Dan Pearson in conversation with Edward Parkinson at Petersham Nurseries

Read the full Q&A from this much-anticipated event at the internationally renowned restaurant, lifestyle shop, deli and plant nursery, Petersham Nurseries.

Earlier this month, Create Academy were thrilled to present a rather special one-off event in the elegant setting of Petersham House, where Dan Pearson OBE and head gardener Edward Parkinson discussed a range of topics, including sustainability, seasonality and colour, chaired by Petersham Nurseries Director of Horticulture, Thomas Broom-Hughes. Read our full Q&A from the event and enjoy a preview from Dan’s online course which inspired the talk.

Who are Petersham Nurseries?

In 1997, Gael and Francesco Boglione moved their young family from central London to Richmond. Their new home, Petersham House, overlooked a local plant nursery, which had been carved out of the grounds of their Queen Anne home in the 1970s.

In 2004, after extensive restoration works, the nursery re-opened, completely transformed. Over the years, Gael and Francesco have steadily nurtured the space, creating a lifestyle destination, reflective of their values, love of food and enthusiasm for nature and the earth, mixed with Francesco’s desire to deliver products and services in a peaceful and beautiful setting on the river.

Q&A: Seasonality

Thomas Broom-Hughes: Can you explain the importance of seasonality and why it’s critical that we embrace it?

Dan Pearson: We’re very lucky to have four very distinct seasons in Britain, and to play to those seasons is a wonderful way of giving a garden a particular set of rhythms.

In Japan they have 72 micro-seasons of the ancient calendar, which is a very interesting adaptation of the idea of time passing. Every five days, roughly, there is a seasonal change. If you look, if you’re gardening somewhere on a daily basis, you can actually see the changes happen. An apple tree coming into bloom, for instance, you’ve got those very distinct windows where the buds will swell, and then the first ones will pop, and before long you’ll find the whole tree in blossom. But if you look at it in crude terms with just the four seasons, you can still key into this wonderful change of rhythm.

I don’t find myself with any season that’s not favoured. Even the winter is a wonderful place where there is time to reflect, to plan for change and evolution, compared to the frenzy of summer.

Thomas Broom-Hughes: Edward, how do you approach seasonality at Petersham House?

Edward Parkinson: One of the great things about the garden here is that the structure, walls, topiaries and hedges produce a constancy that allows all those seasonal changes to have their own moment throughout the year. We have peaks and troughs within the garden as any gardener will encounter but what is important about our approach is that we are accepting of the shifting seasons and the blossoming or bareness it brings. Fairly early on in the year, we have a lovely structure exposed in winter which I find a very soothing part of the annual process, the pressures of garden performance are lifted but you are still anticipating the first signs of spring with the bulbs amplifying and the excitement of an eruption of colour from the borders with the tulips.

Thomas Broom-Hughes: Dan, you mention in your course about a sense of place dictating importance in your garden but how important is seasonality in providing that sense of place?

Dan Pearson: I think seasonality is always part of why a place is particular. Sometimes, the seasons are not a close influence on what you are looking at in terms of place. I would say that they are definitely interlinked and seasonality is part of it, but not necessarily the whole story. A sense of place is something that takes a while to understand. It can take a while, but it’s also immediate. I think you have those immediate impressions of a place and as you spend time looking at different seasonal aspects of the garden as a designer, you get better at those intuitive responses and understanding what a place is and why a place is being driven by the elements that make it unique.

Once you’ve understood the quality of the place, you might then start to say how seasons can be used to pump up the volume or play with the volume of the garden. For example, you might decide that a place is feeling like it’s lacking a season – so you could introduce some blossom growth, or some trees, if you’ve got a smaller space to give it that moment. So seasonality is deployed and one should use their horticultural skills to key into what you need out of each season – they are definitely linked.

Q&A: Biodiversity and Naturalistic Planting 

Thomas Broom-Hughes: You talk in your course about ‘planting a garden that includes lives within lives’ – how easy is it to encourage biodiversity in your garden through native species and naturalistic planting? Is this something you can achieve quickly?

Dan Pearson: I think it’s something you can do really fast. We moved my mother to live near us recently and I have been re-planting her small garden. Last autumn I began this project and there was absolutely nothing there, it was a completely empty space. Within less than a year and just one growing season, there is already a cacophony of life in the garden.

I think what I’ve noticed over the years is to use things that are closely connected to the species. Try to avoid planting double flowers which are difficult to pollinate and instead plant single flowers – flowers which provide large landing pads for insects such as fennel or cow parsley, making it easy for pollinators.

