The work of a garden is directed towards creating or maintaining beauty, but the work can be beautiful in itself. Even something as simple as raking gravel can be pleasing. The rake should flow out and back like a violinist’s bow across the strings, with no apparent pause at the change of direction. When raking gravel, I push the rake with the balls of my feet. I use my whole body. I feel the resistance of the stone to the tines through the wooden haft, feeling it becoming even as the depth is achieved. But, even more than that, the rake starts to sing. The note has a certain pitch and that pitch will remain constant as the rake is pushed out and drawn back, once the depth is right and consistent. I have worked with people who were sensitive to this and some who weren’t. The latter prod and drag at the gravel, moving here and there and changing direction without any pattern. Notably, they just use their arms and shoulders, they are certainly not using their ears, and they cannot work for a full day.

I am not a natural autocrat and I find it hard to insist that raking should be done a certain way. It is a difficult thing to explain to another who has not yet understood: raking looks like a simple task. I feel like I am insulting my staff by correcting them, as if I am making a demand which is arbitrary. I suppose what I ask is difficult to understand until, through hours of raking, it is understood. Sadly, not every gardener wishes to understand. Not every gardener chose to be a gardener.

Recently, we had 102tonnes of 20mm gravel to spread to a depth of 40mm and three days in which to do it. There were two of us. Raking gravel was our task for those days. It is mindful work, not mindless. Like the weeks I spent cutting heather by hand, I find myself settling into myself. I make no claims that gardening is unique in this regard: long distance running has a similar mind. When I am training for a marathon and running for 90 minutes or longer, routinely, I may have a problem on my mind when I start, but it often resolved by the time I finish. I have not been thinking of it over the twelve miles I have run, I have been looking at the world around me, calculating pace, remembering past runs and anticipating the race. The rhythm of my stride, my breathing, my heart-rate, all are conducive to the untangling of knots.

When I think about raking gravel for three working days from the discomfort of my chair, I can introduce a cultural or intellectual framework which may or may not have been there whilst I was working. I suppose, like e e cummings colours, the culture ‘comes and goes’. There is the Sisyphean element, for example. Sisyphus boasted that he was more intelligent than Zeus and his hubris cost him a sentence of pushing a boulder up a slope all day, only to see it roll back to the bottom once he got it there. Ad infinitum. Those greek gods did know how to punish. Raked gravel is a fragile construct which starts to degrade even before it is finished. I believe that in the great zen gardens of Japan such as Ryo-anji, the gravel is raked daily, even though it suffers no traffic save the passing of a day. There is something revelatory about a deep immersion in an activity, for hours, days, years on end. Its primary purpose is one thing, be it arranging flowers, making tea, preparing sushi, or gardening, but its fundament opens a door to a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe and our life within it. Our western thought is directed towards resolving contradictions, but I can say with certainty that I have never felt more myself than when, after many hours of raking, I had forgotten myself entirely: I was united with the world, its rhythms, and at flow with it. There was no I, I was absolutely me.

With 102tonnes of gravel to move, mostly, I am just raking, feeling the rake as an extension of my self, hearing it sing; the cry of the Red Kite high in the air; the breeze on my face; the temperature falling as the working day ends – gravelling is a winter task. At times I find myself resenting the recurring tasks of daily existence – the washing of dishes, the laundering of clothes – and I remind myself that these are the tasks of life and they end only when life does. I have spent most of my adult life working for very rich people. They pay people like me to push the boulder up the hill on their behalf. They can afford my time, but the cost to their soul is beyond calculation – there are so many things that they will never understand.





I have been planting trees. Many trees.When the winter’s campaign is finished, there will be 1678 more trees in the garden, ranging from small hedging slips which cost less than £1 a piece to specimen Liquidambar styracliflua at over £700 each. I value them all equally. The planting of trees is one of my favourite tasks of the year. There have been oaks, Quercus robur which, if left unmolested, will live for 600 years. Even in old Europe, the percentage of buildings which have survived 600 years is not high. There are modern commercial buildings designed with a lifespan of 30 years – it is not sustainable.

