Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.

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Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.

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Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.

 

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Holly berries in abundance.

 

Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

Wild orchids in central France

Spider orchid, France

Spider Orchid – Ophrys fuciflora

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time (of course you have!) you will know that we now live in central France, after many years, many homes and a long horticultural career based in the south of England. The Indre is the name of the department (or county) in which our home village is situated, although the ancient name of the Berry is also widely used. It stretches from the river Cher, on the edge of the Sologne forests in the north, to beyond the Brenne National Park, the river Creuse and to the foothills of the Massif Central in the south. The soils across this sparsely populated, rural department vary enormously and with it the wild flowers. These can be seen in quantities which we unused to in England, where industrialisation, population expansion and the use of agricultural chemicals have reduced the range and quantity of native flora significantly.

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Walking the dog in the countryside we regularly come across groups of wild orchids and one, the Lizard Orchid (“L’Orchis Bouc”, Himantooglossum hircinum) seeds itself all over our own garden. We have found Spider Orchids on the industrial estate, Burnt Orchids on a building site, Helleborines by the fishing pond, Butterfly and Bee Orchids in the woodland meadows and Early Purple Orchids in the public park. In total, 47 species of wild orchid have been recorded in the county, one of which is found only in the Brenne. Orchids can be found almost everywhere: on limestone grasslands, river meadows, alkaline marshland, acid sandy soils, both wet and dry, in woods and forests and by the sides of the roads. They can also be seen in the grand chateau parkland and in much more humble gardens, often in very impressive quantities.

may 2013

Cypripedium Kentucky – a pot full of American orchids in France

In addition to a small selection of native orchids we have in our garden a patch of Chinese hardy orchid, Bletilla striata, which survived a period of -24°C a couple of winters back and is grown alongside dwarf Rhododendrons in our Japanese Garden. By the front door, facing north and in the protection of an unheated conservatory is a huge pot of the garden orchid Cypripedium Kentucky. These are also perfectly hardy and I shall be planting them out in the garden later; I was so excited to have them, I just had to show them off where everyone could see them!

Early autumn in the Loire Valley

It seems just yesterday, and is actually not much more than two weeks ago, that I was swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean and eating breakfast on the sun-terrace overlooking the harbour on the presqu’île de Giens. Today in the centre of France it is feeling very autumnal: damp and cool, with the sun struggling to burst out of the clouds and a temperature hovering around 20° C. I know; I expect no sympathy from the English!

Grapes ready for the harvest at the vineyard of Chenenceau chateau

Actually I like autumn or, to be more precise, I love the seasonal changes throughout the year and autumn is no exception. In the vineyards of the Touraine it is harvest time and every village you drive through smells of grape juice and wine. I have visited quite a few recently and in spite of a difficult growing year, the excitement and optimism surrounding the “vendage” is palpable. Bernache, the partly fermented not-yet-wine, bubbling, cloudy and yeasty grape juice, is a wonderful seasonal treat here, sold in plastic water bottles – it would explode otherwise. It is drunk immediately it is drawn out of the vat, with roasted chestnuts and much good humour, despite having only 2% alcohol.

Wild Cyclamen carpet the ground in a local garden

There are plenty of summer flowers hanging on although the town has lifted most of its 20,000 bedding plants to prepare the ground for winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to take a few late cuttings before they did so but I do not expect a high rooting percentage at this stage in the season – plants are closing down for the year rather than rooting.

Autumn can be a colourful season, with leaf colour adding to the display both in the towns and the countryside. Under the trees in many gardens and parks the Cyclamen and Colchicum are in full flower.

Autumn is also one of the most important times of the year for planting hardy subjects and I am looking forward to the great buying opportunities at the famous Courson plant fair in a couple of weeks. At the local garden centre I spotted of fine batch of discounted Hydrangea paniculata Sundae Fraise, a compact variety growing to only 1m and with flowers which mature from white to deep pink. I bought a plant to get me in the planting mood.

Nature does it best

Domaine de George Sand, Nohant-Vic, France

My loyal readers will know that in an effort to put wine on the table I offer guided tours of the gardens of the Loire Valley and the centre of France to clients from around the world. Today we were out reconnoitring one such garden, which we thought would interest our next group of guests. The gardens of George Sand, literary giant and resident of the Indre, are officially designated a Jardin Remarquable, so after confirming our route via the rather lovely Chateau de Bouges, we pushed on toward Nohant-Vic, seeking out appropriate restaurants on the way.

