The New Perennial Movement: Exhausted or Just Getting Good?

Is the New Perennial movement losing its integrity? Or will its expansion reinvigorate it artistically?

This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.

But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun. And Michael should know: he is a veteran writer and designer. His work documenting and experimenting with naturalistic perennial design (his preferred term is “perennial meadows”) is vast and impressive. Here is the core of his critique:

Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting. Michael King

Ouch. This well-written, stinging review left me thinking: is my enthusiasm about contemporary naturalism in all its diversity naïve? Is it all a bunch of imitative knockoffs of a few original practitioners? Or is there something more to it? 

After some rumination, my impression is that Michael is right. The appellation of the term “new” to any of these ideas is not accurate. There is a long history in the 20th century alone of herbaceous planting inspired by nature. Both the New Perennial movement and the American native plant movement owe much its intellectual credibility and artistic expression to earlier generations. Michael’s article was a refreshing, well-reasoned call for a more honest, more pragmatic approach to gardening.

New Horizons

But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.
In fact, far from it. The broadening of the New Perennial movement—like the popularization of any artistic idea—will surely produce poor imitations. But for me, when I survey the work of so many contemporary practitioners using a heavily perennial palette, there is much more reason for enthusiasm than ennui.  Consider the work of Petra Pelz, Dan Pearson, Roy Diblik, Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, Cassian Schmidt, Heiner Luz, Sarah Price, Lauren Springer-Ogden, and so many others. The list of names alone suggests a broadening and diversification of a style that strengthens it artistically, not undermines it. My reasons for optimism extends beyond the work of these well-known practitioners. For me, the innovative work of designers such as Amalia Robredo using a heavily native palette of her home country Uruguay, shows the potential of this style to be adopted and reinterpreted in fresh ways as it is adapted in new continents.

I have long wondered about the tendency in gardening to dismiss trends and movements. Certainly dogma of any kind can be annoying, particularly when it becomes a cliché. Indeed, the very nature of gardening is relational (a person to a plot of land), making it an intensely personal activity. So it is entirely natural to bristle at the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” that are often byproducts of trends and movements. 

But there’s also the danger that the gardener’s fierce independence creates a kind of solipsistic isolation that impoverishes our gardens rather than enlivens them.  We should be wary of dogmas for sure; we should scrutinize trends and movements in order to keep them honest. But by all means, let us keep our eyes not just at the dirt at our feet (as fascinating as it is). There is a long, beautiful horizon to be savored and enjoyed if we just lift up our eyes. 

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