The plants you include in a garden will surely influence its design – well, yes and no.
In the Netherlands the native flora and different ecological habitats are celebrated in a network of so-called heemparks or native plant parks. These are not wild, woolly untidy gardens filled with wild plants, but beautifully designed, carefully orchestrated and intensively maintained landscapes in which the wild flora is powerfully presented in a naturalistic, yet highly artificial celebration of its intrinsic beauty. There are powerful educational and cultural reasons for these parks that go beyond the scope of this posting, but what is important here is to understand that a great deal of care has been taken to communicate a celebratory message. Wild gardens do not need to look wild. In England wild gardens and in America native plant gardens are too often created by people passionate about the plants but lacking any design skills. To communicate any idea using living plant materials we need to combine practical skills with carefully focused design criteria.
In making a garden, trees, shrubs and built structures will give it three dimensional form. The paths, driveways, ponds and flower borders will define the ground plan and influence the progress of visitors through the landscape. Likewise, colours and focal points will draw attention to themselves, impart moods on their vicinities and help develop a sense of place and style. Plants should be seen as part of this total group of elements, but of course if we are to use them successfully we need to know their characteristics, their needs and their potential to thrive in the settings we need to use them: trees and walls cast shade, some plants grow slowly and others die out more quickly than others.
Do architects choose the bricks and glass before designing the form of their building or do they think of a form and then find the right materials to build it later? No, in both cases, knowledge of materials and design ideas go hand in hand. In gardens this is not always the case. Too many of us love plants and devise schemes to use them.
In this short post I want to make you aware that in developing my ideas for perennial meadows I was not simply concerned with finding mixtures of plants that I could fill garden borders with and use to replace wide expanses of redundant lawn. Instead, I was seeking a way to empower gardeners to higher levels of self expression using easily grown perennial plants. By all means let plants excite you, but don’t let them close off your imagination and limit their use to existing formulae. When used in exciting, contrasting or unconventional ways the same plants can gain impact and prove far more stimulating and satisfying garden features than when grown in splendid isolation or in a ways that everyone else has seen or used them before.
Often our gardens contain too many plants. Keep them in their place. Use less species but with more purpose. Sometimes all that is required is to make all the garden paths wider thereby enlarging the open space from which to appreciate all that surrounds it.