Monday, 25 June 2018

The not so 'New' Perennial Movement

Without wishing to let daylight enter in upon magic, and also not wanting to discuss the findings of my recent dissertation, I thought I would take a few moments out to discuss how (and whether) the New Perennial Movement has had any real influence within the average domestic gardens of England. Now, the history of the NPM dates back a very long way indeed, but for the benefit of this rather short post, let’s just say I’m talking mainly about the small band of Dutch Wavers (Piet Oudolf and friends) together with their extended English family, the likes of Noel Kingsbury, Tom Stuart-Smith, Christopher Bradley-Hole, and many many more!

Similar to its history, the design style of the movement is also far too complex to discuss here: the NPM stand upon philosophies, sociologies and ideologies that go back a very long way indeed. But again, for ease of use, and by taking incredible liberties with over-simplification,  let’s just say I’m talking about that rather naturalistic look of late-season daisies and swaying ornamental grasses you’ve seen creeping all over our public spaces over the last decade or more. You now see such naturalistic creations sat upon many a roundabout, new housing developments, and with large Oudolfian-like borders now a feature in many of our famous public gardens. Even the likes of Homebase and B&Q now sell a variety of button-daises and ornamental grasses, squeezed in amongst the Begonias and Pansies.

The New Perennial Movement... coming to a roundabout near you soon...

Now, we can’t really refer to the ‘New’ Perennial Movement as such anymore… it’s simply not new: it’s been around for a very long time, and many a high-hortic commentator has been saying it reached the point of cliché a good few years ago… the point of cliché always sounding the death knell for any new fashion. In many respects it’s a bit like the punk fashion of the late seventies. Great when it’s slightly counter-culture and still being developed by the young, creative, angry and deprived, but as soon as you could buy factory-ripped ‘punk’ clothes on the high street, torn tartan trousers adorned with their own safety pins, then all the energy was kind of taken out of it. Of course, counter-cultural street movements will always be picked up and monetised by big business, and in many respects it’s the same with the New Perennialists. Anyway, I digress. Have the New Perennialists had a major influence in the domestic garden of the U.K?

Well, i'm afraid the answer is probably ‘no’ not really. I believe it’s had a major impact within the public arena, including some of our most famous gardens, and in other public spaces too such as roundabouts and new housing developments… but as to the Jones' back garden? Uuuummmmm? Very debateable!

New perennial planting along Nine Elms.

In fact, I put this very question directly to Piet Oudolf himself when I met him last year. I also asked many other ‘famous’ garden designers (Tom Stuart-Smith, Christopher Bradley-Hole) and top nursery owners for their views on this matter: people I met during the course of my research.

So, kind of knowing the answer already (I do live in England after all, and I work in domestic gardens every day of the week) I rather bravely asked Piet: ‘so, what impact do you think you’ve had on the average domestic garden in England?’…. and do you know what he said? Well, you'll have to wait for my dissertation to be read and marked by the tutors before I can reveal the answer to this, and many other questions! 

All I will say, as a kind of little teaser, is this... the English love colour – always have done! Think Gertrude Jekyll. Think Sandra Pope (Hadspen House); think of any arts & crafts herbaceous border: Sissinghurst, Dixter etc! We LOVE colour! Especially blue it would seem.

Also, us Brits actually like the process of gardening. After all, we are, as they say, a nation of gardeners, and although we moan like hell about it (along with everything else) we like nothing more than pottering in the garden, staking our plants, feeding them, tying them up and dead-heading them! 

Now look again at that roundabout, and witness its gruelling annual maintenance regime.....

No staking. No Dead-heading. No watering. No feeding ect...

Firstly, and quite unlike our traditional herbaceous borders, new perennial borders are designed with form and structure as their primary aesthetic – not colour! 

Secondly, they don’t require much (hardly any) maintenance, and once they’re ‘up-an-doing’ can sit quite happily there for months until, come the spring, you decide to chop them all down to the ground and wait for the cycle of growth to start all over again! Maybe British gardeners like to garden and simply don’t want to be deprived of the many pleasures this all-consuming hobby gives them.

Again, my research reveals many reasons as to why the New Perennial movement has struggled to make inroads into our domestic gardens, but its obvious lack of colour together with the virtually non-existent need for maintenance reveals just a couple of fatal flaws. Many a time I’ve been offered a ‘new perennial’ garden to maintain, but to be honest, although I much prefer naturalistic borders over traditional ones, as a self-employed gardener, I also know where my bread is buttered. Traditional herbaceous borders simply offer me so much more work throughout the year.

One lone naturalistic wolf in Sevenoaks... ready to stand out from the crowd!

Now, don’t let it be said that I agree with any of this criticism. I’m a new perennialist (whatever that now means?) through and through. It was ornamental grasses and clump-forming perennials that got me into gardening in the first place, and it’s the naturalistic plant communities (of both plants and people) that keeps me interested in horticulture to this day. However, a Miscanthus here, and a Rudbeckia there doesn’t mean you understand anything about new perennial planting, in much the same way that owning the famous Blue & Red albums means you know anything about The Beatles.

Ecology, sustainability, plant sociology and durability are just a few aspects of contemporary naturalistic garden design, but it’s not until you really start to tease out the historic strands of naturalistic planting philosophy (its people and places) that you start to get an inkling and a nudge of a direction worth moving towards. My advice? Read Noel Kingsbury… read Henk Gerritsen….. Allan Armitage…. James Hitchmough and Roy Diblik. Go and seek out these designers, and their creations, and then go see them for yourself. 

There’s an absolutely massive world of horticulture out there… a world far beyond pretty flowers and evergreen shrubs… and those bloody awful roses!

Nuff said. Oudolf is genius!


Keep cool. 

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