Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Current trends in planting and design

This was the title of the Gardens Illustrated lecture held yesterday at the Royal Geographical Society.  Jointly steered by Tim Richardson, garden historian and writer, and Noel Kingsbury, researcher and writer, the discussion between three well-known designers pointed out some of the directions that garden planting and design is taking.
The designers, Andy Sturgeon, Dan Pearson and Cleve West - officially up there with the big boys now, thanks to his ‘best in show ‘ garden at Chelsea this week – had interesting things to say about both their own practice and the future development of design, although it seemed to me that a number of points were  left unaddressed.

A meadow with unmanaged planting - other than grazing

In one sense the debate turned on the tension between ‘Modernism’ and ‘traditional’ gardening styles.  Part of the trouble in this debate is that the term ‘Modernism’ refers to a distinct artistic movement, with political and social dimensions, that emerged in Europe after the First World War and held sway for a quarter century and more, evolving as it travelled across the planet and finding its spiritual home in interwar Germany at the Bauhaus school and in the United States.  We all think we know ‘Modernism’ – but we use the term as shorthand in relation to any pared-down building, garden, painting or sculpture, and this is often an inaccurate way to describe what we see.  I think we need to seek a new term to identify our current creative trends  - ‘contemporary’ is insufficient.  But this is an aside – what of gardens?

Natural plant communities- the template for new developments in planting

Andy Sturgeon has written that the conflation of Modernist and Arts and Crafts styles in gardens is a ‘very British fudge’ – he’s right.  In a way most current ‘Modern’ designs of strong ground plans, asymmetrical and using up-to-date versions of old materials (sawn, honed and polished stone rather than riven slabs) still have at their heart the Arts and Crafts style – loose, romantic planting set within a strong frame.  The plant choices have changed over the years with the tides of fashion, but the great traditions of planting that have rendered the British style desirable across the world still hold sway.  We love our plants – the variety, the colour, the succession through the year.  Creating plantings which look good at any season, that combine wonderfully harmonising or clashing colour combinations with scent and structure is, as Tim Richardson reminded the audience, our greatest native vernacular art form.  The French have food, we have gardens.  For many, this fudge is an acceptable one – you can have a wide variety of plants and a funky terrace all in the same space, and call it ‘contemporary’ -  but what comes next?  If we are to identify and define a new style, what will it look like – and what will it be called?

Massed sunflowers as seedheads - an attempt at a natural community

The big developments are taking place outside the UK, it seems – the speakers referred to Eastern Europe and Germany as areas where exploration into new planting styles are furthest advanced.  These developments hinge on the the naturalism of wild plant communities, and this naturalism is something we are also exploring in the UK.
Through research into plant communities such as meadows, steppes and prairies, there have crept into our planting palette over the past 20 years the echinaceas, rudbeckias, grasses, eupatoriums and countless other varieties.  Wilder-looking than traditional garden plants (although, of course, hybridisation and selections mean that we are seeing increasing numbers of cultivars that are shorter, more floriferous, more brightly-coloured and more ‘garden-worthy’) these plants have been used widely in less formal plantings in the UK and beyond. 

Drifts of natural-looking plants evoke the combinations of plants found in nature
The New Perennial style, prairie plantings and drift planting all use this type of plant material, but such gardens need to be created on a large scale in order to succeed fully.  Meadows and ‘pictorial meadows’ are now equally engineered, and while we call them ‘naturalistic’ they are in no way natural – they are gardens, and as such are as much an artifice as a rose garden underplanted with catmint.  The fact that they emulate nature helps us to view them as ‘wild’, but in reality I think that they are emblematic of our current uneasy relationship with the natural world.

A roof garden in California - local flora massed for ornamental and ecological impact
While news regarding the environment is continually gloomy – climate change, deforestation and biodiversity issues continue to worsen it seems, no matter how much we say we want to make amends – we appear to be seeking a way of both salving our consciences as well as creating little bits of nature to return to from the pressures of the modern world.  That is what gardens have always been, of course, but the yearning to have a patch of ground that looks as though it could be a piece of unimproved nature seems to be getting stronger.  Seed mixes for meadows can be tweaked for their aesthetic value, and while they may help to improve biodiversity, a similar effect can be created in most traditional gardens by letting the lawn grow a bit weedy and leaving flowering stems to stand through the winter.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the new styles of naturalistic meadows and prairies, engineered plant communities and green roofs – I just don’t think we should fool ourselves that we are making anything less artificial than a traditional garden.  The biggest benefits come from the maintenance regimes we adopt, and these can become wildlife-friendly no matter what our preferred style of gardening.  The danger of ‘going wild’ is that, in small spaces, any sense of underlying structure is lost, and gardens lack focus.  On an appropriately large scale there is still scope for areas of naturalistic planting within an established layout.

Gardening with a light touch - drifts of plausibly 'native' plants in a woodland setting

Dan Pearson reflected yesterday that he hopes, in large areas of his new garden, to allow nature to have the upper hand – by careful editing, restrained addition and sympathetic management he aims to create his garden from what is there, on the ground.  Perhaps this is as close as we will get to a truly naturalistic garden  – but it will still be a garden.

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