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  • Panayoti Kelaidis

The New Wave of Gardening

By Panayoti Kelaidis:

Above: Kelly D Norris' home garden in Des Moines, Three Oaks Garden. This prairie planting is juxtaposed against a dark green wall of the invasive Tree of Heaven in the city right-of-way across the road.

Great gardens and gardeners generally resist categorization. Gallery art is full of isms: Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism—to the extent that critics seem more interested in movements and pigeon-holing an artist than in the artist’s intrinsic merit. But it could be argued that gardeners and gardens also come in waves.

For instance, late Renaissance palaces in Europe are invariably accompanied by parterres: geometrical gardens of great symmetry. The great Landscape Movement of the 18th Century wasn’t just a wave, but a tsunami of naturalism, that practically swept the elaborate parterres of the earlier age into oblivion, only in turn to be derailed by the renewed passion for formality and carpet-bedding in the early Victorian era.

Elaborate formal geometrical parterre at Hanbury Hall, Worchester, England. Photo: Sjwells53

Above: Elaborate formal geometrical parterre at Hanbury Hall, Worchester, England. Photo: Sjwells53 A sort of see-sawing seems to have accelerated between highly structured, formalized garden styles and looser, naturalistic design over the last century. Or maybe more like batting back and forth like tennis balls? The Arts and Crafts movement that eschewed Carpet bedding and naturalism gained the upper hand in the Edwardian era, while the Twentieth Century’s formalism reached an apogee with “Mid-Century Modern”—where the landscape was subordinated to minimalist “clean and green” and the house seemed to reign supreme.

Above: Dan Johnson's elegant Cottonwood Border at DBG, featuring our native plants. Photo: Dan Johnson

Above: First designed by Lauren Springer in the 1990's, the Roads Watersmart Garden at DBG has continued to be a year 'round showcase of superb low-water design under Dan Johnson's care. Photo: Dan Johnson

When I began my professional gardening career in 1980, landscape and gardening in Denver consisted primarily of green lawns, foundation plantings of Pfitzer junipers, and the garnishing of some edgings with dusty miller, marigolds, and the inevitable petunias. Even Denver Botanic Gardens comprised in large part annual carpet bedding schemes—with the notable exception of the Rock Alpine Garden at the time. Steve Echter, (owner of one of the first local garden centers to use computers), told me that sales of perennials had increased from less than 10% of their total sales in 1980 to over half their gross sales a few years later; the “perennial boom” was the signal of another wave that swept away Mid-American minimalist landscapes in many gardens, sprouting perennial borders, shrub borders, and “xeriscapes” in more and more Denver area homes.

This new garden style harkened back to many garden innovations of the late Nineteenth Century—the “English Garden style” practically invented by Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Garden writers like Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, and Christopher Lloyd produced volume after volume of lavish coffee table books showing how you should combine colors and plants. All three of these worthies lectured at Denver Botanic Gardens lecture series late in the last Millennium.

For several decades the cottage garden or English-style garden seemed to prevail as THE new model for keen American gardeners: using a variety of bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and conifers to create a colorful garden for year 'round interest. Another wave of enthusiasm for containers brought annual planters back in a big way: now you could garnish your English garden with some bright summer color… but 1999 brought an acute drought that lasted four years, each averaging less than 10" precipitation. The results of this drought in Denver were catastrophic: lawns turned brown and gardeners were discouraged from planting anything in their gardens. Outdoor watering was reduced in some suburbs to a few hours once a week. The ponds and waterways at Denver Botanic Gardens’ ran dry. It’s estimated that ten thousand horticultural industry workers lost jobs due to the depression in landscape and nursery industries. Xeriscape, which had been considered a marginal garden style, suddenly came center stage. We got calls from many members at the time asking how to transform their lawns into cactus gardens!

  Late autumn in the Roads Watersmart Garden at DBG designed by Lauren Springer. Photo: Lauren Springer

Above: Late autumn in the Roads Watersmart Garden at DBG designed by Lauren Springer. Photo: Lauren Springer

Meanwhile, droughts had occurred in other parts of the world including Western Europe and a consequence of the phenomenon was that the traditional perennial border began to morph into something very different. Rather than staging plants in puddles and pools of color, some designers were advocating blending and combining garden perennials in new ways more like the ecological mixes of plants found in nature.

Pioneers like Beth Chatto had introduced a rich palette of Mediterranean plants to create drier gardens along traditional lines, but something new and different was brewing…. Truth be said, a host of garden designers in Central Europe had been doing this sort of gardening for decades, but the language divide perhaps prevented people from learning about Karl Foerster’s enormous palette of grasses at his nursery, and the wild, Teutonic steppe gardens.

