Friday, 14 December 2012

The not-so-new 'New' Perennial Movement.

 The Not so New, ‘New’ Perennial Movement.
Piet Oudolf at the start of his fame
The last ten years has seen an explosion of naturalistic plantings in our gardens. It feels like a decade of this style of gardening has gone by pretty quickly, and therefore it still seems (to some at least) quite a new and fashionable way to design gardens.  Of course, ‘there’s nothing new under an old sun’ as they say, and even though Piet Oudolf may be the person famed for much of what we see in gardens today, it’s worth remembering that even he had his influences: e,g. Karl Foerster - the German plantsman, nurseryman and writer, who (as far back as 1903) was combining a love of sturdy perennials with grasses to create a remarkably similar effect to what we see today. Piet cites Foerster as his main influence, as well as his personal idol.

Now, one could argue, that pushing aside the now somewhat-ageing perennial wave, there is in fact very little movement in modern garden design. There’s not much that hasn’t been done, or has been seen already… at some point and to some degree. So, that kind of leads me to the question, ‘so what’s the next big idea?’

Now, I’m not name dropping here, but I have actually put that question to Mr Oudolf directly. It was a couple of years ago now… an after lecture Q & A at the Garden History Museum. In truth, I can be a little like that when given the opportunity. I like to be a little mischievous and ask naughty little questions: questions not designed to sting or ruffle feathers you understand… I just like provoking thought with some devilish debate. Honest!

Anyway, being that Piet is an absolute idol of mine I wasn’t as naughty as I could’ve been. I think my question went something like this: ‘I think that the new perennial movement has been around for some time now…. So maybe it’s not so ‘new’ anymore (I thought I was quite witty there…. Not a single muscle moved on his chiselled, Viking-like face!). In which case, do you spend any time looking around you for the next big thing?’   

I was genuinely interested to know the answer. I remain genuinely interested to know what might be coming next in our gardens: I only wish I did know!   I must admit, I certainly didn’t see the arrival of the North American Prairies in our gardens, that’s for sure. And although I had had a personal interest and love of perennials and grasses for some time, I must confess, I never saw that one coming!
I like candy..... this kind of candy!
In fact, roughly ten years ago, I thought (as did many others did at the time) that it was actually going to be architectural plants that were to be the next big thing. Ten years ago, looking forward, I had visions of gardens filled with cordylines, Monkey Puzzle trees, palms and bamboos…. and whilst you’re there, why not throw in a tree fern, a Tetrapanax and a Trachycarpus. All of them bold; all coming with strong statements, and each with a high degree of attitude!

Back then, the average garden would’ve looked,…. Well, just that really – pretty average. A few shrubs (mostly evergreen), a few hybrid-tea and floribunda roses, a tree or two (most likely a self-sown native), maybe a few common perennials, and a bit of ground cover to hide the soil in-between.

Peering into gardens these days you are just as likely to see a mix of perennials (Echinaceae, Rudbeckia, Achillea, Coreopsis) nicely blended with tall grasses, Verbenas, Sanguisorbas, Solidago…. etc, etc.

A view of Canary Wharf from Greenwich. Grasses, grasses, grasses... has the world gone Oudolf crazy?!
Social housing gets the prairie touch... who'd a thunk it?

A small bank of land at Sevenoaks Station.... Again, given that naturalistic look. I do wish they wouldn't have given those Stipas a haircut though. They may look very strange as they all grow up with flat tops instead of wispy seed-heads!

What's now become an average garden these days. Not a great picture I admit, but in there are Verbenas, Gauras and 2 rather majectic Stipa giganteas. You wouldn't have seen that combination 10 years ago!

Now, I’m not complaining. In fact, just the opposite. You see, I love all these plants, and the way in which they are being combined today. In fact, to be honest, outside of today’s popular planting trends, horticulture holds limited interest to me.

But to get back to the theme and question of this post, is the naturalistic style (Dutch Wave, perennial style, prairie planting… call it what you like) in danger of exhausting itself?

In a recent article, The Sunday Telegraph’s very own mischievous medlar, Tim Richardson, touched lightly upon the subject. Primarily, the article was about New York’s Highline project.
The Highline - New York
The Highline is 1.5 miles of naturalistic planting, planted up on disused railway line, elevated some 30ft and snaking around lower Manhattan: ‘the most celebrated landscape intervention for decades, anywhere’ states Tim. The New York company Field Operations, together with Piet Oudolf, collaborated on the project; they’ll also be coming together again with the revamping and re-opening of the Olympic Park in 2014.

However, in talking about a Highline for London, Tim Richardson warns against more of the same ‘not least as one suspects the Oudolf style may appear dated within a decade, so popular has it been.’
Piet Oudolf recently spotted, down on his luck... trying to raise a mere 10 euros to buy one last Echinacea. 

As for me,I constantly find myself torn in a three-way love triangle .… it used to be a four-way tussel, until that is I got thoroughly bored with National Trust gardens. I had a thing about Nymans, but it was a long time ago now and I grew out of it. I mean, Nat Trust gardens, they’re okay….ish! But you know instantly – by the sight of the cream teas & the smell of lemon drizzle cake – that you’re in one. I guess I just got tired of being either 30 years younger than most people there, or 40 years older: being shuffled along a slow laborious route behind either grandparents or grandchildren.

So, my current 3-way tussle is this:

1)      The Great Dixter/Beth Chatto-type garden. They are both masters at what they do. They know how to do it, and they are genius at it. I walk round these gardens horticulturally gobsmacked – amazed. I always come away both humbled and inspired, and always with a plant or two under my arm.

2)      Any Oudolf-like, perennial/grasses garden. Why? Because I love grasses, and I love (largely asteraceae) perennials. Sturdy, daisy-like perennials that don’t require staking and mix wonderfully with tall grasses and dotted spires and umbels. If you haven’t got a clue what I mean by that, just Google ‘ dotted spires and umbels’…. It’s all out there y’know!     

3)      Lastly, There’s RHS Wisley. Now, I’ve heard a lot of bad press surrounding Wisley recently, but I don’t quite know why. Whenever I visit the place, I always feel like I’ve arrived at some kind of horticultural Mecca. I mean, the place is absolutely huge. As I walk around the borders, I do so, confident in the knowledge that these guys & gals really know what they’re doing. You just feel like how I imagine a mother might feel when collecting her child from an OfSted 'outstanding' children’s nursery..… confident and safe in the knowledge that all these lovely plants really are in the best place they could be.. all correctly pruned, beautifully staked and lovingly fleeced up for the winter.

So anyway, that's really just about it for 2012. It only leaves me to wish you all a very happy Xmas and a grand New Year... and of course, 'thanks everso' for reading this year's blog entries. My last post 'Greeeeeeat Dixter' had over 200 page views,... as far afield as China and Malaysia... what the hell?!?!

All the very best for 2013.

I'll leave you with a picture of Sarah Price... looking all angelic... rising up through a sea of perennial planting!

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  1. Awesome post! Pretty cool that you saw Piet Oudolf there. A rare sighting!

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