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. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The New Zealand look - the colony's revenge?

First time in New Zealand. Which is a bit like arriving on another planet in plant terms. But not others – very strange travelling such a long way to arrive somewhere s
o white and anglo-saxon, although the Maori gets many a respectful nod in wayside or visitor destination interpretation. Its a fascinating place to appreciate plants in a very different way to what we Northern Hemisphereans are used to, but also to consider the human impact on landscape and environmental history. The following is obviously a brief first impression.

To start with, the aesthetic quality of the flora is so totally different to anything we know from the northern hemisphere, in evolutionary terms it is a very old flora derived from a tropical origin: all very graphic, and textural: tree ferns, Araliaceae, big grasses, Phormiums, and overwhelmingly evergreen and woody. Almost no perennials and almost no colour. Green, green, green - again, very tropical. No herbaceous softness. Our northern hemisphere flora must look very dull to a Kiwi, despite the colour of our flowers. It's a flora which looks amazingly neat and almost designed – at one point Jo pointed at some plants by the side of the road and exclaimed “it looks like some posh garden designer's been in and done it all”. 

Blechnum novae-zelandiae covers a great many near vertical rock surfaces

On the wet south and west coast of the South Island it is the cryptograms (non-flowering plants) which are so amazing. This is the Land of the Fern. So many species. Big, tough muscular things, All-Blacks rugby-playing plants, not like our flimsy-mimsy ferns backhome. Coating banks, retaining walls, even replacing grass as a sunny habitat ground cover. Filmy ferns in the woods, all the way up trees. They are the ones with leaves only one cell thick, so you can see your hand through them if you hold them. Mosses, foliose liverworts and lichens of an unbelievable size. Club mosses up to a metre long dangling down banks or off trees. And the ultimate botanical nerdy treasure - Tmesipteris, a living fossil, with virtually no close relatives. Its like tripping: you just stand and stare at everything in a hypnotic botanical trance, the sheer level of diversity in a few cm2. is mind-blowing. Things I have never seen before, even on super-wet Yakushima (Japan) or the tropics, like weird mounds of vegetation which form over rotting timber or huge mossy lumps, a metre across, way up high in trees, or astelias or pandanus-relatives coating entire tree trunks with what looks like superisize grass. But almost no flowers, at least visibly. On our travels, admittedly in late summer, there were red metrosideros flowers and a teeny-weeny orchid and that was about it. 

New Zealand's geological history has isolated it from the rest of the world, so plant evolution took off in a direction that was quite different to anywhere else. Its human history has been very recent, compared to the rest of the globe, and its impact on the natural world here has been sudden and drastic. Pioneers are very often rapacious in their exploitation of the novel environments they encounter, and New Zealand had the misfortune to get a double whammy within a few centuries. Polynesians arrived in around 1250, ancestors of the Maori, and as they did across the Pacific, ate their way through local bird populations, here wiping out the moas, enormous flightless birds that were the key predator of many plant species; as well as burning down much of the forest. British settlers arrived in the 19th century and proceeded to fell every tree they could get their saws into and destroy vast areas of natural habitat to make way for sheep. Adding insult to injury to the ecology they decided that the country was to be a 'new Britain', and imported a whole suite of British wildlife, including various predators like stoats and weasels, which then ate their way through much of the remaining birdlife.

One of the odd things about being here is the extreme disjuncture between genuinely natural and 'created' landscapes. There are huge areas of pretty well untouched wilderness, a lot of it along the west coast, mainly terrain that must have been too steep too log. Because of the wet (we are talking metres of rain per year) this is the part of the country that is so insanely biodiverse, especially for ferns and other 'primitive' plants. Much else, especially along the east coast or the south is a very functional agricultural landscape, with almost nothing native to be seen over huge stretches. Pasture grasses (a European import), and imported tree species and that's it; the absence of anything original is quite bizarre, but then there was almost nothing in the native flora which was herbaceous and could have integrated itself into this agricultural landscape. In North America, by contrast, also a continent colonised by European pasture grasses, local wildflower species survive along roadsides in even the most ag-intensive places.
Sticherus cunninghamii, Umbrella Fern

There is an irony here. Just as much of New Zealand has been turned into a copy of a European landscape (albeit a very functional one) we seem to be determined to turn our designed landscapes into a copy of New Zealand. I'm not just referring to the large NZ component in our landscaping plant flora; in rough order of widespread use: hebes, phormiums, cordylines, pittosporums and brown Carex sedges, but to the fact that what we want in an urban landscape – evergreen, compact, predictable, interesting foliage, is what much NZ vegetation looks like. As climate changes and it becomes practicable to grow more NZ plant material, then I am sure this proportion will increase.

