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….

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It’s Spring in central France: seed sowing and 700 Pear varieties

Spring is with us without a doubt and we were excited to hear that we may get some rain: we have not seen a sign of it in our corner of France in many, many weeks and the ground is dry. This certainly makes weeding easy and I have been taking the opportunity to spring-clean the garden for the growing season. New leaves and flower buds begin to show in the gardens and countryside as they come back to life and wildlife is responding – the garden is full of birdsong.

I have been up in the loft sowing seeds. So far these include the hardy Banana Ensete glaucum, which I hope to be able to grow and overwinter outside as a couple of others do in the village. Thompson and Morgan’s Flower Of The Year, Sweet Pea Ballerina Blue is finally in the propagator, having soaked the seed over night before sowing in individual pots. We like sweet peas but have yet to grow a really good crop – perhaps this year will be different.

For the kitchen I have planted cherry tomatoes and peppers; Suncherry is described as best in a greenhouse but will have to deal with a warm corner of the garden. We love cherry tomatoes, harvesting and eating them every day in the summer, with wine vinegar, salt and olive oil. I have the bush variety Sungold, to sow from seed, but also coming from Holland as grafted plants. I am looking forward to testing them to see the difference in performance. We have bought several hot pepper varieties, having discovered them a few years ago; I am not a lover of hot food but as with so many home grown vegetables and fruit, they are so much better than the shop-bought varieties. Inferno F1 is sown and two others await.

We are growing several Echinacea varieties in the garden now, so I thought it might be interesting to grow some from seed. We are trying T&M’s Magic Box this year and will see how we get on. A number of Garden Design Academy courses cover the growing of plants from seed but we are currently reorganising the menus to make it easier to find them all from the 70+ now on offer. New sections will include Home Gardening, Parks and Recreation courses and General Horticulture.

A change of subject: during our morning walks with the dog we stop to chat with many people we meet along the way: in the street, on their doorsteps and in their gardens. During one such encounter we were invited in to look at the plot of a man pruning his fruit. It turns out he is an internationally famous botanical artist and grows nearly 700 pear varieties (along with a couple of hundreds apples, a dozen cherries……the list goes on). His pear collection is the largest in private hands and people come from around the world to see them. Central France continues to delight and surprise!

Paypal, bees and the classroom is halfway built

What do gardeners know about the internet?

I decided to take a look at a “free” trial of a well-known download service based in Germany and allowed the company to take 1 Euro from my Paypal account as proof of my identity. It took me all of five minutes to realise this service was not for me and I cancelled my trial shortly after.

Before I knew what was happening they had extracted ninty Euros from my account as a subscription (for a month, a year, who knows) and told me that a refund was out of the question.

I appealed to Paypal, who we use as our internet banking system for all our Garden Design Academy courses and a week or so later the cash was back in our account: marvelous! There seems to be no way to thank them on their web site but I can do what I like here so: “thanks Paypal”. It seems the web is a safer place to do business than most folks realise…..provided you deal with serious companies like Paypal (authors note: no, I am not being paid for this!)

Hoopoe

Alsas my camera was not to hand to take this picture of a Hoopoe

Wildlife in our garden continues to give us much pleasure; while we were eating our lunch on the Flower Island today a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) was wandering around on the lawn digging for dinner – such a pretty bird – I do wish I had had my camera to hand. He gave us a quick flash of his crown of feathers before he flew off to continue his hunt for food next door.

Along with the pleasure comes great responsibility: the honey bees rely on me filling the bird bath with water every day. We have no idea where their hive is but at this time of the day ten to twenty of the little fellows will be fighting for position around the edges. The bats, on the other hand, just give without demanding anything in return. Their insect eating activities in the evening are most welcome and we generally have a dozen performing aerial acrobatics for us as dusk approaches. We recognise three species, called technically: little ones, medium ones and the occational big one!

