Winter in Amsterdam is wet and warm. Bulbs are rising out of the ground and many grasses that should have turned to straw are still green. Clearly there is nothing to do but wait for crisp cold weather and then maybe start thinking about clearing away last year’s debris.
Looking around the garden there are always things that catch your eye. Snowdrops are appearing and looking very happy and the little shrub Ruscus aculeatus has formed more berries this year than I have ever seen here before.
One thing I did tidy was back in December as Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea always collapses just before Christmas no matter what the weather does. The other, lower-growing molinias – M. c. subsp. caerulea don’t suffer from the same weakness and are all looking crisp and upright elsewhere in the garden.
One group of plants that have enjoyed the mild winter and are all looking splendid at the moment are the ferns. The Dryopteris affinis ‘Crispa’ above is usually deciduous, but not so far this year.
Let’s enjoy the moment before work resumes in the coming months.
I am enjoying the new border in front of my home. It has yet to get really cold in Amsterdam this winter, but now the plants are dormant. I am drawn to the repeating patterns and complex textures it contains, with its muted tones blending with the parkland in the background. Can you appreciate the beauty I find here or perhaps you see disorder and chaos?
In the winter number of the Dutch garden design magazine OET (Onze Eigen Tuin) I wrote a short article, as did a number of other professionals, over how I deal with chaos, change and maturation in my own garden space. Here is the English text for you to read over Christmas.
We experience chaos when, what we see we do not understand; the things before us are not under control or are they out of control? Such impressions are based upon our knowledge and experiences and are often misplaced. For centuries gardens have been created bringing order and offering refuge from the wildernesses beyond their boundaries. Wild nature comes about through the interactions between microbes, plants and animals and the physical and climatic conditions that occur locally. We often don’t. understand why, and simple see disorder, chaos, but in truth it is far from that.
Were you to visit my garden, a garden I would never make for another, it would definitely feel chaotic. This is not a garden to impress others, but rather a place that has evolved over years. I know every plant there, why it is growing in the place that it is and why it remains welcome even though your logic would say that it should be moved or even removed. My plants chart an ongoing journey of study and experiment. More plants have died or been consigned to the compost heap in this garden, but what remains records my passions and informs my designs.
This garden’s layout is logical, straight edged borders offering room to asses plants and their associations with others. Some plants have thrived, others have died and most have had at least one journey in the wheelbarrow. New plants that arrive must find a place in this board game and often start off in the only place available at the time; chaos is almost guaranteed.
Plants that survive and that I like might move in an attempt to bring order and logic to the garden’s overall look, but often that simply doesn’t. happen.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of natural plant communities is the repetition of certain plants that give them their visual appeal, and it is this repetition that has become the tool I use to bring some order to my chaotic garden. I use certain plants with a strong visual impact throughout my garden to introduce a unifying theme. One such is Veronicastrum sibiricum ‘Red Arrows’, one of Coen Jansen’s introductions. It is not too tall, it flowers earlier than most others of its type and the thick, dark brown seed-heads remain a feature through into winter. Likewise, tall-growing grasses unite the garden in late summer and are later joined by a wash of blue aster flowers.
I don’t. plant garden borders, but rather attempts at compatible plant communities in which repetition of a limited plant-pallet gives them their visual impact. However, plant communities evolve over time responding to variations in growing conditions and the individual plants they contain. Sometimes a border in my garden will remain appealing for years, but inevitably there comes a moment when one plant has become too dominant and others have died. In truth, nature has intervened bringing order to my chaos and then the question is, for how long I find the results acceptable. Each year I probably tackel one such area in the garden, resolving conflicts and adding interest and diversity.
I have such a border at the entrance to my garden. Schemes, including hellebores, ferns, epimediums and other gems have resolved themselves into just a spring spectacle of a white flowered carpet of Pachyphragma macrophylla and Narcissus that fades to a simple green ground-cover in early summer, but this is eventually relieved by the flower colour of a spontaneous seedling of Persicaria amplexicaulis and a wild aster creating a pleasing picture as summer mellows. Maybe it could be more exciting, but maintenance here is minimal and, anyway, the rest of the garden has plenty more to offer.
My annual pilgrimages to nurseries such as Foltz, Jacobs,De Hessenhof and Coen Jansen (Ed. Dutch nurseries specialising in perennials) will never stop and no doubt continue to add to the chaos in my garden, but, hopefully, with a little help from Nature, chaos will never totally overwhelm my private space.
This year I am trialling a number of different species and cultivars of asters in the garden.
Aster scaber is spreading too rapidly, but it is very attractive both in leaf before flowering and then when actually flowering very late in the season. Such plants are useful in the garden where they have to fight for survival in difficult situations, but give them the chance and they can easily become a problem.