British gardeners fell in love with hebes as soon as they began to arrive in the early 20th century (but they were then classified as Veronica) and the first hybrids were exported back to NZ. They are ideal for windy mild climates, like the south and west of Britain; the rest of Europe and the US, not surprisingly showed no interest in them. Pittosporums and various other NZ plants appeared during the same period but tended to be restricted to Cornwall and other benign climates. Then in the 1980s container loads of NZ propagated plants were imported wholesale and we had more to play with. Phormiums took off almost immediately, and I remember developing something of a dislike of them. They suddenly started appearing everywhere, often in places that were quite unsuitable, and what was once seen as a rather magnificent exotic plant seemed in danger of becoming a cliché. The same could be said of Cordyline australis in gardens, which began to make big inroads with the arrival of milder winters and the growing trend in 'exotic' and 'architectural' planting, during the 1990s. For those who could afford them, tree ferns (mostly in fact Dicksonia antarctica imports from Australia), began to sprout too in sheltered London gardens, although London is really too dry for them to be a serious long-term proposition. They look far more at home in Cornwall or west Wales where they are much more at home (and can even 'seed').
Pachystegia insignis - one of the hunky-chunky windproof species so evident in the NZ flora

Other NZ plants began to appear at the same time, but did not make much of an impact. Although a lot of the flora has that chunky, graphic look, there is also a lot which, almost as a contrast, is quite the opposite: shrubs with very fine-textured foliage and very dense growth. The distinctive growth pattern of a lot of these may well have been an adaptation to reduce attractiveness to the extinct moa birds. Coprosma, Pseudowintera, Corokia, all known perhaps to the (woody) plantsman, but none have made much of an impact. There being evergreen and having such neat shapes seems guaranteed to endear them to us. Looking at some of the denser coprosmas, rather a pity I think, as they look to me as if they could be the best replacement for pest and disease prone box yet. 

Quite the opposite of the above - a small-leaved Coprosma species makes a bril hedge - possible box substitute?
What did not appear much in the 1990s and have still to make much of an impact, surprisingly, are a whole suite of Araliaceae. Like all members of the ivy family, they start off with one leaf shape and produce another at maturity. Many of us may be familiar with Pseudopanax crassifolius, and of these many of us probably rate it as the ugliest plant out; however its juvenile 'is it dead?' leaves are probably an adaptation against moas too. Others are more 'normal' looking and I'm surprised more have not shown up in British nurseries and gardens. For those looking to increase the distinctive foliage look in their gardens there is an awful lot to learn here and try out, whilst at the same time reflecting why it is that 'we' (Brits at any rate), having done 'our' best to turn one place into another Britain, we are now determined to make our urban landscapes as much like New Zealand as possible.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Singapore's Garden Extravaganza - with a focus on cloud forests

The last time I was in Singapore which must have been getting on for ten years ago, Gardens by the Bay was under construction. The roads near the Marina were lined by trees in enormous containers, making you feel as if you had just driven into a garden centre or nursery that catered to giants. All were destined for one of the world's largest and most ambitious horticulture projects.