Verbena

Verbena bonariensis in flower in our garden at Chabris

Plants. We have had such mixed weather – hot days like today eventually and inevitably producing rainy days to follow and this has been great for the plants in the garden. Largestroemia are just starting to flower here (elsewhere in the village they have been doing so for some time) and the first Asters are also just showing. The garden, less than 18 months old, is a joy, with flowers, fruit and growth everywhere. This is such a generous country.

Talking of which, a neighbour who used to run a building firm in Paris has decided we are so useless he would take over the construction of our log cabin – the new classroom for the Garden Design Academy. As a result, the building is on its way up after two years of sitting in pieces under black plastic in the front garden. What a relief it is to see the progress and I am told it could be more or less finished by the end of next week.

Log cabin

Soon to be the Garden Design Academy classroom

Spring in Central France

I’m beside myself with excitement: Spring has arrived here in the Indre.

Crocus

Spring Crocus in our garden in France

We had been suffering a bit from cool winds coming down from the north, prolonging winter and holding back the new growth. “When spring does come, it’ll arrive with a bang” we were telling each other in the morning queue at the bakers’.

Right on time, last weekend, the weather changed, the temperatures doubled and daffodils burst into flower. A little rain with delightful, warm sunshine and the beds have been transformed into a riot of competing growth, as garden plants wrestle with weeds over every centimetre of ground. Fortunately I have been weeding most days during the past month or more and the borders are under reasonable control. My random seed sowing is bearing fruit as ornamental annuals germinate alongside less desirable vegetation in between the more permanent planting.

Where once the ground was bare, bulbs and herbaceous plants are emerging from winter dormancy and in the sky, insects are again being hunted by swallows and bats. I heard my first Cuckoo of the season yesterday with money in my pockets, ensuring a prosperous year.

The first Daffodil of Spring

Several times a day I tear myself away from work to check the garden for new signs. Lilies appeared today which could not be seen yesterday; the Tulips have subtly increased in height; that Peony is definitely alive. One flower, then ten flowers, now the whole apricot bush is covered, in the space of three or four days. If this sort of thing does not move you then check your own pulse for signs of activity; out in the garden the symphony of life has just begun – you can smell it, you can see it, you can feel it.

French Regional Gardening at election time

Today was Regional Election Sunday. Chatting to locals it seems that half the people do not vote in the regional’s, arguing that they do so for the European, Presidential and Parliamentary elections and of course for the local mayor. But the town square was crowded today with people discussing politics in the cafe, at the baker, the grocery shop and outside the church. Preparations for this afternoon’s important boules competition added to the sense of carnival and as we walked the dog through the town a brightly coloured bicycle race poured down the main street.

In France there are three levels of local government: the commune, the department and the region. It is with the regions that the real power now lies following recent attempts at decentralisation. The region of Le Centre holds the purse strings and local mayors, for all the considerable respect they are given, have to go cap in hand to ask for cash for local projects.

Having left France for England before her 21st birthday, Chantal has never voted in France so we were ignorant and quite excited about the process. We have been asking everyone we know to tell us how it works and this had led to some delightfully animated conversations over the past week or two. In the end she took her voting card (in her maiden name) down to the Salle de Fête, fighting through the Sunday morning crowds to the voting hall. Each main candidate is represented by a sheet of paper indicating his name and those on his party list. Voters pick a selection of these sheets together with an envelope. They then disappeared into a booth where, hidden from view, they place the leaflet of their preferred candidate’s team in the envelope and present it to the officials sat at the table with the voting box. Next Sunday they will do so all over again for the two or three candidates remaining in the race.

Daphne laureola

Daphne laureola - native shrub of France

As a foreigner, I stayed outside with the dog, shaking hands with all the people we knew and complaining that the poodle and I were excluded from the vote. After all that excitement we headed off to the woods, me to hunt for flora and the poodle to chase the fauna. We found several wild Daphne shrubs amongst the trees, while the dog amused herself with a hare, a deer and several pheasants.

