This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.
But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun. And Michael should know: he is a veteran writer and designer. His work documenting and experimenting with naturalistic perennial design (his preferred term is “perennial meadows”) is vast and impressive. Here is the core of his critique:
Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting. Michael King
Ouch. This well-written, stinging review left me thinking: is my enthusiasm about contemporary naturalism in all its diversity naïve? Is it all a bunch of imitative knockoffs of a few original practitioners? Or is there something more to it?
After some rumination, my impression is that Michael is right. The appellation of the term “new” to any of these ideas is not accurate. There is a long history in the 20th century alone of herbaceous planting inspired by nature. Both the New Perennial movement and the American native plant movement owe much its intellectual credibility and artistic expression to earlier generations. Michael’s article was a refreshing, well-reasoned call for a more honest, more pragmatic approach to gardening.
But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.