Thursday, April 4, 2013

Noel Kingsbury: The Ghost in the Machine


Thoughts on Noel Kingsbury's contribution and a review of his latest book with Piet Oudolf


Noel Kingsbury is the great chronicler of contemporary planting design.  Kingsbury has been involved in over twenty books spanning the last two decades, most of them focusing on the topic of design inspired by nature and ecology.  Few garden writers are as prolific or as influential.  Garden writers tend to be an anonymous sort. In an industry still dominated by the soft pornography of photographs, garden writing offers little more than annotating captions. But Kingsbury has transcended the role.

In terms of the contemporary planting avant-garde, Noel is this generation’s Gertrude Stein: the thought leader that holds together a generation of loosely-affiliated, but intellectually-kindred designers, plantsmen, and nurserymen—all working in within the “new style” of naturalistic plantings.  Like Stein, entrĂ©e into the Kingsbury salon is a kind of validation in itself.  To draw the attention of Kingsbury is to have your work remembered by (planting) art history.   The Kingsbury “salon” includes international celebrities like Piet Oudolf and Dan Pearson.  But it also includes little known thinkers of central Europe, thinkers such as German Professor Richard Hansen; landscape architect Urs Walser; and Dr. Walter Korb of the Bavarian Institute.  The former group gives the Kingsbury posse cachet and international celebrity; the latter gives it intellectual credibility and authenticity.  Kingsbury’s blandly titled 2004 essay, “Contemporary Overview of Naturalistic Planting Design,” included in the book Dynamic Landscape, remains one of the finest summaries of the “new style” and its practitioners ever written.   It proves that Kingsbury remains the central voice in an increasingly international movement.


Naturalistic planting design is still a relatively small world, but Kingsbury’s influence is hard to underestimate.  In fact, practitioners of the “new style” can almost chart their intellectual standing by whether or not they are prominently featured in Kingsbury’s writings. That the work of Piet Oudolf gets much attention, while the work of the American landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden—whose body of work with herbaceous planting is as vast and, quite frankly, as photogenic as Oudolf’s—receives relatively little mention from Kingsbury is telling.  Oudolf’s continual intellectual evolution interests Kingsbury, while Oehme, van Sweden’s more formal compositions do not. Prettiness is not enough; Kingsbury is after much bigger game.
  

So when an American editor told me that Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury were writing a new book together, I was immediately interested.  Oudolf and Kingsbury have collaborated on two other books together.  Both of them are among the most dog-eared, tattered books on my shelf.  The first book, Designing with Plants, was essentially Noel writing about Oudolf’s work.  That book was largely responsible for introducing Piet Oudolf to the world, raising his status from a European designer to an international icon.  The first book was very plant-specific, but it was the second book, Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space, that the collaboration really flourished.   Noel’s role transitioned from chronicler to thinker, and as a result, Oudolf’s work was given an intellectual depth and substance rooted in a larger, international movement of ecological design.  Because of Kingsbury’s writing, Oudolf’s role moved from cutting-edge designer to ceremonial figure-head of an international movement.  So what would a third Oudolf/Kingsbury collaboration offer?  For me, the anticipation was not just to see Oudolf’s latest directions, but to understand how Kingsbury’s voice would emerge. 


Last week, I was graciously forwarded an advance copy of Planting: A New Perspective.  The editor had described it to me as “Oudolf made accessible for the residential gardender.”  Something about this description made me cringe.  I’m not sure I could stand an Oudolf for Dummies—a stripped down version of Oudolf that would make every common landscaper capable of thoughtlessly replicating the Oudolf style.  The idea of a simplified book also felt wrong.  There were still so many questions left unanswered by Planting Design: what defines the “new style”?  What role do native plant communities play in this style? Is it really possible to create a low maintenance, long-lasting version of the new style?

Let's be clear: this book is not Oudolf for Dummies.  And thank God for that.  Any review that describes this simply as "Oudolf for home gardeners" has clearly not read beyond the dust jacket.

