When Lee gave me the opportunity to write a guest blog for this site, I initially wanted to write a piece about how we ended up with the tropical themed garden we have how. It’s a frequent question from visitors to the garden. My initial response has tended to be ‘haphazardly and over a number of years’ because that is how it actually came into being. Dawn and I ended up living in North Devon for incredibly dull work-related reasons about 25 years ago. In the two or three years before we moved down to the Wild West we had visited a number of excellent gardens and nurseries including John Vanderplank’s National Collection of Passionflowers and started wondering what exotic plants we could get away with growing in our tiny Midlands garden. We soon found out about bananas, cannas and gingers as well as some of the more addictive class A plants. When we moved halfway across the country, we bought a garden in an area with a much more friendly climate and things could really begin. When we arrived, we were relieved to find that the garden contained a house that we could live in while we played in the garden. And so, gradually and with increasing confidence, we found ways to fit all our favourite plants in a design that worked. Over time, and once we started opening for the National Gardens Scheme, through talking to visitors, professional gardeners and watching a lot of television gardeners and podcasts (e.g. http://www.talkingheadspodcast.co.uk/) we realised that not everyone approaches gardening the way that we do. And that is what I have decided to write about today.
Intriguingly we found that other gardeners with predominantly tropical style gardens had ended up with results radically different from ours, while some more cottagey or Mediterranean designs felt a lot more similar. At this point we realised we were looking at it the wrong way. To know what type of gardener someone is, we have to look beyond the families of plants or features they choose to put in their gardens and examine how they go about the actual process of gardening.
Descriptions such as ‘cottage’, ‘tropical’ or ‘formal’ simply describe the contents. These are just the items in the toolbox that are used to create the garden. How these tools are deployed is not only the most fundamental defining factor in your garden but is also the trickiest to get right.
Professional garden designers use mood boards, send their clients to visit gardens and produce plans to narrow down what sort of garden they are going to be happy with. The key seems to lie in the magic trick of producing a garden that they are going to love rather than the garden they thought they wanted at the start of the process. If you are intending to design your own garden then you will need to find a way to achieve this goal by considering carefully what kind of gardener you are because, after all, you don’t want to live to regret the considerable outlay involved in making the garden. And you will need to do this before you even think of the types of plants, the hard landscaping features and all the fancy statuary and artwork you will require in your garden.
What you will need, therefore, is some sort of self-assessment tool which will guide you in choosing the type of garden that will make happy. Fortunately, the exhaustive and grueling research I have undertaken through the hours I have spent visiting gardens, talking to people and watching television, has led me to narrow all possible gardener types down to just 4. No one will fit exclusively into one type, but pretty much all gardeners will have a dominant type. You might even find (as we do) that different parts of your garden exhibit different aspects of your overall garden type.
I have laid out below all four types with descriptions and, for those of you who like data to analyse, a good way of scoring this is to assign 20 points between the four groups. You could even construct a chart to plot your position. Have a go and see how you get on:
The Show Garden Gardener
What are you like? You have a very clear idea of how you want the garden laid out. You see examples and want to install them in your own garden. Your method involves planning and sketching the garden then researching to find out what plants might fit with the scheme. The design comes first, and plants are chosen by height, colour or habit to fit in. Every year you are quite critical of the performance and you can’t wait to get tinkering and moving plants in the autumn for next year.
How to Spot: These are usually stunning looking gardens, well-groomed and maintained. All plants conform to some kind of pattern or theme even if you can’t immediately see it.
Strengths: Everyone who sees it will want one like it. It exudes horticultural confidence and skill. It is the culmination of all your planning and hard work and is, therefore, a representation of you, at your best, in horticultural form.
Weaknesses Although your garden looks great and other people love it, you are still always hyper-aware of any plants not performing at their best, always comparing it with some kind of Platonic ‘ideal’ garden that you keep in your head. This might somewhat spoil your enjoyment of the garden.
Greatest Fear: You might see a better idea in someone else’s garden and have to start all over again at even greater cost. A weed might appear at the wrong time (e.g. garden opening, visit of a keen gardening relative etc.) and in the wrong place (in your case anywhere you can see it).
Recommendations: Allowing a little chaos in would do no harm, especially if you carefully control where it happens. Take a look at some of the more exciting plants available (if you haven’t already) and try to find room for them in your design. Relax and spend some time sitting and enjoying your garden and what you have achieved. Smell the roses, breathe deeply and allow the future to look after itself, at least until you go back inside and get your notebook out.
What are you like? For you it is plants first every time. You choose plants then design the garden to show them off at their best. Then you see a new plant and can’t resist buying it. When you get home, you have the puzzle of where to put it and you could end up redesigning a whole section of the garden just to display your new plant at its best. When sowing seeds, you plant far too many and then can’t bear to throw any seedlings (or cuttings) away.
How to Spot: A garden with a surprise around every corner. It is full of rare but also impressive plants. The gardener will know them all and will tell you of the half a dozen or so places each has been tried out in before finding its permanent place (for now). These gardeners will often muscle their way onto other gardeners’ websites on the pretext of writing a ‘guest’ blog.
Strengths: Here you find a riot of plants that usually results in a garden that is quirky, impressive and surprising, with hidden gems round each corner. It will be a flexible garden that changes often and is well worth revisiting. It’s somewhere visitors linger for hours drinking tea and eating cake.
Weaknesses: These gardens can become overwhelmed with plants looking for homes. The plant that was the pride and joy when bought in spring could be languishing in obscurity behind a shrub by July. A garden where all plants are divas can be exhausting to look around unless great care has been taken with sympathetic design.
