Horticulture is not a field that attracts enough young people — this is a constant lament of garden directors I meet.
For all its imagined bliss, the life of a professional gardener can be hard, stressful and anything but lucrative. It is a world of insect bites, near-heatstroke and the steady degeneration of the spinal column.
People are driven to do it because they know that, on their best days, they can take their beloved, coddled plants and turn them into art. Some artists need formaldehyde to show off their organic subjects; gardeners rely on good loam.
I believe this is an incredibly exciting time to get into horticulture for a number of reasons, namely the rise of the local food movement as well as the need for people to grow the range of plants needed for the ecological repair of our damaged Earth. Think of all the aquatic grasses and marshland plants that have been raised in recent years to try to heal the Chesapeake Bay.
But in terms of sheer artistry, the action lies most in an area known as planting design, which might be regarded as a subset of landscape design: A designer or architect lays out a garden with, say, broad flower beds or even a meadow if the property is large enough; the horticulturist skillfully paints the canvas with carefully considered plants.
This dynamic is not new — this is how fancy country house gardens were put together a century ago. The difference is that those flashy borders were driven by color, primarily flower color, and the period of display was condensed for the time the restless owner was around — in the spring in Washington, say, or summer in Bar Harbor or the English Cotswolds.
Today’s planting design practitioners have instead built on a palette of herbaceous plants — perennials and ornamental grasses — that are inherently wilder, closer to nature and richer in their form and variety. Moreover, flower color alone is not the driving ornament; rather, it is texture, line, form and an intangible but powerful sense of seasonal progression.
“It’s so much in the detail that it’s hard to explain,” Piet Oudolf said from his farm in the Netherlands, where I reached him by phone recently.
Oudolf is the reigning champion of this form, a latter-day Dutch Master, as it were, and he is sought after for many high-profile projects in Europe and North America. I recently wrote about his work on the High Line in New York, and it is worth repeating and amplifying the view that the plantings there, now maturing after five years, are arguably the least regarded and single most important element of the celebrated linear park on Manhattan’s West Side.
As the insightful landscape architect Thomas Rainer once wrote in his blog, “The world has yet to fully understand the meaning of Oudolf’s work.”
As hard as it is to deconstruct this art form, Oudolf and the English garden writer Noel Kingsbury have sought to demystify Oudolf’s work in a book that I’ve also mentioned before (and no doubt will again). “Planting: A New Perspective” is not a casual read, however, and at times functions as a manual for the cognoscenti.
Among its essential points is that when you select plants for a design, flowering is but one component, the others being foliage interest (something of a no-brainer) but also the structural interest of seedheads, stems and the flowerheads of grasses. Here, we move into the realm of advanced gardening.
Another reality is that if you are inspired by nature in your garden, you have to emulate its complexity and density. In a conventional garden bed, a gardener might place 10 plants of no more than five varieties in every square meter. In a meadow, you would find hundreds of individual plants in the same area, of as many as 50 species, they write. So, if you want to get closer to that naturalistic ideal in a garden, you would have to plant on a grand scale; you would have to find not only the money but also the courage.
There are other complexities. The somewhat conventional method that Oudolf has employed over the years is to group his plants in discrete blocks. You can see this approach at his new Seasonal Walk — a long double border — at the New York Botanical Garden.
At the High Line, he has moved toward a more complicated approach where the plants are intermingled. This is achieved by creating a matrix of one or two plants that are not demonstrative but function as a visual glue for ones that are.
In creating this blend, how do you maintain a coherent role for each plant type, its hierarchy, its role in the overall structure of the beds? How do you make sure that one plant is not simply smothered by another or that you have the spacing and numbers right?
If the pros work hard to keep this focus, how likely is the amateur to pull it off?
It is inherently complex — too interrelated to distill into a short column. I try to get my head around it by thinking of the block plant groupings as tonal music and the blended approach as atonal. Elgar vs. Schoenberg, perhaps. But listening to plant music is one thing, composing it is another.
This, of course, is why we need skilled horticulturists to rise to the challenge. “I’m not creating nature,” Oudolf said. “I’m creating gardens, and that’s what people sometimes forget.”
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