Image via Arne Maynard

An Interview with Arne Maynard, Garden Designer Extraordinaire

Arne Maynard is an internationally-renowned garden designer whose forthcoming book, The Gardens of Arne Maynard (Merrell, London, 2015) will be published in the UK, USA and Canada this month. The book, which focuses on twelve of Maynard’s gardens, offers fascinating insights into the evolution of his designs.

On Monday, September 28, Garden Collage will collaborate with the Garden Conservancy to support two talks at The Ebell of Los Angeles (Sept. 28) and The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Fransisco (Oct. 1). Find more details here. There, Maynard will speak about how collaboration with gardeners, plant specialists, and traditional craftspeople– combined with an unwavering passion for plants– enables him to create “gardens that appear to have grown out of their environment, naturally suiting both their owners and locations”. We hope you’ll come out to join us at these events, but for those who can’t make it, check out our interview with Arne, below. 

Image via Arne Maynard

GC: What was your first experience with gardening and garden design? Did you always know this was the field (no pun intended) for you?

AM: One of my earliest memories is of walking behind my grandfather as he weeded his vegetable garden. I spent my whole childhood gardening – it was a welcome escape from sport at school and by about the age of seven I had the job of looking after the school garden. I earned all my pocket money from gardening and mowing lawns, usually working alongside the elderly people I was helping. One lady showed me how her tulips were exactly the colour of the people in the apple-blossom bud in the tree above. That was the very start of my awareness of how to look at the details in gardens.

Gardening was already my greatest interest and I was hungry to know more, so my godmother started taking me to local gardens. The most influential [trip] was to Cranbourne Manor. This was the garden that awoke my passion for garden design; what I learned there has stayed with me. This wonderful old hunting lodge nestled in the Dorset hills, close to the ancient Cranbourne Chase, a royal hunting ground from at least the time of William the Conqueror until the seventeenth century. A thrill ran through me the first time I ever saw the view through the main gate, down the magnificent avenue of mature beech trees that leads to the house. I was bowled over by the beauty and atmosphere.

But despite having grown up gardening, surrounded by plants and gardens, I was pushed into studying architecture– although I never finished the course. I yearned to be outside, and while an appreciation of structure and buildings is essential in garden design, my passion has always been horticulture and plants over architecture. I soon realized that my future lay outside and I gave up architecture to travel before finally settling back in the UK to pursue my love of plants and gardens.

Image via Arne Maynard

GC: What are some “garden trends” that you’ve noticed in the past decade? What are modern clients requesting?

AM: Fashions in gardening, just as they are in clothing, are transient in their very nature. Different plants enjoy their fleeting moment of glory and design ‘fads’ can be short-lived. I believe that, in the end, quality and craftsmanship prevail and plants that prove themselves year after year are those that will remain in your memory for decades to come. My love of roses is enduring. My belief that every garden should have a productive area with fruit and, if possible, vegetables, is one I take to every job. I believe plants can create the main structure in any garden and that a designer need not rely on hard landscaping to create the year-round skeleton.

My clients come to me primarily because they want a garden that sits naturally with their house, whether it is a new house or the rejuvenation of an ancient building. I relish the challenge of designing gardens that seem to have always existed, and that ‘belong’ to their landscape and owners entirely. The starting point of any design is in how its owners plan to use it and, crucially, garden it. Because of where my own passions lie, in a deep-seated love of plants, I design gardens that are intended to be gardened. And this is something my clients understand and appreciate from the very beginning of our relationship and journey.

GC: Tell us about your personal garden.

AM: The house at Allt-y-bela has no absolutely straight lines and no symmetry. It has evolved over time. Originally a medieval cruck-frame farmhouse, it became rather grander when the extraordinary tower was added in the early seventeenth century. When we moved in, restoration work had been done to prevent the house from falling down, but the garden was an utterly-bare canvas. As I began to design, I found it very difficult to edit my ideas; indeed, it is always more difficult to design your own garden than to make one for a client. For this site, I knew I must be disciplined and distill the vast number of things I love, so I began with a list of my favourites: topiary, roses, fruit trees, wild flowers, and kitchen gardens. These were all elements I would include, but above all I needed to be true to the identity of the place. This was not a village house nor a manor house in the Cotswolds; it was a farm.

The natural folds of the landscape roll down to the house and to the stream that winds through the base of the valley. The site had never been properly leveled, and the house would never have had a big formal garden, but would have contained the necessary elements for subsistence: a vegetable garden and an orchard, nut trees for winter foraging and herbs for medicine, cooking, and stewing. However, the tower was undoubtedly built for show, a fact that gave me license to add the formality of clipped topiary and the intricacy of flowers.

Image via Arne Maynard

GC: What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever encountered on a project?

AM: Creating a garden in the Middle East was a huge challenge. The client and I shared a vision for the garden but there was no culture of gardening in that region. Agricultural techniques were known but there were no skilled gardeners available with the refined knowledge and ability to garden our design once it was built. The challenge therefore was to train up a team of gardeners, showing them the techniques they would need and demonstrating at each step how they would ultimately need to maintain the plants and trees. It was a hugely rewarding experience and one which left us all with new skills and career possibilities.

GC: Give us an entre into your book and who might benefit from reading it. How does it enhance or underscore the courses you offer at Allt-y-bela?

AM: In writing this book I wanted to strike a balance between giving readers an insight into my design ethos and a little information about the way in which I go about designing gardens, and showing them what can be possible in any size or shaped garden. I wanted the photographs to inspire readers to consider plants and green structure in their gardens as the most important element in any design, and I also wanted to offer advice and information about some of the plants and design details [that] I have found to be most successful. It is by no means a ‘How To’ book, but it is practical in its essence. I consider myself first and foremost a gardener, so I wanted to show, in every page of the book, that an appreciation of gardens through the seasons is a grounding that will give everyone a solid foundation on which to build a truly beautiful and unique garden.

The garden courses we run at Allt-y-bela take this principle a step further. Through practical demonstrations, garden visits, and collaborations with experienced and specialist horticulturists, we offer people the chance to further their knowledge in a unique garden setting. I hope that this book inspires readers to find out more about their own particular gardening passions, and I hope it enables at least some to appreciate their garden, and the plant choices they make, in a new light.

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