Monday, November 26, 2007

WHERE DO GARDENS END AND LANDSCAPE BEGIN? And what have bagels go to do with it?

This was originally written for Yue Zhuang, in an effort to clarify what some linguistic confusion about what we Brits mean when we go on about gardens. With any luck, there'll be some interesting stuff on Chinese gardens and garden concepts to follow on.

This a crucial point in the framing of discussions about gardens - more than in discussion about landscape. Landscape people have a longer history of reflection on their craft, and area of study – garden people have been unreflective by comparison, and are sometimes surprised to find that discourse about their subject has been ‘usurped’ by those who business is landscape.

This is also an important topic in any cross-cultural discussion – as every culture defines ‘garden’ and ‘landscape’ differently. These differences, once understood, can be very informative.

‘Landscape’ tends to include ‘garden’.
So it is not surprising that gardeners can feel that they are sometimes being spoken for by their more articulate subject-cousins.

‘Garden’ does mean different things in different languages, not just in
definition , but in nuance and cultural meaning.

The Garden as Private Property
The definition in western European languages centres on its separation from its surroundings by the presence of a boundary, which stresses its essentially private character. ‘Garden’ in English, Tradgård in Swedish, Garten in German, Jardin in French, all relate to English ‘yard’. Tuin in Dutch, Zahrada in Slovak I don’t know – enlighten me someone please?
Gardens vary in size according to the wealth of their owners, so it is no surprise that C18 landowners could develop an artform which involved thousands of acres being called ‘gardens’. Their definition in the sense of a visible boundary was minimised, because part of the design concept of many landowners was to visually borrow landscape which belonged to other people. The key issue was private ownership and a design concept which flowed from this private ownership.
‘Landscape’ has always been a much vaguer concept, and whereas most cultures have a word for ‘garden’ (can’t imagine that the Eskimoes do, or maybe not even the Mongolians), landscape is a word which is generally of a more recent historic origin (it would be so interesting to know what words you use in Chinese and their origin). It is also a word which is, somehow inescapably, vague. Everywhere is actually landscape – wild nature, where there is no human impact gets called landscape, and it is possible to talk of a completely unplanned and dysfunctional place like a shanty town as being a ‘slum landscape’. Whereas ‘garden’ speaks of definition, in terms of both physical boundary, possession, and design-intent (usually on the most minimal level ) ‘landscape’ is just what is. So, if a landscape received the attention of a landscape designer, then that is a kind of bonus for it.
Gardens are part of landscape. So, whereas all gardens are landscape, not all landscapes are garden. So inevitably landscape discourse includes and subsumes garden discourse. No wonder that many people who wish to talk about landscape end up talking about gardens – in many cases they are the most interesting landscapes of all, because they have been intensively cultivated and designed. But to let landscape discourse subsume garden discourse is to lose a meaningful boundary – which is why I think we garden people are actually quite jealous of that boundary.

The Public Garden and Horticulture
We do of course talk about some public parks as ‘gardens’. It would be interesting to trace the historic roots of this. It is not just an English affectation: Jardin Tuillieries in Paris, Englischer Garten in Munich etc. ‘Gardens’ have always tended to be smaller than parks, have usually had a much clearer sense of boundary, and crucially would involve a greater element of horticulture than was customary for parks.
Horticulture then, helps to define what a garden is, at least in British culture. Indeed the ‘garden’ and ‘gardening’ are inseparable. In Chinese culture I understand that gardens are much more architecturally defined. It would be interesting to know the root of the word for garden, and whether different words are used for small architectural urban gardens and for larger rural ones. Does the word imply horticulture or not?
Gardens are so inseparable from gardening that most British people accept only with difficulty that a garden may not include any plants.I shall never forget my father having a problem with the Boboli Gardens in Florence, never mind the clipped hedges, where were the flowers? Martha Schwartz and her infamous bagel garden and the ‘installation art as garden’ of Chaumont and the late Westonbirt garden shows have at least broadened out the definition for the British gardening public. A rather moving publication from the USA some years ago also addressed the surroundings of homeless and vagrant people as ‘gardens’ as well – so we can perhaps reach a definition which minimises horticulture and instead emphasises management and design intent.
So far so good. We can for the most part define gardens as being physically defined places with design intent, nearly always privately rather than publically owned. The private/public definition is a crucial one too. Parks and other public space which is owned by corporate bodies rather than individual ones are seen in so many cultures as places where less care is taken. They have less respect, particularly in cultures where there is little sense of the social good, as in Middle Eastern cultures. As public property, they inevitably suffer from ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

Gardens and who designs them
The garden/landscape division then is not so murky. But it is one which is very important to the British, where so many people have private gardens, and where the ‘public garden’ seems almost a piece of historical anachronism. We have ‘garden designers’ a new profession whose numbers have grown like …. weeds? (the comparison in not meant to be unkind, only descriptive of their rate of self-propagation) in recent years. Landscape architects only rarely get to design gardens. “Jolly good thing too” – one can almost hear the gardeners saying. In most other countries, the profession of ‘garden designer’ almost does not exist or is synonymous with landscape architect.
For most Brits, gardens are synonymous with plants and the activity of gardening - it is only pretentious foreigners who scatter them with plastic bagels or fibre-glass installations. But, to be honest, gardening and plants are what we are good at. They are at the core of what makes the British garden what it is. It is why more and more people from abroad come and visit our country. Do non-Americans go to the USA to look at Schwartz’s bagels?

