Monday, October 26, 2009

Where the plains meet the mountains

An end to some extensive travelling in the US in Colorado, visiting Lauren Springer and Scott Ogden, consummate plantspeople both, with an immensely richly planted and very naturalistic style garden in the burbs of Fort Collins. Its odd looking at the planting here, as it is such a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar - basically the kind of grass/deciduous/conifer type planting you might see anywhere in northern Europe or much of the US, but with added cacti and agaves.

Its dry here, and although it can jolly cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the reduced moisture level means that it is possible to grow a whole range of plants which would rot in a damper area. Not just possible, but essential, as it is so dry that very little would survive without some irrigation during the growing season.

The Great Plains begin, here - utterly desolate (on a cold day with snow threatening), almost frightening in their emptiness and vastness. No-one seems to want to live here anymore, hardly surprising, and their are deserted houses, whole little townships virtually derelict (including Hereford!), and occasional little cemetries with no sign of any habitation in sight. The short-grass prairie is not much to look at at this time, but instructive to see the visual importance of yuccas, indeed you never feel far from a yucca over vast swathes of the American west.

Short grass prairie at Pawnee Buttes is not that inspiring at this time of year, but there are plenty of flowers May to June.

This is actually quite a nice climate to live in, especially as summer nights are always cool, which Scott thinks is very beneficial to plant growth. Light intensity is incredibly high here (at 1500m in very dry air) so bulbs can perform spectacularly from late winter onwards. The skiing in Boulder where the Rockies begin so dramatically is a pull too, so there are a lot of people living here now - and its seems to be becoming one of those points of good gardening you find in the States; Lauren probably has a lot to do with this, but fundamentally it probably comes down to Panayoti Kelaides, at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a name I have known for years. So nice to meet him at last, for his reputation is truly formidable; an expert on alpine flora, and on natives of the region, and on getting them into cultivation.

So is this just vicarious enjoyment of an exotic garden style? Or can I take something home from here. Probably not me personally, from soggy Herefordshire, but the drought-tolerant look and lessons are a great inspiration for drier parts of the country. It is also useful to see an extreme version of a situation you are familiar with - it somehow emphasises new possibilities and ways of thinking.

Lauren and Scott's book Plant Driven Design, was published by Timber Press earlier this year, and was one of 2009's best garden books.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

So why do we all love prairie?

I have just finished taking a party of Gardens Illustrated readers around the Midwest – based on Chicago and St. Louis. It’s been more or less the same group who have accompanied me to Holland, Germany and Sweden before – so something of a reunion, and all rather jolly. Wonderful hospitality in the Midwest – you kinda feel they don’t get too many visitors from Europe looking at gardens or showing an interest in prairie wildflowers.

No-one in the US asked me the obvious question – what interests a group of Europeans (2 Germans, 1 Italian, 9 Brits + 3 Americans and an Argentinian) in a purely North American habitat. It’s a good question and seeing as nobody asked it, so I’m going to try an answer.

“Prairie” has become, over the last three or four years, a much abused word in both English and German garden-speak, with lazy journalists using it to describe any planting based on herbaceous perennials with a few grasses thrown in and a vaguely naturalistic aesthetic. The popularity, and consequent debasement, of the word started with folks like me, and James Hitchmough and Cassian Schmidt, using it to describe an essentially ornamental but very strongly naturalistic and bio-diversity-friendly planting style using a lot of North American species.

So, the hypothetical American asks, why do all these Europeans so love our prairie?

1) Much of our herbaceous border flora is North American in origin, introduced mostly during the 19th century: asters, goldernrods, rudbeckias etc. We have a history of more than a century of cultivating and hybridising these plants. It’s not surprising we want to see them in the wild and find out about new ones we might want to grow – like the vernonias (ironweeds) which were never introduced until recently.

2) Word has got out that prairies are fascinating natural habitats, so like our much-loved European meadow habitats – but bigger (all things American are bigger of course), more diverse and, crucially, with a fantastic late flowering season. Every prairie is subtly different, and within itself there is a great ebb and flow of species, depending on factors soil moisture, depth, chemistry, shade etc. To anyone who loves plants and plant communities, prairie is endlessly fascinating and beautiful.

3) Our own flora is a bit limited – thanks to the chilling and scraping action of frequent ice ages and the geographical boundaries placed on plants’ reconquest of old territory, the European flora is just less diverse than North Americas, particularly on more fertile soils and at the end of the season. Britain’s flora is just plain impoverished (only 100 more than the 1,400 strong flora of the Grand Canyon National Park).

4) We don’t have to worry too much about invasive aliens. Our flora has colonised vast areas of North America, changing, damaging, and in some cases eliminating, entire ecosystems. The truth is that the North and Central European flora is an incredibly aggressive one, and at home very effectively excludes ‘intruders’. Anyone who gets hot under the collar about Japanese knotweed needs to spend a few days in the company of the enormous numbers of European species which have spread over thousands of miles of North America. So, we can feel relatively relaxed about having fun with other people’s ‘natives’ in our gardens, confident that they won’t jump the garden fence and smother a few hundred acres before you can say ‘William Robinson’.

5) Then there is the odd familiarity/unfamiliarity of the North American flora and much of the landscape – the wooded hills of eastern Missouri look like much of France and the lumpier bits of Illinois could easily be Norfolk; Wisconsin practically is southern Sweden. The plants are all members of familiar genera or at least families. There isn’t too much of the feeling like you have landed on another floral planet. But there is still the excitement of new species, but growing in familiar-looking habitats. Being in a prairie itself is like being a kid again, amongst grasses that are at or above head height. It is familiar enough to feel safe, different enough to feel gently exotic.