Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Fashions and Trends are Good for Gardens

Tom Stuart Smith's award winning garden at Chelsea Flower Show
Last week I wrote a post about plants for spring 2011 that were “hot” or “not.”  In the post, I took a deliberately sardonic tone imitating the fashionistas I had just seen reviewing trends for the Academy Award show.  I knew I’d get some flak for that post, but was rather surprised by some of the condemnation I got for even paying attention to trends.  The reaction raised some interesting questions for me.  Should we pay attention to garden or design trends?  Are gardens immune to fashions?  One commenter wrote on another blog:

"Real gardeners don’t pay attention to which plants are in or out. I shudder to think about those that pay attention to such nonsense and am concerned about those that disseminate such marketing misinformation."


I wonder, who are 'real gardeners'?  One of my favorite bloggers, Nancy Ondra, wrote a rather compelling photographic response to my comment that Amsonia hubrictii was “out.”  Of course, I should have known better than to pick on such a beloved and versatile plant.  I still think it peaked out a year or two ago, but I must be honest: Nancy’s gorgeous photos of Amsonia through the year crushed my argument.  I know when to admit defeat.  By the end of her post, I wanted to run to my nearest nursery and buy 50 A. hubrichtii.

I rather expected good natured responses like Nancy’s.  What is puzzling to me is how strongly some readers objected to the very idea of trends in the garden.  One commenter rather eloquently wrote, “It is sad when we find the obsession with newness and being on-trend spilling over into gardening.  We need to preserve its value as essentially a slow process—the experience of designed landscapes growing and maturing and becoming more desirable with the patina of age.”  Another comment remarked, “I have to laugh, because there’s such a funny part of human nature, that when something becomes ‘too popular’ those who consider themselves ‘in the know’ are obliged to hate it.”  Both comments make some excellent points.  But I find myself having a very different reaction to trends.

Crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Image from Daily Telegraph

Novelty for novelty’s sake is indeed tedious; but the quest for originality is the essence of art.  For me, garden trends and fashions are not reasons to despair, but generators of great inspiration and originality.  Consider, for example, the Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps the most famous gardening event in the world.  The competition for Best Show Garden produces some of the finest gardens in the world, melding innovative design, sustainability, and artistic expression.  The show has brought new designers to the attention of the world, including Beth Chatto, Tom Stuart-Smith, and Andy Sturgeon.  The show does for gardens what Paris Fashion Week does for clothing.

Fashion promotes artistic ingenuity and originality; it also produces a consumer mentality desperate for the newest and most original.  Perhaps this uglier side of fashion is what many readers objected to in my post.  After all, having some blogger declare your most beloved plant is “out” is the height of obnoxiousness, right?  Can’t we just love the plants we love?  Who cares whether they are trendy or not?

That fashions and trends influence garden making is nothing new.  Any student of landscape history knows that each epoch of great gardens had a set of ideals that influenced them.  The great villas of the Italian Renaissance were an expression of harmonic spatial proportions that reflected a divine order.  The picturesque movement in Britain revolutionized gardens with their romantic ideals.  Victorian gardens’ quest for horticultural diversity created a world trade for interesting and unusual plants.  All of the great garden movements had one thing in common: they all had wealthy patrons who wanted the ‘latest and greatest’.  The greatest ideas in the history of gardening were all funded by rich people who wanted fashionable gardens.

Great art has always had this tenuous relationship with a wealthy consumer class.  The Renaissance would not have happened without the Medici.  As distasteful as it is, our next great garden movement will require patrons as well.
Villa Lante was a result of a wealthy patron wanting the latest fashion
To me, identifying and promoting a trend (an idea) is not the great sin.  The great sin is being unaware of how your own garden is shaped by trends and fashions.  I have seen gardens throughout the world.  American gardens are marked by their conservatism.  When it comes to design ideas about our landscapes, our tastes are rather nostalgic.   Our yards are an amalgam of washed-up fashions from the last century.  There are bits of British romanticism (the “lawn,” the curvilinear planting bed), Victorian horticultural display (the annual bed circling the mailbox), and neo-colonial shrubbery (foundation planting).  All of this gets mixed together with marketing campaigns from mega-nurseries (Proven Winners!) promoting patented plants (‘Knockout Roses’!) that leads to one result: our yards all look the same. 

From the windswept coasts of Maine to the deserts of Arizona, suburban yards in America look way too much alike.  The sea of lawn, the overgrown evergreens at the foundation, the measly annual beds next to the lamppost . . . our landscapes are awash in mindless repetition.

So dear readers, forgive me for picking on your beloved plants.  But when a plant is used over and over again across the country, when landscapers plop the same plants in front of gas stations and strip malls as are in your yard, then those plants become the equivalent of elevator muzak.  And just like when a great Beatles song is played on the harp and piped into food courts in shopping malls, overused plants become clichéd.  Un-original.  A signifier of commercialism.

