Beth Chatto’s gardens don’t lack for press representation. Ms. Chatto herself wrote 8 books documenting their design and evolution. Dan Pearson cites the Beth Chatto & her gardens as a strong influence on his work. The Garden Museum in London is preserving her notes and correspondence I visited and, yes, the gardens are as good as promised. So, instead of adding another long-winded essay to the bank of tributes, I present you with a review in that most glorious of contemporary literary forms - a listicle. Now, I know it’s hard to read through this when you could be clicking through twenty photos of penguins who don’t give a fuck any more. Or discovering 12 unusual uses for cheese. But this is a listicle that you can actually apply to your life. Have a look. Discover the 5 secrets of Beth Chatto’s beautiful gardens*. And maybe, in a few years, I'll be writing a listicle about you. Or your garden.
1. Approach is Everything
Every work of art has a pace and a progression that unfolds over time. Some pieces develop gently, building from a simple theme to a rich and complex experience (think of Debussy’s Le Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin). Others explode bombastically from the first moment (think again of Debussy, but this time of of “Images: Iberia Pt 1 Par les rues e par les Chemins”). The Chatto garden is a slow builder.
My lovely friend Sarah of JarmanMurphy drove us through the gentle Essex plains. We passed through a tiny one-pub town. Blink, it’s gone. The fields stretched out again, gold and green. All of a sudden, there’s a country lane snuggled between high hedges. Gunmetal clouds of rustling eucalyptus foliage rise above the dark green slabs of hedge. Slip through the a gap, and you’re there - in the midst of the swirling waving pastels of the Dry Garden.
2. Work WITH the Character of the Site, Rather than Against It
This precept seems like a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want to garden with plants that thrive in their garden? Most of us gardeners, are - despite our gentle exteriors - greedy and jealous buggers at heart. Someone in rural Wales can grow spectacular Meconopsis? Gardeners on St. Kitt’s can grow spectacular Bougainvilleas? Surely I can grow both of them in my backyard plot in Arkansas. Beth Chatto’s gardens are developed in three primary zones that respond specifically to the site conditions she observed as she and her husband Andrew tended their property. You first enter the Dry Garden, the site of an old car park. Where vehicles used to wait, dripping oil and emitting acrid fumes, there’s now a stunning array of drought-loving plants in jewel-toned foliage and flowers.
Stepping down into the lower area of the garden, you witness three ponds that make up the Damp Garden. In this area, the foliage is larger and colors are deeper.
At the edge of the Damp Garden, the garden shifts into the Woodland Garden. In the dry shade of the existing tree canopy, Beth developed a meandering series of walks through drifts of mostly green planting flickered with rays of the sun, as well as white and butter-yellow blossoms. Each of these garden areas is detailed in its own book.
Traditional American and European gardening practice seeks to build a soil profile that’s high in organic matter, abundant in nutrients, and neutral in ph - an approach derived from agriculture, since those conditions suit most common food crops. Beth Chatto’s gardens demonstrate the power of exaggerating the qualities of your site and working with them, rather than attempting to change the site’s essential character. They demonstrate that a more sensitive low-impact approach can support aesthetically and functionally successful planting.
3. Distribute Plants in Groupings that Mimic Wild Plant Communities
This is perhaps the most difficult of the Chatto garden secrets to apply, as either a gardener or designer. It requires paying close attention to plant groupings in the wild - observing the physical patterns of how they occur in relationship to plant habit, drainage, slope, underlying soil/rock conditions, and light. The starting point is that many plants tend to grow from one central mass, with smaller groupings trickled out from the main plant. Over time, happy plants will begin to develop sophisticated arrangements as they spread.
