A horticultural conflict

May 6, 2013

in Editorial

Planting by Noel Kingsbury copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Planting by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf

I can’t offer you anything but links for this, but they are links worth following.

The background is the publication of Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf’s new book ‘Planting, a new perspective’.

The first link is the usual paean of praise for Piet Oudolf, which gives us the context: a Telegraph piece by Tom Stuart Smith called  “The Dutch Master, the garden design genius of Piet Oudolf”

The stirrer is Robin Lane Fox in the FT, “Wild ideas lost in the Grass”

Dove at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

A dove

And in the red corner, fighting back, Noel Kingsbury’s blog post “Why does Robin Lane Fox have to drag his sexual fantasies into a review of a garden book?”

I’m not so sure about the balance offered by the link Noel includes to a blog post by  Thomas Rainer, who appears to have rather lost his footing and also, perhaps, gone rather over the top. Facebookers can see the discussion James Golden started about this here.

Exciting times! What do you think about petunias and roses v grasses and new perspectives?

Anne Wareham, editor

Leymus and rose, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Grass AND rose…

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Tony Spencer May 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Bias alert: I’m currently deep into reading ‘Planting” A New Perspective’ and find it revelatory – page after page. And I’m relatively well-studied in the Oudolf philosophy and style.

But let’s clarify because I find some of the comments here misleading as to the book’s contents… there are no diktats to do things a certain way – but to consider the ecological and aesthetic elements of natural plant communities as a departure point for new explorations in planting design. All this from some of the leading minds in modern landscape design – from Oudolf to Pearson to Hitchmough. The book documents the evolution of the new perennial style from fringe to center stage, like it or not.

By comparison, RLF is an old fart with a definite bone to pick who’s choking on priggish class overtones. He’s welcome to his rose gardens but he clearly struggles with entertaining concepts of beauty beyond his own garden walls. He is patronizing to the extreme, as per the following example: “As for all that “biodiversity”, hedgehogs are one thing but I do not want a haven for hares and grass snakes anywhere near my garden.”

Please banish this fossil to the appropriate museum or crypt. I don’t blame NK for being so amused/annoyed by such a baseless and expostulatory attack.

“As for all that “biodiversity”, hedgehogs are one thing but I do not want a haven for hares and grass snakes anywhere near my garden.”

David Standing May 9, 2013 at 6:44 am

I don’t understand the criticism. If somebody’s views are that ingrained in stone, then it is pretty worthless them visiting another garden that they know they will not like, or admire, for what it is. It would be like a food critic who is an expert on Italian food visiting a Chinese restaurant and complaining about the food not being Italian enough.

Personally, I am pretty easy with pretty much every style of gardening. But then I am one easy going chap.

Jack Holloway May 7, 2013 at 7:17 pm

I think the whole debate hinges on concepts of beauty. Robin Lane Fox might have a very traditional, even ‘pretty’ concept of beauty. 20th century aesthetics gradually made conservative concepts of beauty suspect: it was ‘unoriginal’, or ‘undemocratic’ or ‘unnatural’ or – of late – ‘unsustainable’ . Beauty has evolved to include a very valid set of esoteric values over and above pure aesthetics. This thinking is expressed in the Oudolf style.
I can only support it whilst still being an unashamed admirer of old-fashioned beauty. In my garden this blend takes the form of allowing nature to contribute hugely to my garden: there are areas that are 95% plus natural and even the most controlled areas are at least 10% nature’s contribution. It is this dynamic that I love and value above all else in gardening. But then I’m fortunate to garden where nature CAN successfully contribute 95%…
Perhaps I should exploit the situation and start touting my own version of modern garden aesthetics 😉

annewareham May 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Be good to have a paper on it for thinkingardens?

Jack Holloway May 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm

🙂 Deal. Give me time, though…

annewareham May 7, 2013 at 9:17 pm

No rush at all. Thank you! XXXX

william martin May 7, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Excellent response Mr Holloway. One could also throw ‘taste’ into this mix..I too very much enjoy the dynamic you mention and without it I could not be bothered to create gardens!
Oudolf’s package is nothing short of excellent (on many levels) but i struggle with this ‘Naturalistic’ catch-cry which seems to be more about selling the ‘product’ than the reality. i think we can safely say the style alludes to ‘Naturalism’ more than say the traditional borders most gardeners can relate to. Nothing more and nothing less.
In my own garden i practice a style I playfully label ‘Relaxed Colony’…..sometimes I crack the whip but I generally allow the inhabitants to get on with what they do best!!

THIS OK ANNE? Be good if one could drop an image or 3 into the replies?

annewareham May 8, 2013 at 8:49 am

That’s fine, Billy. Don’t know if or how you could add pictures to your comments. Have you tried?

