Saturday, February 15, 2014

The New Perennial Movement: Exhausted or Just Getting Good?

Is the New Perennial movement losing its integrity? Or will its expansion reinvigorate it artistically?


This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.

But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun. And Michael should know: he is a veteran writer and designer. His work documenting and experimenting with naturalistic perennial design (his preferred term is “perennial meadows”) is vast and impressive. Here is the core of his critique:

Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting. Michael King

Ouch. This well-written, stinging review left me thinking: is my enthusiasm about contemporary naturalism in all its diversity naïve? Is it all a bunch of imitative knockoffs of a few original practitioners? Or is there something more to it? 

After some rumination, my impression is that Michael is right. The appellation of the term “new” to any of these ideas is not accurate. There is a long history in the 20th century alone of herbaceous planting inspired by nature. Both the New Perennial movement and the American native plant movement owe much its intellectual credibility and artistic expression to earlier generations. Michael’s article was a refreshing, well-reasoned call for a more honest, more pragmatic approach to gardening.

New Horizons

But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.
In fact, far from it. The broadening of the New Perennial movement—like the popularization of any artistic idea—will surely produce poor imitations. But for me, when I survey the work of so many contemporary practitioners using a heavily perennial palette, there is much more reason for enthusiasm than ennui.  Consider the work of Petra Pelz, Dan Pearson, Roy Diblik, Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, Cassian Schmidt, Heiner Luz, Sarah Price, Lauren Springer-Ogden, and so many others. The list of names alone suggests a broadening and diversification of a style that strengthens it artistically, not undermines it. My reasons for optimism extends beyond the work of these well-known practitioners. For me, the innovative work of designers such as Amalia Robredo using a heavily native palette of her home country Uruguay, shows the potential of this style to be adopted and reinterpreted in fresh ways as it is adapted in new continents.

I have long wondered about the tendency in gardening to dismiss trends and movements. Certainly dogma of any kind can be annoying, particularly when it becomes a cliché. Indeed, the very nature of gardening is relational (a person to a plot of land), making it an intensely personal activity. So it is entirely natural to bristle at the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” that are often byproducts of trends and movements. 

But there’s also the danger that the gardener’s fierce independence creates a kind of solipsistic isolation that impoverishes our gardens rather than enlivens them.  We should be wary of dogmas for sure; we should scrutinize trends and movements in order to keep them honest. But by all means, let us keep our eyes not just at the dirt at our feet (as fascinating as it is). There is a long, beautiful horizon to be savored and enjoyed if we just lift up our eyes. 


31 comments:

  1. I agree, Thomas. It's helpful to discuss the terms we use and remind ourselves of the reality underlying them. I don't really find it annoying that the term "new" continues to be applied to a planting 'style' or 'movement' that is many decades old and has roots even further back. 'New Perennial Style' remains useful in communicating with a wide audience, many of whom still know nothing about, say, Piet Oudolf. I agree gardeners shouldn't try to imitate Piet Oudolf, as one much imitated example, because he's a master at what he does. But the style or planting approach remains a useful tool when adapted to individual preferences of the gardener and to specific sites, when the garden designer adapts it and makes it his or her own. What I do find annoying is the incessant, almost worshipful posting about one or two widely known garden designers to the exclusion of everyone else. But perhaps I'm on facebook too much.

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    1. Good to here from you, James. Hope your trip is going well.

      I agree. The labels we use to describe planting styles are never precise; in fact, they are often problematic ("naturalistic" for example). But they are still useful.

      I know what you mean about Facebook. I'm relatively new to the garden groups in Facebook, and it is peculiar. Mostly lovely, but at times a bit of an echo chamber.

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    2. You are so right! That thing is everwhere.

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  2. I've spent most of my adult life as an oil painter, and have come to gardening rather late. Virtually everything you write about is "new" to me. I can't tell you how many times I learned that, once again, "Painting is dead." Sure, there's nothing new under the sun, but there's an unlimited number of new gardeners creating happy horicultural accidents, building on the trends that we get to read about in blogs such as yours. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you for the lovely comment and perspective. Sounds like there are many similarities in the art world.