However, a designer can jumpstart things by setting up plant groupings sensitively to begin with. Distributing plants in such a sensitive way requires careful attention and strategic maintenance. With larger woody specimens, it also requires sourcing plants in an array of sizes and clumping them together in ways that will startle traditionalist designers. Thomas Rainer and Claudia West start to address this idea of plant distribution within matrixes in Planting in a Post-Wild World. You can also observe such distribution patterns in Piet Oudolf, Roy Diblick, Keith Wiley, James Basson, and JarmanMurphy’s gardens. However, the groupings at the Chatto Gardens are some of the most sophisticated I’ve seen. One of the most magical groupings were clusters of delicate crushed-raspberry and cream martagon lilies rising above long grass in a walk at the back of the Woodland Garden. A few clumps of hosta trickled through as well. Simple. Unforgettable.
4. Build Complex Multilayered Plant Matrixes
The vast quantities of pre-emergent herbicide applied to American landscapes demonstrates what a passion we ridiculous humans have for denying nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum. For the maximum aesthetic experience and ecological function of a garden, it’s important to think in terms of a rich and multilayered planting structure. The Chatto Gardens achieve this in different ways in different areas. In the Dry Garden, small trees and subshrubs form anchors while fat waves of perennials swirl around their feet.
In the Damp Garden, those structures are scaled up with full-sized trees, giant-leaved perennials, and groundcovers puddling at their toes. In the woodland, high tree canopy and groundcover frame an open view corridor, keeping the space full of visual interest without feeling congested. The multilayering of plants in the Chatto gardens goes beyond the typical tree-shrub-groundcover layering. The perennial layer has its own complex substructure, with differently shaped perennials forming a complex lasagna of foliage and flower.
5. Use Your Echoes (Color and Otherwise)
Clever painters often carry patches of a color through a painting. Think of the crimson and cobalt shapes in Joan Miro’s Figure, Dog & Birds. Or the yellow blocks, glowing windows, and flickers on the pavement in Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night. These patches draw the eye of the viewer through the work. This technique works in gardens, as well. Of course, gardens have the added dimension of plants changing dramatically over time - moving into and out of flower, as well as changing flower color. I was particularly impressed in the Damp Garden with the wonderful use of electric orange primulas that were repeated in a burning constellation all around the three ponds.
Another example of echoing - in form rather than color, was with the amazing conjuction of a branched golden candelabra of Verbascum flowers echoing the form of a lead-green agave in the Dry Garden. You may be the only person to consciously notice such details, but they’ll help harmonize your planting.
*See, that was definitely better than penguins or cheese. As a disclaimer, these 5 secrets are purely my response based on a trip to Beth Chatto’s gardens in June 2017. They are in no way approved or sponsored by Ms Chatto, her organization or any affiliates. No money, plants, or cheese changed hands in return for this piece. It represents the views of the author alone and may well be contradicted by anyone who disagrees. If you WOULD like to sponsor the author for future listicles, feel free to contact through Instagram (instagram.com/the_curious_gardener/) or in the comments section.
A shadow fell across the earth yesterday. Not an all-encompassing darkness. Not a clear round shadow tracking its path across the earth. Instead, more of a weird pale diffusion of the light that streams to earth. Look up - shove those black plastic glasses on - and you could see the pale orange halo of fire around a circle of darkness. How strange that our moon, that silver sphere of powdery rock, could - by some whim of physics and geometry - be the exact distance and diameter to temporarily eclipse the sun.
Eclipse-watchers lay flat in the back of pickup trucks, sprawled on hillsides with bottles of wine, sand-angeled in the desert. All gazing up at the sky. All hushed in awe, in reverence, in worship of the planets in the sky. Under the crepe myrtles - or where my colleague held out a plastic colander - the concrete flickered with hundreds of dancing crescents of light. Each burst of light mimicking the sun and moon, coinciding again for the first time in 99 years.
Does it really take an event of cosmic grandeur to draw the attention of modern screen-savvy air-conditioned Americans to the natural world? Our continent is full of incredible beauty. The giant redwoods are here, guarding our Pacific shores. The Rocky Mountains rise craggily up above the western plains. The Mississippi surges, muddy brown, in an unforgettable swath through the middle of our continent. The Everglades fringe our southeastern shores. Why do we sever the beauty of landscape from our daily experience?
