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Gardening | Design | History

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An ecological approach to planting has been familiar in Germany and the Netherlands since the 1930s. Building on the work of Karl Foerster, in 1947, Richard Hansen (1912–2001) established Sichtungsgarten (‘show garden’) on the Weihenstephan university campus near Munich, with 7 hectares (17 acres) of trial beds in which to study trees, shrubs, new rose varieties and especially, communities of herbaceous perennials, including the ornamental grasses beloved of Foerster. By growing them in environments similar to their natural habitats, he hoped to arrive at groups of plants that could grow successfully together with minimal maintenance. Hansen’s research was meticulous, exploring how small adjustments in soil, shade, water or temperature could affect the ‘sociability’ of plants, such that some might thrive and others be overwhelmed by their neighbours. In 1981 he published, with Friedrich Stahl, Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, giving detailed lists of plants, both species and cultivars, suitable for various situations. It rapidly became the perennial planter’s bible. Hansen’s first concern was the efficacy of his plant groups, but his successors at Weihenstephan have added an aesthetic dimension, with more colour theming and emphasis on form and texture. 

Henk Gerritsen rejoiced in subverting conventional gardening wisdom. ‘What is straight should be curved, what is curved should be straight,’ he wrote joyfully in his seminal (and amusing) Essay on Gardening, published shortly before he died. At Priona, his garden in the Netherlands, dense naturalistic perennial plantings were set off by some very eccentric topiary. 

The purpose of Weihenstephan was to develop planting ideas for public spaces: there was a strong tradition in post-war Germany of mounting garden festivals as a vehicle for urban regeneration, leaving cities a legacy of creative planting. One such scheme was Westpark, Munich, laid out by Rosemary Weisse in 1983. For gardeners brought up in the Jekyll tradition, Westpark was a revelation. No longer confined in narrow borders, masses of perennials spread out over the best part of 0.4 hectares (1 acre), resembling a great meadow or a steppe, the elements chosen to perform over a long period and peaking in waves every three weeks – all with little more intervention than regular weeding. 

    The same dynamism characterizes Sichtungsgarten Hermannshof, another experimental garden in the spirit of Weihenstephan, proposed by Hansen and planted in the 1980s by one his students, Urs Walser. Again, the planting is based on communities occupying specific ecological niches – everything from free-draining open meadow to ‘monsoon forest’. There are experiments in prairie planting, in finding tough perennials to compete with aggressive grasses, and in trialling different maintenance systems. Much effort is devoted to measuring the amount of maintenance required for different planting concepts: one of director Cassian Schmidt’s key aims is to find economically viable ways of bringing perennials into the city. 

Penelope Hobhouse is one of the most highly regarded exponents of horticulture and international garden history, creating gardens in Britain, France, Italy, Australia and the USA. Between 1980 and 1993, she and her late husband restored and revived the Arts and Crafts garden at Tintinhull, a National Trust property in Somerset and, most recently, she has been involved in the restoration of the Aberglasney Gardens in Wales.

This is a familiar idea in the Netherlands, where for well over a century, efforts have been made to introduce nature into the urban environment. Amstelveen, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, led the way, with plantings of wild flowers not only in its heemparks or nature parks, but rolling out alongside roads and tramways. While these plantings were never exclusively native, they were certainly intended to convey the impression of the all-but-lost uncultivated Dutch countryside. This did not deter plantswoman Mien Ruys (1904–1998), another disciple of Karl Foerster, from experimenting with loose, wild-looking groupings of non-natives to forge a unique synthesis between German-school naturalism and Modernist design at her garden in Dedemsvaart. 

    The artist Ton ter Linden, likewise, approaches naturalism not so much as an ecological but as a visual imperative, creating plantings of an apparently spontaneous (but in fact carefully contrived) beauty. He is one of the key figures associated with what has become known as the Dutch New Wave. Another was Henk Gerritsen (1948–2008), who cherished the delicate planting combinations of nature, but had little time for conventional gardens: ‘A baboon’s bum is colourful too,’ he memorably wrote. And then, by chance, he visited the Mien Ruys garden in July 1977: ‘It was a culture shock, a slap in the face ... I had never realized that something like that was possible with plants. I wanted to do this as well. But then differently.’ Within the year, he started making a garden with his partner Anton Schlepers at Priona, where he interpreted wildness in a new way – not in plant choice, but in a reluctance to disturb the soil, a tolerance of weeds, and in welcoming the full cycle of life, including death and decay. This meant not only leaving dead stalks and seed heads to stand through the winter – common practice in the Foerster tradition – but also accepting the slug-tattered hosta leaf as part of the picture. Unlike the more expansive German schemes, Gerritsen combined loose, perennial, meadow-like plantings with the Dutch flair for crisply cut hedges. 

