Dutch garden and landscape travels

An aralia to stab the horizon and silhoette the sky. Perennial/prairie style planting somehow fits so well into the big open agricultural horizons but the occasional bit of drama helps too. An Arjan van Boekel garden.

An aralia to stab the horizon and silhoette the sky. Perennial/prairie style planting somehow fits so well into the big open agricultural horizons but the occasional bit of drama helps too. An Arjan van Boekel garden.

Well here we are. Another slightly lonely night in the camper van. I'm trundling around The Netherlands researching a possible book on contemporary Dutch garden design. It was an idea the leading Dutch garden photographer Maayke de Ridder and I thought up some time ago. We think we have a publisher now but it is all still a bit speculative. Anyway a great way of meeting people and learning more about a dynamic gardening and design culture.

I come here regularly anyway, but it is a long time since I spent so much time travelling the country's highways and byways. Part of the concept for the book is the background of the Dutch landscape, so I'm popping into various places along the way to explore this theme. I think I'm getting off the beaten track alright – my first night here after crossing over from Belgium was in a campsite, where my arrival caused a certain amount of consternation. I don't think they'd ever had a non-Dutch visitor. Eventually, a girl of around 13 was hoiked out of a swimming pool and deposited in a towel in front of the computer to book me in in halting English, stabbing her fingers at the keyboard with dripping fingers.

A corner of the private garden of designers Monique Donders and Pierre van der Heiden. I've gone on about the non-classical way a lot of Dutch designers works with clipped woodies in a 'non-classical' way; the other side of the coin is a greater adventurousness in selecting plant material. Anyone wanna guess what these bobbly chaps are?  Enkianthus campanulatus ! They must look amazing in autumn.

A corner of the private garden of designers Monique Donders and Pierre van der Heiden. I've gone on about the non-classical way a lot of Dutch designers works with clipped woodies in a 'non-classical' way; the other side of the coin is a greater adventurousness in selecting plant material. Anyone wanna guess what these bobbly chaps are? Enkianthus campanulatus! They must look amazing in autumn.

Of course, it was back in the mid 1990s when I first started coming here, but my focus then was naturalistic planting, which matured into the so-called Dutch Wave. But since then I have become so aware of how designers here are very good at working with small spaces. Not surprisingly perhaps. But I also like the way they have a certain air of modernity about them that means they could not possibly be British. Its difficult to decide why, and the funny thing is that Dutch colleagues find it difficult to accept too, but there is a certain way in which forms and shapes are distributed that no British designer would do. It's something to do with the fact the British desingners still seem often to be still stuck to a kind of Renaissance geometry in the way they use structure, whereas Dutch ones don't. Instead there is a kind of chunky modernism, a Bauhaus gene always in there somewhere. I find it refreshing, somehow freeing up the use of clipped woody plants to more uses.

The postman probably curses them, but the cement steps on the way to Frank van Linden's front door are a bit like the steps in a Japanese garden, slowing you down so you take more notice of your surroundings on the way, which basically means viewing a diverse range of perennials.

The postman probably curses them, but the cement steps on the way to Frank van Linden's front door are a bit like the steps in a Japanese garden, slowing you down so you take more notice of your surroundings on the way, which basically means viewing a diverse range of perennials.

I'm not going to name check every designer in the book, and in fact I have not met them all yet. Frank van der Linden (www.vannaturetuinarchitectuur.nl) is one of those consummate plantsman who grows some of his own plants for jobs. He is, I suppose, on the Piet Oudolf wing, endlessly exploring the possibilities of the huge range of plants, mostly perennials, now commercially available. Some fantastic perennial plantings sprout from the drawing board of Pierre van der Heiden and Monique Donders too (www.denkersintuinen.nl), although as I discovered things get a little complicated here. Monique is front of house, meets clients, checks out sites, Pierre designs, but does not always visit the site. Yes really! They have a very successful practice, with a huge range of gardens on their website, and in reality too. Monique took me to eight. Complex planting however they delegate to a planting specialist. How sensible! I wish British designers did that more often. Ruurd van Donkelaar is also employed by Noël van Mierlo (how nice to meet another Noel) who creates adventurous gardens with a more informal character (www.vanmierlotuinen.nl). He took me to one, in Eindhoven, which was beautifully and sensitively maintained, particularly as regards the handling of self-seeding perennials.

Nico Kloppenburg is a dab hand with hedges, but also with using big blocks as another way of creating barriers and filling space. These are clipped bamboo, a  Fargesia  species, a softer alternative to more usual woody plant material.

Nico Kloppenburg is a dab hand with hedges, but also with using big blocks as another way of creating barriers and filling space. These are clipped bamboo, a Fargesia species, a softer alternative to more usual woody plant material.

Ruurd van Donkelaar is that planting specialist (www.ruurdvandonkelaar.nl). I visited him and his wife Deyke, in their cottage in Drenthe, their garden embedded in a nature reserve. His family have run nurseries or botanic gardens for good on 200 years. The nature reserve around the house was interesting, for the light it showed on an aspect of Dutch landscape which I am also keen to explore in the book. He and Deyke live surrounded by a 'new' nature reserve, the result of tree planting some thirty-odd years ago. This was compensation for woodland destroyed during a 'countryside rationalisation' exercise at the time. Overseen by government, dykes, ditches and field boundaries were straightened out to make everything easier (and more profitable) for farmers; but this being more enlightened times, nature had to be compensated by the creation of some new and more rationally-situated nature. I could never imagine this happening in Britain! It typifies an attitude to land and resources that I hope to explore more in the hoped-to-be book.

As well as Frank, the other real perennial specialist I met up with on this trip was Arjan van Boekel, who definitely sees himself as inspired by Piet Oudolf's work. He is much more open to integrating shrubs into his work with perennials though, as well as wildflower meadow planting. Definitely a young guy to watch to take the Dutch Wave forward. (www.boekeltuinen.nl).

