We first met Darren whilst studying theatre directing at London’s Rose Bruford College, where he invited us to take part in his experimental workshopping of A Midsummernight’s Dream. It was immediately clear that here was someone who thrived on creative challenges, and rather than single-mindedly pursuing his own agenda, put his faith in collaboration and the power of ensemble. For A Midsummernight’s Dream he created a fun and exciting atmosphere in which his cast felt encouraged to experiment and take risks. The ability to inspire and motivate people, find creative solutions and think outside the box also characterises his current work as a Garden Designer.
Darren became a close friend and over the years our paths have crossed professionally on several occasions. We staged Darren’s play Flap and Fear in Vienna and Oslo (Winner of Newcomer Award 2010 for best new play in Vienna), and I directed his stand up show This Is Your Government Speaking in Kingston in 2011.
His career may seem eclectic, he’s gone from theatre directing to playwriting to stand up comedy to garden design, yet the passion, commitment, energy and creativity he brings to these different disciplines is consistent.
With his new company Modern Mint he’s found the perfect platform to explore his multiple interests. Modern Mint is a forum for making exciting things happen and currently comprises of Darren’s garden design services, lectures and performances, a lively blog in which he writes engagingly about gardening and ecological sustainability, and an ever expanding online shop for quirky artisanal products.
In the interview below he talks about Modern Mint, his dream garden, an inspiring journey to Japan and plenty more…
For more information about Modern Mint check out: http://modernmint.co.uk
I’ve known you as a writer, performer, theatre director and stand up comedian. What brought you to gardening?
I had always enjoyed working outside, being physically active – 3 days after leaving school I started my first job as a groundworker for a tree surgeon. It was a good job because not only were you making yourself physically strong but you needed to use your brain as well. The word surgeon is important in the job title…
I did this on and off over the next ten years, whenever I needed money after travelling or writing or whatever I was up to. I have memories of some of the trees we took down – a tree of heaven, that I carried from the garden branch by branch and put through the chipper, that I had never seen before and had this evocative name that fired the imagination.
It certainly taught me to work hard, and it was satisfying to see the difference you made each day – every cut meant a different shape to the environment. This was an idea I didn’t see importance in at the time.
So when I started gardening I was not starting completely from scratch. I had an education in what it is like to work outside and with plants, what it is like to change an environment and also an education in how to work with clients – very often they are spending money on something they don’t entirely understand, or even have an interest in, and it is your job to inform them about the possibilities available. I worked for people who were very good at their job, and so confident, so I would watch them literally invite a client to have the work done, rather than demand, tell or sell. It made the work feel less like work, more like an exploration of a craft.
The gardening then took off when I moved back to the UK from Madrid – I had been spending so much time writing, working on a computer in a little room, in an environment that was so different to being in the UK – I loved Madrid, the culture, I really had an amazing experience – but everything was harder, I was working in a language that was not mine, with people who did not share the same reference points. It means you have lots to explore and discuss and share, but it also left me craving something I tried to define as ‘home’ – not necessarily England, but somewhere I could… belong is probably the word.
The vague idea I acted upon when I left Madrid for the UK was that I wanted to learn more about the plants around me – basically, I wanted to be able to recognise and name the green stuff I walked past everyday. Why that was what I wanted to do I can’t tell you, but of course there is the influence of working with trees beforehand.
What I hadn’t realised is how extraordinary the study of plants is – each has a different use, a different need, appeals to humans and insects and other animals in different ways. Each plant also has its own folklore, a story that people have told about it in order to help them relate to it in a significant way.
Luckily it is not a difficult industry to get into, as all you need is a fork and to turn up on time. So I began working with some fantastic gardeners who had years of experience, and were incredibly patient in answering all my questions. Of which there were a lot, often repeated because I could not remember what I was told. It seems daft to me now, but at the beginning I could not see the difference between a geranium leaf and that of alchemilla. For anyone who knows anything about gardening, that is ridiculous. For anyone who knows nothing about gardening, that probably sounded like gobbledy-gook. What’s an alchemilla? Those times were frustrating because you want to learn so fast and there seems so much too learn. There still is! But you have to appreciate we are a generation that didn’t grow up with a particularly strong relationship with plants – we didn’t grow our own, we bought it from a supermarket who flew it to us from somewhere near the equator. So we start naïve.
I also fast forwarded my research by reading constantly about gardens and gardening (I think the last non-gardening related book I read was Death and the Penguin?) and reinvesting the little money I had in buying plants and seeds and working out how to grow them well.