Fuschia magellanica is late this year having been cut to the ground in late winter last year.
Replanted last autumn, this shade border is developing well.
Chaos abounds in the garden during autumn, but there is a lot of beauty in the details. Probably this is my favourite season and my job is to edit the rapidly changing scene to bring these into focus.
Cercis canadensis signals the arrival of winter, but hopefully for a week or two longer.
As well as tidying the garden wherever need arises, this is also a very good time to replant new borders and move things around. The only exception to this is the ornamental grasses that are best left where they are until spring.
After a gap of more than eleven years I returned to this unique garden and was delighted to find it still had its powerful character. Henk Gerritsen is no longer there, but the volunteers and sponsors who aim to keep his philosophy alive are doing a fantastic job.
A summer restaurant – De Tuinkamer – is now housed in an industrial style greenhouse there and makes full use of a wide range of crops growing in the garden, including rare flowers and herbs.
It was October and summer colours had faded, but not the spirit of its creators – Henk Gerritsen and Anton Schlepers.
Dogmas are broken and humorous quirks catch you by surprise in this garden. The plants in the vegetable garden are allowed to flower within its tightly trimmed hedges, for example.
The ethos of this garden is to embrace nature and its processes within a structured framework. The whole “Dutch Wave” movement stems from this garden and landscape architects from around the world are still visitors and admirers of what is still managing to be preserved here.
Grasses flop when wet which is why it is best not to plant them too close to narrow paths.
However, today, fine rain turned this border in front of my home into a glistening spectacle of textures and light. The fine flower stems of Sporobolus heterolepis arched under the weight of a thousand water droplets whereas the stiffer form of Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ did their best to resist gravity.
Two days ago under the influence of warm morning sunshine the mood was completely different.
Traditional planting schemes set blocks of perennials and shrubs next to one another in order to develop harmonious or contrasting effects that build a picture comprising forms and colours.
The contemporary trend for informal, naturalistic planting schemes uses plants in ways that mimic the natural patterns that occur in native plant communities. Such patterns typically occur over extensive areas and appeal by way of the patterns and rhythms that occur by repetition of a few characteristic species.
In the planting scheme described in my previous post I have repeated blocks of salvias through a matrix of Euphorbia and Sporobolus grasses and here and there a smaller number of Echinacea pallida. Repetition is what gives this combination of just four plant species its visual impact.
We set out the plants for this new perennial meadow border exactly one year ago.
The cylindrical residential tower on the outskirts of Amsterdam is in a natural green parkland setting. The planting scheme uses grasses to link the residence with the adjacent park.
Ribbons of the stiffly upright grass Molinia caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ bring structure to the design linking the convex perimeter of the round tower with the concave edge of the pavement at the front of the building.
The intervening areas are planted with a mixture dominated by the arching grass Sporobolus heterolepis. Euphorbia and Echinicea occur throughout with small blocks of salvias and asters each in their turn bringing seasonal colour.
By the end of the first summer the flowering grasses and asters were dominant and remained effective throughout winter.
Tidied up in late winter the border became effective from April with the flowering of the first tulips. Gradually they were joined by Euphorbia polychroma which continued to be effective long after the tulips finally faded.
Allium and Salvia are currently flowering and these will shortly be joined by Scuttelaria and Echinacea throughout the summer.
When the grasses flower, starting next month they will bring a mellow, natural atmosphere to the scheme mixing with the remaining seedheads of alliums, euphorbias, salvias and echinaceas.
The scheme is still developing and it will be at least one more year before it begins to approach maturity. To date the results are pleasing and maintenance is moderate. As the grasses grow together this will become progressively less and less.
This tulip,Tulipa sprengeri, is the exception to the rule. It will grow and flower well in semi-shade unlike any other and when it does it brings the tulip season to an end. This year it is early in my Amsterdam garden, but often it will not be in flower until June.
Its colour is strong and up close it screams refinement.
In comparison to a carefully planted and staked traditional herbaceous or perennial border the naturalistic style can look loose and untidy. Your personality will dictate which you prefer – order or chaos.
Formal planting with plants arranged at regular intervals and often placed to mirror one another bring instant logic to their surroundings. This must be the easiest style of garden design to get right, but of course, the minute one of the carefully place plants dies your scheme is ruined and all attention focuses on the gap.
Personally, I like some elements of formality in a garden’s design to contrast with the informality that I seek to create, but for me a totally formal design quickly looses its fascination no matter how impressive.
Through the associations that naturalistic planting invokes it has the ability to engage and enthrall us. It can trigger memories of longed for landscapes that offer escape and relaxation. American gardeners can use prairie plants to recall nostalgic thoughts about the once extensive tall grass prairies of their homeland. For me such plantings recall the countryside I am isolated from having chosen to live in the heart of a city. And perennials above all other plants demonstrate the dynamic nature of living things and clearly signal the changing seasons and fluctuations in weather.