French Bluebells

Our own lunch was a sandwich in the countryside; our venue, the side of the road by a pleasant looking wood, which turned out to be full to bursting with Bluebells, just starting to flower. I have never seen Bluebells ( (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in France and had assumed this, like decent beer and Cornish Pasties, was something I had left behind in the UK. This wood will rival anything I have seen in England in a week or so, with millions of bulbs set to create a carpet of blue over a huge area. The ditches and verges nearby were dotted with Cowslips, thriving here where there are few to pick them and so prevent them seeding. In addition Euphorbias, Wood Anemones and other wild flowers were everywhere to be seen. We pushed on towards Nohant, through a clearly ancient forest of Oak, Chestnut and Hornbeam, screaming to a halt at the sight of hundreds of large, wild herbaceous plants at the point of blooming, at the side of the road and scattered amongst the trees. I struggled to pronounce the name but thought it was Asphodel and took this photograph so that I could check it on our return to the house. The plant is Asphodelus albus, more at home by the Mediterranean than in the centre of France, but doing extremely well in and around these woods.

Asphodelus albus

After this splendid show from the countryside, the gardens of the Domaine de George Sand came as a bit of a disappointment and we soon decided to leave it out of our schedule. Our next tour includes a group of five traveling from all the way from Australia and we felt they would not appreciate being dragged for nearly two hours into the Berry countryside to see something so remarkably lack-lustre. It’s not that it’s a bad garden; it has been maintained, I assume, as it was in the 1840’s, when the intellectual elite would come visiting: Balzac, Delacroix, Liszt, Chopin, Flaubert, Gautier, Tourgueniev…… It’s a peaceful place but I’d love to design a modern garden to replace it. On reflection, the chateau at Chenonceau, with its gardens built by rival queens on the banks of the Cher, seemed a much safer bet.

Purple Toothwort - Lathraea clandestine

Close by we stopped to walk the dog by river Cher and discovered a remarkable little plant growing under the Poplars. The purple Toothwort (Lathraea clandestine) has no chlorophyll to manufacture its own food and deals with this in two ways. Firstly, it is a parasite, living off the sugars in the roots of its host (in this case Poplar), but it is also carnivorous, devouring insects which are unlucky enough to venture into tiny cavities in the leaf. Interesting and pretty.

We had a lovely day out and avoided an embarrassing mistake in proposing a visit to Nohant. The countryside of central France really excelled itself today, certainly better than the man-made garden we visited.

Spring gardening in France -2012

Such a wonderful time of the year – spring – but it’s never easy to say when it has started and when it has finished.

Officially, the four seasons are determined by changing day-length, which is currently increasing by more than 20 minutes every week. This change is determined by how the earth orbits the sun and the tilt of its axis. On the first day of spring—the vernal equinox—day and night are each approximately 12 hours long; the actual point of equal day and night occurs in the Northern Hemisphere a few days before the vernal equinox. The sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west. The first day of summer—the summer solstice—is the longest day of the year, when the sun reaches its most northern point in the sky at mid-day. After this date, the days start getting shorter.

The first Primrose of spring

So, spring starts officially on Tuesday March 20th and ends Tuesday June 19th, but here in the centre of France the plants and birds beg to differ: they are pushing on regardless. We are having our lunches in the garden now, and the resident lizards are popping out at regular intervals to see it we drop anything. In the warmer gardens Primroses have started flowering and up in the greenhouse in the loft, seeds are germinating like there is no tomorrow. It’s all very exciting.

As usual I am growing more than we can cope with and as seedlings are ready they come down from the loft to the dining room windowsill and from there to a bench I have set up in the cabin by a big, south facing window. I am leaving the Begonias upstairs in the warm for a while yet but we have so far moved on a nice little selection of plants:

  • Geranium Moulin Rouge
  • Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe
  • African Marigold Golden Puff
  • Aubergene Amethyst
  • Antirrinum Axium and
  • Coleus Kong mix

Having completed the marking of student assignments for the day I have a little time to sow a few more trays or pots of seed and perhaps move one or two more down. Impatiens have germinated well and I am hoping my home grown plants will be successful. Impatiens downy mildew – Plasmopara obducens – is a new disease, found for the first time in the UK in 2003, which perhaps arrived on imported commercial propagation material (seed or cuttings). Controls have since been ineffective and 2011 was saw the biggest UK outbreak yet. While wholesale propagators like Ball/Colegrave are continuing to grow Impatiens in 2012, Thompson and Morgan will not be offering young plants and the DIY chain B&Q will not be selling their usual 20 million or so. They are encouraging customers to buy Petunias, Geraniums and Begonias instead but I refuse to be put off and will grow my own. No doubt I will be unbearably smug if all goes well and blame foreign imports if it doesn’t!

