Monday, April 13, 2009

Vista Lecture: James Hitchmough

The latest Vista lecture, with James Hitchmough, professor of ecological horticulture in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Sheffield University, is available on the Gardens Illustrated website. As Noel Kingsbury says in his introduction, "Sheffield is becoming synonymous in the gardening community with some exciting new directions in planting design." This is important work that offers something to offend almost all entrenched interests, from scientific ecologists to traditional (whatever that is) garden designers.

James Hitchmough has been a leader in a new movement in gardening probably best called "enhanced nature"--plantings based on nature, mainly for use in urban settings. This is gardening for the common man and woman, not for gardening experts and aficianados, using seed-sown plantings modeled on various natural plant communities--from the North American tall grass prairie to the South African montane.

Plants are selected for their ability to remain sustainable within the overall community of plants, for flowering time, for suitability to specific ecologies and climates, and other factors related to sustainability, low maintenance, and attractiveness to the general public. Most of these gardens are in public spaces, where people who normally would not visit a garden encounter them. An important part of Hitchmough's research has been into environmental psychology, what most people consider attractive, what they like or dislike or are indifferent to in such a planting. Color, as you might think, is very important.

This research has been carried out by Hitchmough and others at Sheffield University in the UK. I've read of his work over the last several years, mainly in Noel Kingsbury's books, and it has certainly influenced my approach to gardening. (Kingsbury recently received his Ph.D. from Sheffield University, where he has worked closely with Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnet, and others.)

As you might expect, Tim Richardson, who co-hosts the series with Noel Kingsbury, and who has most recently written a book on conceptual gardens (many without plants!), gives Hitchmough a hard time. This is an entertaining hour of informal talk and stimulating Q&A.

For more information on Hitchmough's work, go to his website.


  1. I enjoyed the lecture and the ensuing discussion. How I wish there were a way to see the visuals that went with it!

    I appreciate the attempt to come to understand planting in terms of an entire ecosystem. The motivation to lift it nearly-whole and transport it to a seemingly-compatible climate several thousand miles away, however, gives me some pause. Have we as gardeners moved from appropriating interesting exotic plants for our own enjoyment to appropriating an entire exotic flora? The idea has legs as an academic exercise, but I suspect it won't be one to catch on. I appreciated many of the presenter's ideas, however.

  2. I loved the Q&A with Tim Richarsdon, who I think is brilliant, even though I often disagree with him, and Hitchmough and Kingsbury.

    I think his intent, as I understand it, isn't really to "transplant" an ecosystem, but to find appealing plant alliances that, combined with other plants, perhaps even plants native to his own area, produce a seed mixture that can result in a sustainable, low maintenance planting that remains attractive to a general audience over a long period of time. I for example, am experimenting with kniphofias, but certainly don't want to imitate a South African environment.

  3. Hi there, it's actually Sheffield University we are talking about, not Suffolk Uni.

  4. broccoli_park,
    Thanks for pointing out the error. I note Kingsbury's quote says "Sheffield" and I knew that, but my brain transposed the names.



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