Time and Space to WaitDan Pearson's Garden at Hillside
In all my projects, I’m increasingly interested in taking a lighter touch and letting nature be the provider
When the garden designer Dan Pearson made his home at Hillside, he waited five years before planting the garden. Prior to moving to the 20-acre smallholding in Somerset with his partner Huw Morgan, Pearson had gardened every inch of the limited plot of land they shared in Peckham. At Hillside, they suddenly had the run of acres of tumbling, tussocky farmland, the foreground to a landscape unfolding westwards over the slopes of the valley, a view cast like a net from the small stone farmhouse set within the ridge. The house is built above an ancient spring which flows along the contour of the land, setting the scene and the source for a garden – but still, something in the spirit of the place required that he delay before planting. There was time and space to wait.
That degree of restraint might seem uncharacteristic of a gardener whose career has been driven by relentless and generative activity. At the age of 12, Pearson was already sweeping in the prizes at the local flower show, developing his own code and language of horticulture, which he kept a guarded secret from school. Supported by a series of mentors who gave him ground to experiment in their gardens, Pearson went on to study at the Royal Horticultural School at Wisley, and by the age of 25 was named house garden designer at the Conran Shop. Within a year he had started his own studio, a practice supplemented by television appearances and regular gardening columns. He has worked within castle walls and across busy urban intersections; the lifespans of his projects range from temporary installations to large-scale sustainable landscapes designed to enrich the earth for millennia.
In conversation, Pearson gives the impression of someone who has learnt to corral the giddiness of breakneck success, almost as a means of survival. Each word is measured and set against silence, a type of speech specific to those with a working knowledge of abundance. Words, like plants, are liable to self-seed and proliferate – they are to be held and shaped with intention, each waiting to settle in place.
“When we arrived here, I immediately felt that we would have to be extremely careful with any marks that we made on the land,” says Pearson. “So I was happy for it to take five years to before I was ready to plant the garden, to make the right move at the right time. In the interim, we planted an orchard to test the ground for what could grow; we took the pasture back and overseeded it as meadows, and put in a lot of valuable work to relax the land and restore biodiversity.”
Those five years of reading and priming the land created a framework for a garden which delivers its own logic and turns with the seasons. “The design of the garden is guided by the rhythms of the land that surrounds it,” Pearson explains. “In the first part of the year, the woods come to life long before the garden, with the wild garlic and the wood anemones, and the primroses, and the life at the base of the hedgerows. And later, towards the end of April, the meadows become hypnotic with wildflowers – and just around the time that the meadows are cut in mid-June, that’s when the garden finally kicks off and starts to show its color. I think I intuitively planted the garden to allow the native landscape to wake up first, to enable that connection.”
The garden extends along the contour of the land either side of the house, like the wings of a bird in flight. Reaching right up to the brim of the ridge, the landscape frames the garden as one small point of focus, subject to the rhythms and patterning of a larger living system. “The work is all about keying into a sense of place and looking at the whole,” says Pearson. “When my father was teaching me how to paint, he constantly reminded me to think in terms of the entire composition, rather than getting stuck on one part. It’s the same with a garden. When you’re putting in the first layers, the first marks, you need to be thinking about the wider environment.”
For Pearson, the garden at Hillside is a testing ground for his professional projects, a place where he can allow time to play out and reveal the necessity of each intuitive move. However, it is also a place with a certain capriciousness, beyond the gardener’s complete control. “Through a series of small interventions, we’ve allowed for a new ecosystem to develop in the ditch between the fields. But this year, because it’s been so wet, it’s got the better of me – I can’t even get in there now because it’s grown so wild. Working at scale, you have to build in loss, but there are times when I wonder – maybe I’m just pushing this too far. Maybe those interventions aren’t welcome; maybe with the time I have, I need to take a step back. In all my projects, I’m increasingly interested in taking a lighter touch and letting nature be the provider.”
Hillside is a subtle calibration of give and take. Now, as the harvest begins, the contract between land and inhabitant is renewed; pears, crab apples, and quinces are gathered in the orchard, and late blooming asters signal the garden’s final aria. Everything is given, too much and too quickly – before suddenly being retracted as winter sets in. The renewal of the contract will require labour and waiting. And when the signs of life reappear in the woods and in the hedgerows, the garden is already rising in response.