Colour! by Nigel Dunnett.

December 22, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

Ever since the Popes (remember them? Hadspen?) foretold in 1999 that colour would be the big thing in the new century, colour has been perhaps the least considered aspect of garden design among thinkingardeners and their ilk. Though I confess that, unrepentant, it has probably actually been one of my prime considerations in beds and borders.

My other unforgivable being that structure, hoar frost and fashion nothwithstanding, my winter borders are not standing. I love the fresh effect of cutting everything down and exposing the structures.(hedges)

And here, at last, is a major voice drawing our attention to the glories of colour. And much else:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Nigel Dunnett, Olympic hero. From his blog, with his kind permission.

Happy Christmas and a wonderful new year everyone!

Anne Wareham portrait copyright Charles Hawes





Nigel Dunnett:

Some time ago, I developed two statements that capture my philosophy, and which are the basis and the driving force for my work. I call them my ‘slogans’ or ‘catchphrases’, and they bring together a very wide range of research, design, teaching, and practice activity. They are:

  • Planting Design is an art form, tuned to nature
  • Planting Design is an essential, creating healthy cities and livable places

Planting Design as an Art Form.

From as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by the wild; by the experience of nature. It’s an emotional response. Some of my earliest memories are of being in beautiful flowering meadows, or woodlands in the spring full of wildflowers, and it’s these more intimate or human-scale associations that perhaps made a stronger impression than big dramatic wide landscapes and scenery. That emotional response was, and is, strongly positive: provoking hugely uplifting and joyful feelings.

So I came into this, as a teenager, from an aesthetic viewpoint. But I was equally fascinated by the mechanics of nature – not from a sterile and purely scientific viewpoint, but much more from a wonder at the power, dynamics, and change over time of beautiful natural vegetation – from week to week, month to month, year to year, and how it all fitted together as a complete system.

At the same time, as a teenager and earlier, I was passionate about gardens and garden plants, and was lucky enough to have my own patch to play around with and experiment on. But I began to feel that even the most famous and historic of gardens and designed landscapes just didn’t give me those same powerful emotional experiences as a dramatic ‘natural’ flowering landscape.

So, much of my work has been about investigating ways and means of generating those same powerful emotional responses within designed landscapes, using dramatic and beautiful planting as the starting point. That’s why I call it an art form, because it is about human emotions first and foremost. And that’s why, for example, I made the name, and founded the company of, ‘Pictorial Meadows’, because it comes from an aesthetic starting point.

The framing of planting design as an art form is vital because it is so often seen as a purely functional thing, as a means of filling or separating space. Or, there can be an equal tendency for it to become dominated by technical discussions of the science and mechanics of planting establishment, maintenance and management. But, at its most considered, it needs to be seen as equal to any other artistic medium.

Within the field of naturalism and planting design there has been a tendency to focus on structure and form (Piet Oudolf’s famous comment that the way to judge the value of a plant is how it looks when it is dead in winter is perhaps the ultimate expression of this), and to disregard colour as a starting point. Partly this is the natural tendency of all new(ish) movements to reject what came before them, and in this case, the English tradition of colour theory and plant association.

In contrast, I have always taken a careful consideration of colour as my starting point, and feel that a combination of colour theory and naturalism takes things to another level. The opportunity to bring vibrant colour into naturalistic planting design for the London Olympic Park in 2012 allowed millions of visitors to experience it first-hand. In many ways, I see my evolving approach to planting design as being a radical evolution of the ‘painterly’ English tradition of, for example, Gertrude Jekyll, rather than a revolutionary departure from it. I have become increasingly interested in the idea of ‘pixelation’ as the means of conveying and expressing this mix of colour, art and ecology in planting design.

Copyright Nigel Dunnett

Beautiful and dramatic wildflower meadow, China. It’s not just the individual species that inspire me here, it’s as much about the patterns and colours, how they interact, and how an ecological system such as this changes over time.

Copyright Nigel Dunnett

The new meadow garden at Trentham Gardens captures some of this same essence of colours and patterns. Design Nigel Dunnett.


Copyright Nigel Dunnet

Consideration of colour, and continuous change over time, is at the forefront of the designs for the new large-scale replanting of The Barbican, London. Design Nigel Dunnett


Copyright Nigel Dunnet

Copyright Nigel Dunnet

Pixellation is a new way to consider the aesthetics and colours of naturalistic planting design

Copyright Nigel Dunnet

Courtesy of BBC

Copyright Nigel Dunnet

The Olympic Meadows brought vibrant, naturalistic colour directly to a visiting public of 5 million people during the games. Seed mix formulation: Nigel Dunnett


Pic 8 Copyright Nigel Dunnet

Planting Design as an Essential

Unfortunately, planting design (and perhaps landscape more widely) has been seen as a decorative add-on; a cosmetic element that (to use a dreadful phrase) softens built development. It’s a ‘nice’ thing to have.

