Monday, January 25, 2016

The lost plants of the Victorian golden age


The Victorian era was a true golden age for gardeners in Britain. Looking through the magazines, books and nursery catalogues of the period, it is clear that a vast array of plants that were widely grown then have now all but disappeared. Most of these were hothouse plants – our ancestors could grow them because coal was absurdly cheap, as was the labour to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the boiler.
for more see........

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Overwatering the desert? Planting in Dubai.



Modern public spaces allow for new forms of social interaction

Just spent a couple of days in Dubai (on the way back from India) with Fareena Khaliq, a colleague I had originally made contact with through the Landscape Dept. at Sheffield. She works here running a landscape design and maintenance company. It has been a great opportunity to think through what planting design can do in the Middle East, and in desert environments more generally. We also met up with Kamelia Zaal, the designer of last year's Chelsea garden 'The Beauty of Islam'.

Lots of questions. How do you make a garden or public planting which requires minimum irrigation but which performs visually? How do you make gardens for a population with no history or culture of gardening? How can the traditional Islamic garden be re-interpreted?

First – some background. I find Dubai a strange place. Superficially ultra modern with its skyline which looks like an architecture student's models have all come to life, it is in many ways a traditional family autocracy, run in a relatively benign fashion (in comparison with some of the other family-run countries in the neighbourhood!), with 80% of the population as non-citizens, simply here to work, and therefore with no real stake in the place - a set-up unlike anywhere else in the world. It is utterly unsustainable in its power and water consumption. However, it runs very smoothly and is the sort of place where experiments are possible as technical and design innovation is highly prized, and as perhaps the ultimate meeting place of east and west, tradition and modernity, it may yet surprise us.
A scene at the very successful and peaceful Al Barari location using recycled water. The remainder of the pictures show here as well.
There are public landscapes here which many of us westerners would take for granted, but which are not necessarily part of Middle Eastern culture, like public parks, and cafes in landscaped retail environments. These are not the male-dominated spaces they might be in many Muslim countries. and it was great to see a lot of traditionally-dressed women in groups around after dark, even some on their own. I can't help the feeling that public landscaping is playing a role here in developing more relaxed social settings than you might expect in the region.

The planting is generally desperately unimaginative and insanely unsustainble, grass and clipped bougainvillea would you believe! Fareena says that she wants to “bring forth solutions in the public and the private realm that use a mix of native and adapted flora - planting that is robust and varied- hence ecologically rich and still suitable to the local clime”. But, she is limited by the desire of many clients for greenery and as so often the case, the availability of plants from nurseries is very limited. There is a rich regional desert flora but it lacks the lush look that clients want, so nurseries are in no hurry to grow it.

Which brings us back to the Islamic garden, which is traditionally an enclosed space, with flowing water in formal rills and lush planting – everything which the desert is not, a vision of paradise, in a metaphorical and spiritual sense. This model is ideal for the way people live in the Middle East, which is very family-centred and behind high walls (this mentality, with the implication that no-one outside the wall can be trusted, arguably lies behind the extreme dysfunctionality of some Middle Eastern societies, the political results of which we are constantly reminded). The Mughal gardens of northern India and Pakistan take this concept and expand it, but they still remain fatally dependent on water.

One way forward was shown by a visit to Al-Barari, an gated residential community developed by local designer Kamelia Zaal, who made a garden for Chelsea last year (The Beauty of Islam). With its dense blended mix of trees and shrubs, narrow water ways and intimate views, it seemed the perfect modern naturalistic take on the Islamic garden concept, a magical oasis. Kamelia's theme has been the spread of Arab culture and Islamic faith through trade, and the plant origins very much reflect this. It is of course an upmarket development, but as so often in the world of art and design, elite places can often help inspire and facilitate other, more democratic, developments. The water is in fact derived from treated waste so is sustainable on that level. There is a great deal of birdlife to complete the oasis feeling.


