Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Is Your Planting Evocative or Provocative?

The secret of great planting revealed.

Of all my various rants, one point I am consistent: planting design is an art.  Planting design needs to be liberated from its traditional role as ornamentation to architecture.  For too long, the role of the American planting designer has been to ‘shrub up’ the base of buildings, like placing parsley around a pot roast.  Instead, planting can be an expressive and dynamic medium in itself, capable of conveying meaning and emotion. 
If you’re reading this blog, you are obviously highly intelligent and artful (wink) and believe that garden design is an art.  So dear readers, here is my question for you: is your planting evocative or provocative? 
Here’s what I mean.  I’ve been mulling over great planting design.  Not just good planting, but the icons of great planting: Getrude Jekyll’s borders, Jens Jenson’s prairie-inspired landscapes, Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist ground-planes, Christopher Lloyd’s border at Great Dixter, Beth Chatto’s gardens, Piet Oudolf’s perennial landscapes, Tom Stuart-Smith’s cutting edge designs.  Each designer is incredibly different, but what they all have in common is an ability to manipulate human’s associations with natural landscapes.
Evocative planting design: Beth Chatto's gravel garden.  Courtesy of BBC.
There are two ways these designers do this.  First, there is evocative planting design, that is, planting that evokes a larger landscape.  Evocative planting is my term for when a certain combination of plants evokes or recalls one’s association of a natural landscape.  Consider, for example, Beth Chatto’s gravel gardens.  I wrote an article on this garden last year.  Chatto hiked all through Europe, noticing how native plants evolved to harsh landscapes.  From the rocky peaks of the Alps to the salt-spray battered shores of the coast, each plant community had a certain look, texture, and mood created by the environment.  Chatto had the remarkable ability to distill the essence of these wild landscapes into evocative moments in a garden.  Because she skillfully exploited human associations of wild landscapes, her gardens have this expansive, ethereal quality.  In Chatto’s gardens, a simple combination of two or three plants has this incredible power precisely because it evokes a feeling of a wild landscape.
Provocative planting design: Christopher Lloyd's border at Great Dixter.
Second, there is provocative planting design.  Provocative planting design is my term for planting that alters one’s association of a natural landscape.  Christopher Lloyd’s border at Great Dixter is a great example of a provocative planting design.   Lloyd was the supreme master of the mixed border, perhaps one of the finest plantsmen of the twentieth century.  His magnum opus was a 200 foot long border that he kept blooming from April to November.  Lloyd’s border was legendary because of his skill in mixing plants from different habitats in the same space.  Lloyd mixed large-leafed tropicals with woodland ephemerals and dry meadow grasses.  What elevated this border from all other flowering borders was the way it exploited one’s associations of plants.  Lloyd manipulated one’s association of a natural landscape by recalling a memory of feeling of nature, only to shatter it by adding an unexpected plant.  The intentional incongruity of his plantings made you see each plant in a new and unexpected way.   
Both strategies are powerful design tools.  Their power resides not in imitating nature—as so many clichéd garden books exhort you to do—but in manipulating human associations of nature.  All the great gardens do not shape or refine nature, but people.  This is why I like to say that all good naturalism is first a humanism.  Our true palette is not plants, but the memories, feelings, moods, and sensations of people.  To shape these is to create art.

So how about your gardens or designs?  What is your style?  To evoke or provoke?


  1. Thomas,

    This was another fascinating post. I think my personal tastes are shifting from being less provocative and more evocative. I admire and appreciate both styles. For me, the closer to the house, the more provocative my plantings-the further from the house the more evocative. In the public gardens I work on, the more urban the park, the more provocative I tend to be. The more rural the location, the more evocative. I think being very evocative in a city or more provocative in a rural setting is very challenging. The High Line is an example of an extremely successful evocative planting in a very urban setting.

    Very thought provoking post! Thanks.

