Mingle or clump? by Thomas Rainer

October 29, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

This is going to be challenging and interesting, everyone, (get your brains out) and it is just what thinkingardens is for. Recently Thomas Rainer published a post on his excellent blog raising questions in response to Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf’s latest book, Planting, a New Perspective.

I asked him to write us a piece with these questions, and I asked Noel to respond. Both kindly agreed. So the next two posts (Noel’s to follow very soon) comprise this dialogue.

First is Thomas’s challenge.

Anne Wareham, editor

Clearly-legible-patterns-created-by-Blue-Broomsedge-Andropogon-virginicus-var.-glauca-Saw-Palmetto-Seronoa-repens-and-Longleaf-Pine-Pinus-palustris.jpg Thomas rainer for thinkingardens

Clearly legible patterns created by Blue Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus var. glauca) Saw Palmetto (Seronoa repens) and Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)

 Thomas Rainer:

Is intermingling really more ecological? Or just the stylized look of ecology?

Planting design in the last decade has taken a decisive turn toward ecology.  One of the interesting by products of this shift is the rise of mixed plantings in many designed projects.  Piet Oudolf’s work on the Highline in lower Manhattan—now one of the most visited tourist sites in the New York—is a much celebrated example of this trend.  The plantings around the London Olympic Park also use this technique to great effect.

But intermingling plants is not just a design strategy; it is increasingly an ideology. This is most apparent in Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf’s latest book.   ‘Planting: A New Perspective’ is a celebration of the rise of a more intermingled style. Kingsbury has long been an advocate of this mixed planting style, but this latest book positions intermingling as a part of a new international movement. Intermingling is seen not only as a new design trend, but as a way of creating better ecological function. In a recent article in the journal Topos, Kingsbury writes:

Creating intermingling plant combinations, whether aesthetically driven or strictly functional, creates an ecology. In a conventional horticultural planting, plants are discouraged from interacting, but when they do, ecology starts to take over. ” Trends in Planting Design. Topos, 83, 2013

Statements like these raise several questions in my mind: is intermingling really more ecological? Or is it just an aesthetic that imitates ecology? And what about function? Does intermingling plants result in more stable, lower maintenance plantings? Or does it require more intensive gardening to maintain it?

As intermingling becomes increasingly popular, I think it is time to have a robust dialogue about the advantages and disadvantages of mixed planting schemes. I would like to make a few points here.

1. Both intermingled and massed plantings occur in the wild; neither is inherently more natural.

There is a tendency in the literature cited to associate mixed plantings with wild plant communities and naturalism. In a recent blog post, Kingsbury wrote, ” Intermingling is what happens in most natural plant communities. You don’t get a solid mass of plants one here and another one there.”

Actually, I’d argue that solid masses of plants are quite common in natural plant communities.  In fact, as plant communities age, a handful of species tend to dominate. It’s why vegetative ecologists refer to plant communities by the dominant species (Oak-hickory forest, etc.).

Saw Palmetto copyright Thomas Rainer for thinkingardens

Saw Palmetto, massing.

As I write this now, I am looking out a window in a cottage on the American Gulf Coast. Saw palmettos stretch in masses of a half acre or more under a near monoculture of long-leaf pines. It’s stunning and entirely natural. Of course, intermingling is indeed present in most plant communities. Seed-dispersed plants tend to mix themselves with other plantings; clonal plants often create large masses.   Wet, fertile communities are highly competitive and exhibit a high degree of massing; dry, poor soil communities exhibit a high degree of mixing. Neither massing or intermingling is inherently more natural.

When massing is described as that “awful blocky look,” it reveals (to me) more a personal aesthetic preference than a defensible statement about nature. So let’s drop the pejorative language that describes masses of single species as “conventional” or less “natural.”

A population cluster of Liatris paucifolia var secunda Copyright Thomas Rainer for thinkingardens

A population cluster of Liatris paucifolia var secunda

2.  “Ecology is not a value; it is a field of science.”

The term “ecology” is thrown around quite a lot these days, often to describe one type of planting against another.  In a recent email exchange I had with The New York Botanical Garden’s Todd Forrest, he wrote, “Ecology is not a value, it is a field of science.”  He is precisely right. While there are some studies that inform planting design, there is little data to show that one planting strategy is universally more ecological than another. Whether a planting is mixed or massed should not be the standard by which we evaluate ecological quality.

3. Celebrating mixed plantings without discussing its drawbacks has the potential to mislead the uninformed.

My biggest fear when it comes to popularizing mixed plantings is that it will create an abundance of sloppy imitations. Intermingling plants requires a high level of skill and knowledge. It requires an almost intuitive understanding of how plant morphology is related to its competitive strategy—a skill that so few teach, and even fewer understand. A poorly composed intermingled planting (I’ve had more than my share) can be a functional and aesthetic mess.  

