Modern or not? And what is Modern?! The ongoing debate for today’s gardeners is answered by Stephen Anderton.
Do you hanker after doing something really new in your garden? Do you fancy redesigning it from scratch in a modern, up-to-the-minute style? Do you belong to the species Makeover Man, or do you secretly think all this modern nonsense will blow over, and that you'll soon be respectable again with traditional English gardening? Is it all just a fad?
The late Sir James Goldsmith, one of the survivors of the last great stock market crash, memorably said "When you see a band wagon - it's too late." And there are many gardeners who feel that way about modern gardening. When they see terracotta-coloured concrete and glass and steel, and the inevitable blue paint, they say "Well, it'll all blow over. Back to our eco-Cotswoldiana."
These gardeners are wrong. This trend is not a bandwagon. It is the long-delayed flowering of modernism in gardens, which we should have had 50 years ago when modernism was developing in architecture.
Well, let's not grieve for it. Gardening has always, by its very nature, been a conservative business. We are always trying to control the uproariousness of nature and say "Hang on, just look that way for a season or two, will you! Can't you stand still, damn it!" Fifty years has not been too long a wait.
And if we have missed out on modernism in the interim, well at least we have had a productive substitute. We have had Arts and Crafts gardening in the great Sissinghurst tradition. It suits us Brits to the ground. It gives us strong architectural bones, a good matrix of sensible, reasonable lawns and paths and walls, around which we can indulge our obsession with growing hundreds of different kinds of plants. The strength of the structure makes up for the diversity and fussiness of the planting, and the combination works a treat. It's a foolproof recipe. We love it. And the world loves to come here to see it, since we have done it so well.
The down side is that it gave a whole generation of gardeners the idea that you had to know about plants before you could begin to garden seriously. To be 'a plantsman' was everything.
In reality, plants are only half the business of garden making. Space making - design - is the rest. The miracle of the makeovers is that they have suddenly made people realize they are allowed to think about designing their gardens without knowing all about plants first.
Imaginations have been freed. And suddenly, as a consequence, modernism is popular at last. Hasn't this got to be right? Doesn't it make sense to design our gardens in the idiom of our times, and not an Arts and Crafts idiom which began in the late 19th century? Say what you like about the quality of telly garden makeovers, they have been a liberation.
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