  2. What an interesting post. From my perspective (as a landscape historian) I often argue that historic gardens are not important because of their fabric - the plants and architectural items - but because of the memories and feelings associated with them. It is possible to make sweeping changes to important gardens and retain their essence (as Lloyd did brilliantly at Dixter); it is also all too easy to make small changes and destroy the spirit of a garden.

  3. There’s an element of hubris associated with all design. I wonder if evocation doesn’t imply an aspect of permanence (sustainability comes in somewhere) that would then validate our “creations”. I have wondered intermittently over the past 30? years whether remediation is the only legitimate form of design. I hope not!
    Is it cheating to do essentially evocative design and then drop random accents in provocatively? Does that destroy the unity, Invalidate the integrity of a design? I like to think that those anomalies make us question things. If we peel back the veneer of appearances will we be surprised at what we see?

  4. The reference to "shrubbing up" the foundation in first part of your post made me think of photos from our State Landscaping awards where all of the emphasis is on the hardscaping and there are a few sparsely scattered perennials and shrubs amongst the mulch. All of these designers you mentioned put the emphasis on plants and that's what makes their designs stand out.

    My style is replicating natural landscapes. I get mixed reactions like "this reminds me of my cabin up north" which represents for those people a feeling of calm or solitude and connecting with nature. I also hear visitors say "it's nice but it wouldn't work because my kids don't have enough lawn to play on". I feel the latter group is missing out on what they could learn from this landscape and show their kids.

  5. While I could never consider myself a designer beyond my own garden (even then I would have to define it generously) I've always designed from a purely emotional, personal place. When I think of my gardening style, I don't really think of it in terms of being "contemporary", "traditional" or "native", etc. I think of it as being romantic, casual, calming, dramatic. I think for the simple gardener, it is a very personal sort of design mentality. The trick, of course, is corralling all those vague feelings into something real and practical. I'm familiar with far too many of the plantings you describe at the beginning, the ones that I'm sure were referred to as "Plant Material" by those involved. You can tell almost immediately when a garden was designed merely as window dressing or if it was designed by someone with a love of plants and the interaction of people with plants. The latter is, unfortunately, very rare...at least in my neck of the woods ;-)

  6. As a garden designer specializing in perennial flower beds, I must be a provocative gardener. My clients don't want to be reminded of anything. All they ask for is lots of color and beauty.

  7. I like "provoke" vs. "evoke" - maybe my style is a bit of both, though probably provoke.

    Or abstract nature into built forms. Not into Christopher Lloyd's "cottage garden" style, but nice. To use plant forms with hardscape forms, and make a point, is so satisfying to see and especially pull off.

  8. So, design in third nature, then? I agree--gardenign is, and can be nothng but, personal human emotional / psychological interaction. Is it any different with paint, clay, a piano, or dance? Humans are natural, even though our roads, nuclear power plants, and wholesale slaughter would make us seem not so. I have this argument with my college students all the time--is the chair of nature? Yes. Certainly American landscape theory and design could benefit from a little bit of zen philosophy.

  9. Thomas,
    This is the first time I've heard a descriptive like this used to differentiate these two intentions. I agree with your statement, "All the great gardens do not shape or refine nature, but people" Yes, it is our response to what we're seeing that marks the success of a garden space. Thanks for the food for thought.

  10. A great provocative post. I am wondering; are evocative and provocative plantings inevitably mutual exclusive?

  11. See clearly what you mean.

    Oh gosh, I want to mix categories, as ever-- if you plant a naturalistic garden using native plants in a manicured clean-cut, exotic-plant suburb, does it become provocative? And vice versa? This is maybe a more sociological or contextual than aesthetic thought.

    I would hope my yard would be evocative, with provocative touches, but fear it would be read mainly as scruffy, much as I love my plants.

    Truly great design causes that top-taken-off-the-head feeling that Emily Dickinson claimed for poetry.


If you liked this post . . .

Related Posts with Thumbnails