So, the first thing on re-visiting, was to get down there and see how the project was doing. The first impressions were very much that this was opulent public horticulture, walking a path between well-funded amenity horticulture and something more educational, but without any pretence at it being a botanical garden. Spectacular constructions, such as the signature 'super trees' and huge scale plantings make a powerful impact, but don't help define quite what the garden is for, other than impressing the visitor. Public gardens have often had this role. In trying to make sense of this extremely large, very well-funded and ambitious project it helps to think back to the Victorian era.
One of the Supertrees
In that golden age of gardening, public parks were about municipal pride, and declaring the status of the city or community that funded them. Not much chance of that happening in today's Britain, the most centrally-controlled country in Europe, where local government is so squeezed by the politics of austerity that basic services are beginning to break down. Singapore, like other successful Asian economies, are in a similar situation to where we were in the Victorian era. With its reputation as a garden city (an inheritance from the British Empire) and the world's leading centre for urban greening, the use of gardens as a national icon seems natural.
These are dogs, since you ask. It is the Chinese Year of the Dog this year.
The scale and level of control is all a bit overwhelming. The control is again, very Victorian, and likewise dependent on cheap labour (mostly south Indian Tamils). It is also very Chinese. Singapore is the ultimate state run on Confucian lines. “We think of the government as being like our parents” says a Chinese friend (and no particular fan of her government in Beijing and in fact having deep personal reasons for thinking quite the opposite). 'Planning' and maintaining control have been key to the city-state's (amazing) success as an economy. Nice tidy public gardening on a mega scale is all part and parcel of a paternalistic state which wants its citizens to enjoy their spare time in suitably safe and unthreatening ways. Its not somewhere where many western liberals would like to live, but it's the only place I have been where multi-lingual poster campaigns invite people to grass up their employers if they face unsafe working practices.
See those little figures down in the bottom right? They give you some idea of the scale.
Possibly inspired by, or aiming to go beyond, Cornwall's Eden Project, there are two vast 'greenhouses', kept cool rather than warm, using a clever heat-exchange system powered by decaying compost. We went into the Mediterranean one first. Here there are some good displays based on the various Mediterranean climate zones around the world, and good interpretation. Trouble is, someone's been unable to stop themselves having a go at some of the shrubs with their hedgetrimmer. There's a terribly kitschy faux-Chinese garden, planted with loads of forced-looking dahlias.

And then, the other 'biome'. Something completely different. Dedicated to cloud forests, this is the most sustained, visionary, high-investment naturalistic planting extravaganza ever. One of those things that gives one real hope. I'm assuming most readers will know what a cloud forest is, but for those who don't it is a mountain region that gets very high precipitation, much of it from being in the clouds. Cloud forests are biodiversity hotspots, often with very high rates of evolution, as every mountain side and valley will have slightly different conditions and the physical fragmentation of the territory allows for isolation and evolution. Think orchids, bromeliads, vireya rhododendrons, tropical begonias. The Gardens by the Bay Cloud Forest biome sends its visitors up in a lift to descend on a vertiginous series of aerial walkways around an artificial mountain covered in plants growing practically vertically.Vertical planting has had a bit of a chequered career in the temperate zone, but here, in a cloud forest zone (real or artificial) a lot of species grow like this naturally.

The standard of everything is just so high, the interpretation spot-on, with firm and imaginatively-driven messages on conservation and climate change. Given that we are entering the Chinese century, it is really encouraging to see such conservation leadership coming from within the Chinese language community.

Lycopodium and Huperzia species, club mosses - fern relatives. Having such botanical curiosities shows just how serious they are here about their plant diversity.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

House Plants are back!

After many years of being seriously uncool, house plants seem to be back in fashion. My son, more in tune with the zeitgeist than I (after all he lives in Clapton in east London – Clapton-the-new-Brooklyn (but hasten to add is NOT a bearded hipster) has started to pack his windowsills. A few trendy looking books have started to appear as well, usually in furnishings and accessories outlets that don't generally sell books, which is always a sign that something is 'on trend'. 

I have long been puzzled by the lack of interest in house plants, particularly amongst dedicated gardeners. So many really good plantspeople seem to suspend all interest once they step inside the house. I am always slightly surprised that a lot of good gardeners and plantspeople don't grow their own veg, but then not everyone is a foodie and growing things to eat is very time-consuming and requires a lot of organisation, so I more or less understand that; to turn from weeding the Arisaemas to nipping down to the local supermarket to busy some packeted veg. is understandable. But not to grow anything inside? I am genuinely puzzled.

For myself, and I think for quite a few gardeners who started in their teenage years, the first plants we grew were indoor ones. Tropical stuff, cacti, orchids, insectivorous things, kinda adolescent slightly nerdy things. Most of us then soon moved outside, but the love of plants on windowsills or atop cupboards has never left some of us. 

