One of the glorious benefits of social media today is getting to meet tremendous gardeners from all over the world. I got the chance to catch up with Nick Baker, a fabulous gardener from the United Kingdom. Nick shares some his inspired garden art and decor ideas on his website NewGardenStyle.com and through Twitter @newgardenstyle.
Dave: How did you discover gardening Nick?
Nick: I am incredibly fortunate. My parents owned a retirement home in Southern England, which cared for around thirty residents. The home had established classical gardens, and I was lucky enough to grow up there. The grounds were over an acre and had a great collection of specimen trees, plants and shrubs. All the specimens were labelled, so over time I got to learn all of their names.
My brother and I had an idyllic childhood there – playing games, climbing trees, all that great boy stuff! Naturally the residents enjoyed the gardens too, at their slower pace of life. It felt like one big, happy family. My father has a great knowledge of horticulture, which was passed down father to son. Sadly, this type of knowledge transfer is in decline nowadays. We also employed a gardener whom I eventually took over from in my teens, and worked the grounds until I left home in my early twenties for university. I learnt a great deal about gardening during those years, but what has kept with me the most is that gardens should be shared to be enjoyed. I see gardens first and foremost as social spaces for family and friends.
Dave: In your mind, what was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome as a gardener?
Nick: That obstacle would be the mind-set that people have about their flower gardens. For me, not only should gardens be seen primarily as social spaces, they should also be enjoyed all year round. Many people, especially here in the UK, believe that gardens can only be enjoyed when the sun is out during the summer months. But with some planning and a little determination it’s certainly possible to have a year – round garden. Not only in terms of horticulture, but how you want to live your home-life. We need a mind-set that views thegarden as another ‘room’ in the house.
Dave: Describe the circumstances that led to this challenge
Nick: Perceptions about how to use the garden are slowly changing, which I picked up on and now seek to cater for with New Garden Style. Two years ago, there was a big trend in what is generically termed ‘outdoor living’ or ‘outdoor living rooms’. Gardening purists have derided this trend as a cynical attempt by retailers to create a new market and sell more garden leisure products. But that ignores wider changes in the needs and wants of the home owning population. For example, generations X and Y now view their gardens chiefly as a place to entertain, and need designs and products to cater for that need. There has also been a general decline in horticultural skills, with homeowners reluctant to take the time needed to practice and hone their skills. This has also encouraged homeowners to seek alternative uses for their gardens other than horticulture.
Dave: How have you overcome it?
Nick: Whilst I promote my philosophy of gardens as social and year round spaces via New Garden Style, the business was created in response to the changing trends in gardening I have outlined. Gardeners are coming round to the doctrine I promote. If you look at statistics from the UK garden leisure industry, the star performers this year have been pizza ovens and premium garden grills. This indicates increased use of the garden as a social space. I also hope that if you are going to spend $1,000 plus on a grill or oven, you will be using it year round. The thought of folks cooking pizza and enjoying their space in January makes me happy!
Dave: What were your lessons that you discovered from it?
Nick: I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the effect these changing trends are having on garden design. In particular, the rise of functionalism, which dictates that a garden should be fit for the purpose that it is intended for. In its purest form, functionalism demands that all design features that do not have a clear purpose are eliminated, including unnecessary planting. I certainly agree that a garden should be designed around the owner’s intended use, and if that means as a social space then that’s great. But on the flip side I’m also saddened by the general decline in interest in horticulture. For me it’s all about balance; your space should certainly work for the demands you wish to put on it but there should also be room for horticulture. You need to consider wildlife and the wider environment. Here in the UK we have a great horticultural tradition, and I’d very much like to see that continue.
Dave: What do you love most about gardening?
Nick: Certainly the social aspect, but I think that gardens and nature can enhance any activity. I love sitting with friends around a fire pit and enjoying a couple of beers, but I also enjoy pulling out weeds on my own. I feel that gardens intensify emotional experience, whether that’s raucous fun and laughter or quiet contemplation. There’s just so much less distraction in the garden then there is inside the home, so you can really focus on what you are doing and feeling.
Dave: How has your life changed because of gardening?
Nick: Well I certainly spend more time outdoors than the average person, which can only be good for both physical and mental wellbeing. I’m also environmentally aware as a result of my passion for gardening, though this can be both a blessing and a curse. I also feel connected to that long tradition of gardening in the UK that I mentioned earlier, which gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
Dave: What is your garden like today?
Nick: We moved into our new home last year. Our garden is roughly half the size of a football field, west facing, and has stunning views of the South Downs National Park. The house had been neglected and left in a state of general disrepair, so we’ve been bringing everything up to spec. The garden was completely overgrown – you couldn’t even see the amazing views! The owner’s son had also been burning lots of junk; we found pieces of car tire and all sorts. We have restored the lawn, which has responded well, and basically got the garden functioning as a space again. We are going to extend the house next year, which will take a small bite out of the garden. Until the extension is built we can’t fully plan out the garden, though we have a good idea of want we want out there. I’ve spent the last 10 years living in a city apartment with a small terrace, so it’s great to have a proper garden again.
Dave: What would you love to experiment with next year?
Nick: Our garden really needs a focal point, so I’m looking forward to adding a stunning piece of garden art. The house is raised above the garden by one meter, to capitalize on the views. The only problem (and it’s a nice one to have) is that the eye overlooks the garden and is immediately drawn into the distance, about 10 miles or so. By adding a stunning sculpture, in the middle of the square shaped lawn, I hope to draw the eye back as it’s a vast space we overlook. I think such a piece will provide a link between the garden and the parkland. Connect everything together, so to say. Getting the balance right will be a challenge, but one that I will relish.
Dave: If you were only allowed to grow 1 thing next year, what would you grow and why?
Nick: The garden is very open to the elements, so anything with height will get flattened by the wind. There are no trees in the area except for hawthorn, which is very hardy. This is a new gardening environment for me, so I’m looking forward to selecting suitable hardy plants and shrubs.
Dave: What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
Nick: I know that it’s a cliché as old as the hills, but ‘less is almost always more’. Quite often I see gardens that are overcomplicated and hit you with a full-on assault of the senses. Yes, some people love that effect but for me it can be a little over-powering. This is particularly relevant in the UK where gardens are generally getting smaller, and there’s a temptation to stuff every last inch full of plants and shrubs from a wide range of species.
Dave: If you had just 2 websites to share with a beginner, what would they be?
Nick: Definitely the BBC’s gardening resources http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/. It’s the BBC, so you know that the contributors are going to be first rate. There are some great guides for beginners, and plenty of resources for the more experienced too.
Not necessarily for beginners, but if you are a young gardener seeking inspiration visit The Garden Edit http://thegardenedit.com/. Here you will find a great mix of contemporary garden photography, journal posts and a remarkable collection of tools and accessories. Gardening for the Instagram generation.
Dave: What’s the best gardening book you can suggest?
Nick: “Garden Ornament: Five Hundred Years of Nature, Art & Artifice” by George Plumptre. This book examines the history of ornamental features in Western gardens, and discusses principles that can still be applied today. Not only is this book highly relevant to what I do with New Garden Style, but also a great example of English eccentricity!
Dave: What’s the most hilarious mistake you’ve ever made in your garden?
Nick: Oh I’ve made many – cutting through an electrical cable is something I’ve done on more than one occasion! To do this day I can pick the wrong plants for the environment – last year I planted some spring bulbs in our garden just to watch them get flattened by the wind as they were too exposed. It’s a shame that too many young gardeners pick a plant, locate it in the wrong place, watch it die and give up on gardening altogether. Making mistakes is part and parcel of being a gardener.
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