Garden designer Dan Pearson on ‘natural selection’, RHS Garden Wisley and a year in the garden
- Credit: Archant
With a decade of gardening journalism and a host of award-winning landscape designs to his name, Dan Pearson’s latest book is chock-full of insights gained from a successful career at the forefront of global horticulture, which began at the sprawling RHS Garden Wisley
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2017
Dan Pearson’s horticultural career has seen him tend to gardens across the globe, from Jerusalem to Japan, but when it comes to picking a favourite country in which to pursue his passion for planting, there’s nowhere quite like the green, green grass of home.
“Not many countries are lucky like we are in Britain,” the 52-year-old explains. “We have a very benign climate ultimately, despite the fact that it is a cloudy climate. We’re able to garden nearly every week of the year if we want to in this country. There are very few weeks that are locked down badly with freeze or they are so wet that we actually can’t get onto the ground. If you go somewhere in the Mediterranean, it is often too hot in the summer and things dry out to the point where they are not growing. In North America you have whole months of the winter closed down because it is too cold and it freezes, but in Britain there is not one period of inactivity or inertia.”
Indeed, Pearson’s career as both a landscape designer and a journalist has seen him forge strong links with some of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious institutions, such as Kew Gardens, The Guardian and the Chelsea Flower Show. But his journey began when, at the tender age of 17, Pearson got his parents’ blessing to drop out of school and take up an apprenticeship at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley.
“Wisley at that point was just a cornucopia of information and experience for me,” he recalls. “It had – and still has – some amazing and committed gardeners working there. And because it was an apprenticeship scheme you were working right alongside them, and that’s often the best way of learning something; to get that physical, practical experience on a day-to-day basis. For me it was a wonderful experience, to be able to talk to people who had been in the subject for 30, 40 or 50 years like that, and to learn from them.”
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Pearson’s training at Wisley continues to influence his work, not just in the garden, but as a writer as well.
“I think one of the things I learned there was if you start something, finishing it is a really important part of the process, and to finish something thoroughly and correctly,” he explains. “I think it’s the same with writing. You kind of need to have a map of where you are going before you start, or when you start you need to write a road-map. You need to have the idea, know where you are going, and a sense of where you need to end up. So, for me, the writing is very similar to the way you might approach a gardening day – it’s terribly easy in a garden to go out and find you’ve got four jobs on the go because you’ve got distracted. Then you might only finish one of them – and actually that’s not a good way of working. It’s best to be focused.”
Comprised of hand-picked pieces of Pearson’s written musings from the last decade, his new book Natural Selection, out this month, tracks the rhythms of a year in a typical British garden.
“I think what is interesting about Natural Selection is that we’ve put together the best of those pieces from the last 10 years and arranged them in an order which falls sequentially throughout the year,” he says. “It feels natural because we have spring, summer, autumn and winter represented in the pieces.”
With Natural Selection marking a neat milestone in his life, Pearson believes it is high time to take stock of the profession he has dedicated himself to since his teenage years. After all, he says, the study of plants is becoming more and more crucial in a world plagued by pollution and climate change issues.
“I think horticultural people and people who are dealing with plants and landscapes have an enormous amount to offer this changing world,” he agrees, “because the act of gardening is inherently something that has to be an act of adaptability, enterprise and initiative. I think our modern world is one that will need those skills and that experience, so I think that horticulture has an enormous amount to give back to a world that needs this connection with greenery and things that you eat, knowing where your food comes from, and knowing how to go about growing it while still preserving space.”
Further to this, the heightened focus on the merits of horticulture in an increasingly mechanised world is more proof, if needed, that RHS gardens like Wisley provide a valuable role in the education of future generations of gardeners.
“Because they’re all also teaching establishments in terms of offering career development for students, they have a life of their own with the people who move through them,” Pearson says. “That means the gardens are never static; they are always changing and always adapting. It’s so important for them to always have that energy they gain through having a flow of new students constantly coming and going.”
Pearson still sees the pay offered for gardeners as a stumbling block in the appreciation of the vocation as a career. His own journey from a passionate teenager with no real role models (“at that point gardening on television was definitely pitched at an older audience,” he says) to finding his calling at RHS Wisley, however, should remain an inspiration for those seeking to emulate his worldwide exploits in the industry.
For someone with fingers perpetually as green as the grass in his garden, one wonders: what type of flower would best suit Pearson’s personality?
“Oh, goodness, that’s a really difficult question,” he laughs. “It probably changes year to year, to be honest. But I think it’s probably a climber; something that wants to get into a good place and will find a way of doing it somehow!”
Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson is published by Faber & Faber. RRP £20.