High line in August
Something Old – Something New
Yes, it’s true, there’s nothing new about “naturalistic” style garden design. As a primer for those not familiar with the concept, these constructed landscapes combine thousands of plants (often perennials and grasses), arranged in co-mingled layers, massed in coherent patterns, timed very carefully to bloom sequentially and have foliar interest year-round. They have the feeling of a wild planting (they are an ornamental and romantic interpretation of nature), but their success in the public eye hinges on their ability to maintain enough order to be legible within our human built environment.
Oudolph private garden at Thews
The style has been resurfacing for many years and has been called:
1) cottage style (coined by William Robinson 1838-1935 – an Irish garden designer who pioneered the man-made “wild garden dominated by hardy perennials, native plants and flowers); and
2) Dutch Wave, and the New Perennials Movement (coined by Piet Oudolph, a Dutch garden designer influenced by Karl Foerster, who has very successfully popularized mass plantings of ornamental grasses and perennials) and
3) the New American Garden style (pioneered by the late Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden and their firm OvS).
Larry Weaner meadow
Now with our increased awareness of environmental issues landscape designers are borrowing techniques from the science of Ecological Restoration. Although these “Native Planting Designs” are not actual ecological restorations, they do help provide ecosystems services. Meadows and woodland gardens replace large swaths of lawn, increase biodiversity, repair wetlands and protect surface water quality with buffers. That’s how terms like “Natural Plant Community Design” enter the picture as well.
Perennial Meadow by Michael King
A question that keeps popping up is whether or not this natural-feeling design style is a fashion that is destined to fade, or whether it is here to stay. Will it lose its ability to move the masses to breath-catching moments of awe, or will it be hum-drum within the decade? Michael King, a “Perennial Meadow” expert , author, and accomplished Landscape Designer, has been stirring the pot among designers, asking us to question our intentions, our terms and they way we market an aesthetic. He writes:
“The current style of perennial planting is nothing more than a response to what came before it and an affirmation of good practice in contemporary thinking: respect for nature, low in environmental impact, wildlife friendly, eco….. The one thing these schemes are not is natural but they can bring us close to the idea which is really all that they are about. Let’s enjoy them for what they are and not try and make them sound more important than their reality.”
I think he has some good points, and we should be wary of any dogma – but honestly if the country were carpeted with wildflower meadows instead of clipped lawns and yew hedges, I’d break out the champagne!
Nigel Dunnett Olympic meadow
I don’t think hum-drum is in the forecast. Do we really think the public is going to yawn at brightly colored, swaying tapestries full of birds and butterflies anytime soon? Naturalistic gardens are more interesting than traditional mixed borders, and we increasingly demand dramatic entertainment. Naturalistic gardens are less Grace Kelly and more Beyoncé – they dance, sing, demand to be touched, and have complex relationships. In short, they’re more fun.
I think Naturalistic design is here to stay. Our love affair with nature has gone public and has permeated our collective awareness. Call it the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon of naturalistic landscapes. Scores of public gardens such as the High Line and the London Olympic Park meadows, as well as high-profile exhibitions such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, have established a baseline, opened the public eye, taught the opening phrases of a new language, and now a collective awareness is being integrated. By surrounding ourselves with beautiful imitations of nature, even if they are far from perfect, they evoke a positive emotion about nature, and that collective response changes our values, and in turn affects how we make land use decisions, what we teach our children, and the future of the wilderness that remains.
Sarah Price’s North American Garden at London Olympic Park
So I say Hooray for Mainstreaming Naturalistic Design
I think we need to have some faith in this large-scale public experiment. Sure, there will be some flops, but it might also evolve into something amazing. Let the public try out the paint-by-number perennial mixes in Europe. Let them explore the advice of British landscape Designer Sarah Price. Even better, let’s help tailor their designs to our specific regions, adding our knowledge of the ecology of that place, wherever it may be. Let’s educate them about dotted spires and umbels, layers, and eventually habitats. Yes, let’s be careful not to make broad sweeping claims of ecological benefit, and instead evaluate each situation individually and tailor our goals appropriately. Hopefully with the simultaneous dissemination of plant knowledge by growers, designers, and nurseries, it will retain some of the genius of nature’s original architecture. Most importantly, let’s not get bogged down in a discussion about the novelty of an idea or nomenclature – instead let’s put on our dancing shoes and have some fun.
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