About 60% of my garden planting consists of self-seeded plants, which might seem surprising. I’m particularly focusing here on my dry garden but the same applies elsewhere. So how do you keep an acceptable aesthetic when plants put themselves here or there, without consultation?
I find that a different attitude to that of the “traditional” gardener is useful, if not essential. I like the dynamic and surprise of the shifting combinations and patterns that occur. Very few of these plants are annuals, most are short-lived perennials, with some grasses, herbs and shrubs. With a few exceptions, these are plants I have introduced to the site over the years and which have found their “happy”.
Walking around this morning, I made this list (in no particular order):
Fragaria fresca – alpine strawberry
Euphorbia characas – various forms
Foeniculum vulgare purpureum – purple fennel
Pentaglottis sempervirens – green alkanet
Cynara cardunculus – cardoon
Galactites tomentosa – annual
Lavandula (hidcote or similar)
Rosmarinus officinalis (Salvia rosmarinus)
Melissa officinalis – lemon balm
Valeriana officinalis – common valerian
There are others, but these are the usual suspects. I have a range of about 15 shrubs and sub-shrubs that form a more static framework and those listed seed themselves around and between at will. I have to be ruthless and remove plants from where they are not wanted, and that’s always hard (they often end up in my nursery). And of course, there are many other self-seeders which we would traditionally call weeds: veronica, greater celandine, field forget-me-not, buttercups etc. They all have their own beauty and I could never manage to eradicate them, even if I was of a mind to, which I’m not (bindweed is another matter).
So form structure with your shrubs, herbs and other prime perennials, and let the remainder shift around; they’re not annuals (apart from the Galactites), so the scene doesn’t change radically from year to year, but over a slightly longer cycle. This works well for a mixed or herbaceous border, but is especially well suited to a dry, gravel garden style, where there are few or no border edges to maintain.
Some plants can be overwhelming and a few invasive, so best avoid those. I now severely limit the amount of Phlomis russeliana I have in my borders; stunning though it is (the winter seedheads are wonderful), it is a thug and will swamp out lesser plants and it produces a copious amount of seedlings.
Gardening like this is more of a co-creation; you are working with nature and not entirely in control. There are many benefits to this, not least the surprise of an unexpected combination, or the sudden appearance of plants you never knew set seed. This is a great example of adaptive planting, where plants are fully attuned to the climate and local conditions. Give them a chance and see what happens!
In part one of this four-part series, I discussed the colonization of brownfield sites in the UAE’s cities with a range of trees and shrubs – almost all of them “exotic invasive” species. I argued that these could be forming the basis of new, adapted ecologies. To revise those arguments, please the link at the end of this article. The next question is, once we accept this premise, how do we create these new ecologies as a conscious expression of our own adaptation to climate change?
First, let’s understand that we need these landscapes to be unirrigated. Why? Well, in the Middle East especially, water is a precious resource and expensive; the UAE is particularly bad, with a per capita use of 550 litres/day. So with landscaping, let’s keep the irrigation for the urban centres, parks and gardens. If we just focused, for example, on all the miles of roads and interchanges between Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain that are irrigated, and imagine these replaced with unirrigated greenery, the water saving from this alone would be massive. Yet that is an immense challenge, for as soon as you plant something in a desert, you must water it.
If we want a vibrant plant ecology, then we also need a vibrant soil ecology, something that conventional landscaping ignores completely
I think this is the key, that planting in such a climate rarely establishes without help, whereas seeds can. What we need therefore, is a methodology of establishing and maintaining, seeded landscapes.
It is true that in a scenario where we are consciously creating an unirrigated landscape, we would want to greatly increase the odds of establishment. In this respect, much detailed assessment would need to be given to soil amelioration. If we want a vibrant plant ecology, then we also need a vibrant soil ecology; this is crucial and something that conventional landscaping ignores completely. A large part of this would be creating contour swales across the site to capture whatever rain falls and to ensure it soaks into the soil. Even a small change of elevation can change the conditions and so the ecology that can grow there.
