Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is England just a bad road movie?

Correspondence following a comment on

Felicity Waters blog - Gardenbeet

Noel - thanks for the comments on my blog. I once cornered one of the senior managers at the roads authority in the UK and gave him an earful - I am from Australia and worked at the road authority for 5 years - we were doing amazing projects - the UK is 50 years behind. And we always worked with Horticultural experts - sometimes from Burnley Horticultural Colleges (Peter May et al)
Amway not meaning to sound egotistically its just that I find the road system is THE LANDSCAPE for so many people these days. It deserves as much consideration as any outdoor area. The UK roads authority has not got a clue about its design responsibility - the UK roads systems is the definition of bad design- its non design- its not even thought about - you get a catalogue of plant mixes and stamp them over the country! These guys need to visit France.

Felicity Waters

Hi Felicity

Thanks for your thoughts – I agree with you that British highway landscaping is crap. In fact an awful lot of British landscaping is crap. My own bugbear has been the massive decline in the quality of planting of our parks and urban green spaces – a group of us did some campaigning about this a few years ago but did not go very far. I was lucky though and managed to do some good projects in Bristol (see my website). And there is one enlightened landscape company (HTA of London) who occasionally employ me as a horticultural consultant.

You are very right about roads being THE landscape for many people. But in fact we are not used to thinking of them as being potentially interesting landscapes – your mention of France is hopeful, I have not been there for years, but will be going this summer so I look forward to some inspiration. One problem we have in the UK is that currently there is some real dogmatic thinking about native planting which an ecology lobby has ended up foisting onto the landscape profession via local govt. and planning requirements. Our native flora is very limited and pretty boring – for landscape purposes anyway. There are a few places I can think of where unplanned nature has done some fantastic things – but very dependent on chance comings-together of low-nutrient soils and the local flora:
April – cowslips along the M5 between Bristol and Gloucester
June – pyramidal orchids ditto
April – early purple orchids and primroses along A38 west of Totnes in Devon
All are great at 70mph!

Do you know Rick Darke – Pennsylvania-based plant-orientated whizz-kid? He has been researching native plantings for highways in Delaware? He has even written a manual on the subject which is really good hardworking stuff. You must see it.

How do you feel about me putting this correspondence on my blog?



Wet, Wet, Wet

I haven’t been in the garden for weeks. It was incredibly wet here (Welsh borders) for practically all of November and well into December – and now it is so cold not much can be done outside either.

The rainfall is high here,nearly  2,000mm per year, and the soil, overlaying Old Red Sandstone has enough clay/silt content to slow down water absorption – so it gets saturated very quickly. When really wet, springs appear, and water can actually flow over the surface of the soil. Pooling for several days after rain is normal. In areas where subsoil or near-subsoil is exposed, it is even worse. The whole garden is on a gentle south-facing slope however so there is constant water movement through the soil and no long-term waterlogging.

So, given all of this, and the fact that we have had three cool, exceptionally wet summers, it is amazing what survives – or put another way, how little fails. Even Mediterranean plants like santolinas and lavenders flourish in sticky poor-quality soil with pools of water around them for days. It is hard to think of any failures: Lilium regale definitely, and I think the raspberries, although there was a complicating factor here, as we dug in loads of manure to ‘improve’ the rather poor-quality soil and I think phytophthora may have killed them.

The year before last there was an exceptional period of high rainfall, in, I think, June. A friend, who lives not so far away, Charles Chesshire, had huge losses, despite being also on a south-facing slope – but in his case, springs or at least great upwellings of water from underground (he has the very substantial Clee Hill just behind him) must have completely de-oxygenated the soil, and at a crucial period of very active growth. Thinking about places where you see plants in the wild, wet slopes are often a good habitat for a wide range of species. The conclusion I think must be that plants do not object to very wet conditions at the roots so long as there is dissolved oxygen in the water, so that they can respire, and that means that the water must be moving. This is more crucial during the growing season than the dormant.

Anyway, we’ll probably have a terrible drought this year, which’ll give us something else to think about.

Friday, November 20, 2009


I’ve always been interested in food. Been ahead of the game, but nobody knows this apart from family and friends who over the years have been made to eat all sorts of weird vegetable matter. Like couscous, which nobody in England had ever heard of when I first cooked it in 1977, having found it in a French supermarket, and now finally it is all over the British supermarket shelves too. And wild garlic soup, which I first served up to dubious looking faces in c. 1982, and now it’s rather galling to see that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has discovered it, and it is all over the celebrity chef programmes, pretentious restaurant menus - and I dread to think what wild garlic leaves cost now down in trendy greengrocers in Islington.

One day they’ll realise just how scrumptious stir-fried Japanese knotweed is too. And perhaps one day I’ll find a recipe for ragi that doesn’t stick in your teeth.

Having concentrated on innovation in the garden world, and let’s face it, been jolly successful at it, I finally decided that I had to try to get some new thinking going in the food world too. I think the germ of the idea behind Hybrid came when the GM crops debate hit the headlines around the turn of the century. I only had A level Biology but I was appalled at the nonsense that came from so many people whose opinions I otherwise respected. So many seemed prey to the most bizarre journalistic fantasies – as if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a genetics textbook. I wanted to read some background on the methods used in plant breeding up to now, but couldn’t find anything. And since other folk had written successful books with titles like Salt, Cod, Porcelain etc, I thought that perhaps there might be a market for Hybrid.

Travelling was another thing. Loving to see what people grew in their fields, how they grew it, what they did with it. Buying all sorts of weird dried vegetable matter in Indian markets. Getting slightly non-plussed guides to quiz market ladies about the exuberant but puzzling greenery they were selling. Trying out any new grain, new vegetable, new spice I could lay my hands on. But also seeing how, in much of the world, the downside of agriculture was the destruction of natural habitat for the other species we share the earth with. And here there is a paradox, because what I found myself being most disturbed by was not intensive agriculture – fresh fields of densely-planted crops, but the bad agriculture much of the world’s poor find themselves shackled to – fields where the crops were hardly visible behind weeds, crops shredded by pests, measly and dried-up looking rows of corn. Anyone who in their own garden has lost a row of pea seedlings to mice, seen their nicely-maturing lettuce demolished by slugs, or suddenly smelt the nauseating odour of potato blight can relate to this, and magnified a hundred fold to those third world farmers who can’t just replace their lost crops with a trip to the local supermarket but who might actually starve as a consequence. Apart from anything else the amount of time poor farmers spend on tending crops which give such meagre results. The sight too of how many farmers in marginal areas are forced to fell every bit of forest and terrace every bit of hillside, and let their goats eat every last scrap of not-completely-laden-with- toxin wild plant in order to produce enough to feed themselves. A land of poor farming is a land denuded of natural habitat, of wildlife, and almost inevitably losing its fertility, its water and its soil. This is what so utterly depressed me about Rajasthan in India – an overpopulated Medieval rural slum in a state of ecological collapse.

