Dear New Zealand, fences do not have to look like this

Dear People,

In New Zealand we must be the world’s leading proponents of the utility, tanalised pine boundary fence. I have written about this before but clearly in vain. The existing fences have gone forth and multiplied. They are appearing in ever greater numbers.  And honestly, they are all equal in terms of the absence of any aesthetic merit.

It is not as if substantial barricades in tanalised timber come cheaply. For just a little more expenditure and effort, it is possible to turn them into something easier on the eye. In the hope of winning over some converts, I keep collecting the occasional example of alternatives. This latest one is from Veddw Garden in Wales so it will not be from tanalised pine, that timber of choice that NZ has made its own. And I concede that it is not constructed from the palings favoured here but from posts which I didn’t think to measure at the time.  Staining it dark and using random lengths makes it considerably more interesting visually, while it fits in with its surroundings.

 

A simple wooden fence at Veddw

It doesn’t take a lot to alter the effect but that attention to detail can make a huge difference in a garden and in the wider environment.

Yours,

Abbie

 

The Missouri Meadow in 2009, 2014 and 2017 (Part 3 of observations on the Sheffield School genre)

The Missouri Meadow in 2009

No discussion on the Sheffield School is complete with the Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. This is the work of Professor James Hitchmough. We first saw it in late June 2009 and it was an absolute highlight of that trip for us. A joy. Inspiring.

The planting was started from seed sown in 2008 so we saw it in its second year. The selected mix had a heavy focus on North American perennials, hence the Missouri reference. It was still low growing and relatively sparse with gravel mulch. It was also completely different to its adjacent plantings – the Tom Stuart-Smith perennial beds that face the glasshouse directly across the lake and the Piet Oudolf twin borders up the slope. That distinction was a defining character of the area.

And again at the same time of the year in 2014

We next saw it five years later in the same month of the year in 2014. It had matured, changed. The juvenile charm had gone but it was still meadow-like with lots of variety and bloom. The demarcation lines had begun to blur as some plants formed sizeable clumps so it was not as clear where the Missouri Meadow ended and the Stuart-Smith plantings started. I think most of the echinaceas had gone. Ain’t that just the way? I don’t feel so bad about our failures to get them established as permanent plants.

2014 – the dominant plants are now the thunking big clumpers

Looking at the photos, I think there are lessons to be learned in the growth habits of the different perennial plants. Where plants form solid, vase-shaped clumps, such as the day lily and red hot pokers (hemerocallis and kniphofia), over time they morph into a more traditional herbaceous planting where they will dominate more ephemeral plants and choke them out. Plants which gently spread, rather than clump, like the geraniums and achilleas, retain more of a meadow feel in the longer term. Many of these are quite shallow-rooted so they can get out-competed by more determined neighbours.

The maintenance regime has clearly remained pretty light in the intervening years, with a little more intervention on the side closest to the glasshouse.

2009

2014

2017

Three years on, we were looking forward to seeing the Missouri Meadow again in 2017. Same time of the year (note to self: it is time I booked these trips at a different time of the year). One-Who-Knows warned us that we may be disappointed. I would say more interested, than disappointed. The area closest to the glasshouse still remains, more or less, showing that a bit more hands-on maintenance can extend the life span of this planting.

It wasn’t ALL like this in 2017, but there was enough of it to be a worry

Some fairly large sections of the rest were not a visual delight, though they may well be eyecatching for a few weeks when the aster flowers, turning it into a sea of blue. I am deducing it is A. oolentangiensis, as named on the display board, that has colonised the largest area and is on track to smother everything else out. It would seem a problem for Wisley staff in that they cannot continue to leave the area to evolve because it is in a prominent location, taking up substantial space. Garden visitors are more likely to judge on immediate appearances than take an interest in the evolution of a naturalistic planting. The inclusion of this aster in the original mix appears not to have been a good long-term decision for the conditions and climate at Wisley. I wonder if it has been dropped from subsequent seed mixes from the Sheffield School?

To be fair, some parts looked like this in 2017, but I would bet they were the areas that had greater labour input – thinning, weeding and maybe even rejuvenating

Of course there is trial and error in this new wave gardening and that is one of the roles taken on by the Royal Horticultural Society in collaboration with others. Mark observed that the whole area had been in for nine years, requiring very few resources and, seemingly, little maintenance. If it needs a major reworking once a decade, that is still a lot less input than more traditional perennial plantings in herbaceous borders.