Weeding the Web May 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Yes, the strongest impression I’ve gained from reading the articles is that RLF points out what he considers to be the weaknesses in someone else’s ideas – a stimulating base for discussion – and NK devotes nearly half of his riposte to a personal attack on what he believes RLF’s politics, social world and limited horizons to be, as well as calling him a fart and a goat. This is a shame. I haven’t met either of them and have no idea how reasonable and courteous each is face to face, but based on the written evidence, I know who I’d rather have a discussion with, and it’s not the one who thinks personal insults strengthen an argument.

I’m beginning to appreciate the Oudolf approach – Potters Field was lovely when I saw it a couple of summers ago – but which approach will survive longest in the small domestic garden? RLF’s I suggest, because gardeners want flowers and close-up beauty in small spaces, but the information in the book on the perennials used by Outdolf sounds as if it could be used by all.

Astra May 7, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Yep, Kingsbury went heavy on the ad hominum and suggested that a heavy dose of British class issues went into Fox’s review–such things could be there but will go right over the head of this American reader. I like Oldulf’s garden design and it is a great match to the sense of place here in the intermountain west of the U.S. I love ornamental grasses and prairie plantings and it’s a damn good thing since that’s what our landscape looks like. Here, we need people to learn to appreciate the beauty of gardens with a more natural aesthetic and stop trying to replicate the English garden in a location that gets <40 cm of rain a year and can drop to -30 C in the winter. In the more lush environment of the UK, I sympathize with Fox's desire for simple, traditional beauty, though. And he's right about how ratty prairie plants look out of season.

James Golden May 7, 2013 at 11:24 am

What a furor. What Piet Oudolf does is masterful. It is art of its own kind. The High Line is beautiful, both the “hard scape” and the plantings. It was also enormously expensive to build and costly to maintain, but it works in the New York City context because it’s generating billions in real estate development. It is a new kind of garden but not the only kind of garden. What of this new “mixed planting”? I think of it as a very slow, long term (years long) entertainment, like a masque occurring over a decade. Will it be sustainable in the long term? We will find out. In the meantime, we’ll see some beautiful gardens (of a type), and fascinating experiments. Right plant, right place is still true. I agree with Michael that, in heavily forested areas such as the Northeast USA, our challenge will be integration of the woodlands with garden.

Michael B Gordon May 7, 2013 at 10:14 am

I have been to the High Line several times and have had a chance to study the way plants are combined in every season. I am very interested in public spaces and I think this is a triumph. Part of what makes it so successful, in my opinion, is the hardscape. I miss the diversity of woody plants and hedges in some of his newer designs. I have been experimenting with planting using Oudolf’s Matrix formula in both public and private gardens and I don’t think from a maintenance perspective theses gardens are going to be sustainable because only a well-trained gardener will be able to keep the intermingling of the plants in check. Well-designed hardscape will make the perceived messiness of the plantings acceptable to the general public. On the other hand, his block plantings have stood the test of time (maintenance-wise) according to a recent article by Tom Stuart-Smith. Every garden can’t be a “Oudolf” perennial garden. The next wave is going to be the woodland garden revisited. All that shade is going to be an advantage for climate change, I believe. There is much to be learned from Planting: A New Perspective, but I say, “right garden, right place”.

Adam Hodge May 7, 2013 at 8:44 am

Both Tristan and Annette have hit the nail on the head ! Lets just pick what appeals to us from this ‘ natural’ planting style so avidly promoted by Messrs Kingsbury and Oudolf. One could argue that in fact its not at all natural, just very specific to some areas of the globe. The minimal use of, if not absence of trees ,shrubs [which can embrace roses and the ericaceous lovelies!], climbing/sprawling plants or Bamboos does not make for anything very natural from my observations of nature. .

The more pertinant issue that has risen is the whole issue of criticism. .Anne has been grooming us to embrace the idea that it;’s healthy, and yet the very moment someone does make a criticism that is contrary to the current popular trend of thinking, then a flurry of venom is released. Mr Kingsbury didn’t take it too kindly. , Criticism can hurt.. It hurt him ! If criticism leads to endless bitching then its not a good thing.
I’ve never been a fan of this Oudolf style or the current enthusiasm for grasses as currently used, but I don’t want to slag off those who enthuse about it or trash the style itself. I respect their point of view but in not agreeing with it can still exercise good manners. I wish the same on my preferences.
Lets have a chilled glass of Pinot grigio, and respect all the different landscape styles in their diversity.[Aren’t we being so PC to include that ‘d’ word ] Cheers/ Gezondheid !!

annewareham May 7, 2013 at 8:56 am

Thanks, everyone, and, yes, having invited and received criticism I agree that it does hurt. It’s still worthwhile when illuminating and I’ve made beneficial changes as a result.

