Thursday, July 29, 2010

All You Need to Know


Gardeners: throw away those glossy coffee table books. Everything you need to learn is in the black and white planting plans of the great designers.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing to teach a planting design class for the George Washington University professional studies program. It is a program that teaches aspiring garden designers the basics of contemporary garden design. As a part of that preparation, I’ve gone through my garden books, project photographs, old magazines, and my personal image collection in search for the raw material to teach planting design.

In that process, what’s become clear to me is the utter uselessness of glossy photographs. If you’ve ever taken a great photo of your garden, you know that a beautiful photo has as much to do with the time of day, the quality of light and the tight cropping of the photo than it does the skill or composition of the gardener. I’m not saying one can take good garden photos without a good garden. But let’s face it: photos tell only part of the story. They speak of one corner of the garden during a single moment in time. Scroll through the myriad of garden blogs out there on the internet. The vast majority are tight close-ups on a single flower or group of flowers. Rarely do they show you the entire garden, or even a large part of the garden.

The garden publishing industry only makes it worse. The tyranny of the glossy photo dominates the medium. We consume books full of sugary garden moments, but have lost our appetite for meaty garden writing or design discourse.

But there is an alternative. Seek and collect planting plans of great designers. These inglorious black and white diagrams filled with obscure Latin names tell the real story of the design. Like a piece of sheet music, these diagrams communicate the structure, rhythm, detail, and score of the original design. From these plans, one learns the scale of the massings, the plant combinations, and the balance of the composition.

For example, I recently came across Piet Oudolf’s plan for the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millenium Park. I printed out this plan and have spent hours studying it. It’s fascinating in that it demystifies much of Oudolf’s technique. The most photographed part of the design is his massive river of salvias that runs through the middle of the field, a moment of striking clarity in the midst of an otherwise intricate design. From his plan, I’ve learned that the river is composed of at least four different cultivars of salvia, adding slight color variation (giving the river depth) and extending the season of bloom. I also noticed that he interplants the grasses Panicum virgatum and Sporobolus heterolepsis through one section of the river, allowing it to disappear later in summer when the grasses emerge.

The southern section of Piet Oudolf's plan for the Lurie Garden
Or take a look at the southern section of the plan. This is the most fascinating part to me. Whereas most of the design has a single plant located in a single spot (not dissimilar from a Gertrude Jekyll plan), the southern section is more complex. The plan indicates a field of Molinia caerulea ‘Moorflamme’ that has four or five perennials that emerge out of this matrix. It’s almost as if there’s two melodies going on at once, the sweeping score of the grasses and the counterpoint of the Silphium, Echinacea, and Eryngiums. This style of designing is subtle, yet revolutionary. It’s the first real step toward garden design based on ecological succession. For me, this is why native plants arranged in traditional border arrangements are so dissatisfying. These plants have evolved to grow within a matrix of other species. Oudolf’s arrangement preserves the beauty of these relationships.

Gertrude Jekyll's Impressionistic plan; Roberto Burle Marx's cubist inspired planting plan.

Other planting plans are equally revealing. Compare Gertrude Jekyll’s impressionist-styled planting plans with Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist-styled planting plans. The plans become a key to understanding the most elusive aspect of planting design: style.

But why study a two-dimensional plan when a garden is an ephemeral, three-dimensional medium? Doesn’t this bias the initial act of creation over the garden over its lifetime? Yes, it’s true, gardens often outlive the initial act of creation, and it’s the acts of maintenance and gardening that ultimately determine the way a garden looks. So get out there and visit gardens in person. No plan can substitute for firsthand experience. I would encourage gardeners to take plans with them when they see a garden in person. Your experience will be so much fuller.


  1. I graduated university 45 years ago and never thought that I would want to return, but your plans for the design class are so very tempting.

    While I appreciate you posting garden plans, I am a bit frustrated that I am unable to read them with ease. The previous post about Oudolf's matrix was intriguing but hard to discern.
    Today's diagrams are equally fascinating but also hard to read. Is it possible to include a link that allows the reader to study these plans in a larger format?

  2. I am totally enthused by reading this article. It is a particular bug bear of mine that my customers are so easily seduced by a photo of a plant that conjures but a fleeting second in its seasonal cycle. In addition takes no account of habitat, appearance post flowering and size.
    Very useful.

  3. I agree that those glossy coffee table books are no help at all when it comes to design. I have some of those books and enjoy looking at them a great deal - but not for inspiration for garden design. I look at them because the pictures are usually soothing and beautiful. But I also have difficulty looking at two-dimensional garden designs labeled with Latin names of plants. Maybe other novice gardeners also have trouble picturing what those gardens look like. But your advice to get out and visit gardens is just right for those of us who have so much to learn. It's also the right advice for those of us who have to see, feel, and touch.
    Regarding those macro photos of flowers posted on blogs - I post a number of them myself and enjoy those posted by others. They remind me of the amazing complexity and beauty of creation. I recognize that they're out of context and I view them that way.

  4. Great, helpful article! As for the glossy books, I like to look at their photographs and I get good ideas sometimes from them. Some of them are very inspiring and can be helpful for a private, not big garden. Thanks!

  5. Thomas, This is fascinating advice. I must admit that, because I have lousy spatial reasoning skills, I have trouble converting a two-dimensional plan (even the ones I make myself) into a mental image of a three (or four?)-dimensional garden. But I love the idea of touring gardens with the plans in hand. What you forgot to tell us is where we find these plans. -Jean

  6. Ginny--you make an excellent point about the value of macro-photos. They show us the wonderful intricacy of nature. I, too, am seduced by photos. They inspire me. I use my own photo collection for design inspiration and for pure pleasure. It's just that recently, I have found such great utility in the writing and diagrams of gardens.

    Jean, you're right: finding these plans are hard. Publishers don't use them enough. You can start by clicking on the images I have loaded here so they load at full size. You can right click on the image and 'save as'. If it's too ssmall to read on the screen, then print it larger. I was able to print them on 11x 17 and they

  7. Thomas, your post makes me think of how any communal relationship that really works has some intentional and artful "design plan" underneath it. As a pastor of faith community, I'm currently thinking a lot about the structure of the human "garden" that allows the different groupings and individuals to bloom and shine in ways that show forth glory.

    Thanks for always giving me creative images and ideas to ponder. And I LOVE the plans you share...the different styles are so artful and interesting. Bravo!

  8. Thanks so much for writing about actual planting plans -- the longer I practice landscape architecture the more I value and strive for subtly complexity in my plantings, and it's enormously cheering to know that it's possible to look at and read the plans of some of the greats. The task gets even more complex and interesting when you add woody plants into the mix, and are working not just in ground patterns, but also in shaping three-dimensional volumes of space and the perceptions and foci of the people in that space. So glad to have found your blog!

  9. this plan for the laurie garden is also in piets book 'landscapes in landscapes' and it look quite different to your one. the general layout (paths etc) is the same but all the plants are completely different. any ideas on which is the right one?


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