A vignette of planting from a Noël van Mierlo garden in Eindhoven. The garden is full of this kind of fine detail. It had a very extensive and perceptive write-up from James Golden: https://federaltwist.com/part-3-noel-van-mierlos-balancing-act-with-carextours/

A vignette of planting from a Noël van Mierlo garden in Eindhoven. The garden is full of this kind of fine detail. It had a very extensive and perceptive write-up from James Golden: https://federaltwist.com/part-3-noel-van-mierlos-balancing-act-with-carextours/

Talking of which, it was very interesting to talk with Nico Kloppenburg (http://nicokloppenborg.nl)about woody plants, perennials and the Dutch Wave. Of the twelve or so designers we have in the book, he is the most focused on both history and the use of woody plants. Nico is frequently involved in restoration projects, which he regards as a kind of creative editing (he is not one for exactly replicating a particular period) and is particularly inventive in his use of clipped woody plant material. He sees himself as very much inspired by Mien Ruys, the garden architect who dominated landscape and garden design here for much of the 20th century, and who transformed clipped woody plants from their traditional role into something much more modernist – that Bauhaus gene I mentioned earlier. His gardens develop slowly; he is not in sympathy with big perennial schemes, which he argues are a kind of instant gratification for the client who can spend out on thousands of perennials for an effect which will be nearly complete within two years. Real gardens, he would point out, take much longer to grow and develop, and in the long term are far less dependent on skilled maintenance. This is perhaps not an argument against perennials as such, more about their commissioning. Food for thought, most certainly. Visits here always provoke and make me think.

Meadow (lots of wild carrot, Daucus carota) with intervening blocks of lawn. In a garden by Arjan van Boekel. Simple but effective; children love the different size spaces, and hugely flexible, in that the areas of lawn and meadow could be easily changed over time.

Meadow (lots of wild carrot, Daucus carota) with intervening blocks of lawn. In a garden by Arjan van Boekel. Simple but effective; children love the different size spaces, and hugely flexible, in that the areas of lawn and meadow could be easily changed over time.

Mind the Gap!

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Why is so much perennial planting so gappy?

Why do so many gardens, private and public, which are supposed to be about growing plants, look like displays of soil or exhibitions of mulch?

Here, I'd like to address the whole issue of planting density, with some observations based on the results of a seven year trial which has just been published in The Plantsman journal.

One of my high density trial plots in May 2017.

One of my high density trial plots in May 2017.

Over the course of gardening history, planting density has been getting tighter. Back in the 17th century, gardeners would plant out garden plants in splendid isolation, to emphasise their rarity and to draw attention to them. By the 19th century we had got as far as the ancestor to the modern border, nice and full by the end of the growing season but still pretty gappy by our standards. The modern Beth Chatto and Margery Fish inspired planting style allows, even encourages self-seeding and a certain amount of intermeshing, but there still seems to be an underlying fear amongst gardeners in letting plants get really tangled up in each other.

Part of the issue with planting density is perception: most of us seeing the activity of growing plants as growing individuals of desired plants rather than creating a vegetation which contains desirable plants. We imagine that plants are somehow more easily appreciated and managed when there is a cordon sanitaire of bare soil or mulch around them.

These are the diagrams of the research plots discussed in The Plantsman article

These are the diagrams of the research plots discussed in The Plantsman article

High density planting is sometimes criticised for obscuring the natural form of the plant. But what forms do plants, perennials in particular, really take? Growing something on its own may result in a pleasing form – an echinops might be a good example, a nice neat clump of basal leaves with a flower head emerging as the summer progresses. But a geranium? That neat hemisphere of leaves quickly turns to collapse after, or even during, flowering. The fact is that most perennials do not grow on their own – the denizens of low-density, semi-arid environments being the exception. Most grow at very high densities compared to garden plants and typically adapt their growh forms in response to the crowded environment around them. Some, and geraniums are a case in point, are extremely flexible and plastic in their habit of growth, with leaf and flowering stems which elongate and twist their way through surrounding plants seeking support from them in their struggle to get to the light.

Modern thinking on perennial planting density tends to favour around seven to nine plants per square metre, considerably more so than conventionally. Plantings quickly look full and potentially a good canopy can develop, but only if the plant forms used mesh together – which single cultivar blocks of upright growers often never do, which is a good reason for using an 'intermingled' approach to planting. Both German Mixed Planting systems and Piet Oudolf use plants at this density, with the former filling in quickly and the latter potentially so, depending on what is being used. Management, which conventionally has always been focussed on the integrity of individual plants tends to prevent meshing together. Spreading and seeding can fill, and perhaps should, fill the gaps.

Interested in seeing how competition would affect plants I set up a trial in 2010 in our garden in Herefordshire. I subscribed then to the popular notion that competitive perennial species on a moist fertile soil would inevitably have a fight to the finish and one would end up dominating. Which I still believe, does sometimes happen. What this trial showed however is that this is by no means inevitable. So, do please read the article (link at the top).

One thing the trial shows is that some perennials at higher densities operate differently to perennials at lower densities. When we put plants together at high densities we make them compete, which is where ecology begins to take over from horticulture. Which is why the distribution patterns of plants in nature are often so radically different to those in the garden. A particularly important lesson is that what might form a neat clump in the conventional border may break up and become more mobile and more widely distributed at higher. This was very much the case with Geranium phaeum and Phlomis russeliana in the trial.

With this intermingled higher-density planting style, I believe it is possible to work towards developing successful intermingled perennial plantings. You see this in remarkably few gardens. Even Nigel Dunnett plantings at Trentham still seem to have a lot of space between plants and a lot of Oudolf plantings do, at least early in the year, because there is so little spring or early summer flowering species to fill in the gaps between late-flowering species which so often make quite late growth.

I had a go in my last garden but it really only worked in this experimental planting; I was still too cautious about packing the plants in tight elsewhere. A couple of months ago I stayed with my friend, the garden designer Catherine Janson, in Herefordshire (see gallery above). Her garden seems to have got it just right, with a density far higher than you normally see. Almost as much as in a wild situation. Lots of self-seeding and clumps spreading into each other. Its pics of her garden which illustrate this posting. Another really good example is Helen Brown's garden at Little Ash Bungalow, near Exeter in Devon (see gallery below).

