All You Need to Know

 

Gardeners: throw away those glossy coffee table books. Everything you need to learn is in the black and white planting plans of the great designers.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing to teach a planting design class for the George Washington University professional studies program. It is a program that teaches aspiring garden designers the basics of contemporary garden design. As a part of that preparation, I’ve gone through my garden books, project photographs, old magazines, and my personal image collection in search for the raw material to teach planting design.

In that process, what’s become clear to me is the utter uselessness of glossy photographs. If you’ve ever taken a great photo of your garden, you know that a beautiful photo has as much to do with the time of day, the quality of light and the tight cropping of the photo than it does the skill or composition of the gardener. I’m not saying one can take good garden photos without a good garden. But let’s face it: photos tell only part of the story. They speak of one corner of the garden during a single moment in time. Scroll through the myriad of garden blogs out there on the internet. The vast majority are tight close-ups on a single flower or group of flowers. Rarely do they show you the entire garden, or even a large part of the garden.

The garden publishing industry only makes it worse. The tyranny of the glossy photo dominates the medium. We consume books full of sugary garden moments, but have lost our appetite for meaty garden writing or design discourse.

But there is an alternative. Seek and collect planting plans of great designers. These inglorious black and white diagrams filled with obscure Latin names tell the real story of the design. Like a piece of sheet music, these diagrams communicate the structure, rhythm, detail, and score of the original design. From these plans, one learns the scale of the massings, the plant combinations, and the balance of the composition.

For example, I recently came across Piet Oudolf’s plan for the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millenium Park. I printed out this plan and have spent hours studying it. It’s fascinating in that it demystifies much of Oudolf’s technique. The most photographed part of the design is his massive river of salvias that runs through the middle of the field, a moment of striking clarity in the midst of an otherwise intricate design. From his plan, I’ve learned that the river is composed of at least four different cultivars of salvia, adding slight color variation (giving the river depth) and extending the season of bloom. I also noticed that he interplants the grasses Panicum virgatum and Sporobolus heterolepsis through one section of the river, allowing it to disappear later in summer when the grasses emerge.

The southern section of Piet Oudolf's plan for the Lurie Garden
Or take a look at the southern section of the plan. This is the most fascinating part to me. Whereas most of the design has a single plant located in a single spot (not dissimilar from a Gertrude Jekyll plan), the southern section is more complex. The plan indicates a field of Molinia caerulea ‘Moorflamme’ that has four or five perennials that emerge out of this matrix. It’s almost as if there’s two melodies going on at once, the sweeping score of the grasses and the counterpoint of the Silphium, Echinacea, and Eryngiums. This style of designing is subtle, yet revolutionary. It’s the first real step toward garden design based on ecological succession. For me, this is why native plants arranged in traditional border arrangements are so dissatisfying. These plants have evolved to grow within a matrix of other species. Oudolf’s arrangement preserves the beauty of these relationships.

Gertrude Jekyll's Impressionistic plan; Roberto Burle Marx's cubist inspired planting plan.

Other planting plans are equally revealing. Compare Gertrude Jekyll’s impressionist-styled planting plans with Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist-styled planting plans. The plans become a key to understanding the most elusive aspect of planting design: style.

But why study a two-dimensional plan when a garden is an ephemeral, three-dimensional medium? Doesn’t this bias the initial act of creation over the garden over its lifetime? Yes, it’s true, gardens often outlive the initial act of creation, and it’s the acts of maintenance and gardening that ultimately determine the way a garden looks. So get out there and visit gardens in person. No plan can substitute for firsthand experience. I would encourage gardeners to take plans with them when they see a garden in person. Your experience will be so much fuller.
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