Tag Archives: prairie gardening

Glitter gardening (may not be quite what you think)

Two weeks and the foundation plants are all in the new Court Garden

“Now you can add the glitter,” Mark said when I proudly announced that I had finished planting the new Court Garden. It has been something of a marathon effort on my part. “What glitter?” I replied defensively, telling him I had put in assorted flowering plants. “Flowers like echinaceas and narcissi,” he said. After all it is to have a prairie look (albeit a prairie on steroids, somewhat styled into waves).

This was food for thought. I rejected the idea of echinacea. The Court Garden is flanked on one side by the twin, herbaceous borders and on the other by the lily border and the unromantically- named caterpillar garden. Over a glass of wine last Friday, Mark declared: “We don’t have garden rooms. We have galleries.” He was taking the mickey, of course. We certainly don’t have garden rooms but I wrote down the galleries because I feared the wine may dull our memories. It seemed a good description of this new garden – a main area with side galleries.

Lots of miscanthus – magical in autumn when back-lit. All our miscanthus descend from a single specimen which used to live in the Iolanthe garden.

In planning the new plantings, one of my ruling principles has been to use different plants in the different areas so they don’t all look the same over time. And echinaceas are a big feature in the twin borders so I didn’t want to repeat them. At this stage, there are only two plants that feature in both the borders and the Court Garden (miscanthus and the giant Albuca nelsonii) and I want to keep it that way. Nor did I plan to plant bulbs through the Court Garden. My vision is big, bold, immersive and generally low maintenance.

My restraint and resolve lasted precisely the two weeks it took to plant the Court Garden. Keeping to about 26 different plants may not seem restrained by some modern landscapers’ standards but it is extremely restrained by ours. In this we are not alone. Mark pointed out that Piet Oudolf’s planting plans can be astonishingly complex when you see his plant lists.

I am figuring that the Court Garden will be looking well furnished by next summer and autumn and starting to hit its peak by the following summer. Having looked at the grass garden at Bury Court, I also expect that over time, the grasses will dominate and crowd out the flowering plants. And I am fine with that. It will be survival of the strongest which means that at least some of the flowering options are short term only. This is not an area for choice treasures that need nurturing and attention to keep them going.

After all, what is lovelier than Lilium formasanum with a backdrop of miscanthus?

But in the interim, I decided that there is no reason why I can’t add plants that will perform and delight even if it is only for a few years. Yesterday, I added some of the autumn flowering Lilium formasanum because it looks so lovely flowering against miscanthus. And a daisy that I am told came from Bev McConnell’s meadow. Now I am wondering about adding dwarf narcissi. We have some trays of bulbs that are already well represented in the wider garden so these surplus are meant to be going down into the park meadow where they may, or may not, thrive.  Maybe they could flesh out the Court Garden in its early years instead. They can be the glitter Mark was envisaging.

I used to feel a bit defensive about loving ornamental plants. First we saw the native purist wave – “I will only plant natives. That is not a native, is it?” (said sniffily). Then there was the edibles wave. “Everything in my garden has to be edible or medicinal.” Or worse – and this is what I actually heard proclaimed by a doomsday prepper in Egmont Village – “In this day and age, anybody who plants a tree that is neither fruit or nut or plants that are not edible is a fool.” Apparently hard times and food wars are coming sooner rather than later. But what about feeding the soul with the beauty of a magnolia in full bloom, I wanted to say.

Now we know that the ornamentals are what feed the bees that we need to pollinate food crops. We understand far more about the need to maintain healthy eco-systems. A row of brassicas and a mandarin tree may feed the stomach but their contribution to the health of the environment is minimal. It is not just aesthetics – although a dwarf apple tree is never likely to ever take your breath away with its beauty.  It is about working with nature, furnishing the environment, feeding not just the birds and the bees but all other lesser appreciated insects and animals of a healthy eco-system. And it is about feeding the soul.

Good gardening is about a whole lot more than just feeding the human body, creating pretty pictures or improving real estate investments. It always has been but it has probably never been more important than it is now.

We have plenty of Macleaya cordata but my best photos of it are from Bury Court. Sadly, we lack oast houses here at Tikorangi.

 

For any readers who like plant lists, below is the initial planting from the Court Garden.