More than any of Oudolf/Kingsbury’s collaborations, Planting establishes the “new style” as a potent artistic and intellectual movement.  This book has real meat.  The liberal use of Oudolf’s planting plans are reason alone to buy this book.  For the designer or gardener, these hand sketches are a Rosetta stone for understanding Oudolf’s process.  This book delves deeply into compositional strategy: how are plants grouped, layered, and mixed based upon their unique structures and ecologies?  Kingsbury’s recent doctoral work at Sheffield clearly comes through in the brilliantly explicated sections of perennial’s lifespans and competitive strategies.  The book’s most valuable section may be its discussion of the work of other contemporary designers.  It grounds the "new style" in a broader, more international perspective that ensures its endurance.  Planting just might be one of the most valuable books on ecological planting design yet written.

A new area of planting at Hummelo shows both "intermingling" and  graphic legibility. photo by Phillipe Perdereau
While Oudolf and Kingsbury’s separate voices felt harmonious in Planting Design, in the new book, they often feel dissonant. Kingsbury’s voice is much more dominant than before, and his clear preference for an “intermingled” style of plants—as opposed to cleanly massed blocks of plants—often stood at odds with the photos of Oudolf’s work.  The text celebrates the advancement of a more relaxed, more intermingled planting style, while the photographs of Oudolf’s work show the often show the triumph of massing and legibility.  The Salvia rivers at Dream Park and the Lurie Garden; the massive drifts of Molinia or Deschampsia at Trentham, Scampston Hall, and the Bonn residence; the strong blocks of planting in almost every Oudolf project  are stylistically unique Oudolf flourishes that show the need for the legibility of clean massing at any scale.  Yes, many of Oudolf’s newer projects like the Highline and the grounds of his former nursery at Hummelo show experiments with intermingling.  But even in these highly mixed schemes, Oudolf has single plants in each season that dominate.  Even his most intermingled design—his design for the former nursery grounds at Hummelo where he used a custom seed mix for most of the plants—include strongly thematic plants such as Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ which dominate the late season.  Order always emerges from chaos.  It is this creative tension that gives Oudolf’s work its edge.

Oudolf's rivers of Molinia at Trentham are a triumph of massing and monoculture
What happens when an Oudolf book is no longer about Oudolf?  The fact that Kingsbury has broadened the scope of this book to include contributions of other designers is a step in the right direction.  One has the sense that the “new style” movement—to the extent that there even is a movement—is crumbling under the weight of one dominant designer.  Kingsbury’s most lasting contribution to the naturalistic planting movement is to broaden it beyond Oudolf, to expand its intellectual and artistic influence to a more international and diverse group of practitioners.  Planting does just that.  The combined contributions of Dan Pearson, Roy Diblik,  Heiner Luz, James Hitchmough, and Nigel Dunnett show that there really is an effort for garden design to respond to the challenges of globalization, climate change, and loss of native landscapes.   

But venturing beyond Oudolf is risky business.  A movement needs its heroes, its iconography, and spiritual leaders.  Despite the experiments of other designers, the “new style” still stands in the deep shadow of Oudolf.  It relies on him for its legitimacy, its artistic merit, and its future direction.  Oudolf’s work is still the most visually riveting, emotionally arresting planting done anywhere in the world.  The world has yet to fully understand the meaning of Oudolf’s work.  We still need great chroniclers to explicate and interpret Oudolf to the rest of us.  Planting starts to do this, but ultimately we lose Oudolf’s voice altogether.   Planting is Kingsbury’s voice dubbed over Oudolf’s images.  

Planting could have been one of two great books: either the ultimate explication of Oudolf’s art, or Kingsbury’s definitive manifesto of the “new style.”  Unfortunately, we are left with an odd combination of both that leaves me wanting more. 

Kingsbury has been the ghost in the machine, the narrative-weaver that has held together a movement—a movement that could yet offer a potent alternative to the great environmental challenges of our time.  But the movement needs more than a symbolic leader, it needs a spiritual text.  Kingsbury is just the man to write it.  But when?  

44 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for this profound book review. A great post and a book I definitely must have.

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    1. Thank you, it was great to come across your blog!

