Shades of Green

In Perennial Meadows

Greens in The Perennial Meadows Garden

The mild winter and spring in the Netherlands has triggered everything into growth.

The overwhelming colour is green even though a lot is actually in flower.

Green in its many shades is at the heart of all garden planting. Celebrate it:

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Combining Perennial Meadows and Shrub Feature Borders

I have been telling everyone about Pachyphragma macrophyllum over many years, but still it is a little known ground cover perennial.

Perennial Meadow and Shrub FeatureShrub feature borders combine special shrubs with other plants to create bold units of planting that play a role in the design and organisation of garden landscapes. In this square feature border shrubs including spring flowering Corylopsis spicata and the tree-like and later flowering Chionanthus virginicus rise out of a carpet of perennials.

In spring the perennial meadow that forms the ground covering layer of this shrub feature border is dominated by one of the most effective spring flowering perennials – white flowered Pachyphragman macrophyllum. This meadow planting is triggered into life in late winter when snowdrops and hellebores flower. The pachyphragman flowers for more than an month in spring and supports a long display of various daffodils, species Narcissus, and late spring flowering tulips.

This spring display is made possible by the very late appearance of leaves on the Chionanthus virginicus towering above. In summer the shrub feature is dominated by woodland grasses and geraniums, but gains late summer impact with the flowering of wild asters. Finally, the leaves of the shrubs turn clear yellow for a long, late autumnal finale.

Because the perennial meadow includes epimediums, hellebores and grass-like Luzula species along side the pachyphragma, this border remains clothed with evergreen foliage all year round that creates a platform for the various shrubs that grow through and above it. The secret to success is combining compatible plants. The perennials are all shade and drought tolerant which is essential when growing them within the root zone of these bold shrubs.

Pachyphragma seeds itself non-aggressively around the nearby areas of the garden and has become one of my favourite hardy perennials. To read more about this plant see my earlier post here.

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Shrubs in Perennial Meadows

A shrub feature border consists of a selection of characterful woody plants presented within a mixed perennial meadow planting. The concept has arisen from a need to use shrubs with more effect in planting designs.

In the same way that perennial meadows are created using a mix of theme plants and complementary plants, the shrubs in a feature border fall into the same two categories. Shrubs with a graceful or characteristic habit that have an extended season of interest, by flowering, by producing fruit or by developing dramatic autumnal tints are chosen as the main theme plants in such planting schemes.

Chionanthus virginicusDramatic shrubs such as spreading viburnums, arching hydrangeas, multi-stemmed magnolias as well as numerous flowering evergreens are presented, free-standing on a platform of complementary vegetation that consists of a mixture of complementary background shrubs and mixed perennials.

Shrub Feature Border

Shrub features allow shrubs to play a more prominent role in a garden landscape design. As free standing elements within a design the shrubs they contain are no longer pushed to the boundaries of the garden but moved into its very heart.

Concept shrub features

The ideas underlying the creation of shrub features will be the subject of my next eBook. Detailed planting suggestions and a comprehensive listing of both theme and complementary shrub species and cultivars will be used to clearly explain how this original approach to using shrubs in garden design can be used to organise and complement contemporary garden landscapes.

Design&Plant will be publishing Shrub Features by Michael King soon.

Published 23 March 2014

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“New” Naturalistic Planting

I have always been uneasy with the term naturalistic planting, not with what it actually means, but with the way it is used in the media to describe any “new” planting scheme in which perennials together with ornamental grasses are mixed in an informal arrangement.

Naturalistic Planting WisleyThe true underlying principle of naturalistic gardening is the intrinsic chaos that exists in ecological processes that resolve themselves, through a myriad of outside influences, into patterns and plant communities that are distinctive and that can be recognised and categorised by humans. Using the trigger of association, it is possible for us to create planting schemes that recall memories, suggest relationships and aspirations, that together may kindle a host of emotional responses.

When planting schemes succeed in transporting us on such emotional journeys through their associations they earn the title of naturalistic, but not when they simply conform to a look that fits the name.

Below, for those of you who missed it, is a copy of something that I wrote on this blog two years ago about the underlying principles and practices of what I think is naturalistic planting. My question is -” could the “new perennials movement”  be in danger of carpeting our public green spaces with the same “new” look”? Already here in Holland you can order perennial mixtures by the square meter to decorate any landscape.