Key grasses and others planted in waves:

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

Chionochloa rubra

Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’

Stipa gigantea

Elegia capensis

Astelia chathamica

Chionochloa flavicans

Albuca nelsonii

Other foundation plants:

Curculigo recurvata

Doryanthes palmeri

Austroderia fulvida (North Island toe toe – the only plants I needed to buy in)

5 different phormiums in red and black (‘coloured flaxes’ as we call them in NZ) Only two still had labels on them – ‘Black Rage’ (who named that one?) and ‘Pink Delight’ though all will be named forms.

A random large growing reed

Flowering perennials

Not so much glitter as flowering thugs difficult to accommodate elsewhere but worth a place where they can compete on more or less equal terms

Foxgloves in white and pale apricot

Nicotiania (sylvestris, I think it is)

Verbascum creticum

Fennel

Verbena bonariensis

Salvia confertiflora, and two other very large salvias that I have yet to find the correct names for

Macleaya cordata (plume poppy)

The Missouri Meadow in 2009, 2014 and 2017 (Part 3 of observations on the Sheffield School genre)

The Missouri Meadow in 2009

No discussion on the Sheffield School is complete with the Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. This is the work of Professor James Hitchmough. We first saw it in late June 2009 and it was an absolute highlight of that trip for us. A joy. Inspiring.

The planting was started from seed sown in 2008 so we saw it in its second year. The selected mix had a heavy focus on North American perennials, hence the Missouri reference. It was still low growing and relatively sparse with gravel mulch. It was also completely different to its adjacent plantings – the Tom Stuart-Smith perennial beds that face the glasshouse directly across the lake and the Piet Oudolf twin borders up the slope. That distinction was a defining character of the area.

And again at the same time of the year in 2014

We next saw it five years later in the same month of the year in 2014. It had matured, changed. The juvenile charm had gone but it was still meadow-like with lots of variety and bloom. The demarcation lines had begun to blur as some plants formed sizeable clumps so it was not as clear where the Missouri Meadow ended and the Stuart-Smith plantings started. I think most of the echinaceas had gone. Ain’t that just the way? I don’t feel so bad about our failures to get them established as permanent plants.

And in 2017

Looking at the photos, I think there are lessons to be learned in  terms of the outcome of a very laissex faire maintenance regime. Meadow it may be but whether this is the meadow effect that is wanted is something else altogether. Also the growth habits of the different perennial plants has a major impact Where plants form solid, vase-shaped clumps, such as the day lily and red hot pokers (hemerocallis and kniphofia), over time they morph into a more traditional herbaceous planting where they will dominate more ephemeral plants and choke them out. Plants which gently spread, rather than clump, like the geraniums and achilleas, retain more of a meadow feel in the longer term. Many of these are quite shallow-rooted so they can get out-competed by more determined neighbours. I am no longer clear where the meadow planting by Hitchmough meets the perennial planting of Stuart-Smith so I am only guessing that the kniphofia may be the former and the hemerocallis the latter.

 

2009

2014

Three years on, we were looking forward to seeing the Missouri Meadow again in 2017. Same time of the year (note to self: it is time I booked these trips at a different time of the year). One-Who-Knows warned us that we may be disappointed. I would say more interested, than disappointed.

It wasn’t ALL like this in 2017, but there was enough of it to be a worry

Most of it was no longer a visual delight, though it may well be eyecatching for a few weeks when the aster flowers, turning it into a sea of blue. I am deducing it is A. oolentangiensis, as named on the display board, that has colonised the largest area and is on track to smother everything else out. It would seem a problem for Wisley staff in that they cannot continue to leave the area to evolve because it is in a prominent location, taking up substantial space. Garden visitors are more likely to judge on immediate appearances than take an interest in the evolution of a naturalistic planting. The inclusion of this aster in the original mix appears not to have been a good long-term decision for the conditions and climate at Wisley. I wonder if it has been dropped from subsequent seed mixes from the Sheffield School?

Of course there is trial and error in this new wave gardening and that is one of the roles taken on by the Royal Horticultural Society in collaboration with others. Mark observed that the whole area had been in for nine years, requiring very few resources and, seemingly, little maintenance. If it needs a major reworking once a decade, that is still a lot less input than more traditional perennial plantings in herbaceous borders.