      Happy gardening!

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  3. Hi Thomas
    Thanks for all your lovely posts and this marvelous blog!
    I injoy it and always look forward to the next post.

    " Immature poets imitate;
    mature poets steal;
    bad poets deface what they take,
    and good poets make it in to something better,
    or at least something different"

    From `The Sacred Wood´ by T.S.Elliot

    Have a nice day
    Kjeld

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    1. Thomas,
      This was another excellent post and I think this T.S. Elliott quote from Kjeld nails exactly how I feel about The New Perennial Movement.There is too much imitating going on right now. It is the interpretation of great art that creates great art. Living in New England, I feel an over-emphasisi of copying prairie gardens. I look forward to gardeners in my part of the world reinterpreting and being inspired by the woodland.

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    2. Hi Michael,

      That's interesting. I heard another New Englander recently complain about the over-representation of "prairie" and "meadow" stereotype in design. For me, the New Perennial style (imperfect label) is very adaptable for a forest floor plant community type or even a woodland edge model. In some forest settings, woody plants may need to play a larger role than is often done in New Perennial plantings. But the design components are the same whether its forest floor or sunny meadow.

      I'm curious about where you see the bad imitations. It's not something that stands out to me.

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    3. Hi Kjeld,

      I wish I said it with as much brevity and elegance as Mr. Elliott. Thanks for sharing.

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    4. Thomas, I agree there are similarities but there are differences as well. Woodland plant communities are more drifts and blocks rather than intermingling as in a sunny meadow from my personal observations. I have spent some time comparing how Oudolf put plants together in the sun vs the shade on the High Line and they appear to be a similar approach. The new American Garden at NYBG is designed in much more block or drift fashion to my eye. The best woodland gardens that I have learned from are North Hill, a private garden in Readsboro, VT and the Garden in the Woods, the New England Wildflower Society. My point about bad imitations is that nearly very new garden I see in Gardens Illustrated, for instance, are versions of New Perennial designs, some of which are not very good. Most of the Chelsea Flower Show gardens in the last few years are a meadow/structure theme. It is the latest fashion and not always well-executed or appropriate. I think many of these gardens will seem very dated in 20 years, maybe sooner.

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    5. M.B.G. I feel decidedly out of all of this movement stuff. I only have old perennials and gosh we don't have woodlands in Australia but we do have 'Bush'' ! The time difference between the 2 hemispheres must have a lot to answer for! I believe the only garden movements we do have in Australia re generated by sales of the UK magazine Gardens Illustrated. Sadly my nearest shopping town does not stock it so i guess i will have to be content with a movements-less life. You northern lot don't know how lucky you are!

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    6. You'd hate it all, Billy, you know you would!

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    7. Australia has always been either slightly behind or years as ideas are adapted to our own particular landscape. I first stumbled over Hitchmough and others at Uni, so I guess that contemporaries who would have studied these ideas as a set text would be at the peak of careers now. In Oz, our native flora is difficult to cultivate by seed without goung through either fire or emu, so it limits the idea of seeding large areas, but I have seen large expanses of rainforest planted in a very similar way, with lower species on the outside to encourage the whole mass to grow up simultaneously. I wonder if the new Australian Botanic garden near Melbourne has attempted similar with native perennials.

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    8. Behind what Ms Fisher? Northern Hemisphere fashion?

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    9. Fashion and ideas, although less so with the rise of the internet. Sorry I'm adjusting to this keyboard I meant to say 'slightly behind or years ahead' in my previous comment.

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  4. It’s interesting how often I’ve seen topics similar to this crop up recently, Thomas (the validity of the ‘New Perennial’ movement. I wonder why there is so much angst regarding this ‘style’…whatever it might the called.

    There was a whole thread on FB a few weeks ago among several PNW gardeners (on Adam Woodruff’s wall, I think) full of musings over naturalism in the style of Oudolf and it’s application in the NW. It was interesting…but showed an interesting bias…an unease and distrust of it (particularly in winter). I guess it’s no surprise, reading those posts, that the New Perennial look really hasn’t found much expression in this area of the country…it seems we have our own dogmas to overcome!

