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Why is so much perennial planting so gappy?

Why do so many gardens, private and public, which are supposed to be about growing plants, look like displays of soil or exhibitions of mulch?
Here, I'd like to address the whole issue of planting density, with some observations based on the results of a seven year trial which has just been published in The Plantsman journal.

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If you are watching, horrified, at the continuing political chaos in Britain you may like to read Part Two of my occasional political posting 'Why is Britain in such a mess?' It's an attempt to explain to outsiders, especially the often anglophile garden community, what is going on. Brits might like to take a look too. It's not meant to re-assuring!
https://www.noelkingsbury.com/noelsgarden-blog/2019/3/31/why-is-britain-in-such-a-mess-part-two

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Porto in northern Portugal is the city of the camellia. The public parks and people’s gardens are full of them. For those of us who are only used to seeing them as head high, or maybe in Cornwall, up to the first storey, these are huge. And the city clearly loves them. Last weekend, the city council put on its annual camellia festival.

Read on here-----
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Grasses simply are the best thing in the garden right now. At the most dismal time of year, when there is almost nothing else to take our minds off grey skies and cold winds, grasses can not just make an impact but actually look really good. Read on here.......

This is the first of a new secondary blog posting I am now doing for Learning with Experts - this is more practically-orientated and entry-level than my main blog, but always with little bit of detail on plant and garden history, ecology etc.

 Here is the link to blogs from the Learning with Experts group.

Picture credit: Jason Ingram
Jason is one of our leading garden photographers. You can come and learn the tricks of the trade from him through our Garden Masterclass programme.
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An overview of the garden created by Olivier and Carla Filippi over the last thirty years. To many of us it appears to be a quintessentially Mediterranean landscape, all those grey hummocks and of course the Italian cypresses. The visual balance between these two elements is powerful as well as symbolising a harmony between the natural and the cultural. The cypresses may be native to the region but the narrow form is the result of a long period of selection and the tree’s wide range is a reflection of centuries of planting.

Carry on reading here:
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You want to know what impact climate change will have on landscapes? Come to the Centro Region of Portugal and take a look.
Having spent some months in the region, I really feel on the front line of climate change. I have blogged before about the devastating fires the area has suffered from..... to read on see here.
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Louisiana, a contemporary art gallery north of Copenhagen just has to be one of my most favourite places. Not for the contents so much (I am no great fan of contemporary art) but for the extraordinary and quite unique synthesis of art, landscape and architecture it offers. It also has an atmosphere of immense calm, almost a healing atmosphere. I think I have been there six or seven times now and every time I walk away quite mesmerised by it.....
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So, you have until October 27th to see Piet and Anja’s private garden at Hummelo. After that, sorry, but its no more visiting..... continue on https://www.noelkingsbury.com/noelsgarden-blog/
where I will now be moving my blog posts from now on. This felt like a good opportunity to make the move, as the old blogger site just did not do justice to the images.
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A Larry Weaner garden in New England. To be featured in the October issue of Gardens Illustrated. Photo credit: Claire Takacs

Who remembers that wonderful Gil Scott-Heron rap song “The Revolution Will Not BeTelevised”
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because The revolution will not be televised.

I feel like coming up with something similar for 'ecological planting'.

There is much talk of ecological planting? Is anyone actually doing any? Or is it all talk?

What is ecological planting anyway?

And does it matter?

Well, it is always nice when words convey meaning we can all agree on, and in this case we are not just talking about something with the equivalence of an artistic movement but also something that a direct impact on biodiversity. There is always the ever-present danger of 'greenwash', something sounding green and good for the environment but in fact just a trendy feel-good facade.

Years ago (late 1990s) Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough had made the distinction between 'naturalistic' planting and ecological functioning, i.e. you can have 1) something that looks natural but is either completely static or dependent on quite intense management or 2) a planting that is to some extent dynamic, i.e. its components are going through active processes of seeding, spreading, dying. An ecologically functioning planting should have some level of stability, so it can continue to exist without too much human intervention. One example might be a meadow, which is dependent for its long-term survival on annual mowing but otherwise is relatively stable from year to year.

Now, it should be pretty obvious that there is a lot of good planting design that falls into the former category, natural looking to most observers but in fact not in the remotest sense a dynamic self-sustaining plant community. Anyone with any knowledge of basic plant ecology would not be fooled, and more importantly neither would most invertebrates seeking a habitat.

