From meadows to motorway sidings with the classic border inbetween (part 4 English summer gardens)

Nobody does steps quite as well as Lutyens did

Nobody does steps quite as well as Lutyens did

Note: this follows on from the earlier column: English Summer Gardens – part 3.

I wrote two weeks ago about the English summer garden being a continuum stretching from natural meadows through to plantings on the sides of motorways or NZ traffic islands. I was gently drifting my way along this journey until I reached my word limit around the classic English country garden as exemplified by Penelope Hobhouse and the late Rosemary Verey. I had to stop there because suddenly there is a great big punctuation point with the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter.

Great Dixter can be controversial. Mark stood in the garden and commented that it was a bit like an ongoing negotiation with nature. At its best, it is gifted and has clearly had an enormous influence on the direction taken in many New Zealand gardens. In the middle it can be somewhat serendipitous, but there are parts where there is a suspicion of the emperor’s new clothes. As a garden it sits between the meadow gardening–wildflower end of the spectrum which relies on a great deal of self seeding (and good chance) and the controlled Edwardian arts and crafts style synonymous with Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. Christopher Lloyd experimented all his life but his legacy to modern gardening is arguably the mixed border (using shrubs and clumping perennials in tandem and brave colour combinations) and the managed meadow. In New Zealand, we seized on the mixed border as if it was our own but alas it is not often carried out with the panache of Christo Lloyd and is frequently rather dull.

Historically Lutyens and Jekyll pre-dated Christo Lloyd and in fact Lutyens redesigned Great Dixter for the Lloyd parents. But on my continuum, they are more to the ordered and managed side. We travelled in part to see their legacy. Famous examples are Sissinghurst and Hestercomb but we also visited lesser known gardens. The spirit of the Lutyens-Jekyll style was formal landscaping by Lutyens in the Arts and Crafts mode (confined and defined spaces of the garden room type), softened by sweeping plantings designed by Jekyll. If you imagine beautiful stone work, clipped hedging, masses of blue delphiniums, extravagant fluffy pink peonies, pink and white roses and drifts of underplanting such as lambs’ ears (stachys), you will be on the right wavelength. It is very pretty although the borders and beds could be a bit on the narrow and busy side and it can get a little formulaic when you see a number of such gardens in a row. I suspect that it may be a little dated now. Certainly the very narrow borders worried me and I would want to rip them out. Keep the trademark Lutyens rounded stone steps, though. Nobody does steps like Lutyens.

Fortunately it was towards the end of our trip that we ended up at Wisley because there we saw a range of garden styles which gave us the framework to make sense of what we had seen.

Gifted and unusual colour combinations at Hyde Hall

Gifted and unusual colour combinations at Hyde Hall

Cue in the classic long border. Yes Great Dixter has one but Wisley sets the standard. Hyde Hall has a shorter long border divided into colour segments. Lots of gardens have the long border. At its Wisley splendour, it is two parallel borders with a wide grassy path between and we are talking a hundred and thirty metres long, each, and (here is the rub for many home gardeners) six metres wide. Beth Chatto’s garden is a whole series of freeform borders which curve and flow but are still following the principles of the long border. Such borders are often planted on terrain contoured to give extra height at the back. Because they froth out at the front (alchemilla mollis is a great favourite to achieve this effect and seems to be regarded as colour neutral), there is often a boundary of wide pavers defining the edge. This stops the frothing from killing the grass. Generally plants are layered from tallest at the back to lowest at the front and the crux of this type of planting is combinations of plant foliage and flower throughout the season. There is no mass planting. Many plants will need staking and deadheading and it is all extremely labour intensive. You need plenty of space for this type of voluptuous display.

For us, this is the zenith of summer gardening. On the days we visited, we ranked Beth Chatto top of the list for plant combinations and quality management of this intensive style of gardening, Hyde Hall top in genuinely original colour and flower combinations and Wisley all round top in the total package of scale, design, plant combinations and management.

But, Wisley does not stop at the long borders. Dutch designer Piet Oudolf has moved herbaceous planting on a few steps and, in front of the spectacular new glasshouse, Tom Stuart-Smith has taken it further. There is an element of modern pragmatism and indeed we were told that the new borders only require a third of the input of the traditional long borders and that is a huge difference. The Oudolf borders have attracted both praise and criticism. They are a great deal more controlled. The plant palette is restricted and most of the plants chosen do not require staking (or, I think, regular dead heading) and they are pretty much of a standard height. But it is not mass planting and the skill of striking plant combinations remains to the fore. Oudolf has worked with parallel borders again but used different plant combos in rivers flowing across, more or less in diagonal lines when viewed from above. Each river is comprised of three or four different types of plants.

Tom Stuart Smith has further refined the Oudolf technique, bringing it together with the sweeps of colour first espoused by Gertrude Jekyll and the prairie meadow concept currently in vogue to give grand sweeps of herbaceous plantings for the larger canvas. Much of the detail and complexity of the long borders has now gone, as has the need for intensive maintenance. But plantsmanship and design lifts it well above utility mass planting and while it may not appeal for smaller scale domestic gardens, it is a modern and more practical approach for public plantings.

So how do we end up at the traffic islands filled with tussock or the motorway sidings of utility clumpy plants? Take the simpler blocks of colour planting done by Tom Stuart-Smith. Eliminate any plants that are pink flowered (not fashionable), anything that is deciduous (need foliage 12 months of the year), anything that is grown more for its flowers than its foliage, anything that requires more than a very occasional clean up. You are left with reliable, utility, evergreen clumping perennials which in recent years have become the repertoire of many landscapers for mass plantings – the liriopes, mondo grass, ligularia type of plant. Now reduce the range further. Take out any plants which are less than 30cm high, any plants which require good soil conditions or shelter, any plants which look sufficiently desirable to be stolen, and any plants which are not available dirt cheap and preferably from a native plant supplier or prison nursery. You are left with mostly tough grassy type plants which on their own are as dull as ditchwater. It is the end of the road.