For those of you who follow these things, my plant of the week on Pinterest is the Daffodil, which have begun to flower again after last month’s cold spell.

Global local gardens.

Green roof with Sedum and Virginia Creeper

We like to think of ourselves as having a global reach, both as garden designers and as horticultural educators, with clients and students located throughout the world. I have long maintained that a well-trained gardener can practice his craft anywhere and is able adapt to local conditions.

I still believe this to be true, but have on occasions been stopped in my tracks by comments from home-grown amateurs or professionals.

I recently contributed to an internet landscape forum discussion about green-roof

Virginia creeper - invasive?

gardening, suggesting a reference book I thought might be useful to an American garden designer, while innocently mentioning our own green roof here in France. We have covered the top of a concrete tool shed with Sedum and it does very well, as does the Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, which offers a change of leaf scale and gorgeous autumn colour. Insects are pleased with both plants and the combined effect is both attractive and practical. “Virginia creeper”, I was told, “is invasive”.

Turkey Oak -Quercus cerris

I quite fancy myself as a plantsman but here is an aspect of plant selection it would be easy to get wrong; designing a border in a foreign country could get you into hot water, when your favourite flower turns out to be the bête noir of local environmentalists! In the USA the National Invasive Species Council keeps a watchful eye on these things and their web site links to pages dedicated to each State, detailing the noxious weeds which are a problem around the country. There is a Federal List noting those considered noxious throughout the country and in addition each state has its own list.

And what a range of plants! Across the country 106 plants are prescribed in this way, while California lists 242 on its own. The UK has problems with Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), Indian (Himalayan) balsam, (Impatiens glandulifera) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) famously causing difficulties in the wild. The UK organisation Plantlife has a substantial list which, like those in the States, contains some surprising plants including Ailanthus altissima, Quercus cerris and several Cotoneasters.

Here in central France, the river Cher is slowly being clogged up with Water Primrose

Water Primrose on the banks of the Cher

while the Oak woods are taken over by Robinia pseudoacacia originally grown for vineyard support posts. The story does not end with plants. Hornets accidentally imported from China in garden pots are currently finishing off the honey bee population, already under pressure from disease and agricultural pesticides. In the Canal du Berry which follows the river, American signal crayfish are decimating young fish and imported Coypu undermine the banks.  Gardeners and landowners are largely to blame and it would seem we have to be much more circumspect in the choices we make. I have noticed a tendency of many of my American students to select native plants so perhaps the message has got through over there and it is we Europeans who need to learn the lessons.

One country’s weeds are another’s prized specimens. For the record, when I design a garden in another country I either use a local plant expert to assist with plant availability and desirability or research the issues myself using local gardening associations, university horticultural departments, growers and other sources. That way I am less likely to make a fool of myself by suggesting inappropriate plants. It’s not always straightforward, being a globe-trotting landscaper, but I am glad I am still asked to work around the gardening world.

Ferns and other inconveniences

The local paper is up in arms! A hypermarket had bought a patch of land next to its store to expand its activities at a total project cost of 15 million Eurors, only to be told it cannot proceed because of the existence on the site of a wild fern, Ophioglossum vulgatum.

This plant is not especially uncommon in Europe but has protected status in several areas, including the Sologne, on the edge of which the hypermarket is located. The Adder’s-tongue Fern is an unusual fern that grows in old grasslands, on hillsides, along woodland rides and on sand dunes. It usually appears between June and August, spending the rest of the year underground as a rhizome. Looking more like an Arum than a fern, it is considered a good indicator species of ancient meadows and can be found alongside Common Spotted-orchids, Quaking Grass and Devil’s-bit Scabious. For centuries it has been used as a treatment for wounds, using a preparation of it known as the ‘Green Oil of Charity’.

Ferns (but not this one) are one of the solutions recommended in Graham Rice’s new book, “Planting the Dry Shade Garden”. Billed as the only book deal with this growing condition, I was interested to read what was advised, having several dry-shade areas in my own garden. The book starts by discussing the nature of the problem of planting against shady walls or under trees. It goes on to explain how to improve the situation by reducing shade and increasing the amount of available moisture around trees. Crown thinning, crown thinning and tree removal are suggested options to increase light levels while a range of techniques are available to improve fertility and soil moisture content.

