Sunday, October 14, 2018

Louisiana, Denmark - a perfect synthesis of sculpture, archictecture and landscape

Louisiana, a contemporary art gallery north of Copenhagen just has to be one of my most favourite places. Not for the contents so much (I am no great fan of contemporary art) but for the extraordinary and quite unique synthesis of art, landscape and architecture it offers. It also has an atmosphere of immense calm, almost a healing atmosphere. I think I have been there six or seven times now and every time I walk away quite mesmerised by it..... continue here

Thursday, October 11, 2018

End of an era at Hummelo

So, you have until October 27th to see Piet and Anja’s private garden at Hummelo. After that, sorry, but its no more visiting..... continue on
where I will now be moving my blog posts from now on. This felt like a good opportunity to make the move, as the old blogger site just did not do justice to the images.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ecological Planting - The revolution will never be bought at the garden centre.

A Larry Weaner garden in New England. To be featured in the October issue of Gardens Illustrated. Photo credit: Claire Takacs

Who remembers that wonderful Gil Scott-Heron rap song “The Revolution Will Not BeTelevised”
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because The revolution will not be televised.

I feel like coming up with something similar for 'ecological planting'.

There is much talk of ecological planting? Is anyone actually doing any? Or is it all talk?

What is ecological planting anyway?

And does it matter?

Well, it is always nice when words convey meaning we can all agree on, and in this case we are not just talking about something with the equivalence of an artistic movement but also something that a direct impact on biodiversity. There is always the ever-present danger of 'greenwash', something sounding green and good for the environment but in fact just a trendy feel-good facade.

Years ago (late 1990s) Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough had made the distinction between 'naturalistic' planting and ecological functioning, i.e. you can have 1) something that looks natural but is either completely static or dependent on quite intense management or 2) a planting that is to some extent dynamic, i.e. its components are going through active processes of seeding, spreading, dying. An ecologically functioning planting should have some level of stability, so it can continue to exist without too much human intervention. One example might be a meadow, which is dependent for its long-term survival on annual mowing but otherwise is relatively stable from year to year.

Now, it should be pretty obvious that there is a lot of good planting design that falls into the former category, natural looking to most observers but in fact not in the remotest sense a dynamic self-sustaining plant community. Anyone with any knowledge of basic plant ecology would not be fooled, and more importantly neither would most invertebrates seeking a habitat.

Compare such a planting to a natural or semi-natural habitat like a meadow and it is immediately obvious that any horticultural planting is almost absurdly low density. In a wild habitat, gaps between plants are often difficult to see, whereas in a human-created planting they are usually pretty obvious. It is possible to get tens of species in one square metre in the wild, whereas most artificial plantings have 4 or 5 plants (never mind species) to the square metre, or 9 at the most (this figure is significant, as we shall see).
Six species in shot, but could do better, BUT much greater species density than most gardeners aim at: close-up of one of my old trial plots in Herefordshire

Think about this disparity in density in habitat terms – the artificial planting will be almost inevitably far poorer. So, before doing too much slapping ourselves on the back about what a good turn we are doing for nature, let's just consider the absurdity of thinking that just because we've got something that looks rather natural, and/or is composed of locally-native species we've created something that is any way equivalent to a natural habitat. If it's got gaps between plants its ecological functioning will be below par, and it will be unstable (space for weeds). Ecological planting it is not.

To go back to Gil Scott-Heron:
The revolution is not because you got the right plants for the habitat conditions,
The revolution hasn't happened because you've gone all native
The revolution isn't ticking all the species on the list of bee-friendly plants from Home Depot
The revolution is not just about looking all wild and woolly,
The revolution will never be bought at the garden centre.

Above all, because the whole 'perennial revolution' has happened alongside the interest in naturalistic planting there tends to develop the thought in too many heads that “it's all perennials therefore it must be ecological”.


At the same time however, let's remember the much-quoted Owen research  which showed just how many insect species an average (i.e. not in the remotest sense ecological) British garden contains. This shows us the exciting possibilities! Imagine how much biodiversity a garden could contain if it had something approaching the density of real habitat AND the range of diversity that most gardens include anyway (trees and shrubs and perennials and climbers).