As I understand it, the aim of the Sheffield School is to create self-sustaining eco-systems that don’t require even that level of intervention. It will be interesting to see whether the higher proportion of grasses at Olympic Park overwhelm the pretty perennials over time or whether the current balance is maintained. The extensive recent plantings by Hitchmough’s colleague, Nigel Dunnett, at Trentham Park are currently at the show stopping stage of gorgeousness. More on these in a post to come. No doubt the experience gained from the Missouri Meadow will have been applied to these newer plantings in some way or another. And we will continue to follow with interest what the Wisley staff decide to do with their earlier example of a managed meadow of predominantly American perennials.

The Dunnett plantings at Trentham Gardens are like a pointillist painting from the Impressionist era at this time

There is a quandary in gardening: when you have a style that looks its most appealing and delightful when juvenile, do you commit to returning that area to its juvenility from time to time in the ongoing attempt to recapture the charm? Wisley is not alone in having that problem. I see domestic gardeners do it all the time – hacking back shrubs like azaleas and camellias to ground level to encourage them to “come again” amongst other examples of gardening brutalism. We lean more to celebrating maturity and moving on, probably in life as well as gardening.

Will the Missouri Meadow be developed further or should it be wiped and resown to achieve that early charm again?

Naturalism or prairie-style at Olympic Park (part 2 on the Sheffield School of planting)

From Dunnett at the Barbican, we went on to Olympic Park – the site of the 2012 London Olympics. There was quite a lot of media coverage at the time and everything I read praised the Hitchmough and Dunnett plantings which were strongly naturalistic and meadow in style. I can’t think why we didn’t go and see it when we were over in 2014 so I was determined to get there this time. The perennial plantings presumably went in some time in 2011 to allow them to get established so they must be in the sixth year by now. Some may even have gone in a year earlier. Most of it will have been done from seed. Given this is an expansive area undergoing repurposing after the Olympic hype, I deduced that maintenance of the plantings would be minimal at best. What would survive under a laissez-faire regime?

A prairie! Almost. Maybe. Though I admit I have never seen a genuine prairie. I think of early summer meadows as lush and green. These were more white and golden with a heavy population of grasses already in flower and seed and perennials that have naturalised within the environment. I bet a lot has been lost since 2012, but there are lessons to be learned in what can cope within this competitive environment. The charm within the detail was a delight.

Would NZers accept this as a naturalistic eco-system? I doubt it.

Alas, I am not sure that New Zealanders would accept this as urban landscaping. The cries to mow the rank, long grass may be too loud. We are still mired back in the suburban values of short, mown, green grass with tidy edges and tidy, colourful bedding in amenity planting. If it can’t be mown, then too often it is sprayed. There is a brave new world awaiting us out there. One where the input costs are much lower, the maintenance requirements minimised and where the environmental contribution is hugely greater. It just needs us to take off our judgemental glasses where the managed environment is judged in terms of “tidiness”, to look instead at Nature.

Just a sampling of flowers from one small area

My heart will never sing at the sight of sprayed edges, mown grass and bedding plants, be they in rows, blocks or circles. But we exclaimed in delight as we wandered the areas around Olympic Park. I started gathering the flowers from one area, just to see how big the range was. The hollyhock block I wrote about earlier was on the perimeter of these plantings.

I am guessing that these areas are subject to a very light maintenance regime – probably strimming them back to the ground in winter and I doubt that much of the resulting straw waste is removed. They are not irrigated at all. But I did figure that litter must be removed from time to time because there was not a huge and unsightly build-up of rubbish in the growth.

The colour-toned woman in the sari was serendipity at the playground area

The areas of generous perennial plantings around the playground area were more intensively maintained and visibly ‘gardened’ as is appropriate for the most intensively used areas. Even these were contemporary in style and concept, away from the old-fashioned bedding plant genre.

The work of the Sheffield School concentrates on environmentally friendly plantings which can be achieved for hugely lower costs than more traditional approaches. They are not alone in this position and the acceptance of the need to work with nature, not to bend it and control it to human will seems to be widespread in the UK. A friend tells me much of Regent’s Park is now wide mown paths through meadow land and we have seen similar changes within the Hampstead Heath green belt. There is much to learn for New Zealand but it will be a brave local council that leads the charge.

Again, I have posted additional photos of the Olympic Park area on Facebook.

Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.

A modern French garden – Le Jardin Plume

The wave hedges at Le Jardin Plume

The surrounding countryside

Le Jardin Plume is a contemporary French garden located about 30 minutes drive from Rouen. To reach it requires driving through flat agricultural land of that area of Normandy, which fascinated us because such land use does not involve fencing. While this is industrial scale cropping, it has a summer charm that our grazing land lacks. I guess you don’t have to fence when the greatest threat is the naughty prime minister across the Channel.

