20 Apr

The wonderful world of Wisley

Garden designer and television presenter Dan Pearson talks to Karen Anne Overton about his new book Natural Selection, explains why Britain’s gardens are perfect for cultivating life, and muses on his ‘very Surrey experience’

If you believe gardens are only to be enjoyed when the weather turns clement, think again. For as dedicated English garden designer, television presenter and writer Dan Pearson will tell you, no one season is bad or negative; each holds a wealth of beauty and potential and the promise of life.

We are very lucky here in Britain, because we’re able to garden here all of the time,” says Pearson with such fervour it would inspire the most un-green-fingered couch potato to pick up a trowel. “That means the winter, for instance, becomes this very productive time. It’s not a period of inactivity or inertia at all; it’s the opposite – it’s when things happen.” 

Having worked extensively in television – Garden Doctors, Dan Pearson: Routes Around the World, and occasionalappearances on BBC’s Gardeners’ World – and written several books, Pearson has collaborated with some of the world’s greatest architects – Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield – and created five show gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The 52-year-old is now one of the most respected names in British gardening.

His latest book, Natural Selection, is the culmination of a decade’s work, bringing together a selection of his various newspaper columns to “explore the rhythms and pleasures of a year in the garden”. The result is a joy to read, as Pearson seeks wonder even in the darkest depths of the soil, providing plenty of inspiration for those wishing to cultivate their own outdoor space.

It’s interesting when you start to reassemble something like that, how you can make the connections between pieces. So each week every piece was in isolation in the paper, but together you have something that has a different rhythm and a new flow to it – in the book,” explains Pearson. “It’s a series of bite-sized chapters that you can read two or three at a time, or just one. But you still feel like you’re moving through the course of the year.”

Though softly-spoken – taking great care with every sentence – Pearson is an obviously passionate man with an enormous and inherent understanding of his subject. As close as one might get to being born a gardener, he admits to not being able to remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated with the natural world, a trait which was both a blessing and a curse as a child.

Most of the friends I had when I was a teenager were gardening friends in their 60s, so I felt like a real loner,” he reveals coyly. “But it didn’t really bother me. I knew what I did was what I wanted to do. I felt inspired by the garden we lived and worked in when I was a kid. It was an acre of wilderness when we found it, and as we cleared it we found this wonderful garden under 40 years of neglect.”

The home in question was on the Sussex-Hampshire border, but it was in Surrey that Pearson’s talent began to flourish when, with his parents’ support, he quit his A-levels and took up an apprenticeship at RHS Garden Wisley. Working alongside highly skilled and experienced horticulturalists, the scheme provided a valuable insight into the practical day-to-day life of ‘the gardener’, not to mention a wealth of information on the park’s rich flora.

Some of the gardeners had been working at Wisley for over 50 years, so it was just a fascinating experience, and every day was littered with little gems of information,” he says. “It was a very Surrey experience in that we were gardening on heathland that had been changed into a garden, but it was also quite hermetic as an experience because it was so intense; you almost forgot there was a world outside of Wisley.”

A few years ago, Pearson returned to his beloved Wisley when asked to come up with a redesign ‘masterplan’, and although after initial research the project was taken over by another practice, he says it was interesting to “get his feet under the table again” and “look at the whole of Wisley rather than just individual parts”. Effusive as ever, he explains that public gardens such as this are much more than “just a nice day out”.

I think they are educational tools. They are not just for recreation, and I think there are very few places in very few countries that have such high standards of horticulture made so thoroughly and easily accessible to the public,” he explains.

Alongside his new book, Pearson has several big projects in the pipeline, including his new online magazine – Dig Delve– and a new garden on his private plot in Somerset. Despite having laudable success previously at the Chelsea Flower Show, he says he now finds greater satisfaction in creating permanent green spaces that will last over the ephemeral thrill of exhibition gardens, and will therefore not be taking part in any shows this year.

I’m finding the amount of energy you put into making a garden at Chelsea is easily equal to the amount you might spend making a garden for a client who might have that garden for the next 15 or 20 years,” he says. “And right now, I’d rather be putting my energy into those places which have a longer life-span.”

Similarly, Pearson has little time for trends, although he does observe a slow but sure change in style in terms of “people being much more aware of a naturalistic perennial layer in the garden” and the use of shrubs to complement that layer. His gardening style is based on instincts: pay attention to the natural process and build a space you can love and cherish around that.

I find my myself fascinated for a period by one subject or colour, and then will move onto something else,” he concludes. “I wouldn’t put it down to being based on fashions, however – it is simply what works.”

Natural Selection – A Year in the Garden is priced at £20.00 and published this May.