Tag Archives: garden trends

Fashion vs style

I was shocked. Really shocked. There I was in the supermarket and I picked up a gardening magazine I had no intention of buying. But as I skimmed it, I came across an article that told us to rip out all our grasses. The ‘Oudolf prairies’ and the entire New Perennials movement were out. Shrubberies are back.

The writer qualified this statement by saying that she was just joking but the damage was done. There are my new borders just coming into their own with their heavy dependence on grasses and perennials, much influenced by what we have seen in the UK and Europe. And while this whole naturalistic gardening movement has been a major force in Europe and to some extent the USA for over 15 years, it hasn’t really reached New Zealand gardens yet, but is already, allegedly, passé.

It did at least get me thinking on the difference between fashion in gardening and major gardening movements.

Fashion or trends are driven by marketing, as much in gardening as in clothing or décor. And that is all about selling commercial product. If you can convince customers that they need this hot new item to be on trend, that makes money for everyone on the supply chain from producer to retailer. Even better if you can convince them to replace a whole garden in order to be up with the play, at the forefront of fashion.

Gardening movements, styles or genres are different, though it can be hard to tell apart at the time. It takes hindsight to get the bigger picture. Until early last century, ornamental gardening was largely the preserve of the rich and powerful. Ornamental, domestic gardening at the individual level didn’t really take off until after WW1. But we can look back and see several significant gardening movements, or styles.

The idea of garden rooms has its most recent roots at Hidcote and then Sissinghurst. It made design – in this case, the design of a series of linked but separate spaces – applicable to the home gardener. Many people are still working to the garden rooms principles today.

Cottage gardening, as exemplified by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor, is a separate gardening movement that remains popular nearly eight decades later. It is very relevant and applicable to a domestic scale of gardening which became popular as the grand estates declined.

I think the classic rose beds probably warrant the status of genre rather than transient fashion, though they have certainly fallen from favour now and look very unsophisticated and barren by today’s standards. Those are the island beds of just roses, hybrid teas mostly, planted with little regard for colour and standing in splendid isolation with good air movement and bereft of underplanting. There are many practical reasons for growing roses in this manner and it is only in more recent times that most of us have decided the aesthetic deficiencies outweigh any practical consideration.

Treating the garden as an extension of the indoor living space (all that indoor-outdoor flow) is often attributed to the English designer, John Brookes in the latter half of the twentieth century. That is here to stay, though taken to ridiculous lengths by OTT Australian luxury design with their outdoor kitchens and living areas.

Crystal ball gazing, I would suggest that the contemporary tropical garden in more northerly areas of this country – the Balinese hotel style, as I have sniffily dubbed it, may turn out to be more movement than transient fashion. It fits the climate, the lifestyle, the aesthetic and the maintenance regime of many gardeners, particularly in Auckland city. Not so good down south, though, so it is quite localised.

Then there are the fashion gardens, more driven by magazines and other media then anything else. Remember the dreaded dwarf conifer gardens with their scoria mulch laid on black plastic?  No. I don’t want to remember them too much, either. The same goes for the short-lived reign of the ghastly minimalist gardens at the start of the new millennium. Three large rocks, a yucca, a sanseveria and some scleranthus surrounded by an ocean of lime chip, fine gravel or – if the budget ran to it – prettier coloured pebbles. Or, horror beyond horror, a mass of tumbled, coloured glass pebbles if you were of a certain demographic. Aqua coloured glass shards were much favoured as I recall. Minimalist gardens may have drawn on the subtle and spare refinement of the traditional Japanese garden but they lacked any cultural context or complexity in their trendy manifestation and died very soon after being born.

While the home production of fruit and vegetables seems destined to continue no matter what, the current craze for *food forests* is, I suggest, more fashion than movement. It won’t be long before people realise that so-called food forests in temperate climates don’t actually produce much food at all – at least nowhere near as much as more utilitarian vegetable gardens, berry enclosures and orchards can provide. You wouldn’t want to be aiming at self-sufficiency with a food forest but you can at least claim to be on trend at the moment.

Which brings me to the ‘Oudolf prairies’ (he has done many things but never prairies) and the current fashion for plantings incorporating a fair swag of grasses. Movement, not fashion, I say. These are but one part of a major swing in gardening style towards a more naturalistic and sustainable approach. It is part of a whole spectrum which takes in meadows, even prairies if you have the right climate, the Sheffield School, environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening as practiced by a large swag of British, European and American designers and leading gardeners. It is soft-edged, should be lower maintenance, sitting comfortably with Nature as opposed to being imposed upon it, sustaining a healthy eco-system and a harmonious balance between the natural world and the aesthetic many humans crave. Enhanced nature, romantic gardening, naturalistic gardening – call it what you will. It is a movement, not a transient fashion because it is underpinned by a philosophy that goes well beyond the marketing of plants and landscaping accoutrements.