In America, many native plant purists have embraced the romantic notion that native plantings should look intentionally un-designed. As a result, there are thousands of miserable-looking native plantings with no discernible design.  For me, these plantings pose a larger threat in that they turn off the larger public from naturalistic design.

Well-designed mixed plantings can be enormously pleasurable; but poorly-designed (or maintained) plantings can send people running to their weedeaters and lawn mowers.  So as we celebrate the potential of mixed plantings, let us make sure we discuss the pitfalls of intermingling. Focusing the conversation on strategies that make mixed plantings more legible and maintainable (matrix planting comes to mind) would benefit us all.

Mixed plantings offer enormous potential for developed landscapes across the world. I personally celebrate Noel Kingsbury’s body of work. No other writer/designer in the English language has done so much to advance our knowledge of naturalistic design. But in our enthusiasm for naturalistic design, let’s not eliminate massings of single species from our toolbox.  Massing may be “conventional,” but in order for designers to create dynamic plantings that can withstand the pressures of urbanization and climate change, we need every compositional tool available.

Thomas Rainer 

Thomas-Rainer portrait    Thomas’s Blog

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Form and Foliage November 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Very interesting post. We’re definitely interminglers, but your point about intermingling being harder to pull off is well-taken. And even when intermingling, we like to include clumps of one particular plant!

Thanks for starting this discussion.

Jack Sequoia Gardens November 1, 2013 at 2:48 pm

From my distant perch in a relatively wild bit of South Africa, many of the issues under discussion are academic and removed. I’ve seen Beth Chatto’s gardens (twice) and relate very strongly to her ‘right plant for the place’ philosophy. To me she intermingles, but seemingly in a rather different way from the New Perennialists. However having never seen any of their gardens in the flesh, I find it difficult to define this difference.
As I understand it, this debate is taking place loosely within the parameters of this movement, which immediately means that discussions of ‘institutional plantings’ which take the easy option of massing are not relevant to the discussion. Or are they? To keep the discussion within the movement is possibly too academic, and many of the responses have strayed from this focus, so here goes…
My first observations of landscaping as a profession in this country mainly related to office parks, shopping malls and filling station forecourts. Massing seemed to be the quickest and least demanding way to fill virgin building sites. I was amazed when it was justified from both an aesthetic (a sort of corrupted ‘less is more’ argument) and an ecological perspective – the latter because indigenous plants were often used.
Could someone please comment: in North America is a native plant one that comes from North America? Or is it local, endemic to the particular area? Here it seems to have more to do with patriotism than ecology, with a plant from a vastly different biome being considered suitable just because it comes from within the geographical space of South Africa. This is one of my pet hates. I WILL use exotics – from other countries and other parts of SA – as long as they are not destructively invasive.
Having said that, there must be 400 plants within a 20km radius of my home (I live in the misty mountains of Limpopo) that I would love to test for garden worthiness, and which are almost unknown to the nursery trade, let alone landscapers. (Or to me.) How they are used, and how they are appreciated, brings us right back to the heart of this discussion (as I understand it from my distant etc.) The magic of the movement lies in the new eyes with which plants are seen, and those eyes are the product of an education which stresses awareness of the ecological, the sustainable, the ‘green’. People who get on the art high horse miss the point. There is art here too in the manipulation of nature. But it is a different art, an aesthetic which cannot consider something beautiful if it is not ecologically responsible.
It seems to me that the ego of the designer – dare I say gardener, as Russell Page meant the term – is too often the dominant part in much design. I believe that the designer needs to see him or herself as the curator, not the creator: it is not ‘look what I have made’ but ‘look what I have gathered together’. Whether you have mingled it or clumped it, or more likely a bit of both, will then not be nearly so important to the critic discussing your achievements.
On two days this past week I went botanising with a true botanist. Which means she can put a name to almost every flower. Not that enviable to me; what I do love is that she has learnt to look so carefully at the wonder of nature’s construction that she can place each plant in a bigger context, and THAT I applaud! In due course I will blog about this adventure, and sometime next year when I plan a garden on a much smaller scale than my present 6ha (15acres) I plan to clump, but mostly to mingle, many of these plants in an attempt to create a truly new and endemic garden within the confines of a suburban plot. And one thing I know for sure: it will not try to ‘look natural’. It will attempt to be suitable, beautiful and manageable. In fact it will also try to be art.

