An interview with Graham Cousins
This is the second half of an interview with Graham Cousins that took place in the summer of 2011 in a wild garden in Provence during a family vacation.
|Platycodon Grandiflorum the balloon flower in late August|
Q: What are some of the recent changes in the garden?
A: Around the house I’ve had all the paving relaid to a higher standard. In the front, the garden was changed from a box parterre to a grid of five standard trees and a shape of cobbles and gravel inspired by an art deco shawl from the 1920s. Behind the house, I’ve replaced shrubs and pruned some of the plants to improve their shape and to cast shadows onto the walls. I am fascinated by how the Chinese make use of shadows by casting them on walls from shrubs, as a sort of art form in itself.
Behind the house, there’s an area we call the Green Wood, which incorporated a greenhouse and a chicken run. They are both gone, and the whole area is now integrated into one picture. And the ground now undulates and is covered with woodchip. Green, well-shaped shrubs come out from the background. We took out the shale path. All of this will make it a bit easier to maintain. I’ve worked hard to prune the most beautiful old tree we have, which somebody told me was probably about 200 years old, until I feel it’s like a living piece of sculpture.
|Two hundred year old apple tree|
|The front courtyard in early autumn|
At the end of the avenue, or the main axis from the house to Gilmorton Church, we’ve cleared the bottoms of the two sentinel fastigiate poplar trees. We’ve cleared the lower parts of the trunks of side branches. So now the picture of the landscape is framed by two verticals and then hedges coming down asymmetrically: the picture is of a curvy edge and then these two great verticals in the middle.
Next to that is a hedge which sweeps down to a very low level, from about eight or nine feet high at one end to two or three feet at the other. It forms a semicircle about 10 yards long. On the other side, the hedge forms a great sort of organic shape.
And behind this semicircle of hornbeam hedge is a small cornfield meadow, filled at the moment with summer flowers, cornflowers, poppies, and such things. Very ephemeral, but because it’s all enclosed by green, it looks like a jewel box in the middle of all the green.
Around the corner, there is a tiny perennial meadow there with grasses in it. I’ve reshaped a series of box balls into various organic shapes. Behind that, I’ve trimmed the bottom of the laurels to show their interesting trunks. The shape of the box in front of them is concave; the shape of those above is convex. So those are two layers. And then the third layer is trees in their natural shape.
The rose garden has been replaced with large, interesting shrubs and herbaceous plants. The overriding effect by this time of year is of green foliage: interesting, beautiful green foliage and a few dots of red, some single roses. A lot of greenery and then a few brilliant dots. This is very much inspired by Geoffrey Bawa’s description of his own garden in Sri Lanka.
Q: Over the years, there have been a few sculptures in the garden.
A: The most important elements are my brother’s carvings, of which there are a number in the garden, but there are other odds and ends, as well. They were more formal focal points earlier, but now they tend to be things you discover.
Q: So if people like Lutyens and Jekyll were initial inspirations or influences, who were the later ones as you moved to a less formal garden design?
A: The classic gardens of Japan. I have also been very fascinated by the Belgian designer, Jacques Wirtz. I think those would be two of the most important influences.
Q: Have there been very many people that you’ve carried on a dialogue with about the garden or the garden design? Or has it mostly been a kind of internal dialogue?
A: Mostly internal. I have a number of friends that I talk to, of course. Grant Pitches, Ruth Chivers, and you. I talk to my son James about the garden. He is the only one of our four children to have spent a significant part of this childhood in this house. I find he has some really perceptive things to say about the garden. He never liked the garden when he lived in it, but I think he’s come to see how interesting it is.
Q: So on the nuts and bolts side of things, is the garden irrigated?
A: No. We do occasionally water some things, but on the whole, I try to have plants that won’t need to be irrigated. When plants are newly planted, they often need to be watered. But I don’t normally plant plants that need to be watered once they’re established. Most of what you might call structural plantings, like hedges and barriers, are native plants. Hornbeam, yew, this sort of thing. And box. I don’t restrict myself to English native plants, but the most important plants in the ground are native.
Q: Do you have very much machinery? You must have a mower.
A: A mower, yes. Not much machinery. I’ve taken to clipping the hedges by hand. ’If they’re a nice shape, then it’s more interesting to clip a bit. So I do five minutes a day here and there, rather than having one big clip as I used to with a power tool.
Q: Is anyone else helping you?
A: Jenny helps me. We have a friend who comes and washes all the white birch trunks once a year. Very occasionally if there’s something heavy to be done, I might ring James and say, “Could you give me a hand, because I can’t move this by myself?” But mostly Jenny and me.
Q: How did the garden change your personality as you grew older?
A: I don’t know about that. What I do think is that as you grow older, you get more perceptive. You perceive your surroundings better. If I say to people my age, “Look at the beautiful light coming through these oak leaves and the laurel leaves,” they tend to respond to that more than young people. Young people are too busy having sex and all that to be bothered with what color leaves are.
|Sunlight shining through Katsura leaves|
’Although’ I remember as a child being absolutely besotted by the fields and the flowers and the hedgerows and things like that. ’I don’t think gardening has changed my personality. But of course, it teaches you optimism and patience, doesn’t it? Two cardinal virtues. And it does make you more intensely aware of the beauty of natural things.
We haven’t touched on this at all, but one of the fundamental things in gardening is the contrast between the natural and the manmade. There’s no such thing as a straight line in nature, is there? Whereas manmade things are based on geometry, usually. And there’s something very satisfying with the contrast between, for example, the shape of a tree trunk and the straight line of a wall, or a building, or a window frame.
A garden is a kind of three-dimensional sculpture really, isn’t it? Any wishes I have to sculpt are channeled into my tree and shrub pruning, which to me is the most satisfying part of the process of gardening.
I often think when sculptors have a block of marble and they have to start chopping into it, that must be terrifying stuff, mustn’t it? Well, it’s really in a way the same with sculpting trees, particularly, because you have to make decisions about taking branches off. And if you get it wrong, it might be 10 years before that branch ever comes back.
I’ve started doing it to other people’s gardens, as well, now. I’ve become a sort of sculptor for others. But I don’t get paid.
Q: Can you talk about the satisfaction you get from doing this work?
A: If one comes out in the garden in the morning and there it is, all right or nearly all right, that is supremely satisfying. I haven’t mentioned this before, but I’m always happier out of doors. I love it that we’re sitting here under this oak tree in this lovely Provençal garden. I love this garden. It’s really good. It’s ragged and needs a bit of care, but it’s a lovely place. And I’ve discovered that even in the worst winter days in Britain—and they can be pretty grim, gray, wet sort of days— if I put a lot of clothes on and go outside, I immediately feel better. I’m a person who needs to be outdoors.
|Spring meadow flowers, horned violets and welsh poppies|
Graham’s garden is described in a previous post A Garden in Leicestershire. All photographs in this interview were taken in that garden, and are reprinted courtesy of Graham Cousins.