Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can't see the wilderness for the trees.


One of the things I love about the US, is the way that you can find places that give you a sense of what the continent was like without any human impact. Can't do this hardly anywhere in Western Europe.
 
There has been much talk lately of 'rewilding'. George Monbiot discussed it in a recentbook which brought the concept to many British readers, while North Americans may have first met the idea in Emma Marris's 'TheRambunctious Garden'. Basically, it is about letting nature rip, re-introducing the wildlife that used to be there, and minimising the human impact. We, in the developed world can afford to do this, as we have a lot of areas our ancestors tried tilling, but we can afford not to, thanks to the efficiency and economics of modern agriculture. Our populations have stabilised too, and of course we have outsourced a lot of agricultural production to the rest of the world.

So, it is interesting to be somewhere which already has been 'rewilded'. Jo and I have recently had spent six days in a cottage in the middle of the woods in the Adirondacks. This mountain range in the north of New York state was, at the beginning of the 20th century two-thirds cut over by incredibly wasteful and destructive timber extraction. Photographs in the excellent Adirondack Museum show whole hillsides covered in stumps and burnt logs. Since elite tourism began to become a major local industry in the late 19th century, pressure soon built up for conservation. Since then, the area has been a fascinating study in how conservation measures have gradually built up a patchwork of protection – around two thirds of the area is now protected public lands, mostly 'wilderness areas', with no commercial exploitation. Wildlife, including bears and moose, are coming back strongly. Most of the private land is covered in trees too.

Woodland in particular has re-established itself with a vengeance. Walking through the woods, it is possible to appreciate the whole succession process. Birches, often the first to grow are being replaced by the longer-lived mature forest species, their trunks littering the ground in some locations. In their place are red maples, hemlock, beech (American beech regenerates from the ground much more so than European) and sugar maple. There are lots of sugar maple seedlings, and this is the tree which is very much the dominant mature forest one in this part of the world.

The trees in the Adirondacks are wonderful and this regeneration is truly fantastic to see, but I almost found myself wondering whether the pendulum has swung too far. From the visitor perspective, the trees rather get in the way of the landscape. Hiking trails are almost entirely in the woods, and so after a while become rather monotonous, and driving along it is remarkably difficult to find places to see the distant mountains. And given that biomass is a near carbon-neutral way of providing heat and energy for power supply, surely some careful and judicious harvesting is in order? Or is the no doubt desperate desire of the US government to mitigate its horrendous record on CO2 production a factor here? as the growing woods must still be gobbling up the key greenhouse gas. Or is the idea of rational harvest of trees a cut too far for eco-purists.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sheffield - our planting R&D department


A corner of James Hitchmough's garden.

Very interesting to spend the day in Sheffield recently, with a group from the Landscape Institute. I have a day with the North-East and the Yorkshire group annually now it seems, running a day workshop on planting design. This year we all met up in Sheffield, to see how some of the innovation famously coming out of the university's Department of Landscape gets applied in practice.

Another corner  - Eryngium proteiflorum in front, the Mexican species James says got him interested in horticulture as a kid.



An early morning visit to Prof. James Hitchmough's garden was a good start to the day, with an incredible botanic garden laid out below some gnarled apple trees. Only a year old, much has been grown from wild-collected seed, and it represents James's cutting edge approach to plant selection with potential to be used in British public spaces – a lot is South African, so it has an exuberantly exotic look. We are so extraordinarily lucky here, in being able to mix and match plants from so many different climate zones, and with minimal risk of anything becoming invasive.
Sue France talking to Landscape Institute members
Most of the day was spent in south Sheffield, in the Manor estate, a large area of low-rise public housing which used to have the reputation as one of the worst in Britain. A community interest company, Green Estate, has however helped turn things around, and acted as a way of applying some of the landscape department's innovation into practice. Nigel Dunnett (another prof. at the uni. here) has long used the area as a test ground for his spectacular annual seed mixes, which Green Estate now sell.
Headed by the amazingly dynamic Sue France, Green Estate is now working on its own seed mixes, which incorporate biennials and perennials and are designed for longer-than-one-year seeded plantings. Not quite sure how long, as the mixes do not seem to have many reliably long-lived clonal species (as you should know by now plant longevity is of many of the bees in my bonnet), but maybe they are just hiding. Anyway, inexpensive seed mixes which can be used to create plantings which thrive with minimal care for a few year are a great boon, especially for areas which are 'awaiting developments'.

