Great Britain

Pre-Second World War British landscape design was dominated by the writings of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, with a horticultural and artistic emphasis, rather than an ecological one. Yet much of their inspiration for plants and planting arrangement came from wildflowers of the British countryside. The Reverend C. A.Johns’ Flowers of the Field (1851) had been a Victorian classic which had drawn attention to botany, popularised it, and encouraged gardeners to reappreciate wildflowers. Robinson’s The Wild Garden (1870) summed up this development and gave a new impetus to the expression. This book was concerned with the naturalisation and natural grouping of hardy exotic plants, and concentrated on examples of a wide range of habitats; on hardy bulbs in grass; on ditches, lanes, copses and hedgerows; on brookside, water and bog gardens; and on walls and rocks. In these, inspiration was drawn from examples in the wild, with suggestions on establishment in a similar setting within the garden (Robinson 1894) (Figure 2.19).

Gertrude Jekyll, a former artist turned gardener, expressed the process even more eloquently. She discussed ‘the enjoyment of beauty of a pictorial kind’ and trying to make ‘a beautiful garden picture’. She noted that ‘I had the advantage in earlier life of some amount of training in [the] appreciation of the fine arts, and this, working upon an inborn feeling of reverent devotion to things of the highest beauty in the works of God, has helped me to an understanding of their divinely-inspired interpretations by the noblest of men, into those forms that we know of works of fine art’. Thus, she concluded: ‘And so it comes about that those of us who feel and understand in this way do not exactly attempt to imitate Nature in our gardens, but try to become well acquainted with her moods and ways, and then discriminate in our borrowing, and so interpret her methods as best we may to the making of our garden pictures’ (Jekyll 1914:196). This is a very similar approach to that taken by previous generations of designers working in the landscape style, with Jekyll planting in informal drifts rather than in more formal blocks, or planting in the oldfashioned mixed or mingled manner (Figure 2.20).

The artistic approach dominated in Great Britain, and there are only a few references that suggest knowledge and application of Humboldt’s plant geography. One notable example is Patrick Geddes, the Scottish biologist and planner, who in his proposals for Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline, recommended the rock garden to be further developed, both ‘evolutionary and geologically’, which included the ‘geographical distribution of our different plant types’ (Geddes 1904:59, 115, 118). Geddes’s proposals, however, remained unexecuted and were read by town planners rather than horticulturalists and garden designers, and therefore appear to have had limited impact.

New trends in planting occurred in Britain, but none of them appears to be derived from ecological research. The Road Beautifying Association in its advice on roadside planting, for example, recorded two different schools of thought, one ‘that only trees which are indigenous to the British soil should be planted’ and the other that ‘it is perfectly good taste to make use of beautiful trees and shrubs, no matter what the country of their origin, provided they grow well…’ (Road Beautifying Association 1930). This was in contrast to the German tradition as observed by Christopher Tunnard in 1935, who noted that German designers ‘based their principles on natural oecological development.’. He contrasted their planting of roads which conformed ‘to the general principle of natural planning’ and endeavoured ‘to retain the character of the district in which the work is being carried out’ with the British approach. In Germany ‘one seldom sees avenue planting in any form outside the towns and the white ribbon of a trunk road is not, as is often the case with by-pass in this country merely accentuated throughout its length by soldier-like lines of one particular species of ornamental tree. The planting is instead made compatible with both countryside and road, now swelling over the brow of the hill and running close to the carriage-way, now receding to allow for wide views over a plain level, now evergreen, now deciduous, according to the exigencies of the site.’ (Tunnard 1937).

None of this appears to have influenced Tunnard himself and he did not refer to this in his Gardens in the Modern Landscape (1938), which reproduces a planting scheme dependent on purely aesthetic principles (Tunnard 1938:118-124).

The appearance of Arthur G. Tansley’s The British Islands and Their Vegetation (1939) made a significant impact on landscape architects. Landscape architect Sylvia Crowe considered that ‘there is no better guide to the principles of natural planting than an examination of the diagrams of natural associations in Tansley’s The British Islands and Their Vegetation—coupled with first-hand observation’ (Crowe 1956:76). Her colleague Brenda Colvin similarly used Tansley’s book as a reference and explained the concept of community, the study of which she considered ‘of vital interest to the landscape designer if he appreciates the native character of our landscape’. She noted that it was all too easy to introduce foreign plants, and that these should not be spread recklessly over the countryside, but concentrated to parks, gardens and towns. She proposed keeping the countryside to the natural plant groups, with which she did not mean just ‘true’ native species, but included others ‘which have established themselves as party of that landscape and are able to hold their own as members of one or other of the native plant associations’ (Colvin 1948:65f 143).

