Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

What is good planting design? (3)


“Putting plants together is like learning to speak. We learn a few individual words, then attempt a phrase, or even a sentence. So it is with planting. First learn the individual plants, their habits, and most important, their needs; then you can begin to combine sympathetic or contrasting shapes, textures and colours to make a statement, or tell a story.”

(Beth Chatto)

Beth Chatto talks about planting design as like 'learning to speak.' The suggestion is that the arrangement and proportions of different plant species is governed by a sort of grammar. This grammar is what makes the difference between a plant community and just an assemblage of plants thrown together. In natural plant communities, the grammar of plant communities is governed by geology, aspect, climate, predation and competition between species - the ecological processes that are in constant operation. These processes govern designed landscapes and gardens too, although we try to control them to various degrees.

The other grammar or language in operation is that of aesthetics: how these plants appear to humans. This language, or mode of representation, can be like an abstract painting, in which the interest is just 'sympathetic or contrasting shapes, textures and colours.' Or it can have more of a narrative concept behind it -  'statement' or 'story.' Or it can have an architectural or spatial function - in defining movement, separating or creating spaces.

So we could think of forms of planting design, like artistic forms, as modes of representation:

1. Artistic

This is Christopher Bradley-Hole's 'Garden from the Desert' at the 2005 Chelsea Flower Show. The garden tells the story of the greening of the desert of the United Arab Emirates, mainly by desalination of seawater. The planting's role here is to suggest two kinds of landscape: both the desert and the verdant agriculture and gardens that water enable in it.

There's a date palm in the background but otherwise this isn't a desert garden. Irises with rich colours are arrayed through a haze of bronze fennel and parchment-coloured giant oat grass (Stipa gigantea). The colour of the Stipa and fennel suggest the burnt earth tones of the desert. The way that the light plays of both is powerfully atmospheric - the effect is like a mirage. Nothing about this planting is botanically 'correct' yet it seems right. Bradley-Hole has used the aesthetic qualities of the component plant species to create an artistic, abstracted vision of a desert garden landscape.

2. Ecological

Part of the garden at Waltham Place, a country estate designed and managed on an organic, biodynamic basis (Henck Gerritson). This garden is no wilderness: there is nothing accidental about the tightly clipped cloud hedge of box and the lawn. But ecological processes are allowed to operate to a much greater extent than in a more conventionally managed garden here. Certain weeds are allowed to see themselves between the flagstones and the climbing roses on the pergola have run rampant. The head gardener describes how Gerritson encouraged the gardeners to imitate grazing animals in the way in which they pull weeds, reproducing the operation of grazing on a garden scale. Like all biodynamic landscapes, this one is palpably alive with insects and other forms of life. There is an ecological 'look' to this landscape - but that's not the point. The point is the processes which go on under the surface, of which the landscape's appearance is just the shallow form.


3. Architectural

The opposite of the ecological mode of planting design: it conceives of plants as structure - another material with which to create and define space. Many of the greatest Classical Enlightenment-era gardens are like this. This (relatively) contemporary example is the 'Green Dock' in Thames Barrier Park (Alain Provost), in wihch clipped yew is used to its architectural properties, creating frozen 'waves' that reference the site's previous use as a dock alongside the river Thames. In this scheme, the yew is fixed, treated as a form of sculpture that creates enclosure and contrasts with the looser forms of the perennials and grasses around it.

4. Ecotechnology

Ecotechnology refers to the many different ways in which plants can be combined with architecture and engineering to perform useful functions: water cleansing (designed wetlands and reed beds), slope stabilisation (grassland and vertical greening), erosion control along rivers (vegetation mats), green roofs and living walls.

This photo, taken in the early stages after planting, shows MFO Park in Zurich, Switzerland, where steel architectural supports and cables are designed to be shrouded in vines and climbers, creating a synthesis of nature and architecture. This is the converging future of landscape and architecture.




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