More thoughts on garden education
Following on from my last post, more thoughts on how we learn stuff. I've lost count of the number of people I have interviewed over the years about their gardens, mostly for magazine articles. First few times I did it, it was quite nerve-wracking, as no-one knew who I was, and sometimes it was quite posh folk, and I couldn't help feeling that they were probably thinking “who is this young whippersnapper?”. This was the period around 1990 btw. Anyway, I usually established credibility pretty early on in an interview, as I knew my plants. There were some difficult moments though, and I actually was thrown out of the odd garden, despite having a magazine feature lined up. I will tell more in the memoirs.
What I actually wanted to say was that the vast majority of the people I have interviewed picked up their love of gardening from a relative, if not a parent, then a granny, an uncle, or a family friend. In most cases they will have picked up knowledge and skills too. In the past most garden knowledge would have been passed down this route, or professionally, from master to apprentice. Enthusiastic amateurs could always pick up more from books and magazines, or from local gardening clubs. Nowadays of course, the knowledge content of books and magazines has dropped considerably, so it is much more difficult to pick up much this way, as noted before.
So where do people turn to? Not the telly obviously, as Gardeners' World and any other TV offering is pretty basic stuff, and has much less practical content than it used to; almost everyone I talk to about the programme complains about it. Garden clubs and societies are one obvious source and must account for their continued popularity. Some of them may be a bit of an excuse for an over 60-s (yikes, I'm 59) get-together (and why not) but every meeting is always built around a speaker. And such gatherings are a great way for the less-experienced to meet the more so.
There was a worry a few years ago that online forums would displace the garden clubs, and to some extent there may well have been some erosion of their position, particularly for more specialist societies. Would be interesting to hear from somebody in the Alpine Garden Society if this is the case. But such fora are probably adding to the ability of people to learn more, and to ask questions and get answers from sources they probably would not have done in pre-internet days (doesn't that sound like a long time ago!).
I have a background in adult education, so this is something that interests me deeply. I used to teach English as a Second Language, firstly to Vietnamese refugees (the boat people), then to every other ethnic minority that ever showed up in Bristol (I'll have to write about this one day, some amazing stories and insights into the lives of others, as well as a sneak preview of Islamic fundamentalism). On our course we were taught that to be effective what people learnt had to be internalised. You can teach someone some information or how to do something and they can go off and do it, but unless they understand why they are doing it, they will be stuck in a dogmatic and repetitive rut, always going through the same procedure, and unable to vary it. This is what old-fashioned 'learning by rote' achieved. However the learner who has understood the underlying rationale for a course of action will be able to make allowances for different circumstances, think of improvements, adapt the procedure for different outcomes etc.
For some years now I have run a very successful workshop, called with my rather mad whimsical sense of humour, 'The Rabbits' Eye View' (serious sub-title: Understanding Long-term Plant Performance). I don't think I have ever written a post about it. Should do soon. Anyway – the whole point of this is to provide information that empowers students to go off and look at plants (often at ground level, hence the rabbit reference), and then make up their own minds about how they will perform in years to come.
What I'm leading up to is to give a bit of a plug for a course I do on MyGardenSchool
which covers much of the material we do on the Rabbit's Eye View course - Planting Design with Perennials. Students are encouraged to go off and take pictures of plants in ways which will help them understand patterns of growth, as well as deal with some basic design issues. Giving people tools as opposed to just saying “this one does such and such and this one blah, blah”. Part of the thinking behind this is that as so many parts of the world develop their own distinct garden cultures, using locally native plants, the traditional garden flora seems increasingly limited. 'New' plants are also of course something of an unknown quantity; everyone may agree some wildling is 'garden-worthy' but there will be so much to learn about it. Having a framework for interpreting its growth habit and lifecycle is vitally useful if we are to use it effectively. The 'Rabbits' workshop is intended to provide a way we can 'read the plant'.
Working with a designer presents other challenges. How do you explain a designer's work so that people can emulate or learn from it? I have for worked with Piet Oudolf for several years on just this. He is, like many artists, not analytical about his work – he just does it. It can be frustratingly difficult to pin down clear concepts about what he does that can be spelled out to others. I've made a pretty good try at it over the years, and worked out how t o do it for books. Last autumn I teamed up with MyGardenSchool to produce some teaching videos with him. All a bit of a leap in the dark, but we got some good footage, and they have been reviewed well by Gardenista
The course is available here – there are assignments, which I comment on. Here again we are up against the learning by rote danger. In the videos Piet shows how he selects plants on the basis of various characteristics based on plant visual structure. As an exercise we ask students to make their own suggestions for plants with these characteristics. That's the first stage. The more imaginative will go off and create some categories of their own.
Yes, you can take up Piet's ideas and use the same plants in the same categories and make some Piet Oudolf-esque plantings. Many of these will be very good, some of them will use the same ingredients but mix them in very different ways – so no-one who knows their Calamagrostis from their Achnatherum could possibly mistake it for the master's work. Most let's face it, will make 'also-rans'. That's not necessarily a bad thing – the world is a better place for having them, let's face it, there are very few innovators, and most of our cultural landscape is made up of copycat also-rans. We do the same thing when we do a Delia Smith recipe (Americans read Martha Stewart). How many of us create a new dish every time we cook?
Anyone following the course in a climate zone where the late-season perennials and grasses that define the Oudolf look do not thrive will be forced to innovate, to find a different range of plants to fit the structure categories we talk about on the course. In many cases they'll have to invent some categories of their own to reflect the aesthetics of the local garden-worthy flora. And this where the internalised learning should really take off – understanding that the Oudolf look is not just about using certain plants or even plants with certain shapes but concentrating on long-season structure, and developing a design language that articulates and uses that structure.
So far on the course, we've had people from all over, and what will be most exciting is seeing what people do with the information in climate zones with completely different ranges of plants.
Finally, check out the Garden Masterclasses I'm helping put on this summer: eight venues across the UK, 20 tutors, 13 events.