Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Where is the garden?"

A few weeks ago (actually, I now realize that it was a few months ago... ), I was reading Thomas Rainer's series of posts on his blog Grounded Design on the use of native plants, and the related story of the native gardens at New York Botanical Gardens. It seems that the NYBG is currently transforming these areas because they failed to impress visitors. The originals were designed to illustrate various native habitats, but their small size made them difficult to maintain, and in the end the “general public was left wondering exactly where the ‘garden’ was”. In response, the gardens are now being transformed into new designed landscapes with bolder plants and a more refined design, which should hopefully prove more popular. Rainer goes on to say that if native plants are to be successfully adopted into mainstream gardening, they must meet our criteria for “ornamentally beautiful” plants, meaning that they should be “pretty” and “showy”. The public isn’t going to fall for a patch of rough grass with a handful of hidden orchids. Also, we should be using these plants in “designed landscapes”, rather than confining them to designs that usually try to mimic some natural habitat. And that got me thinking… are we just trying to change the varieties of plants we use, or are we trying to change the types of gardens we create?

First, I should say that I fully understand the problem Rainer describes. Maybe it’s fair to say that the average person enjoys bright colours and “knock-your-socks-off bloomy” borders much more than something they could encounter on the side of the road. We are attracted to flowers and colours, so perhaps we should just acknowledge this as a universal starting principle in all design. I also agree that just because we’re trying to use more native plants doesn’t mean we should always try to mimic a certain habitat.

But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that there should be more to this than just trying to find sufficiently dramatic native plants. We seem to be on a bit of a movement for more ecologically sensitive gardening. Maybe this movement could be about more than just exchanging one colourful plant for another; maybe we can change our whole perception of what a garden is?

This brings to mind two rather well known garden makers: Piet Oudolf, the internationally recognized guru, and Henk Gerritsen, the lesser-known wild child. Oudolf has become a huge influence in the landscaping world by using new plants in new ways. He has helped change our perceptions of gardens, and I, like so many others, admire and enjoy Oudolf’s work a lot. At the same time, I would argue that he is still playing by the rules of the game. People don’t wonder if Oudolf’s gardens are gardens – they clearly are, but they are new and different. His strength is that he has found a balance between managing our desires for an aesthetically organized and fairly colourful and ‘showy’ garden, while still pushing the envelope.

Henk Gerritsen was a colleague of Oudolf’s, and they collaborated and shared ideas on many new concepts. However, Gerritsen’s garden ideas were far more wild and pushed the concept of a garden further than Oudolf. I’m by no means an expert on his philosophy (especially as I haven’t even read his book -can’t find a reasonably priced copy anywhere!), but I have been to his garden. When I was there, my first impression was that it was a bit too disorganized and unkempt in parts, perhaps losing the feeling of a garden. But it had the most incredible atmosphere, and almost 2 years later it’s still one of the places I think back to the most. Flowers were far fewer and smaller, plants seeded everywhere, and the buzz of insects was deafening. It was wild and overwhelming at times, but also gentle and comforting at others. Gerritsen’s approach is far messier and less structured than Oudolf’s, and I’m sure many visitors to his garden have been left wondering ‘where the garden is’. But in the end, for me at least, this kind of ‘borderline’ garden provided a richer experience than many other gardens I have been to, one of being truly immersed in an outdoor, green space.

Human perceptions of beauty can change, often dramatically, over time. Gardens are no different. Although we’ve been trained for showy flowers and ‘designed landscapes’, we’ve already started to appreciate new types of gardens. Maybe we can push this even further, and come to appreciate all sorts of experiments as gardens - even those with – rumpled textures, subdued flowers and a little bit of chaos just beyond our control.


  1. This is a great post. I would love to see the late Henk Gerritsen's garden. I agree, our idea about what is beautiful does change-- usually slowly but sometimes amazingly fast.

  2. Another interesting analysis, especially about Gerritsen's garden! I tried to understand the 'attraction' of his garden, and your statement of '..provided a richer experience...one of being truly immersed in an outdoor, green space' seems so appropriate. Did he use much hardscape? (just curious)

  3. Michael - Thanks very much. Maybe on your upcoming trip to the UK (which sounds amazing by the way!) you could swing over to the Netherlands? Or maybe next time :)

    Chen - There is hardscaping in Gerritsen's garden, but not very much and nearly always smothered in plants. He does use a lot of clipped hedges though to provide some geometrical contrast. And thank you - I'm glad I was able to provide some sense of his incredible garden. I feel that I'm only starting to appreciate it myself.

  4. I had my friend Mick look into how much it would cost to extend the trip to the Netherlands and it is not in the budget this year. Next year, I hope!

  5. I don't mind a patch of rough grass with a handful of hidden orchids. Although 'statement' gardens make an immediate impact ( and I like drama too ), their unspoken intention is often to commodify or to express ego. Some of the most beautiful things we see in life and nature are found by the wayside, without directive or publicity. Humility and subtlety, even obscurity, belong in gardens too. 'The public', to my mind, often only has a 'fashionable' understanding of aesthetics. I haven't seen it, but it seems a pity the NYBG has rescinded: a good anything is not necessarily a poular something.

  6. Oops, that's meant to be 'popular' something!

  7. Thanks very much for visiting, and sorry for the very late reply. You've put it much better than me - humility and subtlety definitely belong in gardens. It's about keeping our minds and eyes open, and appreciating many different types of gardens.

  8. Thanks for this interesting post -- I'm going to see if I can incorporate it into my upcoming fall trip to Germany and the Netherlands. I'll definitely be able to visit the gardens of Piet and Anya Oudolf and Mien Ruys.

    And as someone who's come to gardens from a native plant background, your thoughts about garden-making are thought-provoking ~ I'll have to take a look at the pieces that you mention by Thomas Rainer, too.