The garden itself is also flat. Very flat, really. The areas closest to the house and allied buildings are intensively planted in a riot of bright summer blooms and foliage, mostly within the constraints of the tightly clipped hedges. Moving beyond that, on the site of an old apple orchard is the modern take on traditional French parterres. Blocks of grassy meadow are defined by tightly mown lawn walkways on an expansive scale across the seven acres. Le Jardin Plume means the feather garden, as evoked by the waving grasses, especially when they go to flower and seed.

Sharp clipping gives definition and contrast to the looser plantings

The garden relies on sharp, clipped green walls to give it structure and very effective that is, too. The wave hedge certainly seems appropriate to what is a new wave garden. It was as wonderful in life as it is in the photographs. There is very little hard landscaping in permanent materials. Arguably, this adds to the charm because there is a softness and energy to the garden that reflects the use of living materials.

Plumes of veronicastrum

Contained within the wave hedging are graceful, tall perennials like veronicastrum, thalictrum and sanguisorbia along with the invaluable grass, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’. I particularly like the tracery of these tall plants against the sky and the feeling of walking midst soft, perennial plants that are taller than me. That is one of the advantages of a flat garden – easier framing of the view against the sky. In a world where we have seen the production of ever more compact and dwarf bedding plants best suited to floral clocks, these are like the anti-bedding plant brigade of the perennial world.

The parterres of meadow

Out in the meadow ‘parterres’, the plantings are lower and more naturalistic. Some folk don’t like this whole meadow genre but we do. In spring there are bulbs. In summer, the charms lie in the soft movement and the somewhat random detail of additional plants. Added to that, there is another layer of interest in the wildlife. These areas are teeming with butterflies, bees and a host of lesser admired insect life. They are sustainable eco-systems and this planet needs a whole lot of them. In autumn, the grasses turn golden and seed heads will become a feature before being cut down just the once each year, in October.

Our daughter in the transient white garden at Le Jardin Plume

The informal avenue of tall white perennials must be a transient delight but a delight it was. The perennial is Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ (also known as Chamaenerion angustifolium) but North Americans may know it better as the white form of fireweed while the British call it rosebay willowherb. Small gardens have to work harder throughout the year, but large gardens can accommodate such short term displays of frivolity, if the gardener so decides.

I don’t know if the owners ever ponder the longer term future of their garden (though I would be surprised if they do not). Le Jardin Plume is, I would suggest a garden of our modern times. But if you look at what makes a garden endure down the generations and into subsequent centuries, it is usually the immutable hard landscaping and the handsome long-term trees, along with a notable history and fine, historic buildings. Le Jardin Plume has none of these and is not a big budget garden. None of this is a criticism in any way. Rather, it is a celebration of what can be achieved with vision, enthusiasm, knowledge and hard work even though it is probably a one or two generation garden at most.

Hand weeding the American grass squares

Maybe it was that we identified with the owners, Patrick and Sylvie Quibel, that made us particularly receptive to this garden. We realised quite early on that we were looking at a private garden created by a couple, managed with minimal assistance (I think there is just the one extra pair of hands and we saw him hand weeding), supported by a small nursery adjacent to the garden. Mme Quibel did not speak English and my spoken French is not up to conversational standards, but I would bet money that their hearts are in the garden and the nursery is just a means to an end. It felt like meeting the French equivalent of ourselves and we identified with their endeavours.

Mme Sylvie Quibel – I wished my French was up to a proper conversation

We could not identify with the heat. It was very hot on the day we visited. From there, we drove to Vimoutiers and by the time we reached there, the thermometer outside the pharmacy read 40 degrees. I can assure you that it never gets anywhere near that hot at home. Even the camembert cheese on our evening platter melted before our very eyes.

How pretty is this? The French do that shabby chic look better than anywhere else I have seen.

I have read reviews of this garden which praise this ground level pool that leads the eye out to the expanse of meadow parterres. We all come with different preconceived ideas and I admit I looked at it, admired the form but was worried by the water quality.

Postcards of Normandy

Potted colour in Rouen

One wonders – well, I wonder – if the person who did the sign off in at Rouen’s town council realised the scale of the planters to be installed at that railway station. “Let’s pretty up the area with some potted colour,” I imagine somebody saying. The result was the BIGGEST examples of potted colour that we have seen. Clearly hand watered – Mark checks these things out.

Same city. Not quite like the railway station planters.