There appears to have been a general consensus within the post-war generation of landscape architects about the application of ecological principles as a basis for planting design in the countryside. Another example of this is Brian Hackett, who argued that planting design could ‘be helped by studying the arrangement of the various members of the native plant community and simplifying the patterns identified so that they form a source of inspiration upon which the planting plan is built-up with some variation in the species’ (Hackett 1971:102). This shows expanding degrees of sophistication and creativity in the application of ecological principles, or an acknowledgement that completely accurate reinterpretations were not possible. There is also a general acknowledgement that the purist adherence to native, as opposed to exotic, species would lead to an impoverishment of the British landscape and was not a feasible option.

All landscape architects of this period strongly perceive the countryside as a source of food production (its continued need for this was confirmed by the Second World War) and national identity. This was best expressed by Brenda Colvin, who in this was clearly influenced by Sir George Stapledon, and is not dissimilar from German Nazi philosophy (Stapledon 1935:1). She noted: The land has always been the reserve and origin also of healthy human stock: the solid base of the population contributing to sturdy heredity through the interchange between town and country populations, and to health through provision of good fresh food’ (Colvin 1948:175). This was, of course, best represented by an appropriate setting of a landscape with vegetation of a ‘native’ appearance. Throughout her career, Colvin was to stress the importance of ecological planting for reasons of conservation, appearance, diversity and economy (Colvin 1977:10$).

After he had promoted ‘an ecological approach to design’ (Hackett 1962-63), Hackett’s ideas on planting policies in landscape plans reflected the ideas of his predecessors with respect to the selection of plants and attitude to non-native species (Hackett 1971),15 and were later included in his Planting Design (1979). He distinguishes two ways in which ecology might serve as a basis for planting design. The first manner is to base any planting proposals on a survey of the natural vegetation of the area and, where absent, on conjectural analysis. The second manner refers to establishing a vegetation by means of traditional maintenance techniques, which is said

Great Britain


The William Curtis Ecological Park near Tower Bridge was founded in 1977, but has now been built over. It was designed by Lyndis Cole, who had been inspired by Dutch examples

to ‘accept the principles underlying the existence of the flora and fauna in a habitat and to use these principles for design purposes whilst introducing man as a new and possibly dominant factor—from either the aesthetic or use points of view, or both’. Another approach selects plants not necessarily based on ecological principles but ‘in accordance with the soil, climate, aspect and other relevant environmental determinants, and for their appearance, in the knowledge that if competition from other plants is removed as a result of maintenance techniques, success is likely’ (Hackett 1979:80).

Hackett proceeds to explain the relevance of the latest scientific information relating to ecological principles; of biotic communities, habitat provision, food webs and dominant species. The methodology recommended is the survey of patterns of the local native vegetation, the analysis of which may then be used as a basis for planting designs (Hackett 1979:80-87). The methodology suggested is similar to what was recommended by the German Willy Lange in 1922. The examples listed by Hackett however relate to woodland landscapes rather than a garden setting, or urban contexts.

Whilst ecological planting was mainly pursued in the countryside and land reclamation schemes, another group of landscape architects and ecologists pursued the urban context. From the late 1960s onwards, these stressed the importance of nature and the natural environment for the quality of life. Inspired by German, Dutch and Swedish examples, ecological concepts slowly permeated into the work and policies of urban landscape designers.16 One of the most outspoken activists proposing the relevance of ecology in towns was Max Nicholson, the Director General of the Nature Conservancy, who believed in ‘ecology and conservation as a scientific basis of landscape design’ (Nicholson 1965). Upon his retirement in 1966, he founded the Land Use Consultants in order to undertake environmental projects with an emphasis on the creation of naturalistic landscapes. One of the pioneering schemes with which the firm became involved was a massive reclamation programme in the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent, for which they designed Central Forest Park, Hanley. It included Dutch inspired approaches to encouraging native vegetation and regeneration, whilst accepting the quarried topography of the site and utilising this to create a number of spaces with different functions (Aldous and Clouston 1979:91). In 1979, Nicholson was instrumental in the formation of the Ecological Parks Trust, later renamed the Trust for Urban Ecology, which aimed to manage the William Curtis Ecological Park, near Tower Bridge and founded in 1977, and other urban nature reserves. The designer of this park was Lyndis Cole of the Land Use Consultants who had been inspired by Dutch examples (Woudstra 1985) (Figure 2.21).

At around the same time, another group of landscape architects was involved in developing a landscape strategy and detailed planting at Warrington New Town, based on ecological principles. Their aims were to establish a nature-like planting which was cost effective to establish and maintain, robust but did not appear contrived, and was structurally diverse. It also had to form a replacement for former semi-natural habitats in their locality. Planting took place primarily with native species with mixes prescribed in percentages and planted in irregular groups, with guidance on minimum and maximum numbers per group (Beckett and Parker 1990). The emphasis was on native trees (and shrubs), the area of which had declined as a result of modern agricultural practice and Dutch elm disease. A working party of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, which included the landscape architect Allan R. Ruff, set out to make ecological information more available in order to promote the appropriate use of native woody plants. This culminated in the publication Planting Native Trees and Shrubs (1979), edited by Kenneth and Gillian Beckett.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 4:20 am