Non-naturalistic ecological herbaceous plantings

As previously indicated, changes in the context or the nature of the planting, particularly in plant density and spatial organisation, can determine whether an ecological herbaceous planting appears designed as opposed to natural. So, on the one hand, there is the Garden of Movement in Parc Andre Citroen in Paris, and, at the other extreme, are some of the designs of Piet Oudolf, such as his planting design for the ABN/AMRO Bank in Amsterdam.

If there is little research regarding public attitudes to wild-looking herbaceous ecological plantings in urban public settings, there is even less about its non-naturalistic equivalent. Consequently, in order to try to evaluate public opinion, we have to examine current fashions in planting design and the views expressed by commentators.

For the last two years a number of the gardens at the Chelsea Flower show have included large-scale ecological herbaceous plantings in a context of high design that is quite unlike the folk or conservation ethic that has frequently accompanied the use of wildflowers or meadows in the show in the past. A similar design language can be found on a much larger scale in Gilles Vexlard’s design for the new park at Messerstadt Riem, near Munich, Germany. The park services the residents and employees of the new settlement at Messerstadt Riem. Both the park and the new settlement are being built on a brownfield site, a former airport. Here wild-looking herbaceous vegetation is used in meadow-style plantings, but these are firmly contained and held by formal tree planting in blocks and strips.

The question is whether such examples of ecological plantings in a formal context are just another fashion or whether they are a sign of a more fundamental sea-change— perhaps the reflection of a more generalised ecocentric world-view that is becoming prevalent in the West. Penelope Hill argues convincingly for the latter view:

The idea of the garden as a purely aesthetic creation is old-fashioned nowadays—the most important factor is consideration for the environment, linked with the well-being of the plants worked out according to where and in what conditions they grow naturally.

(Hill 2001)

In support of her argument, Hill cites the work of a number of designers and horticulturalists, such as Beth Chatto in her garden near Colchester.

Further examples can also be given, such as the work of the late Derek Jarman in his garden on the shingle at Dungeness. Jarman produced a garden that was extraordinarily beautiful and visually appropriate because of its reliance on species that were either native or naturalised locally, such as sea kale (Crambe maritima) and the yellow horned poppy (Glaucium flavum), supplemented by species that were well-adapted to the particularly harsh conditions on the shingle at Dungeness, for example giant sea kale (Crambe cordifolia) and the Californian poppy (Figure 11.11). Another example is the garden created by Dan Pearson at Home Farm. This garden relies partly on a more flamboyant and overtly exotic species selection, but these are frequently combined in a naturalistic fashion. There is, moreover, an overriding concern to blend the garden seamlessly into the surrounding landscape by a gentle transition from the more formal areas to the more natural ones. There is, for example, the slender path that creates a line of vision through the hummocky carpet of thyme and across the lake to the woods and countryside beyond.

Non-naturalistic ecological herbaceous plantings


The garden created by the late Derek Jarman at Dungerness

It is doubtless possible to think of numerous further examples, but perhaps the ultimate example, given by Hill herself, is that of the garden designed by Beth Gall for a private house in Girona, Spain. As Hill describes, this garden relies exclusively on ‘the relationship between the spontaneous evolution of plants and the changes due to human intervention’. The human intervention was limited to careful site preparation and an irrigation system providing differential watering. It was then just a case of standing back and waiting to see what appeared.

An indication that a more naturalistic visual aesthetic has taken hold is the fact that some of its visual characteristics are being copied even by designers with very different agendas. For example, there is the planting in Park Gerland in Lyon, France, designed by Gabriel Chauvel and Yannick Salliot. The planting is in highly formalised monocultural strips and blocks, separated by paths, that are intended to resemble agricultural plantings. A wild, uncultivated look is deliberately avoided, as emphasised by one of the project managers, Michel Corajoud (Davoine 2001). Nevertheless, despite these clear intentions, the great swathes of herbaceous material and grasses are quite naturalistic in appearance. It is as if these designers have adopted the aesthetic visions of designers using ecological plantings without the ecological baggage that go with them.

It is difficult to predict how members of the general public would react to naturalistic herbaceous planting presented in a formal context in public urban situations. However, it seems plausible that such an approach would allay many of the concerns that are thought to exist in relation to naturalistic or wild-looking herbaceous plantings, namely untidiness, dislike of seasonal variation, incongruity in an urban situation and safety issues.

There are, of course, many ecological approaches to herbaceous planting that would fall either wholly or partly within the definition at the beginning of this chapter but which do not look at all naturalistic or wild either because of the structural way in which the plants are used or because of the exoticism of the species. Examples of these two different non-naturalistic approaches are, respectively, some of Piet Oudolf’s more formal designs, such as the planting in his own garden at Hummelo, in the Netherlands, and some of the

Non-naturalistic ecological herbaceous plantings


An example of an ‘exotic’ ecological planting from the trial gardens at Weihenstephan, Munich, Germany

plantings pioneered by Richard Hansen at Weihenstephan, Germany (Figure 11.12). Neither of these approaches is likely to be rejected by the public on the basis of the concerns that seem to exist in relation to ecological plantings that are more naturalistic in appearance. If such plantings turn out to be unpopular, it is more likely to be because they are simply different from more traditional approaches. Like other forms of artistic expression, they will have to stand or fall on their own merits.

To summarise, whilst it seems that many urban dwellers in the UK may have a positive regard for naturalistic herbaceous vegetation in public urban settings, there seems to be concern over issues of safety, tidiness, seasonal variation and appropriateness. The challenge inherent in designing with this type of vegetation is how to overcome these concerns through design, species selection, technical expertise, and public consultation and involvement. For the reasons explained earlier, it seems unlikely that the more overtly designed herbaceous ecological plantings will be subject to these concerns.

Updated: October 12, 2015 — 10:10 pm