For the last fifteen years I have sought to promote a very different viewpoint: that rather than being an add-on at the end, it is actually the essential starting point. And that, rather than being something that is perhaps considered to be a bit frivolous, it is in fact something that is deadly serious.

And I also wanted to take the ideas of exciting planting design and to extend them from traditional applications (the park, the garden, and other forms of ‘greenspace’) to new and challenging applications in the heart of the modern city. In other words, to open up new possibilities, opportunities, and markets, for horticulture and creative ecological design.

That’s why, early on, I saw the opportunity to apply all these ideas in the green roof sector, and subsequently with rain gardens and SUDS (sustainable drainage systems) & water-sensitive design. My starting point has always been that, if we are serious about dealing with the challenges of urbanization and climate change, then we have to find ways of putting nature, soils, vegetation and plants back into cities.

And that doing it in parks, gardens and ‘greenspace’ is not enough: we have to be radical, innovative and revolutionary. Hence the additional focus on rooftops, walls, pavements, car parks, streets, business parks and commercial development.

Image courtesy of the BBC

Image courtesy of the BBC

Much of this has traditionally been seen as the realm of the engineer and ecologist. Although based on vegetation and nature, notions of aesthetics and design  (or anything that didn’t conform to a rigid and doctrinaire ecological orthodoxy) didn’t really come into it.

This was all before the terms ‘ecosystem services’ or ‘green infrastructure’ had even been invented or brought into widespread use, but I saw that there was a huge opportunity for landscape architects and horticulturists to take a lead in this aspect of urban design. The setting up of ‘The Green Roof Centre’, and the associated partnerships with policy makers and industry, and the playing out of ideas and concepts through real demonstration projects on the ground (or the roof!) set the model by which I still mostly work today. It was also the starting point for the Pictorial Meadows idea.

To be honest, this has been hard work, because it has involved battling through a whole range of entrenched ideas and special interest groups to bring a different perspective to the notion, content and form of urban green infrastructure. However, there is now a sense that this wider perspective is starting to become the mainstream. This is why I have been so active at bringing these ideas into the wider public imagination, through show garden designs at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and latterly at the 2015 RHS Hampton Court flower show, with the BBC and RHS sponsored ‘Greening Grey Britain’ garden.

copyright Nigel Dunnett

Pictorial Seed Mixes – I started this company in 2003 to make meadow-like landscapes achievable in a wide range of contexts. Seed mix formulations by Nigel Dunnett

Copyright Nigel Dunnett

To return to the starting point, and my two ‘catchphrases’. While they might seem different, they are actually totally linked together. I believe it is possible to provoke that deep positive emotional response in people through naturalistic planting design; that it has an immeasurable potential to improve people’s lives and living environments, and that it can be considered artful in its highest form.

But I also believe that this must, and eventually will, become a fundamental starting point of the consideration of urban design, and that by applying this artful and aesthetic approach to the sorts of large and small scale infrastructure projects that our cities will need for true climate-change adaptation, then we have to think hard about their visual appearance and quality. And this fundamentally comes down to planting design.

A high-profile current example is the large-scale replanting scheme that I have been working on at The Barbican, London, replacing traditional, water-dependent urban landscape of lawns, bedding plants and shrubs with steppe-type perennial plantings requiring little or no irrigation, is a case in point. The fact that what results might appear to be radically different from the accepted norm of how the urban public realm appears is a whole new story in itself.

Copyright Nigel Dunnett

The green roof at Moorgate Crofts, Rotherham (2005) was an early application of ‘steppe’ type perennial planting to a green roof situation. Design Nigel Dunnett

Copyright Nigel Dunnett

The new rain garden at the head offices of the John Lewis Partnership is central London’s first street-side rain garden, and requires a very different planting design approach to the usual green infrastructure ideas. Design: Nigel Dunnett

Copyright Nigel Dunnett

Part of the 2015 RHS Hampton Court ‘Greening Grey Britain’ garden, with street rain gardens, green roof shelters, and biodiversity and habitat installations. Design Nigel Dunnett

Professor Nigel Dunnett

Grow Wild, Love Sq, Sheffield.Pictured, Nigel Dunnett, Prof. Landscape Design, Uni. of Sheffield.


First published in the Sheffield Landscape Architecture’s blog, reproduced here with the kind permission of Nigel Dunnett.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Spencer December 27, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Thanks for forwarding such a thoughtful reply to my points, Anne.

I most definitely share the view that it’s the processes of life, decay and death that make for a deeper experience of planting design – colour can be a definite highpoint in that cycle but it’s one chapter in a greater story.