Robin White November 8, 2013 at 5:01 am

Jack – In answer to your question about North America and natives… I am working on a native garden for clients in Los Angeles. We are mostly sticking with California natives and are having debates about whether to include plants that derive from the Channel Islands (off the California coast) because the moist microclimate there is so different there from the drier elevation of Altadena, the specific area we are working in. We have also decided to include a grass that grows at a higher elevation in neighboring Arizona (muhlenbergia dubia) that is similar to, but smaller than, the more common California native (muhlenbergia rigens) – for reasons of aesthetics and scale. It all comes down to why you are choosing natives and what your parameters are. Amercian East Coast natives would certainly not be included when doing a native garden in California. A native garden in northern California would look quite different from one in southern California because the climate is so different.

Hope that helps.

Jim Anderson October 31, 2013 at 10:26 pm

To mingle or to mass. What is the aesthetic you are trying to recreate or be inspired from? The woodland, the prairie, some abstraction? Then you answer will become more self evident. In China they have more botanic variety then anywhere else in the temperate climate, but Chinese gardens usually only use a few common varieties, mainly ones that possess symbolic meaning in their culture. I think our landscapes should hold similar meaning for us. Often this will be based upon our experiences growing up. Perhaps christmas ferns or coneflower holds special meaning, don’t dilute it by hiding them among other plants, exaggerate its importance by planting them in mass perhaps behind a hidden view around a corner of a path.

How do we arrange them depends upon whether we are trying to recreate the feeling of a landscape that is intermingled, ie prairie or one that has plants that seem more separated such as many woodlands. Of course, the aesthetic that the client prefers should be the determining factor. I know many people that love prairie plants in mass but despise the unordered look they perceive when those plants are intermingled.

Cheryl Corson October 31, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Great thread – thanks. There is so much we don’t know, that’s the exciting aspect of collaborations with entomologists and mycologists, etc., when budgets permit. In my case that has not occurred. But when I watch on my own land how bees move from flower to flower, or butterflies congregate on phlox or Eupatorium, or hummingbirds move from one blossom of Hibiscus to another, they seem to like when there is a decent amount of the same thing close together. As for maintenance, we need to separate that term from any connotation of “cleaning,” or else we’re sunk. How to move most landscape ‘maintenance’ companies toward better practices is needed more than ever.

catharinehoward October 31, 2013 at 4:24 pm

This debate is rumbustious – should be a day’s symposium. Mingled v clumping? Well, let’s start with Oudolf himself. The wave shaped blocks of Molinia caerulea at Scampson Hall are pretty good but undoubtedly a clump and a monoculture.

I have not yet seen the Highline or visited Trentham Gardens but Pensthorpe is not far from here and, on looking at a late autumn snap taken a few years back, the memory comes back of looking at blocks of planting.

Kingsbury’s book “Planting: A New Perspective” makes a thorough examination of many of Oudolf’s recent planting plans and talks of matrix planting – repetition of mass plants (good doers) supporting some divas. What comes across good and strong in the script is that you need to know your botany – this is one of Anne’s points. Clumper? Runner? Willful seeder?

I attended a lecture by Hitchmough last year in Olympic Park fever time. The impression gained was that we do not need to be strict adherents to a palette of natives. The remit, in terms of ecology, is to get pollinating insects into our gardens. A study out of Sheffield University on bugs, shows quite clearly that exotics will court the bees, hover flies and the rest. This is good news for the UK-side gardeners as our native flora is poor in comparison with the States.

A mid-read of Stephen Budiansky’s book on nature management throws up the question of what actually is a native plant anyway.

But, putting the native debate to one side, the real subject on the garden design front is always maintenance. Hitchmough’s assertion was that the whole lot can be set fire to once a year. I will experiment with this but the word is experiment. How will a customer, lacking a degree in botany, look after their matrix planting? Blocks are undoubtedly simple for the novice. They should not be sneezed at.

Kathy Settevendemie October 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Landscape designs have the same ecology and the same ecological value (whether massed or intermingled) when the designer uses a conventional plant palette. While intermingled designs look more natural (thus we assume they ARE more natural – ie native) and thus appear to have increased ecological value due to use of ‘natural’ species, in reality using conventional plant species in a different arrangement changes nothing in terms of the interactions between plants and their environment, ie ecology.

Improvement in ecological value certainly comes from using local plants that add value to the ecosystem by providing food, shelter and habitat for wildlife, improving soil and water health, and eliminating the need for chemicals and fertilizers. If becoming more ecological is the goal use more native species in the design whether intermingled, massed or in whatever style you like! Plant selection (plant palette) is the pivot point ecologically, not how those plants are arranged.

Native plant species are essential for inclusion in naturalized designs with high ecological value but I agree that utilizing them successfully requires an understanding of the specific competitive strategies and growth habits of each one (same as exotics) to avoid the aesthetic mess Thomas refers to. Well-designed mixed native plantings require monitoring and yes, maintenance, to control and keep intact especially during the establishment phase.

