I have followed Dan Pearson and his career from being a handsome, alternative television gardener way back, to now, at the age of fifty or so, having become the master of peaceful, thoughtful gardens, respectful of their place and situation with choice species planting as his speciality. In his writing he has honed an almost zen-like long range perspective on how gardens live and evolve side by side with their human carers.
In a very cold and wintry London, I made two small sorties to see his work close up. More than six years ago, I used to enjoy visiting the Garden Museum, and especially, the café, which, managed by several warm and serious women cooks, made great teas, coffees, baking and lunches to enjoy in the tiny graveyard that was tucked away at the back of the old converted church. Since then, the Musuem has undergone a transformation. With no public funding, it has still managed a skilful rehabilitation of the church while Dan Pearson and Christopher Bradley-Hole have brought alive the new Cloister Garden and the entrance/wrap-around garden respectively.
Winter exposes all, and the Garden is not yet a mature planting. But, the bananas and the astonishing new growth on the Melianthus major, the upright spikes of Equisetum, and the cheery red Nandina domestica berries provided much more focus than you would imagine. The underplanting, a lovely mix of Ophiopogon, ferns and not-yet emerged perennials, was only just on the move, but will make a really lush carpet through which the ‘Garden of Treasures’ will appear. I really enjoyed the use of ancient gravestones, set into the planting, often askew, which will allow you to get up quite close and intimate with the planting. They also remind you, as does the presence of the decorated tombs of the two John Tradescants, father and son, probably England’s first botanical collectors, of the vivid past and people of this small parish in Lambeth. Give it all a year or two more, and this little garden will beautifully evoke the Victorian Wardian case that inspired Dan Pearson.
Christopher Bradley-Hole is another designer who seems almost modest in his search for a simple aesthetic which favours harmony and purpose, rather than decoration. I thought his 2013 Chelsea garden was a stand-out, though it seemed unassuming in comparison with some of the richesse on display in other gardens.
He has opened up the entrance of the Garden Museum with sweeping yew hedges which embrace and create a generous curved and gravelled courtyard space, simply opening up the ancient church buildings to their Museum function. Using the existing flat and standing tombstones, he has planted amongst them, using a mix of ferns, perennials and grasses to populate these tiny spaces. This makes little rivers of mixed planting around the stones, bringing them into focus and linking with the use of stones in the Cloister Garden. There is no bling- and a real economy of focus.
The planting towards the boundaries of the Entrance Garden links to the small public space nearby of St Mary’s Gardens, a very tiny smile-shaped area between the Museum and the busy traffic of Lambeth Palace Road. Bright red Cornus stems spear upwards, maybe ‘Midwinter Fire’ but could be the species Sanguinea, surrounded by clumps of tall Hellebores and bulbs, ferns with probably hardy geraniums to come. Simple, semi-shade loving with the tall tree canopy to contend with, and very lovely.