Wild ideas lost in the grass

Lupin ‘Masterpiece’ with Salvia nemorosa

Gardens are in a heavenly phase at the moment, but are they stuck in a rut? Do we keep on aiming at the same sort of effect, enhanced by a few new plants? Do we need “a new perspective”?

The significant new book of Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf, the icon of “new wave planting”, argues that we do. I am wary of “new waves”, as they tend to be rhetoric and to be older than they admit. New perspectives are more promising. Keen gardeners will enjoy engaging with Planting: A New Perspective (Timber Press, £30). It is selling fast and covers plenty of ground, from the High Line in Manhattan, planted in 2009, to a talented designer on the coast of Uruguay, Amalia Robredo, who has worked tirelessly to introduce South American plants to gardeners. Naturally there is a big chapter on the new Olympic Park in London. The pictures are superb, perhaps deceptively so, and I have encountered lots of German designers with names like Heiner Luz.

What is it all about? It is certainly not about flower beds or herbaceous borders, Britain’s admired legacy to the world. The “new perspective” uses big masses of perennial plants in “interlinking” informal groups. There is none of the lovely interplay between formal design and informal planting. The swaths of vegetation are informally shaped and the planting is extremely dense. There are “randomised mixes”, “matrix plantings, meadowy effects and an overriding preference for a wild look. If you are wondering where David Cameron’s “Big Society” has gone to, I have now found it. It has been kicked into Piet Oudolf’s plantings of long grass. They combine sociability with self-help. They are popular with landscape designers who are working on industrial wastelands.

Both Kingsbury and Oudolf have been professional nurserymen, the latter for nearly 30 years in Holland. Oudolf has had a big role in the replanted borders at Wisley, the headquarters of our RHS. In Britain his work can be best seen at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire. In Kingsbury’s text, his style is related to all sorts of principles. “Sustainability” is prominent, the new buzzword around anything from bicycling to Spanish pensions. It “demands”, no less, that “we minimize irreplaceable inputs in gardening and reduce harmful outputs”. Biodiversity is essential too. It brings a “demand”, again, “for wildlife-friendly planting”. I bet that Oudolf’s followers use petrol-driven strimmers in late winter on their hectares of decaying rudbeckias. As for all that “biodiversity”, hedgehogs are one thing but I do not want a haven for hares and grass snakes anywhere near my garden.

Quite often these plantings look a mess. The landscape of Oudolf’s native Holland is as flat as a Dutch pancake and “wilderness” is rare. In Britain we have spectacular swaths of wild grasses on many of the banks which flank our “dual carriageway” roads. When I am home from the road in late July I look out of my downstairs windows and do not want to see motorway grasses all over again. I do not want great drifts of an Oudolf signature plant, the grass called Deschampsia which looks as if bunny rabbits have hopped out of its “haven” and wiped their backsides on its dirty brown stems. On fertile soils it soon dies off anyway.

Hepatica nobilis

Of course perennial plants can be arranged in all sorts of ways, in the informal “island beds” which the great Norfolk nurseryman Alan Bloom pioneered so skilfully in the 1950s, or in the superb drifts of autumnal flowers at Old Court Nurseries near Malvern, home to our finest Michaelmas daisies. Kingsbury and Oudolf are aware that their “new perspective” looks best when seen at a distance, on quite a grand scale. When I read that one bit of German planting needed no fewer than 230,000 plants to be bought in for its dense “habitat”, I realise it is not for me. That “matrix” alone will cost an amateur gardener about £550,000.

The Oudolf-Kingsbury rule is a “70:30” rule. It means that in most plantings, 70 per cent of the plants should be “structure plants” and only 30 per cent should be flowery ones. That rule is as arbitrary as the disastrous “rule” about public debt being no more than 90 per cent of GDP in an economy if anything much is to grow. When I look at their lovely photos of dark-flowered heleniums among drifts of echinaceas I wonder what they must look like three weeks later when the flowers have turned a dreary brown. A garden 70 per cent of which is planted with grasses and tall Joe Pye Weed is pretty grim in June.

I look at it all with an absentee in mind, the word “beauty”. Last summer I stood in the main conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden up in the Bronx and talked with its presiding genius, Francesca Coelho. I asked her what motivated her in her life’s devotion to such amazing displays of plants under glass. She replied, “beauty”. I could have hugged her.

Itoh peony ‘Julia Rose’

If Oudolf is into beauty, it is a beauty which is not in the eye of this beholder. I have just made a mental checklist of the seven most beautiful things I have seen since the start of this gardening year. Two are bulbs or corms, the little blue Iris reticulata Harmony and the fiery red Tulipa praestans Fusilier. They would not stand a chance in an “undercanopy” of the thickness which is recommended by apostles of “dynamic planting”. Three are trees or shrubs, the lovely Magnolia soulangeana, the pale double pink flowered cherry, Prunus Accolade, and the wondrous red-and-white-striped Camellia Extravaganza which is best in a big flowerpot. None of them features in a “new perspective” photo or planting checklist. My sixth is a pale blue hepatica, six inches high. It would be swamped to death among Stipa gigantea. My seventh is the actress Rosario Dawson, full-frontally naked from head to toe in Danny Boyle’s new film Trance. She might be up for “interlinking” but I do not think that even she would choose a planting of Miscanthus grasses as the habitat for her contribution to “biodiversity”.

If we all adopt the “new perspective” so much will be left out. I do not want drifts of purple reds and violet mauves, ever more dreary knautias with thistly heads and ever more astilbes with names like Purpurlanze. I want delphiniums and lupins, the swooningly beautiful peonies with big double flowers and plenty of dahlias to welcome September. I rebel when I read that iconically planted gardens like Hidcote or Sissinghurst were part of the “Arts and Crafts” movement. They were nothing of the sort and their owners, actually, were early patrons of a “meadow” look. They just did not want it everywhere.

Above all, I rebel when I am told I must “break the stranglehold of the rose”. I would happily be smothered in rose petals like the guests at the Roman emperor Heliogabalus’s dinner parties. They are a non-negotiable miracle but they are not to be seen in any of the “new perspective” photos. Nor am I going to give up deliciously scented mock orange blossom just because Kingsbury thinks it has “low quality foliage”. Go out and look again with Piet when the young leaves are breaking along its often-dark stems.

I am not into mess. I recommend this book to every thoughtful gardener, the first to return in detail to Oudolf’s continuing odyssey since 1999. Everything, they say, has its place, but my garden is not an industrial landscape nor part of a German Garden Show.

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