How do we measure garden biodiversity? Not easy. Never is. Owen simply counted species not their frequency of occurrence in comparison to 'nature', and if you look through the academic literature it rapidly becomes apparent that there is no easy, or for that matter difficult, way to measure overall health of ecological functioning. What sometimes is done by researchers is to take one particular aspect, usually a category of insect, and use that as an indicator. Trouble is, it will be different for different types of habitat. Currently there is much focus on pollinators. And much trendy nonsense spoken; trouble is - where there are marketing opportunities, pseudoscientific gibberish soon follows. Pollinators could a relatively easy group to use as an indicator for ecosystem health. The trouble is though that I could imagine a garden planted with pollinator-friendly plants buzzing with bees etc, but which actually supported very little else such as ground-level invertebrate biodiversity.

How much do we want to create gardens that are genuine biodiversity reserves? If we really want to create plantings with an ecological functionality that approaches equivalent natural environments, then we must be honest in making clear the distinctions between these and plantings that merely look a bit wild.

Anyone who sows a meadow or prairie and got it to a point of reasonable stability will have created a functioning ecosystem. BUT,  this won't be a garden but only a habitat restoration. In the US however, practitioners such as Larry Weaner have started to tweak seed mixes to create what are essentially ornamental versions of natural ecosystems. The much richer flora of North America (compared to much of Europe) allows this. But it still is not what most people would regard as a garden. BTW there's a great example of his work coming up in Gardens Illustrated soon.

So, any other, more garden-like, examples?

The best can be seen in lightly shaded habitats where light levels knock back grass growth, the main enemy of plant diversity (dense north European grassland could possibly be worse in ecosystem functioning than your average garden). Or indeed other, slightly stressed habitats. Established gardens sometimes have amazingly dense and varied combinations of woodland species in such places. One of my favourite such areas is the woodland garden at Wisley (the one near the new glasshouse): a whole range of rather competitive woodland edge species, native and introduced fight for supremacy, and with the possible exception of one patch of comfrey, nobody seems to be winning. Maintenance seems to be limited to the odd clear-out and re-plant, which I suspect has the effect of 're-setting the clock'.
A spectacular example I saw recently was as Innisfree in NY State, where a shaded rocky slope is home to a bewildering variety of naturalised garden plants, mostly non-native species, but mixed with natives. According to Kate Kerin, the Landscape Curator there, this would have been planted up between the 1930s and the early 2000s and gets only limited maintenance – mostly pulling of grass and tree seedlings. One of the sights in this fascinating, but also rather precipitous, place is a big patch of Coreopsis verticillata and Convallaria majalis growing completely intertwined, two species of very different habitats (sun, dry and shade) no gardener would have put together.

Nigel Dunnett's planting at the Barbican in London may be only a few years old but shows enough self-seeding to suggest to me that it could stabilise as a genuinely ecologically functioning planting. It's essentially a green roof planting, so seasonal drought will limit grass and weed growth.
James Hitchmough's various plantings, all created from seed, should theoretically, lead to semi-stable ecosystems, but I have personally not seen one that convinces me, yet, although some of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park ones may yet do so, and I have heard good reports of others.
The Barbican, a Nigel Dunnett planting, effectively a green roof, lots of regeneration

In two gardens in Herefordshire, I feel I have got pretty close to achieving small areas of genuine ecological planting, with really dense species intermingling. In my last garden I ran a trial for seven years which went someway to convincing me that, in the most challenging situation of all: fertile moist soil, full sun, this might be possible. These conditions favour the growth of strongly competitive plants which could possibly swamp everything else and most dangerously, favour weedy grass growth. This never happened (success!), but somewhat disappointingly, an analysis of every 10cms square after seven years, revealed that there were still a lot of gaps. In reality these could probably be filled with ground-level creeping species and more seeding short-lived species. More species need to be packed in to really create a dense multi-layer habitat. I, like everyone, have a lot to learn here.

What about Oudolf-style perennials or German Mixed Planting systems, which use long-lived perennials at around 8-9 plants per square metre? They are designed to be relatively stable, but also allowing for a certain amount of self-seeding. They seem like a very good starting point for a genuinely ecological planting. Not TOO stable though, as that can preclude any ecological functioning (think prostrate cotoneaster ground cover).