A Green Estate mix - 'Treasure Chest'

The most interesting part of the day was spent in Manor Fields park, 25 hectares of land which once used to get 350 burnt out cars a year (now it gets none). It is an extraordinarily good example of how to maximise impact with minimal resources.
Annual planting near the Green Estate HQ

Annuals at the entrance to Manor Fields

Brian Hemingway and one other colleague maintain this, and additionally a couple of pocket parks. At first sight, much of Manor Fields is 'wasteland' – brambles, willowherb and scrub – a fantastic wildlife reserve, but not most peoples idea of a park. Look and explore further and you realise that there is a lot more to it. Here is the essence of how minimal management works:
  • Create a good first impression: the entrance to the park gets a lot spent on it: highly inventive railings and street furniture good enough to count as sculpture, bright annuals, quality perennial planting.
  • Sturdy fencing to keep out stolen cars and dirt bikers.
  • Neat, mown, edges makes wild areas look deliberate.
  • Mowing frequency is maintained, so that all mown areas look very well cared for. “If we have to reduce mowing for any reason, we let areas go wild rather than mow less frequently” says Brian, as infrequent mowing never looks good and creates an un-cared for look.
  • Zero tolerance of rubbish.

Innovative sculptural street furniture keeps out the hoods driving stolen cars, looks good and makes cutting-edge design truly universal and democratic.



One of the most interesting aspects to Manor Fields, are the perennials which have been naturalised here. Not many, but they certainly make an impact and illustrate the potential of the limited range of perennials robust enough to survive grass competition. Geraniums under the edge of tree or shrub canopy, where grass competition is reduced, are successful; including the late-flowering Geranium soboliferum, which I have never seen used this way before. Of course some of these here are the outcome of the university landscape department's influence. A goldenrod I have hardly ever seen as a garden plant, Solidago rigida, was clearly doing very well – almost the botanist's thrill of seeing it in the wild!

Geranium soboliferum

Solidago rigida



Geranium endressii underneath Hippophae rhamnoides

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A trip to Prague


The castle of Pruhonice

I made a flying visit to Prague last week, to do a couple of lectures to a conference - Ūdržba trvalkovych záhonů – maintaining perennial beds, I think that means. Frustratingly short, but no time wasted, with two guided tours of two immensely important parks with their botanical collections.


A far away country of which we know little” said British Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia as he handed the country over to Hitler in 1938. We still know little it seems, beyond the fact that Prague is a very pretty city and they make very good beer. Visiting here, I am reminded of the country's fascinating horticultural history, which I suspect is actually one of the most interesting in Europe.

Years ago, I think the first time I went to Vienna and stayed with someone who has become a good friend since, Sabine Plenk. I remember her showing me the three volume plant encyclopedia written by Ernst Graf Silva Tarouca in the early years of the 20th century. The volume on perennials was incredibly comprehensive with so many of the plants that we think of as 'modern' and a fair number of good ones we have actually lost to cultivation (such as Aster puniceus); what struck me in particular were some photographs of perennial plantings that just looked so naturalistic and contemporary.


Part of the Alpinium or rock bank at Pruhonice. Potentilla fruticosa
So, it was a thrill to step inside the great park of Průhonice, laid out beneath the castle where Silva Tarouca lived. It was his father, Arnošt Emanuel, who laid out the park, in the late 19th century, dominated by vast healthy conifers, the like of which we simply don't see back home. The Silva Taroucas laid out perennial plantings along the lakesides, a very few of which still exist – great clumps of rodgersias can be found in the woods. Today, despite there being only limited staff and funds, there is much restoration planting, and the whole place looks very well cared for and the trees well labelled. I was particularly struck by shaded slopes with masses of clumps of Gentiana asclepiadea.


Moravia, during the 19th century, was one of the most advanced countries in the world in the fields of animal and plant breeding and general agricultural and horticultural 'improvement'. Gregor Mendel, remember, was in the monastery of Brno here. The strange thing was that the Czech lands were not independent but ruled by the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty and German was the language of the educated. There is little in English on this period, but years ago, while researching a history of plant breeding, I did come across a pamphlet on the background to Mendel. This made fascinating reading. There were some incredibly good stories here: plant breeding involved monks, countesses and peasants, priests and secret police, of nationalist struggles, repression, religious disputation and occasional violence. Czech and Slovakia are in many ways lands of stories – fairy tales are a big part of the culture here, with much art, theatre, and the very strong tradition of puppetry.