Researching Hybrid, wading through 450 books, leaflets, articles, research papers, newspaper stories, political tracts, I came to realise just how much we owe the plant breeders of the past, from the scientists to the observant tribal peasant - via the gentleman farmers of the 18th century Enlightenment. And how, with the pressures of population growth and climate change we must go on breeding plants, using every available method, and of course every available crop: manioc, ragi, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, urid. Biotechnology opens the whole of creation to the plant breeder; we are learning to mix and match genes to our hearts delight, which is a wonderful and magical thing, and so full of hope. Who owns and controls the technology may be a vexed question, one there are no easy answers to, but there is no doubting our need to grab the technology with both hands - and fearlessly. By researching the history of plant breeding I lost any residual worries I had about GM crops, and I hope my book will give modern biotechnology a historical background and context, and encourage a more positive attitude. And if you did Frankenstein rather than Mendel at school, you can even brush up on the good monk’s basic laws of genetics too.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Giant acorns, bromeliads and dodgy mayors

Another conference in Mexico, or perhaps I should say ‘congress’ as that is the word they use. I roll up right at the end for a final keynote, so I don’t get much sense of what has been going on, except that it is about preserving biodiversity through horticulture.

It looks like these big gatherings are clearly incredibly important here. I suppose in a large and very diverse country they are a good way of getting people together to share experiences and information, learn about new ways of doing things etc. To my eye it all seemed very formal, lots of speechifying and sitting behind important-looking desk signage. An inordinate amount of time and effort promoting the venue for the next congress – Monterrey. The Head of Tourism from Monterrey was there – he showed a video about the wonders of the place and all the activities you can do there: water-skiing, diving, looking at giraffes in the zoo – all the stuff you have no time to do if you are there at a conference (or indeed a desire to); projected so that you couldn’t see half of the image.

On the subject of biodiversity, here in lushly tropical Veracruz province it is truly incredible. Steep hills are covered in dense forest – very little sign of deforestation here, and there is so much to see, very easily. Hilly forest is a much better environment to see plants, and life generally than lowland forest. Slopes allow you to look straight into tree canopies and appreciate the thick growth of bromeliads, orchids, ferns and other epiphytes. The climate is so humid that tillandsias even grow on electricity and telephone cables. Hill forest also gets a lot more light at ground level so the ground flora is a lot more interesting than in lowlands.

One day we had a bus trip to the botanic gardens at Xalapa, one of the few in the world in cloud forest. Needless to say it rained, and while we sheltered in the potting shed listening to Phil Brewster, the English head of hort. we got the occasional deafening rattle of a giant acorn hitting the corrugated iron roof. There are apparently around 150 species of oak here. What is particularly wonderful about the flora here is that northern temperate (like oak, hornbeam, walnut, liquidamber etc) meet tropical and where north meets south.

For a country with such eye-popping levels of floristic diversity, plant availability in the nursery trade is abysmal. I looked through the national catalogue of ornamental plants grown in Mexico’s nurseries – very few were Mexican, it was the same boring list of global ornamental plants. My friend Cruz Garcia Albarado is doing his best to promote more trialling of Mexican natives, and there must be others doing similar things – I spotted a big and impressive book in the Mexico City University Botanic Gardesn on ‘Plants with ornamental potential in the state of Morelos’. At the congress, Cruz got elected to be Il Presdente of AMEHOAC – the Mexican Association for Ornamental Horticulture – pretty good for a chap in his mid-thirties. Got talking to a few people about the whole business of getting Plant Breeders’ Rights onto some cultivars of Mexican plants so that the economy might benefit – tangled topic, but good to make a start. We even talk about trying to get an international congress off the ground – on the subject of introducing wild plants into cultivation.

Veracruz is also pretty safe. So much of Mexico isn’t – owing to the drug cartels’ domination of much of the countryside. On my last visit (Feb 2007 – see blogs) I had given a lecture in Uruapan, introduced by the Mayor (with a great bearhug for the benefit of the local press) – who I thought at the time was a man I wouldn’t trust further than I could throw him. It turns out he is now in jail, on charges of involvement with a particularly nasty cartel who operate in the state of Michoacan – they caught the national headlines once when they flung five decapitated heads onto the dance floor of a disco. One does occasionally meet unsavoury types in the otherwise gentle world of gardening.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Where the plains meet the mountains

An end to some extensive travelling in the US in Colorado, visiting Lauren Springer and Scott Ogden, consummate plantspeople both, with an immensely richly planted and very naturalistic style garden in the burbs of Fort Collins. Its odd looking at the planting here, as it is such a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar - basically the kind of grass/deciduous/conifer type planting you might see anywhere in northern Europe or much of the US, but with added cacti and agaves.

Its dry here, and although it can jolly cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the reduced moisture level means that it is possible to grow a whole range of plants which would rot in a damper area. Not just possible, but essential, as it is so dry that very little would survive without some irrigation during the growing season.

The Great Plains begin, here - utterly desolate (on a cold day with snow threatening), almost frightening in their emptiness and vastness. No-one seems to want to live here anymore, hardly surprising, and their are deserted houses, whole little townships virtually derelict (including Hereford!), and occasional little cemetries with no sign of any habitation in sight. The short-grass prairie is not much to look at at this time, but instructive to see the visual importance of yuccas, indeed you never feel far from a yucca over vast swathes of the American west.

Short grass prairie at Pawnee Buttes is not that inspiring at this time of year, but there are plenty of flowers May to June.

This is actually quite a nice climate to live in, especially as summer nights are always cool, which Scott thinks is very beneficial to plant growth. Light intensity is incredibly high here (at 1500m in very dry air) so bulbs can perform spectacularly from late winter onwards. The skiing in Boulder where the Rockies begin so dramatically is a pull too, so there are a lot of people living here now - and its seems to be becoming one of those points of good gardening you find in the States; Lauren probably has a lot to do with this, but fundamentally it probably comes down to Panayoti Kelaides, at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a name I have known for years. So nice to meet him at last, for his reputation is truly formidable; an expert on alpine flora, and on natives of the region, and on getting them into cultivation.

So is this just vicarious enjoyment of an exotic garden style? Or can I take something home from here. Probably not me personally, from soggy Herefordshire, but the drought-tolerant look and lessons are a great inspiration for drier parts of the country. It is also useful to see an extreme version of a situation you are familiar with - it somehow emphasises new possibilities and ways of thinking.

Lauren and Scott's book Plant Driven Design, was published by Timber Press earlier this year, and was one of 2009's best garden books.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

So why do we all love prairie?

I have just finished taking a party of Gardens Illustrated readers around the Midwest – based on Chicago and St. Louis. It’s been more or less the same group who have accompanied me to Holland, Germany and Sweden before – so something of a reunion, and all rather jolly. Wonderful hospitality in the Midwest – you kinda feel they don’t get too many visitors from Europe looking at gardens or showing an interest in prairie wildflowers.

No-one in the US asked me the obvious question – what interests a group of Europeans (2 Germans, 1 Italian, 9 Brits + 3 Americans and an Argentinian) in a purely North American habitat. It’s a good question and seeing as nobody asked it, so I’m going to try an answer.

“Prairie” has become, over the last three or four years, a much abused word in both English and German garden-speak, with lazy journalists using it to describe any planting based on herbaceous perennials with a few grasses thrown in and a vaguely naturalistic aesthetic. The popularity, and consequent debasement, of the word started with folks like me, and James Hitchmough and Cassian Schmidt, using it to describe an essentially ornamental but very strongly naturalistic and bio-diversity-friendly planting style using a lot of North American species.