The trees are differentiated by context. Within the core of the garden, I am planting exotics – birches from the Himalayas, rowans from China. They will be beautiful throughout the year, but have been chosen specifically for their autumn display – leaf and berry. Across the wider demesne, trees native to the British Isles or, like Castanea sativa, here for so long as to become naturalized in the landscape. The question of what is natural can wait for another day, but I find it peculiar that in certain schools of thought it is acceptable that a plant or animal can be introduced accidentally by the wind or another animal’s movement, but those moved by humans are frowned upon: we are not separate from the system. No matter, the native trees have many virtues, one of which is to buffer the garden and the surrounding landscape.

The ground is not good, perhaps the worst I have tended. Beneath a thin veneer of soil, 50mm/2″, there is a good layer of stony brash ranging in depth from 300mm/12″ to twice that, below which there is the densest of clays. A Roman writer, Cicero, maybe, recommended changing your native soil if you found it unsuitable. He was making a political point, but one which had strength because its wisdom was rooted in the world. I dig my planting holes with a steel bar, smashing the stone and prising it up and out of the pit. Mysteries unfold. Time and again I raise a small cairn of rocks which is larger than the rootball of the tree to be planted, yet I still have only half a hole. The birches and rowans will cope with the challenge – these are the pioneer Geni that colonise the screes and exposed earth after geologic trauma. As each of those trees has cost £250 or thereabouts, they need to survive. Nonetheless, they will need care through the first years of their new lives, until they can stand on their own roots.

It is January. The frost does not lift until noon.


Many years ago, a good friend asked me what I thought about all day. I suppose the question revealed a lack of understanding at the very least, possibly an assumption of mindlessness (easily confused with mindfulness, I fear), at the worst. In the interest of balance, around that time, I had asked her how she spent her days and her answer was, ‘I look at last year’s spreadsheets and add 10%’. I imagine she went to meetings too. She worked in mass-market fashion retailing at the time. I have never understood office work, which is one of the many reasons I work outside.

When she asked her question, I was tending the largest rock garden In Europe and I had half an acre of heather which needed to to be trimmed annually, manually, with shears. It could take a month. One year – it was 2002 – I got stuck on Hegel’s theory of punishment for an entire fortnight. Every day, from start to finish, that was in the forefront of my mind. It didn’t ease the task. Hegel does not make my top ten list of great philosophers and he never will. But, already, I see that I am not answering the ‘greatest’ question, I am answering the ‘favourite’ question. Hegel was great, Locke was great – their consequences were abhorrent.

No matter. Hegel’s theory of punishment, as far as I can remember it, has a metaphysical element. The punishment needed to restore the order of the universe, an order which had been disrupted by the crime. Consequentially, it was also proportionate. The theory also has an educational or cognitive element, meaning that the subject (many innocents are punished) receiving the punishment must come to understand, through the nature and process of the punishment, the significance of the crime.

As I described digging holes with a bar to a friend, he observed that it was, ‘like a gulag’. I have gardened for over twenty years, I spend the daylight hours outside. I am inured to the cold. Once or twice each day over the last weeks, I have felt the cold, felt discomforted. I raised my eyes to the pale blue sky and smiled: this is the life I chose and choose again each day; it suits me perfectly. The earth beneath my feet and the sky above. The moral law within. Which, I suppose, suggest another thread in Hegelian penology – the punishment must be specific not only to the crime, but to the perpetrator also. Torture is wasted on the masochist. My hell would be a shopping mall, or a desk in an office under artificial light. Choose your own.

I had to read Hegel for many hours in the limpid light of a library’s basement when all I wanted to be doing was running free outside: 1997 was a beautiful summer, and Oxford is a perfect city to be young in, in summer. My Master’s degree was on the aetiology and development of political theory from AD400 to Hegel. My specialism was torture. I should reverse that – torture was my specialism. I have tried to learn to forget what I learned. The detail, at least. Mostly, I fail. I remember this all too clearly – we all do it, every nation; some of us just lie about it more effectively or we have the power that we no longer believe it matters.  I don’t exclude myself, like the Roman poet Horace, everything human is known to me. We are in this together.


