It is good, on occasion, to visit a garden which veers towards one extreme of the design continuum – at one end of that balance between structure and planting. All our gardens will have some level of design, organisation or layout – from rigid formality to flowing naturalistism – and will have planting to some degree – minimalist to jungle effect. Most of us will make gardens which are a balance between these extremes. We are inclined to moderation, the average approach, but it is good to look to gardens which contrast with our own and which might make us consider doing things a little differently.
We recently visited Plas Brondanw in Gwynned, North Wales, the home and garden of the architect Clough Williams Ellis (creator of the Italianate village, Portmerion). He inherited the house from his father in 1908, at the age of 25, and set about restoring it and building the gardens bit by bit as the finances of a young man allowed and the garden, as a result, has a homely feeling about it; still shows this sense of being the work of one man, a home-made garden, not a grand garden, not a garden of great money, but a humble garden and one at ease in its surroundings and with the house but it is also clearly the garden of an architect where form, shape and structure are more dominant than the planting.
The garden spaces are formed by substantial yew hedges which enclose garden rooms and form garden vistas. These are well maintained, well clipped, topped with topiary shapes but after a century of growth they have acquired certain relaxed touches here and there so that they are formal without being rigid – the yew “pillars” to the front of the house don’t actually line up with the door but, rather, with one of the windows while, at another approach to the house, one has clearly grown better than its partner and is more substantial and elbows its way into the path giving a slightly off-balance appearance. The paths around the house and garden are of slate – it is an area where slate mining was a major industry – but the paving is not of cut slabs but of informal pieces giving a crazy-paving effect. This is an informally built formal garden – a new category of design! However, the overall effect is of good structure, good bones, good garden shapes and I find this very pleasing.
In my mind I contrasted Plas Brandawn with gardens at the opposite end of the garden design spectrum, gardens where the emphasis is on the planting rather than form. In Ireland, Jimi Blake’s Huntingbrook Garden comes to mind. Its strength is in the fullness and lushness of its planting; in the novelty and ever-changing range of plants to be seen there; in the colour and combination of colours presented but without the framework of strong design – or, one could say, without the impediment or restriction of a confining structure. At Great Dixter, in Kent, we see a garden with wonderful structure – especially the sunken garden designed by that renowned architect and garden designer, Edwin Lutyens – almost overwhelmed by the planting; a lack of constraint and control of the planting obscuring the wonderful design at times to that the gardeners are constantly walking that tightrope to balance design and planting.
We will, most of us, have gardens which are somewhere between the extremes of garden design but it is good to see how others do it and to appreciate the strengths, and weaknesses, of each, to consider them and, perhaps, to take a lesson home and make some adjustments to our own patch!