As I understand it, the aim of the Sheffield School is to create self-sustaining eco-systems that don’t require even that level of intervention. It will be interesting to see whether the higher proportion of grasses at Olympic Park overwhelm the pretty perennials over time or whether the current balance is maintained. The extensive recent plantings by Hitchmough’s colleague, Nigel Dunnett, at Trentham Park are currently at the show stopping stage of gorgeousness. More on these in a post to come. No doubt the experience gained from the Missouri Meadow will have been applied to these newer plantings in some way or another. And we will continue to follow with interest what the Wisley staff decide to do with their earlier example of a managed meadow of predominantly American perennials.

The Dunnett plantings at Trentham Gardens are like a pointillist painting from the Impressionist era at this time

There is a quandary in gardening: when you have a style that looks its most appealing and delightful when juvenile, do you commit to returning that area to its juvenility from time to time in the ongoing attempt to recapture the charm? Wisley is not alone in having that problem. I see domestic gardeners do it all the time – hacking back shrubs like azaleas and camellias to ground level to encourage them to “come again” amongst other examples of gardening brutalism. We lean more to celebrating maturity and moving on, probably in life as well as gardening.

Will the Missouri Meadow be developed further or should it be wiped and resown to achieve that early charm again?

Naturalism or prairie-style at Olympic Park (part 2 on the Sheffield School of planting)

From Dunnett at the Barbican, we went on to Olympic Park – the site of the 2012 London Olympics. There was quite a lot of media coverage at the time and everything I read praised the Hitchmough and Dunnett plantings which were strongly naturalistic and meadow in style. I can’t think why we didn’t go and see it when we were over in 2014 so I was determined to get there this time. The perennial plantings presumably went in some time in 2011 to allow them to get established so they must be in the sixth year by now. Some may even have gone in a year earlier. Most of it will have been done from seed. Given this is an expansive area undergoing repurposing after the Olympic hype, I deduced that maintenance of the plantings would be minimal at best. What would survive under a laissez-faire regime?

A prairie! Almost. Maybe. Though I admit I have never seen a genuine prairie. I think of early summer meadows as lush and green. These were more white and golden with a heavy population of grasses already in flower and seed and perennials that have naturalised within the environment. I bet a lot has been lost since 2012, but there are lessons to be learned in what can cope within this competitive environment. The charm within the detail was a delight.

Would NZers accept this as a naturalistic eco-system? I doubt it.

Alas, I am not sure that New Zealanders would accept this as urban landscaping. The cries to mow the rank, long grass may be too loud. We are still mired back in the suburban values of short, mown, green grass with tidy edges and tidy, colourful bedding in amenity planting. If it can’t be mown, then too often it is sprayed. There is a brave new world awaiting us out there. One where the input costs are much lower, the maintenance requirements minimised and where the environmental contribution is hugely greater. It just needs us to take off our judgemental glasses where the managed environment is judged in terms of “tidiness”, to look instead at Nature.

Just a sampling of flowers from one small area

My heart will never sing at the sight of sprayed edges, mown grass and bedding plants, be they in rows, blocks or circles. But we exclaimed in delight as we wandered the areas around Olympic Park. I started gathering the flowers from one area, just to see how big the range was. The hollyhock block I wrote about earlier was on the perimeter of these plantings.

I am guessing that these areas are subject to a very light maintenance regime – probably strimming them back to the ground in winter and I doubt that much of the resulting straw waste is removed. They are not irrigated at all. But I did figure that litter must be removed from time to time because there was not a huge and unsightly build-up of rubbish in the growth.

The colour-toned woman in the sari was serendipity at the playground area

The areas of generous perennial plantings around the playground area were more intensively maintained and visibly ‘gardened’ as is appropriate for the most intensively used areas. Even these were contemporary in style and concept, away from the old-fashioned bedding plant genre.

The work of the Sheffield School concentrates on environmentally friendly plantings which can be achieved for hugely lower costs than more traditional approaches. They are not alone in this position and the acceptance of the need to work with nature, not to bend it and control it to human will seems to be widespread in the UK. A friend tells me much of Regent’s Park is now wide mown paths through meadow land and we have seen similar changes within the Hampstead Heath green belt. There is much to learn for New Zealand but it will be a brave local council that leads the charge.

Again, I have posted additional photos of the Olympic Park area on Facebook.