Once we’ve created swales, can we build a healthy soil, rich with microbial activity and naturally water retentive in such an arid climate? I think we can, but we must first change our thinking from one of assisting landscapes with external inputs (irrigation) to that of creating self-sufficient ones, with cyclical, living, self-sustaining ecologies. Soil becomes the vital kingpin in all this, not just an anchorage medium for plants.
Native soils need to be worked with, not replaced. They can be moderated, made more moisture retaining, but basics like salinity and pH will always dictate plant choice. First and most important, is to increase the soil’s water retention capacity. There are a number of ways to do this, involving additives which may incorporate clays, granules or other water-holding mediums and we know that when used in irrigated landscapes, they can reduce water demand by up to 50%. Given that an unirrigated landscape might have periods of time when it is extremely dry, we need a medium that doesn’t become hydrophobic if it does dry out and that will react swiftly to absorb water when it does arrive.
We can also inoculate the soil with mycorrhizal fungi cultured from local, healthy environments to enhance soil micro-ecology; there is little point in importing this from another part of the world, as the relevant strains of microbes are likely absent. Microbes and bacteria are the essence of good soil. Many of the plants used will be nitrogen-fixers, and so live in a symbiosis with certain bacteria. They also make nitrogen available to other species, as cycles of life and decay build up.
Organic matter is essential and the best innoculator of bacteria and fungi, but it can be the most problematic element as it is in short supply. One aspect of the practical usage of such landscapes, and a part of the long-term management, can be the coppicing of trees and shrubs for biomass to make compost. Organic matter tends to oxidise if conditions are not conducive, so we need to get things right, but I’m sure that even desert soils can sequester carbon, given the right conditions.
We would need to mix these various elements into the soil to the appropriate depth, perhaps a metre, probably by air injection, and possibly to different depths for the different mediums. Soil preparation becomes the most major, one-time investment in the land but will pay back endlessly over the lifetime of the landscape.
Once the preparation is done we have to seed the land, when conditions are optimal (not when contract deadlines require); this would have to be timed after rain, if possible. Otherwise, I would give the land a soaking, with our soil amendments helping to retain the moisture, then apply seed, in a variety of ways, possibly by hydra-seeding. Finally, a locally-sourced stone mulch should be placed over all, to again help retain moisture, but not too thick to inhibit germination. This would be the entirety of the preparation and installation work.
Next is the nurturing stage, followed by on-going management and maintenance; this will be very different from a conventional landscape, but no less intensive, at least for the first few years. It may be beneficial to give additional watering to aid plants as they germinate and establish, but this must be done with care, or seedlings could be washed away. We would need to give enough to ensure success, but no more.
Once established, these plants would grow at whatever speed the conditions allowed and a new landscape would emerge over time. Thinning out and reseeding of failed areas would be the main work, acts of stewardship rather than maintenance. Prunings shredded and spread as mulch, soils fit to support life, insects, animals and birds would soon make this place their home. The result would be a slow and genuine landscape uplift into the realms of a new and adapted ecology.
How we design such landscapes, choose which plants to use, obtain the seed and know how to maintain them, is the subject of the next article.
The other side of work I undertake in the Middle-East region (other than tree consultancy) is planting design, for creating new landscapes always brings me a special joy. When they are in public spaces, I love the chance it gives to interact (albeit remotely) with many people in place, over time and hopefully, enhance their enjoyment of that place. In the public realm, what that place is, is being questioned and challenged in the light of urbanisation and climate change. Ecology and environment are driving design as never before.
I am about to start working on a collaborative project in Saudi Arabia. It will involve the specification of many trees, shrubs and groundcovers and I get to find out just how many locally-sourced big specimens I can find that are of acceptable quality. Much of this will come down to the application of formative pruning in the nursery and I’ll be on the lookout for the best available in the region. I suspect I’ll be sourcing a lot from neigbouring UAE, simply because of familiarity of sources. Quality remains a challenge, though.
