Christmas Chaos

Grass Border design Michael King

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 this garden border?

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 my garden, but what remains records my passions and informs my designs.

Viburnum and Deutzia

My 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.

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