The Garden Museum director tells Jodie Jones about his horticultural inspirations
My earliest garden memory is of my dad’s circular lawn surrounded by flower beds. I will never know why he chose that shape, as it was difficult to mow, and he liked mowing. That circle of grass, as seen from my bedroom window, has been stubbornly fixed in my mind ever since I was sent out of my own birthday party for not letting anyone borrow my new tricycle. I had to watch from my room as everyone pedalled it around the lawn and looked happy. This has affected my social relationships ever since.
My horticultural hero would be a bit of all my favourites. My ideal gardener would have Dan Pearson’s eye for plants, Stephen Lacey’s nose for scent, James Alexander-Sinclair’s tongue of nectar, Fernando Caruncho’s tailor, James Wong’s air miles and Tom Stuart-Smith’s ability to be ambitious and self-reflective at the same time. Add Cleve West’s values – and, maybe, athlete’s legs – Beth Chatto’s determination and Tim Richardson’s wit. Finally, they would have the ability to turn into Anne-Marie Powell at midnight, but wake at dawn with the energy of Fergus Garrett.
I am happiest when I am swimming. When I swam the Thames from Oxford to London to raise money for the Museum, my coach took away my watch and my map. By the fourth day I became an animal. All I did was sleep, eat and lift my arms 20,000 times a day. The support team passed bowls of mashed potato down to a paddleboard which served as my table. Nothing has ever tasted as good as that mashed potato in the Thames.
I don’t have winners’ medals like my dad, but once on Blackfriars Bridge I saw a crowd, and police, at the balustrade. A man had jumped in the Thames. I took out my goggles to jump in after him but suddenly a lifeboat appeared, so I didn’t have to. But for three seconds – in which my stomach sank at the sight of water boiling under the bridge at high tide – I was about to. That was a good feeling.
The principle that has guided my attitude to gardening is that no garden is ugly if someone is actively gardening it. It may not look good to passers-by, but it feels good.
My most unexpected source of inspiration is Virginia Woolf. She was a terrible gardener – “Don’t let Virginia carry the plants home, they’ll die,” Leonard wrote to Vita Sackville-West – but she describes better than anyone how the arrival of people, or a thrill in the weather, can change the mood of a garden.
I also love the final chapter of The Education of a Gardener (1962) in which Russell Page describes the garden he would like to have. He had come back to London, gardenless, and quickly he realised that no one ever wants just one garden.
I don’t have training in gardens, or in anything really. But I have worked in architecture, which teaches rigour and self-criticism. I used to worry for the pale architecture students getting harangued by their professors, but now I think garden design could do with a dash of that.