Ways to sow: the designer changes the way we look at gardening | Gardens

Ovisiting the gardens of a city museum is a somewhat atypical position in the world of gardening, but fantastic (as head gardener at London’s Garden Museum, I should know that). Horticulture is associated with history, education and storytelling, which inform the choices, design and presentation of plants. Errol Fernandes, head of horticulture at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London, home to the collection of 19th-century tea merchant Frederick John Horniman, says conversations with visitors regularly go beyond gardening to the estates art, collections and conservation.

Fernandes, who took office last spring, oversees 16 and a half acres of tropical, medicinal and rock garden plantings, mature trees and large expanses of parkland grass. He draws inspiration not only from his studies and experience in horticulture, but also from a background in art and conservation (he first studied fine art, painting and photography). The eye of a painter therefore illuminates his approach to planting and maintaining the garden.

We meet on a beautiful, bright late fall morning in the museum’s award-winning Grasslands Garden, designed by plant scientist and Olympic Park landscaper James Hitchmough to reflect the native grasslands of North America and South Africa. Fernandes is busy editing the garden in preparation for winter. Traditionally, perennials are cut entirely to ground level in fall or early spring before new growth. However, Fernandes argues that with thoughtful editing, these gardens can be enjoyed all winter long.

Errol pruning Eryngium yuccifolium. Photography: Cian Oba-Smith

“While we keep as much room as possible for wildlife, we also remove elements that let the image down, he says, pointing to a recently worked section: an array of shimmering ornamental grasses and perennials that stand out. are lignified (woody), dazzling gold, silver and garnet pink. “In the past, these beds were left until February, but we recognize that there is a balance between naturalistic planting that looks intentional and a neglected appearance. I think it’s really important to step back and observe.

Describing his approach to composition, Fernandes uses terms more common in photography and painting: apical points, triangular repetition, yearning for a sense of balance. “We’re all very used to pointing our camera at things and I encourage my team to do the same, imagine the viewfinder and assess what’s ruining that image. A plant collapsed? Is there something of which there is too much? You want the plants to be able to bump into each other but not compete with each other, so careful attention to what’s going on in the field is also important.

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He sees the period from fall to winter as a period of adjustments, where he can cut a plant “if it collapses too much” and let the others gradually wither to prolong interest. “I think the contemporary horticulturalist looks at structure and form in a different way. We look at seed heads, sepia tones. We often talk about how a plant dies – does it die gracefully? really important here.

Horniman Gardens
Horniman Gardens. Photography: Cian Oba-Smith

In the Grassland Garden, tall plumes of goldenrod seedlings (Solidago speciosa) and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) contrasts with the darker tones of echinacea and faux indigo (Baptisia australis); the sharp silhouette of the great sea holly (Eryngium yuccifolia) lies against feathery bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) – all perennials with fantastic winter attributes. “It’s important to have species that provide contrast,” says Fernandes, “and a good range of textures, too, from soft to stiff and prickly.”

Before turning to professional gardening, Fernandes worked in fashion writing and then in advocacy roles at Tate and the V&A, before doing a Masters in Arts Psychotherapy. Being introduced to horticultural therapy inspired him to retrain as a gardener, studying at Capel Manor College in Enfield, on the outskirts of north London.

The course gave Fernandes a sense of belonging: “It felt like, finally, this is where I should be. This is my passion. After graduating, however, he was surprised at how difficult it was to get an internship in horticulture. “I sat in on interview after interview. Many leading national horticultural institutions have repeatedly said that it has been between me and an equally strong candidate; my college tutor was scratching his head and saying, ‘Why don’t they give it to you?’ It was just weird that it was such a struggle.

He eventually landed an internship at the renowned Chelsea Physic Garden and later worked at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath before joining the Horniman. However, his experiences have led him to question the lack of diversity in horticulture (he is a British-born Asian of British immigrant parents from Africa). Fernandes grew up with an interest in it – his mother was a florist. “But I couldn’t imagine myself in this job; I haven’t seen anyone like me – a person of color – in it.

Errol in Horniman Gardens
Errol keeps a painterly eye on the planting and tending of the garden. Photography: Cian Oba-Smith

It is a complex problem, he says, and deeply rooted. “My mother took us to different houses and gardens, and sometimes we received a rather cold reception. We knew what it was about, although my mother tried to protect us. I think the industry and society as a whole often struggles to imagine people from diverse backgrounds working in horticulture, especially in higher level positions. In a weird way, I had to fight my own prejudices to be here.

But there are encouraging signs, he says. He recently met three young students of African and Afro-Caribbean origin during a study day on gardening at Horniman: “I asked each of them about their background in horticulture. It felt like a profound change. Fernandes’ enthusiasm for making horticulture more inclusive and diverse suits the Horniman well, as he strives to attract new audiences within his south London community.

Right now his creative energy is turning to new projects in the garden – plans for 2022 include planting a micro-forest to provide a green buffer zone between the gardens and the busy and polluting South Ring Road; and an educational border filled with drought-tolerant plants. Reducing mowing to increase biodiversity is a priority – around an acre of lawn is given over to long grass and mowed paths – as is a more sustainable approach to planting, with plans to replace traditional annual litter in the historic Sunken Garden by longer term plants. diets.

“Bedding is so unnecessary,” he says. “The constant intervention it requires has a negative effect on soil health. So we thought more carefully about what we plant now, including more “hardy” bulbs – tulips, narcissi and hyacinths – which can stay in the ground for two to three years.

Fernandes is also keen to deepen the connection with the museum’s internal exhibitions. Its vast collection of musical instruments is reflected through plantations such as the gourd (from which percussion instruments are made) and Arundo donax (used for woodwind reeds). Fernandes now seeks to interpret the collection of stuffed birds, with new illustrative and informative plantings.

Gardening must continue to address issues such as sustainability and waste, as well as the challenge of our changing climate. But artistic vision can also inspire change: there seems to be a growing crossover between art and gardening, championed in recent years by galleries such as Hepworth in Wakefield and Hauser & Wirth in Somerset (and before that, Prospect Derek Jarman’s Cottage in Kent). . “For me, gardening is an artistic and creative process,” says Fernandes. “I went into it out of love, then the passion ignited.”

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