Planting like this takes real confidence; both in your plants, and in your knowledge of plants, that they won't all fight each other to the finish, and you have enough experience to know that won't happen, and that you will have the ability to deal with problems like occasional weeds, over-enthusiastic growth or flopping.

Why I am banging on about dense planting like it is a moral virtue?

It makes practical sense: ground-covering, weed-smothering, and its complexity has an incredible beauty, the depth of interest of a natural plant community.

It is far better for biodiversity, providing cover, and far more food, habitat etc. for the invertebrates which are the basis of the garden wildlife food chain.

More vegetation means more biological activity, carbon capture etc.

It is really only this kind of planting which is genuinely ecological, in the sense of providing habitat but also something which approaches being a genuine vegetation. This must be the future of planting.

Why is Britain in such a mess? Part Two


On Living in an Old Country

I'm sure you've all been on the London Underground, squeezed in there with other tourists, commuters, shoppers. It's crowded, the tunnels are narrow, the stairways cramped, there is no air conditioning. It's old. It's almost as bad as the New York Subway. Like much else British it is the way it is because we were there first. There is a price to being there first. It can make it very difficult and expensive to update. In the case of the London Underground updating; which would basically mean enlarging, that is almost physically impossible without closing entire lines down for years at a time.

Britain in short, pays the price for being what economists call an 'early adopter'. You have a great advantage for a few years and then you are stuck with a creaky system with clunky technology when everyone else is whizzing ahead with continual updates. That's why you can breathe on the Lisbon and Porto metros and practically every other mainland European metro system.

The same applies to politics and societies. Whether their intangible nature makes them any easier to update than the London Underground though is another matter. Britain modernised very early, compared to other European countries. The country was effectively unified during the Medieval period, restraints placed on the absolute power of the monarch by the aristocracy and the courts from the late Medieval period onwards with an early model of a parliament dating from the same time. The fact that we went in for a level of beheadings and burnings at the stake that would make even ISIS/Daesh blanch should not obscure the fact that Britain (or more correctly England+Wales) developed a set of institutions and a truly national culture earlier than almost anywhere else in Europe.

Britain does not have a constitution as such, which must seem odd to everyone else, especially those Americans who wave theirs around as if it was a document handed to them by the Almighty. The set of laws, rules and yes, that great British favourite, the 'Gentleman's Agreement', that make up what amounts to a constitution has evolved organically over time. In some ways this allows for flexibility, and in the days when everyone behaved in the establishment like a gentleman this was fine. However the system does not cope when politicians are intransigent and ideological as they are now. The British system is essentially 'presidential', i.e. the Prime Minister has the power and Members of Parliament follow the party line. There is no expectation that Parliament takes the initiative, so when they have done, as now, there are no rules, and the ship of state is left drifting and rudderless.

I had a German friend on the phone the other day, laughing about the British Parliament: the hard benches where MPs have to sit crammed next to each other, the way the benches are opposite each other encouraging confrontation, and in particular how they all shout at each other, and occasionally bay like packs of feral dogs. To her, it seemed all so antiquated. Indeed, she was pointing out a painful truth. And the place is falling apart and needs a massive physical overhaul, never mind constitutional.

Britain is the most unbureaucratic country, which is nice, but carries a price

Most Brits don't realise this, or they moan about the bureaucracy they do have to cope with, but the UK has less form-filling, standing in line in government offices, or regulation than any other industrialised country. To take just one example of this. In most countries if you want to become a builder you have to have some sort of certification before you start ripping the roof off someone's house or replacing their windows. Not in Britain, where anyone can call themselves a builder and start selling themselves as such. The country has been, and in many ways continues to be, remarkably open: tourists and other foreign visitors have long been able to show up at hospital and get treated without being handed a huge bill, send their kids to school with no questions about their right to be here, and even open businesses and start trading with minimal bureaucratic intervention.

The ultimate aspect of the absence of bureaucracy is that we do not have identity cards. This is regarded by many Brits as a sign of our 'liberty' and indeed superiority over foreigners who are somehow seen as less free of their government because they are expected to carry a little card with them all the time. When the last Labour government proposed introducing them, the reaction from many people was nearly hysterical, as if some fundamental right was being taken away from them. Not unlike the reaction of those in the US who resent any action of government.

The lack of identity cards masks a more fundamental problem. The British government does not know who the **** we are. There is no list of citizens. In fact we are not really citizens at all. There is an electoral register (i.e. who can vote), passports (but if you didn't travel you wouldn't have one) and National Insurance numbers, which are about working and tax payments but there has never been a register of British citizens as such. So in fact, government does not (or did not) really know who had a right to be here, and who didn't.

This relative absence of bureaucracy is actually rather nice, but the problems begin when government decides to tighten things up. Which is what has happened to thousands of people who came here, mostly from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s. They entered the system but because there is no register of citizens they were unable to prove their right to be here when the government decided recently to start demanding increased documentation to access government services, largely to pander to their racist right wing that they were being tough on immigration. Hence the Windrush Scandal, referring to one of the early Caribbean immigration ships. Deportations of elderly Caribbeans began, and a cruel wave of bureaucratic persecution of mostly Black British people. All carried out by what we quaintly call 'The Home Office', but known as the Interior Ministry everywhere else. This government department is well-known for its incompetence, indeed a government back in 2006 described it as “not fit for purpose”. And as the Windrush Scandal has illustrated is staffed by people who lacked the moral conviction to question the measures they were asked to carry out. If a latter-day Hitler arrived on our shores, you can imagine the Home Office meekly carrying out his orders.

Brexit may be destructive, irrational and embarassing, but the Windrush Scandal has been so deeply shameful - the racism and simple inhuman cruelty of it all. To be very ironic, one can imagine some old colonel type snorting into their whisky and soda, “terrible business, terrible business, British government behaving like a bunch of ****** foreigners”.

Shameful but not perhaps, surprising.

“Wogs begin at Calais” - a Portrait of English Racism

I'm saying 'English' here as this may well not apply to the Welsh and the Scots, who after all have the English to cope with.

