We design and make gardens for clients. In most cases there is the intention that they will last and give enjoyment for years to come. But how long are our creations likely to last?
Unfortunately, some gardens are relatively short-lived once executed. This is usually because the plant material is badly maintained or is modified at some point to reflect new planting styles as fashions change. Hard landscape features clearly outlast planting, but can also be modified over the years. It is obvious that every garden, like every landscape, has a life cycle, and that through the accumulation of imperceptible change or by drastic intervention will eventually be changed beyond recognition.
Even gardens on the grandest scale, in the seemingly timeless and unchanging landscape tradition of the eighteenth century, created with longevity and a sense of legacy in mind by their aristocratic owners, are subject to the natural processes of growth and decay. The use of long-lived plants in these gardens has enabled them to survive intact for centuries but most were only just beginning to achieve maturity after 100 years, well beyond the life span of most small gardens.
However, writing in the 1960s the landscape architect Sylvia Crowe reflected that the iconic landscape garden at Stowe in Buckinghamshire was, by then, over-mature, with trees in poor condition and the original vision spoiled by Edwardian plantings of conifers which had rapidly grown up to infiltrate the space. Gardening on this scale, with trees taking the place of perennials and shrubs, clearly needs ongoing management over a much longer time-scale than is necessary for domestic gardens, but the need is still there, and if owners and gardeners are to honour the original design and intention they will need to ignore changing fashions in planting for hundreds of years.
Sometimes gardens go into even worse decline, often caused by active erosion of the space – large domestic gardens today are prone to being carved up for development, but consider the case of Claremont in Surrey.
A park of 284 acres in Surrey, Claremont was originally laid out by William Kent and modified by Capability Brown, a setting for an existing house by John Vanbrugh. The creation of these three masters of the emerging landscape garden style, by the start of the Second World War considerable areas of Claremont had been cannibalised and sold in lots to developers. Some of the houses built were large in modern terms and had sizeable gardens of their own that any one of us today would be thrilled to work on, and on the fringes of the park more modest dwellings were raised. Even though some of the key spaces remain, now administered by the National Trust, the remnant is a badly compromised version of the original vision.
Of course there might be many reasons why gardens, and not just the grand sweeps of those such as Claremont, suffer this fate – political, financial, ideological – but it is a reminder for anyone hoping to create gardens that last that with even the best start, a garden has to be extraordinarily lucky to survive.
One way to increase the chances of a design lasting is to design with trees and other long-lived plant material – people agonise far more over the removal of a tree and are likely to be happier grubbing out a perennial planting. If trees are an essential, structural aspect of the design there is perhaps better hope for the garden’s survival. Maybe this should be a guide to the maximum life-span of a design – equal to that of the longest-lived plant!
Another way would be to think in terms of spatial arrangement rather than features –a ground plan that is indispensable to life in the house, providing paths, seating areas and water in the best places for these within the site and in relation to the house has lasting value, even if the surfaces and plants change with fashion and time.
Of course this all begs the question of whether gardens should be expected to survive, or whether they may happily be discarded as fashion changes. This thorny question is probably for another posting, but I think we are lucky to have at least some surviving gardens from every modern era. They are sources of inspiration and a living history of our greatest native art form.