There are many reasons why I garden.


The best exposition of Hegel’s penology which I have encountered is not in any academic text, but in a short story by Franz Kafka, In der Straffcolonie. It is a deeply unpleasant fiction, but so was the philosophy it explores. I write that, and yet, as I have described Hegel’s theory above it is profoundly humane. I may have mis-remembered. However, Hegel’s unpleasantness was not in the content, but in the tone – reading it made me feel ugly. Reading Kafka will save you a hundred hours and much unpleasantness, and then you can play in the sun.


Broken, I returned to the garden. There is a power in the routine, in the mundane, and it holds deep magic. The rhythm of going on.

By early May, I was pricking out seedlings in their thousands: the ever-willing Cosmos; the incorrigible courgettes. I sowed the seeds and they grew. Their life demanded I care for them, those silent needs which create no burden, in truth, quite the reverse – their life feeds me. It shapes my days, my weeks, my months, until the harvest is ready.

In November, after the first frost, I was planting Tulipa by the thousand. The soil was heavy clay which seemed to draw moisture from the air and become gloopy and thick. I was working from a board to avoid standing on the bed. It was slow and arduous. Like a rower, I work facing backwards which means that the worked ground stretches before me. For a fortnight, my days were predictable and monotone. Day after day, I speak to no-one. The voices are loud in my head. But, I hear them less and less with each day passing. I bury the bulbs to 10cm/4″. I know my mind is at work burying. I no longer remember her face.

In December, I was sat in a garden which is not my cure, with a friend who is no longer my wife. We drank champagne and shared our stories. We have known each other for twenty-six years, and those deep roots have helped me to remember myself. I have drawn upon them quite openly, asking the questions I needed to answer, to see again that the world is not Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, or Michelangelo’s false angles on a chapel ceiling. Certainly, these friendships which now stretch into decades are one of the compensations of growing older. As are the long habits, the repeated care of the garden. I think of them in similar ways. A garden, like a friendship, involves commitment, care, love, effort, sacrifice at times. These aren’t distinct events strung out like beads on a thread. It is the thread itself.

Epicurus, unusual among philosophers, wrote about friendship, Rarer still, he considered it a good thing.


When I make new acquaintances and they learn that I read philosophy at university, they often ask me who I think is the greatest philosopher. They might as well ask me which is the greatest cheese: I don’t have a greatest anything. On a good day, I might be able to give you a list of ten, because context and moment are everything. I have a deep-seated aversion to a ‘greatest’ as I feel it implies a finality to my knowledge and experience – an exclusion of further discoveries.

Epicurus is my favourite philosopher. His school was called ‘The Garden’, fittingly. The early Christian fathers hated him for two reasons, as far as I can divine. Firstly, he didn’t dispute the existence of the gods, he just held that the gods did not concern themselves in human affairs. This was an obvious problem to a faith which believes in the historical incarnation of the one and only deity. Secondly, he was rather like the Christ in his thinking and actions. ‘The Garden’ was open to everyone – free and slave, man or woman. I wonder which was more scandalous at the time – that a free woman or a slave be treated as an equal, when both were property? The uniqueness of the Christ was clearly challenged by a pagan who had lived a similarly inclusive life and who held resonant ideas of revolutionary equality. Imagine a society in which what people say is judged on its own merits rather than the perceived merits of the speaker or the speaker’s status. The emperor’s new clothes might finally go out of fashion.

The legacy of the Christian polemic is that Epicurus is remembered as a hedonist, in the negative sense, of an ill-disciplined, self-indulgent pleasure-seeker. He was a hedonist: he did advocate the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, (sensibly, surely?) but Epicurus understood time – it flows through his writing and rises to the surface in waves. Which means that any fleeting pleasure must be balanced with the longer term experience of living, and he advocated a simple, mostly plant-based diet, and water rather than wine to drink.

