A VERY VERSATILE GARDENER. Lady Tania Compton spent 12 years as Garden Editor for British House & Garden. Since 2005 she has concentrated on her landscape practice.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Tania Compton, were you raised in the country?
No, I’m a London girl and then I moved to Paris and then to Madrid, but my parents rented the old vicarage to a house that had a Repton landscape when I was between the ages of 9 and 14. That was a very formative five year period. There was an amazing traditional walled garden still run by third generation gardeners as a market garden. I learned about the cycle of plants, crinkle crankle walls, and the designed landscape.
When you met the handsome Head Gardener of Chelsea Physic Garden, you fell in love and married?
I saw him and knew. He saw me and knew. It didn’t take us very long to get together. When I was pregnant with our first child he announced, “You’re pregnant, I’m going to start a PhD.” And I said, “Thank you, darling. So I won’t be giving up work then.” Actually, that was a wonderful time for him, when he made the transition from gardener to botanical scientific research.
Has being married to a botanist taught you a lot about plants and flowers?
It’s a very shared love. We’re both obsessed and quite competitive about our knowledge. Although his knowledge will always be a million times greater than mine.
You bought a family house in the country. Why did you become famous for garden design?
People come to me for my versatility. I’m well known for my intensive planting being attached to any style of architecture. I’m happy doing a garden for a cottage that will work to the style of a cottage, and I’m also happy to work with a very large English country house doing a parterre de broderie with herbaceous perennials.
Are you a typical English garden person or do you mix various knowledges acquired from travelling in France and Spain?
I am not remotely a typically English gardener unless I’m in an English garden. I helped a friend who’s got a beautiful 17th century house outside Paris, and my approach was formal and French. I’m working on a project in the Peloponnese where I only use olive trees and plants native to the Peloponnese.
“I’m well known for my intensive planting being attached to any style of architecture.”
Tania Compton, do you always respect the place where you are and use local plants?
Yes, local plants in a Mediterranean setting, and a few Californian plants that will work really well with the Mediterranean setting.
Which Californian plants?
There’s a salvia that I use a lot which flowers from June to September, a tricky time in Mediterranean gardens when most things go into summer dormancy to protect themselves from the heat. Various salvias respond to the heat and perform at their best.
How do you manage to take care of the large garden at your house in England?
We have eight acres, about three and a quarter hectares, so instead of having it all as garden, which would be impossible without an enormous number of gardeners, I’ve developed a meadow garden.
What is a meadow garden?
Some of it is orchard with long grass underneath with lots of bulbs, like a traditional Sissinghurst type orchard. The rest I took out all the fences and have a large area where the existing grasses grow tall. Within that space I put lots of herbaceous perennials that are strong enough to battle it out with the grasses, so I get a flowering meadow rather than just a grassy meadow.
What is the importance of trees in a garden?
They are the starting point. Trees take precedence over everything. In most gardens I take a particular tree and make it the axial focus of a terrace or a swimming pool. At home, I used two trees as the two stellar points between which I designed the whole space.
Do you plant small trees and then wait until they become big trees?
I am a small tree planter. Big trees need an enormous amount of water. The smaller the tree, the less water. I also like planting quite rare trees, which don’t usually come in large sizes. Recently I planted some Koelreuteria paniculata, a tree with lovely yellow flowers and bladder like fruits afterwards.
How long does it take for a tree to become an adult?
No time. It is extraordinary. Twenty years ago, in a phase of species oak devotion, I planted two in a place that goes up to a beautiful view that we have of an Iron Age hill fort. Now the Californian oak is determined to hide one of the great views of our property.
What are you going to do?
I will brutally chop its canopy and let it form a smaller tree. The other is a very rare oak that I bought for Jamie because it was a tree given the name of Carl Ferris Miller, a botanist in South Korea whose arboretum Jamie had visited. It now forms a big umbrella canopy shape and it’s short and beautiful.
“I have a rather anti-anthropomorphic idea about how nature is going to rebalance.”
Tania Compton, should one be careful not to plant trees too close to a house because of the roots?
I wouldn’t plant a weeping willow beside a house, but I love the relationship of a single tree and the house. With every project I work out where the house tree has to go. The foliage of the tree and its structure next to a house always makes the house feel better.
Trees are susceptible to disease. How can we and future generations keep trees well?
Teaching your children about trees when you go on a walk is a wonderful experience, but unfortunately there is nothing that we can do against pests and diseases of trees. In the UK we have a new disease of ash trees, fraxinus excelsior and fraxinus ornus.
Is there no way to find a medicine to stop it?
I have a rather anti-anthropomorphic idea about how nature is going to rebalance. We are the disease. Our transporting the plants around has actually done more damage. Most Palm diseases, for example, have been imported and bring the insects and these problems with them.
You don’t think we should move trees around too much?
No, and we should also try and grow from seed. If nurseries bring them from abroad I only buy trees that have plant passports. I would never plant an unquarantined tree in the UK, especially with the Xylella olive tree blight. You need to be very careful where you get your plants from.