 First published on Perennial Meadows blog May 2012:

Naturalistic Planting is anything but.

If there is one word that has crept into gardening lingo in the past decade that really gets under my skin, it is the term naturalistic planting. For one thing it seems to mean different things to different people, and the other irritation is that always we are looking at something totally unnatural.

What is natural, after-all, when there is hardly anywhere on earth that has not been affected by the activities of the human race? Gardens are contrived to embellish our living spaces, to offer somewhere to relax or simply serve to impress as a spectacle. In truth ,the last thing we want is something that is really natural with all the chaos, disorder, death and disease that that would involve.

Trentham Gardens, UK, designer Tom Stuart-Smith.

The style of planting, predominantly perennial planting, that is popular today, looks very different to what would have been seen in gardens only some ten or fifteen years ago. The term naturalistic is frequently applied to it and in an attempt to understand what this refers to we need to understand the intrinsic features that set it apart.

Three things distinguish contemporary planting schemes from what came before: content, form and intention. Let’s run through these quickly to see what these three characteristics bring to our new-look schemes and perhaps try and find a better way of naming them.

Park planting, Munich, Germany – designer, Heiner Luz.

The content of, so-called, naturalistic schemes arises through research that took place in Germany in the middle of the previous century. In essence, the aim was to find a system for using perennial plants effectively and efficiently in public green spaces. Carefully chosen, such plants would create attractive, natural looking, ground cover under trees,, along road verges and within parks and public gardens. Maintenance needed to be simple and cost effective and that meant that only the easiest and toughest plants could be used. The story is more complex than this, but underpinning the approach was the doctrine of planting the right plants in the right place without altering the existing growing conditions.

Instead of using garden cultivars of popular perennials, the wild species were evaluated and selected to create a new aesthetic. Plants with similar competitive strengths were then combined into robust, harmonious planting schemes.

Today’s perennial schemes follow this same principle, although the plant assortment has grown to include more colourful perennials, yet still close to the forms and vigour of their wilder relatives.

Hermannshof trial garden, Weinheim, Germany.

The form of contemporary perennial schemes differs greatly from that of the traditional herbaceous plant borders and is, in fact, closely related to their raison d’être. Traditional herbaceous borders are set against a plain background, such as a yew hedge, and approached across a smooth mown lawn. They are created as focal points within a garden design and viewed from outside just like a painting or tableau. They are pure decoration and deliberately artificial. In heavily manured and deeply dug soil, a diverse range of perennials are brought together and arranged by height and colour to create a show-stopping spectacle. They demonstrate the skill of the gardener, require regular replanting and adjustment not to mention meticulous staking, feeding and watering to remain looking good. Typically, their season is mid to late summer with little to offer before or after, unless of course they are compromised to becoming mixed borders with the addition of spring flowering shrubs and bulbs. All of this sets traditional herbaceous borders apart from today’s desire for naturalism.

Lurie Garden, Chicago, USA – planting design, Piet Oudolf.

The intention of today’s schemes is to make an emotional connection with those things we consider natural. We call them naturalistic because we want to experience the freedom of the open field, or meadow, or prairie that is far removed from our urban existence. By using a more wild looking assortment of plants and arranging them in sweeping drifts and intertwined mixes, we seek to emulate the feeling of spontaneous nature within the confines of our back gardens and local parks.

To enhance the experience we no longer view our planting schemes from outside, but rather need to enter into them to feel surrounded by the field of flowers. Their scale is therefore larger, filling their garden spaces, perhaps replacing a central lawn with wide areas of perennials crisscrossed by a network of paths.

Regular or informal in outline, the new trend is for an association with nature to be created no matter how artificial the setting.

The Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago is a case in point. This small park is nothing more than a roof garden above an underground car park. The idea is to make an emotional connection with the once extensive grass prairies of mid America by growing wide drifts of native Panicum grasses and flowering perennials such as Agastache, Eryngium and Echinacea. However, the intention is not to recreate a prairie, only the idea. Public parks need to be colourful so drifts of european salvias and onions as well as oriental daylilies are needed to make a satisfying picture.