One of the best stories was one I had come across, in an extraordinary coincidence only the day before flying to Prague, was that of a Dahlia Society used as a front for nationalist activity, in particular a lady who was once elected the society's annual Dahlia Queen, Božena Němcová, who became one of the key figures in the revival and standardisation of the Czech language. She is commemorated on the 500 Koruna banknote. Indeed, in the Dendrological Garden, a short distance from Průhonice park, and first laid out in the 1950s during the Soviet regime, is a huge display of dahlia trials of modern Czech dahlia breeding.


On a hilltop in the Dendrological Garden is a whole area of perennial trial beds. Adam Baroš, who works here as a full-time researcher is trying out a whole range of the German Mixed Planting schemes, so that they can be evaluated for public planting here. The plot that looked the best though was one of his own, based on his collections of 'village plants', varieties collected from country gardens. The gardens of houses in villages are indeed very cheerful here. I remember years ago, when Jo was working in Bratislava in neighbouring (and now independent Slovakia) how we drove the whole length of the country in early June and every village garden was full of peonies and irises. On later travels it was phlox and various daisies. Many of these varieties, probably dated back to the 1920s and 1930s, as clearly did many of the houses – this looked like it had been a prosperous time.

The conference was organised by Adam; he has been doing it for 7 or 8 years now and gets more people every time, nearly all garden and landscape professionals. The demographic, tending to the young and with a good gender balance. People seem very enthusiastic. The theme was maintenance, which shows a willingness to engage with what works, not just wanting 'inspiration'. My fellow speaker was Prof Bernd Hertle, from Weihenstephan, who has undertaken research on a wide range of planting schemes where staff time is logged, so that he can show hours per square metre per year figures. Fascinating stuff. Cassian Schmidt at Hermannshof continues to do this.


One of Bernd's charts on maintenance of different areas of plantings, I'll get round to translating it all one day.

Don't miss the video from my lecture on Piet Oudolf's work, made available by Hauser + Wirth.

* * * * *

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this 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.



Monday, August 25, 2014

August is a messy month









The view above is from our bedroom window, earlier in August. Much the same now except the day lilies have gone over. It seems to be characteristic of a lot of things which flower now to keep on flowering for ages, but often tending to look increasingly raggedy. August is traditionally rather a dull month in British gardens, after the early summer rush of (most European origin) perennials and before the (mainly North American) daisy family and butterfly-attended led flurry of autumn. Hollyhocks are invaluable for colour and Rudbeckia fulgida varieties too, for lower-level colour. But there is no getting away from the fact that this is a month when a lot of perennial growth looks very messy.

The traditional response has been to rely on annuals, and Jo's lavatera, nicotiana and zinnias have done very well.

Echinaceas are increasingly popular for this time of year, but have a reputation for being short-lived, which is quite a difficult one to unpack, I'll have a piece coming out in the Telegraph soon on that; a lot of conflicting opinions on this. I have three left out of ten put in three years ago. They add definition to an increasingly fuzzy plantscape. I'll grow some from seed next year.



A very successful part of the garden is where the only hydrangea we have managed to grow (Preziosa) darkens as it fades (you know what I mean!) alongside Aconitum variegatum and our wild Angelica sylvestris, a locally native biennial which is a very nice umbellifer to let loose in the garden although I do wonder at what point I will get fed up with it, so perhaps I'll dead-head some to stop them seeding. The understorey here is Barnhaven primulas which flower in spring and alpine strawberries.
Here it is in the Wild Garden where the stalwart Persicaria amplexicaulis has already been flowering for a month or more and will probably carry on doing so for another month. This is the part of the garden where lush and luxuriant growth has the feel of the untidy, almost chaotic, growth that is so characteristic of tall-herb habitats - crazy wildflower habitats we only rarely see as they tend to be inaccessible mountain areas.

Gentiana ascelpiadea, known as the 'willow gentian' (heaven knows why!) is a great success here. They have a reputation for doing well on heavy soils, but they take several years to establish, and need careful protection from weeds and slugs during this time. There is also a high failure rate, so best grown from seed - expect to lose most. Once established (3 years on) they are very long lived and steadily get bigger and more spectacular. They make good cut flowers too with nice long stems. T
There is a lot of variation in seed-grown plants. This is the best blue so i have saved seed and am now growing lots more. I have fantasies of having them scattered all over the garden.

