New Flowers, New Gardens

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.

24 thoughts on “Never New Gardening”

  1. Gardening is an area in which the gardener or designer’s hand is loaded… extraordinary is even the most common of plants. Perennials have the extra quality, when well chosen and placed, of persistence and yet variation over seasons. So they build a different type of foundation for the ‘low maintenance’ gardens which are so requested these days. Those which are resilient and reliable with little input (time, food, water) are relied upon. Even in ubiquity tho, they are another layer added to trees and shrubs without going to the massively planted evergreen groundcovers of liriope, ivy, pachysandra and vinca. Surely fascinating is the garden espied which shows a skilled artistic eye and human effort and care. Or a humble gardener’s effort that inevitably inspires. Perhaps it is those municipally created garden spots which seem to be ‘by the book’ and without an actual personal input along the way, that are the most forlorn. They still might be an improvement over what preceded.

  2. Hi Michael
    Thanks a lot for your brainfood.
    Some of this post and the following comments, reminds me of something: In the UK Robinson and Mr. Repton (I think it was), had in the early 19´ a lively and intense discussion (read fight) if a garden is a real garden when it´s naturalistic or if it is formal. Here in Denmark G.N.Brandt and C. Th. Sørensen had the same discussion but with out a fight. Lately I read the post of Noel Kingsbury “mingling or clump”, and somehow your post bring back the memories again.
    That´s why I like your post a lot.

    Putting the question and trying to answer it! – What are we in to!?
    Like when the painter, goes 16 meters away from his canvas, to identify what his up to and to consider which way to go for next step.

    Have a nice day


  3. Michael,
    In writing this post, it appears you are rejecting the work you have done in the Perennial Meadows series.

    When you write ‘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’ are you indicating that you have changed your mind about the continuing value of the “New Perennial” or “Dutch Wave” approach, and are now rejecting that, at least when used as a ‘recipe book’ for garden making? Or is your criticism directed more at the commercialism that turns this kind of gardening-making into a mass commodity? I’m trying to understand your point, which seems to have struck a nerve, judging from the comments to your post.

    1. Hi James, No, I am definitely not rejecting the principles of naturalistic gardening which I think has moved garden making forward in a very positive way in the last twenty years. Fundamental to this is engagement with the plant material at an intellectual rather than simply an aesthetic level. Your own celebration of the garden you have made at Federal Twist is a perfect example of how you have worked with the site to express your own vision of the world, it reflects your passions and brings you continuing rewards. When ideas underpin a design they give it meaning, unfortunately what I see too often is just a single idea being replayed over and over again, or worst still as you put it “commercialism that turns this kind of garden-making into a mass commodity.

      Everyone should be free to grow what they want how they want; that is their taste. Current trends seem to be forcing everyone to follow a single line whereas naturalistic gardening at its inception arose out of individual self-expression and not simple the preference of one group of plants over another or choices between massed or mixed planting patterns.

      Well, at least I think that is what I am trying to say, albeit clumsily.

  4. That last paragraph is so spot on, yet difficult for many gardeners and landscape designers to comprehend. Thanks for sharing your point of view. I tend to agree and feel that for the most part, gardening “styles” are a mere pastiche.

  5. I think it is all new compared to the still nearly completely entrenched ‘traditional’ landscaping of a handful of evergreen shrubs and groundcovers and lots of treated turf, mown and blown with massive noise and gasoline. If a few more people are captured by the current ‘new’ thing, it really can be quite a bit for the better if it reduces treated turf, allows the soil to become livelier and more active, cuts down on use of petro tools….even if it is just one plot at a time. Wonderful if it is combined with a nice design that pleases people, but can also be nice if it is just some natural space within the built environment that flexes with the seasons, harbors some living flora and fauna, and perhaps gives viewers glimpses of momentary beauty.

    1. Definitely Anne, This should be something for your readers to get their teeth into – I hope.

  6. look and meaning side by side. then the growth pattern may change due to site and climate and then nature will re-establish or become more creative than we humans ever can. We just suggest.

  7. Thanks for this thought provoking piece. Here in the UK I’ve seen quite a few ‘new perennial’ gardens which repeat the same tired formulaic planting palette. There are others which inspire too.

