With only four weeks to go, planting at this year’s Floriade in the Netherlands has reached its climax and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon last week with its senior planting designer, Sanne Horn, walking, looking at, and talking about the result.
As I said in my previous detailed review the overall success of the planting here is the way that in each of the different themed zones of the site a different and distinct atmosphere has been created. This is reinforced by the way each area is separated from the others by apparently long walkways through dense, mature woodland.
The planting in the distant Relax & Heal zone is without doubt the most successful and intimate scheme. The planting – some in shade, some in full sunshine – follows the principles of the perennial meadow (plus some shrubs), with repetative, random plantings of a limited pallet of species; the result is informal, relaxing and yet still visually strong.
The drama of the schemes I saw in early summer were now more subdued, however anyone visiting in the final few weeks of the season will be blown away here by the large numbers of vivid coloured Lespedeza bushes and asters poised to come into flower.
An international flower festival such as the Floriade is subject to many commercial influenes not only to balance financial costs but also to promote the horticultural sectors of the participating countries. This inevitably imposes constraints on the final result and in two respects this was very obvious during my visit.
In the Green Engine zone, dominated by the Villa Flora exhibition building the atmosphere is urban plaza. It has been developed as an urban promenade with terraces, children playing areas, with planting such as might have developed spontaneously in waste ground in such a setting.
Tough silver leaved shrubs, tree seedlings and wild, weedy perennials are randomly assembled into rigidly formed borders that organise the space. In June it was actually looking quite pretty, but now in late August it was far more wild and uncontrolled looking; and that was exactly the intention. However, others had introduced into the same space a range of ornamental plant containers which in themselves were fine, but unfortunatly in total opposition to the planned robust atmosphere for the space.
The other commercial aberation throughout the whole site was the decision to promote summer flowering bulbs – an important Dutch export product. Nearly every area of planting had been subjected to the introduction of dahlias or lilies which whilst carefully matched to the colours of the surrounding planting were totally inappropriate to them. Such are the compromised of this sort of promotional exhibition.
The central entrance area had been planted with a traditional arrangement of perennials in carefully arranged blocks, that repeated to reinforce the overall effect. In early summer these borders were low and attractive with patches of yellow Anthemis and blue catmints. These have now grown up into dense walls of vegetation dominated by prairie grasses and mounds of head-high Eupoatoriums. The idea was to organise the otherwise very open area into a more intimate series of linked spaces. My feeling was that the earlier open scheme had worked better and that the repetition of the very dominant plants in the late summer scheme became overbearing.
The Education & Innovation zone contains the most dramatic planting scheme in the whole exhibition consisting of three huge long perennial borders along the sides of raised banks of earth. I wrote about these at length after my previous visit and said that I hadn’t found the repeated patterns of planting they use, to result in a coherent planting scheme. By August there were many more plants in flower, but the result was no better.
Individually, each section was fine but their repetitive sequence along the length of each border still looked bitty and meaningless. Of course it is very easy to be critical but far more difficult to suggest a better alternative. The whole point of an exhibition like this is to experiment with new design approaches and to that extent these border make a very important contribution.
If asked how I would have done it, the first thing I would not have done is to adopt a different colour theme for each of the three borders. There can be occassions when a colour theme is appropriate, but there seems to be no good reason here.
Accepting the decision to have three monumental borders in this zone, I would probably have used the same pallet of plants in each, but in different proportions and arrangements. One border could have used a dominant ornamental grass in large blocks and rivers with a mixture of flowering perennials surrounding them. The second border could have reversed the roles of these two groups of plants by allowing the flowers to dominate and dotting in grasses throughout as points of incidental contrast. The third border could have had an even mix of each group of plant to create a block of planting so creating a perennial meadow of grasses interspersed with flowers.
Such an approach would have given us an opportunity to see which approach worked the best, but together the three borders would have had a unity which would have created a far more coherent planting theme for this zone as a whole.
Finally, we went to look at the shrub valley – an area I had missed on my previous visits. Situated behind a hill the valley was planted with egg shaped island beds of a very interesting range of shrubs. Two things were instantly obvious to me. Firstly, as the apparent lowest part of the terrain here was an obvious place for a long shallow lake, that would have been perfect for a display of waterlilies as one walked downhill towards it.
Secondly, the islands of shrubs looked stranded in the surrounding lawns. Had they been linked together with simple wide drifts of perennials, for example, Aruncus (late spring), Astilbe (early summer) and possibly summer flowering Persicaria or annual tobacco plants, this could have become the horticultural highlight of the whole exhibition. Regretably, we were the only two people taking the time to look at this part of the exhibition site.
We bumped into Piet Oudolf during our extended stroll which resulted in a lively discussion about the challenges of management and maintenance of perennial plantings in public spaces. In conclusion, however, the different ways Sanne Horn and here team from Copijn Tuin- en Landschapsarchitecten together with John Boon from Arcadis (the chief landscape architect of the Floriade) have approached the planting design for the entire exhibition site is impressive and highly instructive. Not everything has worked, but a great deal has, and for everyone involved in the project and anyone like myself who has taken the time to carefully review what has been achieved, there is a great deal to be learnt. An exhibitioin such as this gives us an opportunity to push forward boundaries and try out different approaches to planting in public spaces.
Floriade 2012 runs until October 7 for anyone interested in seeing it running up to its climax. If not, you will be able to attend the next Floriade in 2022; Amsterdam is amongst the possible venues, but the actual location will not be made known until this year’s exhibition closes.