Albrecht Durer’s “The Large Piece of Turf” features a chunk of soil and weeds that could just as easily have been dug up from the vacant lot down the street from me (here in 2012) as from the German meadow that likely inspired Durer hundreds of years ago.
In his post, Thomas presents for our consideration the intricately planted (some would say “fussy”) traditional English perennial border. He compares the study of great perennial borders by the likes of Christopher Lloyd to “training for a triathlon” — in other words, the ultimate planting design challenge.
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of English perennial borders — not because the plantings aren’t magnificent, but because they’re always laid out along a flat, straight axis. Garden paths that resemble I-80 through eastern Nebraska are not really my cup of tea. Perhaps because of my upbringing in the hills and woods of the Piedmont, I prefer a bit of curve or rise or dip in my garden experience, but whatever.
That is not really the point.
What resonates with me about Thomas’ post is his assertion that a great perennial border demands profound plant knowledge from the designer. I love that he is writing about this kind of thing because in my mind it elevates planting design from the way we often see it presented — as a paint-by-numbers exercise — to what it can be, what it should be — high art!
To create a planting masterpiece, it is not enough to be familiar with basic design principles. It’s not even enough to be familiar with bloom time and foliage texture, is it? A great planting designer needs to be familiar with all of the ages and stages of his medium.
This line from his post really gets to the heart of the matter:
“Mixing tulips, for example, among various perennials is incredibly tricky. Their leaves can easily smother newly emerging perennials. But Lloyd and Garrett understood exactly what perennials can co-exist with hundreds of tulips.”
So this is the kind of knowledge that, if applied, can elevate a planting from merely pleasing to downright exquisite. For me, knowing that the foliage of my Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ starts to green out around July 4th, or that my Autumn fern turns a glorious tawny orange in the fall but my Southern Wood Fern doesn’t, or that the stems of my Toad Lilies only retain that excellent purple tinge until about June 1st, so that combo with Astilbe ‘Delft Lace’ I was so proud of will only last a few weeks, duh!!– ahem – this is the kind of profound understanding of plants I need to be striving for.
High maintenance? Uh, yeah. But the maintenance is part of the pleasure. Those guys who love vintage cars hardly ever actually drive them, right? They fuss over them, polish them, tinker with them – that’s how they enjoy them. Same with gardeners. We enjoy our gardens by working in them, clipping, digging, yanking, chopping, nipping, stomping — possibly even flinging, weeping, or cursing. Sitting in an Adirondack chair with a lemonade gazing upon the flowers? Yeah, sounds good, maybe I’ll try that one day.
And fussy? I guess an intricate mixed planting with highly choreographed bloom-time that takes into consideration the changing texture, form, color, and culture of each plant in the design could be considered fussy. But then, you could say Renoir’s work was fussy, too. And the poetry of TS Eliot. Martha Graham’s choreography? Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Also fussy.
So thanks, Thomas, for pointing out that “low-maintenance” should not always be the guiding principle of garden design. Thanks for reminding us that this is art we’re talking about.
Thanks so much to all who commented on my last post, regarding the question of whether gardens and designed landscapes belong in the world of “art.” Opinions were varied, with some suggesting that, “of course garden design is an art, you fool!” and others saying that they didn’t much care what sorts of labels were assigned to the practice of garden design, romping around in the world of semantics is for suckers, man.
But what came through loud and clear is the passion that so many of you have for the art (or craft if you prefer) of garden-making.
Before I move on from the issue, though, I want to throw a related question out there:
Should there be more serious criticism of landscapes and gardens?
When I’m not working, cleaning dishes, or yanking weeds, I like to kick back with a stiff drink and contemplate the differences between Art and Design. I’ll admit, before I began my study of landscape design five years ago, I really did not have much exposure to the world of design — certainly not visual design anyway. Except for one desktop publishing course, my college English courses were almost exclusively studies in poetry, fiction, and drama, all squarely in the “artsy” realm of language known as “literature.”
I was very excited to finally attend the Philadelphia Flower Show, which has been on my list of destinations for a few years now and FINALLY my sister and I coordinated our schedules and got up there yesterday. Woo-hoo!
Will post more about the experience later, but for now just wanted to show you these incredible works of art we saw at the show. They were created only with plant parts: flower petals, leaves, bits of stem, etc. Everybody who saw them yesterday was wishing they were for sale, but alas, they were simply there on display.
I can’t even imagine the combination of artistry and patience it must have taken to create these incredible pieces: