We’ve all been appreciating the great outdoors a lot more recently – although that’s counterbalanced by not being able to visit some of our most beloved locations.
So with that in mind, we thought you’d enjoy an insight into one of our favourite places: the Prospect Cottage garden, which, thanks to your support and that of thousands of funders, was saved for the nation.
We spoke to gardener Jonny Bruce about how the garden at Prospect changes over time, his favourite elements of the planting, and what young gardeners can learn from working there.
Art Fund: You’ve been leading work on the garden at Prospect Cottage for the past year. Can you tell us a bit about how the garden changes through the seasons?
Jonny Bruce: The core of the planting at Prospect are the wild flowers of Dungeness itself so the garden largely follows the seasonal changes of the landscape around it. The summers are hot and dry while the winters are punctuated with dramatic storms which lash the cottage and burn the plants with salt spray. Many plants are dormant in the winter but it is at this time that you appreciate the garden’s geometry – as Derek said, his stone circles “take over from the flowers in winter.”
While it is a moody landscape there is always something blooming – for many of the coldest months it is the bright yellow gorse with its surprisingly strong scent of coconut. In spring and summer other flowers take over from the gorse providing colour but also smell... on a still, sunny day in May when the sea kale is blooming the sweet honey that hangs on the air is almost overpowering.
How would you describe the character of the garden at Prospect Cottage in spring?
Spring is a remarkable season as those dormant plants begin to emerge from among the stones. When confronted with the environmental conditions, the lack of soil and considering Derek’s own HIV diagnosis the very act of garden-making at Prospect Cottage seems like an act of defiance. Somehow the emerging sea kale and tenacious shoots of other plants that have colonised this inhospitable place express that same creative determination Jarman held in those final years.
And what happens in the summer?
There is a great floral crescendo in May and early June when the usually subdued palette of the Ness erupts with clouds of white sea kale, bright pink sea pea, yellow broom and the blue of viper’s bugloss. In the garden, among many other non-native garden plants like the brash orange of California poppies or purple of sage, further notes of colour are added to this early summer moment.
Do you have a favourite season of the garden?
Although the high point of early summer is an obvious choice, every season has its appeal. Even winter with its low sun and raging winds has a drama. In his diary, whilst waiting out a particularly vicious winter storm, Derek compares Prospect Cottage to the house in The Wizard of Oz about to be torn from the shingle.
What are your favourite elements or features of the garden, and why?
As a gardener it will always be the plants – Derek had such a natural affinity for plants which he cultivated from his earliest years. He combined this understanding with his unique creativity to use plants in such an intelligent and beautiful way.
What has surprised and challenged you about the garden, and what have you learned from working on it?
When you train as a gardener it can be hard to escape the prescriptive ‘correct’ method, but when you garden at Prospect Cottage you have to think differently. An example is the pruning of shrubs such as the many roses Derek introduced. Any book will tell you to cut out the dead wood as good hygienic practice. However at Prospect we hardly ever remove these stems. The resulting tangle of stems are colonised by beautiful lichens while also providing increased shelter for birds and insects. The near constant winds mean that you don't have to worry about the build-up of fungal disease and their unkempt form prevents them from being suburban.
You’ve been leading groups of young people in working on the garden. Could you tell us a bit about the opportunities that the garden offers to young gardeners, what it teaches them and what they’ve taken from the experience?
Prospect Cottage has a special place in garden history and just the experience of working in such an iconic garden is a valuable one for the students. As an artist with no formal horticultural training Derek created his garden with a freedom which many students find refreshing in contrast to their regular classes and assessments. There is also a practical benefit of understanding what it takes to create a garden in such an exposed and environmentally sensitive location – Dungeness being a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
What does the success of the #SaveProspectCottage campaign mean for the future of the garden (and the gardeners who will work with it), and how would you like to see the garden evolve in the future?
The #SaveProspectCottage campaign means that the wishes of its last caretaker, Keith Collins, can be fulfilled – hoping the garden could be cared for with the same diligence that he showed for the almost 25 years following Derek’s death. It is inevitable that the feeling of the garden will change as the cottage ceases to be a home. However in this new chapter of Prospect’s history I hope the garden will be given the flexibility to evolve over time in the spirit of Derek and Keith. Stasis is the enemy of any healthy garden so we will continue to experiment by introducing new plants and developing new areas in order to keep the garden vital and evolving.
The first exhibition exploring the role of the garden in artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s work has opened at the Garden Museum. Find out more here.
Thank you for helping to save Prospect Cottage. We’ll be keeping you updated as the project progresses.