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|1 Gardening in Layers||14|
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|3 Northwest Naturalistic||46|
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|5 American Mixed Borders||84|
|6 Naturalistic Gardening in the City and the Suburbs||102|
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Gardening in Layers
Though the idea of gardening with layered plantings may sound new, it is at heart an extension or amplification of what many gardeners already do by instinct. Simply stated, layering involves the grouping of garden plants not only by size, but also by associations that are similar to those found in natural plant communities. The skyline plant layer consists generally of trees, whose silhouettes can be seen against the sky from a instance. Next come tall understory plants, usually a mixture of shrubs and large perennials. Beneath these are mid-level plants, a role often filled by perennials. Last come the carpeters, plants that cover the ground.
For ornamental garden models, the layering prototype is a mature woodland. Here, the largest trees soar above intermediate shrubs. Beneath these are ranged clumps and flowing masses of perennials. At their base run spreading carpets of ground-covering plants. These carpets are often punctuated by colonies of seasonal bulbs, and the overall woodland community may be laced together by clambering vines. The exact makeup of these plant communities differs from place to place, yet the overall relationships remain fairly constant.
In North American woodlands, from the open forests of New England and the northern tier states to the lush Northwestern rain forest or the dense, moss-hung woods of the Deep South, the canopy is a rich mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. Where winters are harsh, the evergreens will chiefly be conifers, while more temperate regions boast broad-leaved evergreen trees as well. Woodland shrubs present a similar blending of evergreen and deciduous, and the percentages of each are roughly equivalent in all settings, although the variety of broad-leaved evergreens is greatest where winters are mild. Perennial herbs occur in relative profusion everywhere, as do bulbs and vines.
Where formal or obviously artificial gardens may charm or stimulate, they very rarely comfort us or make us feel welcome. Natural woodlands, however, have become a visual cliche in wall posters because to the average viewer, they denote inner peace as successfully as a calm sea suggests serenity. If such a greeting-card sensibility seems overly romantic or even sentimental, it nonetheless points toward a genuine and verifiable human response to the natural. Over the past several decades, numerous stress-response tests have demonstrated that when humans are shown pictures of natural settings, we relax measurably. In fact, people who can look at plants out of their office windows have lower heart rates, better immune system function, and experience less stress than those who view man-made objects.
This research prompts the suggestion that gardens intended to be meditative or peaceful havens be made as "green" as possible, combining the plants in those comforting layers we observe in the natural plant communities. It seems likely that gardens enclosed with green layers, rather than clipped hedges or hard-edged walls, would have the same soothing effect on human psyches. We could then fill our beds and borders in whatever manner we chose, gaining both the psychological and physical benefits of a green enclosure while providing a visually effective backing for our more colorful seasonal compositions.
Emulating Natural Layers
When we emulate those natural layers of canopy, tall and compact understory, and ground covers in our gardens, we don't have to try to copy them exactly, or attempt to replicate habitat. We may choose to do so, of course, but if we prefer instead to make gardens that reflect any of a variety of long-established styles or modes, we can still capture the feeling of naturalness that characterizes those native plantings by adapting the lush layering and interplay of plants. Not only will we benefit in health and well-being, but by replacing clipped hedges with unshaped ones, we also save ourselves a significant amount of needless labor.
Naturalistic layering is not about the strict ranking of plants by height, placing larger ones at the back and stepping them down in orderly fashion until the border edges (which in traditional styles are probably trimmed with tightly clipped boxwood). It is most definitely not about ranking woody plants (often chosen for values other than natural size) in this manner, then controlling any tendency for them to outgrow their position through annual pruning or more frequent shearing. This illogical but widespread concept remains powerfully influential in European, English, and North American formal garden design, where the hand of man is very much apparent.
Over the centuries, traditional English and European garden design has stressed this kind of controlling role, reflecting a shared religious doctrine that emphasized man's supremacy over nature. Until very recently, most church teachings implicitly suggested that the natural world was created in order to serve humanity. Since the church loomed very large in both English and European cultures, its attitudes strongly affected the way most people viewed nature, and by extension, their gardens and the entire plant kingdom.
Among those who favor formalism, the classic stair-step approach to plant placement is still popular. Over the past few decades, however, revolutionary garden designers have suggested discovering and responding to the natural conditions presented by a garden site, rather than imposing a design that has nothing to do with the physical realities of the setting.
