Monday, March 31, 2014

Lost in translation

Tall herb flora in Kyrgyzstan on a wet scree slope. Aconitum leuostomum mostly, to 2m tall.

I just had the following letter from a student in canton Zürich, Switzerland. It raises some interesting topics, not least the very different approaches to studying plant management in German-speaking and English-speaking countries. I'm answering her through a blog posting, so more of you can see it.

I'm currently studying at the ZHAW in Wädenswil... The topic of my term paper is the "stability" (Standfestigkeit) of "large herbaceous perennials" (Grosstauden). I don't know the proper technical terms in english. For this reason I hardly found English literature. Now my question to you: Could you translate following words in technical language? "Standfestigkeit", "Grossstaude" and "Staudenhecke". Maybe you even know some links or papers about these topics?

The embarrassing thing is that, unlike in German-speaking countries, we do very little, indeed almost no formal research into ornamental plant design or management. James Hitchmough and colleagues at the University of Sheffield do some fantastic work on establishing perennial combinations and a little on management, but the field is so vast, and no-one else does anything. Collecting data and being precise are a bit too 'Germanic' for most British gardeners. Yes, its frustrating. We are trying to change things, but it is slow.

Standfestigkeit translates as 'stability' or the more colloquial term we gardeners would use would be 'sturdiness' – i.e. does it fall over or not? Especially after flowering.

Grossstauden as 'tall perennials'. And yes, tall perennials do tend to fall over in gardens. Let's unpack this a bit more and look at the ecological and regional origin of perennials which grow tall.

1) 'Tall herb flora' has a very special meaning to an ecologist; in Britain we have very little of it, and the expression has little meaning, so I sometimes find myself using the German Hochstauden to English-speaking audience, to stress that this means something special. This may sound pretentious but there is a long tradition of English-speaking intellectuals using German words, which can often say in a word what English needs a sentence for (we are always talking about Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude etc). Hochstauden or tall-herb flora means those incredible places you get in hilly or mountain areas where very mineral rich and oxygenated water flows constantly underground to nourish the growth of perennials to massive sizes. My best experience of these was in Kyrgyzstan a few years ago, but the Alps can be good too. Huge perennials, many of which we grow as garden plants: many Aconitum, Campanula lactiflora, Persicaria amplexicaulis, and yes, in nature they are very untidy and often fail to show much Standfestigkeit.

2) Prairie plants, from the tallgrass prairie – high rainfall, fertile soils, high summer temperatures, grow tall too, but tend not to fall over (ok. my prairie experience is limited but I have never seen a flopped-over prairie). Grasses play a role and may help support the forbs, but also I suspect that competition ensures that growth is kept within limits.

3) Perennial forbs from places with monsoon climates, so a bit like the prairie. I'm thinking of Russian far-east and Hokkaido, Japan. Massive growth to compete in a wet resource rich environment.
Filipendula camtschatica and a Eupatorium in Hokkaido, Japan.

These plants in cultivation tend to be grown with wide spacing compared to nature, and so there is little competition and so they overfeed (like getting fat really) get top heavy and fall over. Simple as that. Grow them at closer densities and they are less likely to get so large and more likely to show good Standfestigkeit.

Staudenhecke – translates as 'perennial hedge', which is something they have been experimenting with at ZHAW. Basically, plant a line of tall self-supporting perennials in a narrow band and you have a seasonal hedge feature. Nice idea. Have never seen anyone do it here, apart from the one I did here three years ago, and which I cannot find a photograph of which show it clearly :( Basically I have a line of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' and some forbs acting as a screen half way down the garden. I'm not entirely happy yet with the companion forbs: Veronicastrum virginicum/sibiricum is ok Vernonia would be if the ****ing slugs hadn't eaten them all last year, Eupatorium maculatum/fistulosum etc. are very good, I think Helianthus 'Sheila's Sunshine' would be good too. Anything bolt upright.

Perennial hedge at ZHAW, Switzerland.

Which brings me on to my final point, which I have never seen described anywhere, if you dig up any of the perennials I have just described, you will find something very interesting. The helianthus – you just dig up, comes up easily, like an aster or solidago. The eupatorium and vernonia involve hacking your way through a massive radial root system - which takes a few years to build up, and is clearly a solution to how to stop 3m high plants from falling over. It is quite unlike anything you will find in any other perennial. Impressive engineering. So perfect for the Staudenhecke which I must really try to complete this year.

In researching the use of the German terms which Anna asks about, I came across the most fabulous looking Staudengarten (perennial garden) near Rostock. Can't wait to get there.

Anna – There is one book you might find useful: Tall Perennials, Turner, R. Timber Press, 2009.

one book I really do recommend, which is about plant ecology, but highly relevant to garden and landscape planting design is:
J. Philip Grime, 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes, and Ecosystem Properties. Wiley.


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

War and the garden - a century of nursery catalogues

I spent a productive day in the library at Wisley a few weeks ago, looking at old nursery catalogues. Having run a nursery myself many years ago, old catalogues have always fascinated me. They are also a very good way of mapping something which has also always interested me - how garden fashion has changed over time.
This particular rummage was aimed at getting an overview of what perennials were available from the late 19th century onwards. I did not know quite what to expect and was in fact rather surprised.
The pic above is from one of the most important perennial breeders of the early 20th century, Amos Perry.
A 1910 listing of grasses, from Perry's catalogue.

I was aware that a lot of early 20th century cultivars have been lost and a few species too. I remember looking through a book by Ernst Graf Silva Tarouca which belonged to my friend Sabine Plenk in Vienna (published 1913?, in Austria-Hungary, just a few years before that political unit was consigned to the dustbin of history by some shots fired in Sarajevo). There was Aster puniceus, no longer in cultivation, but something I had collected seed from, a few years previously, from a swamp in the Catskills in NY state. And now seeding all over my garden, which only goes to show how even vigorously spreading plants can vanish.