    Unsurprisingly, I was in the minority, feeling it definitely had a place here…but, of course, adapted to our regions particular conditions. I think, for all planting styles, that’s the key…the fun part…adapting something to work for you…adding your own ideas and personality. I could no more replicate Oudolf than I could Monet…but I can and will be inspired by them, in addition to all the talented designers you mentioned. In this age of media saturation, we are kidding ourselves to think we aren’t influenced by others…even if only subconsciously.

    As far as the label…as you mention, its inconsequential, what’s important are the ideas, the aesthetics, the results.

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    1. Hi Scott,

      Great comment, I absolutely agree. I am a bit mystified at the unease and even distrust of this general style among some gardening circles. Like you, I see it as a "big tent" style that is at its best when its adapted to a region and to the gardener's personal style. What's so interesting to me is the way it is being reinterpreted in so many gorgeous, wonderful ways. Your own garden is a great interpretation of that style in a very PNW kind of way. But the idea is valid--at least worthy of discussion and thought--even if it is not one gardeners cup of tea.

      Always great to hear from you, Scott!

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  5. It is our nature as humans to call our personal first exposure to an idea "new". When I walk onto the college campus in town I'm currently struck by all the neon clad, side pony-tail wearing, legging-as-pants girlies. These students never experienced the 80's and so this is a new style to them. For those of us who were alive, we aren't too keen on reliving that decade and so we scoff and shake our heads. Been there done that.

    Plants have less drastic fashions but when we see them come back around we raise our eyebrows at the so-called new wave.

    I enjoy strolling through gardens, browsing plant articles and taking ideas away. Rarely can I apply those ideas directly to my own little plot of land, but often I can spin or tweak that idea for my soil, exposure, and ascetic. For that reason plants are not as susceptible to fads.

    When gardening is at it's best it is a little solipsistic.

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    1. Good point: "new" is all a matter of perspective. The fact that the New Perennial style is actually a contemporary incarnation of a much older thought just gives it more validity to me. We come back to good ideas. Though I'm not sure that applies to leggings and side pony-tails. Not my area of expertise :)

      I love your last line. I do think its good to break out of our bubbles every so often to be inspired by something bigger than our own little engagements. But I agree: our own garden engagements are so thrilling, its hard to pull away.

      Always love your comments.

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  6. Couple points:

    1) western burbs of philadelphia, couple minutes from Chanticleer, I grew up on a site with lots of trees and each year my dream of planting full sun perennials grew darker and darker. Just bought a house with One tree on the property. A dwarf japanese maple. Considered cutting it down lol. I'm very excited to copy the "meadow" style haha.

    Though I wonder what my neighbors would think if I planted 30 trees in the backyard. Instant dwarf woodland. Fall clean up nightmare? Who does this !@#$ think he is?!

    2) To me the NPM and meadow style are synonymous. Though I can see a woodland version but to me the NPM is the use of ornamental grasses and perennials surrounding medium evergreens and small trees. Especially the use of ornamental grasses...I can't remember seeing any grasses in the 90's though I was not heavily into gardening at that point. Take out the grasses and I think maybe it's just cottage style.

    3) I've felt like the buzz word Transparency and NPM Meadow style has been popular for the last decade or so. A lot of neighbors in my parents hood have mature trees, new buyers are coming in, and the trees are coming down. Even at my parents house, the trees are coming down/falling down, and they are being replaced with small ornamentals or not replaced at all (red fescue pot hole filler). I feel like there is an opening up, a call for less privacy planting, less woodland planting, a fresh start, and I think the low growing meadow style fits in with that. Occupy Wall street too. So to that end, I think it's just heating up.

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  7. A highly fertile topic, Thomas. I think of this movement as buddha-like – there’s a core spirit, which is freshly reincarnated at each point of discovery. Indeed, what started as the Dutch Wave is now a micro-force on Facebook, as you note. But that’s just a testament to its adaptability; it’s far more than just a plant palette – it’s a way of seeing. Beauty in decay and death and the like.

