The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Taken from Lynne’s weekly column ‘Green Scene’ for the Western Mail. 6th May 2017

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Cosmic Garden

Most of my Bank Holiday weekends are spent at home catching up with things that need doing in my own garden, but this weekend my partner and I travelled to Scotland to enjoy someone else’s garden. And what a garden it is!

As the name suggests, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, in Dumfries, is no ordinary garden. Its creator, Charles Alexander Jencks, is described is a cultural theorist, landscape designer, architectural historian, and is also the co-founder of the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres. He has published over thirty books and became famous in the 1980s as theorist of Postmodernism.

His statement is, “To see the world in a Grain of Sand, the poetic insight of William Blake, is to find relationships between the big and small, science and spirituality, the universe and the landscape. This cosmic setting provides the narrative for my content-driven work, the writing and design. I explore metaphors that underlie both growing nature and the laws of nature, parallels that root us personally in the cosmos as firmly as a plant, even while our mind escapes this homes.”

Forty major areas, gardens, bridges, landforms, sculptures, terraces, fences and architectural works are displayed in fifty acres, with the garden using nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humour. A water cascade of steps recounts the story of the universe, a terrace shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole, a “Quark Walk” takes the visitor on a journey to the smallest building blocks of matter, and a series of landforms and lakes recall fractal geometry.

And while I have to admit the cosmic aspect of the garden and his landscaping did go over my head a bit, I thoroughly appreciated the ‘nature art’ that he has created. Being a landscaper myself, as well as marvelling at his vision and creativity, obviously, I also appreciated the amount of work and head-scratching that must have gone into the construction of the curves and swirled banks too.

Being naturally inquisitive, I sought out the head gardener and landscaper, Alistair and asked him a few of the more practical questions that aren’t covered on their website.

There are only 4 full time gardeners looking after the whole estate and the mowing alone is continuous at this time of year. Most of the nightmare-to-mow banks are cut with a Flymo on a rope with the really tricky ones being cut with a remote controlled, robotic mower. The large open spaces are cut with a ride on mower but none of the grass is collected by the mower. Instead it is cut frequently so that very little grass is left lying on top of the ground. If necessary, the mown grass is blown, with a petrol blower not raked. All the edges and verges – which were pristine – are strimmed, even the edges of the lakes and water features. When I asked about the grass ending up in the lake, Alistair told me that they wait until the clippings collect at the edge of the lakes naturally and then clean them out.

Alistair started at Portrak House in the 60’s and used to cut all the large areas with a scythe and the banks on his hands and knees with hand clippers. The little box hedges are still clipped by hand and on hands and knees!

He also told me that they only have two weeks holiday a year and three days off for Christmas, adding, “We work 48 hours a week in the summer and 43 hours a week in the winter. I have no time for people who complain about a 37 hour week!”

In the summer Charles employs one person full time to just ‘tie in’ plants. Monday is tying in dahlias, Tuesday, tying in carnations, Wednesday, tying in single stemmed sweet peas (grown that way as Charles likes to cut them for the house), Thursday is tying in chrysanthemums and Friday is spent tying in perennials in the mixed borders. What a job description!

Amazingly, the garden is only open one day of the year but I highly recommend putting it in your diary for next year – and you can take your dog! 2,500 tickets were sold this year and not surprisingly access and parking was a little frustrating. But other than that it truly was a ‘cosmic’ experience!

You can find out more at charlesjencks.com and also details of Charles’s other gardens and projects.

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