Compare such a planting to a natural or semi-natural habitat like a meadow and it is immediately obvious that any horticultural planting is almost absurdly low density. In a wild habitat, gaps between plants are often difficult to see, whereas in a human-created planting they are usually pretty obvious. It is possible to get tens of species in one square metre in the wild, whereas most artificial plantings have 4 or 5 plants (never mind species) to the square metre, or 9 at the most (this figure is significant, as we shall see).
Six species in shot, but could do better, BUT much greater species density than most gardeners aim at: close-up of one of my old trial plots in Herefordshire

Think about this disparity in density in habitat terms – the artificial planting will be almost inevitably far poorer. So, before doing too much slapping ourselves on the back about what a good turn we are doing for nature, let's just consider the absurdity of thinking that just because we've got something that looks rather natural, and/or is composed of locally-native species we've created something that is any way equivalent to a natural habitat. If it's got gaps between plants its ecological functioning will be below par, and it will be unstable (space for weeds). Ecological planting it is not.

To go back to Gil Scott-Heron:
The revolution is not because you got the right plants for the habitat conditions,
The revolution hasn't happened because you've gone all native
The revolution isn't ticking all the species on the list of bee-friendly plants from Home Depot
The revolution is not just about looking all wild and woolly,
The revolution will never be bought at the garden centre.

Above all, because the whole 'perennial revolution' has happened alongside the interest in naturalistic planting there tends to develop the thought in too many heads that “it's all perennials therefore it must be ecological”.

No!

At the same time however, let's remember the much-quoted Owen research  which showed just how many insect species an average (i.e. not in the remotest sense ecological) British garden contains. This shows us the exciting possibilities! Imagine how much biodiversity a garden could contain if it had something approaching the density of real habitat AND the range of diversity that most gardens include anyway (trees and shrubs and perennials and climbers).

How do we measure garden biodiversity? Not easy. Never is. Owen simply counted species not their frequency of occurrence in comparison to 'nature', and if you look through the academic literature it rapidly becomes apparent that there is no easy, or for that matter difficult, way to measure overall health of ecological functioning. What sometimes is done by researchers is to take one particular aspect, usually a category of insect, and use that as an indicator. Trouble is, it will be different for different types of habitat. Currently there is much focus on pollinators. And much trendy nonsense spoken; trouble is - where there are marketing opportunities, pseudoscientific gibberish soon follows. Pollinators could a relatively easy group to use as an indicator for ecosystem health. The trouble is though that I could imagine a garden planted with pollinator-friendly plants buzzing with bees etc, but which actually supported very little else such as ground-level invertebrate biodiversity.

How much do we want to create gardens that are genuine biodiversity reserves? If we really want to create plantings with an ecological functionality that approaches equivalent natural environments, then we must be honest in making clear the distinctions between these and plantings that merely look a bit wild.

Anyone who sows a meadow or prairie and got it to a point of reasonable stability will have created a functioning ecosystem. BUT,  this won't be a garden but only a habitat restoration. In the US however, practitioners such as Larry Weaner have started to tweak seed mixes to create what are essentially ornamental versions of natural ecosystems. The much richer flora of North America (compared to much of Europe) allows this. But it still is not what most people would regard as a garden. BTW there's a great example of his work coming up in Gardens Illustrated soon.

So, any other, more garden-like, examples?

The best can be seen in lightly shaded habitats where light levels knock back grass growth, the main enemy of plant diversity (dense north European grassland could possibly be worse in ecosystem functioning than your average garden). Or indeed other, slightly stressed habitats. Established gardens sometimes have amazingly dense and varied combinations of woodland species in such places. One of my favourite such areas is the woodland garden at Wisley (the one near the new glasshouse): a whole range of rather competitive woodland edge species, native and introduced fight for supremacy, and with the possible exception of one patch of comfrey, nobody seems to be winning. Maintenance seems to be limited to the odd clear-out and re-plant, which I suspect has the effect of 're-setting the clock'.
A spectacular example I saw recently was as Innisfree in NY State, where a shaded rocky slope is home to a bewildering variety of naturalised garden plants, mostly non-native species, but mixed with natives. According to Kate Kerin, the Landscape Curator there, this would have been planted up between the 1930s and the early 2000s and gets only limited maintenance – mostly pulling of grass and tree seedlings. One of the sights in this fascinating, but also rather precipitous, place is a big patch of Coreopsis verticillata andConvallaria majalis growing completely intertwined, two species of very different habitats (sun, dry and shade) no gardener would have put together.

