Tag Archives: New Perennials

Hello vibrant colours

The result has been that the British planting palette is no longer based on the colour theory of Jekyll and the Arts and Crafts movement; indeed, it’s no longer a ‘palette’ at all, since colour is deemed of secondary importance to form.

(Tim Richardson, first published in Country Life, 2011)

Scampston Hall In Yorkshire – the work of Piet Oudolf

Mark is re-reading the collection of Richardson’s writings in ‘You Should Have Been Here Last Week’. I am waiting in line. It warrants another reading. It was the rather sweeping claim that colour is now playing second fiddle in British gardens that had Mark and I pausing to think. When you read on, I think his use of the word ‘form’ is misleading. He is not talking about hard landscaping (all the permanent structures, paving and infrastructure of a garden that gives it year round form). He is talking about planting styles – the way the plants are grouped and the huge changes that have come into the contemporary gardens. The rhythm of the planting is a better description, because it is about the move from static picture gardening (often best admired in a photograph) to the more dynamic, immersive experience of moving through a garden. It is a very different experience and has certainly been a revelation to us on our last three garden visiting trips to the UK.

Olympic Park in London

I digress. I was going to take issue with his suggestion that colour is no longer a driving factor in such plantings. On the contrary, most of the contemporary plantings we have walked amongst use bold, vibrant colour but in a different way. The Victorians gave us floral clocks and garish bedding plants but they were all ankle-height, more or less. The Edwardians moved into the refined ‘pastelle’ era that still endures in many New Zealand gardens today. Then came all that colour toning and use of white that still remains de rigueur, still mostly pastel. Good taste, many think. The vibrancy of the masses of strong colour evident in many of the more modern plantings is like a statement of a new age. Big, bold, colourful and no longer vulgar.

I got to thinking about this because the Resene magazine ‘habitat’ (the lower case indicates modernity, darls) turned up in my letter box. Resene is a leading paint brand in this country. And I burst out laughing at the guide to ‘your next big colour trends’. This is because we are renovating our two main living rooms so I know that the greying of New Zealand has continued unabated, along with white or off-white walls. And black kitchens now, I notice. We have no white and no grey in our house and ended up with a choice of exactly one green carpet for these rooms surrounded by garden.

I give you edited highlights from the Resene mag:

“As communities galvanise over social and political movements you can see design trends going bolder, with true reds, or stormy blues and dark brooding tones.” Leaving aside my pedantic worries about the ad hoc use of commas, I wondered where these galvanising communities are, along with the bold colours which seem to be singularly missing in action.

But the article goes on: “Warmer colours are generally on the rise, … Such colours carry the promise of global exploration and porous borders….” Oh really? Who writes this stuff? Did they cut their teeth writing real estate copy? Given my penchant for dusky pink in other areas of the house, I was a bit worried about telling Mark that this is now very dated, so dated in fact that it is “millennial pink” and – wait for this – “a colour borne out of the global movement toward gender fluidity”. I tell you, that had simply never occurred to me.

So what does the article tell me about green, given my decision to swap out the blues for greens in our dining and living rooms? “Green has been emerging in homes during the past few years as our eco-consciousness grows and yearning to connect with nature via biophilic design.”

I had to google ‘biophilic design’, I did. And that was a revelation. There are many listings on the topic and from my most perfunctory look, it appears to be a marriage of Rudolf Steiner and biodynamics with inner city, apartment living – philosophically speaking. So now we know.

All this return to colour thinking was also sparked by wandering through our park and looking at the deciduous azaleas with their OTT, unabashed vibrancy – vulgarity, some may think. And I remembered the man who came around the garden when we were still open and asked ‘what is the big orange rhododendron behind the house’. We have garden borders behind the house but I couldn’t think of a plant like that there so I suggested he go and pick a flower and bring it to us. Well, not only did it transpire that ‘behind the house’ meant the spacious park area but he returned bearing an entire head of an orange azalea that he had snapped off, not the single bloom. After all that, we did not have it available for him to buy.

In self-defence, I say that our bold azaleas are mostly interspersed throughout the park, so surrounded by acres of verdant green rather than being planted en masse to dazzle the eyes. And they have been there quite a long time so endured the changing fashions of colour down the decades.

I was slightly alarmed by an inadvertent colour combination in my new borders. I picked a flower of each to show the colours more clearly. I am pretty sure I thought the bearded irises were all yellow when I planted them but 80% are purple. While the colour is sparse in these early stages of planting, I am thinking ahead to when each forms a large wodge of colour.

Take the blue-purple out to keep the ramped-up colour.

Or take the yellow out and it looks very different, toning it down considerably. I am marking the ones flowering yellow. I think I prefer the second version but it all comes down to personal taste in the end.

