THE MODERN MINT BLOG

Jan28

Landscape Informs

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We have recently been presenting a new garden talk – ‘What Do I Do With This Space?’ – to a number of gardening groups in Essex. (To find out where we are presenting the talk next, please visit the Talks page.)

What looks like a simple question has turned out to be incredibly complex to answer, and in a one hour talk of free form ideas we barely have time to scratch the surface. What do people do with the land around them? How does the landscape inform their lives and the choices they make?

For example, some people have enough money, time, skill and labour to make their garden into whatever they can dream of. They can prove their dominance over nature – think the way the Bawa Brothers gardened in Sri Lanka…

Or there are places where nature wins, and the people who live there shape the lives the lead and the way they garden to the pulse of the wild. The gardens of Scandinavia look the way they do because of the weather…

Between talks we are still asking this question, still researching in the hope of finding further similarities between each new answer we discover. The latest notes we have made, and we will try and work this into the next talk, is from a book we have just finished called ‘Gossip from the Forest’ by Sara Maitland.

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales

It is a beautiful book about our relationship to fairy stories and woodland – exactly what we are wanting to read about when trying to answer the question ‘What Do I Do With This Space?’ – and its form is unusual too; each chapter is about a forest she has visited, its history and relationship to a theme or character from fairy stories.

These chapters are then followed up by a retelling of a fairy tale – her ‘Seven Dwarves’ is composed of such strong, elegant images it becomes hard to stop thinking about when finished (we read it again, enjoyed it again, like a piece of music that has got into your ear and travelled through your body, taking up residence under your skin) while ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is a story that leaves you uneasy, glancing into the dark corners of the room wondering if there is more to the shadows than an absence of light.

We want to quote from her here – quite a long quote – so please forgive us, but it seems important to capture something of the wonderful ideas she offers us about our relationship to the landscape…

“… landscape informs the collective imaginations as much as or more than it forms the individual psyche and its imagination, but this dimension is not something to which we always pay enough attention.

It cannot be by chance that the three great monotheist religions – the Abrahamic faiths – have their roots in the desert, in the vast empty spaces under those enormous stars, where life is always provisional, always at risk. Human beings are tiny and vulnerable and necessarily on the move: local gods of place, small titular deities, are not going to be adequate in the desert – you need a big god to fill the vast spaces and speak into the huge silence; you need a god who will travel with you.

It cannot be simply accidental that Tibetan Buddhism emerges from high places, where the everlasting silence of the snows invites a kind of concentration, a loss of ego in the enormity of the mountains…

I am just trying to give some better-known examples of how the land, the scenery and the climate shape and inform the imaginations of the people… I believe that the great stretches of forest in Northern Europe, with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonishing biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get to anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairytales we know best.”

As a garden designer we must constantly ask the question – What Do I Do With This Space? – and it is from books like Gossip from the Forest that we learn the landscape, not just the space we are working on right then, but the landscapes we have lived all our lives in, have been influencing us and the stories we tell from the very first day we were born.

Apr28

Phillyrea From 1682

Worlidge Phillyrea

Phillyrea is one of my favourite plants for topiary. I have been using it for quite a few years as a specimen shrub, mostly due to the fact it clips well and has a tough habit – all good characteristics for a topiary plant. It also has a  reputation for being an excellent nectar source for bees… Read more about Phillyrea here. Mentioning this to Malcolm Thicke, a market garden historian and writer, he sent me a some photos of topiary and phillyrea mentioned by John Worlidge in Systema Horticulturae from 1682…. incredible! He also mentioned to me that in …

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Apr27

Kites And Strings Podcast – Topiary In The Garden

kites and strings podcast

Kites and Strings is a podcast about creativity, hosted by US-based Stephen Ploum and Catherine Chinnock. Back in March they asked me to come onto their podcast and talk about topiary, my past writing plays, the stand-up I did and how creativity can fit into your life. The Kites and Strings podcast was great fun and Stephen and Catherine are fantastic hosts. Listening back today I am surprised by some of the ideas I talked about (somehow I even started to describe a future where I run a ‘School of Creativity’ by the sea…. where did that come from?!) but it …

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Apr27

Robinia – Pruning A Beautiful Tree For Small Gardens

topiary Robinia

Robinia is often forgotten – by me, actually! – when thinking of plants for topiary. But when I work on it I do love it, brittle and soft as the wood is if you climb into it. But that danger of snapping a branch with a heavy step and falling out of the tree aside, I love it for the dappled light it allows into the garden space. Robinia Near The Sea Below is a Robinia I have gently clipped over the last few years, down near Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. The tree was large when I arrived, although it is …

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