Gardening, Nature and the High Line…

“Traditionally, the way plants were organized in parks and gardens reflected a culture that liked to order and discipline nature. Contemporary planting design is not only freer, but also seeks to reflect nature. It also addresses our concerns about how we garden sustainably and in partnership with nature.” – Noel Kingsbury (Planting : A new Perspective 2013)

As we plant and design our gardens in the 21st century , we cannot ignore what is happening around the world in private and public gardens, put to words so eloquently by Noel Kingsbury in the quote above. Sustainability, biodiversity and working with nature are the main guiding lights when we approach gardening today. How can we reduce harmful practices in gardening and also create gardens that become wildlife friendly habitats?

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Our goals are now focused on reducing the amounts of chemical fertilizers used; reducing the amounts of chemical weed control; minimizing the amount of water used; reducing the amount of regularly mown lawns and over trimming of woody plants. The use of long lived perennials and ornamental grasses is a strong step in the right direction for achieving these goals. The convention most used in 20th century garden design is the monocultural block planting. The use of a single shrub, set out and repeated in blocks throughout a garden was mainly to simplify the maintenance costs – especially in public parks. The unfortunate side effect of this kind of planting, is the opposite of biodiversity. These monocultures become more susceptible to frequent outbreaks of pests or diseases. In most cases, this was and is sometimes still dealt with by chemical or pesticide applications. In some cases, annual hard pruning  is done to keep the plants under control. From the 1970’s onward, many ecologically focused garden designers began to promote the use of native species and creating the garden with the idea of biodiversity in mind.

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This gardener (from Australia), looks like he is into natural gardens!

In Germany, many public spaces were designed and developed with a naturalistic, wildlife friendly style. The interest and movement of designing and maintaining gardens this way has grown and evolved through the years. And still continues to evolve.  Some argue that you can’t plant in straight lines if you are favouring a natural style of gardening. But, others will point out that a bird does not mind if a tree is planted in a row or in a group – it will still make its nest in it! The naturalistic planting style continues to grow and evolve as designers and gardeners keep exploring and trying new combinations of plants and finding new ways of working with nature in creating gardens.

Plantings still have to excite people – planting which serves a purpose has to look good too. The new plantings are the opposite of the old tradition of order and tidiness. By designing gardens that are inspired by nature, with wild flowers, ornamental grasses and such, the aesthetic can become quite wild. This is where the fine balance of biodiversity and wild life gardening must also work in conjunction with the gardeners eye for creating something beautiful to look at. This kind of garden is maybe just a little wilder then our grandparents gardens! Homeowners and garden designers alike need to educate themselves and their garden visitors of this. We are creating and planting an ecosystem, a microcosm of nature in our back yard or inside a city park. Finding the balance of this naturalistic planting and a garden pleasing to our eyes  is an exciting challenge.

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Throughout Europe many old industrial sites have been turned into new city parks with this new, bio diverse, naturalistic approach to garden design. This often takes its inspiration from the actual plants that have started to grow wild in these abandoned factories over the years.

This is starting to become a trend in north America too. In 2009 In New York, the designer Piet Oudolf working with an American Landscape architect redeveloped the abandoned High Line Subway. It was an elevated subway line last used in the 1980’s. The planting design took its inspiration from the grasses and wild flowers that had grown spontaneously over the old rail lines. Ornamental grasses are a crucial mix of the naturalistic planting that was designed and installed there. The High Line has been a huge success in bringing nature into the city and has become one of the most visited tourist destinations in New York.

HighLine5_IwanBaan                          “Take a walk on the High Line”, click here to view video

Take a look at this time lapse video,(link above), of a walk on the High Line , it looks like late fall/early winter. But just notice the amount of people there – walking, sitting, taking pictures etc. This garden really proves that people need, love and will use gardens that are inspired by nature. This is a fantastic garden that really creates a distinct natural, atmosphere in a big city. Hopefully the definite success of this project inspires others across North America.

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