The question then is whether keeping the planting ‘intact’ should be the goal. If the design goal is to create a natural style then the plants should be free to merge, create masses if they want to, or evolve in unforeseen ways. That’s what plants do when left to themselves. If the goal is to showcase the designer’s talent maintenance becomes an issue. That aesthetic then dominates ecological value. Then we have just the stylized look of ecology.

Elements of any style of good design go into all beautiful plantings. Knowledge of individual plant species – as exemplified in Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf’s work – is critical to creating a planting that will remain beautiful into the future. Understanding what plants will do allows dynamic, naturalistic designs to be maintained with less ongoing attention and effort. Using native plants allow those designs to be valuable ecological tools – even on a small scale!

Benjamin Vogt October 31, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Well said. All of it.

James Golden October 30, 2013 at 3:57 pm

I wish this discussion could be limited to gardening. I don’t think what we do in our backyards or our gardens will save the world. Changes in national and global agricultural policies, land development, population growth, many different kinds of public policy are needed to save the world (and it doesn’t look likely). This is extraordinarily important, but not really a thinkingardens issue.

Anne mentioned above the difficulty of working out which is which on the smaller scale. In my own garden I’ve been using what I would describe as a combination of massed and mixed planting. In one relatively area, for example, I started with broad planting of a Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, a visually distinctive plant that is easily “read” as an irregular mass about fourty feet long and five to fifteen feet wide. But then I started a process of intermixing other plants–a kind of metaphorical “layering”–partially through insertion of other plants, and partially through random broadcasting of seed, in some cases seed of very large species such as silphium. Over several years, partially though a process of manual “editing” and partially through a process of letting the plants find their preferred locations (seeded plants do this easily), I’ve achieved a garden that I find emotionally and aesthetically pleasing. Though some of this process relies on the “natural genius” of plants (to use a Gilles Clement term), it is definitely not a natural, labor-free process. Maintenance is not easy and a lot of human intervention is necessary.

So I find this discussion of mingled or clumped a little frustrating. For me, it’s hard to decide what is mingled and what is clumped. Does anyone else have this problem?

annewareham October 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Yes, I still do. Or to truly distinguish either from what was described to me today as ‘Middle Class Cottage Garden style’. I feel stupid and clearly need to re-read Noel and Piet’s book…

Tristan Gregory October 30, 2013 at 7:06 pm

If the British turn against Jekyllism completely where will they go for their tea and cake?

Looking at one border today it struck me that it had taken it about 5 years to properly intermingle and hide my hapless initial attempts to blend the plantings. The process may have been informed by my plant selections and gardener like interventions but the full science of what followed is too complex and intricate to describe or copy.

Paddy Tobin November 23, 2013 at 10:35 am

Thank you, Anne. I have dipped back in here when about two thirds way through reading the book and feel somewhat reassured by your comments above. I had reached the stage of befuzzlement or, being Irish, the “What the F… is this fellow going on about?”. For me, the book contained nothing new bar a few new terms for describing age old planting habits, that these designs were not for the ordinary garden but for vast areas or parkland or such and that plant choice was very influence by the fact that maintenance would be by people who couldn’t distinguish a dandelion from an oak tree. A frustrating read! Why bother? Emperor and new clothes?

I ask you, Anne, Why should a book leave you saying “I feel stupid and clearly need to re-read Noel and Piet’s book…”

Might the book be at fault?

annewareham November 24, 2013 at 10:42 am

I couldn’t possibly comment…
and there is a serious question about applicability. This interestingly also arose for me reading Thomas’ last blog post about his own garden – http://landscapeofmeaning.blogspot.co.uk/

Martin October 30, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Clumping (big blocks of the same plant) is shown on this video of Pensthorpe Millennium garden from one minute onwards http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00kb2lr and an example of the planting plan is here http://www.flickriver.com/photos/16155010@N04/6760685489/ .
What you are doing is intermingling. I think the distinction between the two may not be of as much interest to garden makers like yourself and Anne as it is to garden designers who start off usually with a blank canvas and a clear (and set) vision. Garden makers tend to adapt things more often having the benefit of living with the plants all the time, being able to suit themselves, and often having something growing there to start with. Hopefully Thomas will be able to add too.

Thomas Rainer October 30, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Great points, as always James. I really don’t think this is a debate about mingling vs. massing. There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to each as you point out. For me, the larger question is this: is the term “intermingling” the correct lens to frame the future of naturalistic design. For me, it feels limited and off subject. Designed plant communities feels more accurate.

greg corman October 30, 2013 at 3:09 pm

What a great topic! It could be improved only by having it face-to-face over a bottle of Scotch!