Epicurus believed that life was all sensation and that death was not to be feared because there would be nothing left to do the fearing. I find this comforting and perfectly sensible. I have met people, and I have a professed atheist I know in my mind as I write, who are terrified of death and it blights their life to such an extent that they have become terrified of living also. My experience of knowing them has helped me understand works of fiction such as Dracula, because they parasitise the life they find around them, feeding on their living host. Or, expressed differently, their fear of life renders them dead already. A bad parasite kills its host.

I will need to think about the other nine. I fear the answer, for the Western canon at least, is the tedious Kant.


Many years ago I was in Oxford with a piece of research to complete. I buried myself in Bodley’s library and tried not to think about the rest of my life: my marriage was failing at the time; a dear friend had just died of cancer, swiftly. I had a mis-diagnosed injury which kept me in a medical cul-de-sac of pain and ineffectual treatment for over two years – the medics were starting to talk of spinal surgery. There was worse to come, although I didn’t know it at the time.

I had met the woman who would be my wife in my first week at Oxford. When I returned thirteen years later with my life unshaped, she was everywhere – in the shadows, in the smile of strangers, sitting in plain sight across the street from me when I took my morning coffee break. I believe it was a function of loss and grief. It was not pure hallucination as there was a physical presence where I saw one, but I was projecting what I needed to see onto what was there.

The whole week was like falling through a window in time. I was staying in my old college, ate breakfast at 8 o’clock as I always did – the same breakfast, because it amused me to do so: two slices of toast, two rashers of bacon, two of the peculiar yet strangely compelling college sausages, orange juice, and strong black coffee. Food of the gods. Afterwards I would walk once or twice around the garden and cloister for a constitutional. As an undergraduate, I would have company and our second circuit would depend on the flow of our conversation through the first. There is something very conducive to thought and conversation about walking in a garden which is why, I suppose, so many important gardens were designed as circular walks. Versailles, for example. By 9 o’clock, I was waiting at the door for the library to open: I fell back into the habits as easily as putting on an old shoe. To be fair, I indulged my old distractions too. I wandered in the University Parks, admiring one of the finest made tree-scapes I have encountered to date. More than once, I visited one of my favourite paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest and poured over the chalcedony seals as I always had. I turned the week into a short story which BBC Radio 4 picked up and broadcast, gratifyingly. It is an episode of my life which has taken on the surreal characteristics of a dream after all these years. At the time, it was a dangerous state of mind for a researcher who needed to find material – to be seeing things which weren’t really there. And a strange state of mind for a gardener, because gardening is a discipline which is profoundly realist.

No matter. I spent two of my five days reading the 11th Century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji. It is beautiful, and absolutely useless to my purposes at the time. In the narrative, the garden is like oxygen for the characters: it is always present, but never seen. Over the first eight hundred pages, it is frequently referenced, but barely described (now is the time to confess that I read only the first half of the novel). The rooms of the palace were clearly arranged in courts or a series of courts and looked out onto enclosed gardens – that much I could infer – but, the detail of the garden remained hidden. Gardens in philosophy share a similar fate. They are present more often than they are seen.

Still Water Moves

Consider water. Water, and its possibilities. It brings colour to a garden, but what is the colour of water? It is the colour of light changing direction, whilst leaving some of itself behind, caught and lost to the fluid. A still pool can form a mirror which changes moment to moment. I have stood on the terraces of Versailles and watched the pleasure-boaters row among the clouds of the Canal, and I knew I was in the demesne of a sky-god. The surface of the water was still as glass and the clouds played across it, bringing patterns to life for moments only. Even still pools move. A breeze passing over the surface raises ripples, scattering the light. There is a pattern to the movement, a tempo. They move without moving, in constant flux as the clouds reflect.