So, the hypothetical American asks, why do all these Europeans so love our prairie?

1) Much of our herbaceous border flora is North American in origin, introduced mostly during the 19th century: asters, goldernrods, rudbeckias etc. We have a history of more than a century of cultivating and hybridising these plants. It’s not surprising we want to see them in the wild and find out about new ones we might want to grow – like the vernonias (ironweeds) which were never introduced until recently.

2) Word has got out that prairies are fascinating natural habitats, so like our much-loved European meadow habitats – but bigger (all things American are bigger of course), more diverse and, crucially, with a fantastic late flowering season. Every prairie is subtly different, and within itself there is a great ebb and flow of species, depending on factors soil moisture, depth, chemistry, shade etc. To anyone who loves plants and plant communities, prairie is endlessly fascinating and beautiful.

3) Our own flora is a bit limited – thanks to the chilling and scraping action of frequent ice ages and the geographical boundaries placed on plants’ reconquest of old territory, the European flora is just less diverse than North Americas, particularly on more fertile soils and at the end of the season. Britain’s flora is just plain impoverished (only 100 more than the 1,400 strong flora of the Grand Canyon National Park).

4) We don’t have to worry too much about invasive aliens. Our flora has colonised vast areas of North America, changing, damaging, and in some cases eliminating, entire ecosystems. The truth is that the North and Central European flora is an incredibly aggressive one, and at home very effectively excludes ‘intruders’. Anyone who gets hot under the collar about Japanese knotweed needs to spend a few days in the company of the enormous numbers of European species which have spread over thousands of miles of North America. So, we can feel relatively relaxed about having fun with other people’s ‘natives’ in our gardens, confident that they won’t jump the garden fence and smother a few hundred acres before you can say ‘William Robinson’.

5) Then there is the odd familiarity/unfamiliarity of the North American flora and much of the landscape – the wooded hills of eastern Missouri look like much of France and the lumpier bits of Illinois could easily be Norfolk; Wisconsin practically is southern Sweden. The plants are all members of familiar genera or at least families. There isn’t too much of the feeling like you have landed on another floral planet. But there is still the excitement of new species, but growing in familiar-looking habitats. Being in a prairie itself is like being a kid again, amongst grasses that are at or above head height. It is familiar enough to feel safe, different enough to feel gently exotic.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back to Cambo

Scotland has always had a reputation for being more 'European' than England. Nowhere is this more true than at Cambo House, near St. Andrews where head gardener Elliott Forsyth has gone for Dutch and German-inspired naturalistic planting in a big way, wonderfully framed by the walls, old apple trees and surviving structures of a typical 19th century walled garden. The grasses and perennial mixes are at their best from August through to October, with repetition and rhythm key elements in creating some wonderfully harmonious plantings. Not everything thrives up here of course, and the northern latitude may create problems for a few species in the new prairie area which Elliott has recently laid out. Most of the perennials of the New Perennial movement however seem fine.
Another, more original element still, is the summer 'potager', which Elliott works out in great detail over the winter, It is a mix of perennials, half-hardies, grasses, annuals and veg; every year there is a different theme (colour, structure etc.) and the overall visual aesthetic (dotting, blocks, drifting etc.) changes too. Its gorgeous and a great inspiration. It is the nearest thing to the summer plantings you see in the German garden-shows, although a lot looser and wilder, where incredible plant combinations are put together by designers like Christine Orel and Christian Meyer, just for the 3-4 months of the event. Unlike the perennial plantings, these don't seem to have had much influence over here.

Cambo is featured in the September issue of Gardens Illustrated.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A response to ‘little prairie amongst the houses’

At last, someone has taken some critical notice of what I have been up to Bristol for the last eight years. Every winter I create about 2 or 3 perennial plantings for Bristol city council. Most of them have been successful. In the following blog, they have had a review.,%20review%20by%20Rober%20Webber.html

To summarise what the author thinks can be summed up his saying that:
What emerges overall is that, while these new herbaceous plantings can be a charming enough interlude on a journey, I find the simplicity of trees and shrubs more pleasing, less fussy and more relevant in scale and strength to the urban context

The author is good enough to recognise that anything done in conjunction with a local authority is going to be severely constrained – very little money, very little maintenance. But perhaps he doesn’t appear to recognise the history of this kind of planting. What my naturalistic perennials are a replacement for are two sub-Victorian horrors: The Bedding Display and The Municipal Rose Bed. Bristol City Council parks and open spaces managers have decided to try to go beyond these and do something different. Both involve a lot of bare ground for much of the year, indeed The Municipal Rose Bed seems to involve lots of bare ground for nearly all the year, as the roses almost inevitably seem to be on their last legs. The Bedding Display always looks ridiculous, because no-one has the money now to do it on such a scale as to make it look anything else than a postage-stamp on the side of a shipping container.

It is all very well to carp about the ‘little prairie amongst the houses’, but at least the ‘prairies’ can make a jolly good colourful splash for four to five months at a fraction of the annual cost of bedding out. And a jolly good colourful splash is actually what a lot of people want. But you can’t have them all year round. And you can’t have them on a traffic island in Malago Lane, 'cos nothing else there has ever survived, until I did my urban-grit-minimalist Rudbeckia fulgida, Crambe maritime, Nepeta x faassenii and Phlomis russeliana combination, which I must say I think is actually something of a triumph.

The author of the review seems to enjoy driving around some of the drearier stretches of south Bristol’s industrial estate and mall-land admiring the ‘simplicity’ of the kind of plantings of evergreens which those of us who are interested in real urban gardening have been desperate to get away from: slabs of laurel which look the same 365 days of the year, swathes of cotoneaster, pointlessly mown into wobbly rectangular slabs with CO2 and pollution belching kit, unimaginative strip-plantings of the ten dreary shrubs which is the limit of most landscape architects plant knowledge.

But at the end of the day, I feel that what we like in urban areas is so subjective. The author of the piece rather lets the cat out of the bag when he says why not have no plants at all? Oh no, he’s talking about public art! Aaaargh. Yes, there is good public art, but very little of it seems to get done in Britain, because the people who commission and make the stuff are so out of touch with what the vast majority of the population want – which is stuff they can relate to and which cheers their lives up, not the angst-ridden outpourings of privileged art school graduates. They want the jolly good splash of colour in the midst of the urban wilderness, which is what my perennial planting tries to give them, cheaply, sustainably, and in a wildlife-friendly way.

One final point - about why guerrilla gardening has so taken off – note that the guerrilla gardeners usually sow or plant flowers not landscape architect approved laurel bushes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Living wall disaster

Here is the Sure Start Centre at Paradise Park in Islington, London (photo courtesy of - a very good website on green architecture), and how it was when I went two years ago.