And, on the subject of Piet Oudolf, he has created one of the most interesting and successful combinations of an ecological planting (native grasses and wildflowers) and non-native perennials. See here:  This approach is certainly one which deserves much more research: but very dependent on having low fertility soils.
Piet Oudolf perennial meadow at Hummelo, not typical of his work but possibly one of the most interesting things he's ever done; combining genuine ecological functioning and good looks

The fact is that we have hardly begun to explore the possibilities of what ecologists are now calling Novel Ecosystems: “a system of abiotic, biotic, and social components (and their interactions) that, by virtue of human influence, differs from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.” quoted here.
From now on I'm going to talk about: NOEs: Novel Ornamental Ecosystems.

Where do we go from here?

How do we assemble plantings that look good, with species from multiple origins that are so dense that they can offer wildlife as many opportunities as natural/semi-natural plantings, and which are stable enough to make maintenance easy?

This is now the challenge. Let's raise the bar.
Wrong time of year for the flowers but a shaded bank at Innisfree which includes a bewildering range of Novel Ornamental Ecosystem biodiversity

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?”

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Let's stop talking about 'natural' gardens

The word 'natural' must be one of the most abused in the English language. Its use generally implies 'good', and all-too often 'buy this product'. Needless to say the two areas of life it gets applied to most are to do food and gardens. I want to talk here about how meaningless the concept of the 'natural garden' is, and relate it to wider discussions about our relationship with nature. I intend this to be the first of a number of fairly blunt interventions in our ongoing discussions about our relationship with growing plants.

The sheer moral emptiness of the 'natural = good' equation was brought home with some force recently by hearing about how Antarctic penguin colonies are being starved by ships hoovering up kril, in order to keep the food supplement industry supplied with a source of omega-3. No doubt the mountebanks and charletans who populate this most unnecessary of industries (if you eat properly you wouldn't need 95% of those pills) feel justified in promoting this as 'natural', which indeed it is, but sustainable? beneficial? ethical? One day we'll have genetically manipulated plants to produce the stuff for us. Roll on that day, but be assured that there will be protests that this is 'unnatural'.

We don't do 'natural'. We are humans. We stopped eating natural food when we started growing it. When we moved out of the Garden of Eden that was hunter-gatherer society and harvested our food from little plots of grain in clearings in the primordial wilderness is when we stopped eating naturally. And started farming/gardening. Any cultivated plant is going to have certain aspects that make it useful for us, and distinctly dysfunctional in an wild environment with no human intervention. That seems to me to be a pretty clear break-point between what is 'natural' and what is not. The ur-break-point for us grain-eating Eurasians was when our ancestors picked out some grains whose seed heads did not shatter; very useful for picking and shoving in a basket, pretty useless at distributing the plant.
Virtually all our crops will not survive for more than a few generations as 'volunteers' i.e. self-sowing, and if they do it is because they will be evolving 'backwards' rapidly. Agriculture/farming is a profoundly unnatural business, and it is the most destructive of nature of all our activities, simply because of its scale and the impact it has on soil and climate and most of all on natural vegetation. That includes organic agriculture, which is no more keen on weeds in the crop than conventional, and is arguably more destructive as it is so inefficient in its use of space it leads inevitably to more land being under cultivation, and so even less room for nature. 

Gardening is just a diddy version of farming, but potentially much less damaging, depending on what we are doing. Growing cabbages and carrots to eat, where, in order to have any crop, we have to eliminate or exclude an awful lot of nature: weeds, insects, birds etc., is clearly more destructive than most ornamental gardening. In North America, organic growing is referred to as 'natural', which is a sleight of hand as there is nothing remotely natural about growing unnatural plants completely dependent on humans for their reproduction in straight lines in beds of bare earth. Or even in circles like some hippies have done.

Gardens are not natural and it is high time to stop pretending that they are. They are a regimented version of nature which we make because we like the outcome, and which make us feel good. Nothing intrinsically wrong about that. I have never willingly used the word 'natural' to describe the kind of garden-making I promote, although a good handful of book and magazine editors have tried to get me to do just that. 'Naturalistic' is a lot more accurate, implying as it does, that you are aiming at implying something with no pretensions to actually ever achieving it. 