I did not realise however just how much we lost and have only recently re-gained. Not because of the First World War but because of the Second. I write this as Britain is about to start on a veritable orgy of commemoration for the 1914 war – about which I feel distinctly unenthusiastic. It was such an unspeakable disaster that led directly to the unmitigated horrors of the 20th century, and in Britain was conducted with such an orgy of hysterical nationalism and war-mongering that I feel I would rather draw a veil over the whole shameful episode. The only heroes for me are the conscientious objectors on both sides.

Anyway, back to the herbaceous border. Trench warfare left the combatants' gardens (and their cities) largely untouched. Nurseries, in Britain and Germany, held similar ranges before and after the war. Although one does have to make allowances for the all pre-war German names being changed to English ones in Britain, and (I suspect but am not sure) the other way round in Germany. The British royal family had to change their (German) name too, so the plants were in good company.

Looking through catalogues from around 1890 to the 1930s, the range is truly extraordinary. There is that feeling that 'there is nothing new under the sun'. So many of the perennials and even grasses, we think of as 'new' were then available. I was interested to see Baptisia, Vernonia and Astrantia, all listed, all of which I thought of as post-1970s plants. However catalogues of the time, particularly pre-First World War ones, are dominated by a small group of perennials of which a great many varieties were available: Michelmas daisies (Aster novae-angliae), Penstemon and Delphinium for example. All of these are what we think of as high-maintenance plants today. At the back of the catalogues of the larger companies, like Amos Perry and Kelways, are the 'Miscellaneous Herbaceous Perennials'. This was clearly a minority interest, but the range of plants looks almost entirely 'modern'. What is missing is the range of cultivars we have now of many of these.

Turning to the 1950s and 1960s, the range has hugely diminished. It was not until the new generation of nurseries that got going in the 1970s and 1980s (Beth Chatto, Elizabeth Strangman in England etc.) do things begin to look up. What happened?

The answer has to be the Second World War, but also its aftermath. I remember the German garden maker and nurseryman Peter Janke saying to me that he thought that German gardening had never recovered from the war. Looking back at the catalogues, books and magazines of even 1930s Germany, as the country staggered into its apocalyptic crises, the health and vibrancy of the gardening scene is very vivid. What struck me though, looking through the British catalogues of the post-war era, was that perhaps British gardening had suffered just as much.

Promoting British nurseries is nothing new - 1922 from Kelways.

Much of the German garden heritage turned to ashes, the British to compost. Saturation bombing of Germany by the Allies must have done much damage. In Britain however, the commercial growing of ornamental plants was banned early on (earlier than in Germany, I believe), wih prison sentences being handed on to anyone selling flowers. 'Digging for Victory' saw many ornamentals cast onto the compost heap or ploughed under.

The Second World War was followed by the fifties, which by all accounts was a grey and dreary decade, one of recovery and reconstruction, with little fun or luxury. A particular aspect of the fifties in Europe was the idea of public planning and public welfare, good progressive aspects in which the running was often made by social democratic parties. The downside of this was a rejection of heritage (think of all the country houses demolished in Britain during this period) and a kind of what we would now call dumbing-down – egalitarianism, not as equality of self-expression, but as a lowest common denominator lifestyle forced onto everyone. The decade of grey concrete, of philistine local government and a desire to create a brave new world by denying any merit in the past, was followed by more destruction of heritage in the 1960s.

This came across strongly when talking to a Swedish colleague recently – Sweden of course exemplified the ideal of social democracy and community thinking particularly strongly. Planting was, she said, “reduced to a very functional style”. A time of major urban development saw a strongly collectivist ethos prevail with landscape architects working on public housing projects, parks and children's play areas using only a limited range of plants; private gardening simply went out of fashion, and designers lost interest in the domestic garden. Many nurseries often stocked little more than conifers.

In Britain, the need for physical reconstruction may have been much less than in Germany, but garden culture was very unambitious. My recent post about the 1950s Adam the Gardener series shows how widespread knowledge of garden craft may have been, but there seems to have been relatively little interest in new plants or conservation of garden heritage. Many great gardens, even if their houses were not demolished, sank into weed abandon. I remember my parents buying a disused walled kitchen garden in 1962, where they built a house. It had been part of the grounds of Shernfold Park in Sussex, the house had been turned into offices and the garden a wilderness of vast rhododendrons, magnolias and unkempt grass.

1957 saw the birth of the Hardy Plant Society (as well as myself!). Looking back at a book about perennials, written by one of its key founders, Alan Bloom, in that year, it is possible to see that much of the pre-war plant selection existed, but hardly anyone was actively propagating and selling it. It was not until Beth Chatto and Alan Bloom started to ride the consumer boom of the 1960s that gardening started to become interesting again. Margery Fish and Vita Sackville West played a great part too in encouraging more enlightened and ambitious thinking. Shrubs recovered their diversity quicker than perennials. When I started getting involved with gardening professionally, in the late 1980s, perennials were limited in variety and generally only from specialist nurseries. Much of the remarkable growth in our nursery sector dates from this period and can be seen (in hindsight at least) as the rebuilding of the range of perennials that were available pre-1939.

What was lost, and are perhaps unmourned, are the huge numbers of cultivars which early 20th century catalogues listed. Mostly of labour-intensive plants, which do not appeal to us much these days. The genepools are still in cultivation of course, and in most cases massive genepools exist in the wild, so if we did want to bring back hundreds of penstemon/delphinium/etc we could do so.


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.