Shared public spaces are something of a novelty, and Dubai's having them a sure sign of progress, but in dry environments they cannot have anything of the lushness of the traditional Islamic garden beyond very small areas. To us, the obvious solution is to use local drought-tolerant flora, but to locals this has little value, and is not appreciated. In addition, Fareena explained to me that many of the spiky desert plants used in dry garden design in the Mediterranean or the Americas, like agaves and yuccas, are perceived negatively - as aggressive and unattractive. Working out how to turn people on to the beauty of drought-tolerant plants looks like a challenge but has to be the only way. There is a widespread nostalgia here for the traditional desert-based lifestyle of the Emiratis now long since lost, now that the palm leaf hut has been swapped for the air-conditioned villa in two generations. Perhaps appeals to traditional landscapes may be the way forward.




* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.
SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.
********

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The rise and rise of the feel-good garden


I recently had to review a book, a mainstream, lavishly illustrated, rather general book on choosing and using ornamental plants. I suspect the author concerned (who shall remain nameless) had been told to write the book by their agent, or the TV company who has given them their high exposure. I'm sorry to say it got a bit of a hatchet job, as it was very sloppy and inadequate on the information front, but what dawned on me as I put it down was that it never, ever, faced up to some awkward truths about gardening. In particular there was no mention of weeds or weeding, something any book of the past on this subject would have dealt with, and often in great detail.

I fell to thinking more about comparing garden books of the past (until roughly the 1970s) and now. The book I had just reviewed had a 'feel good' factor – gardening is fun, gardening is lovely, gardening gets you close to nature, let mother nature be your guide, blah, blah, blah. Let's not mention slugs, weeds, aphids, diseases, above all let's not mention anything negative. Hear, see or speak no evil.

'Old-fashioned' gardening books were almost the opposite. Looking back on them now, they seem almost obsessed by the negative: huge sections on pests and diseases in particular. There was a great deal of information given, and often given in such a way that surely must have sent many a prospective gardener scurrying back indoors. Contemporary books not only give off an air of 'everything in the garden is lovely' but also are remarkably deficient in 'the difficult stuff'. I will freely admit that some of my own work could have addressed more fully problem issues.

One who does not pretend everything in the garden is coming up roses is Anne Wareham whose book 'The Bad-tempered Gardener' says it all. From what I recall, one chapter heading is actually called 'I hate gardening'. She uses this as an opportunity to think aloud why she does it, and makes a career out of it. She does however, seem to have as much an aversion to hard information as much as many other garden media.

So, what has happened? Why and how have we gone from a world of gardening being difficult, information heavy and a bit of a slog, to it being fun, uplifting, and generally lending itself to 'lifestyle' publishing with plant-porn pictures and feel-good text.

The period we are talking about has seen so many changes in the garden world:
  1. the growth of garden design
  2. a far better gender balance with massive increase in women becoming active as gardeners
  3. the large-scale development of consumer media
  4. a vast increase in the availability of consumer product
  5. the rise of 'green' gardening: the organic movement, wildlife gardening, etc.
  6. the linking of gardening with the idea of heritage

The first two are linked I think. The old-style garden book or magazine feature had a very strong strand of “get it right lad”. Hard facts presented man to man. A right way and a wrong way. The amateur gardener as a version of the (male) professional. I remember an old farm labourer neighbour who used to grow the most perfect sweet peas and delphiniums but with no thought about how the garden looked as a whole. He was a perfect example. In fact, ditto my father.

I suppose it might be possible to advance a very crude case that: since women tend to be more concerned with what things look like (design) and since the garden market is now far more gender balanced, then that explains that. Well not really; it would be sexist and patronising in the extreme to suggest that the decline in information was due to the rise of the female consumer (traditional women's activities like cooking and needlework need as much precision and knowledge as grafting and rather more than double digging). By the way, who remembers double-digging?