Every country and ethnic identity is racist, that's part of the human condition. But it takes particular forms and selects particular targets in different places. What is odd about a lot of English racism is that it is not directed so much at black or brown people but at other Europeans. All part of 'the island mentality'. It may be difficult to appreciate this in the cities, but with conversations with people out in the countryside it begins to become apparent that there is a deep level of suspicion verging on the paranoid about what is always called 'Europe' – as if we were somehow on another continent. Around 15-20 years ago, British agriculture suffered two major blows from animal health problems: the BSE (mad cow) crisis and The Foot and Mouth Disease Crisis (this refers to a disease of cattle, not the ability of our politicians to open their mouths and put their feet in). Arguably both were exacerbated by political cowardice at the top and the incompetence and rigidity of the civil service department concerned. In both cases, other European Union countries were quite keen to keep diseased British livestock or contaminated meat out. The tone in the countryside was that all this was yet another plot by 'the Europeans' to destroy British agriculture.

Suspicion of 'Europeans', specifically France and Germany, runs deep. The EU is seen as a Franco-German plot, targeting Britain. Both the old enemies lined up together. I am sure you have all watched Dad's Army, the very best of British comedy (let's face it, one thing we are good at, is comedy); there's that little bit at the beginning where the arrows with Union Jack flags (otherwise known as the Butcher's Apron) are facing off the arrows with Nazi swastikas are on the European mainland. This mentality runs deep.

The last few years have seen a run of films about Churchill. Mostly very good, very enjoyable and informative. But why? The History Channel on the TV is widely known as 'the Hitler channel' because mostly seems to be about the Second World War. It's like it's the last thing we felt we could be proud of as a nation. There is so much more: our amazing explosion of popular music from the 1960s on, an incredibly successful, and very largely harmonious multi-cultural society, our leading role in art, cinema, fashion, literature. All of which was exemplified by the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics – which felt like the finest hour of the new Britain. And indeed we do have a wonderfully open society.... just the thing we are in danger of losing right now.

The mess we’re in

Thinking of a nation as having software (culture) and hardware (institutions), it is clear that the British software is changing but the hardware is utterly outdated. The 'wogs begin at Calais' attitudes I've talked about are very largely generational. Young Britons are far more European in attitude, and remarkably open-minded about all questions of diversity. Our society has become more complex, more demanding, with higher expectations of ethics and transparency than the political and bureaucratic superstructure that our past has bequeathed us is capable of offering. Those institutions relied a lot on social deference and a democracy that was managed by a narrow elite. No wonder we are in a mess – these institutions do not offer a way of managing and governing a complex and sometimes conflict-ridden modern society. We need a big overhaul.

To read Part One

To read my widely-read commentary on the referendum

Horti-Culture in camellia-city Porto

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Porto in northern Portugal is the city of the camellia. The public parks and people’s gardens are full of them. For those of us who are only used to seeing them as head high, or maybe in Cornwall, up to the first storey, these are huge. And the city clearly loves them. Last weekend, the city council put on its annual camellia festival.

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|n an underground metro station! Very Porto. And wonderfully democratic. It ran all weekend, with talks and events as well as lots of round tables with flowers provided and arranged by parks, private growers and nurseries.

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It was not that easy to guess who was there deliberately and who was just passing through. It was a great way of making everyone look at the trees which are so much a part of the city, and appreciate the amazing genetic diversity of the plants, not just the different flower colours and shapes but also the different foliage qualities.

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Everything meticulously labelled. There must have been several hundred cultivars on display. Some very familiar names, such as ‘Capt. Raffles’, which i think was the first to flower in Britain, named after the sea captain who would have been paid to look after the plants on their long voyage from China. In fact the first were probably imported by the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to visit Japan. They would have flourished here, in a climate not dissimilar to southern Japan.

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Most cultivated camellias are derived from just a handful of species. Modern breeding, particularly in the US, is bringing in genes from many more species, often only recently introduced from China or Vietnam, and new to cultivation.

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The flowers on the left are Higo varieties, bred, mostly, I think, in the US from varieties originally bred by the Higo clan of Kumamoto on Kyushu in Japan. A minority of those on show were Portuguese bred; but I met several growers who wanted to collect only Portuguese ones, many of which are old and quite rare.

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Of course, it being Porto, there has to be an artistic element. The skirt here is made of imitation azulejos, the blue and white tiles which are a particularly Portuguese art form.

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And there has to be music. Performers provided accompaniment from the steps of the station.

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And finally, this is how big they get! A picture taken from the upstairs of Mosteiro Landim, one of three camellia gardens we visited at the weekend. Some are kept clipped, others are allowed to grow enormous. Whereas we tend to be used to them flowering in a burst in spring, here, in milder winters they can flower off and on from December onwards.

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Blog roll: from Spain: Arañazos en el Cielo, Miguel Recio’s thoughtful blog about gardening and gardeners and El Blog de la Tabla. From los Estados Unidos we first have to mention the beautifully-illustrated View from Federal Twist, James Golden’s tales and images of gardening in the New Jersey backwoods and then Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design - essential reading for all concerned with making our landscapes more sustainable and more planty. From Canada, Tony Spencer’s The New Perennialist is a must for lovers of contemporary planting. I can get terribly engrossed by the Garden History Girl blog, and in a similar, fascinating and well-researched vein is some LANDSCAPES.

Olivier Filippi and the Mediterranean garden of the future

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An overview of the garden created by Olivier and Carla Filippi over the last thirty years. To many of us it appears to be a quintessentially Mediterranean landscape, all those grey hummocks and of course the Italian cypresses. The visual balance between these two elements is powerful as well as symbolising a harmony between the natural and the cultural. The cypresses may be native to the region but the narrow form is the result of a long period of selection and the tree’s wide range is a reflection of centuries of planting.


Welcome to my blog. Please note that this is my new blog site, but I am still using my old one: noels-garden and that is where you should go to access previous postings etc. I hope you’ll agree this one shows off pictures much better! I also now blog monthly for Learning with Experts - this is more practically-orientated and entry-level, but always with little bit of detail on plant and garden history, ecology etc.


