Over on the excellent and always provocative thinkinGardens website, there’s been some – how shall we say – strongly felt debate about planting styles. In essence, the dispute is between those who favor “naturalistic” mixed plantings over those who question why this touted as a universal ideal. Though to me, the very notion of an “ideal” way of planting seems perverse.
“Planting design in the last decade has taken a decisive turn toward ecology. One of the interesting by products of this shift is the rise of mixed plantings in many designed projects. Piet Oudolf’s work on The Highline in Lower Manhattan - now one of the most visited tourist sites in New York - is a much celebrated example of this trend…. But intermingling plants is not just a design strategy; it is increasingly an ideology.” So says Thomas Rainier, the landscape architect and writer from Washington DC.
“Intermingling is inspired by natural plant communities, the free, uninhibited way wild plants grow, densely intermeshing, leaning on each other… Compare this with the typical garden border (left: hover for caption, click to enlarge), where about nine plants share a square metre and barely touch each other.” Says Noel Kingsbury, the writer and researcher, lecturer, teacher and long-ago nursery owner from the English/Welsh borders.
So - why is “ecological” intermingling (at the top: hover for caption, click to enlarge) thought to be somehow superior? Bye bye Gertrude Jekyll. But hey, we’re talking about gardens – it’s all artificial, none of it’s natural. As Germaine Greer put it years ago, gardening is an inherently fascistic activity – gardeners impose order on nature, that's what gardening is. But is one form of order inherently superior to another? No. It’s a garden. It’s a matter of aesthetics, of taste.
Gardening (even, to some extent, growing food) is about the gardener creating what s/he believes is beautiful. You think it looks too clumpy or too messy? Fine - you do what you like in your garden and I’ll do what I like in mine.
One of the things that struck me when I first visited Holland decades ago was the way that clumps of plants were set out in front gardens with bare soil between them – as they were grown in physic gardens in Britain hundreds of years ago. This is what Noel Kingsbury seems to be alluding to (above) but in reality no one plants like this any more – though, I have to say, it has its appeal. So I can understand why Piet Oudolf’s beautiful interconnected plantings are based on the opposite approach.
Thomas Rainer points to what are almost monocultures in nature as an example of a natural planting that can inspire a very different style of gardening from the intermingling promoted by Noel Kingsbury - who responds that with the many mosses and lichens growing down at ground level they are not actually monocultures at all. So what about this Japanese planting of an American native, Nemophila menziesii?
I’ve heard gardeners say that they’re inspired by the South Downs in Britain with their flower-rich grassland cropped by sheep, and heard others say they’re inspired by the deciduous forests of the eastern United States where the chestnuts that once comprised a quarter of the trees are gone owing to disease brought from Asia – but as the ecology of both these man-made habitats settles into its new stability let’s remember that neither is really natural. It’s fine to be inspired by them, of course, but both habitats have been transformed by mankind - as has so much of the so-called natural world in developed and developing countries.
Me? I’m a mingler. I like to see the visual interactions between plants – those four different yellow daisies in the picture on the right were all grown individually pots and planted to achieve exactly that effect. But how many people have the time, energy or inclination to go to so much trouble?
So here’s the thing: What you plant, and how you group the plants, is up to you. If you like, and have the time and expertise to maintain, the masterfully integrated intermingled plantings such as those created by Piet Oudolf, fine. If you prefer the more traditional approach of clumps of plants mingling only at the edges, fine. If you like to show off individual specimens in their own space, fine. If you like marigolds planted in white-painted car tires – that’s fine too. And, I should say, they can all appeal to insects and other wildlife as well as the eye.
None of these approaches is inherently superior - however much anyone of us dislikes any one of them – and no one should be telling us that it is. We should plant what we like, in the way we like it – whatever anyone else says. But we should also keep up with the discussion over at thinkinGardens.
Noel Kingsbury's latest book is Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press) available from amazon.co.uk and also from amazon.com. Check out his blog at Noel's Garden Blog
And please take a look at Thomas Rainier's blog at Grounded Design