The incredibly good Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' as a backdrop to Aconitum arctuatum and a very tall North Carolina collection of Eupatorium fistulosum.


Heads of Echnops 'Taplow Giant' and Lythrum salicaria make good silhouettes in the increasingly low sunshine. This year's big success is Aralia cordata (right) which has taken off amazingly this year, from a slug-beset start. Trouble is, its rather in the wrong place and I'm not sure about transplanting it. The flowers are a terrific resource for pollinators of every kind imaginable.





Don't miss the video from my lecture on Piet Oudolf's work, made available by Hauser + Wirth.

* * * * *

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this 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, August 21, 2014

Raised Beds - Trendy Nonsense in the Vegetable Garden?



“Why” asked the rather acerbic Dutchman I was talking to, “are so many British vegetable gardeners disabled?”. A bizarre thing to say, but I knew immediately what he was talking about – the popularity of raised beds amongst British gardeners. My first comment was “when did you last have a bad back Jan?”. Read on.....

This is a guest blog post on MyGardenSchool, who do an excellent range of courses. I do one every month, so if you want to learn more about perennials and how they grow - sign up!


Monday, July 21, 2014

The aliens might be coming


Rhododendron x superponticum - beautifully strangling a lakeside at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Whether it is kudzu vine strangling trees in Virginia, melaleuca throttling the Everglades or Himalayan balsam on the English river bank, invasive aliens are big news. Gardeners of course have a particular interest in them, as all too often they are responsible for the introduction and distribution of these plants in the first place, and in some regions, anything new in the garden is something of a potential Trojan horse.

A new book about invasives: plants and animals takes a nicely-balanced look. Where do camels belong? Its author, Ken Thompson is one of the best British writers on natural history. A retired member of staff at the University of Sheffield, he has worked on plant ecology for much of his life. I can't imagine a better person to keep a cool head on this topic. He is one of the key people behind the BUGS project which is looking at the relationship (or lack of it) between plant origin and wildlife in British gardens. He is particularly good at poking sacred cows with a science stick, and on occasion, as when he had a go at the fashionable pretences of permaculture, something of a cattle prod.

This is a very readable book and a balanced one. A key message is that many invasive alien stories have more bark than bite, that a species which may appear to be spreading may not be anything like as bad as it either appears to be, or the local press tell you it is. He does discuss some of the real horror stories, and does indeed recognise that aliens can be a very severe problem in some situations. Although if I lived somewhere where an alien species was causing real difficulties, I think I might feel the book didn't go quite far enough in recognising this. Some species really do destroy ecosystems. But, most don't and one of the valuable points of this book is pointing this out, and that over time many invasive plant species reduce in number, or start to get eaten by the local wildlife or infected by the local pathogens. 

One of the key points Ken raises is the cost and the impossibility of controlling many invasions. He discusses the whole new field of invasion biology. One can't help but get the feeling that there are a lot of people with a vested interest in keeping fears of invasives stoked up – a nice source of grant money for research/control etc. The implication is – don't throw money at things you can't do much about and keep it for things that either work or for battles that are really worth fighting. Invasives help keep journalists in business too, with lurid press stories often an opportunity for some covert racism – a topic which the book could have spent more time on. 

Being British and discussing invasives is a slightly odd position. Our flora has (like us) spread throughout the world, often aggressively. The turf-forming grasses of north-west Europe in particular – much of the native flora of western USA has been throttled by these aggressively spreading plants. Sounds like the effect of the European empires on global cultures. However the dense matt of growth these grasses form, and their ability to grow at low temperatures, does mean that it is very difficult to get invaded back. There isn't a single North American species which has become a problem here. The problems we have with our worst invasives (Japanese knotweed and Rhododendron x superponticum) are limited in geographical extent and pale into insignificance compared to the problems many other places face. Ken points out that some of our natives behave as invasives here, on home ground. As with my point about the nitrogen pollution fed nettles a few posts ago.

