John Sales portrait. Copyright Charles Hawes.

A portrait of John Sales by Charles Hawes.

I have just heard that John Sales died in December. This is very sad news to me, but may mean less in America. John was the Head of Gardens for the National Trust for many years, and you can read one of his obituaries here..

What was special for me about John, was not actually his amazing snowdrop collection, growing so enviably in an Iron Age ditch in his garden. Nor how approachable and likeable he was. It was really his sharp, thoughtful and critical thinking about gardens and the horticultural world. So I am offering you a sample of that, from an interview I did with him for thinkingardens (he was a keen subscriber).

John Sales:

Context and concept: maintenance is key to design.

John began by saying that “the term ‘maintenance’ suggests routine, static procedures like dusting. But in a garden every repeated operation has a cumulative effect – even how you cut the lawn, rake paths, mend fences, or repair buildings. Everything you do in a garden contributes to and is design. Design is not just what you draw on paper. Designers start a process: their job is to formulate ideas which contribute to the concept.”

Rightly, and interestingly, John points out that we don’t have an adequate language in gardens. He told us he came across the notion of concept when he was thinking about why some designs don’t work properly. Then he was consulted on a project which had a ‘concept architect’ that the other architects reported to and he realised that design is a way of achieving the concept.

“Everyone has their idea of paradise. They may be bad at achieving it, but it’s there. You can always tell what someone’s garden will be like as you get to know them.

The job of the designer is to draw that concept out of the people, place, history, function and what exists…. There is probably no such thing as a blank slate – even the Olympic Park had a context. A concept shouldn’t be imposed – sadly, some people spend time trying to pursue someone else’s concept. They may buy a ‘designer’s garden’ – for example, Broughton Grange is a real pic and mix garden, with no recognisable or consistent concept. (see also)

Broughton Grange copyright Charles Hawes

In comparison, Biddulph, for example, does have a concept, even if it’s bizarre – to grow all the plants of the world in their context. (link)

But big designers have become the big egos and the result is that you buy them and their style. Still, all you have bought is the starting point.”

Realising a design.

John elaborated the ways in which gardens are a process. He pointed out that whatever we do, we are designing – even when we are getting dressed in the morning. (I love this, and can see how our concept of who we are on any given day, – gardener, garden visitor, party person, desk worker – informs how we put our look together.)

He pointed out too that even Brown (as in Capability) rarely seems to have drawn his own plans. The plans we have of his were actually mostly drawn by other people recording what he had set out on the ground.

“Most of our great gardens were developed piecemeal, on the ground over time. Gardens are processes, constantly changing. What is unique about them is their juxtaposition between life and death, the inert and the dynamic; the interaction between the weather, time and season. And light.

People approach gardens as if they are objects or like interior design, but a garden begins when plants interact. Compare plants in pots indoors – there they aren’t interacting but are contributing as a static element. With gardens it goes deeper because it is a growing thing…..spiritual, creative, art. The joy of a garden is watching things grow and develop.”

Show gardens and Conceptual gardens

“Show gardens are very misleading. They are a good way of exhibiting how effective a designer is at a one off effect, but they are not gardens. Until the plants have interacted with one another and the other elements what you have is an installation. Some simulate gardens and they are very skilled, but it hasn’t got anything to do with gardening. It’s a tableau.

A Chelsea garden copyright Charles Hawes

A Chelsea tableau. Copyright Charles Hawes

Conceptual gardens are a great addition, a new game, but they are not gardens. They are much more like sculptures. Art forms used to be in separate pockets but now they are all meeting, intermingling and have begun to blur.

There are things in common between different art forms: gardens are like choreography, a slow ballet.”


A final quote and summary: “gardens are in fact highly contrived ecosystems which have to be sustained by constant adjustment towards a known ideal.

Anne Wareham and John Sales copyright Charles Hawes

Interviewing the great man. Photo by Charles Hawes.

John Sales wrote Shades of Green: My Life as the National Trust’s Head of Gardens’. Reviewed here.

Shades of Green by John Sales copyright Anne Wareham