Back when every human had a daily struggle with the physical world, we held a different understanding of landscape. Rather than thinking of ourselves as something separate to nature, humans had an embodied daily relationship to the places where the lived, the other beings with which they shared the landscape, and the cycles of weather and light which shaped experience of each day. Native American First Peoples are perhaps the most obvious examples of cultures which saw humans completely enmeshed in a network of beings and ecological systems - not separate from the landscapes in which they lived. (Listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s conversation on “The Intelligence in all Kinds of Life” with Krista Tippett of the podcast On Being for a thoughtful perspective on Potawatomi beliefs about humans’ relationship to landscape.)
Animism (“the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls” per Dictionary.com) isn’t restricted to First Peoples Americans. Across the globe, humans have ascribed spiritual power to specific landscapes and landscape elements. In the Japanese Shinto tradition, specific landscape elements such as rivers and stones were said to host the spirits of gods, known as kami. (GOTO, S. & NAKA (2015). JAPANESE GARDENS: symbolism and design, pg 65) In Balinese Hinduism, the landscape is understood through the lens of a sacred orientation - called the kaja-kelod axis. Kaja is the direction of the mountains (where the gods live), kelod is the direction of the ocean - where the mysteries and evil reside. Such an understanding of the landscape is augmented by beliefs in the sacred nature of specific landscape elements. Banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis), for example are believed to host the god Krishna, since he rested in one of its leaves in between destroying and recreating the universe. And, of course, most familiar in the western garden design tradition - the Roman tradition of Genius loci, or guardian spirit of a place.
During the late classical revival in England, British designers and thinkers appropriated the idea of the genius loci and interpreted it - not as the persona of a deity that inhabited a place, but as the body of qualities that make that place unique. Alexander Pope’s Moral Essays, Epistle VI “Of the Use of Riches”, a long-winded satirical poem on the follies of extravagance in architecture and landscape design, signifies the transition of the idea from that of personhood to abstract qualities of a landscape:
“Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work designs.”
In contemporary landscape architecture parlance, that’s “consider drainage, grading, and the surrounding landscape”. Not exactly profound insight.
Today, the terms Genius loci and “spirit of place” are used generically to describe the character of a landscape. Ted Relph has a full website, Placeness.com, devoted to exploring this concept. Lawrence Durrell wrote a full book about the topic in 1969, titled Spirit of Place. So did Christian Norberg-Schulz. Kevin Lynch looked at specific qualities of place in cities.
This proliferation of study and discussion demonstrates that designers and planners are attempting to create places with the same emotional tug as memorable natural landscapes. But, somehow, our human works don’t have the same impacts. Maybe we’re all animists at heart. Regardless of our struggle, the universe’s wonders continue to eclipse our human efforts with their awe-inspiring beauty.
I come from a family comfortable with teetering back and forth on the ledge of cognitive dissonance between faith and the scientific method. My father likes the consistent laws of physics. An egg couldn’t fall off the counter without becoming subject of an object lesson on calculating trajectories, velocity, and force upon impact. Same with chemistry. Us children would cry over spilt milk, not because it was wasted, but because we’d get drawn into endless practical calculations of temperature effects on evaporation and absorption rates of different household surfaces. After which we’d go into unironic discussions of Noah’s flood and apocalyptic Revelations.
With such a pluralist upbringing, I’ve no patience for fundamentalism. Both in life and in gardens.
Like making scrambled eggs in the household where I grew up, making a garden involves navigating systems of values that merge clearly-ordered physical systems with subjective aesthetic and psychological considerations. Thanks to the messy nature of human experience of physical reality, garden-making is a complex field of intention and interactions. In making a garden, people pay distinct attention to a specific place and its component parts, manipulating it to enhance specific aesthetic and functional qualities. Involvement with a garden is basically a smaller, more concentrated version of our personal approaches to presence in the wider universe. Which puts us squarely in ethics territory.
Merriam-Webster defines the term “ethic” as “a set of moral principles; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group professional ethics; a guiding philosophy.” So, a garden ethic involves a set of principles or values that determine how we make decisions in garden-making. Each of us has a garden (or landscape) ethic - usually a grubby mental treasure map compiled from received wisdom and personal experience. Many of us just don’t know how to articulate or clearly lay out these values and the ways that they influence our decision-making process in gardening and garden design.