I’m in the same camp as Jennifer and I’m of the opinion that mass plantings are very hard to maintain – from an aesthetic standpoint – especially when using specimen plants like cacti and succulents. One poorly performing plant in a mass can throw the whole thing off. The golden barrel cactus plantings at the Getty Museum in LA are an example. When I visited several years ago, small and dying individual plants were what caught my attention.

The concern about “ecological” versus “sterile” or monoculture plantings is probably not that important at the garden level. What we really need to concentrate on is eliminating the default use of lawns, leaving some mess (organic matter) in place, and minimizing the use of pesticides and herbicides. They’re the big issues.

Oh, skr, how about Pedilanthus macrocarpus?

Sacha Hubbaed October 31, 2013 at 5:28 pm

When we visited the Getty museum about ten years ago, we saw some disastrous areas being dug out. If I remember rightly, this was a shady area and these might not occur often in CA! But we were told,also, that the designer had been sent off to learn about plants! If true, this struck us as a perfect example of something to do with carts and horses! I’ve found this thread very instructive. I thought I was a clumper but am now a convert to mingling. All I have to do now is figure out how to achieve it.

Myra Brosius October 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm

To put a fly in the ointment…. it is easy to suggest that any planting design that is intended to maintain a certain look, is by definition unsustainable, is it not? Art through planting design may be enjoyable, an avenue to express creativity, but is it really sustainable? Why do we garden, and is it sustainable on a mass scale?

Julia October 30, 2013 at 9:43 am

Extremely erudite. I’ve just tried to implement mass or block planting as well as intermingling in a public garden but the curator was of the opinion that intermingling would be too difficult to manage. This is at Hillier Gardens where one would expect a high level of expertise. But, it’s council funded so budget rules over planting design intricacies. I had hoped that visitors could see and experience ( small paths run through the borders offering close contact with the planting) the contrasts of mass to tapestry. I shall persist using a balanced combination of both for a while as I believe that planting design is a visual art not just a science. Anne, you block plant, don’t you? (written on I phone so forgive brevity & clunkiness).

annewareham October 30, 2013 at 9:54 am

I do. Though on a smaller scale than this discussion envisages I find it a bit hard to work out which is which. Some individual plants planted into undug remnant grassland have got so spreading, for example, that they have become clumps. We have rather a lot of random planting styles I think. (there are other things besides these two…)

One question has to be – how does intermingling work on a small scale?

Martin October 30, 2013 at 10:11 am

It works very well on a tiny scale – my mum’s garden has been like that for 10+ years – but you have to be pragmatic, sensible about it and adapt accordingly. I think it can be a useful planting design framework for plant collectors to use as it can make a ‘bitty’ collection more visually coherent.
I’ve also designed/monitored some less intensively managed small versions for 15 years which has been interesting…

Martin October 29, 2013 at 10:23 pm

This is a great debate to have – thank you for posting this.

At a recent public lecture I attended, hosted by Sheffield University, Piet Oudolf said that his ideas had evolved from blocks of plants to a design with more movement – a controlled letting go – requiring the gardener to act as an editor and take action when the planting composition moved outside boundaries set by the designer (I’m paraphrasing a very exciting lecture there – if I’ve misrepresented what he said my apols. but I’m sure I’m close). The whole aesthetic arose with a wish to give more depth, emotion and spontaneity into the ‘English Garden’.

To my mind the ecology thing is a red herring – nice, but a side effect of trying to develop horticulturally interesting plant communities that are more biodiverse than the vegetation that existed before on that land, are still visually attractive and, crucially, that are relatively low cost/affordable to maintain.

If we imagine horticultural planting styles as a spectrum from very tidy garden to wild habitat recreation then this ‘intermingled planting’ fits far closer to the wild habitat than to the very tidy garden, but there will always be blurred boundaries and people will have their own opinions of where they want their garden/public gardens to be; those opinions may well change with time.

“My biggest fear when it comes to popularizing mixed plantings is that it will create an abundance of sloppy imitations.” – this amused me because in the UK when rockeries were popularized everyone made aesthetically AWESOME versions at home! Arguably, the most difficult problem with popularizing such plantings is how difficult they are to photograph – you really have to experience them over time to appreciate the point. At the lecture Piet Ouldof said there were only a handful of people that work now with perennials on a large scale and there were only ever likely to be a handful; I suspect he meant that will do it very well. It’s the same in any profession, but it ain’t going to stop the rest of us having a go though!

On the plus side it puts intellectual and practical knowledge of plants, and their maintenance, firmly back in the centre of landscape and garden design.

Looking forward to seeing what Noel has to say!

Thomas Rainer October 30, 2013 at 1:31 am


Great comment. As always, you take the dialogue up a notch. I loved hearing about Oudolf’s talk. The point about only a handful of people ever likely to work with perennials at a large scale is fascinating; perhaps true. The planting curriculum of most landscape architecture schools in the US is dismal, so perhaps he is correct.