Architects (not normally renowned for their understanding of plant life) seem to think that you can take the green roof concept, spin it through 90 degrees and stick it on a wall to make a ‘living wall’. And there are folks out there brave enough to give it a go – Patrick Blanc in Paris is the best known, and let’s be honest, he’s a genius (even if he is a bit of an ego-maniac, striding across the pictures in his book like he is a rock star), and there are those who perhaps ought to stick to planting window boxes. Making plants grow vertically is a challenge which can be done, but needs a lot of techno-kit and lots of money, and lots of maintenance, and if the system breaks down in a heat wave, lots of skips to put the dead plants in. But if you have the dosh and the nerve, why not give it a go?

The other way of making a green wall is the facadegreening technique (see my blog on the subject a few blogs ago). It’s a bit boring because it is so simple and natural – you simply take advantage of the fact that a lot of plants are good climbers and you give ‘em something to climb up. Unless they are planted in window boxes, a drought will only slow them down, not kill them. Its an approach which is far more natural, need far less maintenance, is far far more reliable and cheaper:

Living walls cost $807 per m2

Facadegreening costs $122 per m2

for materials and installation

according to the figures, suppliers have given me.

Now, I am not against living walls, they are great in the right place, like in boutique hotels, designer clothes stores and £20 for a mingy starter restaurants – places where most of us don’t hang out, unless someone else is paying. But I object to their nature-defying machismo, the obvious sense that here are people trying to run before they can walk. For the vast majority of landscape applications, give me some wisteria and some stainless steel rope and let nature do the rest.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A good new border plant - but not quite?

Senecio fuchsii (S. nemorensis seems to be more or less the same).

One of those plants that should have been a British native, but isn't, and although it does a fantastic job of brightening up the dark and dreary hedge bottom at a time of year when not much else does, is not the sort of thing which leaps out at you as the perfect new border plant.

A plant which raises questions then.

First of all, why is it all over woodland edge habitats in hilly areas from Belgium down to Bulgaria (from whence comes my stock) but not Britain? And why doens' it look quite garden worthy.

Its absence from the British flora can only be put down to everything having been scraped off by the last Ice Age and it not having a chance to blow back in, when the English Channel effectively pulled up the gangplank on the full flora of northern Europe re-establishing itself.

And its looks? Too much like ragwort for some (related of course, but completely different in its details of leaf and flower shape, and not toxic). The leaves are a lovely dark green, the flowers plentiful and a good yellow, but there are petals 'missing' so there is a kind of scruffy feel. And a re-design would definitely make it a bit shorter than its current 1.2m, and therefore less likely to flop.

One for some selection and improvement?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Landscape Architects' Revenge

It’s the Swiss national day, so all the shops are shut and the multi-storey carpark at Sihlcity on the outskirts of Zürich is deserted, apart from us, and an idiot in a red Ferrari who is amusing himself screeching around the deserted building – a peculiarly Swiss form of social deviance.
I am with Rudolf Lehmann from the Swiss company, Jakob, who make the steel rope and other support mechanisms for the climbing plants that occasionally appear on contemporary buildings. Zürich is the best place to see them. Many climbers will go well beyond the modest two storey structures of wire and vine eyes timidly put up by gardeners. At Sihlcity, Fallopia baldschuanica and wisteria have already reached the top of a 25m high set of cables at the side of the car park in 4 1/2 years. At another location, a series of apartment buildins, climbers including akebia, celastrus, lonicera and clematis species have romped up 13m in 3 years.
The beneficial environmental effects are considerable, particularly for cooling buildings, all now being shown to have a strong evidence base with research being done at various Germany universities. But to many of us greening the side of a building, especially one which is inherently pretty ugly, like a multi-storey car park, is just a very nice thing to do. Green roofs are often invisible, green walls can make much more visual impact. Perhaps they are part of the landscape architects revenge against the architect, or a softening of the architects love of hard surfaces.
In what might be seen as the ultimate example of the architect turning landscape architect, Rudolf also took me to Futuro Liestal, outside Basel to visit a new office complex. Which I couldn’t see at first, because I appeared to be on gently sloping hill with walkways over it, and occasional green cube buildings. Walking onto the hill I realised I was on top of the building, which was covered in an enormous green roof, apparently contiguous with the surrounding landscape and planted up with dry meadow and dry garden flora. The green boxes housed various lift mechanisms etc, and access to the offices was through them or down stairs – the offices and laboratories etc. opened out onto large landscape courtyards, which of course you look down onto from above. Get it? It is a building turned upside down, instead of a footprint on the landscape with a desert of a roof, this is a building that you go down into from a new landscape. Needless to say it is all designed with maximum sustainability in mind. Utterly revolutionary, wonderful, quite one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen. Oh, and there is a new green wall of climbers running for what feels like several hundred metres along the side.
The next day I took myself off to see the MFO Park, a real favourite, where a giant pergola (35m long, 17m high) has been constructed in a square, to form a new public space. Inside the steel structure, there is a mysterious green light, a bit like that you get in a woodland, and plenty of bird song too. Its an outrageously innovative place – I cannot think of anywhere even remotely like it. A wonderful hint at a new coming together of architecture and horticulture.


Sunday, July 19, 2009


There is no getting away from the fact that it is difficult to photograph many wild-style plantings – like my garden. I sneak around with the camera and I always seem to end up with the yurt in the shot. It adds scale and a focal point. Without it, so much seems to be, well, green porridge. There is very little formal structure in the garden, and although there is a variety of foliage shape, texture etc. there clearly isn’t really enough to make obvious focal points, which photographs seem to need. And there aren’t great blobs of colour, as in many more conventional gardens.

The fact is that wilder gardens are very experiential – they need to be seen in three dimensions to be appreciated; the experience of actually being there is even more impossible to convey with a photograph than with a conventional garden. Which is frustrating as we have come to rely so heavily on photographs to convey our experience of gardens. Maybe video?

So many strongly structural plants look so gardenesque, or suburban, or exotic, by definition if you are trying to create a garden that fits into the Herefordshire (Wales/England borders) then so much of this stuff isn’t going to fit in. The ethos here is to create a garden which whilst very global in its plant origins belongs in a very unspoilt rural landscape. Things like Sanguisorba species or Telekia speciosa are consequently very useful for their ability to provide foliage structure/texture but not stand out like a sore thumb - or a Phormium in a hedgerow.

Monday, July 13, 2009


For those you (American readers perhaps) who don’t know who Delia Smith is – she is our equivalent of Martha Stewart, except that she only does cookery, hasn’t done time, and is, let’s fact it, a bit of a frump. So it was a bit of a double-edge sword when I heard that Alan Titchmarsh said that “having Noel Kingsbury visit your garden is a bit like having Delia Smith to supper” on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show TV coverage. The person who was being threatened with a visitation was Joe Swift.

In the end I never did get to see Joe’s garden, but have had to write it up for a book I’m doing on designers’ own gardens blind. He’s very busy, I only come to London once a month etc etc. Plus there was the article I found online, in either the Mail or the Express website about his garden. Neither of these is my favourite publication, so I didn’t take it too seriously, to be fair the photograph was only of the front ‘garden’, and featured some bare concrete, empty beer bottles, a bag of rubbish and an upside own milk crate – and a couple of local types saying things like “that Joe Swift outa get down here and tidy up his garden (to be read in cockney accent). A total gutter press non-story in other words. You should have seen our ‘front garden’ in Bristol.