Those who started as 'outside gardeners' don't often seem to be able to make the transition to keeping plants inside. One reason might be the sheer artificiality of keeping plants growing in what is, after all, a very alien environment. The quality of growth that it is possible to get from plants growing in the ground is so much more difficult to achieve from indoor plants. House plants are incredibly dependent on their owners and keepers for their most basic needs. Many plants also respond to seasonal changes, primarily to temperature, and since we humans seem happy only if we are kept at around 21ºC that limits possibilities. Small failures build up, and if things go slightly wrong, we are then stuck with a below-par plant which given the shortage of spaces to grow plants in most houses, is always on view. We are then constantly confronted with evidence of our own failure as gardeners in other words (and the horti-social embarassment).

The hard fact is that there are not very many plants which grow well inside. Light levels are generally too low; dry air is also often a factor that affects plants badly. Succulents do well, but only if they have really good light – so unless you have extensive sunny windowsills there is not much habitat for them. The range of houseplants which was developed during the 1960s, the high point of house plant history, was a pretty limited one. Essentially it built on what I call the 'aspidistra concept', the very idea being one which has been one of the factors which has limited interest in them over the years anyway. It was the Victorians who really were the pioneers in growing house plants, despite the fact that their homes were infamously dark, with big extremes of temperature and polluted (coal smoke pollution inside and out was horrendous in the 19th and much of the 20th century, making today's worries over diesel exhaust seem almost like minor niggles). 

Aspidistras survived the grim growing conditions of the Victorian home, along with a limited range of other, it-has-to-be-faced, rather dull plants. They grow incredibly slowly, with very long-lived leaves. They are as near to static and plastic as plants can be. The aspidistra is a plant of deep shade, where resource inputs are low, so it grows immensely slowly. Ivy (Hedera helix) will survive similar conditions, and of course if conditions are right, can move pretty fast, but if poor can just survive, for years; not surprisingly it too was common in the Victorian home. Much of the 1960s house plants were visually more exciting but in many ways not much better, many being tropical forest floor plants – happy at 'our' temperatures, but able to survive for long periods without growing much: Philodendron, Monstera, Aglaeomena, Anthurium – all tropical Araceae. If they do start to grow their new growth is often weak and unattractive. They are not really living plants, in the sense of something which grows and develops.

I did do a house plant book once – a long time ago. Unfortunately all packed up, which given my current peripatetic status is going to be the story of my life for some time from now on. So I can't share pictures, but will try to do so in a future blog. In researching the book, we did find a few people who had examples of the kind of plants I have been just discussing, but which had been cared for well and had actually grown pretty spectacularly. There was a Rhoicissus which had colonised the hallway of a substantial north London house (actually part of the family) and an enormous Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) in a Liverpool sitting room (ditto, belonging to the late Tony Bradshaw, the botanist and ecologist). 

The static nature of much of the conventional house plants flora must be one of the main reasons as to why few 'real gardeners' can be bothered with them. Plants which grow more vigorously, in particular those which flower, generally need more light than we can give them, or many of them. An exception might be orchids, which are relatively common as house plants now, all but unknown as such forty years ago. And of course, gesneriads: Streptocarpus, African violets, Achimenes. Small, relatively quite fast growing, not needing too much light (good indirect is best) and often usefully dormant for part of the year, gesneriads are an amazingly diverse and fascinating family. Their slightly hairy foliage and compact size give them a sort of cuddly, teddy bear quality too. When I'm in my dotage, I shall surround myself with them in the old folks home.

Our houses are actually very badly designed for plants – another problem facing the 'home' gardener. There were some attempts in the 1950s and 1960s in Sweden, a period and a place for particularly bold re-thinking of the domestic environment to create houses with small integrated growing spaces. The only one I have ever actually seen was, I think, at Beth Chatto's, a modernist 1960s design. I have often had the fantasy of designing a house around growing spaces for plants: light in just the right places at just the right amount, small planting beds strategically placed. There is a disadvantage perhaps to having too much vegetation around: the dead leaves, flowers, occasional insect pests, all add to a confusion of housework and gardening. I suspect it was this dislike of 'mess' which so restricted the use of plants in the conservatories of the 1980s conservatory boom. Victorians loved conservatories but had lots of cheap labour in the form of servants to attend to the cleaning, picking up and primping. 

So, its good to see house plants as 'back' but I can't help feel that we could do so much more.

Thanks to my son, Kieran Bradshaw. for the pictures.