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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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