Yesterday to RHS Lecture Halls in London to hear Dan Pearson give a fascinating presentation on his gardening career, focusing on some of the very contrasting gardens he has designed and established.

He started very young and was always, in his words ‘gardening on the edge of nature’ as his family restored a severely neglected old garden surrounding their home –  uncovering, in the process, all kinds of long-lost treasures.  Dan recounted how he learned, at a very young age, to strike a balance with nature which will always have the upper hand.  He began to understand the provenance of various plant species through a family friend who travelled extensively throughout Europe and returned with specimens to plant at home.

Through his own travels (he showed slides of New Zealand), he learned to take a good look at the landscape and the broader setting of a garden and to observe the way that plants occur in nature – often on a very different scale to that which we can achieve in our own gardens – – a slide showed a vast drift of Stipa catching the wind in New Zealand and captured the wave of movement created on a vast scale.  He spoke of the huge amount to be learned from observing plants in areas untouched by man where layers and layers of plants coexist.  From this, ideas flow.

Dan’s involvement with the romantic Italian garden of Torrecchia near Rome lasted for over 10 years helping an Italian couple create their dream garden with the ruins of an 8th century village as the stunning backdrop.  The brief was for cool whites and greens and images followed, including the white Wisteria floribunda ‘Alba’, white penstemons, white plumbago, white mophead hydrangeas and the stunning rambling rose Mme Alfred Carriere running riot up the ruins.

Gardeners Cottage near Henley was on a very different scale and started off as two old walled gardens with the brief being for easy maintenance.  Dan left openings in the walls instead of putting in gates so that one area flowed into the next and the planting certainly flowed.  Erigeron, alcaea, alchemilla, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ (wonderful effect with Vernonicastrum virginum album spiking up through the hydrangea) –  self-seeding everywhere to give quick establishment of new planting,  with perfume and movement and a generally relaxed air.  The second walled garden was planted with fescue grass in order to create a sculpted landscape with a hill and a hollowed-out dip below in which to lie and look up at the stars!  Either side borders of long grass with paths mown through them.  Heaven!

On Hokkaido, the most northern island of Japan, Dan was commissioned to design the Tokachi Millennium Forest to be a sustainable project for the next thousand years with trees as the focal theme.   A vast and beautiful area of former forests which had been plundered for woodpulp, it had subsequently been colonised by native bamboo.  Having repeatedly strimmed this down every year, the native wildflowers including trilliums, cardiocrinum, astilbes, philipendula and rodgersiae  – and trees – were given the light and space to grow with the trees eventually establishing a canopy which prevents the bamboo taking a strong hold again.  Wooden walkways were made through the forest.  A 5-hectare open space was sculped into ridges and grassed over, to echo the shape of the mountains beyond – a beautiful slide of these undulating ridges covered in snow in wintertime.  The snow doesn’t melt until the end of April in this area and therefore, in the Garden which Dan created, there is nothing to see and then very fast growth during May.  The Japanese people love Western plants and Dan used a mix of native plants and western, eg. combing Veronicastrum sibiricum – a native, with North American varieties of astilbe.  Interesting to note that they collect the seedheads of the non-natives before they can scatter and risk being borne into the wild.  The whole show very intense and concentrated into the May-August short flowering period.

Great to see how Dan developed his former London garden which he started in 1997 and left recently for a smallholding in the West Country.  The use of climbers to make a big, annual statement: Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ in the front garden scrambling up the east-facing front of the house, a white wisteria floribunda up the back of the house.   Bamboo hedges in the back garden help to soak up noise from outside (Dan used a black bamboo and stripped the stems to dramatic effect).   Water bowls reflect the skies and right down the end of the garden a special area for experimenting with a whole range of plants collected from all over – to try them out in an informal setting.

Dan took questions from the audience including one about his new smallholding: he told us that he is moving slowly and not yet sure how much he wants to make his presence felt on the space;  he has planted a blossom wood of 400 trees for the bees, an enormous vegetable garden and rows of flowers, like trials, to see what grows best and get ideas of what to use later including a rows of different types of rose and also willows.  Good advice, this, to proceed with caution when taking on a new space/garden……. in my experience, your ideas certainly do keep changing as different influences come and go. Patience is the key and keeping the bigger, long term picture in mind rather than seeking instant effect.

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