A more useful avenue might be to explore consumer culture. Companies make stuff to flog to us, and do their best to flog as much of it as possible. In the past a garden shop would sell seeds, tools, chemicals, and at appropriate times of year, plants. Now they sell far less useful stuff and far more that perhaps might be better described as 'garden décor' or useful stuff unnecessarily dolled up: slate labels with names of herbs already inscribed, birdboxes with design-conscious avian inhabitants in mind, little wire baskets to put plant pots in, “I'm in the garden” notices to hang on your house door, etc, etc. You know the kind of thing. Much of it made for the grab-and-gift market - “oh heavens, we have to give them something, she likes gardening, go on, that'll do”. This stuff is designed to look good, and may be sold alongside the purely functional spades, seed trays and packs of fertilizer. Or in some shops may actually replace it – there is a new generation of garden shops which sell only the designed, the visually-appealing, the dubiously useful and the downright dilettante.

Part of the reason for the now rampant consumerism is surely an economic one. Gardening traditionally was an activity that did not need much of a cash outlay: decent tools should last you years, as should seed trays, pots etc. Seed costs little. Potting compost would be one of the highest running costs. Dumbing gardening down, and making everything really easy can be a way of getting people to pay more: selling them vegetable plants, bedding plants, things well on their way to maturity, perennials in three litre pots. Never mind that some are actually very easy to grow from seed, and immensely more rewarding to do so. The illusion of the 'instant garden'.

It makes sense for garden centres and shops to see half-hardy annuals as young plants, but certainly not hardy ones, many of which form much better plants if sown where they are to flower. What I think is scandalous is the selling of short-lived vegetable plants in containers, sometimes several to a pot; things like mizuna or pak choi, which will bolt in five minutes after being separated and planted out. I have even seen such horrors on sale at an RHS garden; and a leading US nursery as has even offered seedlings of such easy-from-seed plants by post! For a ridiculous quantity of dollars needless to say.

The 'instant garden' and one focussed almost entirely on the design skills of putting things together to look good, be they plants, decking, furniture or neo-rustic bird houses, cuts out a whole level of skill, reducing the need for knowledge once regarded as vital: seed sowing, potting on, hardening off, etc. It may simply be that the emphasis on design, fashion and looks has simply driven out knowledge and skill from books and magazines. There is also the argument, often made with regard to all sorts of things, that wider contemporary trends downplay the importance of knowledge and the acquiring of skills; of this I am sceptical, seeing how so many have taken on board so willingly a whole range of computer skills, to say nothing of the popularity of skills-orientated cookery programmes.

A distinct sub-section of the vast array of consumer goodies on sale is retro. Garden consumer publications and advertising in particular used to stress the scientific credentials of whatever they promoted. No more. It seems, looking at much that is on for sale, that the fact that your grandmother/father sowed this seed variety, used this hoe design or that material for labels makes it somehow better. Some might argue that some heritage products are more sustainable (another one for the terracotta versus plastic pot debate), but on the whole there are good reasons why we have moved on. Wooden seed trays particularly annoy – as they are so much more difficult to sterilise than plastic and can provide a home for all sorts of fungal rots to kill your seedlings; a good example of the sheer ignorance of the manufacturers and promotors of retro.

The decline in respect for science in the garden world has gone hand in hand with the rise of both retro-gardening and 'green' gardening. One of the ironies (and tragedies) of ecological politics and its associated green consumer culture is that many of its most fervent believers are quite open in their hostility to science, or are clearly scientifically illiterate. The faith in heritage/heirloom links with a romantic belief in the past as having been a better time, we all know that is rubbish (slums, disease, oppression etc.) but it does not stop many looking back a century or so through rose-tinted spectacles.

Wildlife gardening, native plants, sustainability etc. has been the most important revolution in the garden world over the last couple of decades, and a huge amount of good has come out of these new movements, but they have also, needless to say, unleashed a whole wave of consumer goodies for us to be persuaded to spend our money on. I cannot but help there is a real cynicism here - “buy this product and help save the planet”. It is difficult for the garden media to do an honest job of judging the sustainability of much this product range for the usual reason of scaring away advertisers (I was actually told this by editors more than once, most outrageously by one as grounds for turning down my suggestion of a story on Indian 'natural' paving stone and slavery).

