Competition entry 2: My First Garden

Updated: Nov 3, 2018

In this second post of the series, Senior Lecturer Ian Fisher shares another of his recent competition entries.


My First Garden

My first garden is not a first past the post type of garden, but rather an aggregation of ideas, experience, experimentation, overcoming individual expectations but creating something out of nothing, both physically and perceptually. First as defined by the Oxford Dictionaries is “first coming before all others in time or order”. I have many first gardens both as learning experiences and physical entities. This is therefore a story of enlightenment and many firsts!


The first garden for me was the one I was born in. A lawn the size of a football pitch, or so it seemed at the time, to hone the skills to score the winner at Wembley or to mirror a spectacular try or just to flop down on its cooling surface in the shade created by a host of mature trees. Overtime this garden, a palimpsest of 1950’s suburban horticulture of shrubberies and Roses was tamed, flattened, becoming less pliable to the imagination and seen through approaching teenage eyes for what it was- a collection of plants, which was too large to maintain and was slowly slipping in to a self-induced slumber.




However, the vegetable garden spoke of Cartesian coordinates of production; a founding in the value of garden to plate production and the annual lifecycles, which we are fast removing ourselves from.


From the safety of suburbia to the Temperate house at the RBG Edinburgh, I was employed as a gardener Grade II, having decided that Loss Adjusting was not a career with any prospects for me. This was a garden that spanned the world and I began to develop an interest in plants, placed into a garden at a global scale as individuals, but with little sense of wider ecological concepts and their association through planting design.


The limits of this first garden were determined by the translucent skin of the greenhouse. This "garden" awakened my love of plants - or did it? - perhaps that started in the Hortus Conclusus of the suburban idyll, unrecognised, unvalued and unarticulated at the time. What it did do was stimulate knowledge acquisition to understand why the Jacaranda mimosifolia flowered in January or where exactly the Cupressus cashmeriana grew in this zone, sandwiched between subarctic and subtropical and climate. A garden began to evolve from this botanical collection as I was encouraged to organise plants into designed environments, revealing for the first time "associations" based not only on environment, but also form, texture and colour.


As a contained space the Princess of Wales Conservatory was a cornucopia of garden firsts. Studying as a student at RBG Kew, the empty shell provided the opportunity to practice the art of garden creation, not so much as a botanical Hortus Conclusus, but as landscape, organised as a sequence of biomes. Over a period of six months I helped design and construct these 3D pictures; a garden to display Welwitschia mirabilis, the Sherman Hoyt cactus collection and many others. These truly were garden firsts - contained within the transparent diagonals of the glass house, the sequence of Hortus Apertus were "designed with plants in mind," evoking not the safety of the English country garden but the raw sexuality of the mid latitudes.


Another first at this time was the purchase (1984) of The Small Garden by John Brookes. (Published in 1984). In this book, I learnt that the garden was not formed by plants but by space. Plants became a way of organising and enhancing the spatial experience. The word architecture suddenly became part of the vocabulary of describing plants and not as something that referred to the buildings we lived in. This idea that house and garden were one, was a revelation! I was enthralled reading and re-reading each design scenario, analysing plant associations and material use and how they all contributed to this design of space.


If I hold to my principles, then the next first garden involved children and a backyard of 7m x 5m. Plants were seconded to a narrow strip around the edge and pots of Nasturtiums liberally spread on every window sill. What also made this a first was the sandpit, designed and constructed in the spirit of John Brookes and stained grey and orange. Located in the ginnel, it became a social hub for the pre-teens, along with Playmobil figures from the "Wild West" and “Arthurian Legends”. A place of imagination and escape, and of course a removable lid kept the cats at bay!


Moving house meant a slightly bigger space, but less time devoted to the art of garden creation. A lawn, a Prunus “Kanzan” and a large Ribes sanguineum filled the back garden, whilst the potential of a Fagus sylvatica hedge in the front was recognised but temporarily unfulfilled. Eventually the house was restored and the garden, competing with paddling pools, rugby and football had some attention. Not a first of course. New levels were set and then reset as the use of the garden for growing up withered in the face of teenage angst.


A new first garden appeared, out went the grass (the Prunus had already died of bacterial canker) and in came the concept of the room outdoors. A deck for dining, not withstanding the Manchester monsoon, hedges of Fagus to surround and a deep dark orthogonal pool, set with milky white Perspex as rear vertical screens, uplit from below and paired with filigree vertical screens supporting Parthenocissus tricuspidata and Aristolochia durior. The new levels produced chamfered informal seating as retention, leading to a grid of urban vegetables, a battlefield of epic proportions with the snail and slug population. The remainder of the garden supported a simple platform of zigzag paved squares, anchored by a large Hamamelis x intermedia "Pallida", architecturally mature herbaceous plants e.g. Acanthus mollis , Crocosmia “Spitfire”and Stipa gigantea. Unique details included rosy tiles, retrieved from a re-roofing project, following Lutyens precedent to create incident and texture at ground level. A timber frame, over scaled, formed an orthogonal frame to hang a chair, which somehow was spirited through customs on a holiday to Goa.