The biggest problem with naturalistic planting for those of us how want to pursue it is using it within the confines of our domestic gardens. The ideas underpinning this contemporary design trend were first developed in Germany for use in public green spaces. Later adaptions both in Europe and America lead to dramatic schemes for public parks, large private estates and high profile garden exhibitions. These highly publicized projects accompanied by exciting photographs fueled interest and encouraged gardeners to have a go for themselves. Regrettably, few of the projects that followed lived up to peoples expectations and the reasons are really quite simple to identify.
Naturalistic planting needs space to make a bold statement. The plants used are repeated across the planting area to emulate natural plant communities. where the same plants reappear randomly to fill the horizon. In a small private garden there is simple too little room for this to work. Further, most landmark schemes were situated in open sunny locations which gave the plants the best opportunity to grow sturdily. Private gardens in comparison offer shelter, shade and nutrient rich soils – all of which lead to tall, lanky growth resulting in plants collapsing or needing to be staked.
My own ideas for the perennial meadows I now design evolved over may years of struggling within the confines of a small, humble garden. The need for repetition of key plants has to lead to compromises and must result in the use of a restricted pallet of plants. I have learned to create schemes using a small range of key plants, but at the same time leaving room for some extra diversity and freedom. I have also found that by arranging perennial meadows as neat and ordered units within a total garden design that I can introduce some order and formality that is often necessary for gardens that are closely associated with buildings in urban environments.
The wide extravagant naturalistic planting schemes you have read about many not be for you, but I hope that the perennial meadow approach will allow more of us to enjoy the benefits of this exiting new trend in planting design.
This is a small perennial meadow in my own garden, covering only a few square meters in area but providing colour and interest all year round.
Through design and planting a garden acquires a distinctive mood and for this Mind Garden I imagine an informal space through which to wander, relax and feel secure. Van Gogh’s garden with lovers is just one of such images that artists have created throughout history illustrating the sort of strolling garden l have in mind.
This will be a garden without a focal point, it will surround you with a single sense of place, allowing you to wander, focused upon your inner thoughts or the person with whom you are sharing the space.
My eBook “Shrub Features” details the idea of surrounding specimen shrubs and trees with appropriate schemes of mixtures of perennials. These shrubs stand free from the garden’s boundaries or shrub borders and are thereby presented to their best advantage and allowed to grow naturally.
A series of borders featuring widely spaced shrubs and separated by winding paths is the model for this strolling garden. In the smallest of gardens we may be looking at no more than a couple of such shrub feature borders, but ideally this is an idea for a larger garden space with room for a more extensive network of paths with here and there benches to stop, relax and maybe steal a kiss.
There are two types of borders: some with small, evergreen Arbutus unedo trees and the others with Hydrangea paniculata shrubs. Each type will have a basic perennial meadow mix covering 75% of the ground area. Additionally, up to ten different complementary plants (small shrubs and perennials) will be planted as bold groups randomly throughout the whole garden space; each group being repeated at least twice.
Repetition is the key to creating the unified space filling this garden. Arbutus trees are multi-stemmed with flowers and fruit in late summer. The plants surrounding them will reinforce their evergreen character and give the garden its year round impact.
The hydrangeas are wide arching shrubs that flower for a long period in late summer. They will rise above a border dominated by arching green Hakenochloa macra grasses. In winter this grass will turn straw coloured, but remain effective through to the following spring.
The repeating clumps of complementary plants add additional interest to the scheme as well as weaving it into an all embracing familiar whole. Strolling through the space the same plants will be seen in ever changing relationships with one another.
Feature Border with tree –Arbutus unedo as a multi-stemmed tree and additional evergreen shrubs including Choisia ternata ‘Astec Pearl’, Viburnum utile and Ilex crenata or Buxus will be included here.
In many ways the actual plants proposed for this Mind Garden are less important than the ways the different groups are being used. The small evergreen tree Arbutus may be difficult for some to find at an adequate size. The trees could just as easily be small deciduous species such as Acer, Sorbus or Prunus and in a larger garden even Betula. Similarly the perennials need to form a harmonious understory with interesting variations in texture, scale and seasonal flowers. Nothing should dominate and which species are actually used will be dictated by the constraints that apply to all the perennial meadows discussed in this blog. What is important here is the repetition at ground level, mid level and tree level giving this design its strong character.
The theme plant schemes are similar to a number included in my eBook on Shady Perennial Meadows. There you will find detailed descriptions of the plants used together with suggestions for a range of different planting schemes.