Thursday, August 2, 2018

We have the new perennials but where is the new perennial garden?

A recent blog post by Marc 'le jardinier' is tries to provoke a discussion about whether the so-called 'New Perennial' movement has had much of an impact on British gardens. His conclusion is 'not much'. The implication is that this should be a surprise. In many ways I agree with him but I don't think it is a surprise. So, here I'd like to do one of those roundups where I look around and survey the scene and ask, “what has really changed?”. Apart from the interest in this as gardeners and landscape designers, it's an opportunity to think more widely about why we garden and about the way that cultural change happens.

The 'New Perennial' moniker is an annoying one anyway. Anything with 'new' in the title inevitably comes with a date stamp in the near future. It actually dates to 1996, when Frances Lincoln decided, in one of those moments of genius that made everyone else in publishing think “why didn't I think of that?”, to use it as a title for a book project I had with her company.

A Nadia Malarky designed garden in Columbus Ohio
What the 'new' and the 'perennial' flag up though is that there have been enormous changes in British, and American gardening over the last thirty years, and one of the biggest has been the revival of interest in herbaceous perennials. Looking back to the 1980s, it is actually hard to imagine how people gardened with so few perennials. Anyone who is too young to remember this time would be astonished now at how garden centres and nurseries almost entirely sold shrubs and bedding, with perennials a distinct minority interest. On a recent trip to the US (primarily Ohio) I was amazed by how many gardens featured perennials, mostly echinaceas and rudbeckias of course. In the past there would have been lawn and a square metre of pink phlox if you were lucky. A great sense of satisfaction, and pride, at having been part of the movement that has enabled this.

What people have done with the perennials is another thing. As with the grasses, which have been an even bigger shift since the 1980s (back then NOBODY in Britain grew grasses apart from eccentric prophets in the wilderness like Roger Grounds). On the whole they have slotted their geraniums, monardas and Carex testacea into the garden format they had before. Which generally means the borders around the lawn; the ingredients have changed but the recipe hasn't.

For those of us, like the people reading this blog post, who are (and trying not to sound too superior here) part of the gardening 'elite', acting as opinion-formers etc., the mismatch between what we think people should do with 'our' plants and what they actually do with them, may be considerable. But take an analogy – think of the amateur art shows we have all been too, usually held in village halls. How many of the artists have done what the art elite seem to describe as art: smear mud on the walls, pile up bricks, carry in their unmade bed and leave it in the middle of the room? None. Elite thinking about art has not penetrated very far into popular culture (do I hear sounds of relief?). No-one in the real world seems to want to practice 'conceptual art'. 'Art' for most people does mean: painting, beauty, colour, form, memory, landscape, portraiture, while Tracy Emin's unmade bed at the Tate is little more than a provocation to chattering class dinner parties.

Am I making an analogy between conceptual art and 'new perennial' gardening? Only in as much as they are both elite concerns which have not penetrated popular culture. Personally, I think most conceptual art is crap and new perennial planting isn't. But then I'm not a conceptual artist whose just had a fat grant for hanging tampons on a washing line or whatever.

Most people garden to relax, unwind and feel close to the sanitised version of nature that the garden presents us with. They are not interested in trends, concepts and 'movements'. They want something that looks nice and makes them feel good. This means that gardening is one of the more conservative of the arts. And who are we to criticise what people do in their spare time? And another thing – naturalistic planting is systems or community thinking. Its about creating plant mixes and most gardeners do not think like that. They think only in terms of individual plants and how they like them, and maybe find good neighbours for them. They are driven by what looks nice down at the garden centre or the nursery. Fair enough. I don't think we could expect otherwise.

And another thing! Much of the naturalistic planting featured in garden magazines is large-scale. It's Piet O doing parks or those designers who specialise in large country gardens; some medium-scale and more 'average' gardeners certainly get featured, but there are surprisingly few who really carry it off. One who has tried is featured in the September issue of Country Living; Jo Ward-Ellison in Gloucestershire. Size puts people off. Unnecessarily I think. On of the virtues of naturalistic planting is that it is about building plant communities, which are scaleable and work over a range of sizes. Take a Piet O planting and in many cases you could chop a bit off and stick in your suburban garden to replace the oh-so-boring lawn and with a bit of fiddling it would still look good. The main difference would be that you would be forced to be closer to a lot of the plants so you would appreciate them in a different way to the 'big picture' view. Perhaps no bad thing.

More pointedly, I'd like to ask about how much designers and the landscape profession have taken on board 'new perennials' or as I'm going to call it from now on, naturalistic planting? There is no doubt that the range of plants has been massively increased, although there is still a problem about how you sell late-season perennials, as they generally look so awful in pots. The garden centre industry has never really tried although internet sales have come to the rescue to some extent. The huge growth in the garden design profession has gone hand in hand with the perennial explosion although for the most part perennials are used within those designs in a relatively conventional way.
Most garden designers still seem to be at the level of slotting individuals together than creating functioning plant communities.

The landscape profession, largely under pressure from clients anxious about the maintenance costs of what they pay for, have been cautious, understandably. For the most part, they also lack the plant knowledge to know how to use perennials. Many are anxious to learn, as I can see from the folk turning up at my workshops ( and Knowledge about the long-term performance of perennials is also poor; something I am endlessly banging on about, and which I try to address in the workshops.

The big change in British gardening, and one also increasingly being followed elsewhere is the 'wildlife gardening' movement. Supported by a strong grassroots interest in conservation and at what we might call the 'official level', i.e by the RHS, this has made a huge impact, and again it is difficult to imagine how this could have happened without the perennial revolution. It stresses diversity, that varied habitats are the best thing we can do for nature, something that the good old British 'mixed border' addresses rather well. Crucially, the wildlife gardening movement also does something else – it gives gardeners permission to be a bit untidy: weeds, dead leaves, unpruned shrubs. That has probably helped a great deal.

So, changes there have certainly been, for the better, but we still have a long way to go. Changes in garden practice can take a lot longer to take place than in many other spheres of human activity. More crucial than the largely aesthetic concerns of New Perennial gardeners are the impacts that gardening and landscape practice have on sustainability and wildlife. I'll be considering that next and ask the question “is anybody out there actually doing ecological planting?”

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