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The Dead Plant Society meets again

Do you like your plants mingled or clumped?

Aster laevis 'Bluebird' intermingling happily with Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Fontaine'. Image ©GardenPhotos.com

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.

Eryngium giganteum and Veronicastrum ‘Fascination’ making self-contained clumps. Image ©GardenPhotos.com“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?
The American native Nemophila menziesii making a fine display at Japan's Hitachi Seaside Park. Image ©Luc Klinkhamer

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?

Four different annual yellow daisies planted to mingle together. Image ©GardenPhotos.com)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


Comments

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Graham Rice

Anne Wareham, editor of the thinkGardens website, emails to respond: "Of course everyone knows it's up to them, Graham. It's a form of rhetoric is all..."

Graham Rice

Well, Anne, perhaps I got a bit carried away. I was already fired up because I'd just had another email giving me a hard time because I grow buddlejas. As I've been told before: Not only is it wrong to plant buddlejas, but it should be illegal!

This has been going on since the National Zoo in Washington DC was shamed by the plant police into replacing buddleja as its Plant of The Month because it can be invasive. More here: http://transatlanticplantsman.typepad.com/transatlantic_plantsman/2008/06/dont-tell-me-not-to-grow-buddleja.html

We have just two buddlejas. Over the years far more have been killed in winter than have survived; we've never seen a single seedling. Here, it's a benign beauty. Invasive? Never. But people still demand that I grub them out.

So, anyway, I was already fuming when I caught up on the ideology of ecological mingling!

DermotDahlia

You know, you’re right. In two ways. First, I do become annoyed by “experts:” who tell me I should only plant native varieties, must grow my veg in raised beds, never spray my apples and all the rest. I assume they have teams of gardeners that do all the extra work for them. Here in Ireland we don’t take much notice of that sort of thing but it’s annoying all the same.

Also, when we’ve screwed up so much of nature why would we copy what we’ve turned nature into and put it all in our gardens. My small garden is that old idea of a room outside – to sit and eat and have company and a few drinks. Why would I fill it with drifts of mingling echinacas. And if I scale it all back to one echinacea and one sea holly – they’d be clumps! It’s all interesting reading, but you have to laugh.

Kate

I like my plants mingled. It looks more beautiful for me that way.

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