Monday, January 28, 2013

Beyond 'nature as virgin – garden as whore'.

Nature in the city has gotta look pretty. The New York High Line

In a recent, and well-argued post, fellow blogger Thomas Rainer quotes landscape architect Martha Schwartz as saying that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores”.

I know what she means: landscapes are either wild or they are not, and not-wild-landscapes in the US tend to be treated in a way which is almost abusive – the sadistically-mown grass and cruelly-clipped evergreens. Thomas though is interested in the nature side of the quotation – that “if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature”. As he points out there is very little pristine nature left.

All this is part of a discussion about a very thought-provoking book (Rambunctious Nature by scince writer Emma Marris) which I raised in a blog last year. I'd like to carry on the conversation.

Thomas announces that “now is the era of the designer”, that landscape designers will have an increasingly important role in designing nature, that “(t)he ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members. Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature. And the future nature will look more and more like a garden.”

Too right. Which raises all sorts of questions about “what is nature?”, “what is a garden?”.

They are liking it wild at last! - changing public perceptions of what a garden is
Increasingly people are appreciating gardens and public plantings that are far wilder than anything that would have been acceptable in the past. The New York High Line is probably the best example of that. Nature in the city is now seen as not just ok but highly desirable. At least in the industrialised world (it'll take a while to catch on in China!). Managing nature in the city involves habitat creation and management which is a kind of gardening. This is not actually that new – the Dutch have been doing this since the 1930s in the parks of Amstelveen.

Recently, on a trip to South America, I saw what garden designer Amalia Robredo was doing with her land in Uruguay. A lot of her 'gardening' is actually land management – deciding what to cut, when to cut it, on the basis of aesthetic decisions (to encourage spring or summer flowers for example) or functional (such as short-grass around seating areas to discourage snakes). Increasingly this land management will be seen as part and parcel of normal garden practice. Part of the reason for this is that more and more of us are gardening places which used to be farmland, but which is now uneconomic to farm; Amalia's land used to be rangeland, my own here in the Welsh borders used to be sheep pasture, and before that, arable crops.

BUT - people like their nature stylised
Especially in urban areas. Hence the incredible success of the Dunnett and Hitchmough Olympic Park plantings in London  and of course the High Line. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as people realise that this is 'enhanced nature' or 'stylised nature' and not the real thing. Given how difficult it is to actually see the 'real thing', it is probably more important for us all to realise that what we are looking at may be a fantastic wildlife habitat, but that there are a whole lot of species (mammal, bird, primarily) which will not choose to live here, because they need bigger territories or need to be well away from humans. The ReservaEcológica Costenera Sur  in the middle of Buenos Aires for example is never going to have any jaguars, nor the NY High Line any mountain lions.
A point that Emma Marris makes in Rambunctious Nature is that this stylised nature offends some people, the 'ecologists' who are still wedded to the idea that 'nature' is something which can only happen 'out there' and untrammelled by us (Martha Schwartz's virgin/whore dichotomy). The central thrust of her book is that 'nature' should be seen as anywhere where natural processes have at least some leeway; certainly including the weedy waste ground at the end of the road.

Anyway, what is nature?
An awful lot of what we think of as 'natural' is actually human-managed, or human-impacted. This was one of the points I was trying to make from Bolivia a few weeks back.  So many cherished landscapes are actually farmland, or were trashed by our ancestors. Some human management actually improves biodiversity (a heretical thought for eco-purists), as in European hay meadows or fire-managed Midwest prairie and savannah.

One of the most insidious illusions of a particular romantic and often quite techno-phobic way of thinking is that our ancestors: 'traditional societies' or 'indigenous peoples', cherished nature, lived in balance with it, and we are somehow different. Hardly. We just have more destructive tools. Our ancestors consciously manipulated nature or made huge impacts on it in many different ways (again see the Bolivia post). These ways are sometimes so deep in the past that we are not aware of them – we do not even know what 'nature' is.
  • Fire – some areas have had millennia of burning for game management (much of the grasslands of the Americas, Australia, Scotland)
  • Mass extinction – our tribal ancestors wiped out wildlife on an epic scale, with the Maori killing of the giant moa birds in New Zealand simply one of the latest episodes.
  • Farming – whether through slash-and-burn or more sophisticated methods, vast area of the globe have been cultivated at some stage.

I believe it is important that these illusions make it very difficult for us to appreciate the history of our wild and not-so-wild places, and therefore complicates the task of how we think about managing them in the future.

Farming, and more eco-illusions
Ok, we want wild: we like it, and we want it because we have finally recognised that the rest of creation has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of (whatever passes for happiness in a newt's brain) as we have. We are getting used to the idea of nature in cities, and gardens, and that we can garden in such a way as to maximise it. We want nature reserves and national parks and wilderness areas – the latter probably as much to feed our own illusions about the 'wilderness' as actually to protect nature. And many of us would actually like a lot more for this kind of nature than there is currently is. We like to hike in it, birdwatch in it, see in on telly in David Attenborough programmes, above all to know it is there.