Think of your garden as a multi-layered environment. So even in very small spaces, you could try to incorporate a tree, a couple of shrubs and perennials, alongside annuals and bulbs. Try to emulate a hedgerow environment to allow biodiversity to flourish. Use a compact space to your advantage and promote co-existence and interplay between those layers of planting as this is where all the biodiversity happens – it’s like a highway for insects.

Soil is also really important, it’s not just the dirt – it’s where all life springs. Looking after your soil as a whole biodiversity network is incredibly important. Nurturing the soil with good compost and being organic, doing things at the right time are all the tools we need to make a garden into a fabulous biodiverse and sustainable environment.

Thomas Broom-Hughes: Edward, what steps have we taken at Petersham to encourage biodiversity?

Edward Parkinson: One of the ways in which we try to be as organic as possible at Petersham is by composting and mulching. We have bee hives at the back of the garden which has been a real eye opener for me in providing vital opportunities for the bee’s growth and their acquisition of food. A lot of the early hellebores are essential parts of their food system and so by allowing our ivy to flower and resisting cutting it back we can promote activity and prosperity for the hive. I’ve learnt how important we are as a provider of an ecosystem and how to make the garden as abundant and alive as we possibly can.

Dan Pearson: Exactly – I think it’s about making those right plant choices in the first place. In my view, the tree that you have in the garden might be something that blossoms overtly, so you’ve got blossom providing early forage, and then the various berries for later foraging. It could be something as simple as allowing the hawthorn or a crab apple to blossom unattended. It’s about making these horticultural choices and about doing things at the right time in order to make the garden as abundant as possible. Never cut your hedges when birds are nesting or use pesticides, this will promote a balance in the ecology – it’s about trying to strike a balance and nurturing the environment we exist in.

Q&A: Colour

Thomas Broom-Hughes: Is colour an important aspect of your garden design?

Dan Pearson: I think colour is incredibly important. It’s something that you can use to change the pace of the place. Cooler-coloured plants, for instance, are easier to establish distance, as you’re not drawn to them in the same way. Hot colours are energising and transfixing close-up because you’re inclined to go and explore the physical connection you have with them.

I love to play with places that concentrate or are energised through colours to pump up the volume of a garden, conveying energy and emotion through various colour palette choices. You can feel yourself getting energised by deep reds and invigorating oranges. I use colour in a very particular way and I’ll often use it very locally and sparingly. I use colour in the way an artist might if making a pointillist painting. Using dots of colour and concentrations of those dots to make the density of colour work, rather than planting a big block of stronger colour. I like to use colour in a subtle way.

I would say that I underpin all my gardens predominantly with green. The colours planted on top should simply be embellishments on the green, everything is a compliment of green. I find it a really fascinating colour. It has an emotive quality and when used well, can make you feel a very particular way.

I think complimentary opposites provide a lot of power in terms of energy. So oranges and purples for instance, together, can be truly shocking – but if they’re used in small quantities they can create a moment of energy. I think it’s really important to not be afraid of colour and to utilise the freedom to experiment with it.

Thomas Broom-Hughes: What do you advise in terms of colour combinations?

Dan Pearson: My relationship with colour is free and this results in keeping things feeling less precious and planned. I wouldn’t use repeated colour combinations in a space unless I want somewhere to be uniform. A useful way in which to experiment with colour combinations before planting is to pick a posy of flowers and experiment with its arrangement. This way, if you live with them on a table sometimes you see things juxtaposed, and you begin to understand and compose certain palette combinations that you may not see in the garden because things didn’t feel culturally right together. This is a great way to kickstart a conversation with yourself about how colour can be perhaps more interesting and refined. I think that it’s important to shake things up a bit sometimes and push ourselves beyond our cultural colour combination norms.

Thomas Broom-Hughes: Edward, at Petersham we have a cutting garden, how do you plan a colour scheme and what is the journey?

Edward Parkinson: I think it’s all about considering the initial view and impact made by the garden as you make your way down the pathway, and seeing/considering that as a combination of colours in itself. We also consider the view you have as you walk down further into the cutting garden and imagine how people will conjure certain kinds of scenes and colour combinations as you progress. It’s about the initial combination of rich colours and rich pairings of reds and purples but then gradually moving to a more muted or restrained pallete as you go down. We have included this sense of change so you aren’t constantly bombarded by a vibrancy of colour.

Followed by this is the Dahlias which are really the main feature of the cutting garden and are adorned on either side of the borders. As you progress right down to the end it’s predominantly planted with white flowers with a few paler yellows and the introduction of a few more types of foliage to slow down the pace and drama of the garden.

Enjoy an exclusive preview from Dan’s online course, where he discusses the importance of a considered colour palette.

For further advice on how to promote coexistence, biodiverse environments, seasonality and naturalistic garden design, start watching Dan’s online course below.

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