about the next. To walk the stream in every season to find that one (or two or three) best spots that call out to you to stop and place your bench.
I’ve always preferred evolution to revolution when it comes to garden creation. It’s not always possible – it clearly depends what you are starting with and how long you can wait – but it’s always surprising how a few initial, obvious changes bring a whole new light and sow the seeds for myriad new opportunities that suddenly stare you in the face.
I did wonder if this preference for evolution was simply because I wasn’t good enough to get it right in one go. But speaking to the best of the best garden designers, they all tweak and adapt and improve their designs over the years; even Chelsea show gardens rarely map the precise layout and planting lists they initially propose.
I think evolution is about letting your heart take control. To feel a garden rather than to think a garden. To let the garden tell you what it wants; what will sit comfortably inside it.
And rather than having that one, rather wonderful ‘poof’ moment, followed by a switching on of all the lights in one go and the garden is done, evolution allows years of pleasure, years of satisfaction, years of dreaming and ambition and anticipation along the way.
I think I may have turned a corner away from problem solving; my garden instead teaching me to feel new solutions out there. We’ll see how I can use this in my work as well as my play, but for the time being I’m in my element, just enjoying small changes as they happen, enjoying the excitement of what might be and enjoying the depth of engagement that comes with feeling my way as I go.
And the very best thing of all about slow garden making? This wonderful, enriching, life-affirming process can go on and on forever: quite literally every day for the rest of my life.