Its been an interesting book to do, as a lot of designers have gardens which are real personal spaces. Somewhat surprisingly, Joe Swift did not do his garden for a TV make-over, but Penelope Hobhouse did (well part of her old garden at Bettescombe). Its been interesting too, hearing about design approaches too. Like Joe Swift’s ‘modular gardens’ concept which sounds like a complete negation of what many designers see as design (genius of the place and all that) – but I now can appreciate the rationale so much better. Cleve West has been my latest victim. Again a bit diffident about letting me in, but a wonderfully green oasis in the suburbs type garden, tiny, very intensely designed, contemporary but very planty.

Some designers use their gardens for experimenting with lots of new plants, or trying out new concepts – but none of the living ones do this on anything like the scale of the late Mien Ruys in Holland, whose garden was several acres of design laboratory (but she did inherit her father’s nursery), or the late Roberto Burle Marx, who had what amounted to a private botanical garden. Others are just very personal spaces where they simply do what they want to do, without worrying about clients. None yet features a rectangular lawn with yard wide borders around the edges.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Trusting the National Trust?

At the Hay festival back in May, I was on a panel with Dan Pearson, Tim Richardson, and Simon Jenkins – the leading political commentator on The Guardian, writer on historic churches, castles and houses and now Chairman of the National Trust – and according to my spies, very much a new broom. “So” said Simon, innocently trying to make small talk before the event, “are you writing about many Trust gardens these days?” “No”, said I through gritted teeth, “its almost impossible to find a photographer to work in a Trust garden, your system of licensing has put them all off”.

What had happened a few years ago was that the Trust decided to try to make some money out of all the images of its properties and demanded that all commercial photography had to go through its picture library. Photographers were only allowed in if they had a definite commission or were given agency status. So much garden photography is done ‘on spec’ by a growing army of people, very few of whom could get the coveted agency status. The result of the regulations was the killing of the proverbial goose that laid the golden eggs. Photographers were either not allowed in, or couldn’t make much money when they were. Writers and editors began to see fewer and fewer trust gardens – which must have begun to have a pretty negative impact on media coverage of the Trust – and a loss of income. The trust is heavily dependent on this kind of unquantifiable goodwill and promotion – the kind of thing which the bean counters at head office never thought of when the whole system was instituted.

Now, I have a kind of shop steward tendency, so I gathered a few submissions from photographer colleagues, one of which was headed ‘National Distrust’, attached them to a letter to Simon, cc.ed emails to Head of Gardens, Head of Communications, Head of Publications. Most gratified to have responses in a couple of hours. Long conversation with Head of Publications on the phone – I’m not going to divulge details, but he was effectively saying that the Trust had screwed up big time and needed to renegotiate. What a relief. Felt a bit like I had pushed at an open door and cleared a log jam, to horribly mix metaphors. Lovely warm glow of goodwill all round after lots of bitchiness. So hopefully we can see a new more generous set of arrangements and we can all start writing about the Trust's wonderful gardens again.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Only 24 hours in Ireland

It’s embarrassing. I realise that it is 27 years since I was last in Ireland. *o**! and my son’s called Kieran an’ all. And I just went for only 24 hours, to give what felt like a very successful workshop on designing with foliage for the Garden and Landscape Designers Association. I hate doing FIFOs (Fly In, Fly Out is the polite version), but schedule doesn’t allow much else at the moment.

Dublin is in a post-tiger-economy hangover, but the coastal strip looks great. Fantastic seaside exotic-looking gardens. Interesting to talk with people about what you can do/grow and what you can’t do/grow. Generally too cold and windy to sit out and treat the garden as an outside room for one thing. Reports that late herbaceous stuff like solidagoes just don’t perform – so little warmth, so little seasonality. Would be interesting to hear from other people about that. People’s complaints about the weather reminded me of Mark Twain about San Francisco, and the worst winter he ever had was a summer there, in that famously cool but never cold all the year round city.

Ok, this isn’t California, but there are similarities with the amazing range of exotica which does so well – practically anything from the Atlantic Islands and NZ, and a lot of South African. Just so long as it doesn’t want either a proper winter or a proper summer. Gardens can look really exotic, and echiums and Geranium maderense naturalise.

Met up with Oliver and Liat who run Mount Venus Nursery, which has an amazing range of plants. They’re German, not that you’d ever believe Oliver was anything but Irish – Liat sounds like Nico though). Trained with Dr.Hans Simon near Würzburg – owner of the world’s most untidy nursery. So were thoroughly grounded in all the right way of garden thinking. Catalogue looks very exciting.

Must go back.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

‘Go Forth and Multiply’

The self-sowing of plants in borders has always fascinated me – and increasingly I’m inclined to think that it is crucial to the long-term stability of naturalistic plantings. There is a real thrill in suddenly seeing the seedlings of desirable plants popping up in the border.
Most of us are familiar with those plants which always seem to produce seedlings, like aquilegias and verbascums. The latter are a good example of self-sowing as too much of a good thing – how many of us have frantically hoed off thousands of their tiny seedlings, alarmed at the prospect of a take-over bid by big furry rosettes. Aquilegias though are generally better behaved, their behaviour illustrating what many of us welcome about self-sowing – the spontaneity of desirable plants occasionally popping up of their own accord.
A lot more species do self-sow however, indeed in theory any reasonably genetically diverse plant population should. Many garden plants though are not ‘genetically diverse’ but genetically identical clones (i.e. cultivars), which don’t self-fertilise. Even if plants produce viable seed, the likelihood of the seed germinating does seem to be contingent on soil conditions – but what those conditions are – well who knows? The unpredictability of self-sowing is one thing which makes it so fascinating. In theory, self-sowing is more likely on lighter soils, but then there is the case of a friend whose heavy clay produced remarkable crops of seedlings of just about anything. And then there are my hellebores – my last and present gardens are both on Old Red Sandstone, although this is quite a varied geological formation; in the last garden there was virtually no self-sowing, but in my new garden, almost every seed which hits the ground turns into a seedling. Most have to get hoed off!
One ‘rule’ of self-sowing is the inverse relationship between lifespan and seed production – the longer-lived the plant is, the fewer seeds it produces (and very often the slower they germinate). Short-lived plants put far more resources into seed production, and those seeds tend to be rapidly-germinating. The reasons are pretty obvious – short-lived species need to make sure they leave plenty of youthful replacements around to keep the species alive, long-lived plants don’t need to, and producing lots of seeds might even be counter-productive, taking resources away from more effective methods of reproduction in a competitive environment, like producing running roots or new shoots.
If things go well, seedlings of desired plants fill gaps, producing a steadily denser plant community, which helps to limit weed infiltration, and is probably better invertebrate habitat. A dense plant community, with a near complete canopy is far more ‘natural’ than the traditional border with big gaps between plants at ground level – even though there may be no gaps at foliage level. Self-seeding helps to produce a nature-like visual continuity; in my last garden Geranium sylvaticum ‘Birch Lilac’ self-fertilised and spread everywhere; I didn’t know this was going to happen, but the results were delightful, a continuous drift of purple in May. Ideally, several species will self-sow, so that one does not dominate, and a relative balance develop between them.
Self-sowing is a chance to see natural process in action, a sharing of the design and management of the garden with the energy and life-process of the plants themselves.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Some good nurseries

I haven’t bought many plants from nurseries for ages, but I’m now so aware of gaps in the planting in key areas around the house and the fact that so much of what has established is ‘tried and tested’, that it is time to try some new material.

