Horticultural Empathy

The gardens and office glowing as the sun sets.
The gardens and office glowing as the sun sets.

This is the first in an occasional series of columns by Imogen Padfield of Architectural Plants, Nuthurst, just outside Horsham.

Those interested in plants and those who have aspirations for their outdoor space will have some sort of vision which may lead to the fulfilment of these aspirations. This vision may simply be a feeling or vibe that is desired, or it may be something influenced by the media.

Tetrapanax - screaming exotica.

Tetrapanax - screaming exotica.

Within our homes we buy paintings to adorn the walls, and items of furniture. We can move these around and none require any particular attention. Plants will adorn our gardens and please us aesthetically – but only if we acknowledge one fundamental fact: they are alive.

This can be somewhat inconvenient – the desire is to have a green space in which to entertain or look out onto, but it comes at a small cost. Plants need care and attention and this includes watering, clipping and tidying alongside ensuring they don’t have competition from weeds or other plants and that they are planted correctly.

In other words – there’s no off-the-shelf Ikea-style solution that can be installed and forgotten about like the coffee table in the front room. This sounds pretty obvious but in the horticultural industry we are finding that customer expectations don’t always match real-life possibilities.

It’s about education. It’s about instilling in fellow human beings what brings us planty types into horticulture in the first place. It’s about capturing imagination, and bringing the hearts and souls of others with us to the mother ship of horticultural empathy before beaming them back down to create their dreams.

By day, gleaming Eucalyptus and rich textures.

By day, gleaming Eucalyptus and rich textures.

There’s a lot of huff and puff about educating children in the importance of all things green and I’m convinced this is crucial in enlightening the future generations, but for now we need a wake-up call.

It comes to something when a customer is looking to make a purchase and instead they get a mind-meld type experience during which we planty types (not Vulcans) go off the beaten track and into emotional territory. This can include the waving of hands and some risky challenging of perceptions and ideals. It’s a knife-edge moment when you take the ideas and aspirations of the customer and tear them up – this is done carefully but with no apology. It’s done because we owe it to the plants. It’s done because we owe it to those seeking a green space and their aspirations can only be fulfilled if they are fully informed.

When you create a garden you are building a living, breathing beast. If this is created with empathy, it will have a skeleton made up of staple plants such as Phillyrea latifolia, Quercus ilex, Phyllostachys and such-like. If you’re a die-hard fan of all things weird, you’ll try and fit in some oddities like a Pseudopanax crassifolia, or Corokia x virgata. If you’re a fleshy-green foliage lover you’ll no doubt be impressed by Eriobotrya japonica or perhaps a Paulownia tomentosa and for those seeking exotica Trachycarpus fortunei and Tetrapanax papyrifera ‘Rex’ are amongst some of the essentials.

With this skeleton in place the muscle and soft tissue will develop. The creator will select carefully a bevvy of beauties, taking into account hardiness and the suitability of the location. The newly formed beast will come to life: it will grow with the occupier and they will bond. In different ways both will depend on each other for different things and this relationship will be something different for everyone. The garden lives on; it lives with you but if it is to live, it needs something from you – empathy. Your garden needs your recognition of its needs – a watchful eye will inform what is provided, be that water, pruning, tidying or feeding.

More often than not plants fail due to human error – lack of water being one of the main culprits and planting woody specimens too deep being another. This is not to point the finger – we’re humans, sometimes we just don’t get it. Perhaps we all need to look at our gardens as the living and breathing beasts we’ve created before we can feel empathy and achieve what is easily within our grasp. There is intelligent life out there and it means you no harm – work with it.

So what exactly is it that brings us into horticulture? It’s the endless possibilities of plants, it’s the opportunities that plants bring us. It’s their endless ability to surprise us with their beauty and their tenacious effort to perform – to live and meet their potential. To say it’s the miracle of life would be a cliché so instead let me write this: to stand amongst a fine selection of trees, topiary, bamboo and other horticultural treats, and breath in such beauty and life is a profound experience. To know that over twenty years ago, one man had a dream and created this little slice of heaven in the heart of Sussex is not only breath-taking and impressive – it’s actually very moving.