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To Rewild or Not to Rewild? 10 or So Questions with Landscape Designer Jinny Blom

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To Rewild or Not to Rewild? 10 or So Questions with Landscape Designer Jinny Blom

January 23, 2024

The second book from landscape designer Jinny Blom, What Makes a Garden, draws on all aspects of gardens and garden culture. Jinny knows her stuff, has opinions, and sometimes upsets those of her followers on social media who want only loveliness. Having praised the writing of provocateur Julie Burchill (who wrote in her Spectator column, “It’s time to end the rewilding menace”), Jinny was shocked by the viciousness of the response. It seems that some things are off-limits for landscape designers, and one is suggesting to gardeners that their ecological thinking might be fuzzy. Never more in demand, with clients who could choose anybody in the world, Jinny takes time out to talk to us about garden design, and the R-word.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, from What Makes a Garden.

Q: In your latest book you say: “We limit spaces between trees and shrub groups to 650 feet as that is as far as many small birds can fly without having to take cover.” How much do ecological considerations affect the layout of your gardens?

Above: A garden that Jinny designed for Hauser & Wirth, at their hotel the Fife Arms in the Scottish Highlands.

A: An awful lot. We work very closely with ecology, and detailed information like this determines much of what we do. We just amalgamate the information into our designs rather than having it displayed only as the science.

Q: Does the term “pleasure garden” still have currency today?

Above: A reconfigured garden (and estate) in the Cotswolds, England.

A: I don’t know, because I’m not sure what’s happened to pleasure—we’re living in grumpy times. I personally feel that gardens are places for pleasure, which I would define as the sort of freedom that you get from being outside—not signaling every move and every action—but just sort of being. My sense is that the old meaning was just that: in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens [which had their heyday in 18th and early 19th century London], you would be strolling around—pleasurably dressed, with pleasurable friends doing pleasurable things in a pleasurable place. Pleasure was the whole purpose.

Q: Do you find that more and more people are still getting switched on to gardening, even post-pandemic?

Above: An English country garden, designed by Jinny Blom.

A: Definitely. Because here’s the crux of it: If you actually go outside and do it, your feelings and your responses to nature and gardening change very quickly. If you’re a kind of armchair warrior, then that’s something different. But really gardening—everybody I know who does it finds so much pleasure and excitement in it. The great optimism is giving people access to their own little patch of earth to mess around with; I think it’s very important.

Q: “Rewilding” means different things to different people. What in your view are the good bits?

Above: Steps into the garden at the Fife Arms, Braemar, Scotland.

A: I don’t see it as a big political thing, another cause for rage. It’s been going on for a very long time—people naturalizing areas or enjoying a naturalized area, except that it would be gardened and cared for; it would be ‘kempt,’ rather than unkempt. Anybody with a patch of land (I do it myself in my tiny garden) could have a patch of long grass with things growing in it. It’s not something you’re fiddling with all the time, it performs in a different way, and it gives a different kind of pleasure to look at. And then, five feet to the left, there might be quite a well-attended border, which is doing something else. So really, it’s about the pleasure of diversity in gardens. Anything that’s going to engender more habitat or more diversity for other creatures is definitely part of where most gardeners are coming from.

Q: … And the bad bits?

A: The thing that I struggle with is that I don’t think that people really, genuinely know what rewilding is, and they get angry about it. If you’re going to leave land fallow, if you’re taking land out of production—out of traditional farming or gardening practice—I don’t know where the line lies between gardening and farming and rewilding. Regenerative farming is fantastic; in places that have been benighted by factory farming, a regenerative approach is an absolute. It’s an imperative.

Q: Where does landscape design fit in?

Above: A lantern that Jinny designed in a garden that she designed, in Italy.

A: There’s a slightly “hair shirt” thing going on now in that if you’re a designer, you can’t actually design—you’ve got to allow nature full freedom and all that sort of thing. Whereas I think: We are designers and we do tinker with the ground. We, as humans, do it because it’s good for us, and we like it. And it’s in our substructure to do it.

Q: Is there any value in thinking about a prelapsarian world?

A: Nobody knows what it would look like because we’ve been farming for tens of thousands of years. That’s why I wrote the book the way I did, because I think the question of  “what makes a garden” has to go back to different cultures. I did a little bit about Mesoamerica [a geo-cultural region stretching from what is now northern Mexico to Central America that lasted for many millennia before the Conquistadors arrived]. It was highly farmed: They were very good farmers, and they grew plants for pleasure, and they made things look nice. Where has this idea come from that we’ve all got to suddenly live in Jurassic Park?

Q: Is “semi-wilding” a preferable term? And is that kind of what you do anyway?

Above: At the back of Jinny Blom’s own garden, near Oxford.

A: You could call it “nature ornamented,” i.e. taking the good bits. Do you want to look at a patch of nettles and brambles and burrs? Nature isn’t all nice. And if you let a patch of ground go fallow, you just end up with a whole load of junk; you don’t end up with a thing of beauty. So it depends where you’re calibrating your sense of beauty. Some people might find that profoundly stimulating, because that’s what they want to see. But it’s not for me.

Q: Have client briefs changed much in the last five years?

A: I’m in an unusual position because mainly they say, “Just do your thing.” And that’s really nice. I do my thing, and they tend to choose me for the thing I do. So I think that comes with having the courage of your own convictions in what you’re doing.

Q: But they still want the pool house and all the outside structures…

Above: A clean, well-made terrace in the Cotswolds.

A: The list I usually get as a brief is “stuff.” Because that’s where people start. And most people do want a pool and a tennis court and a court house and—almost everybody wants a fire pit.

Q: How important is hard landscaping in this time of fuzzier gardens?

A: Very important. And you’ve got to do it right. Because you do need surfaces, and you do need separation between one thing and another. So I have a whole lexicon of hard landscaping that I’ll use across a garden, depending on what I’m trying to achieve. Even in your own garden, you don’t necessarily want to go out and sit on a wobbly surface, if you’ve got people coming round for dinner. Sometimes we’ll be on grass, sometimes on gravel, sometimes on paving; you move around, and it changes the mood of what you’re doing. Or, if you’re between a pool and the pool house, you definitely want a clean, well-made terrace because people will be running around barefoot. We make transitions; it’s just a question of applying thought.

Q: Another quote from your book: “The interface between good gardening practice and regenerative agriculture is a fast-closing gap.” With so many related ideas bouncing around the world of gardens and gardening, what’s your advice for the overwhelmed?

Above: Dark hips and coloring foliage that give roses added value.

A: Just make a plan that works for you and carry it out. It will be modulated to your own ethics and concerns and that’s enough. None of us are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, and every little helps.

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