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The irony though is that the vast majority of the plants here may be native to the Mediterranean region but very few of them are in cultivation. They are available from the nursery here of course, but in many cases it is Olivier who has pioneered their use in cultivation and their commercial production. He and Carla have spent a lifetime traveling throughout the region studying plants and habitats. Probably more than anyone else Olivier understands how plants survive the interactions between drought and soil in the region. So it is actually quite shocking to realise just how stereotypical many Mediterranean planted environments are, and/or dependent on irrigation.

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Mediterranean gardens are dominated by a classical model based on the formal clipping of a limited range of species. There are good reasons for this - it is not just an exercise in conspicuous consumption as some northern Europeans think (the ‘look at the all gardeners I employ’ model of horticulture). Clipping is a way of giving meaning to the amorphous shapes of the limited number of plant species that stay green through the summer. Increasingly though people are criticising this model and turning instead to the aesthetics of wild landscapes.

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The vegetation of wild landscapes does not have a high status here. Traditionally the maquis (or macchia, matorral, matos or whatever) is seen as a source of herbs, honey, hunted wildlife and firewood and given no value for itself. Given that these are very tough drought-tolerant plants, it is natural that Olivier and other practitioners of the new Mediterranean gardening should turn to the. There are simply so many grey-leaved, tough, twiggy, compact shrubs (or sub-shrubs as they are often called). Convergent evolution has resulted in many different unrelated species developing similar characteristics. Thinking as garden designers, there may be a similarity of form and texture, but there is huge variation in texture.

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Gaps can be important part of the visual aesthetic, just as in nature many of these plants grow in environments where there are considerable gaps between plants. The visual qualities of the stone or other substrate is of course important. Gaps play a role in habitat diversity too, places for spring-flowering bulbs or annuals to grow or simply the space around planting allows us to better appreciate the planting.

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Grasses (tough tight clump-formers, i.e. cespitose) species are one of the most effective contrasting forms to the default ‘grey hummock’. This scene is a typical example of the big gap in plant size between developing canopy trees (mostly stone pine, Pinus pinea) and a ground-hugging understorey. Its very attractive as well as a frequently occurring situation.

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There is a lot of seeding going on, for example of these Euphorbia species here. Many of these plant species are relatively short-lived, which means that to survive they have to seed. Allowing, encouraging, but also managing seeding is an important part of habitat-based planting styles and to be honest is the barriers to wider adoption. Effective management of plant reproduction and replacement is a key part of how these plantings are looked after, skills which are not immediately obvious and which need to be communicated to those at the sharp end of maintenance.

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Many of the grey hummocky plants are short-lived, in that they are naturally part of early succession communities, to be eventually replaced by trees and larger shrubs. That is happening here, as almonds and strawberry trees (Prunus dulcis and Arbutus unedo) are gradually establishing. As so many of us know, lavenders and cistus begin to deteriorate after a few years, they may live for 20 years plus, but if a large part of this is as scrubby rangy specimens many of us would rather not know. Annual light pruning helps keep them in shape. Such pruning is a vital part of maintenance but again, needs to be communicated effectively to those who wield the clippers; only light pruning is needed, not the ‘meatball’ pruning so often seen in public landscapes.

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The amount of research that has gone on here is incredible. Much has been written up in Olivier’s books: Planting Design for Dry Gardens, and Bringing the Mediterranean Into Your Garden: How to Capture the Natural Beauty of the Mediterranean Garrigue. The nursery stocks a huge range of plants, and is amazingly tidy and organised. I’ve had a nursery myself and I know how hard it is to keep it this way! Olivier is actively researching plant propagation and keeps notes on a huge range of plants, all to be written up in another book one day.

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One final thing. These plants, of lean-and-mean habitats, survive and flourish on well, lean and mean soils. They don’t like irrigation, or any unseasonal watering. They offer their services to those who can provide them with the right habitats. Those on moister and fertile soils will not have so much success!

Here’s the link to the information-packed nursery website.

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Blog roll: from Spain: Arañazos en el Cielo, Miguel Recio’s thoughtful blog about gardening and gardeners and El Blog de la Tabla. From los Estados Unidos we first have to mention the beautifully-illustrated View from Federal Twist, James Golden’s tales and images of gardening in the New Jersey backwoods and then Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design - essential reading for all concerned with making our landscapes more sustainable and more planty. From Canada, Tony Spencer’s The New Perennialist is a must for lovers of contemporary planting. I can get terribly engrossed by the Garden History Girl blog, and in a similar, fascinating and well-researched vein is some LANDSCAPES.

Why is Britain in such a mess?

What was once a 'strong and stable' and safe country seems to be descending into the chaos. Why did my (African heritage) taxi driver in Copenhagen say recently “I don't know much about England but I know it's a country where bad things happen”. He was referring to the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, which he assured me could never happen in Denmark, or if it did, the government would have to instantly resign. The squabbling, back-stabbing and abusive tone of parliamentary politics looks more and more like what we used to expect from countries which the Brits used to rather look down on. It's now us being looked down on by the rest of Europe.

The answer, I believe, is that we now lack a culture of consensus, and have lost our means of building and developing one. Instead, divisions seem to get magnified and deepened. The Brexit referendum and the increasing ideological polarisation in both main political parties are a sign of this.

Other north European countries have some sort of culture of consensus. The Scandinavian countries in particular have a very strong culture of consensus in politics and around socio-economic issues. This has undoubtedly played a major role in their extraordinary economic success and the high quality of life of their populations. The Dutch are pretty good on consensus too; you have to be if the sea is always threatening to come gushing over the dyke. It's not something which is so often associated with Germany, but there is little doubt that German politics and decision making relies heavily on consensus, powered to a large extent by the results doled out by the electoral system which forces political opponents to talk to each other.