Yes, the ecology thing is a red herring. A nice point, and one that I think obscures some of Noel’s larger points about the value of mixing.

For me, the whole idea of “mixing” to me kind of misses the larger point. I think the idea that Noel and Piet and others are trying to get at is the creation of a designed plant community. The essence of a community is the way plants fit together in different layers (niches). Plants in a community generally coexist because species have evolved compatible yet different ways of competing for resources. A warm season grass establishes slowing by focusing its energy on developing deep root system, while a forb might fit in between a matrix of grasses by sending a tall flower to reach the light above. Other plants act as groundcovers; geophytes have a different strategy as well. This layering helps explain the incredible density of plants growing in the wild. And when layered correctly, plantings have this incredible harmony and spirit.

So just because a bunch of perennials are mixed does not necessarily mean they are performing like a community. I think many native plant advocates in the US miss this point entirely as well. If we arrange a bunch of plants aesthetically (even if they are native), without paying attention to how to fit them together in a way to compete and propagate sympathetically, it will never be a community. The mark of a community is a planting that is self-sustaining. We can use plants’ competitive strategies as compositional tools.

I entirely agree that the topic of intermingling has pushed plants “back in the centre of landscape and garden design.” The fact that we are debating the nuances of naturalistic plant composition is a testament to Noel and Piet’s lifetime of inspiring writing and work. They have elevated the dialogue.

Martin October 30, 2013 at 8:37 am

As an addendum to my above post, and somewhat ironically given my red herring comment, why are we not calling this whole way of looking at planting design the ‘Ecological Style*’. This then comfortably encompasses its origins (looking to the study of ecology in plants as inspiration), the lead up to it with positioning plants within the garden according to their natural habitat, all the various sub-genres (i.e. annual meadows, prairie planting, the new perennial movement) and a new use for an already existing word (c.f. Picturesque, Gardenesque, Romantic, etc.).
Also, most of all people will kind of know what you mean by Ecological Style i.e it might look a bit more relaxed and plants will be allowed to behave rather more according to their inherent nature – be that clump-forming, intermingled or whatever.
The terms blocking, matrix planting, and intermingling are therefore descriptors of the technical means by which Ecological Style planting can be carried out. It doesn’t actually matter whether they are exact replicates of how a natural community is formed or how much they use native plants, just that the inspiration for their creation was from the study of wild plant communities.

* there is a reference to this term in the book ‘Urban Planning in a Changing World’ by Stephen Forbes and Tony Kendle (starting p84) written in 1997 of which a preview is available here http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=-SHyGkL5K1gC&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=%22Ecological+style%22&source=bl&ots=PY_IZhTnrs&sig=hRNXMCLFh6w4Rz40HICfToNTY7k&hl=en&sa=X&ei=975wUoe_IKO10wW9oYDYDA&ved=0CDAQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=%22Ecological%20style%22&f=false

anne October 29, 2013 at 10:11 pm

In recent years we’ve heard so much about the alleged horrors of monocultures used in farming; is it possible that a move towards intermingling in the garden is a response to that? A belief that if monocultures are bad, intermingling must be good?

I hate to be so simplistic, but when one looks at trends (and gardening is fraught with trendiness), a cycle of opposites is not uncommon.

Thomas Rainer October 30, 2013 at 1:08 am

Great point about “a cycle of opposites” being a part of garden culture. I definitely think the critique of monocultures (made by Noel and others) in planting design is a valid one. What has passed for traditional planting in both America and England was in desperate need of loosening up. The analogy to agriculture is a good one.

Intermingling as a trend is one I certainly welcome. It allows for much more density, thus diversity, potentially creating more resilient and interesting plantings.

But creating a successful mixed planting is not something easily done. And many of these plantings look better with a mass (or matrix) of one dominant plant as a foil. A bit of simplicity makes the intricacy that much more interesting. My point is that we should be careful not to denigrate massing (“that awful blocky look”); that we need to be careful about our claims about what is really more ecological; and that interplanting is fraught with technical difficulties. Not that we should be dissuaded from trying it. Success or failure–the attempt will make you a better gardener and more aware of how plants behave together.

anne October 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm

And surely the types of plants one chooses to use should dictate whether they are clumped or intermingled? Some do better in certain arrangements than others.

Segar Rogers October 29, 2013 at 7:22 pm

I’m struggling with the usage of ‘ecology’ and ‘ecological’ in your article.

Are you talking about planting styles and their impact on biodiversity?

Or are you talking about planting styles and their impact on the relation of plants to one another and to their natural surroundings?

Or are we having a discussion of how best to copy nature?

