There have been a number of dramatic shifts in planting design since the Picturesque movement introduced the concept of landscape as we know it today. The landscape and planting style of late 18th and early 19th centuries, as conceived by the forefathers of landscape architecture, was seen as something to be observed, almost like a still life. Variety, asymmetry and texture were key principles of the picturesque that filtered through into the approach to planting as the likes of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton sought to create an idealised version of nature.
During the Arts & Crafts movement, Gertrude Jekyll developed these ideals of the aesthetic and was a pioneer in thinking about how the colour and texture could be used within planting design. As in the picturesque movement, art and landscape design were closely linked and Jekyll’s use of colour was inspired by the paintings of Turner and the impressionists.
Skip forward a century and the godfather of the Dutch wave of planting, Piet Oudolf, brought on one of the most radical shifts of planting design. Structural shrubs were replaced by swathes of grasses and perennials, taking reference from natural habitats and creating ecologically rich landscapes. These ideas were rolled out in gardens and urban landscapes with dead seed heads left over winter to extend the season of interest.
Planting design of today can no longer rely on William Morris’s principle of being useful or beautiful. As we face global issues including climate change, food shortages and loss of habitat it is paramount that planting is both useful and beautiful. Planting pioneers such as James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett lead this charge through their study and application of nature derived plant communities. Today’s plants need to not only be fit for purpose and deliver aesthetically but, equally, portray ethical and environmental benefits. Landscape Architecture as defined by Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe is ‘the most comprehensive of arts’ due to its broad arching qualities balancing human activities against nature. Long-term environmental goals in a biophilic sphere have the power to shape our future relationship with the natural world. As landscape architects and guardians and promoters of landscapes it poses the question how we can utilise our unique skill of planting expertise to further these goals, delivering landscapes of all forms, not just gardens and parks, that become beautiful but meaningful assets.
20th century planting design focussing on the aesthetic qualities of the handsome ornamental border and choosing plants for purely aesthetic merits often overlooked the wider environmental and health opportunities. More recent research proving health benefits for humans and wildlife assets alike has supported a more evidence-based approach. The greening agenda, supported by many initiatives such as City of Trees in Manchester, has increased the public profile of these principles. At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, one could observe many designers following this approach. Health and well-being and resilience to climate change were two themes that cropped up repeatedly across the show. Stunning planting displays incorporated these cultural messages, demonstrating how use can be defined with beauty.
The Manchester Garden, designed by Exterior Architecture, is a prime example of a planting design approach which embraces these aforementioned design values with benefits for the environment, wildlife with resilience to climate change in mind. The choice and layout of the planting was not a question of pure aesthetics but told varied stories of wider environmental and cultural strategies. Successful planting design is not only defined by the tangible aesthetic and environmental qualities but by the ephemeral qualities which lie behind and beyond and underpin the perceived landscapes.
Quoting Nash ‘The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they are part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived; only in that way can they be regarded as invisible’.
One may ask what makes good planting design. An area often static, stale and reminiscent of ideas of the past requires designers to apply their well acquired investigative skills of cyclical design enquiry and invention to push boundaries. Quoting T.S. Elliot
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”