Planting designer Nori Pope, along with his wife Sandra Pope, became icons of gardening in this country following the publication of their book Colour by Design, which detailed their remarkable work in Hadspen House in Somerset. They inspired countless garden designers and gardens throughout the world. The news that Nori Pope has died has prompted us to share this feature, written by Tania Compton and published by Gardens Illustrated in 2008, in tribute to his life and work.
It was curiosity that lured Nori and Sandra Pope across the Atlantic to England in 1986, and pure chance that led them to stay. A short summer trip from their native Canada to the gardens of their favourite British writers became what the Popes call their ‘magical journey’. By the time they returned to Canada 20 years later, they had inspired the very gardening gurus they had been so keen to meet, as well as the thousands of visitors who came to see the garden they created at Hadspen in Somerset.
Nori and Sandra were in their late thirties when they were introduced to Hadspen by the eminent garden designer Penelope Hobhouse. Luckily for them, Penelope’s son Niall was looking for a tenant for the walled garden there. The garden was in a state of full-blown decay, but the couple didn’t just restore it, they transformed it. Under their care it became a mecca for designers, painters, gardeners and musicians. All were keen to experience the mood-altering effect of the colourist plantings that Nori and Sandra experimented with and wrote about in their book Colour by Design.
The Popes liken the way they garden together to musicians playing a duet, and the premise of their designing with colour was to create harmony. The great plantsman William Robinson had pleaded for just this in his 1883 The English Flower Garden and Home Grounds, in which he wrote that plants should be placed in the garden in ‘splendid harmonies of rich and brilliant colour, and proper sequences of such harmonies’.
Robinson’s words came gloriously to life in the Popes’ breathtaking plantings at Hadspen. A seamless gradation from orange to red and plum to pink, fading into peach, was assembled against curving brick wall borders. The yellow borders made you feel the sun was shining on a grey day, the cool whites and steely blues excited and then calmed you down. From March to October every inch of space was packed with a succession of bulbs and annuals, perennials, shrubs, climbers and vegetables that built up to a tumultuous crescendo of colour and form. Running such a labour-intensive operation, where tulips and poppies were replaced by dahlias and cosmos, where plants were pinched out to delay flowering so they would chime with their neighbours, was like running a busy restaurant and conducting an orchestra all at the same time.
Nori and Sandra sought harmony in every aspect of a varied life that included designing, writing, lecturing, plant-breeding, collecting plants in the wild, learning to play the piano and consulting on gardens in Europe. When they became grandparents, planting kaleidoscopic rainbows of tulips for the public at Hadspen seemed less of a priority. They returned to Canada, where they built a new home, a glass-fronted house overlooking the ocean in the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
In their new garden they have, as they put it, made a quantum leap “from orchestrating an orderly concert with the notes and colours clipped and pruned and organised” to something slightly wilder. Their Pacific Rim island property is surrounded by a forest of Douglas firs, madronas and western red cedars “with the sea, mountains and forest in a constant state of turmoil”. It is a wheel come full circle for Nori, who was raised in this environment and who is rediscovering his passion for whale-watching and sailing. Meanwhile, in a well-fenced, secluded opening in the forest, they are planting straight rows of vegetables and flowers, watered from a hand-dug well with “roses bringing the scent of the old world to this primal spot”.
Indeed, roses are the constant thread that joins the Popes and their gardens together. Sandra grew up on a fruit farm where “I learned how to weed, but I still love picking berries.” Nori has been gardening from the age of eight, when he was apprenticed between school by a nurseryman before studying botany at university. Their lives collided when Sandra went on a fruit tree pruning course at a nursery Nori had set up. Sandra was soon distracted from her studies, when Nori promised to make her a rose garden. “I ended up creating a whole business of roses to lure her in.” And so R. ‘Charles de Mills’, ‘Félicité Parmentier’ and ‘Great Maiden’s Blush’ and ‘Königin von Dänemark’ have all made their way to the garden on Pender Island. Creating harmony, not just with colour; the Popes do it with everything they touch.
Colour by Design is by Sandra and Nori Pope (Conran Octopus, 1998).