    As an ordinary gardener it strikes me that an awareness of the various fashions, styles and ideas is useful because they can help to inform good planting combinations, but for me nothing can beat the mantra of ‘right plant, right place’ to underpin the planting design.

    I’m not a garden designer, but I like and enjoy my own garden which has a mixture of planting styles. Some parts I can say is more Robinsonian in feel, elsewhere it’s more Jekyl and yes, there is a nod to New Perennials too. I know it sounds like a mish mash and it certainly isn’t fashionable, but it works for the space my garden occupies.

  8. As a gardener, designer and artist, I always consider the looks of what I plant – will I like it? Will it give me pleasure? Always wringing my hands over the visual effect, I can’t help it. But still, claiming that gardening is first, formost and always will be for human pleasure is a limited view. Maybe some gardeners actually have a vision that someday humans will realize that considering the habitation of other species is the right thing to do and we owe it to them to take than into consideration when planting in land that we share with them. I don’t see it as “holier than tho”, to me it just seems like a better idea. More complete, and way more satisfying. Maybe that’s why it keeps coming back.

    1. Thank you Deborah – we must keep trying to push forward beyond the conventions of the past.

  9. I appreciate your honesty and directness. I find many professional gardeners have a polarizing dogma that makes every conversation an ‘us vs them’ battle cry for gardens to be created in a singular fashion according to the beliefs of that particular gardener. My garden is my art, a self portrait in green and yellow that has become a refuge to the species driven out when my suburb was built. But it’s not going to save the planet, unfortunately, and ultimately, plants are chosen based on how much they make me happy.

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  11. Hi Michael,

    A great essay. I absolutely agree. I have personally been guilty of loosely using the term “new” in relation to some micro-trend that is, as you so elegantly point out, derivative.

    I also really like your point about over hyping the ecological benefits of gardens. I have not seen the Heem parks, but do appreciate the way they stylize nature. I worked on the Native Garden at NYBG during my tenure at OvS through construction documents, and like the Heem parks, our concept was to highly stylize native plant communities to make them, first and foremost, a garden space. The previous garden was a series of mini replications of the plant communities of New York, and that approach was a disaster. Aesthetically, it was a mess, and ecologically, the various communities battled each other until a handful of aggressive generalists overran the plantings.

    I’m interested in your comment that the New Perennial movement has lost its integrity. As any movement moves into the mainstream, poor imitations will result. But my impression is not that the movement has become stale; rather that it has broadened beyond Oudolf and OvS and is embraced by a wide diversity of innovative plantsmen and women. Dan Pearson, Cassian Schmidt, James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett, Roy Diblik, Sarah Price, Petra Pelz, Lauren-Springer Ogden, and many others are taking perennial design in many exciting directions. For me, it feels more like a golden moment for naturalistic perennial design, not a movement that has gone stale.

    Would love to know your thoughts about that. You have a broad perspective on this, and perhaps what seems innovative to an American (me) is less so to a European (you) more fully rooted in this intellectual endeavor.

    Thanks as always for the thoughtful work.

    1. Hi Thomas,
      Its good to hear from you again and discover that you still keep on eye on what I am up to. Currently an obsession with shrubs has taken me in new directions and helped bring a number of things into perspective. What I am seeing is a ” new” movement following its own tail, when I feel sure that there are many spinoffs that could result. What I have always tried to emphasise, however, it is the ideas that underpin any design movement that really matter and not the tools (plants) we use to realise them. Perennials were used as metaphors by Karl Foerster as much as they are still by Piet Oudolf, but there is a danger that the look takes over from the meaning. Site sensitive design utilising the most appropriate resources to create a vision should surely be the goal of both gardeners and landscape architects. Dogmas bring death to any movement as I witnessed in the UK in the 1970s with their attempt at wild gardening. The ideas and approach that has been used for the Native Garden at NYBG sounds, from what I read, is exactly the way forward; it is both pragmatic and engaging and will no doubt educate and inform. In my own case I struggle to remain true to a vision and avoid the temptation to decorate a landscape. We all get too tied up with methodologies and the beauty of the plants we work with; a danger I have to try hard to keep in mind.
      Thank you for giving me food for thought.