Right. That's one clue as to what is going on. Britain is about the only country in Europe with a primitive 'first past the post' electoral system. It tends to end in 'either or' results, and we used to believe that the resulting alternation of political parties in government was a good thing. However it also encourages divisiveness. Anyone who has heard the British Parliament on the TV or radio tends to be rather horrified by the level of shouting and jeering going on. Even the geography of the place seems to encourage this, with two 'sides' on each side of the house; most other European parliaments have horseshoe or semi-circular shaped assemblies which discourage such binary confrontations.

In fact once you start to look around, there are quite a lot of binary oppositions in British society. The legal system for a start: prosecution and defence locked into trying to persuade the jury of the rightness of the case they are being paid to defend. They may not believe their clients but their job is convince through their rhetoric or their skill in demolishing their opponents. Any idea of impassively and objectively seeking the truth is simply not part of the business. And then there is the institution of the debate, a key part of the elite Oxford and Cambridge student 'unions' and mimicked in the so-called public schools (they are actually private). Debates between two oppositions encourage black and white thinking, there is a failure to appreciate subtlties or any encouragement to negotation or consensus.

Lots of binary opposition then. No wonder no-one can agree on anything. But why has this developed only now? For the answer we need to look back at history. England had a nasty civil war in the 17th century. King Charles I lost his head, and so did many others. This came after some vicious disputes over religion, lots of burnings at the stake etc. The solution seemed to be a historic compromise achieved in 1688 when the Dutch William of Orange took the throne after a palace coup (British version) or a Dutch invasion (Dutch version). Monarch and Parliament agreed a compromise, a division of powers and religious toleration (of a sort) was agreed. Ok, Catholics were still second-class citizens, as were dissenting Christians, but the killings, the burnings and the torturing stopped, and one of the defining characteristics of the true British gentleman came to be a phlegmatic tolerance, part of which was a strong presumption against political and religious 'enthusiasm', which in those days was understood to mean what we would now call 'passion' or 'evangelism'.

For the next three centuries this held pretty well. The historic compromise became part of the ethos of an effective and relatively tightly-knit ruling class. Disputes and disagreements could be aired, but always within the constraints of a set of rules of behaviour strictly controlled by the elite – who all went to the same schools, played the same games, read the same papers and tended to marry each other. This elite was always flexible, with newcomers such as vulgar industrialists, religious dissidents successful in business and valuable members of minorities (i.e. Jews) were never excluded for too long and eventually invited to join. The rough and tumble of parliamentary debate was between men who were basically all part of the same club. Politics in Victorian England may have been a constant ding-dong between two men who hated each other (William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the latter a Jewish convert) but who agreed the ground rules.

Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and the elite consensus that managed the binary oppositions starts to fall apart. Comprehensive education sees a watering down of the elite, large-scale immigration is rapidly followed by much breast-beating over racism, followed slightly less rapidly by second-generation immigrants making it big in business, media and politics. No longer is the old elite able to manage the tensions inevitably created by binary oppositions, particularly since the electoral system does nothing to encourage politicians to agree with each other.

Increasingly there is a 'new Britain': multi-cultural, happy with 'difference', globalist, innovatory, outward-looking, and an 'old Britain': unhappy with change, nostalgic about the past, frightened of the future, unwilling to douse its fish and chips in curry sauce. There is nothing to encourage these two cultures to talk to each other. 'Old Britain' would like to carry on running the consensus in the way it used to; 'New Britain' wants a different, and much wider, consensus.

Few people are now really nostalgic for empire, although a great many don't realise just what a hideous mess it often left behind, but why are we so obsessed with what is called 'the war', i.e. World War 2: films about Winston Churchill, TV history programmes, recycled wartime government posters etc. Nostalgia seems to have become a big part of British public life. Nationalism and sectarian politics feed on nostalgia like vampires feed on blood. Nostalgia helps/ed fuel Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Daesh/ISIS and all the other thugs and bigots who currently seem to afflict us.

One outcome of the inability to compromise in Britain, has been the 'austerity' economics practised over the last eight years. More than anything else this is what is driving so many people into poverty (20% now below the official poverty line), is degrading our health and education services, shutting museums and libraries, causing our physical infrastructure to break up and much much more. Systems that encourage politicians to talk to each other, even do rather sordid little pork barel deals with each other tend not to end up condemning so many to suffer such a long period of neglect.

Northern Ireland is an interesting and hopeful example of how people who hate each other can be made to talk and to make deals. For years this small province (1.5million people) suffered a low-level civil war, the result of centuries of historic mismanagement by the rulers in London; with two communities at each other's throats - I think the word 'tribal war' would be used if we were talking about Africa or the Middle East. But, as part of a series of reform measures, the British government introduced what they have never dared to do at home, a proportional electoral system. No longer could local councils be dominated by one (inevitably sectarian) political party. You may be wanting to kill each other, but you still have to decide when the dustbins are going to be emptied. Behind the scenes and then more openly, the enemies talked over the boring minutiae of how to make basic services work and then found they could talk to each other about other things too. And two of the biggest enemies, an ex-guerrilla leader (Martin McGuiness) and a sectarian politico-religious leader (Ian Paisley) ended up as back-slapping best mates.

Now of course, the delicately-constructed good example of communal healing in Northern Ireland is threatened with being derailed by Brexit. That would be a savage irony, as it is the one place on this increasingly divided set of islands where there has been real hope, led by a fairer and pragmatic electoral system.

So there, that's my analysis. Condemned by being unable to move on. A sense of complacency about our past and our antiquated institutions has led us to be unable to see how to heal new divisions. In particular an inability to develop an electoral system that helps build consensus. Something, I might add, that the United States, another country with a once admired political system, but now also brought low, might take notice of too.




Portugal Centro Region - the front line of climate change?

Quite a lot of the region now looks like this. Fire damage plus the results of centuries, even millennia, of soil erosion.

Quite a lot of the region now looks like this. Fire damage plus the results of centuries, even millennia, of soil erosion.

You want to know what impact climate change will have on landscapes? Come to the Centro Region of Portugal and take a look.

Having spent some months in the region, I really feel on the front line of climate change. I have blogged before about the devastating fires the area has suffered from (see here and here). These however are just the latest in a series of destructive impacts that go back a long way historically, which make the landscape of this area a particularly alarming example of what can happen over long periods of time, with contemporary climate change contributing a final blow.