Dealing with problems: pests, diseases and weeds, seems to be a particular gap in the current range of garden books and magazine features. Attitudes of course have changed, as we have become much more relaxed about pests and diseases on ornamentals and chemical treatments have been widely discredited, or banned (possibly by an overcautious European Union). However having a sensible discussion about problems has been made much more difficult by the way the organic movement have driven forward a kind of stifling 'political correctness' i.e. we daren't recommend herbicides or pesticides of any kind for fear of being pilloried or have copy rejected by editors and publishers who do not actually understand the issues and respond to the hypocrisy of the current climate (i.e. only a small minority buy organic from the shops but many more express hostility to the crop protection products that puts the food in their supermarket trolleys at a reasonable price).

More fundamentally though I worry that the design focus of much of the past few years and the 'lifestyle' focus ('lifestyle' is one of those words which seems forever to be condemned to be enclosed within inverted commas) of the publishing industry has resulted in a huge loss of knowledge and skills in gardening. It is not in the interest of consumer and sales driven approaches to anything to stress challenges or the skills needed to overcome them.

Walking around allotments or looking newly made vegetable gardens I have noticed something - the new generation of veg growers are often curiously unambitious. A solidly-constructed raised bed (the ones that really annoy me are the ones that use railway sleeper size timber) is home to what their grandfather's generation would have regarded as a quarter row of cabbages and a mere smattering of lettuce. The actual amount of produce from many of these plots is so small, such a token, it seems as if the person concerned likes the idea of veg growing, but primarily needs to prove to themselves that they can do it (and so make them a better person in the process), show off to their friends, both the veg and the haloes around their heads – rather than actually make a substantial contribution to the household budget. If they set themselves low targets, then losses to pests, or low productivity does not really matter.

The confluence of all the above combine to push gardening into being a feel-good activity, an activity that stresses relaxation, consumption and self-satisfaction, not thinking (and certainly not using one's critical faculties) and a romantic longing for a wholesome, and simpler lifestyle. Gardening as morally-improving escapism (accompanied by the sound of credit card numbers being keyed in). The modern garden-consumer desperately wants to make the world a better place and is all too easily persuaded that they can do by the expenditure of yet more money.

Gardening should be relaxing, but to do it well is also challenging – I can't help feeling that much current garden literature does not face up to this, or to the immense satisfaction and sense of self-worth we get from taking on challenges and succeeding. We don't want to go back to the old days of the bossy old garden-writer, oblivious to design and aesthetic questions, but I do wish we could celebrate the joys of gardening at the same time as inform, advise and explain.

* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.
SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.
********

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Self-seeding plants - joys and dangers