Thomas Rainer October 29, 2013 at 10:36 pm


The question is whether Noel’s claims that intermingling plants–as opposed to massing them in blocks–creates “an ecology” (Noel’s quote, not mine). In his recent book (as well as other writings), he’s posited intermingling as the defining trend of a new ecological aesthetic. My post is a response to those claims.

The use of the term ‘ecology’ is slippery and my suggestion is that we use it less (or at least more precisely). Particularly when it comes to ornamental planting design.

Does that answer your question?

Segar Rogers October 30, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Thanks Thomas. In which case, I think we need the voice of an ecologist here!

tristan gregory October 29, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I like intermingling but designing it to last is very difficult and on a fertile soil requires a lot of intervention and a limited palate of plants, it is the darkest of all the planting arts.
Most of us are far better off with clumps/drifts or a matrix if we are serious about designing a planting scheme.


Allowing people to fantasise that gardening has a fundamental part to play in the salvation of their natural environment is absurd. The last thing the world needs is the ecologically interested people focussing their energy on insignificant little plots rather than going out into the countryside and scrutinising the catastrophic short sightedness of most our farmers and the fecklessness of the bureaucrats that make the rules dictating the treatment of our woods, fields and watercourses. In the UK, if you care, learn the rules governing conservation headlands for example and if the farmer is ploughing too much then grass them up to the authorities.

We garden according to our own needs, the need to feed ourselves, the need to do something physical, the need to have beauty (in this I include many aspects of nature) close at hand. I don’t need to tell anybody to ignore greenwash because when it comes to what you want from your plot you will anyway.

Thomas Rainer October 29, 2013 at 10:44 pm


I agree on both fronts, though I don’t think it’s silly for gardeners to be concerned about how their gardens effect the environment. Yes, certainly gardening is not ecological restoration, but it is not value neutral either. This is why dialogues like this are useful. They help us to distinguish between what matters and what perhaps does not. I think Noel’s response (forthcoming) will be very valuable in this regard.


Benjamin Vogt October 29, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Sure, I’ll chime in:
1)”While there are some studies that inform planting design, there is little data to show that one planting strategy is universally more ecological than another. Whether a planting is mixed or massed should not be the standard by which we evaluate ecological quality.” Well then, maybe we need to get more studies done, because we’re losing 6,000 species a year, we’re eradicating ecosystems like prairie (in the last 5 years the size of Indiana just in the U.S. northern Great Plains). We MUST know how we can heal what we’ve destroyed, and if the best we can do is an artistic facsimile in our backyards then we need to know how the ecology of the design works. Gardening is no longer just about aesthetics in the face of the 6th great extinction period and climate change. We must marry garden design and ecology asap.

2) I despise the term “native plant purist,” and the insinuation that those who advocate for native plant gardens are lost in nostalgic romanticism or pastoral wet dreams. We’ve destroyed ecosystems. They are gone. Gardens can never EVER be natural because they are our human interpretation of nature — they are art. I advocate the use off 100% native plants in new designed landscapes, and with proper study and use of plants, any design aesthetic can be achieved. And once natives are used and bring in more diverse wildlife in greater numbers, we’ll have folks hook, line, and sinker. I just ripped out two butterfly bushes because in 6 years they never supported the diversity of wildlife that my natives do, and they are airy, scraggly beasts.

3) Sure, a garden must be maintained — it is an unnatural plant community. But we also need to redefine our expectations of what a garden is and how it functions (I’m sick of people cutting down their gardens in fall and over maintaining it). If we can’t let plants find where they want to be, move around, create the community that works best for them and adapt to that freedom, then we are denying the ecology of the plants — it’s like telling someone they can’t be a musician even though they are a virtuoso. If we can get people into their gardens in a new way — witnessing plant interactions, insect interaction, thinking about ecology AND aesthetics at once — then maintenance won’t be such a dirty word, and I doubt it’ll be as much work (real or imagined).

Thomas Rainer October 29, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Hi Ben,

Always thoughtful AND passionate. I love it. I couldn’t agree with you more about the need for more studies about what we can do in our gardens and landscapes to improve ecological services. Some work in being done at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; some great work being done at Sheffield University; and some really wonderful work coming out of Germany on mixed planting. But very little of it addresses some of the key questions of native/exotic. I appreciate Tallamy’s work–and generally agree with his conclusions. though I think as more research is done, the picture about the benefits of natives vs exotics will be gray. There are very few absolutes in science. I was not trying to be offensive about “purists”; I just see very little value in being ideological about a subject where pragmatism is needed. I know you disagree, and I respect your point of view about that.