My most pressing concern I have is how to improve on irrigation techniques, which are traditionally massed surface drip lines onto marginally improved sand. This is inefficient and wasteful and I shall be looking at the use of moisture retention mediums and sub-surface irrigation. I believe most watering of landscapes in arid climates could be cut by half, just by more efficient application and retention, in the right place. The picture above shows typical wastage in a Dubai suburban landscape.
Whilst urban planting requires urban plants, I will also be looking at the use of more climate-adaptive species, which I think is important in an era of climate crisis; the Middle-East is going to struggle to cope with every degree of temperature increase. The use of more desert-adapted planting is not new, and not applicable everywhere but I believe there is much scope for experimentation and new thinking.
For me, planting design is about building communities, layering types of plants together in harmonious associations that fit. I don’t mind grouping plants together that come from different geographical regions, but they have to come from a similar ecological niche. Such design is so much more than just nice foliage contrasts and I believe the results can be subtle, but profound.
Landscape must, of course, fit our purpose but I believe we tend to pursue this end to the exclusion of everything else. Nature is the basis of landscape, and so too is ecology, ecosystem and planet. We should not divorce our landscapes from this reality; rather, they should always seek to remind us of these connections. So yes, in town centres and urban streets, we have our eco-bling landscapes; vibrant places, exotic, heady, purfumed, exciting. Nature at it’s most unbelievably flamboyant (cue pic: delonix, the flamboyant tree). Elsewhere, we need more grounded landscapes, more real, more connected to place.
I love this tree, it is everything I have described above, pure eco-bling. Yet it is not appropriate everywhere and because it has become a part of the standard landscape palette, I belive it is overused, and used in places where other species would be more appropriate. I think there are many trees and shrubs that could be used in the region that haven’t been tried yet, from East Africa, for example. The climate there may be more equatorial and more varied but it is not so remote or different as that of some exotics imported from sub-tropical climates (the Delonix mentioned above is from Madagascar, again not too dissimilar).
I think planting design in the Middle-East faces a whole new range of
challenges and opportunities. The changing climate will force new
thinking, to match the new development and the new understanding that is
emerging of our intimate relationship with nature. I’m hoping to
contribute towards that new expression and understanding.
This book represents a new wave of thinking about “natural” planting that has been emerging in recent years; actually it has been developing for the last thirty or more years but like all new things, they tend to follow an exponential growth curve. I’d say that right now we’re near the base of the steep upward bit with this one. Left unchecked, exponential growth tends to end in collapse but this idea deserves to stay the course. To do that it has to translate from a style into a design language and that’s what this book is really about.
This is a very US-centric book, unsurprising since Thomas Rainer is from Alabama and Claudia West, though of East German origin, lives in the US. I would have liked her influence to have given the book a more European feel; it would have been richer for it and more globally relevant.
The book has already been reviewed on TG by James Golden but although I’ve read this I’m not referring to it, save for one point. Needless to say, that review is also very US-centric; my purpose is to give a more UK/European viewpoint.
The thinking in this book is very design-led, in which the authors refer to landscape archetypes, which I think is very useful. However, they only select three – grasslands, wood and shrubland and forest. Given the vastness and variety of American climate types (which has just about everything), I’m surprised they didn’t mention desert landscapes, arid-mountainous or Mediterranean (as in Californian coastal regions); I suspect they have simply not worked with these climates, yet to omit them from a listing of archetypes is limiting. It is clear too, that their interest lies mostly in the grassland or prairie archetype.
There are many archetypes other than the three mentioned in this book. Desert near Dubai, UAE.
Referring back to the JG review, he wanted to add another archetype, Edges. I would argue that the wood and shrubland archetype is an edge, or rather a transition. Only in farmer’s fields do we have an edge as such. I would think of these archetypes as parts of a sine wave, one transitioning into another as climate and topography dictate. This sine wave also rolls around the globe over time, one archetype superseding another in any given place. Remember that the Sahara desert was woodland just 10,000 years ago, when we emerged from the last ice-age. This fits with the theory that there is no such thing as an ecological climax.