Molinia caerulea supsp. arundinacea glowing in recent November sunlight - the worst offender for seedings, not so much the quantity more the root systems. But it would by no means happen everywhere.
Self-seeding has always been a crucial part of my gardening. There was a time when it would have been regarded as totally lesé majesté on the part of plants to decide where they were going to put themselves, only the gardener or designers being allowed to make such important decisions. Thanks to Beth Chatto, Margery Fish etc., the idea was introduced that self-seeding was ok, but of course had to be managed. At first deeply subversive of the border-order, the idea of self-seeding has become almost mainstream.
Hollyhocks at the back of one of our plantings at Montpelier Cottage; despite being on heavy loam they self-seed well. The colour range is very rewarding. Here we seem to avoid the worst rust, possibly because of prevailing westerly winds.
A recent book by some German and Austrian colleagues – Cultivating Chaos, how to enrichlandscapes with self-seeding plants (Timber Press), is the first one to address the topic. I wrote a forward, which starts off by telling the story of how I once planted one plant of a Geranium sylvaticum plant and it then seeded all over the garden – delightfully. But of course, despite being in the same part of the country on very similar soil, has failed to do so in my current garden. It is this unpredictability which makes self-seeding so interesting, intriguing and of course often frustrating.
You should just about be able to make out the spherical bobble flowers of  Echinops bannaticus 'Taplow Giant'.
The book is wonderfully illustrated by that king of German garden photographers, Jürgen Becker, and includes much useful information, but leaves much unsaid. One major area which is not stressed is the sheer unpredictability of self-seeding. It is of course difficult to write about the unpredictable, but it would have been nice to have some pointers, some observed correlations about particular plants, environment, seed characteristics. The title in German – Blackbox Gardening (the English is used) does however hint strongly at this. The blackbox referred to is a concept in biology, whereby we know what goes in, and what comes out, but have only a very incomplete understanding of the relationship between the two.
Hesperis matronalis - one of those self-seeders that annoying does not seed where you want it to, and does where you don't want it. It is related to wallflowers and is similarly biennial. There should be a variation between white and purple.
Eschscholzia - California poppies, a winter annual which flowers for months with us, summer through to early winter. But in some places will become invasive. Many self-seeding perennials are potentially a risk in the wrong place.

Some garden plants produce masses of seed but which almost never appear appears to germinate. Gentiana asclepiadea does this in my garden, but somewhere I was recently (Scotland? Berchigranges?) it self-seeded (what bliss!), possibly in Scotland, where I saw it growing 1.2m high! Others always seem to seed. At Montpelier Cottage, our two best self-seeders are the two classics for this type of plant: hollyhocks and Aquilegia vulgaris. Interestingly both have considerable genetic diversity, manifested largely through a range of flower colour, the aquilegia particularly – originally a Jelitto seed mix.
Gentiana asclepiadea, seeds in some lucky people's gardens.

Cowslips, Primula veris, like nearly all primulas will seed very easily in the right conditions.
Others seed too much, and this is something which Cultivating Chaos does not really face up to, or that of creating dangerously invasively aliens. Effective self-seeders are classically pioneer plants, whose survival strategy is to cast vast quantities of seed around to ensure species survival in unstable and transitional environments. Some will become a nuisance. Early on, at Montpelier, I planted out Euphorbia rigida, which is a winter annual which produces a large head of small white yellow-green flowers. Fine, except that just before flowering time it tends to fall over, looking a right mess. I've spent years trying to get rid of it, but now with the garden very much fuller, the opportunity it has for seeding is much reduced, and seedlings which survive attempts at elimination face more competition perhaps – as they don't seem to fall over so much. So, it survives as a minor, and largely tolerated, element. 
Euphorbia rigida - can look good can't it?
Astrantia major varieties, all seeded from - originally pink/red, varieties.

In view of what I have just said about the euphorbia, some self-seeders which went from interesting to annoying have become less annoying over time. One reason i think is that in the early years of the garden there was more space, so a few things, like Echinops bannaticus 'Taplow Giant' got enormous and were just a nuisance. Now I weed out most of its seedlings just letting a few grow, and since there is now so much more competition, they do not grow so big. This is a species which seems distinctly short-lived like many vigorous seeders, and so the self-seeding is needed if it is stay in the garden.
Meadowsweet, a locally native plant, spontaneous seedlings have to be watched; pretty for a few years but then so strongly spreading it needs removing.

Most unwanted seedlings can be hoed off or pulled out. Sometimes they can't, because, like fennel, they rapidly develop a deep taproot which needs digging out, or spraying out (except that that is never going to work in the winter). Molinia caerulea is another horror, as even small plants have a very dense wide-spreading and tough root system. Given half a chance they seem to be able to insinuate a profusion of seedlings in amongst other plants. In our heavy loam, all these that need digging out create quite a lot of work. So last week we dug out all the Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea types – the tall ones. I have written beforeabout my concerns over certain grasses becoming too aggressively self-seeding. This is something which we really do need to watch out for. Some are potentially very problematic.
Aquilegia vulgaris, the Queen of self-seeders, as they maintain amazing diversity as generations replace each other.
Telekia speciosa - one of those 'perennials' which lives for only a few years, and has to self-seed in the garden for it to survive. With us it seems to do so at the right kind of level.
Silene dioica, red campion, a vigorous self-seeder, but since it is almost summer dormant, it fits in well with summer flowering perennials, at least in our long Atlantic growing season.


SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Perennials across Europe: Czech, Slovak, German

One of Adam Baros's plantings at the Dendrological Garden in Pruhonice, which has survived a scorching summer
My recent post about the wonderful garden of Berchigranges in the Vosges mountains of France, was at the end of a trip which involved driving to Hermannshof and then on to Prague (Pruhonice actually) to do some teaching and then back across southern Germany. The Czech garden tradition and present, I have blogged about before, and it was good to be back again so soon. Adam Baroš had got me a long to run two days of workshops at the Dendrologial Park, and I felt very honoured to be the first person to teach in a brand-new building. There is a feeling here of positive, reasonably well-funded looking forward.
The city of Plzen in western Czech Republic has some of the most extensive perennial plantings in any city centre I have seen anywhere.

Also in city centre Plzen, vast arcades of ivy, very clever, and something i have never seen before.
The literally hot topic of conversation on both my trips to central Europe this year, which included Austria a few weeks ago, was the summer. Many days over 30°C, a maximum (at Pruhonice) of 38.5°C (in the shade) and just-above ground temperatures in the sun an incredible lawn-killing 50°C. And no rain for eight weeks. There has been rain since and much has recovered by the time of my mid-September visit, but there is clearly going to be a lot of long-term damage to woody plants, with many losses. Garden staff say that surface-rooting species like Hamamelis and Rhododendron are particularly badly affected, and they expect many to die. It is a frightening foretaste of things to come, if, as predicted, global warming and climate change continue.

It was good to have so many people at the workshops and from such a range of backgrounds, and to have quite a few come up from Slovakia on both days. There were some familiar faces such as Prof. Dagmar Hillova who teaches landscape and planting design at a University at Nitra in Slovakia and Martina Šášiková who runs Victoria - trvalková škôlka (www.victoria-trvalky.sk) a huge wholesale perennial nursery near Nitra. I said I would do a planting workshop for her next year, to celebrate the nursery's fifteenth anniversary. It was great to have the Slovaks along – my wife Jo worked in Bratislava from 1993-1995 so we feel we know the country well. There were worries at the time about the viability of the newly independent country since the saying was that “the Czechs make the boots and the Slovaks the laces”. Not any more – the country has done well economically and politically and they are in the euro, and there has not been a squeak about their letting the new currency down, unlike the southern members of the eurobelt. And of course, economic development drives an interest in gardening and public landscaping.

Bettina Jaugstetter plantings at ABB
On my way I had visited the fabulous Hermannshof garden at Weinheim in Germany's Rhineland, somewhere I ideally try to get to once a year. Director Cassian Schmidt is also heavily involved in teaching planting design at a new university of Geissenheim. His wife, Bettina Jaugstetter, is a garden designer who is also now developing planting mixes. (For those who need an introdction to the German concept of Mixed Planting look here). I had seen spectacular pictures of her work at the ABB factory, a nearby manufacturer of electrical equipment and so I was delighted to visit and see these now well-established plantings. Bettina's plantings are not in soil, but a mineral based substrate similar to that used on green roofs. A minimal organic matter content helps provide a stable and predictable rooting environment and reduces opportunities for weed growth, so reducing maintenance. At the end of the year, everything is cut back and removed. As with mineral substrate based green roofs this must inevitably result in a reduced value to the biodiversity value of the planting since there is limited resources for the development of a soil ecology – the trade-off is the stability of the environment for maintenance purposes and the incredibly high visual value of the plantings in the workplace.