    This combination would also characterize the earlier work of perhaps the best-known exponent of the New Perennials style, the nurseryman and planting designer Piet Oudolf. 

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In 1979, American designer Martha Schwartz (b. 1950) shot to fame with a garden she made in front of her Boston home as welcome-home gift to her husband. It featured a pair of (existing) box hedges, a quantity of shiny purple aquarium gravel and 82 bagels, dipped in yacht varnish to make them waterproof. Her husband was not amused (the couple later divorced) but the Bagel Garden became a cause célèbre in the press and launched her career. 

    It was followed soon after by a garden of Plexiglas and chicken-wire made for her mother, and by the rooftop Splice Garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a surreal collision of formal French and Zen Japanese traditions, reinvented with plastic plants, coloured glass and astroturf. The Splice Garden again caused outrage, but it was a perfectly practical solution in a space with no further load-bearing capacity, no soil, no water source and no maintenance staff. 

Created in 2007, Topher Delaney’s Line of Fire Garden, San Francisco, USA, sets a magnolia tree between two lines of flame. 

Schwartz inhabits a flexible zone where urban design meets art installation. She makes gardens in inhospitable places where none might otherwise exist – on roofs, in sunless canyons between buildings, in city squares where the tangles of infrastructure beneath the surface preclude the digging of holes. She uses largely non-living materials that can withstand the hard knocks of city living – though recent projects have included more plants. And she makes spaces to make people smile. Over the last century and more, the garden has become very earnest: the plantaholic 19th century followed by utopian Modernism followed by science-based ecological planting. Schwartz, like Ian Hamilton Finlay, revives the all-but-forgotten 18th-century notion that a garden can offer a laugh. And yet the wit and irreverence she has brought to her work over 40 years – a theatre square in Dublin that mimics a celebrity red carpet, or an ‘oasis’ of palm trees in tyre-shaped planters fronting an Art Deco, former tyre factory built in ‘Assyrian’ style – mask a very serious purpose. By bringing colour and playfulness to urban life, she seeks to create places that people will engage with, use and love. 

    On a planet with scarce resources, the most efficient, most sustainable solution is for people to live at high densities in cities: Schwartz aims to make those cities more liveable. She uses earth mounds, benches and changes of level to break big spaces up into garden-sized niches where people can feel secure. She thinks about what users might want from a space – a comfortable spot to sunbathe ... a place for kids to paddle while their mothers chat ... a quiet corner away from the office to eat a sandwich. 

Forest, by Matt Collins

For all that she declines to be hidebound by the past (she has no time for the faux-pastoral of Olmsted), she is alive to the tradition and culture of the sites where she works. In a new square in Abu Dhabi, the air is cooled by narrow water channels as in the first desert gardens, while green ‘dunes’ keep out the fierce desert winds, their planting – using water-saving green wall technology – recalling the patterns of Bedouin textiles. A recent Beijing residential scheme has the look of rice paddies, but the water channels that delight the local children also serve to manage storm-water and to cool the air. Her practice, for all its ‘artiness’ – the mist machines, neon lighting and dayglo paintwork – regularly wins awards for sustainable design. 

    Schwartz is, of course, by no means the only designer to bring artifice and fantasy to the modern garden. Antonio Gaudí (1852–1926) installed colourful mosaic dragons in Barcelona’s Parc Güell as early as 1900, while in the Canary Islands César Manrique (1919–1992) made gardens out of lava rock, whitewash and succulents, and decorated them with dazzling murals and kinetic sculptures. And it is hard to think of anything more artificial – or unsustainable – than the Dubai Miracle Garden (opened 2013), where 45 million bedding plants are massed to create pyramids, hearts, teddy bears, castles, even a jumbo jet. 

    Closer in spirit to Schwartz are a number of conceptual designers such as Claude Cornier and Topher Delaney, who share Schwartz’s distrust of naturalistic landscapes and romanticized nature, which they view as fundamentally dishonest since all man-made landscapes must be artefacts. Delaney has made shopping-mall gardens with planters that look like carrier bags, a rooftop garden clad in blue neoprene and inspiring hospital gardens packed with elements designed to stimulate play. An early garden, in San Francisco, was a Garden of Divorce, featuring jagged shards of concrete interplanted with blood-grass ... 

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