“Grasses and Perennials: Sustainable planting for shared spaces”

Earlier this year, several comments on the Garden Rant website drew my attention to the Conservation Sense and Nonsense blog. The well informed scientific based comments of the Conservation Sense webmaster resonated with me – our gardening should be built on fact and best practice, not dogma or belief. I garden in England, the United Kingdom – and here we just don’t have the same intensity of debate surrounding native plants and restoration projects. Instead, we have a rich diversity of plants, drawn from all over the world; and our gardens are based on the principles of freedom of expression and individual design.

There is an emerging movement here, advocating the use of sustainable plant communities, taking design to the next level by creating functional ecological plantings – for nature, not just human enjoyment. This is a natural progression, utilising suitable plants from anywhere in the world, already growing in the equitable English climate. That said, our weather has been more challenging over the last few years, with increasing volatility and unpredictability; which makes appropriate plant selection even more important.

To encourage the use of a wide range of well-chosen plants, I decided to share my knowledge and experience in a short book, called “Grasses and Perennials – Sustainable Planting for Shared Spaces,” available from Amazon in print and digital download. The book is the culmination of fifteen years professional landscaping, working to establish plant communities that hold a person’s interest, if only for a few moments – the difference between the forgettable, and the noteworthy. My passion is planting spaces that the public see and work at every day; but the principles in the book apply equally well to domestic gardens, as do all the plants I’ve listed. The book also brings science and reason to the debate around the use of native plants, and gives practical hints and tips for managing successful, sustainable plantings.

Here is a taster quote from Chapter 3 – Functional Space:
“Rather than relying on plants considered native to the British Isles, I will use any plant with potential, from anywhere, provided it will establish within a community of compatible plants. There is currently a mistaken assumption that native plants (as opposed to non-native plants, often labelled as exotics), are ideally suited to geographic region of origin and pollinators, without question. In reality, native plants may succumb to freshly introduced pathogens and react poorly to a swiftly altering climate.

“The insistence by some designer’s on using solely native plants, is effectively a determination that a given moment in time (usually in the past), is somehow ecologically superior – and overlooks the positive and scientific arguments for planting non-natives. There is little point constructing plantings based solely on region of origin, rather than usefulness and resilience. Plant communities alter all the time and nature is never static; and the definition of native plants is also somewhat subjective – we cannot know for certain how plants were moved and used by early humans. Can we safely assume that a plant is native to a given environment simply because a plant hunter happened to discover it there – probably quite recently in terms of our evolution?”

Kelly Baldry, United Kingdom

Plants from all over the world are welcome in the English garden

In a recent post about weeds in Britain, we pondered the interesting question of why there are so few plants in Britain that are considered invasive, a mere dozen compared to the nearly 200 labeled “invasive” by the California Invasive Plant Council.  The Brother Gardeners* enabled us to dismiss one possible explanation. 

The English Garden, Creative Commons

The fact that fewer plants are considered invasive in Britain is not the result of fewer non-native plants in their gardensThe Brother Gardeners informs us that the British have been enthusiastic importers of plants from all over the world for hundreds of years.  They had one of the biggest empires in the world, spanning the globe from India to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America, which put them in a unique position to sample the botanical riches of the world.

The Brother Gardeners was written by a German who immigrated to Britain about 10 years before writing this book.  She was immediately struck with the importance of gardening in Britain compared to her home country, and she quickly became immersed in the British obsession with gardening. 

She tells us the history of botany and gardening in Britain, going back to the 17th century.  This is no stale retelling of dry history.  This is an engaging tale of the personal relationships that reshaped the English garden, focusing on a 40-year business relationship between an English businessman and a Quaker farmer in Pennsylvania.  The American farmer supplied the Englishman with thousands of plants and seeds from the American landscape. 

The evolution of their relationship from a business relationship to a friendship is analogous to the relationship between America and Britain.  The Englishman was wealthier and more educated than the American and predictably he was condescending to the American at the beginning of their relationship.  Over the years, the American acquired both wealth and botanical knowledge, so that eventually they were on an equal footing.  But we digress.

Magnolia grandiflora. Creative Commons

 Magnolias, tulip trees, wisteria, and dogwoods were early favorites in this trade from America to England, but over time thousands of different species made the trip into English gardens.  The American trees “were thoroughly naturalized, growing side by side with native trees” by 1760 and “Many of the American plants had become so common in the English landscape that gardeners needed new species to parade as rarities in their shrubberies…” 

Joseph Banks, the intrepid botanical explorer, brought many new species of plants to Britain.  He joined the maiden voyage of Captain Cook into the Pacific in 1769.  His team collected plants in Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia on their three year voyage, bringing home specimens of 3,600 species of which 1,400 were new to Britain’s botanical knowledge.  Joseph Banks returned to become the head of the Kew Royal Botanical Garden and the Royal Academy of Science.  He continued to acquire botanical specimens from all over the world in that capacity.

Banksia, named for Joseph Banks. Creative Commons

 The crowning glory of Banks’ acquisitions was the specimen collection of Carl Linneaus, after Linneaus died in 1783. This collection was the “base reference” used by Linneaus to develop the system of categorizing all species, which is still used to this day.  The Brother Gardeners tells us the fascinating story of how the Swedish botanist, Linneaus, “sold” his system to botanists throughout the world.  It wasn’t an easy sell, particularly to the British.  They were initially scandalized by the sexual metaphors used by the system of categories which is based on counting the female (stamens) and male (pistils) parts of the plant, using explicit terms such as the “bridal bed which God adorned with such precious bedcurtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents.”  You may have heard the saying, “No sex please. We’re British.”

The English garden is to this day an eclectic mix of species from all over the world.  It is a rich mix of color and texture that seems a mad jumble until the eye can make sense of its logic.  It is admired the world over and has influenced gardening everywhere.  It rejects the meaningless and artificial distinction between native and non-native.  Beauty is its only standard for judgment.  Whatever grows and adds color and texture is welcome in the English garden. 

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*Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners, Alfred Knopf, 2008.  All quotes are from Brother Gardeners