What to do in the garden this week: Lift and store Begonia and Gladiolus

Angels are not a common preoccupation of garden designers, but they might well be if a designer is working in a conceptual milieu where narrative is important, and the client is an institution with a religious history. ‘Angels can manifest themselves in constellations, in fire and cloud, in wind and storm and in a physical form whose shape is that of winged creatures.’

This kind of research (here provided by a professor of theology) was relevant to the innovative Liverpool-based firm BCA Landscape because the figure of an angel marks the culmination of its design for Angel Field, a new public garden in Everton, Liverpool, where boarded-up terraces and desolate streets are interspersed with beacons of new development.

Liverpool Hope University is, as its name implies, one such glimmer of light amid the urban decay. The garden commissioned by this new university is a true piece of rus in urbe and it is perhaps telling that, since it opened in June, it has been neither vandalised nor denuded of its ornaments.

The plan’s three spaces create a link between an existing Victorian campus building and a brand-new concert hall and teaching building. The eponymous angel-a figurative piece by Lucy Glendinning, made of resin is poised atop a tall column forming the centrepiece of the smallest section; it marks the climax of the narrative.

The garden’s main entrance, guarded by a Modernist porter’s lodge, takes the visitor into the Orchard, the opening section of Angel Field. Its pair of wide, rectangular planting beds is filled with native wildflowers, sheltered by trees. An underlying order is expressed by the way the tree canopy across both sections will be kept at a uniform height.

In one corner is the Origins Garden, where a low, bubbling, ‘primal’ pool is encircled by a stone bench etched with a quotation from Thomas Aquinas: ‘Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu’ (‘Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses’). Quotations etched in stone, in the manner of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work, are a recurring theme in a garden replete with telling details.

There are lines from T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare, but perhaps most successfully, the entire text of Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best-loved poem, which begins ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’. Fragments of the poem can be found scattered on the ground throughout the Orchard. The designers from BCA (Andy Thomson and Becky Sobell) say they are intended to resemble archaeological remains.

The connection with Hopkins is that, from 1879 to 1881, he was a curate at St Francis Xavier Church, whose granite form looms across one corner of Angel Field. His experience of Liverpool was not an entirely positive one, despite the fact he was working in an Irish Catholic church that regularly drew a 7,000-strong congregation. The young poet was appalled by the ‘deepest poverty and misery’ of the city and concluded: ‘Liverpool is of all places the most museless.’

The second section of the design-and its heart-is the Theatre Garden, inspired by the rational expression of ‘order out of chaos’ to be found in Italian Renaissance gardens. Cutting across its centre is a rill with fountain jets and a line of pleached lime trees. Beside it, creamy limestone paving, embedded with tiles inspired by the work of A. W. N. Pugin, forms an informal circular stage.

The audience (or picnickers) can arrange themselves on a smooth green lawn edged by clipped pines. Between the limes and the rill is a series of box-edged beds with seasonal displays of perennials in purples and soft reds (Verbena bonariensis, Centranthus ruber and asters in late summer) organised according to the Fibonacci Sequence. It’s a rich mix, symbolically-perhaps rather too rich-but on the ground it works.

In traversing Angel Field, the visitor moves from the origins of time and space (the Aquinas pool), through disordered nature and wilderness (the Orchard), into manmade rationalism (the Theatre Garden) and finally to the heavens, accompanied by the angel. It’s the story of an evolution that has nothing to do with Darwin, and to my mind, this is one of the best examples of conceptual landscape design in the country.

Horticultural aide memoire

No.38: Lift and store Begonia and Gladiolus

Corms and tubers such as the cut-flower Gladiolus (right) and the tuberous Begonia have done their work now. With a fork, carefully lift the Gladiolus corms and take them to a suitable bench. Brush off the soil, cut the stem down to the top of the corm and twist off the old, shrivelled corm underneath. Dust the corms with sulphur powder to deter mould, and then box them up in some straw for the winter. The squashy Begonia tubers should get similar treatment. Start them again in the spring. SCD