Shabby - the New Chic?
To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him real, and when you are real, shabbiness doesn’t matter.’
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
My early horticultural and design career was informed by a love of geometry, formality and order which seemed to appeal to me at an innate level, influencing my work with identifiable style. This served me well and indeed early work relating to knot and parterre gardening was utterly reliant on the aesthetic.
As time moved on a subtlety developed that whilst still reliant on underlying geometry, loosened and flowed more readily, with structural lines increasingly disguised, and rigid layouts becoming ever more subtle, hard lines gradually fading into the visual subconscious.
Looking back, I appreciate the order and control the geometric style offered, but realise that age, professional experience and above all an appreciation of nature has been responsible for a shift in aesthetic preference. The bones that form the skeleton of a landscape are still defined, offering underlying structure and architecture to what might otherwise become a slightly chaotic scene, but in, around and amongst there is frolicking and exuberance, billowing and overspill created by loose planting and relaxed maintenance regimes.
The latter is a point for serious consideration, especially in terms of our public spaces and perception of what is a managed landscape. It took several years for the general public to accept the positive benefits of leaving areas of parks unmown, when grass was allowed to grow long and willowy through the summer months - initially this was percieved to be a cost-cutting exercise that detracted from the beauty and amenity value of public spaces.
But consider the benefits of such areas in terms of biodiversity, habitat and food provision for wildlife and the simple beauty of a fluttering, wind-tickled landscape – all aspects that contribute life and energy to the static scene that would result from a regular mowing regime.
And so I wonder, what else can we adjust to in terms of what we consider beauty rather than neglect? How does my previous preference for order and manicure adjust to a new aesthetic and importantly how can high horticultural standards be ensured within a more ‘laid back’ maintenance approach?
Techniques suitable for wide landscapes might not work in a private garden so here are some ideas for a domestic plot:
Rough around the edges is a great way to soften formal construction – leave a deliberate planting gap at the base of walls into which small plants or self-sown interlopers can set up home and provide mini-wildlife corridors
Repetition in planting can provide anchors that hold a surrounding, more random planting scheme together, provide calming punctuation within a chattering border. Topiary and half-standard trees work well.
Hedges are a best friend to gardeners looking for a soft, more natural look, providing structure and a framework within which everything else can run riot.
Shrubs are one of the most sustainable plant groups, long lived with a woody framework and, when treated well have soft, lax growth that can offer seasonal interest throughout the year – but NEVER to be clipped with shears into solid lumps– secateur pruning and only when needed please.
Bejewelled lawns are fun, beautiful and have historic precedent from the Medieval Hortus conclusus. Lawns are often too wet to mow until late spring so add tiny crocus, iris (reticulata), miniature narcissi and even species tulips – all these have fine grass-like leaves so can be mown after flowering when you make the first cut.
Prairie adjusted planting is my name for a style that takes the best from this popular planting without the complex maintenance orchestration it requires. Incorporate repetition so that key plants such as Stipa gigantea hold court and then keep a simple supporting palette - alliums, verbena, penstemon etc. Don’t overcomplicate – and maybe add a low hedge in the foreground which helps when things start to look tatty late season.
This is a subject to return to but I hope you enjoy this initial mini-marathon jog through the subject.