A seminar with Andrew Fisher Tomlin at Barcham Trees

by | Sep 29, 2015 | Featured Slider, Latest, News


An audience of garden designers and landscape architects gathered recently at Barcham Trees’ Ely nursery for a seminar led by Andrew Fisher Tomlin, entitled “Planting design for heritage gardens: Approaches and practice.”     A director of the London College of Garden Design, Andrew’s background is in horticulture, and he spends much of his time working on heritage gardens. He also advised on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

In the past 20 years his company Fisher Tomlin & Bowyer has worked on heritage sites in the UK and overseas. Gardens range from modern designs for the National Trust of St Vincent’s library in the Caribbean to the newly opened Veitch Heritage Garden at Warren House in Coombe Wood and the historic Liseberg Park in Sweden. With reference to these and other gardens and landscapes he explored different approaches, whether historic or contemporary, to planting design in heritage gardens and landscapes with practical solutions for making these gardens work within modern day constraints of budgets, maintenance and future. Many historic gardens pass the test of time not just by presenting planting from a particular period, but also by remaining relevant through the introduction of new planting design and ideas.

Andrew began by reminding us that gardens soon revert to nature if neglected, and that fashion in gardens changes as in other areas of human activity. For example, Italian-style gardens were popular here before 1700, but Haddon Hall is a rare extant example of an Italianate garden. “We often reject our parents’ ideas and revert to those of our grand parents”, he remarked. Today ‘secret gardens’, ‘tranquil retreats’ and ‘meadow borders’ are in vogue; plantings may be rich, but they are ‘installed’ rather than planted. Clients want low installation and maintenance costs, while today’s budgetary constraints mean designers rely on plants more than on hard landscaping.

He then investigated the process for generating a design for heritage settings. What story is the garden telling us? How has the site been managed? The process should include consideration of the current position, the possible story, objectives, plus the work and aftercare required. Period planting should be researched, and what is currently in the garden should be recorded. For example, tree stumps can tell us what was there before. Archives, correspondence, paintings, photographs and earlier visitors’ impressions are all valuable sources of information.

The first case study he presented was that of Charlton House, on which he worked in 2002/3. It was quite an undertaking, as the process involved his dealing with 27 special interest groups. Arguably the finest Jacobean house in Greater London, it was completed in 1612 and is home to the oldest mulberry tree in Britain. Now a community centre, little of the house’s garden is original. What was there before had disappeared when he began work on it, although Andrew learned that the walled garden was once known as the ‘pond garden’.

The Charlton House project was budget-led, but the money came through only sporadically. His idea was to design a traditional garden, using York stone, but to have a contemporary planting approach. There is no kitchen garden, as people were not very interested in edibles back in 2002. Today they are in vogue, especially in community gardens. Andrew learned the paramount importance of aftercare with this project, but local authority cuts mean the garden is not as well tended today as it once was. Even though the money for the Charlton House garden came through piecemeal, he believes it is important to have an agreed budget before work begins on it.

He then touched on the Tokyo Institute for Nature Study, which he had visited recently. Many delegates were surprised to learn that 20 hectares in the heart of the city have been left untended since 1949, becoming almost primal land. A tree survey is conducted every 10 years, and visitors are limited to 300 at any one time. Andrew commented that there are people who live in Tokyo, but do not know of the forest’s existence, and told us he believes such a park is a valid design concept. Imagine a similar place in the centre of London!

But what constitutes successful planting design? Andrew finds the Melbourne Museum forest garden in Australia amazing. Successful planting should be lively, complex, subtle, resilient, flexible and sustainable. It should improve the quality of our lives and our sense of well being – and we should ask whether we actually like it or not.

The next case study was Liseberg Park in Gothenburg, Sweden. It has been owned by the city since 1908, is also an amusement park, and is the biggest tourist attraction in Scandinavia. A world trade fair was held there in 1924, and it still aims to attract international paying visitors. Gardening is now a major interest in Sweden, and in 2008 Gothenburg held a garden festival, in which Andrew was closely involved. The Swedes wanted alternative entertainment to the Park’s rides, and there would need to be a fantasy element, as they tend to believe in goblins, fairies and the like. He soon learned that Swedes work inclusively with each other. When he suggested using native Swedish plants in his design, Andrew discovered he really could ‘surprise the unsurprisable’.  He also discovered that clients sometimes have only a short-term view and that you can only build longevity into a design so far.

We then turned to Barangaroo, only recently opened on a peninsula in Sydney Harbour. This former container yard was designed by PWP Landscape Architects from the USA, a decision not welcomed by some Australians. The 22 hectare, $6 billion project used 10,000 sandstone blocks and plants native to the Sydney area. “This great new landscape is both understated and dramatic”, remarked Andrew.

Some of his latest work has been on the Veitch Heritage Garden at Warren House, close to Kingston upon Thames. Originally built in 1865, during the 1950s it was used by ICI as a training centre, and is now a conference and event centre, but is also used as a hotel. The famous Veitch Nurseries were also once on this site. The Veitch family owned 34 acres at Coombe Wood, and this area was the market garden centre of London in the early Victorian era. It was here the plant collectors employed by the Veitches sent their exotic ‘finds’. The family also bred plants, most notably orchids.

By 1912 the business was in decline, and was sold in 1914. Andrew devised the current planting to provide seasonal climaxes and although several Veitch introductions are in the garden, many are now difficult to source. The lessons he learned from Warren House are the importance of funding, planning, local connections and aftercare. He also told us that plants attract visitors more than gardens do.

After lunch Andrew Fisher Tomlin accompanied delegates on a tour of the nursery with Barcham staff. The nursery’s managing director Mike Glover said he was pleased to see that those attending the seminar were interested to hear the stories and heritage behind trees, rather than regarding them just as commodities.

By Colin Hambidge