Daphne laureola is an undemanding evergreen shrub, ideal for dry soil in shade and an excellent backdrop for Hellebores and Snowdrops, which flower at around the same time. The slightly fragrant lime-green flowers are a god-send for early bees, much less showy than many Daphnes, but very welcome all the same. It grows wild on the greensand ridge near Ampthill in Bedfordshie and, we have discovered, on limey-clay in the centre of France. The list of plants coping with these conditions is not large, so a plant like this is very welcome. Plants tolerating the same conditions inevitably flower in the spring, before the trees take all the light and while there is still some moisture in the soil. I often plant Forsythias under conifers, especially the French variety Marée d’Or (Gold Tide), which grows only 60cm tall but 2m wide. This and many other fine Forsythia varieties were produced in Angers in the Loire Valley, the results of a breeding program involving exposing the plants to radiation. I gather this was deliberate, rather than an accidental leak from the local nuclear power station!

Forsythia Gold Tide - Maree d'Or

Forsythia Gold Tide - Maree d'Or

Another standby for such challenging conditions is the Flowering Quince, or Chaenomeles. C. japonica and speciosa are Japanese and Chinese plants respectively, while Chaenomeles x superba is a hybrid between the two. These spiny plants come in a range of colours – shades of white, pink and red – and in heights from groundcover to 3m or more. They can be trained up a shady wall, shaped into a security hedge or allowed to ramble at the base of trees The Chinese use the fruits medicinally to assist blood circulation and relax muscles, having dried and sliced them after harvesting; we use them in jam.

Back in the woods again and we come across a deer that had been hiding in the undergrowth. The dog goes haring off in hot pursuit while I find myself in the middle of a huge clump of Solomon’s Seal. I have always considered this to be a rather choice plant, to be grown in the shade with other spring flowering herbaceous gems like Dicentra and Corydalis. There are a number of different species of Polygonatum and I make a note to return to this spot, take photographs and try to identify the plant. Nearby there are patches of Lilly of the Valley, Muguet in French, the flowers of which are sold by gypsy children in the market square for the 1st May.

Solomon's Seal

Solomon's Seal

Gardens in France tend to have trees so knowledge of shade loving plants is important. Our own garden suffers in places from the shade and dryness created by neighbours’ conifers and we have walls along two boundaries. One of them, we discovered, has been built in such a way as to steal a metre of garden from us along its entire length, requiring expensive correction at some stage. The French are not above taking the occasional liberty when backs are turned. While the walls create a little shade, the biggest shade challenge is also a delight: our two massive, one hundred and fifty year old Sequoias.

Sequoias are touchy-feely plants: they have soft, spongy, red-brown bark which would turn the most serious of you into a tree-hugger in the time it takes to open a bottle of Touraine. Guests at our B&B have complained about the brambles at the base which discouraged close inspection of the trees, so I have had to get out with the strimmer and clean them up. Later, when time and money allows, I plan to build a deck which will be cut to the shape of the trunk so that we will be able to sit with our backs against it and look up into the heavens through its branches. The trees are a magnet for wildlife; I have installed a lovely Japanese granite water bowl for the birds, insects and dog to drink from and gradually I am planting closer and closer to the base.

Our students’ geographical diversity has added an extra dimension to our gardening. We now have a large group studying the RHS Certificate in Horticulture and a few on the Certificate in Garden Design, all responding to our teaching with experiences of their own. Talking about shade loving plants brings comments about gardening in Canada, the USA, Australia, France and all over the UK which enhances our knowledge and excitement for the subject. With gardening, you never stop learning.

Compost and Vectorworks

I have caught up on my marking for Garden Design Academy students and the weather is spring-like, so this morning after walking the dog in the woods I have been out in the garden. I’m not getting any younger so serious physical exercise is taken in little bites these days. The far end of the garden is an unattractive view for our B&B guests and my task for today was to begin the construction of a compost bin from the Sequoia and Beech logs I stacked last year. These are no longer needed for firewood since we discovered that the central heating boiler had been installed in such a way that the living room chimney is effectively blocked by the stainless steel boiler flue.