A recent trip to the US Pacific North West was an opportunity to appreciate just what a huge impact non-native and (in some eyes at any rate) invasive species make. It all depends on habitat. One of the wise points Ken makes in his book is that most invasive alien problems are in disturbed habitats. Any kind of succession process that starts taking a vegetation back towards what might be found naturally there will inevitably reduce their impact. Out in the open in the PNW you see a lot of European aliens, but few in the woods. In an area where thick conifer forest is the norm you could argue that any bit of open land is disturbed. Much grassland, in the Columbia River Gorge for example is populated by European turf grasses, and spattered with the European cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and vetches, the native California poppy appearing in much lower quantities. It was almost uncanny how much of the open habitat was composed of 'interlopers'. But this kind of grassland is largely a human artifact, so should it surprise us that it is full of non-native species? None of which by the way was dominating anything else and incorporated many natives too. It all looked uncannily 'natural'. 
Eurasian vetch Vicia cracca and European grasses make a meadow in Oregon, but natives seem to join in too, but what was here before?

California Poppy - Eschscholzia californica in habitat with the far more common european cornflower, whose presence seems largely benign. This is south side Columbia river gorge, near Hood River.

Inevitably I think about what is escaping from my garden. Geranium x oxonianum 'Claridge Druce' is scattering itself into the hedge bottom. I have often seen this species escape. I suspect it will settle down to evolve into a true species and a widespread component of the British flora. With its parents from northern Spain and Italy, it is effectively a neighbour and can be expected to settle down decorously. Persicaria amplexicaulis has, somewhat surprisingly, taken up home in the hedge bottom too – funny as it never seeds in the garden. Its habit is much reduced compared to how it grows in the border and hardly has spread at all. Its scarlet spikes look oddly at home though. It is Senecio fuchsii which I think will inevitably take off. A tallish yellow daisy, it lights up woodland edge habitats from one of Europe to another, except that is did not get across the English Channel in time after the last ice age. A native really. In fact I think we can say that any north European plant is effectively a native for this reason, as they would almost certainly been here before the ice scraped everything off. The senecio seeds like crazy in the garden and will no doubt one day wander into the woods, where really it belongs. There is little in the wild flora that flowers in shade at this time, so pollinators will probably be really glad of it. Maybe it just wants to come back home.
Senecio fuchsii (S. nemorensis) good but slightly tatty as a garden plant, great in light shade.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this 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.




Friday, July 4, 2014

Telling the story of UK naturalistic planting to Japan

        I was asked recently to write a piece summarising the recent history of naturalistic planting in Britain for the Royal Horticultural Society Japan journal. So I thought I should share the untranslated version.
  
The garden at home in August.
      Naturalistic planting in Britain arguably started in the 18th century with the landscape movement, in which the grounds of country houses were laid out in a style that evoked a semi-natural, pastoral, landscape. This movement largely concerned itself with the large scale, the main ingredients were woodland, lakes and extensive areas of grass – the latter usually grazed by livestock such as cattle or sheep.
      The first person to promote a naturalistic style of planting on a smaller scale was the writer and magazine publisher William Robinson ( 1838-1935) with his book The Wild Garden, published in 1870. This book was however not based on real experience, and although much discussed, had relatively little real impact. A contemporary of Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), chiefly known for her colourful perennial border plantings, promoted a naturalistic style of planting for woodland.

Early summer -
A very fertile and moist soil means that strong-growing perennial species need to be chosen to form a solid canopy of vegetation through the growing season. Perennials grow amongst occasional shrubs and bamboos.

       The success of Jekyll's woodland planting points to a key issue which has affected the development of naturalistic planting in Britain. With a long and cool growing season, open areas in Britain are dominated by a very competitive grass flora. In some shade however, grass growth is reduced, and other perennials and small bulbs are able to grow with less competition. For much of the 20th century the most successful naturalistic plantings were to be seen in light shade.


 
      During the last quarter of the 20th century, new approaches to naturalistic planting developed. There was a growing interest in growing British native plants – however the flora is relatively restricted, and is of only limited ornamental garden value. More influential, and arguably the most influential movement of all, has been the concept of 'wildlife gardening', where gardens are seen as mini nature reserves, supporting biodiversity. This encouraged a more relaxed, less tidy and desner style of planting, more tolerance of some weedy native species, and an awareness of the role of trees, shrubs and perennials together creating habitat for birds, insects and reptiles.
       Wildlife gardening fitted easily into a relaxed style of gardening which had been developed by an older generation of gardeners, particularly the use of long-lived perennials and small shrubs promoted by the popular garden writer Margery Fish (1892-1969), and the work of Beth Chatto whose garden in the relatively dry county of Essex, just north-east of London stressed the choice of plants based on their habitat preferences. Chatto was one of the speakers at a conference in 1994 at Kew Gardens to discuss new developments in naturalistic planting; the event brought together a number of speakers from The Netherlands and Germany, as well as the UK.