There is an awful lot of us, and we are getting more, and richer, and when people get richer they demand more food, and more cotton, and palm oil and all the other stuff that consumer-humans want.

And the biggest destroyer of unmanaged landscapes is the agriculture which produces all this stuff.
Which is why we need to ensure that agriculture uses land really efficiently. This is something which again attracts lots of feel-good sounding eco-illusions. Many of the so-called sustainable farming approaches, such as organics, may be good and appropriate for marginal regions but fail utterly to deliver the sheer volume of calories needed. It is right and proper that fertile flat places are used for intensive arable production – with some areas set aside for nature of course. They can take the pressure off more biodiverse, more vulnerable habitats.

In thinking about how we 'garden the earth' I would suggest that this is the biggest blind-spot many people have – the failure to appreciate how efficient farming and nature conservation actually dovetail. Think of the earth as a garden, with a well-run tidy vegetable patch, a lawn area to play on, some nice wild borders and a really wild unmanaged bit somewhere.

The nation as garden – the Dutch analogy
'Gardening the earth' – was an expression I dreamt up years ago, in a essay for a collection in a book called Vista – Culture and Politics of Gardens. 

It is interesting to develop this analogy: we need places to grow food, to live, and for nature. The Netherlands seems to have come pretty close to this, with its very dense juxtapositioning of land for living, working, recreation, some of the productive farming on the planet, and yet with a long and pioneering history of habitat creation, and one of the most radical departures in wilderness creation – the Oostvaardeersplassen.

We have far more to thank those sensible, level-headed Dutch for than just tulips!

Nurturing nature
So, we are getting used to the idea of the earth as a garden. Often badly managed by us, and by our deep ancestors, for sure, but as we learn more about our ecological history, and about ecological processes, we can become better managers. We need to. As we are just about to reach a point where designed vegetation will play a vital role in how we manage the planet.
In April Piet Oudolf and I are bringing out another book – on planting design. The introduction however makes the point that we are expecting plants to do more and more for us: wetlands to manage sustainable drainage systems, green roofs to moderate the extremes of urban climates, bioremediation planting to purify effluent, living walls to clean the air. Managed vegetation will play a more and more important role in reducing the impacts of climate change, and might even help reverse the rise in CO2. Nurturing nature will not just be about creating habitat, but about planet-management too. As we nurture nature it in turn will nurture us.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Back Home and Clearing Up, and thoughts on crimes against perennial growing.

Back home from two months away in South America, and there is a lot to do the garden, although our one-day-a-week gardener, Diana had got a lot done. Cutting back primarily. Usually I cut back most of the messier herbaceous stuff in November, leaving grasses and a few of the stronger structural elements.

Until late January or Feb. But this year, I thought I'd get rid of the lot in one go. On this border, dead stuff ends up on the compost heap - on others I am inclined to cut it all down with a brushcutter and leave to rot down in situ. Some folk go over it all with a mower on a mulch setting, but mine won't do that, so it just stays as a rather heavy mulch. This border, we do not rake up what we don't carry to the compost heap. It just has to sit there looking untidy until spring growth begins to hide it. I do appreciate how nice and neat a newly cleaned up late winter border can look, but quite honestly life is too short.
        Last week I was in the Savill Garden near Windsor. Their big herbaceous border was enough to convince me that I don't really want a nice tidied-up border after all. Horrendous! A vast swathe of bare earth with occasional perennial clumps (about one a metre in places - so many gaps!). Apparently they cut the grasses down in November - what a crime! Everything I can't stand about traditional perennial gardening all on show in one go.
       To summarise: crimes against perennial growing:
1) all composed of enormous groups of the same thing
2) all cut back at once, nothing left for Santa or anybody else visiting in winter to look at
3) huge areas of bare ground
4) so I am told.....all dug up and divided every four years, no matter what the natural lifespan of the plant is.
        Right got that off my chest! But the S Garden is magnif for its witch-hazels and (later) rhodies and other spring-flowering shrubs. One of their problems I suspect is too much money - or maybe the Queen likes it so tidy (it is hers I suppose after all). A problem which can wreck gardens through over-maintenance, and there was plenty of that on display here.

 One of the insights of cutting-back is to see perennial growth at ground level - the Rabbit's Eye View I am always on about. Phlox are interesting - some break up their clumps really quickly; traditionally they are the kind of perennial which benefited from dividing every four years; not this one though - see how tight its basal growth is after six years in the same spot. A very strong-grower, given us by a (posher than us) neighbour soon after we moved "have some phlox, frightfully vulgar pink". It is pink, it is vulgar, but oh so much better here than any other phlox we have tried. More research needed I think.
The garden here at Montpelier Cottage is more or less 'an evergreen free zone' - out of a desire to fit into the local landscape. Bamboos are the exception though, their wispy habit does not visually obtrude in the way that blocky shaped glossy-leaved evergreen shrubs do.  This is Chusquea culeou 'Weeping Form'.