I recently posted a requiem to death in the garden and it makes my point with equal parts humour and poetry. Forgive the link:


annewareham December 27, 2015 at 6:33 pm

It’s a great piece but it made me laugh. Our soggy mud patch is never quite like that in decay!


annewareham December 27, 2015 at 2:39 pm

A comment from John Sales via email to me:
COLOUR| by Nigel Dunnett,

Over the years I have admired the work of Nigel and his colleagues at Sheffield, who have opened new chapters in the way landscape, horticulture and design interrelate in the real world. While fully accepting Nigel’s two philosophical principles, I strongly believe that ultimately it is experiencing the miraculous processes of germination, propagation, development, maturity and decay that provide the real emotional response.

Yes, of course planting design is an art form but not an end in itself. It is what we experience out there by sight, smell and touch that provides the emotional response and that counts. If we are involved in the process as designer or gardener, or even as constant observer, the creative satisfaction can be deeper and more continuous. The stunning photograph of a “wildflower” meadow “at its best” is merely part of the story; true satisfaction comes from experiencing the whole process from birth, enjoying the struggle to its glorious climax and then on to inevitable senescence or dormancy.

Like many gardeners, it was this sense of creativity that first hooked me, as a child, and I have always been fascinated by the process on all levels – scientific, technological, aesthetic and I believe spiritual – because they are inseparable. So many people’s understanding of gardens seems limited to ideas of the picturesque i.e contrived views (almost invariably photographed) at a particular time and place; the arrogance of writers in judging gardens by a single visit always astonishes me. Fully to enjoy any serious garden obviously requires repeated visits in different seasons and weather conditions because it is impossible to appreciate process at a glance.

This is most acute in the greatest of our flower gardens like Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, which are constantly being adjusted day-to-day, week- to – week and year- to – year, re-creating the art work. Flower gardens have much in common with performance art as well as design, colour theory, plant knowledge and horticulture.

Yes, structure is important but is frequently over-stressed, especially by people of an architectural persuasion, whose aesthetic stops short of understanding change. “Instant” landscapes and exhibition-style schemes, which ignore the interesting challenges and effects of development, inter-reaction, upkeep and decay are the all-too-common outcome of this blinkered generation of designers.

But if one looks more widely at the world of visual arts (not that gardens are only visual) there seems to be distinct signs of flexibility creeping in. Sculpture now firmly recognises that the interaction of objects with their environment (e.g Anthony Gormley), including climatic and staged events, random change and decay have a part to play in art; even development is being embraced (by David Nash).

Similarly the evidence of the effects of long-term upkeep of woody plants in a certain style, such as ancient tree pollards or continuously clipped hedges (as at Powis Castle) are at last being valued as art forms by those who have the eyes to appreciate them. The extraordinary response to the massed memorial poppies at the Tower of London, widely recognised as an important art installation, has much in common with Nigel Dunnett’s work. Both are ephemeral, both have huge popular appeal but one is alive and the other is dead. Are they not two sides of the same coin? Have we not come full circle where, at its best, gardening must be regarded as an important hybrid art form in its own right?

John Sales


Tony Spencer December 23, 2015 at 4:59 pm

In my view, certainly the New Perennial movement considers colour to be a tertiary (yet vital) element in planting design. And yes, this was originally an outright rejection of pretty English decorative styles which had become the mainstream.

Nigel Dunnett is a true innovator and certainly is evolving the naturalistic English approach – especially in terms of context: i.e. median strip and green roof plantings. But does the renewed focus on colour then signal a leap ahead to the “next level” as he argues?

Well, if we’re talking about planting design as an art form – to use a painterly analogy, I find Nigel’s’ designs more akin to Pointillism or Impressionism and they are indeed beautiful, especially en masse. Very much like the Monet posted below and dating from 1900. (That’s an observation not a criticism BTW.)

But much like the shift in modern art from French impressionism in the late 19thC to Fauvism to Cubism — eventually leading to Abstract Expressionism, the visual art forms of painting and sculpture evolved into the realm of the abstract with concept, process, structure, and form clearly in the ascendant.

The Art is the reality of the canvas itself, not what it represents. Colour in put in the service of a far greater vision as per the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hoffman, or Robert Motherwell.

So back to planting design, that’s why I’m more likely to think a focus on colour as being a step back or sideways but not forward. Especially if it omits the haunted palette of senescence and death, which for many of us, is when the plantings are at their most expressive.

A focus on structure, form and texture opens up creative dimensions not possible with a primary focus on colour and all its wheels. But of course as Monet might say, ‘Chacun à son goût’.


Phil Skerritt December 23, 2015 at 2:26 pm

As a Garden Designer myself I am fascinated by your article and views on design and naturalisation and also try to adhere to these principles and interesting theories.


Adam Hodge December 23, 2015 at 1:05 am

Wow this is terrific stuff !


Katherine Crouch December 22, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Interesting. I instantly went to the Pictorial Meadows website to look at the annual mixes. I have some jobs coming up that might benefit from this.


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