Anne Wareham

The emperor’s new weeds

Even a dreadful garden will receive warm praise if you open it to the public – as Sir Roy Strong has proved

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Even a dreadful garden will receive warm praise if you open it to the public – as Sir Roy Strong has proved

There is no garden in Britain so awful that someone won’t describe it as ‘lovely’. Especially if it is associated with a celebrity. I recently listened to Sir Roy Strong on the radio oozing complacency as he discussed his garden at the Laskett and why it should be saved for the nation. He made a virtue out of its disorder: ‘If a giant thistle seeds itself in the middle of the kitchen garden my head gardener just lets it grow there… and people love that.’

Oh no they don’t. If there is one thing most garden visitors can’t cope with, rightly or more possibly wrongly, it’s weeds and untidiness. It’s a narrow line between a ‘relaxed and domestic quality’ and a mess, but most garden visitors fail to get further than the idea that a weed creates a wasteland.

Some of us are more sophisticated and can appreciate that formal might not mean immaculate and that foxgloves seeding themselves around in a rose garden, as Sir Roy describes at the Laskett, are a charming addition (the roses are another question). There is a growing minority of interested people who are beginning seriously to engage with the aesthetics and philosophy of gardens and to visit and discuss gardens with this in mind, rather than simply noticing the weediness.

It was such a group that I took to the Laskett this summer, and we came away angry and disenchanted. Which is the right word, because what people take with them to a garden as talked-up as this — a book, television and radio programmes about it, and with a famous name attached — is just that: enchantment.

Such unreality doesn’t last long with a book or a play. The critics make their  thoughts and feelings known. But gardens are outside this realistic realm. They have romance, charity and cake associated with them and are thus above criticism. The garden media approach them with a breathless reverence that even tends to quiet the anti-weed brigade.

The group I took to the Laskett were not only appalled by the mess; they were savage about the poor design of the place. The garden is flat and full. Wherever you turn there is a new space delineated by hedges: there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in and you wonder if you will ever manage to find a way out. It becomes an interesting question as to whether rather than thinking of this as a romantic garden, with historic and personal references as advertised, it should be seen as a conceptual garden where terror and chaos await you round every corner, heightened by small but inconsequential glimpses of relief.

But this contrast between expectation and reality is not special to the Laskett; it is the norm. Garden openers in the UK are almost universally smug and complacent about their efforts because they are universally praised. Sir Roy Strong can cheerfully tell us that the public love the Laskett and its weeds because, like the emperor and his new clothes, no one will ever tell a garden owner the truth.

Or at least, this used to be the case. Most of the written media’s garden sections describe paradises made by faultless designers and maintained with élan. All gardens are by definition ‘lovely’ and a garden writer’s task is simply to describe what is there, as long as it isn’t the weeds or dereliction, to which a careful blind eye is turned, aided by the flattery of careful and lying garden filming and photography.

However, change is in the wind. One newspaper has practically given up on features about gardens, another has begun to allow a little reality to seep in — perhaps unfortunately, in that when there is just a very occasional realistic feature it looks as if the garden described is exceptionally awful, rather than par for the course.

And the social media are discussing gardens. True, the notion that people have different preferences and ‘tastes’ so that it is impossible to differentiate good from bad or even bloody awful undermines objectivity. People who quite happily would tell you that a book was boring, a restaurant meal vile or a film execrable, will carefully tell you that a garden was not to their taste, but that ‘everyone’s taste is different’. We have no language or experience of garden criticism, so the enchantment lingers, casting a rosy glow over the worst patches. But people are just beginning to say ‘I liked’ and ‘I didn’t like’. And strangely I often find when someone praises a garden to me on Twitter, that if I query that assessment, a dramatically different opinion emerges, with, of course, the inevitable ‘everyone’s taste is …’ or ‘they are entitled to do what they want in their own garden but …’ The seeds of change are sprouting.