Further down towards the River Seine was an example of amenity planting without irrigation. Not even the modern style prairie plantings can get established and flourish without added water. The idea may have been good but most plants bolt to flower and seed when put under extreme stress in an attempt to ensure their continued survival. Much of Europe was experiencing a heat wave when we were there. Both in Italy and in France, locals told us that it most unusual for the temperature to be sitting well into the thirties (Celsius) in June.

Potted colour in Pont-l’Évêque

While on the subject of urban plantings, the planter boxes on the bridge at Pont-l’Évêque made up for their lack of sophistication with exuberance. It was just that we were in Pont-l’Évêque that I thought I would photograph le pont but then I worked out it was in fact les ponts – there were many bridges and I have no idea which one gave its name to the area.

A pharmacy on every corner

Our second daughter joined us in France and it was she who marvelled at the fact there appeared to be a pharmacy, or chemist as we call them, on pretty much every corner in Rouen. Why so many, she asked. I have no idea but it reminded me of a useful skill French pharmacists have. They are trained to identify edible fungi – as in wild collected mushrooms, toadstools and the like. So if you are not sure of the safety of what you have gathered, you can pop in to your friendly local pharmacy. I do not think this is a service offered at our local Waitara chemist’s shop but there are times it would be handy.

We stayed in another Air BnB place in Camembert – in this case a Norman barn that had been converted to a large apartment. Some of the conversion was a little curious but we did not electrocute ourselves and the opportunity to sleep in an adult-sized cradle created from a half cider barrel may never come my way again.

Crouttes, near Vimoutier

The whole area around Camembert and Vimoutiers was extremely charming and picturesque. However, we were puzzled at the lack of the French equivalent of country pubs and eateries and also at the apparent emptiness of many of the villages. I think it comes down to issues of personal space and population density. In areas with very dense housing such as Tivoli and Sermonetta in Italy where we had been a few days previously, everybody comes out of their apartments to socialise on the streets and the plazas, especially as late afternoon meets early evening. In the UK which also has high density housing, people are often out and about. This area of rural Normandy was more like Tikorangi – big personal spaces and homes with land attached. Given the luxury of both indoor and outdoor private space, people stay at home more. At least that is my theory.

The green circle…

We went to a garden. I do not need to name it but it was advertised on the tourist trail. The welcoming sign was perhaps a giveaway that we should not set our expectations too high. What was quite interesting about this garden was that it had all the trappings of a comprehensive modern garden – the romantic rose garden, the new perennials garden, a “Japanese” garden, a productive kitchen garden, a traditional, medieval physic garden that harked back to the magnificent old buildings that gave the place its structure, even the enclosed green circle or rondel garden such as can be seen at Sissinghurst and many imitators. It was all there. Sort of. What was missing were gardening skills and flair. Particularly gardening skills. And any eye for detail. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Posted withour comment – the Japanese garden from the aforementioned garden.

The fruit of the mandrake! Mandragora officinarum, to be botanical. This is not something one sees often. It is apparently the root that is harvested for whatever purpose one harvests mandrake, but the fruit are certainly eye-catching too. I think it was in the physic garden.

La Plume! Romantic summer France

Next post will be the summer glory that is La Plume, a modern French garden in a country better known for its historic gardens than modern innovation.

I found the hollyhocks!

Five years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “But where are the hollyhocks?”. Occasionally a garden visitor sears him or herself on the brain and on this particular occasion, a gentleman came out from our garden and asked that very question, declaring that he could not find any hollyhocks. I have never forgotten because it was such a bizarre question. Until that point, it had never occurred to me that anybody might regard a garden as seriously deficient for the want of some hollyhocks. We failed that test.

When our children were young and had their own little gardens, one of them at least grew a few hollyhocks. But in our humid climate, the foliage gets ugly rust and if the flower spikes are not staked, they are inclined to fall over. They have not felt like a core plant for us.

But we found the hollyhocks in London. An entire block of them growing wild. This was part of the Olympic Village plantings. Most of these plantings were prairie-flavoured while hollyhocks are pretty much traditional cottage-garden plants. This may be why they were kept separate and all on their lonesome. They made us smile. I am only guessing that the other plants like the mullein and Verbena bonariensis have introduced themselves to the hollyhock party.

The Olympic Park plantings are five or six years old now because the London Olympics were held in 2012. There has clearly been a light hand at most on maintenance. More on the current delight of these naturalistic plantings soon.

As a postscript, once we had our eye in for hollyhocks, we kept seeing them in the south of England, seeded down and naturalised by motorways as well as on traffic islands and on street verges. There is no shortage of hollyhocks there. Mark is now very tempted by some of the buff shades, if he can find the seed.