Is Your Planting Evocative or Provocative?

The secret of great planting revealed.

Of all my various rants, one point I am consistent: planting design is an art.  Planting design needs to be liberated from its traditional role as ornamentation to architecture.  For too long, the role of the American planting designer has been to ‘shrub up’ the base of buildings, like placing parsley around a pot roast.  Instead, planting can be an expressive and dynamic medium in itself, capable of conveying meaning and emotion. 
If you’re reading this blog, you are obviously highly intelligent and artful (wink) and believe that garden design is an art.  So dear readers, here is my question for you: is your planting evocative or provocative? 
Here’s what I mean.  I’ve been mulling over great planting design.  Not just good planting, but the icons of great planting: Getrude Jekyll’s borders, Jens Jenson’s prairie-inspired landscapes, Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist ground-planes, Christopher Lloyd’s border at Great Dixter, Beth Chatto’s gardens, Piet Oudolf’s perennial landscapes, Tom Stuart-Smith’s cutting edge designs.  Each designer is incredibly different, but what they all have in common is an ability to manipulate human’s associations with natural landscapes.
Evocative planting design: Beth Chatto's gravel garden.  Courtesy of BBC.
There are two ways these designers do this.  First, there is evocative planting design, that is, planting that evokes a larger landscape.  Evocative planting is my term for when a certain combination of plants evokes or recalls one’s association of a natural landscape.  Consider, for example, Beth Chatto’s gravel gardens.  I wrote an article on this garden last year.  Chatto hiked all through Europe, noticing how native plants evolved to harsh landscapes.  From the rocky peaks of the Alps to the salt-spray battered shores of the coast, each plant community had a certain look, texture, and mood created by the environment.  Chatto had the remarkable ability to distill the essence of these wild landscapes into evocative moments in a garden.  Because she skillfully exploited human associations of wild landscapes, her gardens have this expansive, ethereal quality.  In Chatto’s gardens, a simple combination of two or three plants has this incredible power precisely because it evokes a feeling of a wild landscape.
Provocative planting design: Christopher Lloyd's border at Great Dixter.
Second, there is provocative planting design.  Provocative planting design is my term for planting that alters one’s association of a natural landscape.  Christopher Lloyd’s border at Great Dixter is a great example of a provocative planting design.   Lloyd was the supreme master of the mixed border, perhaps one of the finest plantsmen of the twentieth century.  His magnum opus was a 200 foot long border that he kept blooming from April to November.  Lloyd’s border was legendary because of his skill in mixing plants from different habitats in the same space.  Lloyd mixed large-leafed tropicals with woodland ephemerals and dry meadow grasses.  What elevated this border from all other flowering borders was the way it exploited one’s associations of plants.  Lloyd manipulated one’s association of a natural landscape by recalling a memory of feeling of nature, only to shatter it by adding an unexpected plant.  The intentional incongruity of his plantings made you see each plant in a new and unexpected way.   
Both strategies are powerful design tools.  Their power resides not in imitating nature—as so many clichéd garden books exhort you to do—but in manipulating human associations of nature.  All the great gardens do not shape or refine nature, but people.  This is why I like to say that all good naturalism is first a humanism.  Our true palette is not plants, but the memories, feelings, moods, and sensations of people.  To shape these is to create art.

So how about your gardens or designs?  What is your style?  To evoke or provoke?
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