Later that day, we went off to see some plantings in Ludwigshafen, where park director Harald Sauer has created a series of spectacular annual and perennial plantings in the city's Ebert Park and at the entrance to a major cemetery. I understood his budget to be pretty limited, which makes these all the more impressive. Some of his work is completely new – great snaking beds of perennials in the cemetery for example but others are about the imaginative remaking or enlivening of existing features made in the 20th century and needing renewal. The plantings are very successful, looking very vibrant now, although in looking at them I do ask the question, what do they look like earlier in the year? One can imagine bulbs in here, but what about the May-July interest? I do sometimes worry that all the focus we have put on late-season perennials and winter seedheads has drawn attention away from the early summer period.





Rows of watering cans used for graveside plantings - rather sad people feel they have to lock them up!
There are some more pictures of the Ebert Park here, and of the Ludwigshafen Cemetery here.

Further on down the road I popped into the Gaissmayer nursery near Ulm which has a huge range of perennials plus lots of whacky artworks and an attached 'museum of garden culture'. The sales model for perennials seems similar to that of many other nurseries over here and in The Netherlands, small plants mostly in 9cm pots, at some prices – often only 3 euros a plant, half the price of the 2litre pots of perennials which now seems to be the standard in Britain. It does seem to be a very different business model.



The Museum of GardenCulture displayed only a part of what is clearly a huge collection of tools and equipment, and which, from what I was able to work out, is divided into several parts which move around different locations each year. Far more impressive than anything we have in Britain and which knocks London's Garden Museum into the proverbial 'cocked hat' – although since the museum are undergoing a huge rebuild next year, we can but live in hope.


* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. There is also the first in a series of planting design textbooks, delivered in collaboration with My Garden School.
You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Berchigranges - still the most beautiful garden in the world. And it could be yours....



Three years ago, round about this time of year I visited le Jardin de Berchigranges, in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. At the time I remember saying (and committing to the blog) that this was the most beautiful garden I had ever been to. That's quite a rash thing to say, and rather untypical of me. So it was interesting to go again, and yes, I think it is, more so than ever. Berchigranges really is the most amazing garden and place. And whats' more – there is an opening here, for someone, or a couple.

Monique et Thierry, who have made this remarkable place over the last twenty-odd years, are in their sixties and looking to slow down (eventually!) so they are hoping to find someone who will come and become involved and eventually take over, and they are prepared to give them a major stake in the property. Now that's a pretty incredible offer. One with huge potential for someone who wishes to commit themselves to a life of hard work in an incredibly beautiful but remote place. So pass the word around.

It is always difficult to pin down what makes a garden really special.

A Place Apart
The journey, up endlessly curving mountain roads through conifer forest, do help prepare one for something special. Once there, with views out from an almost amphitheatre type setting, you do feel that you have left the profane world behind and are somewhere special, almost enchanted. It feels pretty remote. It is.
There are endless quirky little touches like the odd hornbeam hedgelet replacing the stone in a dry stone wall

An Experimental Garden
Monique kept on saying to me - “this is an experimental garden”. Innovation is what these two do incessantly. It is clearly second nature to them. Buildings, planting, land shaping, everything here is done to try something out. There is an unfamiliarity here, because there are so many things which I have never seen before: a long low sinuous building with a grass roof, a bridge with a hedge on either side, great retaining walls built of logs, a formal garden with wooden parqué flooring, a huge new meadow full of asters, silphiums and other prairie perennials, or simply familiar garden perennials used on a generous scale in a very naturalistic way. Yet it is a very gentle unfamiliarity – there is none of that desperate seeking after the contemporary in the self-conscious art-world way of say, the Chaumont garden festival.
This is a bridge!
Innovation
The level of innovation here is a strong reminder of just how un-innovative much garden-making is. Berchingranges feels everso subtly different to so many gardens, because the owners are just doing what they wanted to do, for themselves and probably don't actually care what other people think. (It is not for me to tell this story, but that of their meeting and subsequent passionate love affair has a similar quality). The trouble is with most garden-making is that most people care too much about what others think, as they try to impress, or to emulate, or to, and ohmygod I hate this, make an English garden. Why do people in France, in Germany or the USA endlessly try to make English ****** gardens? I'm sick of them. They all end up the same – as a pastel pastiche, while their owners obliviously live the cliché, almost wallowing in their inability to do anything actually creative. That there is no attempt to here to do that is one reason amongst many why this place is just so damm good (so there are not many roses).

