The power of the personal

I know I go on about this, but this latest trip to the States has cemented again that there’s nothing like a loving, hands-on garden owner to take a garden to a whole new level.

I’ve never previously worried about scratching up any historical authority for such statements as above, as I’m a) happy to be judged on my own opinions and b) unafraid of being proven wrong, but since I’ve just stumbled on some today, I may as well add them.  Perhaps they’ll bring a certain weight-of-the-ages to these otherwise flippant musings.  This from Charles Quest-Ritson’s The English Garden – A Social History, picked up second hand on Boston’s beautiful Newbury St.

C Q-R quotes John Rae in the late 17th Century saying that  ‘fair houses are more frequent than fine Gardens’ , the latter requiring ‘more skill in the owner, few gardens being found well furnished out of the hands of an affectionate Florist’ (the term then used for keen plantsmen).

Charles Q-R also quotes Alexander Pope as saying ‘I have long been convinced that neither Acres, nor Wife, nor any publick Professors of Gardening, (any more than any publick Professors of Virtue) are equal to the Private Practisers of it.’  I don’t know what he means by Acres or Wife, but the point is clear, nevertheless.

Which leads me to two stand-out gardens in New England, which stand-out largely due to this one, hard-to-pin-down characteristic of being deeply loved and nurtured by their owners.

The first was Hollister House in Connecticut.  From the minute we walked in we could sense the difference between this and other gardens we’d seen.  It’s always hard to tell what you’re reading when you get such a feeling in a garden, partly, possibly, because it’s a combination of subtleties.  There’s the spontaneous, self-sown thing going on, with Brunnera, ferns and forget-me-not in amongst the paving stones – something institutional gardens almost never allow.  There’s the imperfect laying of the paving stones, which can only exist where there’s small visitor numbers and minimal danger of litigation.  There’s the idiosyncratic and purely fun plant choices and combinations – the sort of stuff that committees or teams don’t achieve because they can’t justify before trying.  Committees and trusts, for all the wonderful work they do, are better at nurturing gravity than levity.  Even the level changes are playful at Hollister House – the walls buckle and fold like origami around the tricky, curving contours.

The fact that we were shown around by the creator, George Schoellkopf, also made a huge difference to our connection with the garden.  Having said that, I’m convinced that he’d be everywhere present and evident, even if physically absent.

Then a couple of days later, the Sakonnet garden, on our way to Newport.  This is the creation of John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli, and again, it just shouts – sings – the personality of its owners.  In this case it’s largely the idiosyncratic design ideas that mark this garden as a private, highly personal one.  I can’t help but conjure the image of a board meeting, and the awkward silence that would follow one of the gardeners stating “I was thinking of using a piece of random elaeagnus topiary to display a collection of old, broken reading glasses  – what do you think?”

Not that this garden’s high point score is won entirely by quirky novelty, by any means.  There’s impossibly high and stunningly constructed dry-stone walls that snake through the garden, long walks veiled with pendulous copper beech, and vertically clipped walls of azaleas to create floral wallpaper.  Amongst all that are great colonies of trillium – seriously covetable carpets of them.  None of these features would exist but for hands-on owners who conceived, gestated, birthed and nurtured each of them into maturity.

Then the thought-stream leads me back to Chanticleer – the great anomaly.  I’ve raved about it elsewhere, and will likely do so again.  You’ve got to wonder how it manages to achieve private-garden personality, while being run by a Foundation.  It must be one of the few gardens, worldwide, that does so.


  1. I know what you mean Michael. I was visiting gardens in Bright with Ross Garden Tours earlier this month and the gardens were such wonderful expressions of their owners’ personalities that I swear if you’d given me access to one of those police illustrators we could have come up with a reasonable likeness, just based on the gardens!

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