A garden destination for all tastes and expectations? Trentham in Stoke-on-Trent

Trentham Gardens shows that it can get pretty close to being all things to all people. Even on a cool, grey Monday afternoon, the place was humming. Mark and I have a running gag about the “sense of arrival” at gardens. One day I will explain the origin of our cynicism about this but we worked out long ago that the greatest “sense of arrival” is a full carpark. And on this Monday afternoon, I photographed our rental car so we could find it again later. As an aside, you can have any colour of car you like in Britain, as long as it is black or grey. And one grey rental car looks pretty much like 80% of the other cars.

Trentham had a long and illustrious history before falling on hard times. Very hard times. The splendid Capability Brown lake apparently became the smelly, festering sewer for the Trent River and all who lived and worked nearby – especially the potteries for which Stoke-on-Trent is famous – resulting in the family vacating the grand home. When nobody wanted to take the estate off his hands, the 4th Duke of Sutherland committed an act of great vandalism in 1912 and had most of the house demolished. Why? Many must have asked that question down the years.

Why? The remains of the original house

St Modwen Properties certainly must have asked that question when they took over the property in 1996 and declared a brave mission statement:

“Regenerate and restore the historic Estate and gardens turning it into a premier tourist and leisure destination of national significance.” 

The shopping village – Swiss chalet naff?

Those plans included extensive gardens, monkeys, a luxury hotel on the site of the original house (yet to materialise) and a whole lot more. Are they on track? They sure are. Moving from the well-filled carpark, you first encounter the retail village. True, it is what I might describe as ‘Swiss chalet naff’ in style but it appears to pull the punters and I bet the main street retailers hate it. We are not good shoppers so we passed through quickly.

The Italian terraces where the main plantings are by Tom Stuart-Smith

We were there to see the Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf gardens and then we found there were extensive new plantings by Nigel Dunnett. Three modern stars of the gardening scene is pretty good. And add in the David Austin rose border to make it four stars. But if ever there was a destination that fitted the “but wait there is more” descriptor, it is Trentham. There are summer concerts (see my footnote *). We did not go to the Monkey Forest (with real monkeys). Nor did we find the maze or the show gardens or go on the model railway. We should have taken the boat ride because the walk around the lake was closed for some reason so we could not get access to all the new Dunnett plantings. But honestly, there is enough there in the gardens around the site of the old house to keep most of us happy.

Looking across the Stuart-Smith plantings to a surviving original gateway

Tom Stuart-Smith planting

Put briefly, Tom Stuart-Smith has been given free rein on the original Italianate terraces. The planting is typical of his signature style that we have seen – big, bold and handsome combinations. The phlomis, Stipa gigantea, eryngiums, geraniums, tall campanulas and thalictrum all  come to mind at this time of the year. We saw his beautiful terraces at Mount St John in Yorkshire a few years ago and the Trentham plantings are in a similar mode but on a much bigger scale. The earlier photos I had seen of the Trentham terraces had looked a bit bitsy but these have matured to generous plantings that envelop the visitor.

More signature Oudolf than “Floral Labyrinth” and we were a little too early in the season to see its full glory

The Piet Oudolf gardens are styled as the “Floral Labyrinth” – do I detect the earnest hand of the marketing wing of Trentham in that name? Stylistically, they were similar to his work we saw at Pensthorpe in Norfolk on our last visit. Mark describes it as Gertrude Jekyll on steroids – carefully composed clumps of large perennials which will hold themselves up and not require ongoing dead heading, knitted together in a harmonious flow. When I say large, I mean a fair swag of them are shoulder or head height but no taller and a clump may be more than two metres across. We were just a little early for the full glory of peak flower but the veronicastrum and geraniums were lovely and there was plenty of other interest.

Piet Oudolf’s “Rivers of Grass” at Trentham

The Rivers of Grass were charming in a much lower key way. I deduced these were also the work of Piet Oudolf because there is a similarity to the meadow at Bury Court so I was pleased to be proven correct on that. Then I realised that Scampston in Yorkshire also has its Oudolf drifts of grass, though I was unconvinced by that one in a more rigid layout. All seem to use molinia which has a shimmering quality, seen at its best at Trentham on the day we were there, with the subtle inclusion of other flowering plants to add richness.

Dunnett at Trentham

More Dunnett and his Sheffield team at Trentham

The newest plantings are those of Nigel Dunnett and his Sheffield team. The photos tell the story. These are so fresh and deceptively simple. Just a joy. It is the first time I have seen a Sheffield planting that is so tightly colour-toned as the blue border. Consumer demand? Further round the lake, I understand it is more woodland which would have been interesting had the path not been closed because we have only seen Sheffield plantings in full sun so far. What a delight they are. I see their branding is as “Pictorial Meadows” which seems an appropriate descriptor.