  12. Hi Michael,

    I have several disjointed thoughts about gardening with native plants.

    I don’t think that gardening with native plants is necessarily a new trend in American gardening. Many national, regional, and state non-profit groups that promote landscaping with native plants have been around for quite some time. I think the new focus is that the landscaping/nursery industry has jumped on the bandwagon in recent years and unfortunately they don’t always do the best job of promoting the best use of native plants.

    I garden at home with native plants because I like them better than most non-native alternatives. My garden at home consists of mostly native plants which I chose because of reasons such as lower water usage and benefits to native pollinators, but I also include some non-natives (especially bulbs) because I find them aesthetically pleasing. It is amazing how often people walking by will comment on our flowers – probably because we have one of the few gardens within blocks that consists of anything more than a few sad-looking annuals.

    My job involves going into local schools to teach elementary students about their local environment, especially the local species of plants and animals. As part of my work, I help schools with schoolyard habitat improvements including the installation of native pollinator gardens. The plants in those gardens are chosen based on a number of criteria. First they have to be native to the area. They must benefit pollinators (and other wildlife). They have to be kid friendly (no poison ivy, no giant thorns, etc.). It doesn’t hurt if the plants are beautiful, but this is a secondary concern.

    Granted my experience is different from most people, because I am installing gardens designed for teaching and benefiting the environment (on a small microhabitat scale). Design only comes in to show that the garden is indeed a planned space and in ensuring that it is useable for teaching/learning. The schools (and one museum) that I work with embrace this teaching aspect and are not as concerned with design. One principal has told me that with the garden in front of their school, the teachers and students are using the area for the first time ever. Is it beautiful in the classic sense? No, but it is beautiful to see a live garden in use for its intended purposes.

    I don’t make any pretenses that the small spaces I create help fill a great ecological void, or that they even could. I want the kids to recognize that the plant in their school garden and the same plant when found on the roadside are both beautiful and both have a role in supporting nature. I think it is possible to garden for nature first, but do recognize that most people who say this are probably doing so with a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Most of people who truly garden for the environment do so quietly with little fanfare and will continue to do so even when the native plant craze has inevitably gone the way of any trend.

    1. Hi Mike, We are clearly singing from the same song sheet. You give a perfect example of how and why wild plants should be grown in our gardens. As you put it this “hollier-than-thou attitude” is one of the dogmas that I come across regularly. I am also concerned that high profile public schemes are promoted for the wrong reasons; artistic expression, communication and education are all worthy goals, but when environmental credentials are touted as justification for projects that demand enormous resources to realise, I cannot help pointing out the dishonesty.
      Thank you so much for your considered comments. Sometimes when writing my blog I feel that nobody hears what I am trying to say.

  13. Maybe there’s an issue there. If gardens are just an aesthetic, human navel gazing, doesn’t that perpetuate all the ecological, social, and cultural problems we have? We are disconnected from other life thanks to industrialization, and in a post industrial world we will need to know our place more. Gardens should be be 50/50 aesthetic and serving an ecological purpose. Gardens should be exposing us to the larger issues in larger ecosystems outside the garden wall — for me, living in Nebraska, the grasslands of the Plains are the least protected ecosystem on the planet. If we encourage using native grassland species, we create awareness for the loss of biodiversity going on right now in the 6th planetary extinction. If vegetable gardens are acts of protest and awareness and healing of our broken systems that erode life, why not perennial gardens? Art has often been an act of provoking awareness of larger social / cultural issues and enacting change, why not gardens? Why must gardens be limited to simple aesthetics beholden to old ways of thinking? Are we afraid of facing all facets of ourselves, of making art larger? Ecological awareness is not dishonest — not when forbs provide for pollinating insects that are responsible for 70% of our food, and surely not when we plow up the remaining grasslands for a monoculture of row crops at a pace faster than global rainforest deforestation.

    1. Hi Benjamin, Your interpretation of what I wrote is not accurate. I agree with what you say, I just object to gurus who infer that there is only one way to proceed and to follow a more personal agenda is not allowed. Gardens are a powerful form of artistic expression and capable of communicating many messages especially in relation to ecological and environmental issues. However, when such messages are the only justification allowed for the art they restrict personal choice. Thanks for your insightful comments.

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