In the American Mid-West prairie states spring starts late. There was still snow on the ground last year in mid-April, and ice on the lakes until early May, but by late June the air temperatures were in the upper 20s, and the lakes were comfortably warm enough to swim in. So what has this to do with an English garden rooted in the Surrey countryside? The length of a season.
Spring in the Mid-West is something that passes in the blink of an eye, where perennials and prairie grasses break cover, dash for growth and flower within eleven weeks; here we cut down our perennials and grasses in mid-February and wait, and wait, and wait……………whilst all around us the joy of an English spring bursts forth. Our temperate climate allows us to have four seasons of almost equal length. This, in a nutshell, is the problem I have with Piet Oudolf’s gardens and the fashionable New Perennial Movement. Spectacular for the three months in summer, then dull brown silver and grey stems and seedheads which look great above crisp snow, but nothing against soggy brown wet soil…….unless of course the garden has great structure.
And strong structure is what Piet Oudolf’s Courtyard Garden at Bury Court is all about. Structure provided by the courtyard enclosure of soft grey stone barns, outbuildings and walls with traditional red brick detailing, the sculptural forms of the circular oast houses with their cone-shaped slate roofs, and the comfortable looking farmhouse. The intimate space created is further strengthened by large swirls of yew, and low domes of box which form centrepieces of evergreen interest, set against areas of open grass (virtually always green in our climate). This helps carry the garden through the winter months.
I first saw Bury Court’s Courtyard Garden in 1997, soon after it had opened and like many other gardeners and designers found the style exciting and revolutionary; an informal approach more suited to our age. The planting had a sparkling ethereal quality, and the choice of flower colour was still either complementary or contrasting, respectful of the human responses to the colour-wheel. It gave our moribund flower-arranging style (which I had been only too happy to aspire to) a good kick in the pants.
However Bury Court proved to be a small-scale and transitional garden, and subsequent Oudolf gardens I have often found disappointing, lacking structure and feeling more like open prairies with their large swathes of tall perennials and grasses. Perhaps this says more about me than Oudolf, in that I view perennial planting as a will o’ the wisp thing, nothing without good structure.
Bury Court’s Courtyard Garden, originally a show garden for John Coke’s specialised nursery business Green Farm Plants has now morphed into one of the settings for his more recent enterprise, an events venue focusing on weddings and an annual opera programme. But his passion for gardens continued and he subsequently commissioned Chelsea show winner Christopher Bradley-Hole to design the Front Garden, a ‘reed-bed maze set around a pond’ which challenges me even more. This is a garden I will come back to in a future blog (along with a further garden currently under construction).
Oudolf’s garden at Bury Court was a revolutionary innovation, a transition to his subsequent large-scale prairie-style planting, and it was a garden that changed the way I and many others think about the design of planting. With the passing of time the shortcomings of revolutions make themselves felt; we look back and yearn for the best of what we have lost and try and to incorperate it into the new. The New Perennial Movement now seems to me to be a bit dated, and innovative changes, combining the best of these differing approaches to garden design are at last determining the way forward.
Where: Bury Court, Bentley, Farnham Surrey GU10 5LY
Note: Open to the public on Plantsman’s Days and by special appointment
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