A modern French garden – Le Jardin Plume

The wave hedges at Le Jardin Plume

The surrounding countryside

Le Jardin Plume is a contemporary French garden located about 30 minutes drive from Rouen. To reach it requires driving through flat agricultural land of that area of Normandy, which fascinated us because such land use does not involve fencing. While this is industrial scale cropping, it has a summer charm that our grazing land lacks. I guess you don’t have to fence when the greatest threat is the naughty prime minister across the Channel.

The garden itself is also flat. Very flat, really. The areas closest to the house and allied buildings are intensively planted in a riot of bright summer blooms and foliage, mostly within the constraints of the tightly clipped hedges. Moving beyond that, on the site of an old apple orchard is the modern take on traditional French parterres. Blocks of grassy meadow are defined by tightly mown lawn walkways on an expansive scale across the seven acres. Le Jardin Plume means the feather garden, as evoked by the waving grasses, especially when they go to flower and seed.

Sharp clipping gives definition and contrast to the looser plantings

The garden relies on sharp, clipped green walls to give it structure and very effective that is, too. The wave hedge certainly seems appropriate to what is a new wave garden. It was as wonderful in life as it is in the photographs. There is very little hard landscaping in permanent materials. Arguably, this adds to the charm because there is a softness and energy to the garden that reflects the use of living materials.

Plumes of veronicastrum

Contained within the wave hedging are graceful, tall perennials like veronicastrum, thalictrum and sanguisorbia along with the invaluable grass, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’. I particularly like the tracery of these tall plants against the sky and the feeling of walking midst soft, perennial plants that are taller than me. That is one of the advantages of a flat garden – easier framing of the view against the sky. In a world where we have seen the production of ever more compact and dwarf bedding plants best suited to floral clocks, these are like the anti-bedding plant brigade of the perennial world.

The parterres of meadow

Out in the meadow ‘parterres’, the plantings are lower and more naturalistic. Some folk don’t like this whole meadow genre but we do. In spring there are bulbs. In summer, the charms lie in the soft movement and the somewhat random detail of additional plants. Added to that, there is another layer of interest in the wildlife. These areas are teeming with butterflies, bees and a host of lesser admired insect life. They are sustainable eco-systems and this planet needs a whole lot of them. In autumn, the grasses turn golden and seed heads will become a feature before being cut down just the once each year, in October.

Our daughter in the transient white garden at Le Jardin Plume

The informal avenue of tall white perennials must be a transient delight but a delight it was. The perennial is Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ (also known as Chamaenerion angustifolium) but North Americans may know it better as the white form of fireweed while the British call it rosebay willowherb. Small gardens have to work harder throughout the year, but large gardens can accommodate such short term displays of frivolity, if the gardener so decides.

I don’t know if the owners ever ponder the longer term future of their garden (though I would be surprised if they do not). Le Jardin Plume is, I would suggest a garden of our modern times. But if you look at what makes a garden endure down the generations and into subsequent centuries, it is usually the immutable hard landscaping and the handsome long-term trees, along with a notable history and fine, historic buildings. Le Jardin Plume has none of these and is not a big budget garden. None of this is a criticism in any way. Rather, it is a celebration of what can be achieved with vision, enthusiasm, knowledge and hard work even though it is probably a one or two generation garden at most.

Hand weeding the American grass squares

Maybe it was that we identified with the owners, Patrick and Sylvie Quibel, that made us particularly receptive to this garden. We realised quite early on that we were looking at a private garden created by a couple, managed with minimal assistance (I think there is just the one extra pair of hands and we saw him hand weeding), supported by a small nursery adjacent to the garden. Mme Quibel did not speak English and my spoken French is not up to conversational standards, but I would bet money that their hearts are in the garden and the nursery is just a means to an end. It felt like meeting the French equivalent of ourselves and we identified with their endeavours.

Mme Sylvie Quibel – I wished my French was up to a proper conversation

We could not identify with the heat. It was very hot on the day we visited. From there, we drove to Vimoutiers and by the time we reached there, the thermometer outside the pharmacy read 40 degrees. I can assure you that it never gets anywhere near that hot at home. Even the camembert cheese on our evening platter melted before our very eyes.

How pretty is this? The French do that shabby chic look better than anywhere else I have seen.

I have read reviews of this garden which praise this ground level pool that leads the eye out to the expanse of meadow parterres. We all come with different preconceived ideas and I admit I looked at it, admired the form but was worried by the water quality.