I agree with your last point as well. As you say, if the aesthetic is shown to be attractive enough, that itself will change how we (particularly Americans) garden.

skr October 30, 2013 at 12:03 am

any aesthetic can be achieved with natives? I think you are conflating aesthetics with style. Sure you can create a garden of any style with natives in the same way that you could paint in any style using only shades of blue. But in much the same way that a blue monochromatic painting doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal as a multichromatic or a red monochromatic painting, natives cannot create every desired aesthetic. I would love to hear which N.Am. native will provide me with the same aesthetic appeal as a linear planter surrounding a patio seating area filled with Sansevieria erythaea.

greg corman October 30, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Pedilanthus macrocarpus? Well, at least for warm areas…

skr October 31, 2013 at 3:13 pm

you’re joking right?

Jennifer October 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Ugh…intermingling…monocultures…both are great. Both are well represented in native communities. Both strategies, however, need maintenance. I get tired of the “low maintenance” sales pitch when using natives. I also get tired of people in the industry throwing out a native seed mix and saying “let Mother Nature sort it out”…it doesn’t work.
My take on this whole issue is that we have so far to go just to get people thinking that using natives is a landscaping choice at all! Are we really at the point where the focus is on what strategy is more stylish?
Bottom line is working with a professional that is proficient in native plants for your region…who’s been in the trenches, sees what works, what doesn’t and alters their strategy accordingly.
Bottom line is implementing these designs, making sure they are cared for so neighbors mimic neighbors….and the native landscaping industry moves forward.

skr October 30, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Jennifer, why are you surprised that artists are concerned with style and aesthetics? That’s our job.

Jennifer October 30, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Not concerned…I’m an artist at heart…working with natives came later. I just see the issue of intermingling versus drifting/monocultures as a sidetrack to the big picture of moving the native landscaping industry forward. It should be looked at as how to implement BOTH intermingling AND drifting…not quarreling about which technique is better.

skr October 31, 2013 at 3:16 pm

but that’s just it, the big picture for an artist should be the creation of a profound aesthetic experience not moving the native plant industry forward.

Martin October 30, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I think this is an interesting point and perhaps a difference in emphasis between the UK and America. Over here in the UK we would not use purely native plants for these garden design strategies, but a range of species from different areas of the world but perhaps from similar habitats and try to combine them. In the UK use of native species in large-scale landscaping is now widely accepted and generally undertaken by ecologists/conservation professionals.

I do agree with the problems of the sales pitch of “low maintenance” as it is often equated with low knowledge required – these communities need “appropriate maintenance” which requires specific knowledge. Certainly at the Piet Oudolf lecture he mentioned the importance of plant knowledge and experience, and said that he was using his perennials as a tool to create images that gave a performance in time. He stressed the importance of maintenance and making sure there were funds in the project for the designer to visit in the future and discuss the garden with whoever is maintaining it.

Benjamin Vogt October 30, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I’ll keep pitching “lower maintenance” because in my 2,000 square foot garden I water once a year (and that seems unnecessary), never fertilize, and spend just a few hours each spring cutting down the herbaceous perennials. Compare that to lawn maintenance and it’s a no brainer as to which requires more inputs. Disagree if you want, but I’m not out slaving with my native plants more than one day a year. I think the larger issue here about maintenance is a person’s idealization of what a managed landscape should look like, and the style of that landscape. We should get more accustomed to letting some plants and beds sort themselves out, because the idea of keeping everything perfect and ordered is not what nature tends to lean toward, yet all the time we go out to prairie, forests, mountains and say how gorgeous (and dare I say ordered) it all is. We don’t need to meddle so much in our gardens if we accept a bit more disorder and learn about our gardens through that disorder. Why do nurseries on Facebook stoke fear in the public, advertising chemical sprays? Oh my, your dogwood has some holes in it from leaf cutter bees. It’s SUPPOSED to have holes, don’t go spraying toxic junk all over the place.

Jennifer October 31, 2013 at 1:36 am

Native plantings can be lower maintenance-just depends on the site. On my sandy soils, my prairie is doing well even with heavy spotted knapweed invasion. Better to pitch butterflies and biodiversity though so clients aren’t upset when they have to eradicate Reed Canary grass that has infiltrated their native shoreline buffer. I’ve just been burned on the “no to low maintenance” incentive so many times because of the time and money associated with ousting the non-natives.
Believe me, I wish we had more native ecosystems to work with and preserve! There is so little left from a prairie and savanna perspective…so little, even, to study…to try to imitate in our own back yards.

skr October 31, 2013 at 3:21 pm

that your garden is low maintenance has little to do with being full of natives. It is low maintenance because you have accepted that loose aesthetic. That same aesthetic could be rendered in exotics that have the same culture requirements and the maintenance level would be the same.

skr October 31, 2013 at 3:27 pm

accepted isn’t fair, let’s change that to chosen.

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