Now more than ever a wave of “new naturalism” has emerged, where designers seek to select plants (often primarily native to the environment they’re re-creating) that can combine to maximize strong waves of color from spring to fall and through the winter, but at the same time minimize the effort it takes to create these gardens and, more importantly, achieve a sort of “ecological balance” to minimize future maintenance and irrigation.

Piet Oudolf has become unquestionably the best known designer not only in Europe but also North America in recent decades. On seeing his earlier designs at places like Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley, they struck me as being perennial borders on steroids—using vast drifts of a handful of species of tall perennials. These gardens still require enormous inputs to create and maintain. By the time Piet designed the Highline Garden in lower Manhattan, he began to loosen his style, and this wild, elevated garden has become by far the most visited public garden in North America. Its influence has been enormous.

The move­ment has been taken much further by a trio of British landscape architects and designers who’ve published a shelf-full of books. They’ve designed collectively hundreds of gardens in dozens of countries around the world (including the United States) and though their names are not yet as famous as Piet’s, it seems to me their approach is tending even more towards a blending of ecology and practical horticulture—attempting to somehow harmonize the forces of nature with the human realm, turning back Anthropocene.

Above: Kelly D Norris and a meadow in his home garden in Des Moines, IA

James Hitchmough is chairman of the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Sheffield, which has become a Mecca for students wanting to master this “New Naturalism”. He’s written many books outlining his techniques but Sowing Beauty is nothing short of an Encyclopaedia outlining the germination requirements, spacing, size, color and culture for hundreds of plants that can be grown from seed to create a variety of naturalistic meadow-like arrangements in horticultural settings. He has spoken recently in Denver and can only be described as a human dynamo whose influence is just beginning to be seen worldwide.

Dan Pearson is a charismatic columnist for major newspapers, a prolific author and ubiquitous designer whose distinctive style and palette of plants has attracted a bevy of followers verging on idolators. His most famous recent project involves a vast garden in northern Japan underwritten by an industrial Paper factory called “the Millennial Forest”. Several books about this project are in the works. He is a force to be reckoned with!

Nigel Dunnett is best known in America for writing the “bible” of green roof gardening. He has lectured here and around the world on this cutting-edge horticultural innovation, as well as other important forms of sustainable gardening like rain gardens. In Naturalist Planting Design: the essential guide he shows an emphasis as much as on artistry as it is on the sound practicality of naturalistic gardening. I have been especially struck by the beauty of what he has created illustrated in this book and on the wealth of photographs of his work available on the web. He is also a professor at the University of Sheffield and a sought after lecturer around the world.

It’s somewhat ironic that a movement to integrate idealized nature into practical human landscapes has become so popular in the relatively small and heavily populated British Isles. So many of the plants they use are North American natives and the resulting gardens look uncannily like authentic tallgrass prairies!

In Colorado several of our local designers have anticipated and in some ways perfected many of the tenets of this new movement. Dan Johnson, Associate Director of Denver Botanic Gardens, has designed over a dozen gardens at the York Street site. He took the neglected and weedy Dryland Mesa, Plains Gardens, and Gates Montane Garden, radically renovated their plantings, and elevated them to major focal points of the institution. The “four quartets” around the Amphitheatre—notably the Ponderosa Border, Cottonwood Border and the Bristlecone Border are tableaux of enormous elegance featuring our native plants by ecological association combined with great artistry. The fourth quartet, the Roads Watersmart Garden, was first designed by Lauren Springer in the 1990’s, but Dan has continued its evolution into a year ’round showcase of superb low-water garden design.

Above: Scripter meadow garden in Niwot, CO designed by Lauren Springer. She says, "Wild landscapes and their plant and animal communities are my muses." Photo: Lauren Springer.

Lauren Springer is certainly one of America’s premier designers who’s lectured across North America and Europe showcasing her distinctive naturalism. The extensive native gardens around the Visitor Center at Chatfield Farms are a tour-de-force of naturalism—but the expansive, new “Undaunted Garden” at the Gardens at Spring Creek in Fort Collins, which she has not only designed but maintains herself, will be her next masterpiece sure to equal anything the English naturalists have done!

The latest word on this movement is just coming off the presses. Kelly Norris, a youthful horticulturist from Iowa who’s responsible for the astonishing renaissance of Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, has just written The New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden, featuring not only his own work, but gardens around North America, which he compares and contrasts to the European model. Denver Botanic Gardens and Lauren Springer feature prominently. Undoubtedly every designer I’ve mentioned so far has their own take on this art, but collectively I think it’s fair to say we are soaring on the crest of an exciting new wave of gardening. Ironically, it may crash squarely into a new and severe period of acute drought across our region. And just in time.

Panayoti Kelaidis represents Denver Botanic Gardens in educational, professional, and promotional endeavors as an expert in horticulture, science, and art. He also acts as a liaison to botanical societies, professional horticulture organizations, and green industry members.



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