I always struggled with the idea of a “concept” in design school. It took me ages to figure out that this concept business wasn’t necessarily some big explicit narrative. Not until my full entire semester seminar dedicated to The Theory of Landscape Architecture did I realize that a “concept” is just the primary premise of a garden. Why are you making this garden? What’s your intention for its function? What values are driving your choices?
To some degree, all gardens are “conceptual”. They all have some idea underlying them. Even a whiskey barrel stuffed with seed-grown 6-pack petunias has the basic intention of providing bright flower color in a bleak environment. On ThinkinGardens, Jay Sifford writes about designing a garden with the concept of enhancing light effects in his beech wood by blocking in masses of light- and dark-foliaged plants. Continuing the conversation, Charlie Bloom wrote about her Colourbox No-Concept Garden - which takes a similar approach to Jay’s garden, in focusing on aesthetic effects rather than an explicit narrative. Some conceptual gardens - such as those you’ll see at the Chaumont-sur-Loire, Hampton Court, or Cornerstone Sonoma - will be more explicit or literal in their concepts. The intention for the weirder of these gardens is to push new materials or explore what a garden can do. However, in wider conversations about gardens and garden design, I’d argue that the way forward is to create a more sophisticated and nuanced conversation around garden ethics.
Outside academia and a few garden shows, our industry hasn’t been great about articulating the ethics of garden-making. Usually, a garden is presented as fulfilling one of three primary functions: edible, ecological, or ornamental. Edible gardens prioritize providing for human physical needs. Ecological gardens are typically focused on needs of other species, replicating wild plant combinations and providing habitat. Ornamental gardens are primarily for human aesthetic enjoyment - lots of large brightly colored flowers. These three intentions to a garden are often presented as antagonistic - or even mutually exclusive.
However, to me, there’s not much value in taking an “either/or” approach to garden ethics. Just as it’s possible to hold both an understanding of scientific research methods and fantastical historical allegories, so it’s possible to take a pluralistic approach to accumulating a garden ethic. I don’t just want essays, white papers, & research reports. Bring me poetry, allegories, narratives and songs - then we’ll be well on the way to developing a richer, more sophisticated garden ethic.
Gardens are weird entities, oddly historied. Some days, they’re the subject of a story, more often the background to navel-gazing human dramas. Each retelling, whether through stories or photographs or videos, gives a different impression to that which you’ll experience walking through the garden on any given day.
So, when you go to visit a garden that you’ve read about since you were an adolescent in sweatpants, there’s an aching fear that it won’t live up to your imaginings. After everything that I’d read about Chelsea Physic Garden - its historic significance and formative role in the lives of so many figures in European horticulture - how could the experience of the place live up to the weight of its history? A few weeks ago, I stifled that anxiety and twisted the brass handle on the 8-panel wooden door in a weathered brick wall.
As I stepped into the garden, my anxieties quickly slid away. I breathed in deeply the perfume of a massive Himalayan Musk Rose (Rosa brunoni), diverted my eyes from the weird rockery pond, and ducked through the intimate paths towards the rising plumes of a tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica).This garden isn’t just a scaffold for stories. There’s more to it than shreds of history and forgotten drama.
According to its website, The Chelsea Physic Garden is the second-oldest botanical garden in England. In the 1953 book Old London Gardens, Gladys Taylor writes of its founding: “It was not until 1673 that the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries (founded in James I’s reign) obtained the lease of a garden 3½ acres in extent from Charles (afterwards Lord) Cheyne."
"The ground lay in the remote village of Chelsea, and the rent was £5 per annum for a term of 61 years.” The apothecaries kept care of the garden over those years, building up significant collections of useful and medicinal plants. Taylor goes on, “By the time the lease of the Chelsea Gardens expired in 1722, Sir Hans Sloane was Lord of the Manor of Chelsea and owned the property. He granted the land to the Apothecaries forever for a yearly payment of £5, on condition that it should always be maintained as a Physic Garden. This arrangement lasted until 1899, when the Apothecaries gave it up, and the London Parochial Charities, supported by various smaller bodies, took it over.” Today, the Chelsea Physic Garden has the patronage of the Prince of Wales, as well as being overseen by a board of trustees (including the estimable landscape designer Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd) and a full-time staff. There’s an extensive archive of information about the history of Chelsea Physic Garden on their youtube channel.
