After Wye I worked in a number of gardens. By now I had developed a special interest in garden design. Initially, I was struck by slick hard landscaping framing the space, with symmetrical water features, supported by architectural and fashionable muscular planting. With time, I became more open to a softer picture, trying to evoke a different, calmer atmosphere and wherever possible forming a link with nature. Meadows played an important part in all this, providing a contrast to formality, resting the eye, giving comfort, tempering all the hard edges as well as changing the pace within these formal spaces. Whether occupying large areas or smaller segments, whether distinguished from the formal space by strips of neatly mown lawn or by path or hedge, whether dominating the whole picture or perhaps occupying a small corner, meadows offered breathing space and incomparable movement. They also offered a glimpse of times gone by – the regeneration of a lost habitat and a trip into the past. I loved using them but size was always an issue: they weren’t so easy to integrate into small urban and suburban spaces and they needed defining with a frame around them. But they also needed explaining to the client; meadows may be in vogue now but they were far from it in the 1990s. Of all the elements in design they proved to be the most divisive, often met by the client with silence as you explained away.
Then there is another aspect to consider. Meadows to me are as much about wildlife as flowers. I was brought up in a city by a mother who was very culturally sophisticated but didn’t have an inherent connection with nature. She felt uneasy in long grass or in woods and was intimidated by bugs and insects. We as a family generally kept our distance from wildlife: flies were a nuisance, spiders were creepy and bees were to be avoided. Schools in those days did little to bridge the gap (thank goodness things have changed), and even though I loved being outdoors and read the National Geographic, loved our pets and was active outside, I grew up out of touch with the natural world.
My time with Christo brought me closer to the wild – he loved beetles and was very knowledgeable about birds and butterflies. Another influence came from my wife, Amanda Ferguson, who I met at Wye all those years ago. She was reading Animal Sciences, studying mostly farm animals but also with a particular interest in birds and bugs. Sometimes love brings with it a great focus – and direction – and I was intrigued by her interest and before long drawn into her world. Amanda gave me a different perspective on habitats. Much of conservation was scorned in those days, especially among the agriculture students, who tended to look on it as green nonsense. But when you think that 98 per cent of our species-rich ancient meadows have been lost in this country since the Second World War and consider the associated damage done to wildlife, you soon realize the importance of habitat protection. Life in a meadow is rich: by this I don’t just mean full of impressive beasts such as grass snakes and wasp spiders, but with a cocktail of bugs and beetles, bees and flies, chirping crickets and grasshoppers galore, shrews and voles, slow worms and butterflies and moths – all of it part of an intricate web of life. If you compare this with a patch of intensively managed lawn, which has had every bit of life squeezed sprayed and manicured out of it, you begin to have a greater appreciation for long-grass habitats.