Book Review: Planting, a New Perspective; by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
Planting is one of the most provocative and useful books about garden design that I have ever come across. While it is full of ideas that home gardeners may want to borrow, it is not a how-to book about a specific approach to garden design. Rather, it is a discussion of a general trend, a trend toward landscapes that minimize maintenance while creating a sense of nature in environments dominated by people.
Oudolf and Kighsbury discuss both practical and aesthetic reasons for why this trend exists. On the one hand there is a need in public spaces to reduce maintenance costs (some designs are intended to receive no maintenance beyond only one or two mowings per year). Also, people want open spaces to serve ecological functions, from handling storm water to providing habitat for birds and insects.
Increasingly, gardens that possess qualities we associate with nature appeal to our sense of beauty. This may be a result of the rapid disappearance of the world’s truly wild spaces. I suspect this is the most powerful force behind this movement.
Even more than in the past, Oudolf emphasizes the structural roles of plants. This is clear by the authors’ categories, for purposes of design, of “primary”, “matrix”, and “scatter” plants. Matrix plants are low mounds, such as hardy geranium or Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), that provide a background or filler function. Primary plants provide the bulk of the visual impact, which may be enhanced with grouping. Scatter plants may be placed at random to provide accents and add to the sense of spontenaiety.
These categories, though useful, are somewhat arbitrary. For instance, the authors identify wild indigo (Baptisia australis) as a scatter plant, but I have seen it massed as a “primary plant”. In any case, the goal is to combine these plants densely so that they interweave themselves into an organic whole that is self-supporting (no stakes) and resistant to weeds.
In another part of the book, the authors talk of matrix plants as “filler” plants, while primary and scatter plants are “structure” plants. Structure plants must provide visual interest (from something other than color) from summer into autumn at least. As in previous books, there is a discussion of how the shapes and architecture of plants creates visual interest. Oudolf and Kingsbury cite a general rule that structure plants should make up 70% of any planting.
Planting in monocultural drifts or blocks is mildly denigrated in favor of “interplanting”, even to the point of attempting pure randomness through designed seed mixes. On this point I must dissent. I for one will not give up my drifts and blocks, which are essential for visual impact, especially in a smaller garden, and which can look quite natural. Would Piet Oudolf tear up his own River of Salvia in the Lurie garden? Perish the thought.
Not that I am against spontaneity. The authors suggest that garden designers and gardeners should creatively manage and adapt as plants spread and emerge unexpectedly, rather than try to keep their gardens static. I entirely agree with this, but it is a lesson many amateur home gardeners learned long ago.
Related to this, there is a discussion in Planting that is far too often missing from books on garden design: namely, that a plant’s longevity and tendency to spread must be incorporated into any garden design, especially one that purports to be sustainable. This seems like common sense, but it is too often ignored.
Oudolf and Kingsbury put a high value on native plants, but they are emphatic about combining natives with other plants that fit the needs of the design – structural, ecological, and aesthetic. They point out that people are also part of the garden ecology, and because of this gardens must be beautiful.
Those who want ideas for specific plant combinations will find this book useful, as several pages are devoted to favorite combinations for each of the seasons. And if you simply want to gaze at photos of really gorgeous gardens, you can buy this beautifully illustrated book and simply ignore the text.
But that would be an awful waste. This is perhaps not the right book for a beginning gardener. However, if you are the kind of gardener who likes to think about design, I would suggest that this is a book you will want to read more than once.