Why Fashions and Trends are Good for Gardens

Tom Stuart Smith's award winning garden at Chelsea Flower Show
Last week I wrote a post about plants for spring 2011 that were “hot” or “not.”  In the post, I took a deliberately sardonic tone imitating the fashionistas I had just seen reviewing trends for the Academy Award show.  I knew I’d get some flak for that post, but was rather surprised by some of the condemnation I got for even paying attention to trends.  The reaction raised some interesting questions for me.  Should we pay attention to garden or design trends?  Are gardens immune to fashions?  One commenter wrote on another blog:

"Real gardeners don’t pay attention to which plants are in or out. I shudder to think about those that pay attention to such nonsense and am concerned about those that disseminate such marketing misinformation."

 

I wonder, who are 'real gardeners'?  One of my favorite bloggers, Nancy Ondra, wrote a rather compelling photographic response to my comment that Amsonia hubrictii was “out.”  Of course, I should have known better than to pick on such a beloved and versatile plant.  I still think it peaked out a year or two ago, but I must be honest: Nancy’s gorgeous photos of Amsonia through the year crushed my argument.  I know when to admit defeat.  By the end of her post, I wanted to run to my nearest nursery and buy 50 A. hubrichtii.

I rather expected good natured responses like Nancy’s.  What is puzzling to me is how strongly some readers objected to the very idea of trends in the garden.  One commenter rather eloquently wrote, “It is sad when we find the obsession with newness and being on-trend spilling over into gardening.  We need to preserve its value as essentially a slow process—the experience of designed landscapes growing and maturing and becoming more desirable with the patina of age.”  Another comment remarked, “I have to laugh, because there’s such a funny part of human nature, that when something becomes ‘too popular’ those who consider themselves ‘in the know’ are obliged to hate it.”  Both comments make some excellent points.  But I find myself having a very different reaction to trends.


Crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Image from Daily Telegraph

Novelty for novelty’s sake is indeed tedious; but the quest for originality is the essence of art.  For me, garden trends and fashions are not reasons to despair, but generators of great inspiration and originality.  Consider, for example, the Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps the most famous gardening event in the world.  The competition for Best Show Garden produces some of the finest gardens in the world, melding innovative design, sustainability, and artistic expression.  The show has brought new designers to the attention of the world, including Beth Chatto, Tom Stuart-Smith, and Andy Sturgeon.  The show does for gardens what Paris Fashion Week does for clothing.

Fashion promotes artistic ingenuity and originality; it also produces a consumer mentality desperate for the newest and most original.  Perhaps this uglier side of fashion is what many readers objected to in my post.  After all, having some blogger declare your most beloved plant is “out” is the height of obnoxiousness, right?  Can’t we just love the plants we love?  Who cares whether they are trendy or not?

That fashions and trends influence garden making is nothing new.  Any student of landscape history knows that each epoch of great gardens had a set of ideals that influenced them.  The great villas of the Italian Renaissance were an expression of harmonic spatial proportions that reflected a divine order.  The picturesque movement in Britain revolutionized gardens with their romantic ideals.  Victorian gardens’ quest for horticultural diversity created a world trade for interesting and unusual plants.  All of the great garden movements had one thing in common: they all had wealthy patrons who wanted the ‘latest and greatest’.  The greatest ideas in the history of gardening were all funded by rich people who wanted fashionable gardens.

Great art has always had this tenuous relationship with a wealthy consumer class.  The Renaissance would not have happened without the Medici.  As distasteful as it is, our next great garden movement will require patrons as well.
Villa Lante was a result of a wealthy patron wanting the latest fashion
To me, identifying and promoting a trend (an idea) is not the great sin.  The great sin is being unaware of how your own garden is shaped by trends and fashions.  I have seen gardens throughout the world.  American gardens are marked by their conservatism.  When it comes to design ideas about our landscapes, our tastes are rather nostalgic.   Our yards are an amalgam of washed-up fashions from the last century.  There are bits of British romanticism (the “lawn,” the curvilinear planting bed), Victorian horticultural display (the annual bed circling the mailbox), and neo-colonial shrubbery (foundation planting).  All of this gets mixed together with marketing campaigns from mega-nurseries (Proven Winners!) promoting patented plants (‘Knockout Roses’!) that leads to one result: our yards all look the same. 

From the windswept coasts of Maine to the deserts of Arizona, suburban yards in America look way too much alike.  The sea of lawn, the overgrown evergreens at the foundation, the measly annual beds next to the lamppost . . . our landscapes are awash in mindless repetition.

So dear readers, forgive me for picking on your beloved plants.  But when a plant is used over and over again across the country, when landscapers plop the same plants in front of gas stations and strip malls as are in your yard, then those plants become the equivalent of elevator muzak.  And just like when a great Beatles song is played on the harp and piped into food courts in shopping malls, overused plants become clichéd.  Un-original.  A signifier of commercialism.

That is why I care about fashions and trends.  Because I believe gardens are an art.  Because the quest for originality will produce excellence.  And because I think gardens are worth the thought, effort, and time.  The American landscape is scarred with the repetition of too many mindless acts, littered with too many clichés.   The quest for originality is the antidote. 
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