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  2. Very sensitive and insightful review, Thomas. I just received my copy of the book yesterday (after waiting for months) so only have done a page turn through reading snippets here and there. You characterize it well. I noted that Kingsbury, much more frequently than ever before, steps out of the narrative and speaks on his own, and he writes about his own gardening experiments, and uses photos of his own garden, much more than in any previous book. I was also pleased to see the work of my friend Amalia Robredo, featured for her work in naturalistic planting design in the southern hemisphere. The book ends, I think tellingly, with a section titled "Enhanced Nature," which highlights a book Piet read first then recommended to Noel, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Morris. I get the impression the theme of this book--the importance of taking responsibility for consciously and competently managing nature as changed by humankind's history and culture through creating new, designed, scientifically and ecologically based ecosystems--may be the unifying theme of Kingsbury's and Oudolf's new book. Perhaps that's wishful thinking on my part. Now I have to read the book. Thanks for this stimulating and comprehensive review. I always get a kind of thrill when I turn on my computer and find a new post on grounded design.

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    1. Many thanks, James. I'll be interested in hearing your reaction. It is a marvelous and useful book. For me, it was on the verge of being something even greater than what it is.

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  3. Thomas, thanks for the thoughtful and thorough review. I ordered the book this week, and your take on it will make me a better reader. I don't have Planting Design, and it sounds like I should.

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    1. Both are excellent. You will not be disappointed.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Susan,

      I think maintenance is the current focus of many of the practictioners of the new naturalism, particularly the Sheffield school and many central European thinkers. They are researching seed and planting mixes that can thrive in a plethora of public landscapes with a minimum of input. Whether they will be successful is yet to be determined, but the focus is there.

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  5. Hi Thomas, reading this post of yours a terrible doubt popped up in my mind: what about Landscapes in landscapes written by Oudolf and Kingsbury in 2011? That book gave the original Oudolf's sketches 'zooming' from a small private garden to a big park, along with explanations. That book made me understand Oudolf's 'making of' process and made me realize how much the artist takes over the garden designer in latest Oudolf's projects. He's kind of genius and I can't say the same for Kingsbury, who, I reckon, I prefer to 'stay put' in his reporter side. Anyway I am looking forward to receiving this new book too.
    Alberto

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    1. Hi Alberto,

      I'll completely agree with you about Oudolf, but completely disagree about Kingsbury. Don't discount the "reporting." In many ways, Kingsbury has made Oudolf accessible to so many. And I also think Kingsbury's work as a designer deserves more attention as well.

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  6. You wrote: > Garden writers tend to be an anonymous sort. In an industry still dominated by the soft pornography of photographs, garden writing offers little more than annotating captions.<
    Puh-lease! From authors like Michael Pollan to Barbara Damrosch to the many talent garden bloggers and magazine writers, garden communicators are offering some of the most thoughtful, well-written prose of our time. You clearly need to broaden your reading choices.

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    1. While I like & respect both those mentioned, I feel like both skew to edible and/or horticultural whereas Kingsbury focues more, IMO, on design. I mean, I also love Amy Stewart...both her books and her blog. I think I own or have read everything she's published by now. But I wouldn't put her in the same lump as Kingsbury. I often find myself looking at an ornamental design book & saying "This is really nice!"

      And it's written or has a collaboration with Noel Kingsbury!

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    2. Hi Kathy,

      So first I'll admit, I probably overstated my point for effect. Just so you know, I am quite an avid consumer of garden writing, both in blogs and books. I hope this blog is a testament to that. I do agree that there are many notable exceptions, and the trend in garden writing is definitely getting better, not worse.

      However, it's stretching it a bit to consider Michael Pollan a garden writer. And while I love Damrosch's writing, I'm not sure it qualifies as some of the most "well-written prose of our time."

      But I stand by my assertion: in this country, gardens have yet to be considered a serious source of mental or artistic provocation. And notwithstanding several notable exceptions--Kingsbury included (as well as Amy Stewart and those you mentioned), the publishing industry has not done too much to change that.

      I had really hoped to focus more on Kingsbury's excellent contributions, not quibble about whether garden writing is great or sucks. So I will clearly say that if my overly generalized statement offended any of the brilliant garden writers of our time, my apologies. That relatively minor point in this article was carelessly made.

