I passed a gentleman sat with his wife.
“There’s not much colour” he remarked to her.
I looked up, I looked one way and the other, I looked down. Colour everywhere.
That colour was green.
Green is the most exciting colour to me. It’s the colour of life, at least in the plant world that means so much to me. It’s a colour of rich bounty.
It’s brown that I fear. Sure, some plants are brown in order to appear dead to passing herbivores; it’s a good strategy and serves them well. Other plants are brown because they’ve died of disease, neglect, or even the bad luck that sometimes befalls even the most committed gardeners.
Seeing green in my garden is enormously comforting; it means that all is well.
Yet I’m aware that for others a green garden is as dull as a monochrome photograph. Our modern world is vibrant and colourful, and deviation from this doesn’t sit well with some people.
What better place to celebrate green than at Abbotsbury Subtropical Garden on England’s south coast. This is a very popular garden, and definitely one that I would recommend to anyone looking for late summer gardens to visit.
I admire the fact that Abbotsbury doesn’t slavishly chase visitor numbers; Abbotsbury has its identity and focuses on keeping high standards, rather than becoming a ‘garden theme park’ like some of Britain’s other iconic gardens. Abbotsbury is iconic because it’s comfortable with its identity.
Abbotsbury provides a tranquil environment to enjoy rather than trying hard to be entertaining or [please no!] ‘trendy’. This is a place to be among the plants. It’s a very intimate garden, thanks to a high canopy of trees and narrow winding paths that make their way through exuberant planting. The plant collection here is quite exciting, even for someone who lives in an area of rich horticulture. This is partly down to the very benevolent climate of this part of the UK, but also pays testament to the adventurous approach of the gardeners.
Some gardens want to dazzle you and show you how good they are, begging for your approval; Abbotsbury just wants you to relax and enjoy yourself.
Abbotsbury is a masterclass in being confident using green.
The skilful use of shape and texture here is about as good as it gets. ‘Exotic gardens’ are often encountered as elements of larger gardens, along with ‘rose gardens’, ‘edible gardens’ and other themed areas, so to have a whole garden that runs with one idea is a welcome novelty.
To have this idea executed so well is a delight.
For plant nerds like me there is an extra layer of interest in the collection itself, an interesting and diverse collection of plants from around the world.
The planting in this garden is intricately layered.
There are the big trees, remnants of the old garden that was laid out in the 19th century, with younger trees below. Among the trees there is a shrubby layer, with climbers threading through where appropriate, and herbaceous plants of all sizes and scales found throughout.
I found this layering and attention to detail fascinating; the gardeners have created and nurtured an intimate community of plants, with things growing through, over and under each other as they would in nature.
Plants rarely exhibit themselves neatly in ways that we can all enjoy them; it’s logical that this intricacy of planting would work in a garden that takes its inspiration from that sort of habitat.
Colours (other than green)
The late British ‘exotic gardener’ Will Giles was an advocate for very careful use of colour in the exotic garden. Rather than fill the garden with a mix of colourful plants, focus on building a garden of strong textures and forms in green, then add some very carefully chosen colour. When you look at photographs of jungles you see lots of green, lots of textures, lots of light and shadow, but very little strong colour.
What colours there are tend to be quite strong; if you’re a flower you must stand out against your background if you want to be pollinated!
Avoiding using lots of colour garden can be very challenging, especially when the nurseries tempt us with so many beautiful plants. However where the discipline is followed it can make for a harmonious, yet interesting, garden.
On the move
My friend asked a very interesting question: “how do people just walk around and never stop to look?”
In a garden as complex at Abbotsbury there is no doubt that the contemplative gardener is rewarded; taking time to absorb what you’re looking at means that you enjoy more of the detail of the garden.
However when visitors are used to having plants arranged in such a way that everything is obvious at a glance, they well might miss the fine detail of a garden that is more nuanced in its approach and beauty.
Of course others, like the gentleman quoted at the start of this piece, might simple not like this sort of garden. Some people prefer gardens that are aimed at a different audience, preferring big blocks of colour instead. This is fine; there are plenty of gardens around to cater for different audiences.
The thing I took away from Abbotsbury is the interest of intricate layering. I find the idea of a very three-dimensional garden appealing.
I’ve come to value gardens with personality, and the warm embrace of Abbotsbury is something I treasure.