But we are, as you say, Adam, beginners at it. The NGS can’t cope with it, (see http://veddw.com/blog/opening-for-the-ngs/), Gardens Illustrated can’t cope with it, and now Noel has restorted more to abuse than argument. Long way to go…

Debate does assist thinking though, so the question of whether to respond to criticism or never interests me..

Vanessa Gardner Nagel May 7, 2013 at 1:12 am

I appreciate all of the views on this book, which I like and will use as inspiration on occasion, but would not tear out my existing garden to duplicate. Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury promote A solution for more sustainable gardens. It does not work for all situations, nor is it expected to do so. I do not believe this style needs to be vs. any other style, just considered where it makes sense. It also makes sense to adapt the sustainable philosophy on a wider scale.

Winstanley May 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Susan ITPH – my other half doesn’t come any more ordinary when it comes to gardening – I’ve just asked her if she’s heard of Piet Oudolf. She responded by asking if it was the new Pinot Grigio!

For me, the reason this kind of gardening nonsense doesn’t matter is precisely because it gets elevated to some kind of horticultural high art. It only matters to those bent on driving gardening into a bourgeois cul de sac.

Perennial gardening? What a load of old chutney!

Susan ITPH May 7, 2013 at 12:19 am

People who would never pay money to traipse past a camïeaux border of roses and camellias are including a visit to the High Line in their itinerary of things to see in NYC. While they may not go thinking they are going to go see an “Oudolf” design, they are seeing a garden that they find beautiful and accessible. That is the difference.

Winstanley May 7, 2013 at 9:19 am

Being aware of, and making a point of visiting any public space is not the same as the average person being aware of the designer by name.

Adam Hodge May 7, 2013 at 9:34 am

”While they may not go thinking they are going to go see an “Oudolf” design, they are seeing a garden that they find beautiful and accessible”
When I went, last October, with a client-friend I noticed that she responded principally to the way the walkway also had space for leisure-,the seating ,the water features, the enjoyment of views. She didn’t remark about the planting, and was intrigued /puzzled at my interest in how it all worked in its passive way. For her it was.a pleasant background to a novel inner city walk.

I went not knowing what to expect..for me it wasn’t a garden, more a generously and balanced planting in a novel context-an elevated disused railway line ! How cool to walk above the streets in a verdant environment [and this time Oudolf was using the full gamut of plants-trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses etc etc] with places to sit and enjoy the sun and people-watch.

william martin May 7, 2013 at 5:17 am

You may well be right!

Paul Steer May 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm

I agree with Annette. A free- spirited approach will encourage creativity and quirkiness.

Tristan Gregory May 6, 2013 at 6:07 pm

The low breaker of the New Wave has trickled up the beach of british gardening and deposited astonishingly little on the tide line.

It is as natural as a Cabability Brown park and its ricketty philosophy and ludicrous excesses lend themselves to parody (rivers of Molina, good God) in just the same way.

Grab what you can by way of planting ideas and brace for the next wave of over-blown guff and spicky little accolytes.

John May 6, 2013 at 6:22 pm

May I simply say “+1”?

william martin May 7, 2013 at 5:18 am

Almost + 1

Susan ITPH May 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm

It is exciting to have the new perennial movement gardening matter in the way that the impressionist movement in painting mattered at the end of the 19th century. Thanks to the High Line, the average person actually knows who Piet Oudolf is. Can you name a garden designer that the average New Yorker could have named before then? And to garner this kind of controversy is remarkable. I think it’s ironic that the NYBG garden’s homage to Monet so impressed RLF, but that he fails to recognize that Oudolf represents the fomenting a similar social revolution in gardening. One comment from the Facebook link that I agree with is that the British will take this change harder than most.

Annette Lepple May 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Why does it always have to be either this or that? Gardening -as everything else for that matter- seems to be highly susceptible to trends and extremes…think of the horrible thuja hedge-lawn-three shrub roses and please God nothing else in the 60s and 70s, Japanese gardens completely out of context etc. Everbody “carries” a garden in his/her soul and the voyage to this garden is an exciting one during which you rise to higher spheres, enjoying successes and failures. I don’t want globalisation in gardening and prefer an individual, free-spirited approach that leaves no room for “versus”. Let us all be tolerant, embrace and respect the ideas of fellow gardeners. We can learn, feel inspired, provoked, refreshed…or put off. Lane Fox is very conservative, snobbish (maybe a reason why I’ve never liked his writing) but he must be deeply touched (or threatened?) by the New Perennial Movement – maybe his way of paying a compliment 😉

william martin May 7, 2013 at 5:19 am

+ 1 for this un!

william martin May 6, 2013 at 11:17 am

Rum Jungle.

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