Plantings at the Queen Elizabeth Park by Prof. James Hitchmough. Photographs: James Hitchmough
A mix of plants of South African origin include species of Agapanthus, Dierama, Diascia, Kniphofia and Galtonia. Originating in the mountains of the Drakensberg, there is a long history of growing these species in Britain, but this is the first time they have been used in this large-scale way. This is midsummer. Credit: James Hitchmough

         From this time on, an informal grouping of gardeners and landscape professionals began to actively promote naturalistic planting. For the first time in European gardening, there was a real sense of cross-border communication. My own book, The New Perennial Garden, published in 1994, and a number of book collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, helped publicise new ideas about plant selection and combination. Whereas old-style perennial plantings had tended to use highly-bred, high maintenance varieties, the new planting used long-lived species, often close to their wild ancestors, and shorter-lived species which would survive in plantings through seeding. The idea of the border as a narrow strip of planting, was challenged. The wildflower meadow was an inspiration, and plantings created where the viewer looks across a blend of flowering perennials and grasses.
Credit: James Hitchmough
       During this time, more British gardeners began to visit places on the European mainland where the new planting could be seen, for example the parks of Amstelveen, near Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, which used native plants, and the parks created in German cities through large-scale garden shows. An important role has been played by two academics in the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield: Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, who are primarily interested in public space. They argued for 'enhanced nature', naturalistic plantings which offered city dwellers a stylised version of nature with plenty of colourful flowers, either combining native and non-native species or which were based on natural plant communities, foreign to the country, but which worked well in the British climate. Of these, the North American prairie has been particularly important; many of the species popular in perennial borders for the last century were in fact of prairie origin. A number of cheap seed mixtures of annuals developed by Dunnett have been commercially successful, whilst a number of gardens he made for the Chelsea Flower Show have brought his name and his idea of the wildlife-friendly sustainable small garden to public attention. He has also promoted the use of plant communities for green roofs and sustainable drainage schemes.
      Hitchmough's approach has perhaps been the most radical. He believes that the most successful plantings are those which are started from seed. The density of seeded plantings helps to exclude weeds, and allows a community of plants to develop which have a natural, rather than a human-imposed, set of relationships with each other. His work is based on a rigorous application of plant ecology science, and his doctoral students engage in work which looks at various aspects of the creation and maintenance of what are essentially artificial ornamental ecosystems. Maintenance has to be extensive, i.e. applied to all the plants simultaneously, so for example the time of mowing may be used to reduce the growth and spread of more vigorous species, and the use of a flame gun to simulate the burning which is a key part of the management of semi-natural prairie and other grasslands.
      For private gardeners, this rich variety of ideas, influences and methodologies, has proved a stimulating source of ideas. Whereas as once upon a time gardeners cleared away dead stems at the end of the year, now many leave them for several months, to appreciate their beauty in winter sunlight and as a source of seed for wild birds. Species which seed are now more likely to spread themselves through plantings, creating an atmosphere of natural spontaneity (and occasional unruliness). There is a greater willingness to create small areas of native plant community, such as miniature wetlands adjoining ponds or meadows of rough grass and wildflowers which may be only a few metres in extent. Even small areas of aggressive weeds such stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) may be left, as they are a vital food source for some species of butterfly larvae.

A mix of European wildflowers created by seeding, which flowers in early to mid summer. Normally, the flowering species would be a minority component of a community dominated by grasses; here the grasses are not included.Credit: James Hitchmough


Based on a North American plant mix, species of Aster, Heuchera and Rudbeckia flower in mid summer. 
 Credit: James Hitchmough

     Designers, as well as private gardeners, are now more likely to create blended plantings, imitating the pattern of plants in natural environments. There is an irony that one of the best publicly-accessible examples of this is to be seen, not in Britain, but in Hokkaido, where the British designer Dan Pearson has created a series of blended perennial plantings at the Tokachi Millennium Forest near Obihiro. The planting style here, and its sensitive management by gardener Midori Shintani, offers Japanese visitors a good insight into an exciting and beautiful new way of using plants.

More on the Tokachi Millennium Forest later!


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I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!

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If you like this 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.