One of the odd things that one notices around here is the areas of bare ground, not just solid rock but gritty bare 'soil'. Rainfall is pretty high here (at least September to April), so this apparent 'desertification' is a bit of a mystery. There are places where it seems entire hillsides are bare of vegetation. In other areas, such as around the village where Jo and I are currently living, the fires have revealed more bare soil beneath the blackened trees. Unpacking what has happened has taken some time.

The Alva Valley. Much of what you see here is actually bare - eroded rock.

The Alva Valley. Much of what you see here is actually bare - eroded rock.

Much of the region is granite, which produces gritty infertile soils. But the climate is mild and rainfall plentiful so human populations have always been high, with some areas having remarkably high densities of villages even in the pre-Roman period. Lots of people meant deforestation plus lots of grazing animals, so tree cover began to be lost from pretty early on, to be replaced by heather, gorse, broom and other low woody plants. Grass, the most thorough protective skin for soil, does not grow particularly well as the soil is simply lacking in sufficient phosphorus and nitrogen. Soil erosion, driven by heavy winter rains, gradually stripped hillsides of anything the grass could grow on anyway, dumping it in the valleys (which at least helped peasant cultivators). The remaining grit, almost entirely stripped of humus or finer soil particles can now only support thorny shrubs (mostly pea family) or annuals. This is the situation on much of the Serra da Estrela, the highest hills in the region: once high pastures, now looking like semi-desert.

The Serra da Estrela. A lot of bare rock plus low semi-desert shrub flora. And this gets very high rainfall.

The Serra da Estrela. A lot of bare rock plus low semi-desert shrub flora. And this gets very high rainfall.

Notice, the burnt eucalyptus upper left and the mostly unburnt oak in the valley

Notice, the burnt eucalyptus upper left and the mostly unburnt oak in the valley

Many overpopulated European landscapes were saved by the safety valve of emigration to the New World in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was relatively little emigration here though, so the pressure of deforestation and grazing built up. By the mid 20th century, the government (the Salazar dictatorship) recognised the problem and began to promote reafforestation, but not with the original oak and chestnut, but quick growing pines, and then eucalyptus. As with so many other hilly places in western Europe, rural depopulation emptied the countryside. Here the climate made the industrial planting of eucalyptus an increasingly attractive investment both for the corporate sector and anyone with a few hectares who wanted a reliable pension fund. Given that the landholding system is such a mess (ownership of something around 20% of the countryside is disputed), 'guerrilla planting' of eucalyptus is rife.

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Eucalyptus globulus is a tree which evolution has designed to burn ferociously, scattering red hot embers for kilometres downwind. Whereas strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) resprout impressively from a burnt stump and cork oak (Quercus suber) from all over the branches, this particular eucalyptus sends out vast numbers of new shoots all the way up the trunk, and surrounds itself with its seedlings. The tree is able to generate a cycle of burning which eliminates pines, its main competitor, and over time would eliminate any remaining oaks or chestnut, which do not burn but grow much more slowly.

It was interesting to go to Tasmania in the spring and see Eucalyptus globulus in the wild. Australia's landscape history saw eucalypts gradually displace other slower-growing tree species as the Aborigines used fire as a landscape management tool; assisting the mass extinction process which tribal hunter-gatherers caused all over the world during the Stone Age. There the process took millennia to complete; in Portugal it is taking just a few decades to go much further and completely degrade the landscape. Wild eucalyptus in Tasmania grows quite sparsely, in multi-age stands; in Portugal, even-aged plantations pack the trees in as densely as possible, so the amount of highly inflammable biomass is concentrated far more than would ever happen naturally.

Eucalyptus re-sprouts AND re-seeds!

Eucalyptus re-sprouts AND re-seeds!

'Desertification' is not an exaggeration to describe what is happening. The firestorm of last October, the worst landscape fire globally in 2017, was a qualitatively new experience for Europe, an event which was almost certainly climate change induced and which is now far more likely. Although fed by eucalyptus, I could imagine conifers feeding a similar event in the right set of circumstances (high wind velocity after a long drought). What has happened to this region should be a warning for other places.

This is of course the era of conspiracy theories and fake news, and so of course a variety of paranoid fantasies have unfortunately taken hold, which do nothing to help target the blame where it belongs: the corporations who produce chipboard and paper pulp from the eucalyptus and promote its growth and the ineffective government. There is a group called 'Ceus Limpos' (clean skies) which is propagating the daft idea that drones and planes spread the fire deliberately. As if the region does not have enough problems already!

One further impact is a psychological one. We have lived for several months this year in a devastated landscape. It quickly becomes the 'new normal'. Local residents still talk about good walks in beautiful places as if they are still there. After being here a while it is almost a shock to go somewhere undamaged, even to take a walk in an ordinary pine forest with a bit of heather on the ground seems so refreshing.

A way forward? Really only the replanting of native oaks and chestnuts, from the evidence around us, it would seem that decent stretches of these trees would be very effective as fire breaks, and would do more to build up the soil than plantation eucalyptus. There are some organisations working around this. https://criarbosques.wordpress.com/ Paulownia is being touted as an alternative to eucalyptus for smallholder plantations; though an invasive itself in some parts of the world, it is at least deciduous and doesn't burn too badly. Ultimately though this is a political problem, to break the stranglehold of the pulp and chipboard industry over the government, an industry it is worth pointing out, that brings in a declining proportion of national income compared to pretty well every other timber producing country in Europe.


If you read Portuguese the following are useful sources:

Paleo história e história antiga das florestas de Portugal Continental − Até à Idade Média Carlos Aguiar e Bruno Pinto. Available here.

Portugal em Chamas - Como Resgatar as Florestas, João Camargo, Paulo Pimenta de Castro, Pub: Bertrand.

Available here as an e-book, as well as conventional.

Also see MAAVIM as an example of local action.


And even if you don't read the language, this is a good and powerful photo-essay, more about the human impact, and at the end a very good map that gives you an idea of the scale of the disaster of last October.



