Following a horticultural path unique to me, led me to a certain curiosity. Always one for taking a hobby or an interest to its nth degree, a few years ago I found myself becoming intrigued by the ecology of neglected wastelands. I would pass a fenced-off builder’s site, where perhaps a house or two had been torn down, and would make a habit of either stopping by occasionally or passing very slowly to see the vegetation that was developing there. Over the years I’ve developed an interest in the ecology of natural grasslands (meadows, pasture etc) and how this relates to scrub and woodland settings. All I need to hear is one throw-away comment such as ‘of course, it goes without saying that our gardens mimic the woodland edge’ and my curiosity soon becomes an obsession – I simply need to know more!
Having said that, the natural competitiveness of plants (esp perennials) has, for a long time, been of special interest to me. Ever since I first put several clump-forming perennials in the same bed have I been engrossed by the ensuing battle: it’s not the fight i’m interested in you understand, it’s more an ecological and aesthetic curiosity to see how some kind of natural beauty might be created in the fight for supremacy. Also, I guess there’s a slight interest in the whole behavioral science of plants: plant communities working in parallel with our own ways of being. Many years ago I remember telling [insert blatant name drop here] Noel Kingsbury that I had a keen interest in the competitiveness of clump-forming perennials. Hand on heart, I can honestly say that – at the time – I knew very little about Noel’s work and of his own area of expertise. I honestly didn’t know that he had studied (at Phd level) that very subject, and that he, together with a long line of academics and nursery folk, had also considered how plants (mainly perennials) built and sustained communities of their own.
Of course, Noel is a true pioneer of this field, and no doubt will be remembered as such when history looks back and recounts the naturalistic design wave that has swept across the world since the early eighties. What I thought of as simple clump-forming perennials, Noel went on to describe as either clonal or non-clonal competitors, using a language of pioneer plants, short-lived perennials, woodland edge and climax forest communities. Rather humbly, he himself admits that much of his work was launched from the shoulders of many a high hortic who went before him (e:g, Prof Richard Hansen) but he certainly needs to take huge credit for assisting the lay gardener in understanding plants as communities, and of the symbiotic aesthetic one can create with them.
Anyway, enough sucking up to The Kingsbury, and back to that woodland edge scenario. Of course, the woodland edge as analogous to the domestic garden is quite a simple concept to understand. Simply stand and look at a woodland edge, and there you have it! Trees in the background, working their way down to an understorey of a shrub/scrub layer, down further to the perennial material, then ground cover, and then finally grassland acting as a transitional/managed landscape (meadow/pasture etc) before it once again reaches further woodland.
Ring any bells? It is of course, the classic design template for most domestic gardens, certainly in the UK at least. The ABC of garden design teaches and preaches ‘tall plants at the back, short plants at the front’…. Now skip merrily across the lawn and do the same on the other side – simples!
Now, is it just me (don’t all shout YES!) or does knowing something as simple as this also seem incredibly profound? In wanting to know how to design borders, why we design borders, and where did our idea of the ‘contemporary’ mixed border come from, the topic of the woodland edge nudges us towards some very interesting areas of investigation. It is of course, a HUGE subject, and one far too large to discuss here. We would all do well to re-read those early pioneers of Arts & Crafts and Cottage Garden Muddlers.
In reading and dissecting any garden, the amateur garden historian can easily identify common elements of garden design stretching back hundreds of years: discuss lawns, topiary, the herbaceous border, statuary, and so on. And it’s always worth remembering that seismic changes in garden design nearly always fall into just a few handy categories such as ….
· Garden design as a reaction to what went before: – think of the Arts & Crafts movement being a reaction to the mechanised, industrialised threat inherent within the industrial revolution. Also, maybe consider the vast and expansive English landscapes of Cap’ Brown, and Humphrey Repton arising as a direct counter to the highly-formalised renaissance gardens of France and Holland.... and England of course. Garden history is littered with such examples of one style evolving as a reaction to what went before.
· Garden design imitating art: – Whether it be the influence of painters Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin upon the gardens of William Kent; the drama of a Salvator Rosa painting on the Picturesque movement, or the Bauhaus-inspired gardens of Mien Ruys, it goes without saying that garden design has long been inspired by artistic fashions.
· Garden design as a simulacrum of a natural landscape: – Of course, our current, let’s say, naturalistic style of gardening now has a long heritage stretching back to William Robinson, and beyond. For over a hundred years now, we have been somewhat kinder to plants, sympathetic to their needs (right plant, right place) and nearly always trying to set them within a context that often tries to replicate their natural habitats: meadows, steppes, prairie, and to come full circle….. the woodland edge!
Our multi-layered, mixed borders do indeed mimic the woodland edge. Is this a coincidence? I don’t know. Obviously, it’s a design style that allows us to combine trees, shrubs, perennials and ground cover, but as to its links to the design styles that came before it? Well, that would require a deeper investigation I imagine: maybe my next project?
So maybe next time you’re in a garden – famous or otherwise – have a think about the woodland edge and ponder the similarities. Think about the height and scale of the planting. See how large mature trees interact with what’s planted underneath. See what is trying to be created there..... and if it’s successful.
Always look to see how and what a skilful planting scheme (ignore the unskilful) is trying to achieve. Think of any design references that might have links and allusions back to historic garden design movements. Again, a measure of design ‘success’ should always be considered against the question ‘what is trying to be achieved here?’ Once you feel you have some kind of answer to that question, then ask yourself further, ‘is the aim being achieved - successfully?’
However, always be humble, and always remind yourself that.... everyone's a critic!