Catching up with Hortiventurer Maggie Tran
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
I was a fan and reader of Maggie Tran's reflections before I had ever actually met her. Over the years, she's kept several blogs chronicling her experiences as a gardener, which I would usually happen upon when googling something specific but obscure (for instance, training rose canes into globe shapes, a technique used at Sissinghurst). Her writing is simultaneously contemplative and technical. I'd so often have the feeling as a reader and fellow gardener that Maggie actually makes a practice of doing what all of us ought: observing, critiquing, reflecting, and ultimately writing down what one is taking in as a way of not just processing and remembering the matter at hand, but developing as an practitioner and sharpening the mind.
Maggie is our first international feature; she hails from the UK where she went to school for the arts, creating performance and video pieces that would result in a drive to create experiences and transportive spaces, including--inevitably--gardens. This interest in horticulture would lead her to Great Dixter House and Gardens as a Christopher Lloyd Scholar, to RHS Wisley for a Diploma in Horticultural Practice, and on a series of colorful work placements across the Northern Hemisphere. I met Maggie when she was on a yearlong fellowship in the United States through the Garden Club of America/Royal Horticultural Society Interchange Program in 2016-2017. Her lens on the richness of endemic plants, garden styles, and community values inside the American horticulture tradition, and its place in a global context offers so many poignant insights. Thank you, Maggie, for taking the time to be interviewed!
Women in Horticulture: You are just a terrific writer, Maggie, and I reckon that writing is one way that you condense and reflect on a lesson or experience. You published a wonderful tribute to Beth Chatto on your blog last year, who of course being a legendary plantswoman was a revered author as well. Do you suppose that writing makes a better gardener? How often do you go back to read your own notes? Maggie Tran: Thanks Martha, that's very flattering. Writing is an important element to what I do, it helps me process, reflect, articulate thoughts, join up dots and reaffirm my intuition on things. I think it would be fair for me to say that writing does make me feel like a better gardener as it brings focus to what I am doing and relate it to a wider context. It helps give an intellectual element to gardening which can be pure physicality, I love having both. I work in quite a gut and emotional way but I love intellectual work too - it's what makes me tick. The human mind is a great thing and it's where the power is I think for us to evolve. I make notes all the time and I definitely re-read them, I like some time to have passed before I do so because I try to capture the initial raw moment and energy, wait for it to settle and then look back with a bit of distance to see if I perceive things differently. It is then usually when patterns and thoughts come clear to me. My biggest chagrin though is not to have a better organisational system where it is easier to go back and find exactly what I am looking for! I haven't written for a while because my new job as a head gardener at a private garden has been very intensely immersive. It is my first season here, but I hope to get back to words as soon as I manage to get some breathing space again; thoughts are always reeling in my head, trying to find a way out.
WinH: You have made several trips to the US, as well as spending one year as a Garden Club of America Interchange Fellow. How would you encapsulate the difference between American and British horticulture, be it as a pastime, creative practice, or a profession?
MT: I was at Longwood Gardens as a fellow and the horticulture there was so different to what I have ever known, but I needed that difference to bring me out of my comfort zone, shake up my universe a bit and then to look back at what I know. I feel that I am all the better for it, this has become more apparent as more time and distance has passed. There has always been something about American culture and the landscape in the US there that has ignited my imagination. There is also at the same time so much correlation between British and American horticulture, North America has influenced us more than we give it credit for especially back in John Bartram's time, the seeds and plants that he sent over to Britain literally changed the landscape of this country, much of our autumn color giving trees and plants is owed to this legacy. Then there has been the influence of Piet Oudolf's work worldwide where some of the best examples are found in the US, which has regenerated interest in the use of North American plants in particular prairie types, that is why when I was there I was so keen to see actual prairies to see just how close they were to the style of planting they inspired. Often in Britain we are stifled by our historic past and traditions, whilst I like how in the US there is a bravery to try out new things, that's why it is so innovative and ahead in so many things and shows what's possible. In Britain, gardening is big as a pastime, while most of the horticulture I experienced in the US was through the professional environment. Nevertheless, in America I've enjoyed what I see as greater advancements in terms of community gardening type projects. I am also jealous of the space and scale you have out there! There is one major difference though I feel in British and American gardening - the latter can be so extraordinarily neat and tidy, almost too picture perfect, whilst I feel Britain does untidy and unkempt at the edges very well ;) It's funny I think Dutch and American culture is more akin to each other than to British culture. I went to spend some time in The Netherlands after my fellowship in the States to explore the horticulture there and I was struck with how similar certain things are between the two countries.