Despite this lofty heritage, the spaces within the garden are intimate and charming. It feels like the kind of space where you’d set a mild British TV drama. Bits of the garden are broken up into different themed areas. Medicinal plants. Edible Plants. An Historical Walk. Global plant collections.
The bits of absurdity really engaged my imagination. The fuzzy blue towers of echium, straight from the Canary Islands. Tree ferns and fan palms shaking in confusion at the chilly breezes of the City. Absurdity is a quality that we don’t see enough in contemporary gardens. Given the pressures to create gardens that are cost-effective and high-performing, there’s an incredible tendency for garden designers to stick with ideas that are safe and proven. Fantasy is displaced by big data and evidence-based design practice. We’re all too apt to ignore Martin Asslin, “The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” (Martin Esslin, Absurd Drama, 1965)
There are some elements of the Chelsea Physic Garden that seem startlingly fresh and almost modern. Wonderful bay standards are let to grow quite loosely, until their shaggy heads are nearly touching. Beneath a romping array of betony (Stachys officinalis) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). The exaggerated proportions feel like something that you’d find in a contemporary show garden.
Down by the glasshouses, a selection of salvias thrum with bees. Their flowers vibrate in grey light, all shades of purple and blue. Surprisingly to a North American, there are no hummingbirds here to enliven the collection with their frantic ballet.
As I walk back to that threshold to the mad city, past the clipped hedges and pelargoniums in ordered terracotta rows, I wonder - what will be the legacy of today’s public gardens? Will they continue to involve and influence gardens three-, four-, and more centuries out? Future historians will have these ridiculous treasure troves of public-access images from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, websites and blogs. Will the stories they tell about our gardens differ because they’re recorded in images rather than words? Will they be buried in the haze of electronic overload? Or will our legacy remain like that of the Chelsea Physic Garden, equally joyful and absurd?
I’m as immersed as anybody in the contemporary media of gardens. I love a good feature on a glamorous high-profile designer, a Facebook group virulently defending their favorite garden style, or a well-funded public garden project. Such recognition is exciting in a discipline that’s often dismissed as frivolous.
Media coverage and public attention, however, aren’t the core of horticulture, gardening or design. What makes for good horticulture, good gardening, good design is presence. Presence with place, presence with people, presence with plants. To give such presence, we need to adopt an attitude of humility.
Humility sounds like an odd attitude to take towards garden design. However, gardening is conversational. It involves a relationship between oneself and other people, places, plants and living beings. For all parties to benefit, garden design requires the gardener to enter fully into what David Whyte would call the “frontier” of conversational experience. It's a relationship that's typified by presence and openness - that is, humility. I've been thinking about what qualities might characterize a humble approach to garden design. On consideration, humility in garden design seems to reveal itself through three distinct faces: integrity, subtlety, and generosity.
The first face of humility in garden design is integrity. A garden of integrity is true to itself and to its surroundings. A garden’s integrity to place can be manifested by using materials that are easily found and readily available. In rural areas, a garden can establish a sense of integrity to place by using plants or materials that are also used in the surrounding landscape. Just look at the way the garden above melds seamlessly into its surroundings on the coast near Lymington, England. You can't tell where the garden ends and the beach vegetation begins. In urban gardens, a material palette might relate more to the built environment - does building in your city favor wood, brick, stone?