So finally to my first garden; in the true sense of the word first: “coming before all those others (I have described) in time or order”.


It is the first and also the last as there can be no more firsts after this. No more moving house, no more satisfying competing functions, it will grow with our remaining years and fade to dust as we eventually will, but in doing so will provide the chance to assimilate all the influences, missed opportunities accrued and forgotten knowledge into a sequence of spaces, which firmly place the garden in its contexts. It sits within Silverdale AONB, 500 metres from the coast with a soil depth of 10cm. As important is the potential relationship to the 1970's bungalow purchased because of its circular porthole window, contrasting with a wedge shaped external stone chimney, reminiscent (in my mind anyway) of California in the 1960’s. Now much improved and with a green roof extension to house my late departed mother, the spaces are draped enticingly around the house, in five contrasting geometries inward and outward facing.


To the front the garden distils the relationship with the surrounding National Trust meadows, brief glimpses of the Kent estuary and surrounding hills in to five elements. The deck uniting the extension and existing bungalow in an L shape, reflects in its geometry and weathering the surrounding limestone pavement of Clints and Grykes. The meadow, an exact square of 7m x 7m, reflects and connects the lounge/dining room to the outside and metaphorically projects this feature in to the landscape, reflecting the way that humans have tried to order this difficult landscape with dry stone walls. Now bursting with energy, the meadow is ready to flower. Lying flat on the deck and looking through what is a pontillist landscape, one can only marvel at the diversity of this habitat, its capacity to change by the second in multiple and interlocked time scales. The hedge of Hippophae rhamnoides acts as a filter between the garden and its surroundings, pruned to be both formal and untamed to reflect geometries of both building and physical landscape. The reed bed of Phragmites australis and associated pool, provides shelter but makes metaphorical connections with the low lying nature of the surrounding Leighton Moss. Finally the border reflects the idea of the garden in the countryside, sheltered by the hedge facing south South east, it is programmed to flower after the meadow (which is cut in July) with mixtures of Dahlias, Crocosmia, Helenium, Rudbeckia, Echinacea and Calamogrostis; flowers that will light up mid-summer in a climate that often forgets summer exists in August. These elements distil everything that a garden should be both as Hortus Conclusus and Apertus in connecting humans with the landscape and recognising their role as creators and interpreters of this landscape.


Transitioning around the back of the house via a narrow enclosed path, purposely removed of all visual stimuli or through the interconnecting interior spaces, the next space formalises itself with house and neighbours’ boundaries. It achieves this through a slatted, climber clad boundary screen, stained in dark grey (to match window frames) and a single red stripe (ref Preben Jakobsen) and a series of shallow stepped platforms of decking, wrapping around two beds for herbs and cut flowers for the house. Unfortunately this is also contested territory. Whilst the front garden is "mine" and working on a strategy that if enough people make favourable comments, my wife will accept and even appreciate it, this space reflects different views about the use of plants in pots. So far it is a happy compromise of Lavandula stoechas, Anchusa azura and Agapanthus cv, but vigilance is required! A stone Lion suddenly made an appearance, but this has now been partnered by an upturned IKEA pendant lamp shade positioned on a photovoltaic cell, which provides a ghostly glow at night, guarded reluctantly by “David” the lion, in a surrealist juxtaposition.

Moving around the back of the house, the next two spaces are under construction. Exploiting geometries of house, boundaries and level changes, Janet's Garden, is dedicated to my wife's love of the sun and in particular the Mediterranean. The retaining wall of sleepers, will act as the third element of enclosure with the house and boundary hedge of Fagus sylvatica. The garden will be full of pots and flowering incidents, but will also define access, via cantilevered steps to the penultimate space - a forest garden of fruit (still an idea as it suffers from variable amounts of shade).


Finally returning to the front is the first physical garden created after moving to this house nine years ago. Is this an anomaly - a "mad dogs and Englishman's" attempt to create a maritime garden which largely faces North North West, with no sun from November to April? One feels the plants hang on as some sort of tribute to the foolhardiness of the gardener. However, in the summer months, with the sun at its zenith, Osteospermum cv, Lavandula “Munstead”, Santolina chamaecyparis, Escholtzia californica, Verbena bonariensis, Agapanthus cv, Foeniculum vulgare, Nepeta “Six Hills Giant”, Ammophila breviligulata, Rosmarinus officianalis “Miss Jessopps Upright” luxuriate in this brief interlude and with found sculptures from the beach, alongside low white washed walls, create a Derek Jarman atmosphere.


Constructed as an early escape from a complete house refurbishment, this first and last garden in the assemblage looks out to the surrounding patterns and textures of the landscape; a place to reflect in and watch the sun set directly across the fields at 9:21pm, which is where I will be tonight.

© 2018 by RE:ALM x SoLA

Manchester School of Architecture

Manchester Metropolitan University

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