Saturday, February 15, 2014

The New Perennial Movement: Exhausted or Just Getting Good?

Is the New Perennial movement losing its integrity? Or will its expansion reinvigorate it artistically?

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 na├»ve? 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.

New Horizons

But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Off-Season Visits to New York's Newest Naturalistic Parks and Gardens by Harry Wade

The First in a Four-part Series on Seeing Garden Design In the Light of Winter

Article by Harry Wade

I'm delighted to introduce Harry Wade to Grounded Design. Harry and I started corresponding last fall about naturalistic gardening. For me, it was one of those thrilling exchanges with a keen mind who understood the naturalistic garden trends in terms of their broader artistic and cultural contexts. I invited Harry to write a few posts for this blog, and he graciously accepted. Harry Wade is a part-time student in the New York Botanical Garden’s Certificate programs for Landscape Design and Horticulture and has a small residential garden practice with his husband focusing on agrarian-inspired design in Schoharie County in upstate New York. 

He has a Master’s in Critical Theory from The University of California at Irvine, has directed a number of award-winning documentaries, and is currently a communications consultant for the healthcare industry in New York City, where he lives.  He says “I've worked with a lot of brilliant experts in all kinds of fields, and the best of them always welcome an outsider’s perspective.” Hoping you enjoy this series--Thomas

Hibernation Hermeneutics

There are many things that occupy gardeners and designers in the wintertime, though they rarely include time in gardens considering design.

Instead, as gardeners, we tend to displace this time of year by thinking about other times – reconsiderations of past seasons and plans for what we will do next.  For designers, it too easily becomes a time to dwell in the abstract, pushing through imaginary planning or theoretical agendas, but rarely spending time with gardens themselves.  And while it is a near universal experience to be awe struck by snowfall or stark winter tableaux, these are more emotional reactions to natural forces, not design.  

But there is another side to a garden in winter – a way in which it conspires against us in small ways to undo our warmer weather certainties and linear productivity to insist instead on its own slightly alien autonomy.   In the garden, winter’s effect on perception and thought is gradual, accumulating meaning in layers, like the season itself.   

As best as I can make out, winter changes our awareness of gardens in three phases.  First, like the old design chestnut about black and white photography revealing the deep structure of a garden, winter eliminates many transitory details.   But since it exists in four dimensions, winter clarifies much more than a photo, allowing us to walk among the chiaroscuro lines and curves, feel how wind amplifies negative spaces, how ice activates small textural contrasts, how cold and fog reveal the shifting optics of atmosphere.   Who would not benefit from a greater awareness of these nuanced dynamics?  

A second effect that winter works on awareness is more related to our own physicality than the landscape –

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Piet Oudolf: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall

This year, Grounded Design is celebrating the idea of contemporary naturalistic design, and its great diversity of expressions across the world. It is my contention that naturalistic planting design may be in its finest hour, with numerous new designers whose work represents a contemporary vision of planting in the Anthropocene. Last week, we looked at the work of Adam Woodruff, one the rising stars in American planting design. In the next few weeks, we will hear directly from many of the world's leading designers, hearing their own interpretations of the zeitgeist. As well as a few reviews of some of the newer naturalistic parks and gardens here in the U.S.

Of course, it is hard to pay homage to the idea of naturalistic planting design without giving credit to one of its finest practitioners. I've been accused many times of making this blog too Piet Oudolf-centric, perhaps accurately, but like many in the design and planting world, it is hard to overstate his influence and artistry. Which is why I'm thrilled that Thomas Piper, an award-winning nonfiction film maker that I've been corresponding with, is working on a feature of Piet Oudolf and his gardens. 

The great thing about capturing Oudolf's work on film is that cinematography can create the experience of being present in the gardens, a feat "impossible through any other medium," writes Piper in his proposal. 

Piet Oudolf documentary teaser from Thomas Piper on Vimeo.

What's really thrilling is that the film will capture Piet's process of designing his new work, including a major new garden for a contemporary art center in England, Hauser & Wirth Somerset as well as recent projects in New York, Chicago, Nantucket, Germany, Sweden, and Holland.

It is a moving teaser, as it speaks to the emotional aspect of Piet's work. Really looking forward to the full film.

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