Greatest Fear: That you will end up obsessively collecting plants until you become a glorified stamp collector. Your garden/greenhouse/balcony will fill up too quickly and you won’t find room for the wonderful new plant you’ve just discovered.
Recommendations: Be ruthless with plants, find a friend who is happy to take on excess seedlings and cuttings (and don’t enquire too closely how many end up on their compost heap). Exercise restraint: don’t buy something just because it is different, buy it because it is good. Find some plants you like that are sure-fire reliable performers and build the backbone of your garden round them, giving a sense of permanence to a garden that can otherwise change too quickly, leading to plants and displays being rejected before they reach their full potential.
The Low Maintenance Gardener
What are you like? You like gardening and gardens, but time is limited in your busy life so low(ish) maintenance is the key. The garden has probably been designed professionally or as a favour by a friend and is simple and straightforward to look after.
How to Spot: This will be a very relaxed and welcoming garden with lots of laughter and not at all fussy. The gardener won’t, in many cases, be able to name many of their plants.
An easy garden to maintain. Tropical gardens are well suited to this (see hotel gardens in Madeira for some great examples). You spend time relaxing and socialising in the garden and probably get as much (or even more) enjoyment from it than other types. The other types of gardeners often adopt this approach to parts of their gardens so they can lavish attention where it is most deserved.
Weaknesses: In your own terms none. It’s possible that you feel a bit less ownership of it, and it can unexpectedly get out of hand if not given the light maintenance it needs, requiring you, or a professional gardener, to take it in hand.
Greatest Fear: None really, maybe weeds get out of control, constant mowing, awkward social interaction with employed gardener when it’s been neglected (unless you employ a professional to regularly visit and keep it under control). Maybe also visitors asking you the names of your plants.
Can be seen as an offshoot of type A. You may find that as you grow older you develop a greater interest and have more time to garden. You might find yourself migrating to one of the other groups.
The Stamp Collector
What are you like? This can be seen as the more extreme end of the ‘plantaholic’ group, but without the design element. You want to fill your garden with plants that no one else grows. Your garden can be a bit like a gallery display with individual plants standing out without necessarily interacting with each other. Your plants are painstakingly labelled and catalogued. They were chosen, not necessarily because they are good but because they are rare, or they complete a set. You might need a magnifying glass and a detailed botanical monograph to differentiate between the forms on display.
How to Spot: This kind of gardener will almost certainly own a Brother label maker and lots of oversized labels. Their garden will contain either neat lines of almost identical plants often in pots or a chaotic jumble of the same (I sense the existence of two sub-groups!). They have an almost encyclopaedic recall of plant names and breeders.
Strengths: The depth of knowledge you have about your plants (tempered with total ignorance about those you’re not interested in) creates a fascinating garden for visitors (and you probably won’t even notice their eyes glazing over while you give them the full guided tour). Although I appear to have been unfairly harsh about this type of gardener (partly I suspect because I sense traces of myself here) let us not forget that this group contains a lot of the horticultural heroes who curate our precious national collections.
Weaknesses: Although it might be a well-ordered garden stocked with interesting plants and very attractive to the fellow enthusiast, it can be a bit dry and featureless - lacking in contrast, interest or surprise to those not so interested in plant collections.
Greatest Fears: That Adam Frost might feature the new plant you’ve just acquired on Gardeners’ World and by the end of the month everyone will have one. Visitors might not ask you the names of all your plants.
Recommendations: Lighten up, try to enjoy more plants. If possible, and it might not be, find room for some more varied plants and some structure, even if it’s only a small seating area where you can sit and admire your collections.
So, what have we learned?
Now you know what your dominant gardener type is it should help you develop a garden that speaks to you and fills you with joy. Just some parting thoughts:
1. Just as styles of planting e.g. tropical, Mediterranean, cottage etc. can bleed into each other across a garden, so can the gardener style. For example, our main border expresses oodles of type B loveliness, whereas the named collection of Gingers and Passiflora in the greenhouses lean much more heavily towards type D organisation.
2. If you garden with a partner there may be two competing styles to work out, or you might find that duality in yourself. Styles can change as you move through the garden, or indeed through your life. Many gardeners start as type C, creating low maintenance first gardens before developing, with experience, into other types. Likewise, age and incapacity can drive us back towards type C later in life.
3. No style is morally superior to the others. You will find fun and health (especially mental health) benefits however you approach gardening. One thought we frequently have when visiting gardens that are not our style is ‘This is lovely, but I wouldn’t do it that way!’ I think this is a good, healthy attitude to have
4. I haven’t included ‘non gardeners’ as a type, but they are probably just a variant of type C, but one who presides over a mess instead of a lovely garden and isn’t particularly bothered. Is a non-gardener a type of gardener though? That is the kind of deep philosophical question that I have no intention of getting into.
And finally, many thanks to Lee for putting up with this nonsense (and at some time a blog post actually about the tropical plants might be forthcoming – give me another 6 months!)
You can find our website at www.devonsubtropicalgarden.rocks with information about the garden and plants. It will give you our 2021 garden opening dates as well as contact details. We hope to see some of you next year. I also post with some regularity on Twitter as DevonSubtropical@devsubtropgdn
People who visit the garden seem to like it (unless they are just being kind) – garden people are such a nice bunch, they’d never dream of telling you if they thought your garden (or indeed blog) was rubbish. They’d probably just say something like, ‘That’s interesting, but I wouldn’t have written it that way!’