No matter: I am making composting bays against the back fence and once completed old carpets, which at the moment grace the site of the proposed log cabin, will be dragged over to line the floor and walls and prevent weeds pushing into the newly created compost. I hope you are following all this: I’ll be asking questions later. A compost bin made of staked logs will, in my humble opinion, be heaven on earth for bugs, beetles and other fauna, thus achieving a number of useful aims in one grand operation. As I say, I’m not getting any younger and half an hour or so heaving logs was enough for one day. The next task, the dog’s afternoon run, is to get back to my review of Tasmin Slatter’s manual on Vectorworks Landmark for garden designers.

It has taken me a year to extract a review copy from anyone but finally Nemetschek in the States have given me a copy of the 2nd edition to play with. I didn’t get the CD which would normally come with it and this edition is based around Vectorworks 2010 while I have the 2008 version on my own PC, but I’m glad I persevered. I cannot in all honesty call it an easy read and my first attempt to read it like a novel ended in frustration at page 25. I have since started again and am using it as intended, following the instructions with my copy of Vectorworks and gradually working my way through the files and tools. A full review will follow, with luck before they publish the 3rd edition.

We are pleased to have received the first press release on the Courson spring garden show  – les journees des plantes. This year it will be held on 14th, 15th and 16th May and for me the show is as unmissable as Chelsea was when I lived in the UK. Much more on this in further Blog postings. I regret to say that this year we were not able to visit the commersial horticultural show at Angers, le Salon du Vegetal. That was a pity, but we were busy earning a living at the time and salary earning oportunities dont happen too often these days.

We are also delighted to announce that this is the second month in a row that my former landlord, Wyevale Garden Centres, has not threatened to sue us in case we owe them rent. Over the past 18 months we have been harassed by really rather impressively qualified debt collection companies who are sure we owe Wyevale money but not sure why or how much. This was a feature of our time with Wyevale, who had an accounting system described to us by one of their staff as “not fit for purpose”. No doubt this little reminder, foolish in many ways, will have them threatening us all over again but after a while it becomes hard to care what they do. As on so many occasions in the past, we have pointed out their errors and they have disappeared for a while with no thanks and no apology. No doubt they will change debt collection companies in a year or two and we will have to go through this all over again. Gardening has its moments, I can tell you!

A gardener in France -Feb 2010

When we moved in to our home in central France we were delighted to discover that we had a family of squirrels nesting in one of the ancient Sequoias in the garden. And not just any squirrel: Sciurus vulgaris, the European Red Squirrel, largely exterminated by the American Grey in the UK but still delightfully common here.

We watch them in the morning from our bedroom, leaping down from branch to branch until they reached the fence. Then, depending on which food source they had decided to investigate, they slink along the top of the fence towards or away from the house. If they are off to our next door neighbour’s Hazel bush they undertake an amazing manoeuvre climbing along the face of the house, a tactic which keeps them safe from the attentions of local cats and our own dog. Looking like a small red form of the hero of the Spiderman comics, this rodent version of the mountain climber’s traverse takes them the 35 metres from one side of the building to the other, from where it is a quick hop to the nut bush.

Red Squirrel

This is all very lovely, but we have just realised there is another reason they regularly undertake this perilous journey. They have discovered a little window into the cellar, where we have stored heaps of walnuts collected last autumn and left in boxes and bags to be enjoyed in later months. A recent check confirmed the loss of an entire 5-kilo box full, no doubt keeping our furry friends in omega-3 fatty acids for some time to come.

If this were not bad enough, I have also noticed that the Crocuses, planted last autumn to provide a display this spring, are conspicuous in their absence and although I lack the proof required in a court of law, blame has been firmly placed at the foot of a giant Sequoia not a million miles from this spot. “Oh, bless!” said English friends when we told them the troubles we were having with the squirrels. The French shoot everything that moves in the right season, so I now have Chantal chatting up hunters with big guns (only joking!).

As a by-the-by, I spent years trying to convince my family that there were black squirrels in the region, when we lived in Hertfordshire. I would see them as I drove past the old hospitals near Stotfold and Shenley. Like the Muntjac Deer, I gather they are another escapee for which we have to thank the Duke of Bedford’s, Woburn Park.

