I caught sight of this clearly man-made planting driving by on the river road a couple of weeks back--a grove of sycamores underplanted with boxwoods.
Another thought for the city garden. But instead, I'd have a small grove of Sunburst Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst') underplanted with box. With one important addition ... spots of randomized perennial planting worked into the box matrix. The surface might be gravel, or gravel with stone.
|Not exactly copied "from nature" since this is a utilitarian planting in a nursery, but one example of the place of chance and contingency in garden making.|
The hosts of the discussion, Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, had brought up the idea of random planting, which is having a great surge of interest among gardeners in central Europe, and they asked the panel of Dan Pearson, Cleve West, and Andy Sturgeon what they thought about this concept, and were they using it in their work.
The following is my attempt to transcribe spoken dialogue and it tends to ramble a bit, but I think you get the point. Describing the making of a meadow of cultivated plants that took inspiration from regenerating woodland floor at the Millennium Forest, Dan said, "We made about 18 zones, which were large drifts ... that may have only had 5 or 6 plants ... and then I worked out what I thought [would work] ... a guess, because I didn't know what this climate was going to do with this plant combination I was putting together ... I'd choose maybe one emergent plant that would be very tall and fine ... and one plant that would be a groundcover, something for early in the season, something for late ... I came up with this system whereby the plants were put together in this very random arrangement that was an absolutely fascinating exercise ..."
The important point is the use of random planting combinations, and having the willingness and knowledge to follow the changes in the plantings as they thrive or not in their various microclimates. Here are some images of the Millennium Forest project on the Dan Pearson Studio web site.
So this concept I'm thinking about for my new city garden is very much not about the crude, ugly layout I will show below, but about a process whose outcome is uncertain, and demands continual engagement and willingness to commit to working with what comes. (Does this really differ from any other kind of gardening, I ask myself. Not really.) I realize the process Dan Pearson describes is taking place on an extremely large scale, not in a small garden, but I'd like to think about how random planting might work in the smaller context.
I suppose it's best to define what is meant by "random" in the context of a small garden. In this case, not a totally random distribution of plants, but a selection of plants "right" for the conditions and then a kind of ad-libbing, grouping and positioning plants without a preconceived planting plan in mind, working in the moment. This is more easily said than done, but an interesting way of engaging with the garden design process.
My intent would be to use a limited pallet of durable, long-season plants grouped with box balls to create a unified visual effect. For a start, the list might include tough plants I've had success with in the past--Bergenia, Helleborus foetidus, Epimedium, various Carex and ferns, even an occasional tall plant--Thalictrum, Angelica gigas, Inula sonnenspeer, Sanguisorba tenuifolia alba--if I could work them in.
Two or three small chairs, Bertoia chairs as one example, might be moved around the garden as wanted, so the gardener and visitors can sit in private, where neighbors can't see through the tree canopy. The chairs would need to function as sculpture.
Vines and groundcover plants, plants I probably haven't even yet imagined, might go into the narrow strips along the fence lines.
Though this is in no way a garden "design," I find it an interesting concept to contemplate during the coming cold months. I'm thinking this would involve continuous change to more or less degree, room for lots of trial and error, or simply change or not, as desired. Not so much a garden concept perhaps as a way of living.
And of course all this could be brought to a full stop and fixed to some degree, whenever necessary or desired.