Nurseries in Britain have got pretty boring of late. An explosion of small nurseries mostly selling perennials in the early noughties has meant that new and ‘ordinary’ gardeners now have lots of choice. Trouble is – they sell nearly all the same stuff and the plantsman gets increasingly frustrated in their search for the new and unusual. “They all sell the same plants because they buy them all from me” is the comment of one of the country’s leading supplier of small plants – in other words they are buying in, not propagating themselves.

Derry Watkins of Special Plants near Bath was, is and, inshallah, will continue to be a great source of the new and good. She still does a few plant sales, as much as to pounce on new plants from other nurseries, as much as to sell, I suspect. Walking around her sales area her transatlantic whoops and screams of enthusiasm about her new plant varieties makes customer heads turn. For example, she has a form of Ranunculus aconitifolius ‘Flore Pleno’ which she says, “doesn’t just die out, but is really vigorous”. Derry has always done a lot of tender/half-hardy species – and her range is just as lively as it always was. On the edge of a wonderful stretch of country too.

Kevock Garden Plants <> I have not been to yet, but their plant selection online looks really good. Lots of stuff I’ve not seen before, and of course many which thrive in cooler northern climates. Particularly good on Himalayan primulas, with quite a few recent introductions. Can’t wait for a trip up to Edinburgh and get to see them.

Beeches Nursery in Essex appears whenever you do an RHS Plant Finder search – their list is absolutely ginormous. But I have always been sceptical about how much of it they actually have, so on the way back from Stansted airport last week I dropped in. Still not sure about how much of their list is actually available on the nursery, but it is a huge selection and the site is nice and tidy, a pleasure to look around. I found a lot which was totally unfamiliar. Well-established plants too. From now on, every trip abroad via. the infamously inconvenient airport will include a visit here.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thoughts on visiting Suzhou, China

Looking around classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou has been utterly fascinating. They are so different to any other garden spaces I have seen. What I love about them is the way that the challenge the axial symmetry, the obsession with perpendicular geometry and the perspective-focus of the European and Islamic garden tradition. If you like the sound of established paradigms being ripped up, and accepted notions being trampled underfoot, you will love these gardens.

Enclosure is a key part of the visual appearance of the Suzhou ‘scholar’ gardens, most of which date to the Ming dynasty -1368 – 1644.
Many western visitors are put off by the sheer unfamiliarity, the passion for extravagant rockwork, and the apparent artificiality and contrivance of much garden design and structure; to say nothing of a lack of grounding in the basics of Chinese culture.

The ‘rockery’ in The Mountain Retreat Garden is so vast that it includes a cave halfway up.

In fact, I think these gardens have an enormous amount to teach us, which is not to say we should all start building little pavilions with upturned roofs and heaping up rocks. What we can learn is a lot more fundamental, in particular about spatial relations, which, given that more and more of us are living in places with only tiny garden areas, is actually jolly important. There are also important lessons for a more integrated garden-as-art practice, as classical Chinese garden making was part of a rounded artistic practice which also involved poetry, painting, and often music too. They were created by a highly cultivated scholar-bureaucrat class, for whom an appreciation of landscape was central to their artistic interests.
A pavilion in The Mountain Retreat Garden – such places might have served either individual contemplation or a more social artistic activity.

Gardens are dominated by buildings, but very light, almost ‘transparent’ ones: pavilions with lots of windows or openings, and covered walkways, which play a major role in guiding garden exploration and understanding.
A covered bridge in The Garden of the Humble Administrator

Examples of window openings, and one door in the walls of covered walkways. The windows appear to be made of stucco.

Buildings often offer highly complex multiple viewpoints – the effect is often breathtakingly clever, and very tantalising, as you don’t know which one of the several proffered vistas to go and see. Covered walkways physically guide the viewer, and control how different garden areas are seen, which often means that an area will be seen from several different angles. Since the same elements tend to be repeated, the multiple viewpoints and the multiple pathways from point to point often induce a feeling of mild disorientation – the visitor is brought into a dreamworld.

A series of vistas in the Xian Yuan, Mudu, showing how multiple glimpses of different parts of a garden are visible from one point, using door-openings, window-openings, and spaces between pillars in walkways. The following shot of a model of this part of this garden illustrates this non-perpendicular spatial complexity.

The above two pictures are in the Master of Fishing Nets Garden, and show the centrality of water to garden areas. Water is not necessarily the centre of the whole garden, but is often found at a the centre of discrete and definable garden areas - it serves to link different garden features and to provide a way of seeing across areas without interruption. In fact in many ways it serves a similar function to lawn in conventional western gardens - but a lawn you don't walk on!
Bridges are nearly always ‘staggered’ – in fact it seems to be a fundamental rule of garden-making that you never go directly from one point to another; the effect is to slow down progress, enhancing the illusion of greater space, and encouraging observation of the surroundings.

‘Dreamworld’ is a key to understanding Chinese gardens. Much Chinese landscape-related art is about encouraging the viewer to imagine themselves somewhere else – the classic landscape art of mountains, forest, lakes and little buildings is designed to make the viewer imagine themselves to be in the image. The garden, with its rockworks evoking the extravagant shapes of the various mountain ranges dotted around the country and fragrant vegetation, is designed as space to help the viewer be transported somewhere else.

The Chinese love of rocks is something which we simply do not share – but it is very important. Single specimens are regarded almost as if they were pets, or friends, endowed with personalities, or seen as almost spiritual entities. Fine rocks are even set on tailor-made wooden pedestals and used as ornament in the home; I saw specimens priced at =£5,000 in antique shops. Rocks may also be combined to make miniature landscapes; at one location in Suzhou (Tiger Hill) there are several dozen such examples. Planted up with ‘bonsai’-trained trees they become true living miniature landscapes.

Right - one of the largest individual specimen stones in a Suzhou garden, the Lingering Garden.

'Bonsai' originated here, and you can't help feeling that some Chinese feel a bit annoyed that we think of them as Japanese. But of course, the period during which bonsai became popular in the west is the period when all traditional arts in China were under sustained attack; Mao Zedong is known to have denounced the growing of potted plants as a sign of bourgeois ideas. Seeing all these magnificent, and no doubt very ancient, bonsai, does make you wonder how they survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution period, when anything old was liable to be destroyed or vandalised.

The bonsai collection here is at Tiger Hill, Suzhou.
Right - there are also 'giant bonsai'.

Left - and substantial dry miniature landscapes.
Most dry mini landscapes are tray size though:

Planting – liriope rules!
Plant interest in the gardens is actually pretty low. It may well have been greater in the past, but nearly all these gardens have been changed extensively since they were created, and have undergone periods of neglect. Restoration has been meticulous, but with little attention to diverse planting – landscape and amenity planting in China tends to be extensive but uninteresting in the extreme.