Many years ago, I was sat in the gardens of New College, Oxford. It was nighttime and I believe it was winter. The garden there is enclosed on two sides by the northeast corner of the medieval city wall. As I sat on my bench, watching the stars and thinking, I became  aware of a fog spreading out over the sunken lawn. The water vapour had lifted from the  nearby rivers, the Cherwell and Thames, flowed up Long Wall Street and entered the garden through the modern pedestrian gate in the eastward wall. When the basin had filled, I retreated from the cold. Venturing out later for a final walk before bedtime, the whole garden was filled with fog so that only the battlements of the wall remained visible. In the years following, I have designed gardens, on paper at least, which can provide a theatre for water to act in this way. The trick is to include differentials of height and a combination of enclosure and permeability. A pool at the top of a slope can ‘overflow’ in this manner down a flight of steps. Confine the steps between low walls and the effect will be stronger than that created by a permeable structure such as a hedge. Provide no restraint and the effect will disperse as soon as it begins. A sunken area, such as the lawn at New College, can be filled to its brim, even to the height of city walls!

As for water, so for scents in the garden. I stood on the south parterre at Versailles, looking out over the Orangery to the Pièce d’eau Suisse. The breeze was from the southeast and had been cooled and moistened from its passage over the lake. It was September and few of the citrus trees on the terrace below were in flower. Earlier in the year, in the heat of summer, the air I was breathing would have been scented by them. I have designed for scent in this way. Some enclosure is needed to allow the scents to concentrate. I know it is possible to direct the flow of scent with the air current, but the essential oils are volatile and ‘lighter’ than water – less biddable as a result. I have always gardened in Britain and my efforts have achieved successes which are only shadows of what is possible. This small temperate island rarely experiences the degree of heat and the duration of that degree for the scents to develop to the desired intensity. The possibility exists though, and the promise is erotic.

Is my hypothetical garden with its raised pool only truly perfected when the water vapour flows? When the design has its fullest expression? Of course not: a garden has many perfections which change over time. In my mind, the pool is placed at the crossing of two paths. The paths are edged with low box hedging or similar and the flower beds thus defined are planted with herbaceous species. In winter, the herbaceous plants are cut down to ground level and the design is pared back to its bones: the straight, hard paths; the hedges functioning as architecture, being living walls; the round pool like an oculus, opening to the sky – no wonder the celts thought of water as gateway to another world. The design must please even when dormant, when the purity of the lines and the proportions are paramount. The forces of the world can still express within it. There may be frosts and frost-shadows created by the pattern of the hedges – again, the water moves. The different thermal qualities of the materials – the water, the stone, the soil, the leaves – hold the frost for differing lengths of time, creating the possibility of another set of changing patterns. Through the growing season, the herbaceous plants grow, filling the space with colour, scent, texture, form, and volume, whilst changing its aural qualities: external sounds are softened, insects hum and buzz, the breeze caresses foliage. Each season is unique as the different species respond to the changing pattern of light, temperature, precipitation, and their own changing natures as they mature year on year.

The water vapour may or may not rise from the pool, covering the ground and suspending the flowers in the air above a sea of mist. Someone, other than Berkeley’s God, may be there to see it or it may pass unwitnessed. Without a pair of ears, the tree falling in the forest is silent. Without an audience, a work of art signifies nothing.

Plant selection allows the designer a range of freedoms. If I choose to plant a garden with F¹ hybrids, or daughter plants which I have propagated using cuttings from a mother-plant, then I am using plants which are genetically identical. These clones will not grow identically within the garden because their growth is an expression of their genetic nature in response to their conditions, but the range of that expression will be limited and, to an extent, predictable. Homogeneity can be appropriate to certain planting schemes such as the Victorian favourite ‘carpet bedding’, or the seasonal infill on a box parterre. These planting schemes tend to be in open ground, with near uniform levels of light, exposure, fertility, and moisture provision. Uniformity is what I desire, because the feature is tightly composed and controlled. Elsewhere in the garden, I may choose to plant species raised from seed. Immediately, there is variety. The random combinations of sexual reproduction and spontaneous mutation are encoded in every cell. I have opened the design to the possibility of surprise, for the free expression of the variety of life.

