Thursday, January 12, 2012

Perennials to Interplant in Grasses

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Of all my plant obsessions, herbaceous plants are among my favorites. Several years back, I remember walking through the woods with a colleague, a tree expert. After several hundred yards, we laughed at each other. He was always looking up at the canopies, and I was always looking down at the ground—scanning the forest floor for herbaceous plants. It is my perpetual posture: head down, scanning right to left.

Amorpha canescens
As a perpetual ground-scanner, I’ve recently had a revelation about the way many perennials and grasses are meant to grow together. This revelation has influenced the way I design.

It’s actually quite simple: many perennials from meadow/prairie ecosystems have evolved to grow within a matrix of grasses. While that is not a particularly ground-breaking concept, it does challenge the way many perennial gardeners arrange their plants. Most perennial gardens focus heavily on forbs (blooming perennials) that are scattered one by one in planting beds. Grasses, if used at all, tend to be added as specimens or accents. But if you consider the way most meadow perennials grow, this ratio should be reversed. The grasses are meant to be the dominant plants with forbs emerging through this matrix.

Consider the morphology of an Echinacea (Cone Flower). Echinaceas typically have low basal foliage and tall spindly stems which support the flowers. This very structure is designed to help the plant grow out of a lot of grasses. The low foliage first emerges in late spring before the warm season grasses emerge, grabbing sunlight to ready the plant for its flowering. Once the grasses put on their height, the Cone Flower sends up its flowers on delicate stalks. The grasses support the flower (like a stake). If you’ve ever had perennials flop over, it may be because it is missing its support system.

As a gardener or designer, this does not mean that your perennial gardens need to be mostly grasses. It does, however, provide a real opportunity for people interested in designing with ornamental grasses. I love the look of large masses of ornamental grasses in a landscape. They are easy, low maintenance, have a long season of interest (particularly in winter), and add a wonderful looseness and spontaneity to a landscape.

Dalea purpurea growing in grasses

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Garden Design Trends 2012

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Cleve West's winning design for Chelsea Flower Show

Each New Year, the internet is abuzz with it the inevitable horde of prophets and trend-watchers, confidently predicting the themes of the year. Of course, there is absolutely no accountability for these supposed experts because once the buzz of the New Year fades, the predictions are forgotten. I may be one of the few people on the planet who actually loves New Year prognostications. Finding meta-themes from the sea of quotidian activities appeals to my philosophic bent; for me, it is a puzzle game: I love the thrill of finding a pattern among scattered pieces.

So it is with great delight that I present to you my attempt at New Year trend-spotting. This year, my trends focus on trends in garden design (it’s best to stick to what I know, right?). For the last few weeks, I have spent time contemplating great gardens designed in the last year. What was it about these spaces that captured the zeitgeist? What about them moved me? What aspects of them will likely be replicated?


1. The New Romanticism: Garden design in 2012 will mark a return to romanticism. For the last decade, the focus on sustainable gardens has brought a decidedly rationalistic overlay to garden design. After all, the focus on sustainable techniques such as stormwater, native species, and xeriscaping has emphasized scientific and ecological processes. In addition, modernism has been a big theme in garden design over the last decade, bringing with it a focus on functionalistic design. While I expect sustainable and modernistic designs to continue, new gardens will be less cerebral and more emotional and spiritual bent. Expect to see a revival of all sorts of old, classical garden styles such as cottage gardening, French and Italian formal gardens, and even medieval gardens updated with a modern twist. Romanticism is all about nostalgia, escape, and the rich world of the imagination, ideas that are powerfully effective during times of transition. Expect to see gardens that explore fantasy, whimsy, and spontaneity within a framework of familiar garden forms.

Cleve West’s winning design for The Daily Telegraph Garden at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show is a perfect example of neo-romanticism. His sunken garden used terra-cotta columns that evoked Roman ruins. His plantings were both modern and old-world as he relied on a palette of self-seeding plants that emphasize change. The rich overlay of classical ruins in this strongly contemporary garden hinted at a world beyond, a lost history that provides a moment of escape and fantasy that make the garden delightful.

Left, design by Wirtz International; Center, Piet Oudolf's wave hedges; Right, Tom Stuart-Smith 

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