Episode 45 - Show Notes & Advice

episode 45 | show notes & advice

This week’s episode is an interview with Dan Pearson, the inspiring and innovative landscape designer, writer and gardener, who we all know and admire.

Dan has so much to teach us about plant combinations, the plants we should be growing and the relationship between plants and where they are planted. He talks to Sarah about his new online garden design course, what it was like to recreate the Greek Island of Delos at Sissinghurst and also his involvement in the Tokachi Millenium Forest – a garden for 1000 years.

In this episode discover

  • Dan’s naturalistic approach to garden design and how he is teaching this in a new online course with Create Academy.
  • How Dan designed the Delos garden at Sissinghurst to be both forward looking while also respecting the original vision of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.
  • The concepts he followed to create gardens to last 1000 years for the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan.
  • What we should be considering as gardeners – plants to future-proof our gardens and how we can lessen our impact on the world.

episode 45

Naturalistic Garden Design

Dan has a new online course Naturalistic Garden Design with Create Academy that is available now. The course is both practical and philosophical, teaching how to plan and maintain any size of garden. It features beautifully filmed in-depth tutorials designed to show Dan’s approach to garden design, how he tries to feel the sense of place and setting to reveal the best identity of the garden.

Dan has written bestselling gardening books, newspaper columns and writes weekly for his online magazine Dig Delve. He greatly enjoyed returning to the medium of film to create this course, finding it less restrictive than trying to capture images of a garden through photography.

The course was recorded in Dan’s garden at Hillside, Somerset over the summer, allowing the opportunity to see the garden unravel itself and come to life and for Dan to talk about how he approaches a naturalistic garden.

Delos at Sissinghurst

Sarah and Dan move on to discuss the Delos garden at Sissinghurst, newly redesigned by Dan, which opened to the public this summer.

Sarah is connected to Sissinghurst, the garden created by the poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, now managed by the National Trust, through marriage. Her husband, the author Adam Nicolson, is Vita’s grandson. Adam and Sarah lived at Sissinghurst for nine years and have both written books about the garden.

Sarah loves Delos at Sissinghurst especially for the balance it achieves both looking back at Vita and Harold’s original ambitions for the space and also looking forward to the future.

Dan explains how the commission came about through conversations with Troy, the Head Gardener at Sissinghurst. They would walk around the garden brainstorming ideas for how to relax the garden, making it more authentic and in the spirit of Vita and Harold. Whenever they got to the Delos garden they’d agree it felt lost and needed attention. Dan says it felt like a forgotten place, a woodland on the wrong side of the White Garden.

Vita and Harold’s original concept for this garden came from their visit to the Greek Island of Delos in 1935. They were inspired by what happens to ruins when nature takes over and wanted to bring a sense of this back to Sissinghurst, innovative for the time. They created the garden using old ruins from Sissinghurst and local ragstone. They planted Mediterranean plants which promptly struggled on the Kentish clay soil, the north-facing position and exposure to wind.

When Dan began work on this garden in 2019, his starting point was a set of photos from the 1930s. Vita had said Delos wasn’t working but may come right, so Dan knew she had a vision for it to be improved. Key for Dan was finding a way to harvest sunshine. A careful process of pruning trees took place to create light. Then rustic terraces, as if created by shepherds, were designed leading off the East to West walkway which Dan envisioned as a high street. The terraces were filled with a free-draining mix and planted with an entire palette of only Greek and Mediterranean plants.

Sarah loves that the garden feels very future orientated with many drought-tolerant plants, something we all need to be thinking about. In particular the scattering of two types of Dianthus carthusianorum and cruentus that give a light, airy feeling of colour.

The air in the planting, keeping space, was an important part of the planning to evoke the sparse landscape of Greece. Rather than formal pruning, the gardeners Saffron and Helen imagine goats nibbling, pinching things out like they’ve been grazed, to achieve this.  

Dan says Delos was a wonderful opportunity to look at an old established garden in a progressive way. Gardens, in his view, are never static, they keep moving forward if you allow them to, or they get stuck.

Sarah went to Delos at Sissinghurst recently and thinks it’s also a wonderful winter garden – she recommends visiting now. It’s very structural with a good skeleton and still feels almost as magical as it did in June when full of Mediterranean flowers.

Tokachi Millennium Forest          

Another commission Sarah asks Dan about is the Tokachi Millenium Forest in Japan as she attended his inspiring book launch Tokachi Millenium Forest: Pioneering a New Way of Gardening with Nature at the Garden Museum. (A recording of this talk is available to buy on the Garden Museum’s website).

This came about when Japanese media entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayshi bought 400 hectares of land in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan, with the aim of creating an ecological park to off-set the carbon footprint of his national newspaper business.

In 2000 Dan was asked to work with the landscape designer Fumiaki Takano to create a number of gardens that would be sustainable for 1000 years within the park. One of the gardens created was an ornamental meadow surrounded by mountains, filled with Japanese native perennials from the forest mixed with western plants suited to the terrain (temperatures reach -25 degrees). This was designed to encourage people living in urban cities to come into nature and help them feel grounded within this wild place.

The garden spaces are intended to feel like safe places juxtaposed against the wild nature of the mountains and forest. The Millennium Forest was an opportunity for gardening to tell a story about our place in the world, how we look at landscape now and consider its value to the future.

Japanese concepts of landscape

Dan incorporated Japanese concepts of gardening and landscape as a way of communicating with his Japanese audience, planting with western plants in a western style but using Japanese systems that would feel familiar:

·       Shakkei  – means ‘borrowed scenery’ or ‘borrowed landscape’

·       In Japanese gardening this a technique where distant views are incorporated into the garden setting and become part of the design. For Dan, by borrowing a view, you can allow your mind to travel beyond the boundaries of the garden, giving a sense of connection with the world.

·       Satoyama – a term that means the area between mountain foothills and arable flat land. Sato means village, and yama means hill or mountain. As a concept, it has several definitions and is an applied system of land management where you only take as much from the land as you need, cultivating land closest to buildings more intensively while always considering your impact on the land.

Sarah asks Dan to share lessons we could learn from these concepts. Gardening with a lighter touch, more intensely closer to buildings then allowing the garden to be itself further away from your controlled land is reflective of Satoyama. We can adopt systems that are mindful of the other creatures we share our space with, not clearing leaves, leaving perennials to die back and waiting to the last minute before clearing, offering a rewarding and more sustainable approach.


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