I had not completely committed to this work, but I was doing so much gardening and enjoying it so much that eventually, when an opportunity came to spend a year transforming a large estate from tired, mature garden to something productive, beautiful and fresh, I took out a couple of loans and bought a van (then realised I couldn’t afford the insurance so had to take out another loan just to be able to drive the van) and began my own gardening business. Within 8 months it had taken off and I had a waiting list of clients. Within twelve months I was sub-contracting work and doing less and less gardening because of the amount of organising that needed to be done to help each client with what they needed.
So it really wasn’t a question of planning or of strong influences – I followed something I was intrigued by and earned enough money to pay my rent, eat and continue doing it.
Are there any connections for you between creating a theatre show and designing a garden?
There are similarities yes… both theatre director and garden designer are creative acts, of course, because you are responsible for making something happen. Both are all encompassing trades as well – you cannot just know plants as a garden designer, you must know about materials like stone and wood, know about the environment around you and how it will fit with what you are doing, be able to encourage the gardener who will develop your work, be able to listen to what a client is telling you they want and then react to it… you must know garden history and also be confident enough to develop your own ideas for how gardens could be… as well as balancing resources and organising all of the inputs from different trades that must work together to make a garden as good as it can be. A theatre director has the same job – you must know the play, but also have enough knowledge to communicate effectively with the costume designer, set designer, lighting designer, producer, the person who is marketing the piece… you can quickly find yourself doing very little of the work you actually like, the creative part, or even worse being exhausted by the time you get to that side of it because of all the other demands on your time. So the connection between jobs is quite clear – you must be organised, you must have a wide knowledge rather than a deep one, and you must build your team well and trust them.
It is important to realise that you can be the best director or the best designer in the world, but if you can’t make the work happen then no-one will even know what you can do. Maybe that is what the director or designer are best at? What they study deeper than others? The ability to submerge themsleves into the dream of what can be made, what could be achieved?
Another similarity between the theatre and gardening is that both are an odd way to express an idea – a ‘clunky’ vehicle to express what you want to say, considering the resources needed to make them happen. And then who sees them? A theatre must get people through its doors, while a garden may be enjoyed by its owner and guests only. If you open a garden to the public then the likelihood is that, should people come, they will not see it at its best… like an actor, plants may not be at their best on that particular day, or the rain is coming down, or the slugs have eaten eveything, or perhaps the crowds are too loud or too big making the experience a difficult one… clunky clunky vehicles for sharing an idea…
I often think a comic strip is the best way to engage an audience – you get three panels, can use both words and pictures, and if the idea needs expanding on you are coming back again tomorrow… and the next day… and the next… blogging is good too, as it allows you the chance to unfold an idea over time, as long as you can keep people interested for long enough. Perhaps all gardens should be visited 5 or 6 times a year, at different times of the day, for 20 years?
Or better yet, they should be worked in – by the designer, by the clients. That is what we encourage at Modern Mint – a relationship to develop between client and garden, in effect making ourselves redundant…
The last thing I will say about the connection between theatre and gardening is that gardening is a far more altruistic industry. In the theatre, you make a show and then it disappears. You then often have time waiting for funding or space or whatever before the next piece of work – so when people ask how you’re doing, you often say things like ‘well, I was working at the Royal Court’ or ‘I’ve just finished a tour around the South of England…’ you are constantly holding up the past as a sign of your worth and commitment.
In gardening you are always looking to the future – ‘one day this tree will be bigger than the house’ or ‘next year we will make chutney with all these goosberries’… it is just more hopeful isn’t it?
What kind of gardens are you dreaming about at the moment and what sort of ideas would you like to express through them?
Great question, because the garden you dream about is different to the one you make for a client. I would also be tempted to say the idea you want to express through the garden may not be the idea the garden itself wishes to express!
Your job as a garden designer is to translate the clients wishes – it is again similar to being a playwright who has been commissioned by a theatre to write a play, there is a brief they must meet, while also focusing… or forcing… it through the lens of their own experience. It is not the same play they write for themselves, and send off to the theatre and hope it will be made.
You soon get enough experience, as you work with clients, to know when they are finding it difficult to express what they want. You have to be very keen to listen, pick up the clues, and be able to come back to them with what they want, while also using your own instinct and aptitude for the land you are working on to make it work and make sure it is fun for the gardener to maintain. There is no point organising a space that looks amazing but falls away within 6 months because it is impossible to manage.
I have dreamt of lots of gardens – the more you learn, the more gardens you see, the more books you read – you want to have the specific conditions to work in them all! The famous garden of Derek Jarman – http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/derek_jarman_garden_prospect_cottage_dungeness – thrills me every time I read the book, and so I dream of living on the edge of the sea… my star sign is cancerian, so perhaps that is the crab in me, letting the water pass across your feet? =)
I wrote on the Modern Mint blog ages ago about My Garden – http://modernmint.co.uk/my-garden/ – it was a tongue-in-cheek homage to the final chapter of a famous gardening book by garden designer Russell Page, written in the style he uses in the book. I read it now and think – no, the garden I dream of now is far simpler…
The garden I dream of now would be about an acre, stretching out from the back of the house. It would all be surrounded by a hedge of wild roses, hawthorn, hazel, viburnums… There would be a stone terrace right outside the house, with a rectangular pond next to it, to cool the stone on hot days. Perhaps three large Versaille pots would sit on the terrace, with trees in – magnolia, liquidamber… perhaps a fig?