Louisiana, Denmark - a perfect synthesis of sculpture, archictecture and landscape

Louisiana, a contemporary art gallery north of Copenhagen just has to be one of my most favourite places. Not for the contents so much (I am no great fan of contemporary art) but for the extraordinary and quite unique synthesis of art, landscape and architecture it offers. It also has an atmosphere of immense calm, almost a healing atmosphere. I think I have been there six or seven times now and every time I walk away quite mesmerised by it. Louisiana link here.

I once went to an exhibition there about the design of museums, which made the point that western museums tended to be macho statements that put the building first whereas in Japan many museums are designed to melt themselves into a landscape; oddly enough I don’t recall the exhibition having made the point that this was just what Louisiana was doing. My only experience of Japanese museum culture has been the Adachi Museum, and that does the job amazingly, as you don’t actually get to see the outside of the building at all.

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Louisiana offers an experience of a restful parkland landscape, its sculpture collection, and views over the Øresund to Sweden. You are either in the garden, or you are looking at it from carefully framed vistas inside, or you are getting snatches. Or indeed underground, as many of the galleries are below the surface. A journey around the museum takes you down below, then up again, along light corridors with trees, and shrubs on either side (including one of the biggest beech trees I have ever seen) or just throws you snatches of greenery, and then down again into another underground bit. You are hardly ever aware of the building from the outside; it is all about being in, and looking out.

Not surprisingly, orientation is completely unlike that of a conventional gallery building. In fact it is very easy to get very lost, but not to worry as you just find and exit into the central lawn area and dive into another door. There are also lots of little paths down around a lake and down to the coast, all with judiciously-placed sculpture on the way. Children everywhere, and that is one of the wonderful things about the place; this is Denmark after all, it is very child-friendly, so it doesn’t have that precious-pretentious air that so many galleries have.

The planting is very Danish, i.e. quite minimal. This is not a great gardening culture, but one where a limited number of plants are used to great effect; hedges in particular. The simplicity adds to the sense of calm and of course does not compete with the sculpture.

End of an era as Piet Oudolf closes the garden at Hummelo

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So, you have until October 27th to see Piet and Anja’s private garden at Hummelo. After that, sorry, but its no more visiting. All of who know Piet and Anja have been rather shaking our heads for some time wondering how they cope with the visitors and the stress it must involve. Well done them for keeping going so long.

An end of an era, eloquently summed up by Tony Spencer in The New Perennialist blog. Time to cast my mind back to August 1994 when I first visited with Eva Gustavsson, a Swedish teacher of landscape design. I think Piet had probably decided he’d entertain two unknown foreign guests on one day; it was good as we all bounced ideas off each other and with Henk Gerritssen who we visited on the same day.

I don’t suppose Piet and Anja had any idea of how popular the garden would become when they came here in the 1980s. The idea was to grow plants for Piet’s growing garden design business, and sell a few on the side to keen gardeners. The front garden with the famous yew hedges was a nursery bed and trial plot initially; when I first saw it in 1994 it was still relatively new.

The Oudolfs were always very social and used Hummelo brilliantly as a base for promoting Piet’s ideas through plant sales and the famous Grass Days. For visitors outside the garden world, it was Anja you met, always hospitable and welcoming. Piet would tend to go off and hide in his office, so speaking with him became something of a privilege; but then if it was him who was doing the meeting and greeting I suspect we would long ago have seen our last new Oudolf garden.

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A pic of how it used to look, the late 1990s. Yes, really! I think that those of you who only know Piet as the prophet of perennials are in danger of overlooking his intellectual and artistic roots, in a more modernist-formal style. The occasional flooding tended to see these yew hedges and columns off, which I dare say speeded up his decision making process, but I think he was getting tired of them anyway. They may have seemed fresh and contemporary to us in Britain who have almost never seen clipping done in anything other than a cliched classical way, but to the Dutch they were part of a look that had been around some time. (courtesy of Piet BTW for these older image - mine are still on old transparences - remember them!).

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Again another winter’s pic, giving a good idea of all that structure, and lawn! A reminder that the perennials gradually crept in towards the end of the century. This image I think should make us aware that behind what appears to be soft, naturalistic planting, is actually a very strong graphic sense.

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I shall never forget getting an email from a rather pompous colleague who wanted to know all about the history of the hedges that used to be at the very back of the garden, and made such a theatrical backdrop, ‘what did they mean?’ he wanted to know, were they symbolic, were they a quotation? I had great pleasure in telling him they were an accident, the result of failing to see some rows of yew seedlings, rather than dig them up, Piet trimmed them into shape. And the rest is history. Until the winter wet began to get to them too in 2011, and off they went.

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I always used to love these pillars of silver pear which used to adorn the nursery area, removed about six years ago, to make way for the very successful perennial meadow. They were a reminder of how we could be so much more inventive with clipping if only we tried.

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And this was the bit below the nursery area which for a few years seemed to be a place where seeds lodged and germinated and made some amazingly chaotic combinations, I particularly remember the forests of Digitalis ferruginea, that amazingly narrow foxglove relative.

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Most of us loved it when the perennials and grasses really began to take off; by the early 2000s all that lawn had gone and we had this kind of planting. What’s interesting about the way Piet has worked, as I understand it, is that he plants and then apart from basic maintenance, does not replant. So some borders are really old, 25 years plus even; a great opportunity to see what has survived over the years and how it has spread and seeded.

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For me, the most interesting of all the experiments that Piet did here was the perennial meadow on the site of the old nursery area. I was so sceptical about it at first I must admit, but for some reason it took off with a good balance between meadow grasses, wildflowers and perennials.

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I always learned new things on every trip to Hummelo. One year it was Piet enthusing about these self-sown Mertensia virginica sprounting in the middle of really dense clumps of Panicum grass that made me realise how possible it is to combine plants whose physiologies mean that they grow at different times of year. Panicum is an incredibly competitive grower and yet in April is still dormant, so the mertensias can do their thing and then go dormant for the summer. This was a picture I took the weekend that Piet planted the first perennials in the new meadow bed.