I remember speaking to a self-employed gardener once, on the subject of weeding. I’ve always been a very conscientious weeder, and I’m always keen to get the roots of perennial weeds out. I’ll always remember him saying that he himself didn’t do that. Instead, he simply hoe’d off the top (visible) growth. His attitude was ‘why would I get them out completely?.... those weeds are my livelihood’. UUUmmmm? Although his attitude was indeed morally questionable, I did kind of see his point in a way. You see, weeding was part of his bread & butter, and he was keen to carry on earning, keeping busy with as many tasks – weeding being one of them - as possible. I’ll come back to this story towards the end of this post. It’ll make more sense then.
|Oudolf at Hauser & Wirth|
Recently, I had to invoice a client of mine my bill for the month of August. Obviously, we had some pretty extreme weather during August (heavy rain & extreme heat) and that caused me to work reduced hours with this client: both 37degree heat and pouring rain seemed to arrive on their allocated day. Anyway, when working out the invoice for August I was amazed to see that I had only given them 5 hours labour all month! Yes, it was August after all, and for the gardener, August can be a very quiet month indeed: in my opinion probably the slowest month of the year. In August gardens can simply sit, exhausted and puffed out with very little maintenance required. The ground can be hard and dry, with few weeds growing and with very few plants requiring any real meaningful interventions on the part of the gardener. Obviously, this is all dependent on the weather, but quite often, August is the one month you could allow the garden a holiday.
Anyway, back to these 5 hours of labour. This particular client is very ‘planty’ himself, a very knowledgeable gardener; a man after my own heart, who’s a keen New Perennialist, a plantsman and with a very good eye for design. He has spent time working in the design studio of Tom Stuart-Smith and has created himself a lovely garden, including two large New Perennial beds that I now help to maintain. So, apart from the weather having hindered me slightly during August, it’s precisely this planting style that allowed me to work fewer hours there. I’ve said it many times before, but the New Perennial way of planting design sits on an axis of aesthetic beauty versus maintenance. In my opinion, it offers the garden designer a level of naturalistic beauty far beyond the prevalent cottage garden style, and nowhere near as labour intensive.
|A little bit of prairie..... down in Sussex!|
Now, it must be remembered that one reason for the term New Perennial relates to the fact that many of the plants that came with that movement literally really were ‘new perennials’ grown and bred by the likes of Piet Oudolf, or coming from many a German and Dutch nursery. It should also be remembered that Oudolf deliberately chose, and bred, robust perennials so that he wouldn’t have to constantly return to his many clients to attend to failing plants: time is money after all.
So, the need for planting schemes that could look after themselves, with plants that would make good companions, and wouldn’t fight each other for space, lies at the very heart of today’s contemporary New Perennial, meadow, naturalistic, prairie planting (call it what you may) design schemes. Clump-forming perennials do just that. They form tight clumps. Imagine circles of 12” vinyls being laid out on virgin soil, and whether they be flowering plants or grasses, very soon they’ll knit together, budge up to one-another, squeezing out any opportunity for weed growth. Annual weeds simply have no place to land and take root, and if the ground prep was done correctly, perennial weeds ‘shouldn’t’ be a problem either.
So, you have a matrix of robust plants that need no staking, no dead-heading and little (if any) watering. I guess you can see where this is going now?
Now, I plant using a very naturalistic palette, and by that I mean I mainly use clump-forming perennials, many from the asteraceae family, together with various grasses. I also employ many dots and spires thrown in for good measure; these help to add little dramas, surprises and accents to the scheme. Throw in a well-thought-out spring and summer bulb display, and Bob’s your uncle! One could say that I (along with others who design in this manner) am a one-trick-pony, and to an extent, they’d be right. But I believe, such an approach creates the highest horticultural beauty, whilst giving us a (relatively) low-maintenance garden. Of course, it’s also the ecology and the philosophy behind the aesthetic that appeals most, and it is those subjects that fill my bookshelves!
So, to come full circle, and to round up this little post, what has this got to do with that ethically-dubious gardener I introduced earlier? Well, I’m a man of integrity. I wouldn’t just hoe the tops off weeds – honest guv - or let annual weeds go to seed simply to help sustain my wages, and in the same way, I would find it very difficult to design borders that didn’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) create conventional, arts & crafts borders, consisting of roses, lupins, delphiniums and peonies etc. Even a single ornamental grass can sometimes be very hard to place in such a border….. and a border without a grass, or seven….. well?
However, such integrity often comes at a price. For example, you may want to spend your life designing gardens for wildlife, but I doubt if you'll ever receive a cheque from a single butterfly!
As I say, designing New Perennial borders, from someone who also earns his living from garden maintenance, leaves one with a bit of a dilemma. Remember that, back in the day, a Jekyllian herbaceous border may well have had around 17 gardeners working on it. Arts & Crafts gardens are very labour intensive. By their very nature they generate plenty of work... and New Perennial gardens don’t....!
|A little piece of Hummelo|
As for one of my typical border designs? Well, to be honest, and without much exaggeration, once established, you could simply go out into the garden in early Spring and cut it all down with a scythe, or even run a mower over it. In fact, within the conclusion of my Master’s dissertation (which investigated how successful the New Perennial Movement had been at infiltrating the average UK garden) one of the reasons as to why it hadn’t successfully crossed over into our domestic gardens was that it offered the hobby gardener very little opportunity to actually practice their love of gardening! Watching clump-formers rise and fall throughout the growing year isn’t much of a hobby, not when you want to be out there staking, dead-heading, sowing annuals, watering and so on!
The growing habits of many cottage garden plants differ greatly from perennial clump-formers. Your rose, peony and delphinium etc, allow for weed growth around the base of their stems, and very often, because they’ve been so over-bred, produce top-heavy growth that require even more attention.
So, in conclusion, if I were as sneaky as that gardener, really I should be designing borders that would keep me in work throughout the year.
However, although he may be able to sleep soundly at night knowing he’s assured an income, I would rather sleep well, contented in the knowledge that I’ve created something beautiful for people who appreciate it.
Speaking of which, i've copied a few images of a recent border I designed and planted up in April/May of this year. It was done during lock-down, using the only trade nursery that was open at that time.... so plant choices were a little limited. However, what you see is the result of planting up a 30sqm bed, using 2Litre pots, and given just 2 months growth, the results are pretty darn good.... if you ask me!
Le Jardinier. XX