The walls of the house would be cloaked in a suitable climbing plant – with perhaps a rose trained across the door, as if its wide arms were welcoming you inside.
The rest of the land would be treated as a meadow, with paths cut through it to walk through. If any area was naturally damp then a pond would be dug there, as the land is telling us to do it. No point fighting it all, I have done quite enough of that – trying to make a garden into something it doesn’t want to be!
Through the meadow would be planted fruit trees, turning the space into an orchard. There would be at least one mulberry, because they have the most beautiful bark, and even more importantly I have never eaten a mulberry and would love to have my first one picked from a tree I planted… (I hope I like it or that would be disappointing…) Then apples, pears, damsons, greengages, quince, crab apples… perhaps a few nut trees as well? Flowers, grasses and bulbs would be managed below them – editing the plants you don’t want, sowing seeds to introduce those you do – it will be a gentle way to manage the garden, an acre is a lot of work otherwise, so you must switch between allowing what wants to be there to be there and encouraging those who need the help to expand and… bloom.
There would be one more addition to this ‘simple’ garden… :OD
A layer of plant interest between the tall trees and the low grasses and flowers. This layer that lives somewhere in the middle would need a completely different management. It would be box plants, cloud pruned (Buxus – http://oxoniangardener.co.uk/private-garden-jacques-wirtz-11837/) I feel this would sit so magically between the meadow and the trees, and in winter, when covered in frost and shadow, bring a completely new atmosphere to the garden. I love the cloud pruning – we run an ‘organic topiary’ service which works with plants the way a sculptor would with stone – you take away what the plant tells you to take away, don’t force anything on it, then step away and allow it to be what it is – and what it is will change each year as it grows and evolves. It is another fascinating subject and I get so excited by this dream garden when I see it in my minds eye – the flowers in summer below the green, goblet shaped trees, the blossom up high in spring, with the bulbs below, the fruit to be harvested in the autumn amongst the bleaching white grasses… then in winter, a low carpet of green, the dark branches of the leafless fruit trees against a winter sky, and the shining green clouds of box finally having their moment and giving us these shapes that suggest different forms – hmmm, that one is a penguin, or maybe an old fashioned kettle, or maybe, just maybe… – this is the garden I dream about right now, the atmospheres I think of, the ideas changing with seasons from aspiration in spring to idleness in summer, to harvest in Autumn to possibility in winter.
You recently went to Japan, did your visit make you think any differently about gardening, was there anything you found particularly inspiring?
That is a tough question! The thing about Japan is, the whole experience is at odds with the way we think and understand the world, so to understand their gardens is difficult – we just don’t have the cultural references to make sense of it!
The whole trip was spent just trying to soak up and enjoy what was in front of us – the different tastes of the food (the cakes weren’t sweet, the eel they flamed and gave us at the sushi was incredible, then we had gingko nuts threaded on a pine needle, which were magnificent with our beer…) the different sleeping arrangements with the futons, the way the cleaners would bow to the bullet train when it pulled into the station – it is a world we recognise, but are not a part of.
An example, I watched a woman in her 30’s with two friends, and they were playing an arcade game – or more like an amusement you would find at Blackpool pier – you know the one with the claw that comes down and grabs the toy? The woman’s friend won her a … pokemon? or something… (and that is what I mean by recognising the world, rather than being a part of it – i can tell you this toy is an anime character, but i have no idea what or where or who…) and as she took it she gushed with happiness, i mean went absolutely bonkers about how touched she was to be presented this gift… this bit of fluffy teddy bear tut, that her friend had won and then presented to her, was the absolute best thing in her life – but it didn’t seem to be the best thing because of the gesture her friend made – i give you this – it seemed to be the best thing because of what it was – a cuddly toy. The infantilisation of this generation in Japan is then placed next to the signs you see when entering Electric Town in Tokyo – cartoon pictures of old men using their phones to take pictures up women’s skirts, with a note to say BEWARE.
So it is not a case of what Japan taught me, but a case of just letting the experience wash over you.
We visited the famous Japanese garden of Ryoan-ji, dragging ourselves out of bed to leave our ryokan in Kyoto at 6am on a Monday morning to get to the garden before the crowds – just a few buses and a bit of a walk into the unknown on a cold autumn morning… then me knocking on the temple door at ten to eight asking to be let in, just so we could spend some time there before anyone else got there. I think we had about ten minutes alone, but it was absolutely worth it, to know in that moment you are the only people in the world in this incredibly formal, pretty much flowerless space, being able to just sit, shoeless, on the wooden verandah and have silence around you.
