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    THE CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT OF HISTORIC FLOWER GARDENS OF THETWENTIETH CENTURYAuthor(s): JOHN SALESSource: Garden History, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 2009), pp. 218-225Published by: The Garden History SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 04/08/2013 12:31

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    Gardens have been and remain one of the greatest cultural and artistic contributions of the British to Western civilization. The widespread and

    sophisticated appreciation of gardens, especially flower gardens of the twentieth century, is demonstrated by the millions of visitors who pay to see those open to the public. However, because

    they are composed of both fixed architectural and

    changing biological elements and are subject to the

    vagaries of site, climate, pathogens and accidents, their conservation is often misunderstood. The

    principles governing the conservation of the built elements of historic gardens are bound to follow those of historic buildings. They are widely understood but clearly have limited application where living plants are concerned. This paper discusses the principles, strategies and practices involved in the management of historic flower gardens and proposes guidelines for their effective long-term conservation.

    Gardens (and landscape parks) are places arranged and managed for production, effect and

    enjoyment incorporating site, land form, plants, animals, artefacts and water. Conservation is defined by English Heritage as:

    the process of managing change to a

    significant place in its setting in ways that will best sustain its heritage values,

    while recognising opportunities to reveal or reinforce those values for present and future generations.1

    While a garden that is being managed consistently with skill, foresight, imagination and artistry is easily recognizable, it is less easy to analyse

    what makes it unique and how it may continue to relate to the place and its former owners, i.e. its heritage values. In recent years a number of historic flower gardens have been restored or recreated using available evidence from the past, experience demonstrating that every garden needs constant care and a long-term plan if it is to survive. Each of them demands clear principles and strategies for their conservation, based upon an analysis of their special significance and

    heritage value.


    A sound approach has been to examine best

    practice and to draw out principles and

    strategies learned through the experience of

    expert practitioners who have been recognizably successful in conserving and managing significant flower gardens that have enjoyed continuity in

    upkeep and development since they were first made. It has been said that every flower garden dies with its creator and that any attempt at retaining the qualities of the original and continuing to

    garden in a similar style is futile. But clearly most

    people consider the attempt worthwhile and it is undeniable that gardens such as Sissinghurst

    Castle where the essence of the originator's creation is perpetuated have continued to have as

    great, if not greater, influence since the owners' death than before (Figure 1). They also continue to provide a huge amount of interest, inspiration and enjoyment for millions of visitors.

    The aim, therefore, has been to formulate, for important twentieth-century flower gardens, principles and strategies that ensure that each

    garden retains its significance in relation to its

    history, the distinctiveness of the place, and the values and gardening style of the person(s) for whom it was created, i.e. the qualities that made the garden worthy of preservation. In order to do

    this, these principles and strategies need to allow and encourage the highest standards of creative flower gardening, i.e. the vitality that is essential to flower gardens at their best.


    Almost all flower gardens consist of a semi

    permanent structure of land form, buildings, water, and so on, often incorporating pre existing elements, together with a community of plants arranged and sustained for effect and

    involving all the senses. Constant change and

    development -

    short-, medium- and long-term - is therefore fundamental to gardens and most marked in flower gardens because of the diversity and dynamism of their plants. Within their

    semi-permanent structure they change quickly because each consists of a unique community of

    interdependent life cycles - a specially contrived,

    man-made ecosystem. Managing this constant

    change with an ideal in mind is the essence of flower gardening.

    In many ways flower gardens have a life of their own through their plants interacting with

    site, climate, diseases, pests and accidents, and

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    Figure 1. Sissinghurst Castle, Kent: The Cottage Garden. Over more than forty years since Vita Sackville-West died, each element of the garden has been consistently cultivated, reworked, and enriched, in

    pursuit of a separate artistic, historic and horticultural ideal, as part of a coherent vision for the whole garden. All photos: author

    with one another. But change and renewal have also to be consistently anticipated, provoked, manipulated and controlled by gardeners. It is the nature, degree and intensity of this necessarily constant intervention, including the special skills and techniques of the place, that constitutes a

    particular garden style. Furthermore, it is the cumulative impact of a series of actions, decisions and judgements, large and small, that constitute the artistry of flower gardening. Although an

    ephemeral art form, flower gardening at its best is

    analogous with the work of artist craftsmen, like

    potters and silversmiths, as well as comparable in some ways to the performing arts such as music and dramatic art.

    Arguably the vital thing about flower

    gardens is that although the design and quality of the structure and setting may be important, it is the plants that determine the outcome and the value of the garden

    - their selection, arrangement, cultivation, renewal, continuity of display and so on. The management of these elements is what

    distinguishes the great from the ordinary and the

    inspiring from the predictable.


    Significant historic flower gardens of the twentieth

    century have been created and developed in a

    variety of ways affecting their conservation.