For instance, across Lake Washington from Seattle, the Northwest Perennial Alliance has created an internationally renowned set of mixed borders that contain over ten thousand kinds of plants in naturalistic combinations. English visitors in particular have been smitten with what they consider a radical design. The main borders encompass some 17,000 square feet, all of which is densely interplanted in architectural combinations and vignettes. The heart of the border is accessible by a narrow path that allows visitors to be enveloped by the sheer vigor of the magnificent plantings. When he saw them, Ray Lancaster (noted English author, lecturer, and plantsman extraordinaire) commented that in England, nobody would even think of making a border that follows the natural contours of a sloping hillside as this one does. He was also moved by the uncommon beauty of plants seen silhouetted against the sky from a pathway some 10 feet below the border's top level, a refreshing viewpoint that traditional flat borders cannot offer.
In the Pacific Northwest, and increasingly elsewhere in North America, gardeners are seeking out plants that will adapt readily to the cultural conditions of their gardens, rather than trying to create an artificially homogeneous situation. (Here again, standard practice required us to alter our native soils as best we might, in order to create that mythical well-drained yet moisture retentive soil that is supposed to delight the most difficult border beauties.) More and more, gardeners are trying to work with their plants rather than force arbitrary roles upon them. Until recently, few people would think twice about using what are potentially huge trees as foundation plantings or hedges. When the tree-character of those plants asserted itself, the typical response was simply to hack off any piece that didn't fit the chosen shape or pattern. Almost nobody questioned the need or good sense of this very common routine, including garden writers and designers, despite the reams of garden writing that explained in laborious depth how to compensate the wounded plants for that indignity. Nearly universal cultural assumptions blinded us to the silliness of our intellectual slavery to such traditional but exceedingly illogical plant choices--most particularly silly when we live thousands of miles away from the lands where those choices might have been sensible ones. (Although quite often they were no more sensible even then.)
Sensible, Sensitive Planting
Today, enlightened practice directs us to seek out plants that will not outgrow their positions. Rather than trying to keep a Douglas fir hedge 10 feet tall, we would select instead an evergreen hedge shrub that matures at 10 feet. To avoid endless trimming and clipping, we would choose a plant with a handsome natural shape. In fact, because the average hedge run changes character over its length, often dramatically, we would ideally select an assortment of compatible plants, evergreen and deciduous, and weave them into tapestry hedges, rather than try to make one kind of plant adapt to the whole range of conditions.
By selecting plants intelligently and placing them with thoughtful attention to real needs and conditions, we are not pitting ourselves against those plants but working cooperatively with them. In the same way, when we array our plants in layers, we seek to recreate the soft-edged look of natural plant communities in which each plant chose its own spot. Near my house is an open meadow bordered by a woodland. I pass this scene daily, sometimes many times a day, and have seen it in every season, every light, and every weather. Those mixed woods inspired my year-round mixed borders, and continue to inspire the gardens I am making today.
In these woods and the accompanying meadow, each plant seems brilliantly placed for maximum beauty. Clumps of redtwig dogwoods, Cornus stolonifera, create a running thicket that suddenly gives way to flurries of fine textured Spiraea douglasii and Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis). Above them rise matching thickets of slim alders, punctuated at perfect intervals by vine maples, honey locust, or cascara. The patterns shift back and forth between the densely twiggy and more open architecture, each in precisely the proper proportion to best accentuate their own qualities as well as their neighbor's. Indeed, plants in nature quite often are brilliantly placed, for given the chance, they will put themselves exactly where they can grow best. They will also, of course, put themselves in quite a few less than optimal spots. It is a mistake to idealize nature, for in her extraordinary abundance, she strews her offspring with such abandon that the result is rather hit-or-miss. If we want to keep our garden plants in harmonious balance, we must edit as ruthlessly as do natural forces--wind, disease, fire, rot--in the wild.
Ideally, naturalistic layering patterns will guide us to place not only the woody, structural plants but every plant where its natural shape, height, and mass are precisely what our design requires. For instance, when we want a slim, upright shape, we will choose a plant that will retain that shape throughout its life, rather than selecting something that must repeatedly be pruned into the desired shape. We seek also to place each plant so that its innate architectural qualities will be expressed. Color, texture, flower, and foliage color are all taken into consideration as well, but the emphasized quality will always be that of the plant's overall essence, its most pronounced characteristic.
In order to use plants intelligently and to their best advantage, the designer is required to know a good deal about a great many plants. What's more, we need to know how they are likely to respond in a number of different sites and settings. This may seem daunting, but gardeners who grow and learn about a wide range of plants will have an edge over those who stick with a mere handful. So to expand our effective palette, we have to experiment with as many plants as possible. It's a tough job, but ... In any of the lively arts, the best work comes from those who know their medium so thoroughly that they can call out the fullest potential in their chosen materials. The result is always more lastingly beautiful than work that is done brilliantly but without respect for the natural proclivities of the medium.
