A drift of bluebells, not a mass planting

When is a mass planting not a mass planting? When it is a drift, of course. I recall writing a few weeks ago that we did not go in for mass plantings here (such a sweeping statement on my part) so when The Husband spent several days last week planting out his bluebells, I had to think about why it never occurred to me that these might be a massed planting.

The bluebell planting was a bit of triumph for Mark. He had been gently nurturing a patch in the vegetable garden to build numbers and came up with about 2000 this year. Now 2000 bluebells may sound a large amount to most people but his mission, he explained, was to try and get that 2000 to look more like 20 000. It takes a huge number to have much impact in a large area.

Readers who have been to England in the springtime may have seen the bluebell woods in flower. It is a genuinely charming sight. English woodlands tend to be very open, spindly even at times and deciduous, allowing sufficient light for these unfussy bulbs to spring up and flower just at the point when the trees are about to break into leaf. Where the woodlands contain many of the native white trunked birches, the effect is even more delightful.

With our heavy use of evergreen trees and shrubs in this county, finding suitable spots for bluebell drifts is more problematic and Mark would tell you that it took him longer to decide where to place his bulbs than to actually plant them. They need reasonable light levels but also areas where the grass growth is not so strong that it will choke them out. And they needed to be on the margins where we weedeat, rather than the grassy areas where we mow.

We had thought that the common English and Spanish bluebells belonged to the scilla family but “Bulbs for New Zealand Gardens” by Terry Hatch and Jack Hobbs tells us that they have been moved out of the scilla family and are now members of the hyacinth family (hyacinthoides for those of you who may want to know). This moving of plants through botanical families is based on scientific research but can be trying for gardeners who don’t always keep up with reclassifications. Just keep thinking of them as bluebells, maybe. Non-scripta is the English bluebell, hispanica the stronger growing Spanish form but they cross freely so many of us will have ones which are in fact Spanglish hybrids.

The difference, I figured, between a mass planting and a drift is that the latter is designed to complement other plants already present and to create a natural look of self sown plants drifting through an area. A mass planting is a mass – filling an area by block planting in a single plant selection or a very limited range of plants.

It is not that long ago (a decade or so) that mass planting was pretty well unheard of in a domestic garden. Sure there have always been avenues of matched trees (Tupare’s cherry walk, for example) or hedges comprised of a single plant variety but the idea of filling a garden with a very restrained plant palette was not the common practice it is now. It is probably true to say that the value was instead placed on having as wide a range of different plants as possible. Bulk or mass plantings tended to be confined to the public domain of parks. The transition in the home garden came first with the idea that plants should be in groups of uneven numbers but that rarely exceeded groups of three or possibly five in larger gardens. I don’t know where this edict originated but it certainly caught on. And I can see why. It takes a high level of skill to put together a very wide range of plants and to achieve an effect which is pleasing to the eye, as opposed to messy or random. Starting with plants in groups is more likely to give a sense of order which appeals to many people. A block of three white rhododendrons with five red camellias, under planted with an attractive green hosta and surrounded by tidy box hedging is going to look effective from the start, even in the hands of a novice gardener. No matter that the camellias will almost certainly not flower at the same time as the rhododendrons. It is a great deal more difficult to put together a collection of forty different plants well.

In a discussion on the merits or otherwise of mass plantings, Mark recalled hearing the Queen’s head gardener speak a number of years ago. On the huge royal estates, there was a certain amount of call for some massed plantings but John Bond said that rather than a bed of massed red rhododendrons of all the same variety, he much preferred the idea of raising seedlings from a selected species or hybrid and planting those. The sister seedlings will give subtle variations without being discordant and he felt was of much more interest than identical plants. Alas you have to be able to raise your own plants to achieve this effect. It is not as if you can go and buy sister seedlings off the shelf at your local garden centre. But as a compromise position, it has a great deal of appeal.

I have promoted the gardening programmes on the Living Channel before but at the moment there is a most interesting young(ish) English landscaper with two series running. On “Urban Outsiders” you can see Matt James working on small urban wastelands in USA – mostly New York and Los Angeles – and by wastelands, I mean the most unappealing and inauspicious back yards. In “The City Gardener”, he does the same on tiny English yards. These are more than the usual garden makeovers and even those of us who measure our gardens in acres rather than 30 square metres can learn a great deal. He is very good at what he does. His designs are individual, creative and practical and closely tailored to the needs of the client. He is passionate about good design, about different plants and about inspiring the clients to take ownership of their new gardens by involving them in the execution of the design. This is not “do it for me” gardening. It is “do it together” and Matt gives out a great deal of information in the process.

Interestingly, even working hard to give some cohesion to small spaces which are owned by people with no background in gardening at all, there is no evidence of mass plantings or a heavy use of utility plants or formulaic combinations. He works hard to chose appropriate easy care plants but with variety and seasonal interest. He is worth watching to see a practitioner who brings together excellent design, plantsmanship and an engaging enthusiasm.