In making a garden we are applying human culture to natural or semi-natural ingredients - semi-natural in the case of radish seed or double roses, natural in the case of an 'unimproved' species genetically identical to wild forebears. We seek to eliminate what we do not like or that which does not fit in with our artistic vision. In a naturalistic garden we grow and manage what occupies a kind of middle ground, a tidied-up version of nature which may be inspired by a natural or semi-natural environment and even be made up of 100% locally-native species, but which is nevertheless our vision. It is not natural.

We like to encourage wildlife into our gardens, which is good, and indeed of all the developments that have happened in my lifetime (I'm 60 btw), this is, I think, far and away the most ethically positive. But of course we only want the 'nice' wildlife, not the kind we think of as destructive. The concept of the wildlife garden does not always translate well either – go anywhere where there are poisonous snakes and you have to think about the relationship between plant density and human recreation spaces very differently.

The evidence (BUGSproject) etc. is that ornamental gardens can support a lot of wildlife, more than arable farmed countryside, so that's a good thing. Simply leaving many gardens to go wild might be handing them over to nature, in the sense of letting natural processes take over, but in many cases the level of biodiversity they end up supporting may actually be less than an ornamental garden, the reason being that a competitive 'weedy' species may take over and dominate for a good many years: brambles, pasture grasses like cocksfoot grass, or nettles. A garden actively managed for wildlife interest may be less 'natural' but be more biodiverse. That's a paradox that should cast doubt on how we use 'natural' in the context of gardening. 

What I'm leading up to is to flag up a remarkable and important essay by the science writer Emma Marris, whose book Rambunctious Garden I mentioned in a blog post a few years ago – see Beyond 'nature as virgin – garden aswhore'. In 'Can we love natureand let it go?', Marris proposes the concept of 'decoupling', essentially arguing that reliance on supposedly natural processes may be less sustainable and more destructive of nature than artificial ones; she uses grass-fed beef as a good example, a trendy, feel-good but grossly unsustainable food source. Decoupling nature and humanity allows us stop exploiting nature and effectively give it some space. She looks forward to 'lab meat' and other hi-tech alternatives to eating animals. She also flags up, with some powerful statistics, the sheer inefficiency of organic farming, particularly in terms of the much greater amount of space it takes up compared to conventional, and indeed her essay starts off with a wonderfully sharp crit of an upscale residential development integrated with little patches of organic farmland to make the new (inevitably well-heeled) residents feel like they are doing the world a good turn. 

My reading of her idea of 'decoupling' is that if stop pretending we can do so much 'naturally', 'in tune' with nature etc. we could actually use land and resources a lot more efficiently and sustainably – and so give more space to nature, or to what James Hitchmough of Sheffield University calls 'enhanced nature', plantings designed for aesthetic benefit but also with positive biodiversity benefits. Indeed, looking historically, in a way we have already done this with our gardens. In the past we would have been far more self-sufficient, growing veg in our gardens; now these domestic spaces are taken up with more wildlife-friendly ornamental trees, shrubs and perennials, so bringing about the relatively rich biodiversity of contemporary suburbia. We have decoupled our food supply from our gardens with positive results. Most domestic veg growing is so inefficient in its use of space and resources it is very doubtful if it contributes much to achieving any kind of sustainability brownie-points. Especially if raised beds (one of my pet hates) are used. It has an educational value – teaching children where their food comes from, and this is very valuable, but basically it's recreational. Nothing wrong with that at all, just don't try to pretend that its saving the world, or even particularly sustainable.

If we stop using the word 'natural' to describe what we do in our gardens, we can free our minds up to think about what sort of outcomes we want and can expect. Primarily places that give us pleasure, and yes, give us contact with a domesticated version of nature, but secondly to look objectively at what benefits undomesticated nature in the form of birds, bees and butterflies gets from our gardens.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

So often it's gardeners make great gardens not owners or designers

I recently had an upsetting email from a colleague and friend who has just had his last day at the job he has had for nearly twenty years. He feels forced out because of decisions made about his job, over his head, which will so change the nature of what he does so much that he no longer wants to be part of the garden he has worked on, and whose reputation he has played a big part in building up. It was his efforts and ideas that put the garden on the map as a very distinctive project; the management now have other ideas. It's a story you hear time and time again unfortunately.