In the photo above, you can see these wonderful woven-twig tuteurs and other plant supports created from woven tuteurs at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Such supports are constructed from the prunings of willows, hazel and other plants growing in the garden. If twig-weaving isn’t your bag, or you need something more contemporary in style, consider sophisticated uses of materials readily available in a hardware store - or to modify hardware store products. I’m thinking of Carrie Preston’s incredible Lace Fence in her Stinze Garden at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower show. Or, back to the plant supports - my clever friend Kim has recently taken to crafting beautiful mesh cloches out of chicken wire. Here’s the Youtube video where she picked up the technique. Ignore the well strange finish, unless you enjoy having a fern-behind-bars at the center of your dining table. Kim put these cloches to a less dubious use, protecting her young hydrangeas from ravenous suburban rabbits.
Seaside gardens, particularly in the tropics, have a distinct palette of regional materials. Consider the extensive use of sea shells, whale bones, and driftwood. This fountain at the Historic Spanish Point in Sarasota, Florida, is encrusted with shells that were gathered on the peninsula’s beaches. I’m not sure that I like it. To steal a phrase from the Spirits Podcast, it’s “kinda creepy, kinda cool”. But it has integrity - the use of shells relates to a local tradition of building and decorating with objects found by the seaside.
The second face of humility is subtlety. Subtlety is about the execution of physical interventures. Subtle interventions are simple, clever, and non-obvious. They’re pared down to the most important elements. Nothing fussy or overcomplicated. Basically, the opposite of an HGTV garden. I often look to installation artists for inspiration in how to achieve subtlety in garden design. You’ve all seen photographs of Andy Goldsworthy’s stunning transient arrangements of leaves and flowers. You’ve probably also encountered some of Richard Serra’s towering copper planes or Ursula von Rydingsvard’s equally staggering craggy cedar bowls. Or even the strange multiple reflecting panels of Beverly Pepper’s Ventaglio III above (shoutout to my friends Gretchen and Liz for modelling in this photo). Such simple and graphic forms offer insight to garden designers on how to employ subtlety in shaping space and arranging plants.
One of the most memorable examples of subtlety I’ve ever seen in a landscape was at a client’s garden in central Louisiana. A late summer monsoon was crashing down, with thunder and abundant rain. Driving up through the ancient live oaks, I noticed something interesting - rather than wide swathes of the flat landscape being inundated, the water was channelled in shallow swales running throughout the lawns. Just a few feet wide, maybe 6 inches deep, these swales created glittering silver ribbons throughout the landscape. Next day, when the rain had passed, these shallow impressions simply blended in with the rest of the green waving lawn. Some earlier designer had recognized the need to channel the water, and solved the problem in a way that created delight - rather than going the obvious route and installing a single massive ditch. Such subtlety requires thought and attention.
The third face of humility is generosity. A garden which opens its arms to others. I’ve been thinking about generosity as a quality of garden design since getting drawn into a bleak argument about the bad behaviors of visitors to public gardens. It’s important to protect our work - and there are also limits to what we should tolerate from our guests - but the last thing we gardeners need is to perpetuate the stereotype of angry old men and women yelling at children to get off our lawns. Maybe we all should be more like my friend Riz Reyes. He once told me that his childhood dream was to have a garden by a bus stop, so the people waiting to go to and from work could enjoy beautiful flowers while they wait. Today, Riz is a gardener at McMenamin’s Anderson School in Bothell, Washington, where his work is shared with many visitors on a daily basis - just look at those stunning borders in full autumn color (photo above).
Generosity in a garden isn’t just about opening the gates to other humans - it’s about supporting non-human beings as well. The Biodiversity in Urban Gardens Project has consistently revealed the value of gardens for supporting wildlife in cities. Whether you’re growing a few hostas in a pot or have a country garden with acres of rutabagas and carrots, it’s time to move past the Peter Rabbit/Mr. McGregor relationship. Designing gardens to be alive with the movement of animals, insects, plants, all other beings sets us gardeners apart with a positive vision for the future.
There’s undoubtedly more to humility in approaching gardens and garden design. But start with subtlety, integrity, and generosity. Then go out and sit in the garden for a bit. Doubtless the garden will reveal new aspects, if only we’re present and paying attention.
Last time I went to London, I saw a lot of stone. And brick. And concrete. That's what visiting a city with architects will do to you. This trip, I went gardens all the way round.