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    3. This brings up an interesting question about what "garden writing" is. In my view it's a pretty wide and varied field. I think that Kingsbury, Steward, Pollan, etc. all would qualify as garden writers, as would all the garden bloggers out there, garden magazine editors, etc., and Thomas himself. I'm not sure what he meant by that comment. I am sure he will clarify!

      Anyway, I did enjoy the review. These cerebral discussions of garden design are not always my cup of tea, but I think we need voices out there that take garden design seriously as an art form, to balance out all the articles about pruning hydrangeas.

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    4. I wish you did less overstating...for effect. It gets in the way of my considering your point.

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    5. Thanks for the advice, Carolyn.

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    6. I disagree with Carolyn. Great writers like Thomas use words as their paint brush to boldly illustrate a point. Carry on, Thomas. Carry on.

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  7. Fantastic write up. People do tend to be protective of their subcultures but I'm beginning to realize that home owners are slowly turning their attention to outside their walls and gardens are beginning to follow mainstream trends too. I'm new to the field so maybe it's always been this way but I'll be picking up a copy of the book.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Duncan. It is certainly worth a careful reading, and I think you'll benefit greatly from the book.

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  8. Speaking for myself, I would cheerfully greet the publication of an Oudolf for Dummies. I have read Designing with Plants, but not the second book. Now I feel I must get the second book and this new one as well.

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    1. Perhaps great artists cannot be replicated, right? Oudolf has certainly inspired many of my dabblings in gardening. But I often only come to realize how truly hard it is to replicate.

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  9. I really enjoyed your stimulating and comprehensive review of this book. Piet has been one of my inspirations for many years and I have been fortunate to see many of his creations including is own much undervalued garden. I look forward to reading this book hoping it will help me understand Piet's planting which looks so effortless but is certainly not that. Christina

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    1. It is so far from effortless, right? The great irony of naturalism is that to create the breezy look of spontaneity, one has to work a design to death.

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  10. I am eager to get this book...
    The questions, "What role do native plant communities play in this style? Is it really possible to create a low maintenance, long-lasting version..?" ring true to me. Those have been my questions about these books from the start along with: how nearly all of the images are shown in late summer and fall (like Oheme van Sweden's); and how relevant the plant selections have been to North America.
    The author of this review may not realize that Kingsbury's greatest achievement was getting a book contract.
    In order to get a book published, today, one has to have a hot idea that appeals to a non-gardening publisher (for example, chickens in the urban backyard); be allied with a celebrity like Mr. Oudolf; or have both and be willing to write the book for a microscopic advance.
    Let me tell you, Mr. Kingsbury paid his dues by writing plenty of books with extended captions for soft-core garden pornography.
    (On the subject of "new," My book, The Natural Garden, came out in 1989 [and sold 100,000 copies]. Those were the days.)

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    1. Hi Ken,

      I am a big fan of your work and have a rather dog-eared copy of The Natural Garden on my shelf.

      As a former designer with Oehme, van Sweden, I'll have to disagree with you about the late summer images. The majority of those gardens are equally beautiful and photogenic in April through June as well.

      Kingsbury has certainly paid his dues. Which is partially why the association with Oudolf at this point seems a bit forced. I had rather this be a book solely about Oudolf, or perhaps better yet, one exclusively focused on Kingsbury's definition and intellectual advancement of the "new style." This book was a hybrid of both of those.

      It's a quite the honor to have you stop by on this blog. Best to you!

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  11. Such an erudite review and yet like any gardener I feel the urge to fill in the gaps -- especially regarding the evolution of the new perennial style and the nature of the Oudolf + Kingsbury collaborations. (BTW: I can't speak to the book just yet, my copy only arrived today.)

    As someone earlier noted, yes, this is the fourth book in their oeuvre -- not the third. The pivotal monograph, 'Piet Oudolf: Landscapes by Landscapes' presents the grand narrative of his work by focusing on signature gardens scaled to each phase of his career. Study that book, and you can plainly see the creative progression from interwoven massing in Oudolf's designs to an increasingly complex intermingled approach. Better yet, you can study the planting designs and plant lists in hand-drawn detail to see how his visual design language and plant palette continue to transform with his thinking. Oudolf has himself said that intermingling is the future of planting design -- there's a fairly recent Vimeo video of a lecture where Piet's slideshow starts with that very thought.