Monique is actually a huge Bloomsbury fan, but she doesn't waltz around with a big hat with a trug over her arm, pretending she is Vita Sackville-West. Her understanding of Bloomsbury is much more genuinely in the movement's spirit of bohemian experimentalism.

Going With What Works
One of the great things about Berchigranges is that M et T realise that a plant does well and then plant lots of it. This is nearly 700m in altitude and receiving up to 3000mm of rain a year, so conditions are a little different to many gardens and there are endless surprises. Actaeas do well, and so there is a whole great patch of their dancing white flower spikes. Euphorbia corollata (hardly seen in Britain) forms foaming white masses above increasingly fiery autumn colour. Clumps of Gentiana triflora, nearly a metre high, project an intense blueness on a lightly-shaded bank. A wall of 3m high Senecio canabinifolia marks the end of a meadow.

Creative Tension
This is a very naturalistic garden, with a huge amount of self-seeding and spreading going on, and sometimes a feeling that things in some places are just being left to get on with it. However there is always a clear edge and then the most immaculate lawns. When I was there, Thierry and two employees were busily raking off worm casts. Most of us 'new perennialists' (Dutch and British anyway) regard having a lawn with more clover/daisy/selfheal than grass almost as a badge of honour. But here the lawn is all grassy perfection. Thierry's first career was as a hairdresser apparently. It shows. They explain however that this is France, and in France if you plant wild you have to show that the wildness is intentional and the best way of doing this is frame all the wildness with a perfect lawn and perfectly trimmed edges.
Monique likens the hornbeam hedges at the top of the garden to a pinball machine which sends visitors backwards and forwards before sending them out to explore the more naturalistic areas of the garden.


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Gardeners with a limitation of space tend to rework their plantings after a few years. Those with no such restriction tend to go on and develop new areas. This is not always a good thing, as there is the risk of them over-extending themselves; the previously planted areas meanwhile not receiving the rethinking and reworking they might benefit from. At Berchigranges, Monique et Thierry have moved on down the hill, but developing a progressively more naturalistic style as they do so. The latest development is the 'Bohemian meadow', asters and other (mostly daisy-family) plants in grass.
Visitors in the (relatively new) meadow area

The older areas of the garden at the top have matured well, although there are places which I think could benefit from some rethinking – where one species has dominated for example. But what is interesting is to see how other species have successfully blended - I was particularly impressed by a narrow rose hedge, just like a mini version of a country hedgerow with perennials spreading along the base: brunnera, geranium, digitalis etc. This is particularly instructive at the edges of the borders where geraniums or persicaria-type species have spread to form a really solid edge, and kept trimmed back with a very clear lawn/boundary demarcation. Much of these plantings are incredibly full and dense, which must help with weed control. The edges of the plantings, Thierry explains, are trimmed every two weeks – sort of continuous pruning really. This stops the problem I have - of perennials falling over paths in rain. It does not work with everything (it would not work with monocots like hemerocallis or grasses, which only grow back from the base) but for geraniums, alchemilla, campanulas, persicarias, which can respond to a prune with growing more side-shoots and bush out, it helps develop a really dense edge. I'm going to try this at home this coming growing season – le nouvel régime Berchigranges.

Nepeta at the front of a planting, clipped to keep it flopping over the edge, a new way of managing perennial edges.
One of Thierry's endlessly simple but novel creations. There is seating for 100 scattered around the garden.
 The garden website:
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