What the Americans call ‘lily-turf’ – species of liriope and ophiopogon, are used extensively in public spaces as ground-cover, often to great effect. I’m certainly going to start exploring their use much more. I do not know if they were used originally in the Suzhou gardens – possibly not.
Peonies are the classic perennial for these gardens, but they were generally grown in separate dedicated beds.

I would argue that the complex sub-division of space and creation of micro-habitats in the Scholar gardens is ideal for creating interesting planting spaces, so the lack of interesting planting in these gardens is not to be held against them. The Suzhou-style garden in Portland, OR, shows how plantsmanship and Chinese design work very well together.

Thanks to travelling companions, my partner Jo and friend Yue Zhuang, who has been with us on her annual trip home and has been a brilliant guide. My photos are on flickr:


    This has taken a long time to post - all my efforts to blog in China didn't work. One can get paranoid about the 'Great Firewall of China'!
    I have always been  puzzled by Chinese gardens. We don’t have any in UK, but there are some very good ones in Germany, Switzerland and Portland OR – the latter built by craftspeople from Suzhou, the garden city of China with which the lovely Portland is twinned.
    The aesthetic is very unfamiliar, and we westerners are all too likely to be offended by the piles of rocks which we find grotesque. We also find it difficult to approach a lot of Oriental sensibilities because of an intervening layer of interpretation  which sees so many classic elements: bamboos, willow trees, pavilions, as clichés – it is as if Chinese people, on seeing a herbaceous border, an urn, or pergola draped in roses immediately think “chocolate box” and switch off. You do really have to learn to look – appreciating other culture’s aesthetics is actually quite hard work (don’t mention the Peking Opera!)
    What interests me about the Chinese  garden is its totally different aesthetic to ours, particularly in the way the gaze is directed, an aesthetic which I believe is very good at maximising the use of visual space in a confined area – making it immensely useful for urban plots. Forget all that classical axis stuff, this is about  complex multi-directional perspectives, ‘transparent’ buildings, peeks through windows, a strong sense of a circular journey, and a rapid change of view from the macro to the micro. Its all so much more fluid, more intimate, more poetic than I am used to.
    Today we visited the Garden of Harmonious Interests at the Summer Palace in Beijing which illustrates all this beautifully. It still felt like winter, but the bareness was good for appreciating basic structure – isn’t it always. There was very little interesting plantlife visible, or likely, given how trampled a lot of the ground was, but the fact that these intimate Chinese gardens are actually very good for displaying interesting plants is brought home strongly by the Portland garden, where all the planting was supervised by Sean Hogan, who is an obsessive a plantsman as it is possible to get.
    There’s a lot to learn here.

My pictures are on:

There are also a lot of other good shots of this garden on Flikr too, taken by folks at other times of year.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Border Order

My very first blog (I think) was about a big new border at my new home. I had planted it in lines, one metre apart, basically as plants came out of the back of the van. I’ve moved plants around every year since, in particular to break up the obvious lines of the same thing, but I have kept the basic idea of the lines. It is only in the early spring that it is obvious that things are in lines – the rest of the year everything blurs in together.

Now, some three years later, the rows are still there, and I realise just how practical they are, but also a very good research and documentation tool. They make weed control easier, which is a great relief – you can hoe or spray off whatever comes up between the rows – allowing for some self-seeding and spreading.

In terms of documentation, the lines make for very easy recording – simply number each row with a low profile numbered peg, and then stretch a tape measure from the fence at the rear to note where everything is. The results can then be recorded on an Excel spreadsheet. In theory I’m going to redo this every year – in fact, this year, it didn’t take very long at all. Anything which self-seeds or spreads into the areas betweent the rows can be allowed to do so and recorded – a useful measure of spreading ability. I might also start planting some plugs of certain species as well in the gaps.

So, here is the ‘plan’ of a border which is still very much in the process of development.
The numbers along the top are metres from the fence at the rear (which is the left), indicated by the numbers of the rows, which also represent the number of metres from the other end (at the bottom). You can see in more detail by toggling the little rectangle symbol in the top right hand corner of the Scribd window.

I hope this makes sense! It took me a whole evening to work out how to turn an Excel file into something I could blog.

Big Border Data 2 Big Border Data 2 noelk57

Big Border Data 1 Big Border Data 1 noelk57

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Penelope Hobhouse at Vista.

    Penelope Hobhouse was our guest at Vista (London’s Garden Museum) last month. The podcast is now up on the Gardens Illustrated website:

    Penelope talked to us about her life and career, which has been a varied one. She has made several gardens (Hadspen and Bettescombe), written about colour, design, garden practice, garden history and Islamic gardens. The breadth of her knowledge and experience is huge, which makes her very interesting. She can also be irreverent and funny – which surprises people; just before we started she whispered to me that we should make some jokes to lighten the atmosphere up – I think Tim and I obliged, its remarkably how one can produce humour when the pressure is on. The Vista audience were a bit overawed – there is something about Penelope which pushes a “girl school headmistress” button in a lot of people which is shame, because she isn’t actually like that.
    The previous week I had spent a morning with her at her new home back at Hadspen, going over the ground for the Vista evening. So much of what she spoke about rather sent me off down memory lane – the height of her career was when I was just starting out running a nursery, doing some garden design and beginning  to write myself. Things have moved on so much though: garden history has had its moment (in Britain at least), and Americans are no longer interested in hanging on to every word from British gardeners (thank goodness). Penelope’s interest in the US garden scene in fact waned before they really declared independence though. Part of the reason for this is something I really warm to about Penelope, a distrust of clients with only money to spend – for her there has to be something deeper and more meaningful in garden making. From USA to Iran was an interesting change in loyalties, but the Islamic garden tradition (which is actually pre-Islamic) offers a spiritual/aesthetic exploration of space and a set of intellectual challenges.

Next month at Vista – James Hitchmough

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

On galanthophiles and perennials

A trip to Scotland to go to Cambo House, famous for its snowdrops, although I’m writing about the garden in September. The snowdrops are pretty spectacular, along with snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) and other woodland goodies. It feels like a pretty remote spot to me, but I guess there must be a lot of golf widows wending their way down from St. Andrews; and it’s only 1.5 hours from Edinburgh. The sales area, snowdrop gift shop etc. is all very understated and tastefully done.

Despite the reputation for snowdrops, I’m not sure Catherine Erskine of Cambo really wants to be known as a galanthophile. Over lunch she tells me about new varieties selling for what seem like absurd sums of money, then appearing on Ebay next year after having been split. And snowdrops from gardens disappearing. The truth is that any genetically varied population of snowdrops is going to show quite a lot of variation  in the flowers. BUT Brit snowdrops are genetically limited, as they are not natives, so we see little variation – any that does occur seems to cause a galanthophile rush. A colleague at the Ljubljana Botanic Garden did  a research project on wild populations in Slovenia – showing the level of variation. He should probably have split them all up and sold them to gullible galanthophiles over here for some easy research funding. Catherine’s opinion is that there is no point adding to the list of cultivars (apparently 1,000 and growing) unless something is really distinctive.