    I also venture that some of the books you imagine they might write, have in fact, already been written. For example, 'Oudolf for Dummies'? Well, it has a slightly better title -- but surely the appeal and genius of their first book 'Designing with Plants' is how it speaks to everyday gardeners and designers in a common language. This first book manages to not only distill and articulate the new perennial philosophy in clear terms but to provide a practical approach to help us bring their ideas back to our own garden plots. (It sparked a decade's worth of activity in my own patch of earth.)

    As you rightly note, the second Piet/Noel book is more specifically directed to design professionals and serious enthusiasts as a comprehensive guide to new perennial planting at that stage in the movement's evolution. I'd guess the latest book brings those ideas up to date.

    For your last point, I'd argue that Kingsbury may have already written the 'spiritual text' for the movement. Have you read 'Natural Garden Style' from 2009? Because it offers a declarative overview of the movement in all its dimensions – moving beyond planting as a key element to include all the facets of garden making within its purview and many of the key makers. Fantastic book and it seems to answer your criteria.

    If that weren't enough, his earlier 'Gardens by Design' from 2005, is an incredible compilation which includes the voices of many leading designers including: Dan Pearson, Julie Moir-Messervy, James van Sweden, Nori and Sandra Pope et. al.

    You're right about our need to identify leaders in any movement. However, the actual history of the Dutch Wave > New Perennial movement suggests it has arisen more from a community of minds sharing insights, concepts, philosophies and plants alike. Oudolf and Kingsbury always seem ready to acknowledge how the work of others have helped to shape their own luminous departures; the most sacred and poetic text is surely the gardens themselves.

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    1. Tony,

      An excellent response! Thanks for taking the time and sharing your impressive knowledge. I will certainly cede your rebuttal to many of the points: 1. that 'Landscapes in Landscapes' (yes, the FOURTH collaboration) might be the grand narrative of his work (though it is still more monograph than explication, but that's splitting hairs); 2. that 'Designing with Plants' was the most translated version (the "dummies" version) for residential gardeners; and that 'Natural Garden Style' may be the "declarative overview of the movement in all its dimensions." I have to admit that I never considered 'Natural Garden Style' as THE defining book of the new style. But your assessment of it has caused me to reconsider it. I will revisit it.

      In terms of Oudolf and "intermingling": the fact Oudolf's progression has been from solid blocks to a more mixed style is undeniable. And I have no doubt that he would say this progression is intentional. My point was not that Kingsbury was wrong to highlight this in the book. What felt overlooked to me was the fact that all of Oudolf's projects, including his most intentionally mixed schemes go to great effort to establish visual legibility DESPITE the mixing. The strategies Oudolf uses to achieve this (theme plants in various seasons, repetition of long-season structural elements, or large [seemingly monocultural blocks] that contrast against more intricate arrangements) are fascinating to me. It speaks to the limitations of "intermingling" and the need--despite the advances of a more ecological style-to still create visual clarity and order.

      Both Oudolf and Kingsbury have embraced "intermingling" as a key component of the new style. That much is clear. But their points of view about this seem different. Kingsbury seems very comfortable with a highly mixed approach that does not establish some kind of underlying visual order(i.e. his cottage at Montpelier), while Oudolf's mixed planting still focus on creating some kind of order and structure within the mixing. That continuing need for visual order and structure--even within the spontaneity of this natural style--felt under-represented in the text.

      Your last point is spot on and beautifully stated. As much as anything else, I wanted this article to be a paean to Kingsbury in particular for being the central figure that holds together the "community of minds" that have shaped this movement.

      Many thanks for your excellent comments. I enjoyed them!

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    2. Thomas,

      You're so incredibly welcome. It's quite amazing to me how this whole movement appears to be unfolding and gathering force as we speak.

      I now get your point entirely about the variations on the 'intermingling style' and yes, how Oudolf's gardens somehow strike a particular balance of orchestrated spontaneity. I've ruminated upon that very subject myself in an attempt to unravel how different designers approach and advance the concept. I actually plan to travel to Germany and the Netherlands this summer to see it all with my own eyes.

