Not new. Not American. Not garden.

Michael King’s recent blog post entitled Never New Gardening had me stewing for quite some time before responding.  He and I agree on one thing: that titles for garden trends will ultimately incite a downward spiral, ensuring that what begins by getting an increasing groundswell of support will almost certainly feel the sting of going out of favor.

King  writes that the inspired philosophy behind the 1980’s New American Garden and its successors, the Dutch Wave and the New Perennials Movements, combined traditional landscape features with bold and ecologically aware planting combinations.   He lauds the use of native species in highly designed spaces, and refers to his excellent earlier description of The Netherlands’ heemparken, which were created not as conservation areas, but rather to instill an appreciation for native species through stylized plantings.  

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Yet King concludes that the integrity of those philosophies has devolved into a paintbox of plants that have lost their site sensitivity.  This description of the sad current state of affairs evokes a chain store feel to the current use of the plants and the designs.  He declares, “Nobody talks about the New American Garden anymore.”

Well. 

Not only DO people still talk about this design philosophy, they want to hear about it and understand its roots in art, architecture, industry, and ecology.  They want to examine how a new generation of talented designers is putting their distinctive spin on it.  I opened  a lecture I gave at the New York Botanical Garden, titled The New American Garden, with the provocative statement that the New American Garden was not new, nor strictly American, and encompassed more than the traditional garden.  People were very receptive.  They got it, and it excited them.  Designers are eager to contribute to refine and explore the practices promoted in the not-new, not-American not-garden tradition.

King’s analysis ends with this defeatist statement: “Gardening is not landscape architecture nor nature conservation. It is a form of aesthetic self expression and any attempts to afford it greater worthiness by applying unnecessary credentials of ecological merit are dishonest.”

Um, no.

The New American/New Perennials projects that are the most outstanding combine all four of these words.  Landscape, because they distill the essence of a place and display it in a way that is evocative and compelling.  Architecture, because their constructed shapes accent relationships to the buildings and the naturally occurring elements that surround it.  Nature, because they strengthen a viewer’s connection with the often overlooked and underappreciated drama of the changing flora and fauna that exist around us.  And conservation, because at its most successful, a garden inspires us to have a deeper connection, a greater understanding, and a more serious commitment to providing stewardship in the continued good health of the landscapes that define where we live.

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Now get out there and grow something.  Get wild.

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8 comments

  1. You’re so right… naming a garden trend is a dangerous proposition. And yet like plants themselves, we need to call them something, right? At least, ‘New Perennial’ is a whole lot better than ‘New Wave’, which it was also called for a while – reminding me more of late 70s bands like Blondie, The Talking Heads, et. al.

    I find Michael King comes off as curmudgeonly. I know he was in on the original movement and has sustained that – but doesn’t accept that there’s still considerable momentum in what he helped start. In fact, it’s been evolving ever since.

    Like you, I also recently started a blog about all this – and with an equally keen desire to not just be another (yawn!) typical plant/garden affair. From my perspective as a wild enthusiast of the New Perennial approach in a very open-minded way – it’s all about experimentation and making it your own. “There are no rules for your own garden” as Piet Oudolf told me.

    Also, it’s one thing for landscape designers to mutter about all this. It’s their stock and trade and they’re on the edge of the wave, so they get bored with things. But all this is still only just starting to filter down to the everyday gardener and that’s when it’s going to really, really take off.

    1. Oh, Tony Spencer, I’m so glad you found us, because now we’ve found you too! TheNewPerennialist.com is great. I see a kindred Oudolf fan there ….

      I took a job years ago at a wholesale nursery when, after multiple visits and unsolicited opinions about the perennials there, the owner offered me a job as “perennial girl”. I accepted under the condition they continue to refer to this middle-aged woman as a perennial girl. I guess now I am the Old Perennialist .

      1. That’s great to hear we’ve forged the link. Because we’re definitely on the same wavelength. I’m also not so new as I might appear to be.

        Last night, I was inspired to write a rebuttal to the Susan Cohan essay on the ThinkinGarden site, which took in both her screed and the Michael King complaint. I made many of the same points I see here.

        Anyway. Let’s keep in touch. And vice versa.

  2. “Nature” “conservation” is wining out for me lately. Although “landscape” and “architecture” remain the ultimate framework we work in. Great piece! Thanks. Looking forward to next month’s installment.

  3. When you’re in on a “trend” in the beginning, and when you are intellectually / professionally, it’s easy to get burned out on it after many years. But if it had worn out its welcome we’d see less mulch, less barberry, less daylily, less lawn — and that’s FAR from happening. If every landscape was New Perennial I’d be quite happy — it’d be progress in the right direction. Everyday home gardeners are still in the infant stages of seeing the landscape anew, and there’s much work left to be done.

    1. Benjamin, both you and Tony Spencer bring up a good point. If designers spend time talking only to each other, they may come to the conclusion that one concept or another is old news. Yet for the majority — avid amateurs through nervous novices — these ideas are still just getting absorbed. We need to continue to spend time writing and talking about them to ever-widening audiences.

  4. I had a similar reaction that post too Naomi, thanks for venting on it and making sense of things. Looking forward to more posts!

    1. Glad you found us, Scott. Happy spring! I feel …. Woken up!!

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