WinH: Favorite American wildflower or tree?
MT: Chinonanthus virginicus! It is really rare to find it British gardens here, there's one at Bramdean House - the current garden that I work at. It stopped me in my tracks when I was heading to the compost a few weeks ago when it was fully flowering and I hadn't realized it was there until that moment. It's a plant that takes me straight back to some of the wild landscapes that I experienced whilst I was in the States, I can see its flowers swaying in the breeze in the savannas and I can almost smell that warm humid air....
WinH: In your extensive travels, are there any universal traits you've observed about humankind and the garden?
MT: Yes that human beings have an innate need to curate, create and edit, we are part of nature so we must allow room for that as it is in our nature. But how do we do it where it is not detrimental to others, other life forms and the environment? That is the question. Gardens and growing spaces are important to people at all levels, they can help us keep connected to the natural world and be respectful of it.
WinH: What’s something that you learned early in your career that you feel made you a better gardener? MT: That it's important to care about what you are doing and that goes a long way in bringing standards and quality up. Also always try and understand why you are doing something the way you are doing it, interrogating your practice is the only way to learn and develop and helps you understand things better in a deeper and more holistic way. WinH: Tell us a bit about where are you working today, and what excites you about your current job?
MT: I am working at Bramdean House a private garden in Hampshire (South East of England) that's 5 acres, it's is a plant lover's garden and intensely gardened. I was drawn to it because it felt like a quiet gem that not many people knew about. In a funny way I feel the garden has been asleep and it is now being awakened from it's deep slumber to its new possibilities and potential. I am the head gardener here, I have one full-time member of staff and two part-time helpers, and it is very thrilling to run a garden like this. The site itself is very old, there is a huge beech tree that is about 200-300 years old, the architecture is generally 1800s, but one part of the house proclaims itself to be from the 1700s. But the garden as you see it now is very much established from the 1940s by Victoria Wakefield and her mother Mrs Feilden, and through notable head gardeners in the past like Derek Wadsworth. Victoria is an avid gardener, she has been a Kew trustee and part of RHS judging panels and trial committees, so the garden is very diverse with unusual plants from all over the world and full of her niche loves like different perennial pea plants, a sizable collection of sweetpeas (more than 40 varieties) and nerines. But there has also been thought put to the aesthetics of the garden, so that it does not just feel like a botanical collection. It has handsome old brick bones and structure, everything almost starts bare and flat, border beds seem diminutive then from snowdrop time it is a rich succession of plants making it so full and tall that spaces are dramatically transformed. The general layout is that there are Pleasure Borders including some prominent mirror-imaged herbaceous borders, a kitchen garden and a wild orchard area where established roses ramble up and over old gnarly apple trees. The garden has been passed down to a newer generation - Victoria's son Teddy and his family and they along with me want to bring it forward to contemporary times and practices. Britain is full of historic gardens, how do I pursue sustainability in this context and is it possible to make it relevant to and connect with the wider picture? I am also interested in the art of gardening, and the act of gardening for me is an artistic practice in which I am engaged with a creative process. This garden as a whole is very traditional and something like the mirror-imaged borders is the apex of high maintenance, so am I able to strike the balance between artistic satisfaction and practicality? - Enslavement to a garden is not sustainable. How do we make changes without losing the fundamental heart of a place and still able to honor traditions. These are the trails of questions I am embarked on.