Planting the dry-shade garden - Graham Rice

In dealing with the soil the suggested actions are to raise soil levels, improve soil quality, install irrigation and mulch regularly. Container planting is also proposed. Increasing soil depth is a common but controversial technique, and one which may have your local authority tree officer rushing ’round to intervene. Few trees can confidently be predicted to thrive or even survive if more than four inches of fill are placed directly over their roots, so great care must be taken when gardeners construct raised beds as suggested. The rule of thumb is to preserving the existing levels in a circular area around the tree, equal in diameter to at least one-foot for every inch of stem diameter. This means that I should protect an area of 100 feet (30m) around our 150 year old Sequoia which is 8ft 4″ (2.55m) in diameter!

The other issue not discussed here is the serious harm which may be done to trees by planting amongst their roots. Regular cultivation of the soil can also remove or damage delicate feeding roots and introduce soil-borne diseases, so a high degree of care must be taken when gardening under trees.

As Graham Rice points out, what can be grown in dry shade depends on how bad the problem is – after all, some on the world’s finest gardens are woodland gardens. The main part of the book describes a range of plants suitable for the toughest conditions, a source of inspiration to those gardeners who have about given up hope with their own shady areas. Around 130 plants are listed and illustrated, with descriptions written in a style that suggests he knows them personally. The well-illustrated sections are divided into Shrubs, Climbers, Perennials, Groundcovers, Bulbs and Annuals and Biennials. We already have a few of the plants suggested in our bed under the Sequoia and  in the shade of the neighbour’s Lawson Cypress, but I am happy to say that I learned a thing or two and plants I might have not considered were brought to my attention. It is the nature of such a book that a few of my favourites were left out, while some of the suggestions would need controlling if they were not to take over more favoured parts of the garden.

All in all I would recommend this book to gardeners of both the armchair and the hands-on kinds. It is written by a well-respected and knowledgeable plantsman and aimed at garden owners on both sides of the Atlantic. At just over £10 from the Garden Design Academy bookshop, it could make an ideal stocking filler this Christmas.

Back from the South of France

After a tiring but satisfying week teaching a residential garden design course here in Chabris, we took ourselves off to the South of France for a part work / part holiday break. Our base, after a little touring around the Languedoc-Roussillon, was Pézenas, where a client put us up at their vineyard Gîte Rural while we discussed the creation of a new garden around their house. This arrangement also allowed for plenty of time to visit the region with our son, who flew over to join us.

Roquebrun - Jardin Méditerranéen - perhaps next time?

I had planned to take in two local gardens but discovered that our first was available for evening guided visits only and this did not suit our schedule. We reached the village of Roquebrun in the Hérault to seek out the Jardin Méditerranéen but were distracted by a pretty restaurant and in the end did not make it to the garden. We did however, discover the local wine co-op where a steady stream of growers were delivering their harvest. After some debate and careful consideration, we eventually departed with two dozen bottles of their finest.

Roadside saffron crocus

This region of France is particularly attractive when the temperatures moderate and the tourists leave. We swam in the Mediterranean and looked at the boats in the harbour at Sète, enjoyed a wonderful meal in a village on the edge of the Bassin de Thau and strolled by the Canal du Midi. We were particularly taken by the hills and mountains of the huge Haut-Languedoc Natural Park behind the coast. The stunning scenery and an amazing diversity of countryside, geology and climate had us captivated for several expeditions, driving around mountain roads and through tiny mountain hamlets. We should have walked more I know, but the dog had a foot infection and was effectively lame for the whole trip, although she enjoyed our swims in lakes and rivers each day. One area consisted of a forest of Chestnut trees as far as the eye could see (and probably much further) and locals were busy bringing in the bounty, while in another, more open region, the roadsides were flecked with saffron crocus.

All good things come to an end and eventually we had to make our way home, after lunch next to the brick cathedral at Albi and a night in a farmhouse above the River Lot. We arrived refreshed and ready to work again, with a garden design to complete and, amongst the 2,000 emails sitting in my Outlook Inbox, a few more requests for courses. The first signs of autumn were evident in the garden.

Less tourism and more gardening in my next post, I promise!

A SHORT HISTORY OF NATURAL GARDENS

A client recently rang to ask me to visit her home to design a Natural Garden. I am happy working in an endless range of garden styles but the first thing to ascertain when someone has a request of this type is what they mean when they use such  terms: Mediterranean, Japanese, Formal, Baroque, English – its a veritable minefield for the unwary designer.

The client was asked to show me examples of what she had in mind and an interesting discussion ensued.

Here then, is my…..

SHORT HISTORY OF NATURAL GARDENS

In 1597 Francis Bacon wrote an essay entitled “Of Gardens”.  His definition of a garden in this essay makes it clear that his was an escape from nature, which needed be brought under human control. It begins: “G0d Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures”. Untamed Nature could still be regarded as a threat to man at that time, but now in the 21stcentury we are all too aware that the reverse is true.

