Somewhere along the line designers decided that they could no longer cope with boring “amenity shrubs”. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about I am referring to those easy to grow, easy to maintain shrubs that can give excellent ground cover, and look good throughout the year with minimal maintenance. Plants like Viburnum davidii, Lonicera pileata, Euonymus fortunei and Prunus ‘Otto Luyken’. In recent years this durable plant palette has often been replaced with softer subjects: perennials and grasses. Admittedly these can look stunning planted en masse, that is if you see them at their peak. But even the cleverest schemes have their down seasons, and there can be more of these in a wet and windy year.
It’s not that I’ve got anything against perennials and grasses, I have many perennials in my own garden, and I’ve sprinkled them liberally through the planting schemes in most gardens I’ve designed. However I rarely use them on their own. I like my planting schemes to have more structure and substance.
When I was a student of horticulture at Bath University I spend six months working at Bruns Pflanzen, an export nursery in North Germany. Like many nurseries of that region Bruns prided itself on its trees, shrubs and conifers, particularly the magnificent blue spruce. These were proper “lustige pflanzen’, which I understood to mean “hearty plants”. The prairie style of planting was starting to appear in German urban landscapes, and Bruns opened a new nursery to grow perennials and grasses to supply the increased demand. Amongst the proud and traditional Bruns workforce this was known as the unkraut baumschule – in other words the weed nursery. No great shame could fall upon you than to be posted to work on the weed nursery, and I am pleased to say that I avoided it and worked on rhododendrons instead – but that’s another story.
Perhaps it’s this view of perennials that’s coloured my opinion. Perhaps it’s also the experience of lifting and dividing clumps of hemerocallis, Iris sibirica and miscanthus. Granted the dried remains of a grass and perennial garden can look gorgeous on a frosty morning after a dry autumn and winter. However it can be a sorry sight after weeks of rain at the end of a soggy season. I have a feeling that this type of landscape planting looks better in photographs than it does in reality. Magazines love features entitle ‘Dead Gorgeous’ and ‘Remains Beautiful’.
There has been a bit of a buzz going around that shrubs are back, almost as if the cognoscenti have just discovered them, and decided to introduce them to us mere mortals. Some designers have even been using them in Show Gardens at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. That’s certainly given the gardening media something to shout about, rather than a new variety of echinacea or agapanthus. Just how many varieties of these perennials do we really need? Visitors, and those in the know, rave about Show Garden planting schemes where delicate perennials and grasses are carefully woven together to achieve a lovely effect that stays beautiful through the day of judging, and maybe for a while afterwards. How often do you see one of these schemes looking that good in a real garden?
I suppose I shouldn’t be too scathing. I am really glad that shrubs are again being recognised for their true worth and their invaluable contribution in any planting design. After all, as you’ve probably guessed I am a “shrubby”! I don’t have an allergy to variegated leaves. I actually like Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’. I positively promote the use of berberis, and sarcococca is one of my favourite shrubs. I feel this is the moment to come out of the closet and admit that I’ve got Spiraea ‘Firelight’ in my garden, several times over. But don’t tell anyone: Christoper Lloyd planted it too...........
Someone aid recently that shrubs had diminished in popularity because they are higher maintenance than perennials. I find that hard to believe. I suppose the perennials and grasses are razed to the ground sometime in winter leaving bare soil. How attractive! Whereas the shrubs need a bit of pruning and weeding occasionally – seems an easier option to me. Some of us have got the hang of it. Driving through Normandy, Northern France, I am always taken by the wonderful roadside plantings of foliage and flowering shrubs and wonderful shrub roses that sit so well in the rural landscape. In other areas I note that shrub schemes seem to make more of a feature of weed control fabric than they do of the plants. I suppose that’s an advantage of those grasses and perennials; you can’t use an obtrusive black membrane.
So what do you think? Are we going soft, and are those plantings of grasses and perennials the future in landscape design? Of are we going to muscle up, and get the backbone back into planting with some good hearty robust shrubs? Come on unkraut supporters – defend your planting......................