      Here's to future conversations unfolding. I'm truly relishing the inspired discourse on your blog...

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    3. Reading this discussion a year after it was written. Just wanted to thank you both for it -- I read it with much interest and a lot of head nodding.

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  12. Oh boy, you've done it again Thomas. A great topic stimulating wonderful discussion. I have not been able to read all of these comments but here's what I have been pondering. I read both your review of Oudolf and Kingsbury and also of Travis Beck. I started thinking that indeed isn't Travis' approach to planting using ecological principles the same as "intermingling"? If you look at natural systems and the relative density of species in say a woodland understory then you really are 'intermingling'. I wondered if that is where the naturalistic designers are heading? It's pretty clear that while huge massing of single species may have a dramatic effect it is hardly a natural process.

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    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure I think that "natural" and "intermingling" are synonymous. The more time I spend in native plant communities--particularly those that have not been disturbed much, the more I realize that there are very clear patterns to the spatial distribution of plants. Yes, intermingling is a bit part of it, but so is massing. I have quite a large photo collection huge monocultural massing that happens in nature.

      In fact, I would go so far as to argue that our association of nature being this intermingled, interplanted entity is a somewhat anthropocentric view of nature. Highly interplanted, mixed planting is more typical in disturbed landscapes than in (relatively) undisturbed native plant communities.

      Even highly mixed plant communities (meadows, prairies) often have one or two plants that are visually dominant. So though it is technically highly intermingled, visually it is very monolithic.

      I'm a huge proponent of the "new style" as defined by Kingsbury and Oudolf. However, as a designer who works on a lot of public projects, I'm very cautious of pushing the "intermingled" aesthetic too quickly. For designers not adept at knowing how to combine plants well, it results in highly chaotic plantings that often turn people off of naturalism. I'm more interested in learning strategies for intermingling that result in highly legible, attractive landscapes that encourage more people to abandon our silly obsession with lawns and clipped evergreens. That's why I hoped the Planting book would focus more on how to intermingle plants while at the same time creating plantings that relate to our more ordered urban landscapes.

      My two cents . . .

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  13. Nice to hear your thoughts Thomas. I didn't mean to suggest that the words "natural" and "intermingling" were indeed synonymous rather I was just wondering if the "art" and "science" of landscape were indeed coming closer in approach.
    And thanks for pointing out the "monocultural massing" in nature. Indeed you make an excellent point. I have walked through calcareous fens on the Prairie Coteau of Minnesota and clearly mile after mile it appears a monoculture of grasses. And I too have those photos. But I don't think I agree with the view that a highly interplanted, mixed planting is characteristic of disturbed landscapes. Unless you meant that this is the response we make to a disturbed landscape I can't think of an example of that. Indeed I feel that one goal in restoration projects is to increase the diversity of plant species defining the landscape with the intent that a dominant native species will make itself known and there are enough other natives in the mix to outcompete the weeds and invasives to keep them in check.
    With regard to the work of Oudolf and Kingsbury perhaps I need to look more closely. This may be where I interpreted intermingling differently. I look forward to this exploration.
    Finally, I completely agree that urban landscapes require considerable thought and legibility and certainly there is a skill to considering plant combinations that read well. Thanks again for this interesting post and subsequent discussion.

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  14. So glad I found this review---I pre-ordered this book and am anxious to receive it. I have no experience with the previous Oudolf books, but have tried to do some reading, mostly confined to the popular garden magazines and newspapers. After seeing the Serpentine planting in Hyde Park in 2011, I am excited to do some reading on the theories standing behind it, and also, how these theories are changing over time. Best wishes and thanks! Kass

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  15. "Thank you very much for this profound book review. A great post and a book I definitely must have."

    Couldn't agree more.

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  16. When I first saw Oudolf's work in books about 10 years ago I was immediately seduced. But it seems to me that you need a large garden to be able to design something that would give you that sweeping sense and be 'legible' as you say, yet contain enough plant variety to remain interesting year round. How do you achieve that? What would Oudolf or Kinsbury do in an average urban yard? Too often these design books seem to be speaking to an audience with enough money and leisure to afford the time and expenditure they require.

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  17. This is a great book review, thanks for sharing your insights to a great piece of work.

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