Many gardeners will recognise the situation where one heads out to the garden to do something and what initially seemed to be a straightforward task escalates into one that is considerably more major. I shall dig and consolidate the lily bulbs in the avenue garden, I thought to myself. They haven’t been touched for years and are somewhat higgledy piggledy around the place. It escalated. Of course it did.
“I am surprised they are still there, really,” said Mark. “It must be 20 years since I planted them and some of those now are seedlings from the originals.” It is probably more like 25 years since Mark planted the lower beds of the Avenue Gardens. No major work has been carried out in the time since, bar clearing up after the occasional treemageddon. We do a tidy-up from time to time and most years the lilies get staked. Nothing has been fed and not a lot new has been planted, just the occasional removal of a dead plant and plugging the gap if need be. I ended up going over almost every square centimetre of the area and becoming familiar with every plant, not just the lilies.
As the days passed, my awe at the skills Mark used when planting the area grew. Matrix planting. That is what it was at the time – a highly complex planting of a whole range of different material, most of which has stood the test of time and is still there. It is the stability and the compatibility of the plants used that makes it a matrix – a form of sustainable gardening that is worth attempting to come to terms with.
When I did a net search looking for a definition of matrix planting, I found a fair number of recent references attributing it to renowned Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. Oudolf is a giant in the contemporary international garden scene and he may have popularised matrix planting as a concept but he did not come up with it.
As I told Mark how much I admired his skills in carrying the original planting 25 years ago in some areas, he just shrugged it off and said, “I was only copying what my father did”. Indeed, we still have areas in the garden that Felix planted from the 1950s onwards that remain stable, interesting, timeless and remarkably low maintenance today. These are mostly in shade and semi shade whereas Oudolf’s contemporary work that I have seen is predominantly in open, sunny conditions.
It is the sustainability and low maintenance with a high level of plant complexity that makes matrix planting so important. Without a high level of plantsmanship, you end up with utility, mass planting of few varieties – the hallmark of many contemporary landscape designers who have to plant clients’ gardens with reliable selections so they can not take risks. And people who pay professionals tend to like the tidiness of uniformity. Without sustainability, you have much higher maintenance requirements. This may not matter much in a small garden but if you are managing a large area with a low budget and low labour input, that stability of plant relationships is critical to keeping it all manageable while maintaining a high level of plant interest.
When I talk about a complex planting, I mean different layers and a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials both evergreen and deciduous, bulbs and a smattering of self-seeding plants. In this area, we start at the top with a layer of massive old man pines which are up to 50 metres high. At a lower level, we have rhododendrons (a few, in better lit areas), vireya rhododendrons, cordylines, brugmansia, palms, a few cycads, hydrangeas and the like). At ground level we have trilliums, Paris polyphylla, assorted varieties of bromeliads, Helleborus x sternii, argutifolius and foetidus, orchids (mostly dendrobiums, calanthes, cymbidiums and pleiones), veltheimias, hippeastrums, the aforementioned lilies and a whole lot more. I did say it was a complex planting. Oh, and lots of clivias in red, orange and yellow. Being in the shade, we don’t get a lot of weeds but the naturally occurring vegetation needs to be managed and thinned – assorted ferns, macropiper (kawakawa, pepper tree or, botanically, Piper excelsum), native astelias and collospermum, even seedling nikau palms and cordylines.
I was amazed at how much I could remove without making it look different, just tidier. I lifted entire blocks of bromeliads and reduced them to a shadow of their former selves. After replanting this patch, I removed four laden barrows to dump but it still looks well furnished.
At the end of about three weeks, I decided I had done as much as I intended to. I didn’t need to add much new material at all. That is why I was in awe at Mark’s original plant selections and plantings. And while it was a larger job than I originally envisaged, if that sets it up so that it can be maintained with the lightest of intervention over the next two decades, that is a good outcome.