One of the top spots on my list was the Queen Elizabeth Park, designed as the setting for the 2012 Olympics. It's a huge and slightly bewildering landscape - particularly on a Tuesday afternoon, there were only a few people wandering through paths designed to accommodate Olympic crowds. I'd like to see it when there's a festival on, with the spaces alive with hundreds of people and pets.
But, within these gargantuan spaces, there are some special plantings that make the transatlantic flight and long tube ride (plus traipsing through the Stratford Westfield) worth the effort. Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, and Sarah Price have put together an amazing series of gardens within the frame of spaces devised by Hargreaves Associates.
There's a very detailed website for the gardens, with great informative chats with the designers, which is definitely worth taking the time to study in great detail. (It even has full plant lists for each panel, yay!) However, as a basic introduction, there are 4 panels along the river embankment which are designated the “2012 Gardens”. Each panel is a tapestry comprised of plants that represent different geographical regions: Europe, Southern Hemisphere, North America and Asia. In addition to these embankment gardens, there are a newer series of Pleasure Gardens directly around the stadium which were installed later under advisement by Piet Oudolf.
The Europe Panel is the farthest to the southeast and it completely bowled me over. There's no other way to put it. Clouds of giant yellow Scabious (Cephalaria gigantea) were anchored with pillows of Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis russeliana). And screaming through it all were masses of scarlet Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). The sheer scale of these plantings, as well as the color echoing, were unlike any other perennial display that I've encountered. We’re all accustomed to gauzy diverse Oudolf-style naturalism. It's shocking to see a planting where plants are distributed, clumped and mingled, in a similar way - but with a more limited palette. The bold massing evoked that heart-tingle I get in my most thrilling moments observing plants in the wild.
Another quality that makes this panel so incredible is the immersive quality that comes from the plantings being placed on the angled beds of the riverside embankment. Hargreaves Associates often use highly sculptural earthworks in their projects. However, in their other projects, they've typically clad their tilted angular planes in mown turf. Witness the heavily publicized (in landscape architecture circles) Clinton Presidential Center here in Little Rock, Arkansas. At Olympic Park, the angular earthworks offer visitors the opportunity to see plants from below. It's a new angle that helps those walking through feel completely immersed in the plantings. Add to that the dangling butter yellow Scabious flowers dancing on wirey stems, abuzz with butterflies and bees.
The next panel is the North American panel. It hadn't erupted into full glory yet, with ripples of purple Salvia, burgundy Knautia and white Gillenia. Since the plantings were still low, the underlying structure of low arced boxwood hedges and tall multistem serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis). This bed felt the most expected, strongly traditional contemporary naturalistic plantings. Following on, the next bed is the Southern Hemisphere Garden. These beds are topped with a gravel mulch, rather than a woody mulch like in the other beds. It also has the most unusual plant palette - mostly penstemon and dierama, with a few kniphofia glowing tangerine orange. I didn't get great pictures of this area, but Sarah has beautiful photos on her website.
The last of the four beds is the Asia panel. This bed has the most incredible foliage combinations: filigreed Thalictrum and Sanguisorba against a backdrop of grasses, Calamagrostis and Hakonechloa. This bed is composed of bright white and soft pinks against a backdrop of multifaceted greens. I'd love to see this bed in autumn when it’s swathed in Anemone and Persicaria.
So, what are the takeaways? First off, there's a great advantage to working with perennial beds as a series. That way, not all areas need to be in perfect condition at the same time. When one area’s plant palette is having a low moment, another area can be in full go. Secondly, it's worth investigating perennial groupings as really large masses. Any of us plant collectors want to jam as many different types of plants into a garden as we can. We often see really diverse perennial plantings in the large-scale naturalistic plantings that are now in vogue. But it can be more effective to work with a limited palette, especially if you’re just starting out. Thirdly, it's really effective to think about grouping plants by geographical origin. Plants that grow together in the wild often provide a great starting point for designed plant communities.
Lesson 4? If you're in London or even thinking about going to London, GO GO GO to the Olympic Park. It’s phenomenal.