My favorite blogging landscape architect, Thomas Rainer, posted a provocative report on Garden Design Trends, so let’s discuss, shall we?  I wrote to Thomas for clarification and he kindly obliged.

New Romanticism
First, I love these predictions and sure hope they come to pass:

People will turn to their gardens for a spiritually authentic, but emotionally-soothing experience. .. We crave something real from our gardens, but not too edgy…Other romantic trends include exoticism, a renewed interest in the emotional experiences of gardens, and the glorification of wildness will be big themes in designs this year.

But I had to ask: is he talking trends among regular DIY gardeners or high-end garden designers?  The answer?  It’s complicated.

I write about design trends only because design is what I do—it is what I think about all the time. I am an avid home gardener myself, but I’m less qualified to discern what those trends are. Your question is interesting to me because to be honest, I never really distinguish between a high-end design world and the DIY gardener world. Yes, of course, there likely are differences, but I’ve always thought that gardening generally is better served by blurring those distinctions. I am a landscape architect, and I love the breadth and depth of our profession—including the idea that top-down design is often necessary. But first and foremost for me is the garden. I believe deeply in the garden as a discipline, a place, and a way of thinking. By its very nature, a garden is a relationship. It is a relationship between a person and a piece of land. When a designer designs a landscape for a client, it does not become a garden until that homeowner gardens it—until they enter into relationship with it. That’s what I’m interested in.

Is Massing Really Out?

Thomas’s post boldly declared that “Massing is out.  Highly interplanted, mixed schemes are in. It’s not just Oudolf anymore.  Designers across the world are using richly woven tapestries of plants to express an ecological aesthetic. ”  Here’s Thomas’s clarification in an email:

I actually don’t think massing is out. But I do think that designers will use highly mixed planting schemes to express a more ecological aesthetic. Mixed planting schemes are extremely hard to do well… [Regarding the Arthritis Research Garden], even though it featured highly mixed planting, the mix featured plants of the same height and color theme so that the entire mixture read as a carpet. And Hoblyn (the designer) contrasted the highly mixed plantings with larger masses of clipped hedges. That balance of legibility and intricacy is very pleasing.

If you’re interested in adding some interplanted beds to your garden, think of a unified “palette” of plants that are similar in height and competitiveness. Keep the number down to 3-7 different species. Repeat them throughout. With interplanting, repetition is the key to legibility and visual strength. And always place an interplanted bed next to something very simple–otherwise it will be too visually chaotic. I’d highly recommend Michael King’s ebook series on Perennial Meadows. Not only is he a great photographer, but he is one of the keenest minds on design strategies with perennials.

Plant Communities Explained

From the Chelsea Flower Show, a garden inspired by the plant communities of North Wales.

Another trend Thomas sees is toward “Community Gardens” but he’s not talking about allotments filled with vegetables.  He means gardens inspired by “wild plant communities” and predicts they’ll be used by “designers looking to add a bit of ecological aesthetic to give their designs context and credibility.”  An insight into the world of professional design I find fascinating.

I asked Thomas if “wild plants” was a synonym for native plants and got this insight into English garden design:

Yes, by “wild plant communities” I meant native plant communities. I used the word “wild” because I’ve found that the concept of “native” is not as strong in Europe—particularly Britain. Their landscapes have a much longer history of disturbance than the New World, so they don’t get so hung up on our more ideological distinction of natives/exotic. Whatever word you use, designers across the globe are more interested in using both the look and ecological function of communities of plants that have evolved together in nature. It’s my big area of fascination right now. It’s going to be a big, big deal.

He further clarified that these communities are native to somewhere; the point is that they grow naturally together, not necessarily where the designer is now using them.   “Designers are being influenced by the aesthetics of plant communities, not just their ecological function. It’s part of an emerging ecological aesthetic.”

Sustainability doesn’t have to look this bad.

On the Beauty of Sustainable Gardens, or the Lack Thereof

Here’s a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse:  “Functionally sustainable landscapes must now also be beautiful.”  When asked for an example, Thomas has a couple of juicy ones:

Oh yeah, I think the vast majority of “native” gardens in public gardens are functionally sustainable but not beautiful. It’s all about a collection of plants, or a theme park ride through various habitats. They become green messes.

Or consider rain barrels. Throughout history, cultures have harvested water from roofs or underground springs. Try this experiment. Compare the look of historic water-collection devices to modern rain barrels. The Chinese collected water in gorgeous carved stone basins; British estates often used decorative lead troughs to water livestock; Romans used stone and cement fountains throughout their cities. And then think about our modern rain barrels. These black and green plastic barrels with corrugated pipes poking out of them. They are engineered monstrosities. Why does being ecological mean that your yard has to look like an episode of Samford and Sons? (See image.)

Lower Maintenance is IN

Thomas laments the trend toward lower-maintenance gardens, especially for public gardens.  Budget cuts, ya know.  But I wonder:  is there an upside, like the need for fewer inputs?