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Letter to Uruguay

The following was written to Amalia Robredo, a pioneering garden designer in Uruguay, who is experimenting with designing with native plants and sculpting the existing vegetation of the Uruguayan coast - a dwarf shrub formation known as the Monte. It is pretty relevant to anybody in similar circumstances.

I am trying to think through what I would do if I beached up in a country with no tradition of ‘wild’ or naturalistic gardening or of using its native flora for gardens or landscapes. There is so much to do! But the rewards are to be a pioneer, to achieve a quantum leap, and perhaps even be remembered for it by future generations!

All too often a mystery - Plant lifespan
First of all, we often know so little about how wild plants behave in cultivation – there are certain basic facts that need to be established. So, even if you are planning to grow native plants only in wild-type communities, I think it pays to cultivate a few specimens of each species in the garden too, in order to learn about them. One of the key issues is plant lifespan, and the related topic of how they reproduce themselves. It is usually fairly obvious if something in the wild is an annual – they always produce masses of seed from a stem which enters the ground to connect to the roots at a single point. Less obvious are those short-lived perennials like Verbena bonariensis (which I am fascinated to learn from you is a wetland plant in its native habitat). They can play tricks on us – we think they are perennial but then die after a couple of years, a situation not helped by the inadequate terminology we have adopted for plant lifespan: annual, biennial, perennial – there is no recognition here of the ‘short-lived perennial’ category.

Annuals, biennials and short-lived perennials nearly always set plentiful seed which germinates rapidly (they would soon become extinct if they did not), and they do not form clear ‘ramets’ at the base. A ramet is a term (used by botanists and ecologists rather than gardeners) to describe a shoot at the base of a plant which grows its own roots and can become, in time, independent of the parent plant – such things sort out the true perennials from those of limited lifespan. Short-lived plants will generally self-seed, but are able to do so only on disturbed ground and are, over a number of years, replaced by longer-lived species. So, thinking about their ornamental effects, these may be spectacular but transient.

The Joys and Frustrations of Propagation
Growing a few native plants in ‘garden’ conditions is also an opportunity to learn about how they might be propagated. Becoming knowledgeable about propagation is something which is almost inevitable if you are experimenting with plants. There is something addictive about it – the thrill (and sometimes challenge – sometimes deep frustration) of making new plants – new life! Some people become obsessed with propagation – either they cannot stop making new plants or they take on the challenge of species which cannot be propagated so easily: cuttings which refuse to roots unless given some special treatment or seed which does not germinate unless likewise some magic is performed, even dipped in sulphuric acid!

Propagation ‘tendencies’ tend to go in families: compositae/asteraceae germinate quickly, labiatae cuttings root in a week; but herbaceous always tends to be easier than woody. Particularly frustrating are really beautiful plants you want lots of but where cuttings rot away after months of sitting in compost or have seeds which simply do not come up.

The truth is that you will end up with far more of the easy to propagate plants than the difficult ones. So cultivation ends up being dominated by plants which are easily propagated. For work with native plants, this tends to mean domination by the species which are important in the early stages of succession; species which dominate the established plant community (places which have been undisturbed for centuries) tend to be slower to grow and to spread themselves.

Whatever – you ought to make sure you have some good books on propagation!

The Cultivar Dilemma
When native plants are taken into cultivation, it is very often as cultivars – selections made for a variety of reasons: bigger, brighter flowers, longer flowering season, more compact habit etc. But behind these very obvious and prosaic reasons lies perhaps a deeper, cultural issue. Just as very few Uruguayans probably appreciate the monte, so few will appreciate native plant species. There is something fundamental about the human relationship with nature which demands that we separate ourselves off from it: so Australians despise the bush, Brazilians the jungle, Americans fear the forest (unless neatly packaged as National Park) etc. So, it should come as no surprise that ‘native’ plants are somehow made more acceptable once cultivars are chosen. They also help market the native plant as a product – consumers after all will be more likely to pay for a plant which bears a name they can relate to; this name also signals a kind of domestication: Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ is going to sell so much better than plain Solidago rugosa, even though it is practically identical.

A great many plants in cultivation are simple selections from the wild – good forms which are then propagated so that they are all more or less identical. This is why vegetative propagation is so important for cultivars: division or cuttings, or grafting. Seed-grown, ie. sexually propagated, plants will nearly always show a range of differences between each other and the parents – and so cannot be relied on to ‘breed true’. With woody plants: shrub and trees, this is why vegetative propagation is so important – as a way of ensuring that what is identified by a cultivar name maintains the set of characteristics for which it was selected in the first place.

So, I would argue that a key part of domesticating native plants and making them popular is the choosing of good cultivars: the great plant hunters very often did this in the wild by taking seed from individuals they knew to be particularly good. The garden owners and nurserymen back home would line out hundreds of plants grown from the seed they sent back, and then select just one or two to propagate from – and of course give cultivar names to.

However, there is a catch.

If you are interested in really using native plants to create a naturalistic style of planting, you want them to reproduce, to seed themselves around, just as they do in nature; if they do not then the plant community you have will be static, and vulnerable to incursion by less desirable weedy species – often aggressive, non-native weeds.

Cultivars do not always propagate from seed – sexual reproduction is often dependent on plants being genetically different; and if they do, the results will show little genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is important for self-sustaining ecologically healthy plant populations. So, the implication is, that for creating genuine plant communities, cultivars are not always such a good idea, however good they might be for getting people attracted to and interested in, native flora. Cultivars are fine for those making conventional gardens, but if you are trying to create something wilder, where the role of the gardener is more ‘hands off’, where you want a dynamic plant community which regenerates itself – then cultivars are not so good. Instead you want multiples of seed-grown individuals, ie. plants of different genetic make-up.