    When you talk about movements and the Dutch Wave though, it reminds me of a conversation I had with our dutch host last summer while visiting Grongingen. He told me about the concept of ‘polderen’ which is an essential principle of dutch culture – where much of the land is wrestled from the sea.

    When building polders or dykes, every neighbour has to pitch in for it to be successful – otherwise all progress is lost and they can all lose their land. It explains why movements are so integral to dutch culture – many pulling together to achieve something greater i.e. like the art movement De Stijl or the Dutch Wave. It’s not so much about dogma as about unity for a purpose – and that’s what movements like this can be.

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  8. Whether or not the movement is already dead or just getting going is irrelevant to me - but I enjoy the discussion.

    I garden in the interior cedar hemlock (ICH) zone of northwestern British Columbia, virtually in the forest. My garden is modest and young. It hopes to grow into a local interpretation of the naturalistic perennial style, one that has integrity here, in this specific location. I take my cues as much from the land and from indigenous plants as I do from garden designers, but I'm happy to learn everything I can from studying Oudolf and others.

    I also enjoy and learn a great deal from the conversations you spark here, Thomas. Thank you. Leslie

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  9. A rose by any other name.... Is it a functional meadow? An ornamental prairie? An integrated four-seasons herbaceous community? Homage to Piet? Gertrude Jekyll redux? For me, the New Perennial style is simply a handy label for this refreshing moment in garden design, a philosophy that certainly has its antecedents and inspirations and early practitioners. Surely it's something for celebration.

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  10. What movement preceded the npm? How much has the internet played a role in it's spread? Is there a movement that seems to be headed towards taking it's place?

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  11. Anything that might put a bit of excitement into that space we call garden is fine and dandy by me. This pseudo ecological trend at the very least allows garden makers a certain freedom to experiment and golly gosh have some fun at the same time! The hedge clipper brigade are waiting in the wings though..or is it the wing clipper......

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  12. I wonder if, during a theoretical discussion about landscape design trends, we ought not incorporate some environmental reasons why we should celebrate a focus on enriched/stylized meadows. Don't we need to be re-imagining suburban landscapes (residential, commercial & institutional) that default to insatiably thirsty lawns? And aren't we seeing continued land development displace natural meadows and their entire ecosystems including native pollinators? Let's continue to celebrate and encourage a NPM (whether that means Native Plants or New Perennials) and focus on meadows as a "go to" idiom for landscape designers. Their capacity to produce breathtakingly beautiful landscape experiences while solving environmental issues gives them enormous validity.

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  13. I admire that garden above, is it planted with lavender? That's perfect for front lawn, a roundbout landscape for huge house with large garden area.

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  14. One point about how Oudolf-styled meadows may seem inappropriate for New England settings overlooks the idea that for many gardeners, the entire process of selecting and placing plants is about bringing an "otherness" into the landscape. Unless you're particularly in tune with the subtleties of what the local ecology has to offer, many people are like to see a new-to-them idea as something attainably exciting. So they'll want to try it out, because it's fresh and different. The trick comes in convincing these folks that it doesn't have to be paint-by-the-numbers in strict imitation, but rather by learning how to adapt the design to include what's new and weird that might be out in the woods and is more deserving of a highlighted place in the garden. As I see it, the transition of a "new" idea into a more rigorous theory actually makes it more accessible and comprehensible to those people looking in from the outside -- amateurs-- that is to say, most gardeners, including myself. Great article; thanks for posting.

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  17. François BernardJuly 31, 2014 2:04 PM

    What is rather new in the NPM : The use of plants that show nearly all year round interest. The wide use of grasses (never done in that scale before). The use of wild (or wildlike) form of plants. The low need of care during the year saving work and money must not be forgotten. Those aspect are in the basis of the movement. Of course literal copy of the 'Dutch Master' is not fair and a kind of lazy, new combinations in accordance to sites have to be found to keep the meaning and fresh feelings.

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