Communicating naturalistic plantings:. plans and specifications

Nigel Dunnett, Wolfram Kircher and Noel Kingsbury

One of the major obstacles to the wider application of a more ecologically-informed approach to landscape and garden plantings is the gap between the vision of the designer and the actual practical implementation of that vision. Much has been made of the lack of appropriate knowledge and skills among maintenance personnel to enable the appropriate and subjective management decisions to be made over the short – and long-term development of naturalistic plantings, and the lack of resources to support this. But there is another important hurdle to overcome before maintenance is even considered: how can the designer’s intentions (in the form of a plan or specification) be best translated into the actual vegetation on the ground. This is not so much of a problem if the person doing the designing is also the person who implements a planting (as might often be the case in a private garden), or if a designer works very closely with the client to realise the aims of a plan. But if a scheme is to be implemented by a contractor with little or no contact with the original designer, then how best might naturalistic plantings be communicated? Of course, it can be argued that the ideal situation is one in which the landscape architect or garden designer is able to supervise planting operations, or that a new type of horticulturist/designer provides specialist services to architects and landscape architects, controlling the whole process from planting design through to implementation, and that these models become the norm. However, at present, this is not a realistic option on a widespread scale and cost limitations mean that, in the great majority of public landscape contexts, contractors implement planting plans often without the direct involvement and supervision of the original designers.

In a survey of leading practitioners of new naturalistic perennial plantings in the UK, carried out by the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield in the late 1990s, it was found that 90% of those designers questioned implemented their schemes by laying out the plantings themselves on site, or directly supervising the laying out of plantings by contractors. The great majority of the schemes involved were located in private gardens or institutional gardens, such as botanical gardens or pay-for-entry educational or demonstration gardens—all situations where there is greater access to skilled maintenance, supervision against damage and controlled public access. When this is considered, it is perhaps not surprising that naturalistic plantings (particularly herbaceous plantings and non-native naturalistic plantings) have not yet been widely applied in urban public landscapes in the UK. A principal reason why the implemented schemes tend to be those in which the designer has a close association is because of the great complexity of the plans that are produced to depict naturalistic arrangements of plants. This is particularly true of the German naturalistic planting tradition that has had

so much influence over contemporary ornamental naturalistic planting styles. Not only are these plans impossible for the uninitiated to understand, they are also time consuming to produce and are very labour-intensive to carry out.

This chapter presents a predominantly visual overview of the main strands of planting plan depiction before focusing specifically on how naturalistic plantings have been communicated. Finally, we attempt to chart a sensible way forward for the communication of naturalistic plantings, with the aim of widening their application.