The ‘Upper Flower Garden” – oops

What is really interesting on this massive project is that a private business has looked to some of the top designers and practitioners working in the field of contemporary landscape, design and gardening to turn a very old site into a modern attraction. We are lucky indeed that St Modwen, as owners of Trentham, had the vision to go well beyond the obvious Victorian bedding plant tradition. It is a brave decision. If you are looking at a mass market, the reality is that the average Joe or Josie Public is going to be quite happy with bedding plants of the floral clock genre – lots of tidy colour planted in patterns. These are not entirely lacking at Trentham, as witness the “Upper Flower Garden”. I raised my eyebrows at these but I bet poor old Tom Stuart-Smith has to avert his eyes in horror when he stands on this top terrace to get a long view of his plantings out to the lake. But in the hands of a less visionary investment company, this could have been the story of the entire place.

My photos are entirely ‘of the day’ – a snapshot in time. When top-flight plantspeople are given free rein, they are not planting for a small window of time. These are plantings that are designed to take the gardens through the seasons, or at least three seasons from spring bulbs through to autumn colour with a more static picture of winter rest. This is a high level skill but never more so than in public plantings predominantly of perennials, where one planting must gently age and fade gracefully as the next wave of plants takes over. Which is to say that should you visit a month or two months later, the gardens may look very different but should still look as if they are at or close to their peak.

There is a really complex entry charge system, depending on which areas you want to visit (the gardens count as one area). Goodness me, you can even use Tesco Clubcard vouchers (Tesco being a supermarket chain). It is worth looking on line – I found a two for one weekday voucher there though I then felt a bit mean when I used it.

Postscript *I do not want to overstate the evening concerts. In fact I looked at the programme boards and wondered if it was just the one contracted band in different guises. The amphitheatre stage was but modest. Maybe they are catering to a specific local demographic, this year at least? On our last visit we saw Hatfield House in London preparing for a major concert. U2? Or was it UB40? I have waited three years to use my photo of the portaloos at Hatfield. Trentham is not trying that scale of concert at this stage but give them time. I am sure they will be looking at it for feasibility and profitability.

Portaloos at Hatfield House in 2014

Because I had many more photos than I could use on this post, I have added an album on Facebook.

Modern directions in perennial planting patterns

Hampstead Heath1) Confining planting to geometric blocks (Mondrian-style perhaps, for students of art), has been evident in show gardens in recent years but has now become mainstream. This is a new planting on Hampstead Heath, done by the public authorities. The sharp lines will blur over time. It is a shame about the buxus blight that is already evident. A different clipped shrub may have been a better choice.
Wisley2) Piet Oudolf’s rivers of colour in the modern borders at Wisley have been controversial since they were planted in 2000, but we think they are glorious. They also take much less labour to maintain than the traditional twin herbaceous borders. Each ribbon of colour has about four different plants in it and the colours will change through the season. You need to be able to look up or look down on this type of planting (or both). Viewed on the flat, you would not see the diagonal effect.
A river effect3) Less ambitious may be to snake a river of one perennial through clumping plantings. In this case it is an erigeron daisy but I have already done it in my own garden with irises (the blue sibirican ones and also Higo iris). A river effect alters the dynamic of big, round clumps of plants or can give some visual unity to an otherwise disorganised planting.
Tom Stuart Smith4) Big generous clumps of perennial plants, each standing in its own space, are one of the hallmarks of the New Perennials Style that has been widely adopted in modern UK and northern European gardens. This is a private garden, the work of British designer, Tom Stuart Smith. It takes a big area to carry out well. Each plant is occupying an area at least a metre across, sometimes more. Clipped shrubs act as punctuation points.
Dorset garden5) The classic cottage garden mix and match style is harder to manage than it looks if you are determined to keep both a succession of flowers and good coverage – to avoid bare patches – throughout the warmer months. This is in a Dorset garden owned by a good gardener. In lesser hands, it can become a hodge podge with bare bits and small plants of potted colour added in an effort to fill in the gaps.
Gresgarth, near Lancaster6) The classic twin herbaceous borders adapted to a more personalised, private garden (in this case Gresgarth, near Lancaster) by breaking up the expanse into shorter sections using clipped hedging in battlement style and strategic topiary. In line with modern expectations, planting is now deliberately colour-toned and separate sections allow the colour palettes to be kept apart. The effect is deliberately refined.
007 - Copy7) Grasses! Grasses! More grasses! And many meadows, let alone prairie plantings. No discussion about modern perennials is complete with referencing these major trends. These deserve attention in greater detail and are part of a bigger picture of focussing on more environmentally friendly approaches to gardening.

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