Perils of Plantsmanship

Perils of Plantsmanship

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Recently I went to a lecture at the New York Botanical Garden by Italian garden designer Luciano Giubbilei. His passion was infectious and his images were ravishing – spectacular gardens composed of just a handful of elements. This was a message that particularly resonated with me, as I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied as time goes by with the American fashion for the plantsman’s garden.

Garden in Morocco by Luciano Giubbilei with pennisetum and olives

Of course I can understand the appeal of plant collecting. What gardener has not at some time or another felt the allure of some exotic plant’s beauty and wanted to take it home? But I think that’s an impulse to be given into judiciously if your goal is a beautiful garden.

I’ve visited hundreds of plantsmen’s gardens in my career as a journalist, and many have been truly beautiful — the rock garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens comes immediately to mind.  But others were little more than botanical menageries. The most extreme example was one of the finest collection of heirloom roses I’ve ever encountered.   The contrast was dramatic: the individual blossoms were magnificent and romantic, marvelous confections of petals and perfume.   Look past that, however, and what you saw was ranks of bushes growing in 5-gallon buckets.

Even many of the less extreme examples of the plantsman’s garden generally suffer from a claustrophobic feel – specimens crowded into every available spot. In fact, I think that just having plants identified as “specimens” or “specimen plantings” is probably a sign of trouble aesthetically. Specimens are something to study under a microscope or put on a shelf in a museum, not something that subordinates itself to an artistic vision.

I mention these things because plantsmanship is so prestigious in our western gardening tradition. The collectors who bring back new species from over the horizon are treated as super stars, and our nurseries compete in the number of novelties they offer. To me, this seems at times like a school of painters competing to collect the rarest pigments, priding themselves on the number of different colors they manage to dab onto a canvas, regardless of how this distorts the composition.

Personally, I am more impressed by traditions which use commonplace elements to create something stunning.   Traditional Japanese gardens use a minimal vocabulary of fairly ordinary plants to achieve very powerful effects. The gardens of the Italian Renaissance used little more than box and holly oak hedges, cypresses, turf, water, and stone to create landscapes that still take your breath away 500 years later. Giubillei works in that Italian tradition, finding beauty in the inspired arrangement of simple elements.

Gold medal winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show by Luciano Giubbilei

This is why, in the garden I am planning for my home in the Berkshire Hills, I intend to use mainly plants that are common in the surrounding woods. Paper birch for example, in a sinuous line, swinging in and out like a New England Contra Dance. Mountain laurel and blueberries juxtaposed with boulders, and a groundcover of cranberries. I am hoping that I can find something fresh and new in these familiar plants.

Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on April 4, 2016 at 10:43 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, It’s the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy, Uncategorized.

    • Tom Fischer
    • 15th June 2016

    And yet, and yet. I admire Giubbilei’s streamlined designs as well, but I’m not sure I’d want to own one. The gardens that really get my heart racing are the ones that elevate plantsmanship into art, like Helen Dillon’s. And I can forgive a lot even in aesthetically disastrous plantsman’s gardens, simply because the love of plants is so evident. And I might note, mischievously, that Mr. Giubbilei himself seems to have yielded to the siren song of plantsmanship: in T Magazine, Tim Richardson wrote about how Giubbilei has acquired a small plot at Great Dixter, where he has been experimenting with boisterous combinations, under the watchful eye of Fergus Garrett. It’s hard to resist the blandishments of the goddess Flora!

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 6th October 2016

    You are right about the blandishments of Flora, and I won’t argue with you about the rest. The really good plantsman gardens are … really, really good.

    • Tara Sayers Dillard
    • 14th November 2016

    A friend was just in Helen’s garden…..she’s moving.

    • admin
    • 14th November 2016

    Bit boring if you ask me. . . but of course you won’t! You don’t like my garden Tom? As David Chinery used to tell me “Ruth, you have plants that only a mother could love” and I thought that was a compliment! It’s difficult to have sweeps of grasses and miles of hedge on a 50′ x 100′ lot.

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 15th November 2016

    I do like your garden very much — it’s as enthusiastic as you are. You are right about the sweeps of pennisetum needing a large space but Giubbilei has also designed a lot of urban gardens (many in London) that are quite compact. And many of the Italian Renaissance gardens included quite small spaces, and I found them just entrancing when I was spending time in northern Italy many years ago. It was something about the proportions, I think; to walk through one of them was like becoming part of a really beautiful piece of sculpture.

    • Brooke Beebe
    • 16th November 2016

    How nice to bump into you here, Ruth. I find these pictures breathtakingly beautiful, not boring, but I am unable to resist trying out plants and sticking them wherever I can find space in my garden.

    • Barb Gorges
    • 16th November 2016

    I have a backyard only 50 x 100 so my “viewshed” is what I see from only a few feet away as I walk my garden. Another person’s acres (or border) of one species is my mound of daisies. I do have the advantage of the high plains stretching out from the edge of town and even though they have a calming simplicity when seen from a distance, they are really a mosaic. Sometimes, one species will dominate for a few weeks, like last year’s unusual carpet of threadleaf coreopsis, but normally it’s finding the individual and small groups of wildflowers which I enjoy.

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 16th November 2016

    I envy you your access to the high plains — we have very few natural grasslands in the Northeast, and nothing with that vast sweep.

    • Mary K
    • 16th November 2016

    Thank you for mentioning some of the natives in the Berkshire hills, it lead me to look up Mountain Laurel, as I think I have some in my garden. If one plants a lot of it, perhaps avoid keeping bees for honey, as it is quite toxic:

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 16th November 2016

    Thank you for this very thoughtful response. I agree that gardens are a very personal matter and that everyone looks for something different from their garden. I intended this post as an expression of my personal opinion, in the hope that it might prompt people to think about this subject — and then go ahead and do what makes them most fulfilled and happy. I do think that the plants we treat as ordinary are amazing in their own ways and worth a fresh look. The New England mountain laurels that surround my house are every bit as much a miracle as a rhododendron from the Himalayas.

    • Brooke Beebe
    • 17th November 2016

    Tom, thanks for such an interesting post and pictures, and I have enjoyed the comments and garden suggestions. Can’t wait to find pictures of these gardens and designers on the web. Please show us pictures of your gardens as you create them. If you can grow laurels and groundcovering cranberries well, I want to know how!

    • ProfessorRoush
    • 17th November 2016

    Ah, Thomas, I agree with the sentiment and applaud your plan to grow natives in nonrandom ways (i.e. with a plan). That being said, I’m continually guilty of specimen-plantism and “canvas-dabbing” despite my best intentions. Thankfully, the plants themselves try to help me out, some by dying and thus removing their nonconforming selves from the landscape, others by multiplying and allowing me to spread their solo appearances into a choir. If only I were more successful with Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Indian grass than I am with the multitude of Miscanthus(s).

    • Chris Woods
    • 18th November 2016

    As one who was largely responsible for a popular plant-focused garden, I couldn’t agree more.
    I find such botanical menageries claustrophobic and I look for the connecting architecture. When I find none or very little, I can still marvel at the horticulture but I come away longing for coherence. I expect to find it in a garden, an artificial construct. It doesn’t bother me if I don’t find it in the wild.
    While I am, perhaps, more of a romantic than Tom Christopher or Luciano, and can tolerate wild sweepings of plants more easily, I find myself increasingly uneasy with the modern baroque gardens.
    As I get older, I look for simplicity.

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