copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
1 September 2007
Unnerving though they are, the disturbances
in the weather patterns make for a deeply interesting garden
season. Last year we were watching the effects of not watering
at all. We saw how plants we had thought of as belonging to
the "damp garden" were quite happy in the sun and
heat. We learned which plants we had been over-watering. This
year, with its astonishing rainfall, gave us the opposite demonstration.
We looked at the young trees. They put on inch after inch of
tender growth, which seemed as if it were never going to ripen.
The rain battered the roses, but gave them a second flowering
this month. A young wisteria rotted away at the base. But we
gained much more than we lost.
A new border, cleared at the beginning of the
year and planted afresh exclusively for flowering in August
and September, was slow to explode - but when it did so, it
made people burst into laughter and scratch their heads. This
project had brought together, from all over the garden, dahlias,
salvias, gingers, agapanthuses and sunflowers of various kinds,
grading them according to size (where it could be predicted),
but letting the colours fight it out.
Contemplating the result, at evening when this
west-facing border caught the last of the sun, I imagined I
was seeing something very far from nature. The dahlia species
come from the highlands of Mexico and Central America, but the
history of the garden varieties is obscure. Did the Aztecs breed
them as we do? Did Moctezuma's plant collection at Huaxtepec
look like mine does now? Did Atahualpa fancy these "cactus"
varieties? Or did he go for collarettes, pompons, mignon singles
or novelty fully doubles?
I cannot pretend that the resulting combination
of plants constitutes anything so grand as an ecosystem. Some
of the species come from similar parts of the world. Some will
be able to over-winter on the spot. But, for the most part,
this assemblage of living material wouldn't survive a moment
without human help. It is the product of cultivation, breeding
and the taste, or lack of taste, of the breeders. Nor is the
style of border original. It owes a great deal to Christopher
Lloyd, and to Sarah Raven (from whose nursery several of the
The very opposite style - that of the "New
Perennial" movement, as displayed in the gardens designed
by Piet Oudolf and in the writings of Noel Kingsbury - would
hardly tolerate any of the plants that have been placed in this
border. This opposite style, also at its peak at this time of
year, relies on grasses and prairie plants and a range of rather
well-behaved flowers, giving a harmonious (though to my eye
timid) effect of purples and rusty browns and yellows, with
some reds where permissible but, for some odd reason, with very
little blue. It is a restricted palette that is also a matter
of taste. The New Perennial philosophy is by no means as new
as it was made out to be. It can be traced back to North America,
to the gardens of the German-born Wolfgang Oehme and James van
Sweden, and before them to Germany and Holland earlier in the
last century. Ultimately it can be credited to Victorian England,
to William Robinson's wild gardens.
Both of these styles were born out of revolt.
Lloyd was revolting against a kind of Ghastly Good Taste exhibited
by people whose first question about a garden would have been:
"Would Vita Sackville-West have approved? Would she have
risked that? Or would she have thought it common?" Lloyd's
deployment of dahlias was a gesture of defiance, and many people
thought at first that it was wilful and crazy. Robinson and
his European followers were revolting against Victorian bedding
schemes, while Oehme and van Sweden were reacting against the
ubiquitous American lawn that miraculously links house to house
for miles and miles of suburbia. Some of the plants they introduced,
such as Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), were anathema in
gardens, as Rose Bay willow herb would be here.
But this prairie style, as it is sometimes
called, is really only a style, and its pretensions to ecological
sustainability become thinner the further one gets from the
prairies themselves. The prairie ecology needs regular cropping,
but what beasts are going to graze these prairie gardens? I
read in one authoritative book that "It takes at least
eight acres of tallgrass prairie to support one bison in Kansas"
and that bison are only happy in groups of at least three to
five. "Clearly," says my book, "grazing bison
cannot be a maintenance option for suburban homeowners."
A hundred acres would be a good size for a starter prairie garden.
The alternative treatment is fire, and it appears
that the original prairies were fire-managed, a landscape in
which species diversity was aided by periodic conflagrations.
The same book (Gardening with Prairie Plants by Sally Wasowski)
suggests burning your home prairie only every three to five
years, and mowing in the interim. "Fire departments can
be helpful and will have had experience in handling grass fires,
although they may not understand the reasons for a prairie burn."
Wasowski tells us how to start a fire, and how to try to put
it out with a fire-swatter ("Do not slap with too much
force or you will spread the fire"), what to wear (a hat
to protect you from flying embers), what not to wear (synthetic
clothing which can burn and melt), and what to do if the wind
suddenly changes ("be prepared to handle this"). She
tells us that "fire is always dangerous, and if your mind
wanders, your burn can get out of control."
I am sure it can. My dahlias are also, perhaps,
out of control, in the sense that they have been rioting for
weeks and show no sign of fatigue. They are a far cry from the
natural world. They are a far cry from the Aztec world. Still,
watching people's reactions this summer, it seems to me that
these enormous flowers, these intense colours, retain a power
to make people happy. Surely gardens were once like this, before
good taste took some of the fun away.