The Pleasure Principle
If artful gardening sounds like a lot of work, take heart. Every stage, from plan to finished product, is really quite a lot of fun. If to further our knowledge we must grow a wide variety of plants, then every garden needs its nursery bed and test plot, where new and unfamiliar plants can be trialed before their incorporation into the beds and borders. This of course means finding a spot for the R & D department, but with a little ingenuity even tiny gardens can encompass a test plot.
When I gardened in the city and my children were very small, their sandbox doubled in winter as a cutting bed/cold frame and nest for new plants. When I couldn't squeeze another plant into the ground, I found an old, tiered plant stand that took up very little ground space but held over thirty pots. Buying every new and wonderful plant that calls your name is a tall order, I know, yet we simply have to shoulder this burden if we want to stretch past our comfort zone and grow along with our gardens.
What we want for and from our gardens is in the process of changing more rapidly and dramatically than it has for many years. We are looking for ways to garden that do not adversely affect the piece of land in our care. We are also exploring ways to combine plants in groupings that make cultural sense, and take full advantage of their specific beauties. What's more, we increasingly want our gardens to present enticing vignettes in every season. Where winters are mild, we want the garden to remain alive and full of change even during the off-months.
We will make mistakes along the way, but nothing is quite so instructive. When we commit horticultural errors, the result can teach us a great deal about both what we like and what we don't like. If we like something, we tend not to investigate further. When we are less satisfied, we put more effort into discovering what went wrong and what is required to make it right.
Naturally, we will be doing a fair amount of editing and rearranging as our plants respond to their homesite and their neighbors. A good gardener once told me that all perennials should come with wheels. Mixed border builders would expand this to say that all plants should come with hand trucks (and it would be nice if they could bring their own holes, too). Our initial editing will be inspired by errors, but plant maturity and refinements of our own taste can necessitate change as well. No matter how or in what style we choose to garden, the odds of getting it "right" the first time we plant are approximately nil. Only in extremely formal bedding-out, where your best friend is your ruler, is there a fighting chance of placing everything to your satisfaction the first time around, and that only works because it's an artificial pattern, based on geometry or symmetry or numbers, not taking into account the vagaries of site, setting, and the realities of the plants you have to work with.
Artful garden planning must also take into account our own changes--not simply maturing taste and more informed plant choices, but our own changing bodies. Phoebe Noble, an astronomer and extraordinary gardener now in her eighties, explained recently that she has been watching the composition and style of her large (and rather famous) garden alter slowly with the years. "Originally, the garden had quite a few formal areas, with clipped hedges, tightly mown lawns, and long borders that needed hand weeding," she recalls. That has been changing recently, and though she still has some hedges clipped each year, she finds herself enjoying the more natural look that is developing where the enclosing trees and shrubs are left unclipped. In some of the woodsier sections, where many native plants now grow, the garden looks like a well-edited extension of the native woods, remnants of which surround this large suburban garden.
Some years ago Mrs. Noble decided that she could no longer keep up the heavy maintenance required by formal beds. She redesigned several large sections of the garden, including an old orchard that holds hundreds of species and hybrid geraniums, to be less demanding and simpler in upkeep. Paths were widened to permit free passage of the large, sit-down mower, which enables her to keep the 5-acre garden tidy without regular assistance. To eliminate hand edging, the planting beds were rimmed with species and hybrid geraniums (of which she has several hundred), plants that accept mowing with aplomb. In several places native shrubs and perennials that were once routinely removed have been encouraged to cover ground where weeds would otherwise flourish. Although she remains very active in the garden, she is frank about what she can and can't do these days. "I come from long-lived, healthy people, but I had to accept that, realistically, I may only have ten or fifteen years left when I can put in eight or ten hours a day in the garden. That's why I began making real changes, among them letting native plants do more for me."
Naturalistic planting is not about numbing perfectionism but about joyful discovery. There is plenty of room for error, and indeed, accidental combinations and effects are often as good or better than anything we can dream up. They can even rival the effects of nature, which after all contain a good element of accident. A very great designer, Marco Stufano, whose gardens at Wave Hill in the Bronx, New York, are world famous, has often said that gardens that don't take risks aren't worth making. Unless we are willing to try new ideas, new techniques, new plants, and new designs, we can never travel beyond the known.
So we make a few mistakes along the way. So what? Any experimental scientist--or artist--will agree that we learn far more from our mistakes than from easy achievement. When we examine our less-than-perfect efforts, seeking to understand what does and doesn't work, we begin to decipher the roots of our own taste as well as the solid principles of design and composition that underlie both natural and contrived plantings. It is hard to imagine a more pleasurable enterprise, or one that can do more to forward horticultural excellence.