These naturalistic schemes are no more natural than the herbaceous borders they have replaced, but they can be engaging and satisfying, when well executed, as might be any form of contemporary art. What is needed is a more honest term to use when talking about them.

Mixed perennial plantings” says nothing about the individual plants that they contain nor the associations they may attempt to make, but does more accurately describe the new style of perennial planting we are increasingly exposed to. The other term we hear a lot is “prairie planting schemes’ but these are rarely true to their namesake as they invariably contain a diverse assortment of plants from many different countries, even continents; just one example will make my point here – the ubiquitous Miscanthus sinensis grasses.

Perennial Meadow at Lianne’s Siergrassen, the Netherlands – planting design, Michael King.

I have been using the term “perennial meadows” for some time to describe my own take on naturalism. By meadow I mean grasses, mixed with perennial flowers, on a domestic scale – as to me meadows are man-made habitats albeit open, informal and associated with the countryside beyond my city boundary.

The labels we apply to what we do are often no more than marketing terms to promote our practice and I am no better than anyone else in this respect. The one term that really should not be applied to current trends in planting design is “new” as no sooner is it applied than it becomes redundant; some examples of the “New American Garden” are nearly thirty years old.

The current style of perennial planting is nothing more than a response to what came before it and an affirmation of good practice in contemporary thinking: respect for nature, low in environmental impact, wildlife friendly, eco….. The one thing these schemes are not is natural but they can bring us close to the idea which is really all that they are about. Let’s enjoy them for what they are and not try and make them sound more important than their reality.

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Never New Gardening

Thijssepark AmstelveenNever say new when trumpeting gardens, garden designers or trends in gardening. If anything is new it is seized upon by its followers and all too quickly becomes aspirational. I once wrote a book with Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen entitled New Plants, New Gardens (A new movement in garden design). That was in 1997 when the then-called “Dutch Wave” had reached a point that the rest of Europe was watching with interest the innovative ways perennials were being deployed in mixed planting schemes.

New Flowers, New GardensThe Dutch Wave was nothing really new, but it looked like it at the time. In reality it was an evolution of planting methodologies that had been explored in both Germany and England by earlier generations of gardeners and designers. Today the look of the Dutch Wave has been renamed the New Perennials Movement  to become an international marketing term.

What seemed new in the late 1990s was the result of the creativity and self expression of the talented group of individuals who started making planting schemes that were clearly different from what was conventional at the time. Each designer had their own unique vision, but together they began assembling a pallet of plants that could be used to express their ideas. These plants were nearer to the wild species rather than the highly bred cultivars of traditional herbaceous borders, and that was something new.

Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting.

Do you remember the New American Garden? It was something new in the 1980s when Jim van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme started tearing up American lawns and replacing them with massive blocks of perennials. Once again what started as an inspired philosophy became just another decorative approach to planting within a decade. Nobody talks about the New American Garden anymore.

Now apparently America has discovered native plant gardening which is wrapped up with claims of environmental benefits and sustainability. This is again something that is very definitely not new, but already it is being awarded the badge of newness. Wild gardening has been promoted many times in the past in particular in Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Holland and, of course, England. At its best it has two justifications: educational and site sensitive planting.

The Dutch “heem” parks are an excellent example of this. Pragmatically, native plants are grown in sites that would be inhospitable to most common garden plants. These wild species are adapted to such extremes and thrive. By using them in bold artificial planting schemes they become stunningly attractive and thereby encourage city dwellers to become aware of these heritage species and learn about the conditions that they are adapted to grow in – education and site sensitive planting. These parks are distributed throughout the Netherlands, they are more than fifty years old so very defiantly no longer new. I wrote about them last year – here.

Wild gardens that bring nature within reach of the greater population are defiantly worthwhile, but please don’t hold them up as the new best practice. Too often they are highly contrived and totally inappropriate for their situations, but come wrapped up in environmental or habitat sustaining credentials.

Gardening is not landscape architecture nor nature conservation. It is a form of aesthetic self expression and any attempts to afford it greater worthiness by applying unnecessary credentials of ecological merit are dishonest. Of course gardens benefit the environment and native wildlife, but first and foremost they are for human enjoyment and that is as true today as it ever was.

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