Another interesting thing to come out of this book is the idea of “designed plant communities”. You could say that any grouping of plants together is a designed community but the context they use of grouping plants by habitat-type rather than just their visual look is refreshing. This makes good sense, provided that such a designed grouping is appropriate within its wider environmental context. Taken to its logical extreme, however, you end up with native plants only.
What may be harder to work out is how much of this philosophy fits into a garden. Even the largest garden can’t fit in a whole wood, let alone a prairie, so of course, we must work by inference. This aspect of things is not really discussed in the book and most of the pictures are of large gardens in amazing settings; domains of the lucky few who we landscape designers occasionally get to work for. Yet for the majority of small garden owners, instruction for the adaptation of these principles is missing.
The Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago by Piet Oudolf exemplifies modern Naturalistic planting. This is large ribbons or drifts of plants rather than the species intermingling favoured in this book
The same garden in November; form is held in the stems and shapes of the seedheads but use of some woody plants might add more winter form?
I feel that the book only really looks at one archetype, that of New Perennial/Prairie style gardens and there is a big focus on this at the moment. I might compare this book with Oudolf & Kingsburys “Planting, a New Perspective”. That book, whilst not getting down to the archetypal design level, is more European in focus, so possibly a good companion read. Yet it too, mostly deals with perennial-based planting, as you would expect from these gents. The work of Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough comes to mind too. The fast-changing essence of many of the plant species used means that these perennial plantings are subject to rapid change, even degradation, over time as some of the most desirable and favourite species are so short-lived (Achillea and Echinacea for example).
I think the Wood and Shrubland archetype is the most likely to resonate with those seeking to create a garden, yet the ones of great importance to me, in a European and specifically coastal Southern England context, is that of the unmentioned Mediterranean or Arid-Mountainous archetypes. Whilst some areas of the Mediterranean clearly fit the Wood & Shrubland archetype (ie broadleaf and evergreen woodlands and Maquis), others such as Garigue, Salt Marshes and Rocky Shorelines, do not. I think this range and essence adds up to its own unique archetype. Arid-Mountainous too is quite distinct (although again with areas that fall into the realm of other archetypes), yet gives us wonderful, tough plants like Perovskia. The Dutch biologist Brian Kabbes has done much to inspire and educate us with his exploration of plants in Kyrgyzstan.
Perovskia arbrotanoides growing wild in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Brian Kabbes
To me, one of the biggest drivers in creating naturalistic planting communities has always been about resilience. To my mind, planting should survive without irrigation, so low water-use plants are attractive. I can’t think of a single garden in the UK that couldn’t survive without irrigation, the desire to use pop-up sprinklers is ridiculous and surely industry-driven. Climate is changing now beyond speeds that Nature can shift plants and ecologies around the globe, so it is something we humans must do if we want a future landscape of any description (oh, and for our own survival). So we have to transmigrate landscapes from one continent to another to keep pace; yes, with all the risks that entails when introducing new species (and it would not be just plants we’d have to relocate). So learning about plant communities and how to build them is a vital skill which this book begins to explore, yet could have gone much further in instructing us on.
This coastal garden I designed in Southern UK loosely mimics the Mediterranean archetype, and uses a full range of grasses, perennials, sub-shrubs, herbs, shrubs and trees.
In the European context then, archetypes other than grassland/prairie might be more useful and translatable into a garden context. That this book has not covered these is not really surprising but it is a mistake to think that the new language of resilient/natural/sustainable landscapes is dominated by perennials and grasses. This aspect is possibly a trend within the underlying drive for a natural interpretation.
A European version of this book is needed, which could perhaps take it to the next level of design language development. In this respect, inspiration can be drawn from another book, “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, which although about architecture and space, is also about soul, spirit, context and community, realised through the use of a language of patterns. In a very real way, “Planting in a Post-Wild World” attempts to create an archetype-based design language and is a valuable contribution to that. We just need the language to be global, or to see this book as a regionalised attempt to cross boundaries and develop new thinking.
This is an important book and I recommend it; for all its limitations it shows the way to develop landscapes that are truly new and profound.