Phyllostachys aureo-sulcata 'Lama Temple' looks so fresh in the snow. It has proved much hardier than some too.

Time to flag up some dates for your diary:
 I shall be in North Carolina in early March - dates see the column on the left. 

I shall be doing this for RHS Wisley on Feb.26, just before I leave for the US.

In July I shall be running a planting design workshop with Piet Oudolf at Hummelo (July 3), followed by a tour of gardens and landscapes in the northern Netherlands for Gardens Illustrated magazine, based on Groningen. Get in touch with me if you are interested in either of these.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Two hikes in the foothills of the Andes...

Two very different walking experiences in the foothills of the Andes; the first was beautiful but badly eroded scenery with only a little plantlife hanging on, the second was a tantalising glimpse into a botanical paradise.
Week before last we managed a hike in the hills around Sucre, in central Bolivia. Pretty catastrophically deforested (as is much of the whole central region of the country), but botanically interesting as always. Some surviving trees on very steep slopes, but otherwise pretty much like this.
An erosion gully, a bad sign that the whole landscape is being eaten up. I would imagine the Spanish cleared the trees for silver smelting, as we are not so far from Potosí whose silver did so much to change the world economy in the 17 & 18th centuries, as well as swallow up to (it is estimated) several million human lives.
Drought-tolerant scrub mostly survives. I think this is a white ceanothus species.
What always intrigues me in places like this are cliffs, which act as 'refugia' for native species; not even the goats can get at them, and invasive aliens tend to be held at bay too. Here grasses, bromeliads, cacti, various bulbs, begonias and much else forms a rich plant community.
Compared to the opposite bank of the river, with eucalyptus but otherwise grazed to almost bare ground. Eucaluptus is a boon for the locals, as it provides such good firewood and so helps protect surviving native species. We saw a man planking up cut eucalyptus with a chainsaw, which is normal practice here - a real precision job!
I wish I could have got the Adiantum fern and the cactus in the same shot but not quite; they were actually growing a few metres from each other with identical aspect. Which does rather challenge ideas about 'what grows where'. In fact, I think there is plentiful water on this cliffs when it rains. The fern is a 'stress avoider' going dormant in the dry season, while the cactus is truly 'stress tolerant' as it can sits out the drought.
Air plants - Tillandsia species are the great survivors. Here growing on a shaded rockface.
They are very common on electricity cables. Here in downtown Sucre.
Verbena species have popped up all over the places we have been to.
No idea what this is, but a wonderful example of evolution in action, a seemingly self-supporting shrub but with tendrils on the ends of its leaves, ready to start climbing.
Our second hike (at around 2600m) was in Salta province, Argentina, with Veronica Saguier and her family. Veronica is a local garden designer who is also a keen trekker. There is a great deal of surviving undamaged forest in the area and many other habitats. Because of the interplay between altitude and aspect it is possible to have extreme habitat changes over relatively short distances. A bit like California, where you can drive from semi-desert to mistily-dripping redwood groves within half an hour. Cloud forest (see a previous blog) covers all land at a certain altitude.

Where we started our walk it had an oddly familiar feeling... could easily have been somewhere in Europe - a gently farmed landscape. Hedgerows around where we parked, with several salvia species, a penstemon and much to my surprise a geranium (I didn't realize there were any in South America). As soon as we got going we very subtly shifted into a somewhat drier zone and so we never got to see more of the flora of the place where we parked (and our car was at the bottom). It remains as a tantalising memory to make me come back.
Thrilling to see a Bomarea species, climbing relatives of Alstroemeria.
?Bignoniaceae, small shrub.
If not a Tradescania, then very closely related, and with definite garden potential.

 Giant cacti (known locally as Cardones) are a feature of the landscape, otherwise dominated by a rich array of drought-tolerant-looking shrubs. The cacti can be home to a remarkable number of epiphytes: ferns as well as air-plants.
A familiar friend, Stipa tenuissima (correctly now Nassella) growing by the side of the path.
A Loasa species, attractive annuals which were grown in Victorian times as ornamental annuals, even though they have nasty stinging hairs.
Down by the river we come across the bottom of what was obvious from further up - that whole slabs of rock and its accompanying vegetation are slipping down off the mountainside. This particular remnant is probably all going to disappear in the next few years. It contained no less than three rather spectacular bulbous species, including a very tall orange Alstroemeria and heavily scented white lily family species. The little figure on the right here is Veronica scrambling up the slope.
Some of the bulbs were actually hanging out of the eroding face of the soil, so Veronica's husband Julio rescued some.
This is somewhere I am dying to get back to. There are very fine distinctions between very different climate zones, so several very different floras seem to sit within a few hundred metres A lot would be hardy for mild temperate climates like ours, many other species could be usefully drought and stress tolerant. I very much hope to come back and work with local garden people in a few years and so some serious plant hunting.