Chinese style - Chelsea Flower Show 2008

Natural gardens are by no means a recent phenomenon.  In fact the very first Taoist gardens of the Chinese were a means of enabling man to live to live undisturbed by external events and in harmony with nature. Records from the eighth century explain the philosophy and techniques of garden making in great detail.

The origins of recent movements toward natural gardens can be traced back to the late nineteenth century.

At this time in the UK garden landscape was dominated by formal design, inspired by those of Italy, by way of French and Dutch landscaping. In contrast to this, a movement arose which supported natural garden design, a reaction to the highly structured format of these “foreign” imports.  Around the 1850’s some designers were challenging the use of bedding plants and calling for the use of hardier, more permanent plants.  William Robinson’s book ‘The Wild Garden’ was published in 1870 and signalled the beginning of the modern natural garden movement.  Many would consider Robinson to be the grandfather of the natural garden and his wild garden brought the untidy edges (where garden blended into the larger landscape) into the garden picture: meadow, water’s edge, woodland edges and openings.

Non-native "wild flower" meadow

Another pioneer of natural garden design was Jens Jensen.  Born in Denmark in1860, he migrated to the United States in 1884.  In partnership with Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, he developed the ‘Prairie Style’ of gardening which used indigenous plant material. Jensen transplanted the wildflowers into a corner of Union Park, Chicago, creating what became the first American Garden in 1888.

Important contributors to the natural garden movement    

Many since Robinson have advocated natural gardens, and some important publications over the years are as follows:

  • Gertrude Jekyll: Wood and Garden (1899)
  • Wilhelm Miller: The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening (Urbana 1915)
  • Frank. A. Waugh: The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening (Boston 1917)
  • Jens Jensen: Siftings (Chicago 1939)
  • Willy Lange: Garden Design for Modern Times (Gartengestaltung der Neuzeit) (Leipzig 1907); and
  • The Garden and Its Planting (Der Garten und seine Beplflanzung) (Stuttgart 1913)
  • Piet Oudolf:  Planting the Natural Garden (Timber Press 2003)
  • Violet Stevenson: The Wild Garden (Frances Lincoln 1998)
  • Samuel B Jones and Leonard E Foote: Gardening with Native Flowers (Timber Press 1997)

Waugh, Robinson and Lange all suggested that exotic plants which fitted with natural plant associations could be included in the natural garden.  Others such as Jensen argued against using any foreign plants in the American garden.  Alwin Seifert, a German landscape architect, also insisted that no foreign plants should be used even if it meant there were only a few native plants to choose from.

Natural planting style: Koblenz 2011 garden festival

Theories behind the natural garden movement   

Given that this movement gathered momentum towards the end of the nineteenth century it has been argued that it was a reaction to the rapid change to the natural environment imposed by the industrial revolution.  Indeed the movement towards natural gardens took place in the rich, industrial nations of Europe, the United States and Australia.

Other theories have suggested the implication of nationalism and racism, and yet others have suggested a backlash against the architecture profession. In addition, the devastation to the natural environment caused by invasive exotic plants has been significant in many countries, including the corner of rural France where I now live.

RECENT HISTORY

Natural planting in an English downland garden

In the 1970’s there was a revival of late nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about natural gardening, which have continued into the 21st century.  We have witnessed the development of ‘Green Parties’, ‘Eco-Warriors’ and various other environmental groups around the world in recent decades.  As awareness of environmental problems has grown, many have attempted to bring nature back into the different realms of everyday life.  This desire to re-unite with nature is also reflected in the work of some modern garden designers.

Many of the classic texts mentioned above were re-published during this period.  Another important publication was (Natur einschalten-Natur ausschalten) ‘To Switch on Nature – To Switch off Nature’ by the Dutchman L. G. Le Roy (1978), feted by those struggling with German post-war politics.

The term ‘Natural’ is now often considered synonymous with ‘Ecological’, focusing on a new generation of practitioners and thinkers concerned with moving our society onto a more sustainable path.

Around the world many countries and peoples have supported ‘native plant movements’ where the use of natives in garden designs has been the ultimate goal; evidence of such movements has been observed to a lesser extent in Europe but it is rapidly gaining ground.

The argument has always been coloured by a lack of clarity over what actually makes a plant “native” and what “nature” is. From the outset, William Robinson and his contemporary, the English architect Reginald Blomfield, (1856-1942), debated at length over this subject and the discussions are sure to continue….