|Grasses around the American Embassy in Nine Elms|
Of course, one could call it a cliché to say that men have always favoured the formal elements of a garden and that the women folk feel more comfortable creating beauty from the chaos of free-wheeling plants. Yes, you could say that, and in many respects you’d be right. Apart from the many famous examples of male/female partnerships which exemplify this (Lutyens & Jekyll, Vita & Harold, Lawrence Johnson and Nora Lindsey) I have also witnessed it countless times within the sphere of domestic gardening. It’s true to say that it’s virtually always the man of the house who concerns himself with the orderly nature of things: the stripy lawn, the re-pointing of paths, the walls, the hedges, the pleached limes etc. Indeed it’s very rare to find a man who would admit to finding any beauty whatsoever among the beds and borders, or the colours and combinations contained therein.
In fact, whenever I try (as I often do) to gain a male opinion, or an appreciation of what’s on view from within the flower beds, I always end up feeling like some kind of mischievous therapist, trying to tease out a sentence or two, hoping for a confession of feeling, any feeling whatsoever, towards the obvious beauty there on display. Very rare!
Most men like orderliness in the garden. I remember hearing a saying once – in relation to office work really – but it kind of went something like, ‘tidy desk, untidy mind…. untidy desk, tidy mind’. Obviously, the quote itself alludes towards a belief that those who struggle with a monkey-mind-mentality look for areas such as their desks in which to try to gain and impose some kind of order and formality to their lives - allegedly. Think of men and their tool sheds, or garages, with every tool held neatly in its place. Some men seem to like nothing more than to take out all their tools, clean the drawers and cupboards, only to replace all the tools again, once cleaned and sorted! Maybe life seems to make more sense once some kind of order has been restored? Traits of OCD perhaps?
In a similar vein the history of garden design has long been deconstructed and analysed from the world of environmental psychology. Many discoveries have been made. For example, gardens have always had the need to be legible. By that I mean, as a work of art, and upon being viewed as such, the on-looker has a need to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that what they’re looking at (and experiencing) doesn’t overly confound or disturb the senses. For example, relatively chaotic plantings can be accepted when planted within a formal framework. The seeming mystery and randomness of an herbaceous border is somehow allowed when contained with certain boundaries: hedges, walls and parterres. Again, from the Arts & Crafts garden to the gardens of Mien Ruys and John Brookes, informal plantings within a formal framework somehow give us an acceptable way in which to view that which we know little about.
|Bauhaus inspired naturalism within Mien Ruys' garden|
The same can be said of contemporary naturalistic plantings. Relatively ‘modern’ design movements, such as the New Perennial Movement may often lack the common formal signatures of an Arts & Crafts garden (trees, hedges and shrubs etc) yet the safety, security and legibility is provided by the easy-to-read allusions towards the parental archetypes they’re often trying to emulate: meadows, prairies, steppes, woodlands and so on.
Many naturalistic writers have spoken about how such plantings tap into our hard-wired DNA: forgotten, trace elements of our agrarian past; running through waist-high meadows, feeling safe under vast blue blanket skies, with open and safe sight lines that stretch out towards the distant horizon. These are of course, gardens that represent nature: a nature enhanced.
|Cambo Gardens - incredible combinations of colour, form and texture.|
|Cambo's yummy umbels!|
Obviously, the marching chaos of nature needs to be removed from our designed spaces. Gardening is, after all, still a triumph of humankind over the encroaching nature of wilderness. Unless of course you’re quite happy to grow your very own climax community: a forest!
Naturalistic plantsman, Dr Noel Kingsbury, recently moved to Portugal from his home and garden on the Welsh Borders. I’ve met him in that garden before, and boy, what an amazing garden it was too! Very Henk Gerritsen. However, one of the reasons he moved (although I rather suspect Brexit also had something to do with it) was the sheer task of managing the weed situation in his garden! Our oceanic climate is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to the success of plant growth in this country.
|.... and another pic of Noel's garden.|
So let’s recap. An evolutionary link to our agrarian past, open sight lines with knee-high plantings and an easy-to-read association towards its parental archetype. All these elements help us to recognise these environments, and to feel safe within them too.
But also, let’s not forget the plants commonly used in New Perennial plantings. Of course, within the domestic New Perennial garden the naturalistic plants will, no doubt, be bigger, perhaps more colourful, and somewhat blousier than those you would see in the fields, and of course that’s only to be expected when you have to work within a comparatively tiny arena. You haven’t the luxury of several acres of awe-inspiring pasture grass, Ox-Eye daisies, Scabious and yarrow! However, look at the plants being used in the garden and you will see obvious associations: many a single-flowered daisy (asters, heleniums, rudbeckias, echinaceae), ornamental grasses, along with a few umbellifers (Ammi, Anthriscus) to help remind us of the cow parsley lining the edges of woodlands and roadside verges. It’s all about triggering a subconscious emotional response to a pastoral past that, in truth, very few of us have ever even experienced!
I’ve heard it said by many horticultural commentators, Alan Titchmarsh for one, that New Perennial planting is a bit of a one trick pony. Now, I’m not saying that such comments come from a place of ignorance – or am I? – but to say such a thing is to totally misunderstand the philosophy, psychology and ideology of what ‘should be’ trying to be achieved within naturalistic design.
Such a flippant comment says nothing of the continuous striving for harmonious plant communities skilfully encouraged within the garden…. or the years of scientific research that have gone into studying the habits and habitats of plants…… or the noble aim of creating beautiful, ecologically-inspired gardens that are virtually self-sustaining and requiring little or no maintenance. The list goes on…. and on.
|I'm in heaven...... Totally immersed in naturalistic plantings|
Of course, ultimately I guess, every garden maker has to decide for themselves just what a garden is…. and God knows what the answer to that question is?! For me, it is the emotional response to plantings that resemble the real, or imagined, plant communities I see represented in nature. That’s why an Arts & Crafts border (though still very nice to look at) simply doesn’t float my boat any more. If anything, for me at least, it is the Arts & Crafts, cottagey mixed ‘n’ muddled border that is the real one trick pony – discuss??
Take care & happy Xmas!