Any look at historical gardens makes clear that the successful ones were where there was a head gardener and owner pulling in the same direction. Toby Musgrave's recent book on head gardeners makes this clear. Some head gardeners indeed rather tyrannised their owners. I can imagine a number of Victorian garden owners, Lord this or that, who might have been a great power in the land (and indeed over their tenants), dreading a meeting with their head gardener. The man's status (in charge of a large team), hold over the family (producer of all the fruit, vegetables and cut flowers, which his cook and crucially, his wife, would expect daily deliveries of as a matter of course), knowledge (all those Latin names) and demeanour, could combine to make Lord Whatsit feel very small and humble indeed.

Those days are gone, and head gardeners of large gardens now work with diminished staff and, it has to be said, status. The biggest problems are often with gardens that are open to the public, and therefore run as businesses. The head gardener here will have a major impact on income. If the garden is run on a charitable basis then there will be a trust to whom the head gardener will be ultimately responsible (or 'board' in the US). The role of a trust is to oversee the charity, ensure that it is financially successful, and fulfils all its legal obligations. A good trust has clear objectives, consults the staff and works with them to enable them to make a success of the project. All too often however, trusts are made up of people who may have been very successful in some walk of life but know next-to-nothing about gardening. They may like gardens, but if they have never had experience in getting thousands of bedding plants ready for going in by mid-May, overseeing the replanting of an entire border, or dealing with a fallen tree the day before opening, then they will inevitably need a good imagination, and considerable humility, in approaching the task of how to give advice to somebody who can do all of these things. From the perspective of the gardener, too many people on trusts are interfering busy-bodies who have no idea what they are talking about.

Maximising income is a key goal of a trust. This can of course be used as a weapon to drive through all sorts of changes, often in the direction of thinking that the more people you get through the gates, the more the garden earns. The great danger here will be 'dumbing down', bringing in events, or developing areas that are 'lowest common denominator', avoiding innovation, experimentation or any sort of trying to stand above the common herd, and therefore taking a risk. I think this is what might have happened in my friend's case; the trust want to increase visitor numbers: roses are popular: => more roses = more visitors = more income: never mind that roses will not grow especially well there (they haven't asked the gardener). Another garden I knew decided to try to get more families in by having a scarecrow competition; ok. I can imagine that in a garden that actually grew vegetables this might have been a good idea, but it wasn't; the result – droves of overdressed scarecrows in borders of perennials, poking up amongst shrubs, hoist in the rockery etc.; the garden ended up looking ridiculous.

Bringing in volunteers is a way of getting more work done in the garden that appeals to trusts. There is the feel-good social mission of using volunteers as well. But has the head gardener got any management skills? Quite possibly not. Well-managed volunteers can transform a garden; badly-managed ones can (and do) wreck chaos and destruction. I hear so many stories of head gardeners being expected to manage volunteers and not being given any choice in the matter. The worst was a National Trust garden that decided it would offer horticultural therapy and expected the head gardener to take on a variety of people with a range of 'issues' and help turn their lives around. No consultation. No offer of staff help from people who had any interest in therapy or knowledge of it. She left. 

Another mad idea that trusts or owners indulge in is that of getting rid of head gardeners altogether and replacing them with the occasional visit of a consultant. I got wind of one such job assassination once, it was even hinted that I might like to be the 'consultant'. Apparently it was going to save a lot of money. The feedback I gave was that I thought it would be a disaster, and anyway, anyone who took the consultancy would probably find themselves face down in a compost heap with a sharpened trowel in their back. The head gardener concerned had a national reputation; the garden has since gone massively downhill. What a surprise.