That is why I care about fashions and trends.  Because I believe gardens are an art.  Because the quest for originality will produce excellence.  And because I think gardens are worth the thought, effort, and time.  The American landscape is scarred with the repetition of too many mindless acts, littered with too many clichés.   The quest for originality is the antidote. 


  1. Sizzling! I love this line: "But when a plant is used over and over again across the country, when landscapers plop the same plants in front of gas stations and strip malls as are in your yard, then those plants become the equivalent of elevator muzak."

  2. this and the previous post on the same subject are really excellent treatments on an interesting subject. I often have to check myself when I lust for a new plant, do I want that plant because if offers something new or simply because it's new. Do I want to rip out that rhododendron because it's exactly like all the other ones in the neighborhood, or because it's poorly sited or I have a better broadleaf evergreen shrub option?

    The great thing about trends is that they aren't always new. Plants come in and out of style. Designers discover a picture in an old book or magazine and revive the idea with new twists.

  3. Gardens are Art and originality is the basis of art. Bravo!

    Not only are gardens Art, they are by far the most complicated art form; They involve all the senses, the intellect, emotions, diurnal cycles, annual cycles that generally repeat, annual cycles that vary, the passage of the years, and to top it off, a significant element of gardens, the plants, grow!

  4. Excellent post, and love the analysis of our American McLandscaping style!

    I've always thought that great garden design also might reference, besides the culture, the ecological region in which it arises. It's hard to imagine Capability Brown emerging out of Italy. These days we are more global, so Piet Oudolf references American prairies, I guess, and then gives us Americans a more "regional" style than some of us had thought of ourselves. And today's sponsors are corporations, mostly, not families...

    I wonder what it would take to develop true regional styles in Americas's various regions? Doing that would remove some of the uniformity and would be more original and serve more ecosystem functions. To some extent, I think that is what many native plant gardeners are doing.

    We are products of our culture, so what we create will inevitably reflect that culture, will signify far beyond our conscious intentions.

  5. The native/indigenous plants we 'real gardeners' are learning to prefer are also a new trend, a good trend. I can remember about 30 years ago, going to the very first plant sale at Kirstenbosch. Now, if you are determined you can find some indigenous plants in any commercial South African nursery.

    How is your new garden? Will you show us, when there is something to show??

  6. Fascinating essay! I had no problem with the "trendy plants" post; however, it still doesn't make a lot of sense to me to blacklist certain plants just because landscapers plant them at McDonald's. I mean, plants are a designer's medium, just as paint is the artist's medium, and words the writer's. Would we shun certain words or paint colors just because they show up in bad poetry or art?

    Isn't it the designer's vision that transforms plants into art, and not their avoidance of certain "common" plants? I worked for a designer who had a list of plants she refused to use, including Japanese maples, knock-out roses, and I can't remember what else, because she said they were too "suburban". Are you kidding me? Sorry, but it was just obnoxious.

    I thought your evaluation of the American garden design scene as backward-looking and unimaginative was right on. But doesn't that have more to do with how we plant than what we plant?

    Again, thanks for the stimulating post. I never comment on blogs, but I think this is the third time I've posted here.

  7. Mary,

    Well said. The presence of a plant at McDonalds doesn't mean it should be blacklisted. But it does give reason to re-examine how that plant is used. I recently saw a planting of the ubiquitous Rosa 'Knockout' on a slope that was so large and massive, it was stunning in its scale. The designer took a McDonald's plant and did something special with it.

    Adrian, that's an interesting point about ecological region. I had not thought of it in those terms, but it clarifies my critique of the McLandscape: it ignores the ecology of the region.

    Chris, I couldn't agree more. Gardens are one of the more compacted arts precisely because they involve ephemeral materials.

    Ryan, I love what you said about trends. Nothing fabulous that goes out of style stays gone forever. It is exactly why I love following trends. Anything can be made new again by thoughtful, original use.

  8. Diana,

    My current garden is a bunch of "before" photos. The only thing going on outside is that I'm smothering a bunch of lawn under newspapers and leaf mulch. I don't know if I'll do much planting this season, but prepare for next.

  9. What if there will be landscapes everywhere. I think the world would be so much attractive. With landscaper, it adds attraction to a specific area where you are going to put a design.

  10. Thomas,

    You are 100% on target about fashion dictating trends throughout history. Even the superstar of garden designing, Piet Oudolf, is constantly experimenting, trialing, discarding and selecting new plant material to use in his designs. Jacqueline van der Kloet told me that she can't wait to go to Keukenhoff each spring to try to find new and exciting bulbs that have been trialed.

    Creativity is about staying open, flexible, spontaneous and playful (plus many other things). If we don't infuse ourselves with something new, our gardens and lives become stale.

    As always, thanks for a great post. Fran

  11. Thomas, both posts on trending plants based on what is being marketed in the industry are excellent points. Another issue is using the same plants in every landscape lead to new pest problems and nutritional deficiencies. Here in Florida, when Knock-out roses were promoted as having no pests, commercial and municipal landscapers, and residential gardeners planted them en masse. Quickly, across the state, chilli thrips infected the roses and Knock-outs were labeled a new host plant.

