Saturday, May 28

Ways of sowing: the designer who changes the way of seeing gardening | gardens

THESeeing the gardens of a city museum is a somewhat unusual position in the world of gardening, but a fantastic one (as Head Gardener at London’s Garden Museum, you should know that). Horticulture is combined with history, education, and storytelling, which inform plant choices, design, and presentation. Errol Fernandes, head of horticulture at South London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens, which houses the collection of 19th-century tea merchant Frederick John Horniman, says conversations with visitors regularly veer beyond gardening and into the realms of art, collecting and curation.

Fernandes, who took office last spring, oversees 16½ acres of tropical, medicinal and rockery plantations, mature trees and large park lawns. He draws inspiration not only from his studies and experience in horticulture, but also art and curating (he initially studied fine art, painting, and photography). A painter’s eye, therefore, informs your approach to garden planting and maintenance.

We gather on a gloriously bright late-autumn morning in the museum’s award-winning room. grassland garden, designed by Olympic Park landscape and plant designer James Hitchmough to reflect the native grasslands of North America and South Africa. Fernandes is busy fixing up the garden in preparation for winter. Traditionally, perennials are cut back completely to ground level in fall or early spring before new shoots sprout. However, Fernandes argues that, with careful editing, these gardens can be enjoyed all winter long.

Errol pruning Eryngium yuccifolium
Errol pruning Eryngium yuccifolium. Photography: Cyan Oba-Smith

“While we’re keeping as much of the wildlife in place as possible, we’re also removing parts that let the picture down,” he says, indicating a section recently worked on: a variety of bright ornamental grasses and perennials that have been lignified ( grown woody), bright gold, silver and garnet pink. “In the past, these beds were left until February, but we are recognizing that there is a balance between naturalistic planting that seems intentional and sloppy. I think it’s really important to step back and observe.”

In describing his approach to composition, Fernandes uses terms more common in photography and painting: apical points, triangular repetition, aspiring to a sense of balance. “We’re all so used to pointing our camera at things and I encourage my team to do the same – imagine the viewfinder and assess what’s messing up that image. Has a plant collapsed? Is there something there is too much of? You want the plants to be able to push together but not compete with each other, so it’s also important to pay close attention to what’s going on in the soil.”

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He sees the fall-to-winter period as a time of adjustment, where he might cut back a plant “if it droops too much” and let others gradually die back to prolong the interest. “I think the contemporary horticulturist looks at structure and form in a different way. We are looking at seed heads, sepia tones. We often talk about how a plant dies: does it die gracefully? That’s really important here.”

Horniman Gardens
Horniman Gardens. Photography: Cyan Oba-Smith

In the Prairie Garden, tall columns of goldenrod seeds (Solidago speciosa) and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) contrast with the darker shades of echinacea and false indigo (Baptisia australis); the sharp outline of tall sea holly (Eryngium yuccifolium) sits against blue-stemmed feathery grass (schizakiri scoparium) – all perennials with fantastic winter attributes. “It’s important to have species that provide contrast,” says Fernandes, “and also a good variety of textures, from smooth to stiff and spiky.”

Before turning to professional gardening, Fernandes worked in fashion editorials and then in outreach roles at Tate and the V&A, before completing a master’s degree in art psychotherapy. His introduction to horticultural therapy inspired him to retrain as a gardener, studying at Capel Manor College in Enfield, just outside London.

The course offered Fernandes a sense of belonging: “I felt that, finally, this was where I had to be. This is what my passion is.” However, after graduating, she was surprised at how difficult it was to get an internship in horticulture. “I attended interview after interview. Many leading national horticultural institutions repeatedly reported that it had been between myself and an equally strong candidate; my college tutor was scratching his head saying, ‘Why don’t they give it to you?’ It just felt weird that it was such a big fight.”

He eventually got an internship at the estimate Chelsea Physical Garden and went on to work at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath before joining Horniman. However, his experiences have led him to question the lack of diversity in horticulture (he is an Asian born in Britain to British immigrant parents from Africa). Fernandes grew up interested in it: his mother was a florist. “But I couldn’t imagine myself in that profession; I didn’t see anyone like me, a person of color, inside of him.”

Errol in the gardens of Horniman
Errol keeps a pictorial eye on planting and garden maintenance. Photography: Cyan Oba-Smith

This is a complex issue, he says, and deeply entrenched. “My mom used to take us to various houses and gardens, and sometimes we got a pretty cold reception. We knew what it was, even though my mother tried to protect us. I think it is often difficult for the industry, and society as a whole, to imagine people from diverse backgrounds working in horticulture, particularly in senior positions. In a weird way, I’ve had to fight my own prejudices to be here.”

But there are encouraging signs, he says. She recently met three young students of African and Afro-Caribbean descent at a garden study day 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 is a good fit for Horniman, who is striving to attract new audiences within his south London community.

Right now, his creative energy is being poured into new projects in the garden: plans for 2022 include planting a micro-forest to provide a green barrier between the gardens and the busy and polluting South Circular Road; and an educational border filled with drought-tolerant plants. Reducing mowing to increase biodiversity is a priority (approximately an acre of lawn goes to long grass and mowed driveways), as is a more sustainable approach to planting, with plans to replace the traditional annual bed in the historic sunken garden with longer-term schemes.

“Bedding is wasteful,” he says. “The constant intervention it requires has a negative effect on the health of the soil. So we’ve been thinking more carefully about what we plant now, including more ‘perennial’ bulbs (tulips, daffodils and hyacinths) that can stay in the ground for two to three years.”

Fernandes also wants to deepen the link with the museum’s internal exhibits. Its extensive collection of musical instruments is reflected through plantations such as bottle gourd (from which percussion instruments are made) and arundo donax (used for woodwind reeds). Fernandes now seeks to interpret the taxidermy bird collection, with a new illustrative and informative planting.

Gardening must continue to address issues such as sustainability and waste, and 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 the Hepworth at Wakefield and Hauser & Wirth in Somerset (and before that Derek Jarman’s prospective cabin in Kent). “For me, gardening is an artistic and creative process,” says Fernandes. “I went in for love, and then the passion flared up.”

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