Dan Pearson Lecture @ The Garden Museum

October 2013

I went to hear Dan Pearson speak about his work and turned up at the Garden Museum the other night not knowing what to expect.  As soon as everyone else stopped waffling and left Mr Pearson talk through his series of (really beautifully composed) images, he kept everybody’s attention. 

He spoke of his interest in seeing how plants group and spread and –just occur, really- in nature.  It is interesting but although I’ve an appreciation for the English countryside and have stopped before now to admire a bank of foxgloves, cow parsley, or primroses – the natural place of plants and countryside is something which today, I think, you really have to seek out in order to encounter.  I enjoy looking at the horizon forest on my daily commute, but inspecting the growth patterns of buddlia (which has insinuated itself into the crannies of the railway walls), is as close as I get to the natural world on a daily basis. 

Dan Pearson has actively sought the interesting situations out and showed us Nature’s own compositions as seen by him, in Israel.  Really worth looking at and thinking about this further, as a source of education.  It also explains his design strategies simply too.  He referenced all the greats, notably for me William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Ridley and Lutyens – none of whom I have yet read/encountered.  

Aside from being disarmingly enthusiastic he is very attractive, and a fluent speaker.  Note here that it was nice to have him to look at when the average age of the average audience member must have been 60.  (Why is it so that I’m always the youngest person at garden related events?)  Surely it’s captivating, magical stuff, or as Pearson was to put it, the “Alchemy of growing, tending and watching plants respond”. 

I really liked the idea of plants being free to seed themselves as they like; and the repetition of a variety to link and move the eye, move the landscape, on.  Or to using echoing shapes within the cultivated garden space which are smaller version or ripples in from the context of the land around the garden – the wider landscape being both inside and outside.  (I was consciously trying to use my circles to ripple out from the house’s bay windows… this will develop as the beds and plants mature). 

Another idea which is very poetic and subtle, and yet also, I suppose, extremely obvious and blatant, is that of mimicking what happens in the natural world when there is one great climax for each plant – the crescendos of each Season – such as Pearson’s Thyme lawn colouring up purple, then fading out again.  He said these majestic moments providing dynamism were his inspiration.  But surely this is the case for every gardener who is aware of both the seasons and the nature of plants?  The gardener is the conductor trying to orchestrate fluid colours and interest year-long… Mother Nature’s magic cape into a clever and emotionally provocative design. 

Mr Pearson spoke of the way colour in the garden can alter your mood.  I think this is one of main reasons for gardening – to create a place which is uplifting and causes responses in the people who visit and inhabit it.  This is why yellow and orange can never be mixed in my gardens: the combination encourages me to feel sick!!  Orange and red is good.  Yellow and red is fine.  Yellow and purple or blue also pleasing.  Orange and electric pink and red, all the fire of a hot summer’s night, is wonderful.  I wonder what it is which establishes such preferences and palette choices in us?  Why should I feel such vigorous dislike and soaring delight at the other?  But it is true that this is one of the reasons a garden will always be personal.

Pearson also talked through some wonderful pictures of gardens which he has recently been working on.  Of most interest was Folly Farm which, I gather was authored architecturally by Lutyens and the gardens sculpted and set down by Jekyll.  It is a house of curiously elongated – and unkind person might say distorted – proportions, but its steep cat-slide roofs and pinnacles, balcony etc all seem charming.  As I’m personally currently immersed in 1930’s style, the Arts and Crafts clearly shows the architectural roots of what started to come later, extrapolated from that ‘pure’ aesthetic.  You can admire watered down but nonetheless obvious design motifs even in my humble semi. 

If only I could show you the pictures he showed us!  The painstaking restorations of structure and grounds; and then the redesign, construction… amongst the uplifting, vital, plantings which reconnected so well with the original Jekyll plants and design.  The new scheme as well, just so very lovely and fresh.  Pearson and his team have done a marvellous job and I only hope his private clients will open their gates at least for the Yellow Book Gardens Open Day next year so we can all enjoy it ‘in the flesh.’

A sample of Dan’s writing about his own garden for The Guardian (2010)