Not just a load of old coneflowers by Victoria Summerley.

May 15, 2014

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Well, the biter bit. I keep contributors waiting for their pieces to be published for far too long. Just sometimes a contributor does the same thing and serves me right. Sorry Noel… Anne Wareham, editor Planting, a new perspective, by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf A review of ‘Planting, a new perspective’, by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf by Victoria Summerley:

First, I must apologise to Anne Wareham,. who asked me to reviw this book in June 2013. Second, I must apologise to Noel Kingsbury, who went to a lot of trouble to provide Anne with a review copy of the book, in the expectation that it would be reviewed – if not the same year, at least at some point in the following decade.

The first thing that strikes you about Planting: A New Perspective is that the publishing hype doesn’t really match up to the title. The publishers, Timber Press, have tried to market it as a how-to book: buy this volume and you too can plant a prairie garden in your backyard. Noel's book 3 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 073 Well, of course that’s nonsense. First, most of us don’t have room for a prairie in our backyards, nor is a prairie necessarily appropriate or practical for the 80 per cent or so of British gardeners who have urban plots. Try growing rudbeckia in a shady London courtyard and you’ll see what I mean. In any case, this is not so much a manual as a mission statement. “Prairie planting” might be fashionable, but it is based on good science, not just some aesthetic whim. As Dr Kingsbury says in his introduction, “The use of long-lived perennials in conjunction with woody plants genuinely offers improved sustainability and support for biodiversity. Reducing the amount of regularly mown lawn and the unnnecessary trimming of woody plants for unclear motives is surely a step forward.” This, combined with the design of the book – the diagrams and graphs make it look rather textbook-like – may put some readers off. They may prefer to flick through the pictures instead. Noel's book 2 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 074 However, it would be a pity if they did, because while the pictures are fabulous, this book has something to teach even those of us who like to think we are more receptive to new ideas than everyone else. It may not offer the sort of instant gardening solutions that are designed to cater to our minuscule 21st-century attention spans, but if you read it carefully, it will indeed tell you how to achieve the sort of new perennial planting that has been loosely termed “prairie” – or at the very least, make you think afresh about what you plant in your garden and how it might behave. Noel's book 1 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 075 One could argue that the British love affair with any kind of wild or naturalistic planting is a curse rather than a blessing. So many new gardeners want to achieve what they see as the artless spontaneity of a Sissinghurst or a Great Dixter, and they are demoralised when the result turns out to be a mess. I’ve never been completely convinced about the wildflower meadow thing – the idea that you have to spray everything with glyphosate before and after (this is recommended so that the soil is bare and weed-free before you sow the seeds) seems somewhat at odds with a “natural” effect. I’m much more sympathetic to the idea of growing perennials in a way that requires less interference from us – in terms of staking, watering, deadheading and so on – and a greater understanding of the way plants behave. Noel's book 8 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 072 Indeed, the chapter I found most fascinating was Chapter Four, in which Dr Kingsbury discusses the shortcomings of the usual classification of herbaceous plants into annuals, biennials and perennials, and explains how we can find out whether a perennial is likely to be long-lived or short-lived. This is important, because the idea is that the plants should provide a good display for years to come, without dying out from the middle, out-competing their neighbours or aggressively self-seeding.

The discussion of colour in garden design in Chapter Three was also refreshing – what, no colour wheel?! Instead, the reader is invited to think about light, and about structure and texture. When you have a subtler palette of colours, form becomes more eye-catching than hue. For those more interested in wielding a trowel than turning a page, the plant directory at the back of the book, annotated as to height, spread, foliage type, longevity and so on, might prove more fascinating, especially the useful information on the recommended number of plants per square metre. Noel's book 6 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 071 I was delighted when Anne asked me to review this book because I had just moved from London to the Cotswolds and was beginning to think about making a garden that was appropriate to the surrounding landscape. It seemed to me that the New Perennial style, with its emphasis on naturalistic planting, and on cultivars that have not strayed too gaudily from the origins of their species, would suit a garden whose boundaries blurred into countryside.

I found, however, that the ideas in the book were so intriguing, and required so much in the way of mental processing that the thought of being able quickly to skim through it, go outside and plant the garden, then write the review soon became laughable. Even now, I am still revisiting it and still mulling over the possibilities that it suggests. Perhaps, as Dr Kingsbury himself suggests: “Fundamentally, the important thing is to enjoy what we grow, and accept the sometimes confused, tangled complexity of nature as part and parcel of our work and our passion.”  

Victoria Summerley  blog 

Victoria Summerley portrait for thinkingardens copyright Anne Wareham

Victoria Summerley with wheelbarrow

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Diana Studer June 15, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Victoria, I’ve missed hearing about your new garden in the Cotswolds. Any news there?

Bridget Rosewell May 17, 2014 at 12:04 am

Not many reviews make me want to buy a book. Most make me wonder what it is really about. But this one reminds me that I haven’t yet bought this and really really must! I look forward to some help on one area of my garden which is still not right.

Paul Steer' May 15, 2014 at 11:44 pm

I concur with the closing quote in Victoria’s review. The ‘confused, tangled complexity of nature’ can also be incorporated into planting and garden ‘design’ without following the templates of scientific research to create a poetry. Using our native tangled complexity as it appears and emerges from the land itself, perhaps shaped and added to or held back can create an exciting tension. I respect knowledge but fear the loss of intuition. I’m not sure I’d get on with this book, so thank you for the review !

Stephen May 15, 2014 at 9:06 pm

What to say, having read it when it came out and worried over it backwards and forwards since then ….

Not a coffee table book at all – despite some rather lovely photography. Instead a very deep dive into the subject of modern perennial planting; especially in relation to plant competition and long term plant performance and the “science” of such plantings generally; make it pretty much essential reading for anyone serious about this style of planting, either wanting to understand it or try their own hand at it.

For the same reason not a beginners book in this field, and does not set out to be one. For that you would be better starting with e.g the same authors’ Designing with Plants or Michael King’s Perennial Garden Design; plus one or both of Oudolf/Gerritsen’s Encyclopedias of the planting palette for this style, namely Dream Plants for the Natural Garden and/or Planting the Natural Garden; all of which although much shorter and more compressed also have some pretty important things about the aesthetic and poetic possibilities to which this planting may be put. The same subject but viewed from a different light, if you like…

Likewise be aware the book has an intentionally narrow focus – very little of the stuff found in the same authors’ Gardens in Time or Space about relating this sort of planting to the wider design of the garden and landscape beyond, especially tree and shrub structural planting – an area also recently and interestingly explored by Michael King in his admirable “shrub features” e-book.

But what it sets out to do it does well, very well in fact, genuinely pushing back the frontiers on the science of perennial plantings as already noted.

I also liked the chapter at the end that has some interesting if rather brief things to say about the works of other related designers like Pearson, Diblik, the German Mixed Planting systems and Sheffield school (albeit also with some rather surprising omissions such as Oehme and Van Sweden). It seems there is a lot more which could be said here – especially for those of us who don’t speak German and for whom the German work is therefore somewhat inaccessible. Maybe next time?

Tristan Gregory May 15, 2014 at 7:28 pm

While not hugely fond of this particular style of planting it cannot be denied that there have been enormous contributions to our craft as a result of the rigorous and disciplined evaluation of its components which is to say the plants. Any new aesthetic direction that gains momentum in the future will owe, I am sure, much of its success to this body of work.
Thanks also to Victoria for making this so clear in her excellent review.

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