It’s been a long, cold, grey January
It’s been a long, cold, grey January but there are a few signs of awakening: even my late garden has snowdrops in flower and the little iris reticulata bulbs that I planted in December are opening..
While it is so cold here, I have been thinking of gardens I have visited in warmer climes. I have always intended to take a garden holiday somewhere in Europe where a knowledgeable guide can talk about a number of lovely gardens in a particular country. I have yet to fit that holiday into my schedule and I suspect that, once I start, Europe will swiftly be followed by North and South America, Japan and China.
Instead, I have been lucky enough to visit gardens in passing and I am left with images of light and colour; impressions of styles and plantings that might not suit either our century or our climate but that have lasted This is a very personal and partial recollection of gardens that have made me stop in my tracks and look in awe.
For many years I was a member of the Hampton Court Palace Florilegium Society and we were fortunate to have access to the back rooms of the palace and to have a painting room high up in what I came to regard as ‘my palace’. Gazing down over The Privy Garden, I was always reminded of my first view of the gardens of Versailles looking from the central window of the Hall of Mirrors down the Grande Perspective.
Even as a student with very little interest in their design, the gardens laid out by Le Notre in 1661 made a lasting impression. Their formality, to say nothing of the extremely high maintenance required by the design, means they are not gardens for our times but their sweep and symmetrical perfection as they lead the eye far down into the distant landscape must be admired as a perfect whole as well as mesmerising in each exquisite detail.
The Alhambra Gardens are part of the Generalife surrounding the Alhambra Palace. I went there first in my early 20’s and my third visit was six years ago. I cannot recommend too highly going at the beginning or end of the day when most of the visitors have left and the sound of water and the scent of flowering plants can play on the senses. Arab and Moghul gardens are the representation of the longing for paradise, full of sensual pleasures. I have found the same enchantment in gardens in Rajasthan. Water is a vital element giving both gentle sound and a sense of coolness. In Moghul gardens, so I was told, rose water was trickled through the chick-blinds giving scent, shade and sound – such decadent pleasure! Each of the garden rooms in the Alhambra has a different water feature and the sound and shadows change as you walk through. This is a garden of the senses for strolling through at dawn or dusk.
Singapore Botanical Gardens
I lived and worked in Singapore for six years and it fully justifies its reputation as ‘The Garden City’. The humid, tropical atmosphere gives plants the perfect environment for strong, lush growth and, despite extensive development, the island nation still gives visitors the impression of a green city.
Singapore is justly proud of and famous for its Gardens by the Bay and the astonishing things it has achieved at elevation but I wanted to mention the original Singapore Botanic Gardens along Holland Road, established over 150 years ago. The gardens are near where I lived and my flatmate and I would often walk there at the weekend. There were so many areas to explore but I always drifted towards the orchid garden, now expanded and renamed the ‘National Orchid Garden’, which showcases thousands of orchids in their natural habitat – a completely different environment from the orchid growers on Bukit Timah who sold cut orchids to display in the flat.
Orchids have always been associated in our minds with the exotic; with corsages worn by elegant women; with a slightly sinister beauty and with rarity but walk through a display of orchids massed together with their range of colours and shapes from sprays of tiny, dancing ‘Golden Showers’ to the stiff, erect stems of the Vanda hybrids (beloved of my mother’s generation) and you can only smile and lose yourself in wonder.
Jardin Majorelle-Yves, YSL in Marrakesh
Le Jardin Secret, designed by Tom Stewart-Smith is high on my list of gardens to visit but there is another wonderful garden in Marrakesh that I visited years ago and that has stayed with me because of its sheer vibrancy. Le Jardin Majorelle-Yves was designed in the 1920s by Jacques Majorelle who enjoyed a reputation as an Orientalist painter. The striking shade of bold cobalt blue used throughout the gardens was inspired by the coloured tiles he had seen around Marrakech and is named bleu Majorelle. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge acquired and restored the garden in the 1980s. I had never before seen a garden where cacti formed a major part of the planting; where pots of plants and a small water feature were set against vibrant walls of terracotta; which assaulted the senses in a way that seemed completely appropriate to the heat and the dust of Morocco, and I loved it!
The gardens of Japan
Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, I paid a much-anticipated visit to Japan some years ago. I have always been drawn to the Japanese aesthetic from the influence the art of Japan had on painters like Matisse and Gauguin to the beauty of a single stem of blossom in a vase and my visits to Japanese Buddhist temples and gardens at cherry blossom season were everything I had wished for – I can’t wait to go again, perhaps in autumn for the falling leaves.
Three of the essential elements used to create Japanese gardens are stone, representing the structure of the landscape; water, the life-giving force; and plants. They avoid artificial material and ornamentation and highlight the natural landscape. Many of the temples contain rock gardens, featuring distinctive larger rock formations arranged amidst a sweep of pebbles raked into linear patterns intended to facilitate meditation. In another location, a tiny vista through an open gateway shows the same attention to detail to create a space for reflection. I am not a person who finds it easy to tether my mind but I found that the tranquillity of the gardens induced a rare contemplative state of mind.
By next month it will be time to turn our minds again to our own gardens and I hope to inspire you with some planting ideas for this year.
Lesley Ann Sandbach
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