Is the preservation of seeds in genetic banks important in this period of climate change?
There are many different strands of gardeners preserving genetic diversity. The Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place is the main hub of seed preservation. If the seed bank stores the seed successfully and keeps it viable for the thousands of years that it’s hoping it will do, then it’s doing nature a great service.
Is climate change going to affect trees?
In England this summer it’s rained solidly for the entire month of August. This is bad for the trees because in August they are full canopied and full of fruit, and become unstable if the ground is too soft.
Do you think about climate change when you plant?
Very much so. There’s a lot of research going on and scientists are compiling lists of trees that may become the next English landscape. A wonderful dendrologist at Kew called Tony Kirkham advocates growing slightly further Eastern European varieties like the Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica, which grows in Iran and along the Caspian Sea. He thinks Fagus orientalis, the Oriental beech, might be better suited to the English landscape post climate change than Fagus sylvatica, our native Beech. Both have very shallow roots, but Fagus orientalis is more adapted to hotter conditions.
In recent decades there has been a lot of chemical usage. Are we going back to more sustainable ways?
Older generation gardeners have used chemicals all their lives to keep areas free of weeds. Now I find that horrid. I can’t bear the smell of Roundup and young gardeners would never dream of using glyphosate, which makes a great difference in everybody’s life who is connected to that space. The impact is down to the invertebrates. If you pump your roses with chemicals, you’re not going to develop the balance between the ladybirds who eat the aphids, the dragonflies who eat the ladybirds, and the birds who eat the dragonflies. If you leave the thistles, the right migratory birds come and feed on the insects that feed on the nectar of the thistle.
What is the benefit of buying organic in supermarkets?
If organic lemons in a supermarket come in massive amounts of plastic packaging there probably is none. I buy through crowd farming, small grower collectives. I no longer need to go to supermarkets. Where we live in the country we have two farms near us. One is run by 30 year olds who live on the land and grow the most mind blowing vegetables organically.
Which are your favourite flowers?
I can’t get enough of delphiniums at the moment. I am giving dahlias a break because they’re so time consuming. I am obsessed with roses.
“The London authorities and the Mayor are obsessed with building, at the expense of all the green spaces.”
Tania Compton, has Brexit caused problems for people on the continent who want to buy roses from English nurseries?
Yes, I’ve been sourcing old fashioned roses for projects in France from good growers in France like André Eve who can ship to continental Europe, which is not great news for English growers. Brexit is catastrophic for all the small independent nurseries whose livelihoods have been made impossible. Many small nurseries have sadly gone out of business in the last year.
Why do people want to buy English roses?
England has fanatical growers. We have a wonderful climate for it, and a nursery industry that bring to perfection what they cultivate and nurture. A book published by the Royal Horticultural Society called ‘RHS Plant Finder’ lists all the plants that are commercially available and the nurseries from which you can buy them. Whatever you want to find, you can find in a British nursery.
Have you fallen in love with many gardens around the world?
There are a few. I have the cliché of Ninfa in my heart because I spent a weekend staying in the foresterea with a nightingale in a cypress tree outside my window with Jamie and we swam in the river where Pliny had recorded the species of trout that is specific to that river with the wisteria in full flower. That was a solar plexus garden moment for me.
What about Boboli gardens in Florence?
I love Boboli. I was there in the autumn when the Elm trees were flowering. I had never seen a mature Elm tree in its autumn glory because of the Dutch Elm disease that decimated all the Elms in the UK.
Do you think that the parks are important in London?
They are the lungs of the heart of London. I’m a trustee of the London Garden Museum, and we’ve done a lot of research about how many parks have been closed and turned into building sites. The London authorities and the Mayor are obsessed with building, at the expense of all the green spaces.
Are public parks well considered in London?
The Olympic Park in London has been very important in reviving that area, it’s become a really essential new London park, but local people just need somewhere to go to that’s a green space. In my children’s awkward teenage years they and their friends would all meet in the park. It was their special space. The problem is the Mayor of London does massive infrastructure projects while taking away a small square in somewhere like Lambeth where it’s much more necessary. There’s not enough joined up thinking. Both private and public spaces have to be taken care of.
At the same time the garden is a very private space and each one has their own idea of a garden?
Very much so. That eclectic idea is another British talking point. Artistic self-expression in an English garden seems to be more prevalent than in other countries.
Are you confident that new generations will continue to love gardens?
More than ever, and the desire to grow food is something that especially the 30 year olds have. The first tree they will grow will probably be a fruit tree rather than a flowering tree, but the nursing of that tree to fruit is like the gateway drug.
How do you learn to garden?
By doing, by growing something from seed, whatever it is. A lot of people who love gardens have a childhood memory of their grandparents gardening and growing seeds, and that gets passed down generation by generation.
Tania Compton, thank you very much.
Portrait of Tania Compton based on an image by Sabina Rüber.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.