Nigel Dunnett's planting at the Barbican in London may be only a few years old but shows enough self-seeding to suggest to me that it could stabilise as a genuinely ecologically functioning planting. It's essentially a green roof planting, so seasonal drought will limit grass and weed growth.
James Hitchmough's various plantings, all created from seed, should theoretically, lead to semi-stable ecosystems, but I have personally not seen one that convinces me, yet, although some of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park ones may yet do so, and I have heard good reports of others.
The Barbican, a Nigel Dunnett planting, effectively a green roof, lots of regeneration

In two gardens in Herefordshire, I feel I have got pretty close to achieving small areas of genuine ecological planting, with really dense species intermingling. In my last garden I ran a trial for seven years which went someway to convincing me that, in the most challenging situation of all: fertile moist soil, full sun, this might be possible. These conditions favour the growth of strongly competitive plants which could possibly swamp everything else and most dangerously, favour weedy grass growth. This never happened (success!), but somewhat disappointingly, an analysis of every 10cms square after seven years, revealed that there were still a lot of gaps. In reality these could probably be filled with ground-level creeping species and more seeding short-lived species. More species need to be packed in to really create a dense multi-layer habitat. I, like everyone, have a lot to learn here.

What about Oudolf-style perennials or German Mixed Planting systems, which use long-lived perennials at around 8-9 plants per square metre? They are designed to be relatively stable, but also allowing for a certain amount of self-seeding. They seem like a very good starting point for a genuinely ecological planting. Not TOO stable though, as that can preclude any ecological functioning (think prostrate cotoneaster ground cover).

And, on the subject of Piet Oudolf, he has created one of the most interesting and successful combinations of an ecological planting (native grasses and wildflowers) and non-native perennials. See here:  This approach is certainly one which deserves much more research: but very dependent on having low fertility soils.
Piet Oudolf perennial meadow at Hummelo, not typical of his work but possibly one of the most interesting things he's ever done; combining genuine ecological functioning and good looks

The fact is that we have hardly begun to explore the possibilities of what ecologists are now calling Novel Ecosystems: “a system of abiotic, biotic, and social components (and their interactions) that, by virtue of human influence, differs from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.” quoted here.
From now on I'm going to talk about: NOEs: Novel Ornamental Ecosystems.

Where do we go from here?

How do we assemble plantings that look good, with species from multiple origins that are so dense that they can offer wildlife as many opportunities as natural/semi-natural plantings, and which are stable enough to make maintenance easy?

This is now the challenge. Let's raise the bar.
Wrong time of year for the flowers but a shaded bank at Innisfree which includes a bewildering range of Novel Ornamental Ecosystem biodiversity

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The word 'natural' must be one of the most abused in the English language. Its use generally implies 'good', and all-too often 'buy this product'. Needless to say the two areas of life it gets applied to most are to do food and gardens. I want to talk here about how meaningless the concept of the 'natural garden' is, and relate it to wider discussions about our relationship with nature. I intend this to be the first of a number of fairly blunt interventions in our ongoing discussions about our relationship with growing plants.

The sheer moral emptiness of the 'natural = good' equation was brought home with some force recently by hearing about how Antarctic penguin colonies are being starved by ships hoovering up kril, in order to keep the food supplement industry supplied with a source of omega-3. No doubt the mountebanks and charletans who populate this most unnecessary of industries (if you eat properly you wouldn't need 95% of those pills) feel justified in promoting this as 'natural', which indeed it is, but sustainable? beneficial? ethical? One day we'll have genetically manipulated plants to produce the stuff for us. Roll on that day, but be assured that there will be protests that this is 'unnatural'.

We don't do 'natural'. We are humans. We stopped eating natural food when we started growing it. When we moved out of the Garden of Eden that was hunter-gatherer society and harvested our food from little plots of grain in clearings in the primordial wilderness is when we stopped eating naturally. And started farming/gardening. Any cultivated plant is going to have certain aspects that make it useful for us, and distinctly dysfunctional in an wild environment with no human intervention. That seems to me to be a pretty clear break-point between what is 'natural' and what is not. The ur-break-point for us grain-eating Eurasians was when our ancestors picked out some grains whose seed heads did not shatter; very useful for picking and shoving in a basket, pretty useless at distributing the plant.
Virtually all our crops will not survive for more than a few generations as 'volunteers' i.e. self-sowing, and if they do it is because they will be evolving 'backwards' rapidly. Agriculture/farming is a profoundly unnatural business, and it is the most destructive of nature of all our activities, simply because of its scale and the impact it has on soil and climate and most of all on natural vegetation. That includes organic agriculture, which is no more keen on weeds in the crop than conventional, and is arguably more destructive as it is so inefficient in its use of space it leads inevitably to more land being under cultivation, and so even less room for nature. 