I remember the walls of the space being so beautiful, but i have tried not to think too much about it, tried not to think too much about why, and instead just have the memory of that moment.
However, it occurs to me the garden has its power because someone has looked after it for a long long time – it has changed over the years, and each act upon it (an act as simple as raking the gravel, even…) has left a mark on the place, imbued it with respect. Or perhaps the space already felt like that – and so the wall and the rocks were added to capture it even more succinctly?
What it does inspire in us is to take more care with each act we make in the garden – what gesture shall we make today? because it will have some affect on the space in front of us.
We are off to see the gardens at the Taj Mahal in March, so we shall see how that compares – as an equally respected place, yet born in a different culture.
I enjoyed following your online project for the Chelsea Fringe “You Should Have Seen it Last Week”. What did you take away from this project and is anything in the pipeline for the next Chelsea Fringe?
Our 2014 Chelsea Fringe project was something I’ve wanted to do for awhile – people were asked to take a photo of a flower or a landscape everyday over 3 weeks, so that we could see how it changed in that time.
Some people chose peonies – and it was both beautiful and shocking to see how long it took for the flowers to open out, bit by bit and day by day… before going over so quickly. Yet having been able to observe it so closely over the 3 weeks, it didn’t feel like a let down, or a waste, just the natural way… journey…? for this flower.
A friend of mine would say to me every March – i must go to Virginia Water (near London) and see the magnolia blossom. i can’t miss it. And when I asked why he would say – because you don’t know how many springs you have left.
It was a morbid reply, but a true one – i may only have 50 more chances to see a magnolia blossom, or a peony bloom, if i keep my health. So the Chelsea fringe project was a good way of forcing me to notice them and enjoy them, instead of doing something probably more pressing yet far less significant.
On another note, I also loved watching the ants crawling over the peony flowers, then disappearing when it rained.
For 2015 we are trying to create a document of 100 word manifestos by a number of garden writers – manifestos about gardening and what they believe cultivating a garden is for. I hope it will become a worthwhile document – as well as a free one to spread and be read by lots of people – that can be looked at in 100 years time, a document for people to go – did they really believe that about gardening? or, wow – here is where the seeds of our current world were being sown, here is where the ideas began to grow.
It seemed like a fun idea and worthwhile bringing together as many garden lvoers as possible. This is the lovely thing about Modern Mint – it has become a vehicle for us to try things without worrying about them not working, and to weave together different strands from the vast arena horticulture sits within.
You talked about manifestos before, what’s your manifesto for sustainable gardening?
A short answer would be to begin with Henk Gerritsen. He had 4 commandments for the natural gardener, which were…
1) The use of fertilisers and chemical herbicides is a mortal sin
2) Try to disturb the soil as little as possible
3) Be frugal with water
4) Don’t whinge!
There are several other ideas who’s time may be coming – many people are now growing their own vegetables, herbs and fruit, as well as flowers for the house. This will also lead to people cooking and preserving too. It not only means the food you get is fresher than anything in the supermarkets, but it means you are taking back a little piece of your independence, relabelling yourself producer and not merely consumer. Michael Pollan wrote a wonderful book called ‘Cooked’ expressing this.
I think every garden should have a compost heap and a leaf bin, as they are great for wildlife even if you never get around to digging the muck out and spreading it on your garden. And I would like to see people buying smaller plants, or buying more seed and starting a garden this way.
I suppose the key (as with most things in life) is attitude – treasure anything green.
What are your dreams and ambitions for Modern Mint over the next few years?
It is hard to know where a business will go – I am enormously excited about our online shop (http://modernmint.co.uk/shop/) which we are learning from everyday – not just how to organise and run it, but in looking at which products we want to share with people – the idea is for the shop to be a beacon for the kind of products we are searching for – shampoos that don’t use chemicals, artisan furniture, organic cotton clothes – so I wonder if we will move away from the garden and into a shop that gathers all of these artists/suppliers under one roof?
On the garden design side, my ideas for this are changing too. The phrase Garden Consultant keeps going through my mind – where you take on fewer clients every year and work with them a longer time, to manage their ‘space’ and each act upon it over years rather than entering and changing everything quickly, to make a pretty picture, before leaving… and in the process leaving a bewildered client trying to work out how they will look after it!
The dreams changes all the time, but it is pinned to a love of doing the job well, and wanting to build something long-term that people are thrilled by – if we can keep building trust in what we are trying to do, that means we get to keep doing it, and that means we can keep getting better and better… Modern Mint is an exciting place to be at the moment!