Meanwhile, the rest of the garden at Cambo.
Having been banging on about naturalistic planting for years (since about 1996 I reckon) I sometimes wonder just how much impact I, and other proponents of ecology-inspired planting have had. There is a terrible tendency for people to take things up in a very superficial way – plant a couple of miscanthus in their border and rename it a ‘prairie’ border. Wyevale garden centres are handing out a glossy leaflet which tells you how to plant up a prairie border too; it recommends planting in clumps. AAARRGH. They have clearly paid no attention.

So, pure joy to be at Cambo where head gardener Elliott Forsyth has clearly done his homework, and been to Germany to visit Westpark and Hermannshof, and is planting big borders with perennials and grasses, diffusing varieties through and trying lots of ways of combining and juxtaposing  varieties. His wife Sue is an artist, so he has been swotting up and putting into practice some art theory too. I long to see it all in summer, but winter was convincing enough, as they had left all the seedheads up for me to see. This spring a huge 90 species prairie is going in, with thousands of plants which have been grown from seed over the last year.
Wonderful that someone has been listening!
The article about Cambo will be in the September Gardens Illustrated.
Cambo House is open daily.

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A cue for Kew

    Quite a historic occasion at Kew last night. The first time in nearly a century that the directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Edinburgh  and the Irish National Botanic Garden are on the same public platform – along with the director of the new Welsh botanic gardens. And I’m chairing it, along with Denis Murphy, Professor of Biotechnology at Glamorgan University. The format evolved out of the series of evening public conversations that Tim Richardson and myself have been having with figures in the garden world at the Garden Museum in Lambeth.
    I was nervous about the event, a bit beyond the safety zone. That inferiority complex that gardeners have about botanists and botanic gardens. Denis and I probed them on a number of issues, such as the possibly negative impact of the Convention on Bio-diversity on research and plant exploration, how the gardens relate their mission to the public, and how they see their mission conserving plants in the face of climate change. Two hours were hardly long enough. Everyone seemed to enjoy the event and find it interesting.
     The ‘Vista Debates’ at the Garden Museum are great fun, a bit like running a private dining club. We have an onstage discussion with a guest/s (last month it was Penelope Hobhouse), followed by a jolly good meal cooked in the museum kitchen – often quite adventurous cooking  - I shall never forget the delicious cardamom-flavoured polystyrene noodles we had on the first night we did. A lot of the success of the evening centres on the rapport Tim and I have with each other, coming as we do from different ends of the spectrum of what makes people interested in gardens. Lila Das Gupta on her blog recently called us the “John Bird and John Fortune” of the gardening world. 
    You too can listen on a podcast, generously hosted by Gardens Illustrated.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An attempt at summarising my PhD

    I've been slogging away for years, off and on, at a PhD, looking at long-term performance of ornamental perennials, now passed, so Dr.Kingsbury, I made an attempt at summarizing it for 'popular consumption' but was told that it was "too much like lecture notes", but in the vain hope that some of you might find it interesting - here we go:

    British gardens overflow with a cornucopia of plants from all corners of the world. We have no shortage of reference books to give us basic descriptive information and to advise us on what to grow where. But once plants start to interact, to compete with each other (or with weeds), things get complicated. This is when horticulture merges into ecology – a place where outcomes are much less predictable. With many more gardeners making naturalistic gardens where plants grow cheek by jowl and local authorities and community groups trying to manage ornamental plantings on minimal resources, I thought it would be interesting to try to apply some plant ecology science to familiar garden perennials. And so…. I began a part-time research PhD with the Department of Landscape at Sheffield University.
    Like most researchers, I have not found out anything really new. But instead I feel I have been able to clarify and systematise some of the vast body of anecdotal and unrecorded knowledge that many experienced gardeners have. In particular I feel as if I am in a good position to predict the performance of anything unfamiliar I come across. My task has been largely a lonely one, sometimes engaging in activity which others find bizarre – drying leaves in the oven and weighing them to an accuracy of 0.01 gram, drawing schematic diagrams of leaf and stem connections, planting out hundreds of tiny plug plants in geometric blocks. Trips to Sheffield are rare, but intensely social. In particular I have loved meeting overseas researchers, and have already been  on a Mexican lecture tour as one result of a friendship.   
    So what can I pass on to other gardeners? Perhaps the most useful is the realisation that perennials can be grouped into a rough series of categories based on several factors which revolve around their garden performance: lifespan, spreading ability, time at which growth begins in spring, persistence of dead foliage. Above all, I would stress the importance of closely observing your plants and trying to make connections between their physical appearance and their behaviour over the year.

Perennials are not always perennial
    The perfectly satisfactory plant that suddenly drops dead is one of the mysteries of gardening, but a lot of perennials are more correctly ‘short-lived perennials’. A key distinction is between perennials which have spreading shoots which root as they grow (eg. most hardy geraniums), so ensuring a potential for infinite constant increase, and those which just have one single point of connection between their roots and above ground growth (eg. the popular dark red scabious Knautia macedonica). The latter indicates firstly that the plant may live for only three, or five years; it may live more, but it will not live for ever; and in any case, this one connection point between stem and root gives it an inherent vulnerability to gnawing vole or misplaced boot.

Some perennials spread like crazy, but this is not always so bad.
    A lot of less experienced gardeners look with horror on plants like Euphorbia cyparissias that after one year in the border start sending out underground runners that pop up some way from the parent. Relax. The fact is that most plants with what ecologists call ‘guerrilla spread’ cannot penetrate the clumps of established plants. The species in question can be a real bonus filling in the gaps between larger plants.
    If a running habit is combined with height, as in the old cottage garden favourite, the yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia punctata, then a real ‘thug’ is in the making. How useful! These plants are ideal for filling difficult to maintain  or out of the way spaces.

Timing is everything
    British springtime is a drawn-out affair; some perennials start into growth really early, others very late. Perennials from Mediterranean regions tend to get going around Christmas – at least in our current run of mild winters. If their foliage is attractive they can make a great contribution to the spring border: globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus) and species of Acanthus are two. Those that start late include many from continental climates where spring is short and intense. The increasingly popular grass Panicum virgatum is one of these, and it can suffer as a result, crowded out by earlier-growing perennials or mistaken for a weed grass.

Dead leaves have their uses.
    Ecologists have discovered that plants which dump lots of dead foliage around them in autumn can suppress the growth of other plants around them, especially of seedlings. In other words these plants are self-mulching. Gardeners however tend to clear away dead foliage. Leave it, and you may well find that weed seed germination around these plants is greatly reduced. Geranium species do this, and even more effectively, Iris sibirica. This iris is one of the great survivors in neglected borders, its leaves take a long time to rot down, and until they do they carpet the ground in a thick layer of mulch around the core of the plant.

Big plants may not be survivors
    Generally speaking, large size equals an ability to dominate, in wild plant communities, as well as the boxing ring. But not always. There is a clear distinction between perennials with large basal leaves, which tend to flower before mid-summer and those with tall, upright stems, with lots of small leaves which flower later. The latter, such as asters, heleniums and rudbeckias, may be tall and vigorous, but they do not shade out competition around the base. Species of Achillea and Geranium may be a lot shorter, but their combination of early season growth and sideways-spreading leaves ensure that over time they will shade out and suppress other plants around them.

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