It is the failure to talk to and listen to head gardeners and their staff that is so unbelievably arrogant and foolish. In the case of the garden I started to talk about, the result will almost certainly be to kill off one of the most successful genuinely innovative gardens in Britain. It will become just another vaguely historic rose-packed garden scrabbling for visitor numbers in competition with all the others.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Australian plants amaze, astonish and confuse

The stunning landscape installation by Kate Cullity at the Cranbourne Botanic Garden, Melbourne, evokes the Australian Outback
Still mulling over my recent but brief trip to Australia. We'd spent most of our time 'down under' in New Zealand, followed by a week in Tasmania before a week in Melbourne at the biennial Australian Landscape Conference. This was a fantastic event, organised by Warwick Forge, a retired publisher and entrepreneur. I am sure the fact that Warwick is not a professional 'landscape person' has been one of the reasons for the success of the conference; an ability to see beyond immediate professional concerns and trends. It also probably helps explain why the conference was a real coming together of professionals, and some amateurs, from the world of horticulture as well as landscape. Gardeners and landscape folk meet together on equal terms all too rarely.

Warwick first approached me about speaking at the conference nearly two years ago. He does his homework well. Being a retired chap of independent means he is able to spend time traveling around meeting people and checking them out to ensure that the resulting two day conference and workshops really delivers passion, stimulation and knowledge. I remember we agreed to meet in Oxford and spent an afternoon wandering about the Botanical Garden, discussing what I did and what I knew of what my colleagues did. I remember Warwick asking me “if I invited you to speak, who else would you like to speak?”. I'm a ferocious networker so I was able to make plenty of suggestions. Cassian Schmidt was my first choice, the director of the Hermannshof Garden in the Rhine valley and increasingly a leading teacher of planting design through a post at Geisenheim University. Thinking of parched Australian landscapes however, I had to admit that what we had to say might be only rather partially relevant.

Shortly before I met Warwick, I had been in Spain and met Miguel Urquijo, whose ground-breaking approach to garden design in Spain and deep thoughtfulness about what he did, had really impressed me. So I told Warwick about him. A few weeks later I learnt that Warwick had more or less straight away flown to Madrid to meet Miguel. I had also insisted to him that if he invite Cassian he ask his wife Bettina Jaugstetter too, as she is emerging as a very interesting planting designer in her own right. She was asked to run two workshops, but of course she worried that “no-one has heard of me, so no-one will come”; apparently though, hers filled up before anyone else's – a strong indication that the reputation of contemporary German planting design has great pulling power. I wonder whether she would have got such a good audience in Britain? I fear perhaps not.

A real feature of the ALCs over the years has been the pre-conference speakers' tours whereby the speakers are crammed into a mini-bus to tour gardens and landscapes in the state of Victoria. The day we went to the stunning new botanical gardens at Cranbourne, and then Kuranga Nursery was a memorable one. For me it was a meeting with old friends.

Banksia marginata
A zillion years ago, in the late eighties and early nineties, I had a small nursery business near Bristol. Mostly growing perennials. Which, for the youngsters amongst the blog-readers, were not particularly widely grown at the time - astonishing though this might seem to you. But, I grew a rather zany range of half-hardy stuff as well, with a particular focus on Australian plants. The reason for this rather eccentric choice was that there was a sudden fashion for conservatories but hardly anyone growing plants for them. Most of the new conservatories popping up featured little more than a dehydrated Ficus benjamina and a few spider plants. Looking at the prevailing conditions and doing a bit of research into what the Victorians grew in conservatories, an obvious choice seemed to plants from southern Australia. Important was the ability to cope with occasional high temperatures and lows to near, or just below freezing. 

