Designing a garden surrounding a swimming pool is always exciting, even more so when that pool is also a work of art. The modern, large-scale installation Gateway by the celebrated artist Joana Vasconcelos opened last year in the walled garden of Bonnington House, the 17th-century home of Nicky and Robert Wilson. Just over ten years ago Nicky and Robert transformed the 120 acres of parkland surrounding their Scottish home into the contemporary sculpture park Jupiter Artland.
Joana took her inspiration for Gateway from the ley lines that are said to converge in Jupiter’s landscape, while also including elements that make the artwork personal to the Wilson family. Around the circular pool are six curved shapes (one for Nicky, Robert and each of their four children) that many have likened to the petals of a flower, although Joana has told me her vision was of a single drop of water falling from the heavens and landing on a powerful ley line to create a seismic splash. Ribbons of bright colour formed by 11,366 unique tiles, each one hand-painted and glazed in Joana’s native Portugal, weave across the pool, representing the energy lines and the astrological charts of the Wilson family and of Joana herself, making this a piece that is personal to Joana as much as to the place where it sits.
The garden in brief
What Swimming pool garden. Where Near Edinburgh. Soil Rich, cultivated. Size 1,000 square metres. Climate Temperate. Hardiness zone USDA 8.
Joana Vasconcelos’ artwork Gateway was commissioned specifically for this garden at Jupiter Artland. It is entered via a pathway lined by tall yew hedges that takes you from the naturalistic planting around the café and gallery area to Joana’s Sun Gate. A red-bricked pathway, to suggest one of the ley lines said to converge here, is repeated at the far end of the garden where the Moon Gate leads you back out into the parkland.
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Any artwork, even one in which you can swim, needs careful positioning, but with Gateway the space is also part of the art, so in designing this garden Nicky and I worked closely with Joana to link pool and planting.
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Joana asked for a green planting palette that wouldn’t distract from the artwork’s bright colours, so we have limited ourselves to just four hedging plants – yew, box, laurel and beech – chosen for their form and graphic qualities. My initial idea was to fill the box-edged beds with green grasses but Joana also wanted to avoid movement in the planting, making the ripples of the water even more powerful. Instead the curvilinear box beds, which fold around the curves of the pool, are filled with numerous spheres of different sizes of box and beech to suggest the droplets created by the splash. These support five large topiary pieces – three yew and two Portuguese laurel – that give structure and height to the planting and frame the space. Green waves of box and yew lead up to a straight yew hedge that frames the entire garden creating a sense of enclosure and tranquillity.
We were fortunate to find rich soil in the garden, so only some nutritious compost was added prior to planting for a good start. All plants are fed annually with organic fertilisers to maintain the health and vigour. Over the seasons, we aim to strike a balance between keeping the precision of sharp lines and letting plants grow and develop with the help of a gifted team of gardeners. Shapes will become more detailed as we maintain the garden, always remembering the flow of water until eventually individual plants become one living organism and part of Gateway.
Shaping the plants in the pool garden is a delicate art. The large dome of Prunus lusitanica and the smaller spheres of Fagus sylvatica need to be clipped with secateurs, but here electric hedge trimmers are used for the low hedge and spheres of Buxus sempervirens and taller yew hedges.
With so much colour woven through Gateway, only green was left for the pool garden, giving it a very different feel to the naturalistic planting in the public areas, and the formal private gardens laid out by Arabella-Lennox Boyd on the other side of the yew hedges. Three large Taxus baccata topiary echo the turrets of Bonnington House in the background and add height and gravitas.
Texture and composition So as not to distract from the colours of the pool, the garden relies on the texture and structure of just four hedging plants:
Buxus sempervirens. We clip box twice a year to keep a crisp appearance, and feed in spring to keep it healthy. 5m. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b†.
Prunus lusitanica. We shape it with secateurs early in the season to avoid damaged leaves and, in our case, flowering. If possible choose ‘Myrtifolia’, as its smaller leaves increase the play of sunlight on the surface. 15m. AGM*. RHS H5, USDA 6a-8b.
Fagus sylvatica. Common beech can be fashioned as spheres, but use secateurs to avoid blemishes of the leaves. Late frosts can cause damage on young leaves, so we cover the plants with horticultural fleece. 25m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 4a-7b.
Taxus baccata. English yew is one of my favourite topiary plants. Clip in early August to keep it in shape through the winter. We clip it at least twice a year with hedge trimmers followed by secateurs to achieve a neat finish. 20m. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 6a-7b. *Holds an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. †Hardiness ratings given where available.
Address Jupiter Artland, Bonnington House, Steadings, Wilkieston, Edinburgh EH27 8BY. Tel 01506 889900.
Open May to September, daily, 10am to 5pm. Entry £9. See website for how to book a swim.