Back in France and a village in the nearby Sologne held its annual wine and cheese festival this weekend. It was only a small affair but very good humoured and an excuse, if one were needed, to try a few more wines. After sampling some from the south-west and some Reuilly, from a few miles up the river Cher, we found ourselves at the stand of a young wine maker from the Cour-Cheverny. We tried white, red, rosé and sparkling wines, all good and all organically grown. The region is the only area growing the Romorantin grape, a 16th century variety producing a unique and rare white wine. A Romorantin vineyard at Domaine Henry Marionnet claims to be the oldest in France. It was planted in 1850 and somehow survived the phylloxera epidemic that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century. This was only our second tasting of Romorantin and the first time we have enjoyed it. We bought a few to fill the space created in the cellar by the squirrel.

It is wonderful to see the garden coming to life after the hard winter. Some plants have been lost to the cold and some, of course, to the squirrel, but mostly our young plants have survived the experience. As I continue to get to know our soil and climate I am trying plants which would have needed pampering in our last English garden. I do make exceptions, but generally plants have to get on or get out: it’s a tough love we offer our garden plants.

Garden plants come from all over the world and I like to show people our collection, describing the origins of plants as I do so. South African plants are a favourite, perhaps because my Grandmother lived there in the 1920’s, and there are some real beauties becoming increasingly available.

 

Phygelius

Hebe, Phygelius, Choisya and Magnolia

 Phygelius reminds many people of Fuchsias although they are actually relatives of our native Figwort and in the wild enjoy similar streamside conditions. Available in a range of colours from yellow to scarlet, they are often to be found sold as summer bedding.  We had several in our borders in the UK and I loved the way they suckered, sending a shoot covered in colourful tubular flowers erupting from behind a bush several feet from the main plant. At the moment we have just the one: Phygelius aequalis Yellow Trumpet, given to us as a sucker pulled off a plant in an English client’s garden last year. Given that they drop their leaves and can look straggly over winter, I like to plant them as close as possible to an evergreen shrub and allow the plants to mingle. In England we had a scarlet variety pushing up through the yellow leaves of Choisya ternata – it was quite a sight.

Crocosmia_George_Davidson

Crocosmia George Davidson

Many popular South African plants are herbaceous or bulbous and this offers them some protection from European winters. We now have five varieties of Crocosmia (sometimes called Montbretia), easily grown from corms and excellent for cutting. Two varieties, yet to be unidentified, came from Cornwall where in places Crocosmia masoniorum grows wild. Many cultivated varieties have larger flowers than the species and our collection includes Emberglow (dark red), Buttercup and George Davidson, also known as Norwich Canary. This golden yellow variety was bred at Earlham Hall, Norwich in 1913 and named after the scientist, Crocosmia enthusiast and head gardener of Westwick Hall. 

 

I have a soft spot for variegated plants which, while purists and plant snobs may disagree, add colour and interest when flower colour is lacking. We grow South African Tulbaghia in its silver variegated form, combining two interests in one plant. Tulbaghia violacea Variegata or ‘Silver Lace’ has silver strips on both its grassy leaves and all the way up the long flower stems, which in summer carry large lavender flowers. In only its first year with us, we are quietly confident it will thrive. We grow it in an area of garden amongst many silver and white plants, including a white flowered Agapanthus, also from the Cape.

 

Tulbaghia Variegata

Tulbaghia violacea Variegata

Near the end of my South African odyssey I must mention Kniphofia, or Red Hot Poker. We have one so far: Timothy, a splendid poker with soft salmon, peach and cream flowers lined with darker salmon and with pretty flared ends. These are produced above dark bronze stems from July to September. We also grow Eucomis, species Gladioli, Nerine and Zantedeschia all of which can be bought from nurseries specialising in  South African plants, like Trecanna in Cornwall.

Plants are in themselves beautiful things but the more one delves into the origins, uses and history of plants the more fascinating I find them. This interest can become a passion, as I found very early on in my career, but it’s legal, decent, and honest and gets me out in the fresh air.