I won’t be ripping out my grasses and perennials to replace them with dwarf shrubs from the garden centre. Style trumps transient fashion every time.

Garden fashion – from designer trend to cliche

I fear my scatter cushions are more of the shabby chic genre than designer...

I fear my scatter cushions are more of the shabby chic genre than designer...

I attended a really interesting garden lecture on Saturday. Some readers may know Neil Ross from his regular contributions to the NZ Gardener magazine. He spent some years as head gardener at Ayrlies in Auckland but these days is back gardening, designing and writing in the UK. His talk was loosely on gardening trends in Britain and I thought readers might enjoy a summary of what is going out of fashion and what is on the rise, based in part on his analysis of the cutting edge garden installations by leading designers at Britain’s superb garden shows – Chelsea, Tatton Park, Hampton Court and the like.

Passing over (so they will look dated very soon in your garden, should you be contemplating them) are painted walls – usually solid plastered walls installed as a garden feature and painted in a dramatic shade with colour toned plantings. Sorry, passé now, along with gabions, thank goodness. The latter are wire cages, usually filled with rocks but sometimes with au naturelle branches and trunks cut to length or even pine cones. We always thought that gabions looked better when used for their original purpose of slowing erosion. They are a bit too industrial altogether in a garden.

Dribbly water features that look like urinals (Neil’s description, not mine) are looking dated, irrespective of whether that trickle of water is flowing out of a terracotta head, a gargoyle of any description or just a modest pipe. Keep to ponds (lakes are better), natural streams or at least a decent gush of water if you feel the need for a water feature.

Box balls, Neil reports, have been so over-used as a formal feature that they have been done to death. Though he thought, in New Zealand it is not just buxus balls. It is the whole mini-Sissinghurst look of clipped buxus hedges and edges containing formal standard plants (be they roses, bay trees or choisya ternata) – a man after my own heart on this issue. Also done to death are designer scatter cushions accessorizing the display garden. I have to admit that I have been known to employ the scatter cushion on our rather unforgiving stone seats though mine are of the shabby chic genre (all my late mother’s tapestry, now heavily faded) rather than designer colours and textures. I only put them out when our garden is open and I went off that idea the time I forgot to bring them in and it rained….

The Missouri Meadow Garden at Wisley - perhaps the pinnacle of the prairie garden style

The Missouri Meadow Garden at Wisley - perhaps the pinnacle of the prairie garden style

The prairie garden is in danger of becoming yesterday’s design in England though we have never embraced this style in New Zealand. The Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley, south of London, is the finest example we have seen. But it relies on low rainfall and low fertility which hardly describes the dairy farming areas of New Zealand so we may never see prairie plantings popularised here.

If you want to be cutting edge, Neil’s advice is that the new trend is to keep chickens and indeed anything that is edible or food producing in the garden. I don’t think guinea pigs count. Beehives are all the rage, especially in cutsie-pie bee frames. Insect hotels are all the rage in English gardens though the research is that insects are happier in a natural environment (leave an old log to rot down) than in your designer Hilton.

Green walls are still a hot item but we agreed that they are expensive to install and a lot of work to maintain. It is easier to grow plants in the ground rather than in vertical frames, if you can.

Glass is in fashion, preferably exquisite, hand-blown glass features. At a pinch wine bottles might fit the bill in a creative wall construction which may suit the winos amongst us. But the suggestion I have seen to use old wine bottles as a garden edging is a really bad idea from a practical point of view, let alone the dodgy aesthetics. As you plunge your spade in to turn over the soil, you are just as likely to hit a bottle and break it.

Predicting the Return of the Conifer

Predicting the Return of the Conifer

And conifers are due to make a return. Not in a reincarnation of the awful 1970s style some readers may recall – a mass of prostrate junipers and the like plonked in through black plastic and then covered with that nasty red scoria. There were good reasons why that particular style of gardening fell from grace but the poor old conifers themselves did not deserve to be cast out to the wilderness along with the garden style. The conifer family is huge and there are many fine specimens from tiny treasures to handsome, long-lived landscape specimens. Used judiciously as accent plants throughout the garden, they can give a splendid year round shape and definition as well as variations in colour. Thank goodness we still have ours – after sixty years, some are getting venerable and we would not be without them.

In place of prairies and meadows, more block planting of perennials is returning – check out the work of Tom Stuart Smith or Piet Oudolf.

The final caution comes not from Neil but from the Garden of Jury – beware of rills and obelisks. They are on the cusp of passing from innovative to hackneyed. It is a very short step.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.