    Firstly, they may have been designed on paper and planted anew according to a preconceived concept, e.g. Hestercombe (Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens), Barrington Court (Jekyll and Messrs Forbes and Tate, architects for Colonel

    Lyle), and Castle Drogo (George Dillistone and

    Lutyens) (Plate X). Secondly, they may have been

    superimposed, often piecemeal and without a

    preconceived plan, over the structure of a pre existing historic garden layout, usually retaining elements of the older planting such as at Powis

    Castle, Knightshayes Court, and Great Dixter

    (Figure 2 and Plate XI). Thirdly, they may have been created over a lifetime, piecemeal where there was no garden, without a preconceived

    master plan, according to the owners' developing concept and resources as at Sissinghurst and

    Hidcote (Figure 3). Fourthly, they may remain as private gardens in the hands of the family that created them, usually developing gradually

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  • 220 GARDEN HISTORY 37:2

    Figure 2. Great Dixter, East Sussex: within and around Sir Edwin Lutyens's formal structure~of enclosed spaces and terraces, the garden has been continually developed over the past forty years or so by Christopher Lloyd as a series of

    extemporary changes, inevitably becoming the consummate

    expression of his artistic and horticultural ideals. Although Fergus Garrett is the supreme exponent of this style, continuity is a great challenge

    through a series of extemporary changes, continuing to be conserved and renewed in a similar tradition as at Kiftsgate, Sezincote, and

    Sleightholmdale (Figure 4). Whatever their origin, flower gardens of

    the twentieth century were made according to the wishes of a single individual or more often two or even three working closely together. Any attempt at retaining the distinctiveness of such

    gardens depends very largely on understanding the character of the garden's creator(s)

    - their

    philosophy, taste, motives, interests, gardening style, prejudices, constraints, ideas; together with the people who may have been a strong influence on them, such as Norah Lindsay at Hidcote or

    Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter. A flower garden that remains within the ownership of the person or the family that made and developed it over a

    period is on the whole more likely to retain its distinctiveness because those who inherit the

    garden, while adapting it to their needs, taste and

    resources, are likely to understand the gardening

    style of their predecessors.2 And, regardless of their origins, all gardens will have continued to

    develop and respond to changing circumstances - financial, access, ownership, function

    - and to

    adapt to maturity, climate, staffing and methods of upkeep. The aim should be to minimize the

    impact of these often cyclical changes on the

    significant qualities of the place.


    Because of inevitable development and change, whatever its origins the only practicable way of

    guiding a garden's long-term conservation is by reference to a clear philosophy for it as a whole and a well-described ideal for each part. It is

    unlikely that these ideals, even if consistently pursued, would ever be completely met, but they should remain as aspirations and a framework to guide present and future decision-making and


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    Figure 3. Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire: created over thirty years from 1907 by Lawrence

    Johnston with help from Norah Lindsay, The National Trust acquired the garden in 1948

    following war-time decline, and had to learn about conserving historic flower gardens. The

    garden's renewal after 1955 has followed this steep learning curve, much helped in recent years by new funding, undreamed of even twenty years ago. Nevertheless, over sixty years the garden has consistently provided inspiration and a high standard by which subsequent endeavours in

    garden and plant conservation could be compared

    Where original planting plans exist they will provide a valuable reference for adjustment, reworking and renewal, but gardens cannot be preserved to a fixed blueprint. Instead, the

    plans need to be carefully analyzed to establish the full aesthetic, horticultural and design intentions of each border or area, including such elements as period of display, colour scheme, fragrance, textural effects, balance of evergreens to deciduous, plant associations and seasonal

    infilling. In this way the perceived ideal for each area would be established. Beginning by planting as near as possible to the original scheme, the border would then follow an extended period of

    cyclical development -

    adjustment, enrichment and renewal - in pursuit of the perceived ideal before total renovation and a return to the

    original plan. In this way the historical integrity of the garden and its links with the designer and former owner would be protected while the

    gardener would be free to practise the highest standards of flower gardening.

    Where there had been no original formal

    plan, or the original plan had disappeared, the

    process should nevertheless be similar. From all available evidence, including recent practice, an ideal should be established for each border or

    area, setting out in detail the style of upkeep and the overall effect to be sought. This character

    description should set out the horticultural and aesthetic intention and the special qualities of

    each area in sophisticated detail and would seek to promote constant development to this end rather than to inhibit change. It is the nature of

    change that matters not change itself. The best flower gardens do not consist of a series of static

    tableaux, like flower show gardens, but rather a unified design of original and imaginative plant combinations, each a different dynamic process.

    To retain this desirable freshness and

    dynamism, flower borders require upkeep, adjustment and reworking at appropriate intervals

    arising from critical observation and horticultural

    necessity. It goes without saying that conservation includes frequent detailed upkeep to deal with

    daily and weekly development and the annual cultural requirements of plants. However, every repeated task has a cumulative effect as well as an immediate impact. Taking each area in turn, cyclical reworking and renewal are also essential to keep the garden lively and interesting, and to retain a balance of freshness and maturity.

    In flower gardening change should always be reversible except where plants have become unavailable or impossible to replace because of the effect of ineradicable diseases, or pests, or climate change. Change should be recorded in an

    appropriate way and at appropriate intervals to

    provide a visual record and a running catalogue of

    plant content and arrangement. However valuable it is, realistically this process is expensive and detailed recording should not be at the expense

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  • 222 GARDEN HISTORY 37:2

    Figure 4. Kiftsgate Court, Gloucestershire: given an enlightened and informed approach and sufficient resources, nothing is better than a flower garden being conserved as a going concern

    by subsequent generations of the family that made it, following their inherited attitudes and traditi...


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