Recently I went to a lecture at the New York Botanical Garden by Italian garden designer Luciano Giubbilei. His passion was infectious and his images were ravishing – spectacular gardens composed of just a handful of elements. This was a message that particularly resonated with me, as I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied as time goes by with the American fashion for the plantsman’s garden.
Of course I can understand the appeal of plant collecting. What gardener has not at some time or another felt the allure of some exotic plant’s beauty and wanted to take it home? But I think that’s an impulse to be given into judiciously if your goal is a beautiful garden.
I’ve visited hundreds of plantsmen’s gardens in my career as a journalist, and many have been truly beautiful – the rock garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens comes immediately to mind. But others were little more than botanical menageries. The most extreme example was one of the finest collection of heirloom roses I’ve ever encountered. The contrast was dramatic: the individual blossoms were magnificent and romantic, marvelous confections of petals and perfume. Look past that, however, and what you saw was ranks of bushes growing in 5-gallon buckets.
Even many of the less extreme examples of the plantsman’s garden generally suffer from a claustrophobic feel – specimens crowded into every available spot. In fact, I think that just having plants identified as “specimens” or “specimen plantings” is probably a sign of trouble aesthetically. Specimens are something to study under a microscope or put on a shelf in a museum, not something that subordinates itself to an artistic vision.
I mention these things because plantsmanship is so prestigious in our western gardening tradition. The collectors who bring back new species from over the horizon are treated as super stars, and our nurseries compete in the number of novelties they offer. To me, this seems at times like a school of painters competing to collect the rarest pigments, priding themselves on the number of different colors they manage to dab onto a canvas, regardless of how this distorts the composition.
Personally, I am more impressed by traditions which use commonplace elements to create something stunning. Traditional Japanese gardens use a minimal vocabulary of fairly ordinary plants to achieve very powerful effects. The gardens of the Italian Renaissance used little more than box and holly oak hedges, cypresses, turf, water, and stone to create landscapes that still take your breath away 500 years later. Giubillei works in that Italian tradition, finding beauty in the inspired arrangement of simple elements.
This is why, in the garden I am planning for my home in the Berkshire Hills, I intend to use mainly plants that are common in the surrounding woods. Paper birch for example, in a sinuous line, swinging in and out like a New England Contra Dance. Mountain laurel and blueberries juxtaposed with boulders, and a groundcover of cranberries. I am hoping that I can find something fresh and new in these familiar plants.