    When new varieties of loropetalums hit Florida's garden scene, we started seeing copper deficiencies with plants that had been quickly propagated to be available for the demand.

    Citrus canker and citrus greening, (huanglongbing) has been able to spread rapidly through the state because everyone has a citrus tree in their yard.

    I agree, its not about the plants being used as it is the vision of the designer. I wouldn't want to go to an event wearing the same dress as everyone else attending - the same for garden themes and designs. Creativity and individualism make for a healthier environment.

  12. Another thought-provoking post, Thomas. I have to admit that when I read your original post, I thought of fashions in plants as being part of the Mclandscaping process rather than an antidote to it. It often seems to me that the "fashion" message in plants is that everyone everywhere should grow this hot new plant. I do tend to be conservative (and maybe nostalgic too) in choosing plants. I like to check out the new plants at the nursery, but I tend to wait several years to see how they actually work out before I buy them. Those of us gardening in cold climates have to be especially cautious because so often the cold-hardiness claims of the hot new cultivars are grossly exaggerated. Thanks for giving me a whole new way to think about this. -Jean

  13. Jean,

    You make a great point about the "fashion" message being used to encourage conformity, not originality. And the tone of my original post probably reinforced that impression. I find nothing wrong with being conservative in plant selection. To be honest, I could write volumes on the number of "hot" plants I tried that failed. Caution is the fruit of experience. Plants are not fabric swatches.

    Because I'm fortunate enough to design dozens of gardens a year, I get a rare chance to experiment in a way that I probably would not do as a gardener. I have my own 'tried and true' palette, but I try to use at least 10-20% new plants (or at least new to me) in every design. That ratio allows me to experiment without terrible risk.

    My critique is not directed at prudent (or nostalgic) gardeners who love their tried and true plants, but at designers and the "landscaping industry" who perpetuate that McLandscape look. There are so many fabulous plants--new and old--that the industry overlooks. I want to be a voice against the homogenity of the American landscape.

    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful response!

  14. I couldn't resist. Have you seen the hipster Disney princesses meme? It started with these:
    The Best of Hipster Little Mermaid

    I went ahead and made my very own:

    - J. Kriz

  15. Thomas,

    I love your blog- after Garden Rant, this is probably the blog I check most often while at work (I can make it seem like I'm doing research). You've inspired me to start a blog of my own, with the focus more on cold-climate environmental design and edible urban gardening.

    I wish that more landscape architects would write about what we do; about design and nature and the outdoors. I think it would raise the profile of the profession in a way that no paid advocacy group could.

    Thanks for keeping the blog going even with the new addition at home!


  16. What's hot: THIS BLOG
    What's not: Haters hating provocative thinking!


  17. Trends are the results of sharing ideas. Who does want dissemination of information? I personally like trends because it keeps people engaged.

  18. There is creation and copying. The wealthy landowners who wanted the greatest and best, hired landscape designers who would create just that. Others would copy, therefore, trends.

    I believe the retailers must come up with 'the new' repeatedly, in order to remain in business.

    In personal gardening or landscaping, as in any other part of your life, when you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you.

  19. Thomas, I'm grateful to you for describing my writing as "eloquent" even if we seem to disagree. I think you slightly misunderstood my objections to your original post. Of course there have long been trends and fashions in gardening. My concern is the more recent commercially-driven obsession with newness and built-in obsolescence.
    Provocative design is a splendid thing; the constant ripping out and replacement of materials in a desperate attempt to remain fashionable is expensive, unsustainable folly.

  20. Jill,

    Thanks for clarifying. I agree. Perhaps what we're both reacting to is the commercialization of gardening. I do think the "obsession with newness" has some bad side effects, but at least in America, there is so much conservatism when it comes to gardens, that an emphasis on "new and now" would be refreshing.

    Europe has a much more progressive landscape and garden design culture, so perhaps you see the uglier side of fasion-obsessed gardens.

    But I have to remember that most of the iconic gardens of the last millenium (Versailles, Villa D'este, Stowe) happened when a wealthy land owner ripped out the previous landscape for a new fashion. Unsustainable, yes. But these gardens became the crown jewels of landscape history.

  21. I found your post on cottage gardens recently, and loved your suggestions. In fact, I had just gone to a local garden center to purchase a few things. Today I was surprised to read your blog entry in my local newspaper, The Hour, in Norwalk, CT pretty much verbatim but under another byline. Are you working with a Dave Saunders (I think that's the name)?

  22. Thomas I think looking at the design is good to infuse some new life into our gardens but not because it is fashionable or trendy but because it makes sense for the land...I would applaud a trend that allows the ungardeners, who have a landscape that is as you described in your post, run-of-the-mill, using native plants. We overuse plants that actually are either becoming invasive or destroying habitats. Let's get on to that trend and let's make it a national pride trend to do this...

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