At the beginning of the pandemic and locked down in the isolation that was forced upon us all, I began to post daily moments of that incredible spring on Instagram. It was a counterpoint to the fear we were living with on a daily basis. The reassuring surety of the unfurling season and its life force.
The films were no more than a minute and were made to capture the incremental changes. I’d sit and take in what happened in front of me for a given moment so that the films felt like moving stills. Spring light caught in wood anemones. The sound of the wind in the poplars above and April birdsong. By definition every post was different, because in truth a moment only happens the once. Time slowed and captured.
I felt guilty about sharing these moments to a degree, because we were so very lucky to be locked down in landscape and not within four walls of isolation. But there was such a positive response and a hunger to be part of our fortunate immersion that I continued to communicate the garden and its surroundings. Everyone was yearning for contact and, despite our idyllic lockdown location, we were no different. It was mutually uplifting to share our experience of this place and what is sustaining about the beauty of nature and the activity of gardening.
It was around this time that we got into a conversation (by Zoom, of course) with Create Academy. They wanted to know if I would be interested in creating an online course about naturalistic gardening that would be filmed here at Hillside and which would look at how we have made the garden sit within its setting. I have always enjoyed communicating the process of what it is to garden through the written word, but the opportunity to return to film felt timely. Hillside was moving into its sixth summer in the garden and its tenth in the work we have done in the landscape, so it was ready to share more broadly. The moving image has always felt like the best way to capture a garden or the natural world. Freeze an image in a photograph and the sensual world within it is frozen also.
The team at Create Academy are small and intimately involved with the subject matter they are filming. Between us we developed an informal course outline that used Hillside as the focus for talking about the principles of naturalistic gardening and how I apply them here. It also looked at a complementary project where I have used naturalistic planting as a contrast to formality within a more defined setting. This was The Old Rectory in the Cotswolds. An acre garden with formal bones that I had made almost twenty years ago.
Addressing the principles of naturalistic planting is a huge subject and in the first course we set the scene by illustrating how the context here at Hillside drives all the design choices. How much you impose upon a landscape with a garden and where careful management of the setting can enrich the environment. We looked at how the surrounding meadows, hedgerows and woodland helped drive the decisions within the property boundary and how important it is to really understand your local conditions. By taking time to feel your way, you begin to understand the context and what is the right plant for the right place. I also discussed the blurring of the boundary between the cultivated ground and the landscape beyond as well as the all-important borrowed view.
In the Cotswold garden we looked at how the setting there influenced our decision making. The river that runs along one boundary, the dry stone of the surrounding walls and the formality of the house and its relationship to the church, which drove the layout. I described design solutions such as the garden rooms we created around the buildings, the reveal and change of tempo as you move from one to the other and the mood of each of the spaces. Filming brought a whole new level to revealing how the garden fits into the landscape with drone shots giving a bird’s eye view, showing the ideas on plan borne out from above.
The response to the first course on Naturalistic Garden Design was hearteningly positive. Keen to develop a follow on course the production team contacted subscribers to the first to ask what they would like to learn next. Nearly all of them requested more detail of the process of planting design, as well as the inclusion of a case study of a smaller, more relatable garden. So, for the second course, which was filmed last summer and has just gone live this week, in addition to revisiting Hillside we have looked at two more gardens. A large coastal garden set in an exposed position in Devon and a contrasting terraced London property, with an intimate front and rear garden.
The new course goes deeper into the complexities of planting design. It deals with the scale changes you have to make in your thinking, from the wider context and macro vision (which of course also includes time) right down to the micro decisions. What you see immediately at your feet when you stand and look down. I explain the importance of understanding how your plants cohabit, of layering and planning for seasonal change and the principles of using colour, form and texture in plantings.
To illustrate the process and to take it beyond words and imagery, we filmed the planting of the new pond last May. It was six months since it had been made the previous summer and using it as a focal point in the course reminded me of the BBC series I made about Home Farm in 2000, where the pond was a driving force in the narrative. It allowed us to illustrate ideas through action and show its immediate impact.
The case studies beyond Hillside have allowed me to discuss the importance of understanding the microclimates in a garden. Never more important than in the Devon garden, with its extremes of weather, but just as critical with the London property and its split personality. A bright, south-facing garden to the front and a contrasting garden to the rear in the shadow of the house. The two projects also illustrate what happens to plantings over time. The Devon garden now over a decade old and the London garden just in its second summer. A garden born from the depths of the pandemic, planted in the window after the first lockdown and nurtured into life by our careful clients.
It has been a complete privilege to work with the Creative Academy team. We have learned to trust them entirely in producing beautiful films with excellent content and, in the case of this most recent course, an opportunity to go deeper. That doesn’t happen very often in life, but it is so very good when it does.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Create Academy and Deborah Panes
Published 11 March 2023