Space can be left in the design for plants to seed freely. Some move under their own power, having dehiscent seed pods which burst open with force, scattering the contents. Seeds can be carried on the wind or moved by animals. This spatial permeability allows for the non-human agents to act in a garden although it is likely that the gardener will ‘edit’ the results so that the integrity of the design remains intact.

Some intended combinations may succeed, some may fail. I planted Paeonia ‘Duchesse des Nemours’ with Iris germanica ‘Frost Echo’. The contrasting forms of the flowers combine pleasingly, whilst the creamy white of the peony and the palest silvery-blue of the iris harmonise beautifully. Both are scented, but with very different notes. They flowered concurrently twice in six years, but the possibility that they could do so every year if the season favoured it contributed to the suspense and excitement of the garden.


What of flowing water? Florence Yoch, the American Landscape Architect most famed for her film sets, described it as ‘the voice of the garden’ (design notes ‘The Little Garden of Gaiety’ (Yoch, James J., Landscaping the American Dream, Sagapress, New York, 1989)), although I would prefer a voice: a garden is polyphonic. In the age of gravity-fed fountains the flow rates would have varied and the spray patterns and sounds of the fountains correspondingly. The fountain has become an instrument through which the rainfall on a distant mountain finds its song. Even as the water jets above the pool it is falling – don’t be fooled by appearances.

In the spray of fountains, Descartes saw rainbows which only Descartes could see. Rainbows are unique to the viewer, being formed by the angular relationship of the light, the refraction and the eye of the beholder. When I see rainbows in fountains, I enjoy them superficially. I do not think that when I walk around a fountain that I am creating something in the world which exists for me and for me alone. Perhaps I should: for Descartes they were the start of a philosophical investigation.

Moving water can stand still of course, just as still water moves. When fountains freeze it is as if gravity were a function of temperature rather than mass. The frozen spout of the fountain rising above the pool, the cascades held in the air mid-fall to the pool below. It seems impossible that this could not occur in a moment, an instant change of state from liquid to solid, and yet I am told it is gradual. So many possibilities exist when water is given a place in a garden.

Water is a home. Place fish in a pool and they will swim in ways to please themselves, but in so doing can please us. Water draws birds to itself to drink and to bathe, and their pleasure in the garden enriches our own. Birds are another of the garden’s voices, and trees decked with caged songbirds or aviaries were once common features of the grander gardens. Today, the demotic practice of the garden bird table has not only affected species frequency – goldfinches have become more common – but are a source of evolutionary pressure – the beak of the great tit is growing longer in British gardens. Like water, food is another enticement, a provision for the birds which then act as birds will, but which we invite to act, because their participation in our gardens pleases and enriches us.

A gardener can construct a theatre where the world can express itself, the gardener can direct its expression, but there will always be a Knut moment: the tide will come in and the world will express itself regardless of the will of the gardener. It may do so beautifully, realising a possibility which to that moment had existed only as a possibility, such as the beauty of the icicles of the frozen fountain, or it may do so destructively with the storm-wrecked tree.

I confess that my idea of a gardener so far has been Deist – the gardener has been creating the garden, a theatre of possibilities, and that has been the extent of his work. Although, as previously observed, gardens are dynamic and never finished. The work of the gardener, or of other human agents in the garden also has the potential for exploiting the conceptual and spatial permeability of the creation. A simple annual task such as the raking of autumn leaves can be transformed into a work of art. There are constants – the reach of my arms, the length of the rake’s haft, and then there are the variables – the volume of fallen leaves, the wind speed and direction as they fell and thus their distribution across the lawn. As a result, the point at which I reach the tree and need to accommodate its trunk changes and the curve I take around it ripples out across the subsequent rows. The work is my purpose, but the beauty manifests.



This post is an abridgement of a chapter in the forthcoming The Aesthetics of Imperfection (Bloomsbury, London).