Gardening is just a diddy version of farming, but potentially much less damaging, depending on what we are doing. Growing cabbages and carrots to eat, where, in order to have any crop, we have to eliminate or exclude an awful lot of nature: weeds, insects, birds etc., is clearly more destructive than most ornamental gardening. In North America, organic growing is referred to as 'natural', which is a sleight of hand as there is nothing remotely natural about growing unnatural plants completely dependent on humans for their reproduction in straight lines in beds of bare earth. Or even in circles like some hippies have done.

Gardens are not natural and it is high time to stop pretending that they are. They are a regimented version of nature which we make because we like the outcome, and which make us feel good. Nothing intrinsically wrong about that. I have never willingly used the word 'natural' to describe the kind of garden-making I promote, although a good handful of book and magazine editors have tried to get me to do just that. 'Naturalistic' is a lot more accurate, implying as it does, that you are aiming at implying something with no pretensions to actually ever achieving it. 

In making a garden we are applying human culture to natural or semi-natural ingredients - semi-natural in the case of radish seed or double roses, natural in the case of an 'unimproved' species genetically identical to wild forebears. We seek to eliminate what we do not like or that which does not fit in with our artistic vision. In a naturalistic garden we grow and manage what occupies a kind of middle ground, a tidied-up version of nature which may be inspired by a natural or semi-natural environment and even be made up of 100% locally-native species, but which is nevertheless our vision. It is not natural.

We like to encourage wildlife into our gardens, which is good, and indeed of all the developments that have happened in my lifetime (I'm 60 btw), this is, I think, far and away the most ethically positive. But of course we only want the 'nice' wildlife, not the kind we think of as destructive. The concept of the wildlife garden does not always translate well either – go anywhere where there are poisonous snakes and you have to think about the relationship between plant density and human recreation spaces very differently.

The evidence (BUGSproject) etc. is that ornamental gardens can support a lot of wildlife, more than arable farmed countryside, so that's a good thing. Simply leaving many gardens to go wild might be handing them over to nature, in the sense of letting natural processes take over, but in many cases the level of biodiversity they end up supporting may actually be less than an ornamental garden, the reason being that a competitive 'weedy' species may take over and dominate for a good many years: brambles, pasture grasses like cocksfoot grass, or nettles. A garden actively managed for wildlife interest may be less 'natural' but be more biodiverse. That's a paradox that should cast doubt on how we use 'natural' in the context of gardening. 

What I'm leading up to is to flag up a remarkable and important essay by the science writer Emma Marris, whose book Rambunctious Garden I mentioned in a blog post a few years ago – see Beyond 'nature as virgin – garden aswhore'. In 'Can we love natureand let it go?', Marris proposes the concept of 'decoupling', essentially arguing that reliance on supposedly natural processes may be less sustainable and more destructive of nature than artificial ones; she uses grass-fed beef as a good example, a trendy, feel-good but grossly unsustainable food source. Decoupling nature and humanity allows us stop exploiting nature and effectively give it some space. She looks forward to 'lab meat' and other hi-tech alternatives to eating animals. She also flags up, with some powerful statistics, the sheer inefficiency of organic farming, particularly in terms of the much greater amount of space it takes up compared to conventional, and indeed her essay starts off with a wonderfully sharp crit of an upscale residential development integrated with little patches of organic farmland to make the new (inevitably well-heeled) residents feel like they are doing the world a good turn. 

My reading of her idea of 'decoupling' is that if stop pretending we can do so much 'naturally', 'in tune' with nature etc. we could actually use land and resources a lot more efficiently and sustainably – and so give more space to nature, or to what James Hitchmough of Sheffield University calls 'enhanced nature', plantings designed for aesthetic benefit but also with positive biodiversity benefits. Indeed, looking historically, in a way we have already done this with our gardens. In the past we would have been far more self-sufficient, growing veg in our gardens; now these domestic spaces are taken up with more wildlife-friendly ornamental trees, shrubs and perennials, so bringing about the relatively rich biodiversity of contemporary suburbia. We have decoupled our food supply from our gardens with positive results. Most domestic veg growing is so inefficient in its use of space and resources it is very doubtful if it contributes much to achieving any kind of sustainability brownie-points. Especially if raised beds (one of my pet hates) are used. It has an educational value – teaching children where their food comes from, and this is very valuable, but basically it's recreational. Nothing wrong with that at all, just don't try to pretend that its saving the world, or even particularly sustainable.

If we stop using the word 'natural' to describe what we do in our gardens, we can free our minds up to think about what sort of outcomes we want and can expect. Primarily places that give us pleasure, and yes, give us contact with a domesticated version of nature, but secondly to look objectively at what benefits undomesticated nature in the form of birds, bees and butterflies gets from our gardens.

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