The greatest skills a gardener can have? Observe, and worry less

A garden is never static, and neither is thinking about gardening. No longer just a productive or aesthetic space, gardens are now also understood as havens of biodiversity, carbon soaks, temperature supporters, sanctuaries for plants threatened in the wild and instruments of individual and community wellbeing. As the value of gardens broadens and climate change brings its own challenges, what are the skills a gardener needs to develop?

This was one of the questions addressed in the recent High Horticulture Symposium, for which curator Michael McCoy gathered together half a dozen expert gardeners from here and elsewhere, including two of my personal idols, Fergus Garret and Professor Cassian Schmidt. (The symposium and extended interviews are available for viewing until the end of the month at

Great Dixter, in East Sussex.Credit:Robin Powell

Garrett is head gardener at Great Dixter, in East Sussex, a garden which famously celebrates mind-bogglingly complex and highly skilled horticulture. Garret gets his greatest satisfaction from creating gardens of maximum seasonal change. In one area of woodland, for instance, eight plants follow each other through the year. Garret doesn’t think of this intensely packed schedule as finished, but is always looking for another plant that will coexist in harmony with what is already there.

Schmidt is the director of Hermannshoff, a public garden in Weinheim, Germany. Over decades of experiment he has developed ecologically appropriate planting mixes for the different areas of the garden. Some zones are watered, others are not, some are in shade, others in full sun. His planting plans are widely available so that a home gardener can go into a local garden centre and order a named set, knowing that the plants supplied will be in the right numbers and proportions to create a self-sustaining, low maintenance, maximum-beauty garden. His work is having a massive influence on public realm gardening through Germany and more widely.


McCoy asked both what they considered the single greatest skill that a home gardener could develop to influence their garden and their enjoyment of it. “Being observant,” answered Garrett. “Look, and really think about what you’re looking at.” This applies not just to your own garden, but to others’ and to the natural landscape.

This kind of looking is not simply critical, but curious. You love it, but why do you love it? Those plants are thriving together, but why? That plant dies down in summer, what opportunity is that? That little vignette by the door makes you happy? How did that happen?

Hermannshof garden in Weinheim, Germany.

Hermannshof garden in Weinheim, Germany.Credit:Michael McCoy

For Schmidt too, observation and pleasure are at the heart of good gardening. Observe your conditions and choose plants that will thrive in them, he advises. Watch the way plants behave and how they grow. Worry less. Schmidt bemoans the kind of gardening he learnt as an apprentice which prioritised being weed-free and orderly. While a garden is a controlled version of nature, it is not static. Don’t cling to a single image of the garden, he says. Instead understand it as an evolving, dynamic system and garden it in the way that pleases you.

It’s gratifying to discover that even the best gardeners consider that there is no higher skill than simply looking closely at your plot and learning from it. I’m heading out into the garden right now for a closer look.

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