Xanthorrhoea australis - the Grass Tree, at Cranbourne
The idea of actually using your conservatory to grow plants in never took off, unfortunately, and today many conservatories, if they have any flora at all, are still likely to have only a dehydrated Ficus benjamina and three spider plants. However, I found myself selling plants to many people in the South West, including some heritage gardens like Tresco which had had some bad winters and needed to replenish their stocks. I used to trek up to London every month to set up a stand at what were then the monthly Royal Horticultural Society shows. Although the Australian and other exotica were only a small part of what I grew, they were a useful flagship for getting interest in the nursery and publicity generally.
My choice in growing the range of plants I did had been bolstered by researching (in the RHS library) what early 19th century gardeners grew. Early glasshouses and conservatories had pretty primitive heating systems, which produced dry air and often failed. The technology coincided with the botanical exploration of South Africa and Australia, and gardening journals of the time are full of beautiful hand-coloured prints of Cape Heaths (Erica species), Australian Banksias and Melaleucas. So it was these that I focussed on growing. Seed was easily come by and they germinated easily enough. Well, I grew the ones that were easy to germinate – there is a whole tranche of Australian flora that is notoriously difficult from seed - I never bothered with them. Species of Banksia and Dryandra from Western Australia were particular favourites, both with myself and the public at the RHS shows. With tough, slightly silvery leaves, often looking as if they had been cut with scissors, and extraordinary flowers that looked and felt like plastic, they seemed like plants from another planet. Tending to be small and compact, they were ideal as container plants. Perfect 'talking point' plants. However the Australian literature on them at the time stressed how difficult they were to grow. As it turned out, this was a reflection of the fact that species from the Mediterranean climate of Southwest Australia did not adapt very well to the humid summers of the southeasterly states of Victoria and New South Wales where the majority of the gardening population live. Adapted to soils of extreme infertility they did not like conditions in 'ordinary' soil either.
Banksia blechnifolia - the flowers mimic hair curlers -its officially a shrub by the way

Growing many of my 'Australians' in a mix of three-quarters sharp grit and one quarter peat, I found Banksia and Dryandra thrived, flowering in three years. Doing better in a richer compost were various species and cultivars of Callistemon, Melaleuca and Correa. Although I failed to displace the sad-looking Ficus benjamina and spider plants from the conservatories of England, something else happened. People started buying the these plants and sticking them outside in sheltered places. Many did very well in coastal Cornwall and Devon, or even inner London. The 1990s saw milder winters, increasing importation of southern hemisphere species and a taste for 'architectural' plants, bringing about radical changes in what we grew.

Back to the ALC speakers' outing. At Kuranga Nursery we saw the largest range of Australian native species commercially available. For me it was thrilling, never having been here before, to see so many of these plants growing to full size. I have not grown any of these for years, but seeing them brought back a rush of memories. And reading names on labels, particularly where I had read about genera that were 'impossible' to grow from seed, and seeing the plants for the first time, was a real thrill.

Others on the tour were perplexed. It was particularly funny watching Cassian and Bettina, who, being from Germany, are unable to grow any of this outside, had no familiarity with anything they saw. They appeared to be completely disorientated, truly suffering the shock of 'arriving on another botanical planet'. The fact that so much had a superficial similarity with the familiar, added to the disorientation. Plants from dry environments have a strong tendency to look the same, but then surprise by producing exotically different flowers to their northern hemisphere look-alikes. At one point Bettina came up to me waving a plant in a pot, “it looks so much like a cistus” she exclaimed, “but it isn't, the name means nothing to me”; she looked genuinely upset. Cassian was complaining about families he had never heard of. Densely-packed sales benches offered novelty, thrill and disorientation in equal measure.

I'll leave with two little snippets. One was the thrill of seeing Epacris for the first time. A genus of heather-like plants (all Epacridaceae have now been disgorged into Ericaceae by the way) these appeared to have been very popular throughout the 19th century. Winter-flowering, they must have been easy to propagate from cuttings as they must have been widely sold as flowering pot plants, and given what can be read about their cultivation in Victorian gardening journals, often kept from year to year. There were around twenty or so named cultivars. And then they vanished. When I had the nursery I was never able to source seed. I never even saw one at Kew Gardens. Seeing them on this trip was the first time I had ever set eyes on them. Roger Elliott, the leading writer on Australian natives who accompanied us on this trip did explain that there is a great deal of variation in flower colour, which was probably one reason for their popularity.

Epacris impressa
Finally, Dryandra. When I grew these at the nursery, I was struck by the extraordinary scent of their flowers. Sweet, exotic, quite unlike anything else. No mention in any of the literature about them. Leafing through a couple of more recently-published books on the well-stocked Kuranga Nursery shelves, only the most minimal mention. Perhaps they are only fragrant abroad.