Sunday, January 10, 2016

Not a Book Review

This is not a book review. A book review requires a careful and thorough reading, followed by an equally careful assessment of the book's goals, organization, the quality of the writing, the illustrations, and so on and so on. I'm going to talk about three books, two of which I acquired recently and one which I've had for a while. Not as book reviews, but as something of a comment on the state of today's garden thinking. There is something about all three books which really bothers me, and no, I'm not in a bad mood!

The books are Plant-Driven Design, by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden, published in 2008; Planting, A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury, published in 2013; and, Planting In A Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, published in 2015. All were published by Timber Press and the last two have recieved a lot of attention in the gardening press.

Before I say anything about the books, let me relate two small stories, both true. The first one involves a rather stout lady huffing her way up the stairs at the trailhead to Red Rock Falls in Waterton Provincial Park. I paused on one of the landings to let her go by and she stopped to tell me "It's a heck of a long way to those falls. You'd think if they were going to have waterfalls, they'd put them closer to the parking lot." The second story took place one chilly rainy day in Banff National Park. I'd hiked up to some ochre pools and was on my way back down when I met a group of several women and five or six children. When they saw me they asked me how far it was to the pools and I said about another hour's walk. They looked daunted and decided to turn back. One of the women said to me "I guess we aren't as good at nature as you are."

These incidents have stuck in my mind. What amazes me is the total disconnect between these people and reality. Waterfalls only exist as tourist attractions? 'Nature' is an activity?

All three books make me feel echoes of these incidents.

Take the first one, Plant-Driven Design. Is there another kind? Well, I suppose there is if you try to make a landscape entirely of cement, plastic, wood and so on. But that isn't a landscape, not to me. Of course, yes, you can plan a landscape (garden) with design elements other than plants as your main focus, but once you introduce any planting, you'll find that your design is plant-driven. If it isn't, your plants will die and you won't have a landscape, just a construction. Maybe you could call it a sculpture.

The second title, Planting, A New Perspective, makes me laugh a bit. Only to landscape designers is there anything new about this form of planting. Oudolf and Kingsbury are both champions of using plants to create attractive views and vistas. They use  a lot of grasses, but is that new? Perhaps it is. Landscape designers used to use trees, shrubs, lawns, walls and so on as their design elements. Perennials, which is what all three books mean when they say 'plants' weren't really considered, although beds were marked out for them.

Planting In A Post-Wild World is another dubious title. Who says the world is post-wild? What the heck does 'post-wild' mean? Do the authors really think the 'wild' world is a thing of the past? I wonder if they would put the waterfalls near the parking lot...

However, once you get past the sense of dislocation brought on by the titles, all three books have good points as well as some bad points. The first, Plant-Driven etc. has wonderful photographs of gardens and garden areas designed by the authors. If you study the images you will find many good planting ideas. The area of the United States they work in is very different from Eastern Ontario, but I still find many plant combinations that will work here. Some are quite original and charming, even exciting, and worth translating into our plant choices. Don't read the text, I think Lauren wrote most of it and was in a bad mood that year.

Planting, A New yadda yadda is much like their and Oudolf's other books. Use grasses. See plants as objects, with certain sizes and shapes. Plant zillions of them, all on flat surfaces, and let the groundskeepers do the maintenance. Their installations look wonderful in the pictures, I doubt that any of them will last long without the kind of upkeep the authors insist you don't have to do. Plant 100 tall grasses and don't weed? Might work in downtown Manhattan, sure won't in the Ottawa Valley. And don't keep telling me grasses are low-maintenance. Maybe they are if you have hired help with machinery (incidentally, help with machinery is the only kind that can be hired today, nobody is willing to do any of it by hand anymore), but not for a gardener. A lot of the projects admired in the books are urban parks. Some of their ideas can be translated to gardens, but choose carefully. One small annoyance: quite a few of the plants they recommend are simply not available on our side of the big puddle.

Planting In A Post-Wild and so on is the most confusing of the three books. Reviews I have read all seem to see it as a ground-breaking new approach to landscape design, an original new way of looking at living with plants. I say 'phooey'. And I thought Rainer was better at nature than that. But putting that aside, the book is a good introduction to garden design, and suggests many interesting combinations and juxtapositions. It reads like a textbook, so much so that I find it hard to read more than a few pages before my brain seizes up. The photos are excellent, the basic ideas are sound. I especially like the concept of seeing the ground cover level in a garden as the basic 'ground' with the taller plants as the 'design'. I'm used to forests, every inch of which have the ground covered, so to me this seems logical and sensible. It might not suit small gardens, but will suit larger ones.

I think only to 'landscape architects' is there anything 'new' or exciting in the ideas these books describe. For most gardeners they must be second nature. But then, art schools cannot teach 'art'. They can teach materials, techniques, history, concepts such as balance and composition, but they cannot teach 'art'. Books can teach about plants, about the history of their uses, about ideas such as combining a large number of low-growing plants with a smaller number of focal-point plants, but they can't teach garden design. They can teach the nuts and bolts of designing areas filled with plants suitable for installation around public buildings and such, but they can't teach the kind of detail that gardeners can achieve with their love for the plants they grow. They can't teach 'nature' any more than art schools can teach 'art'.

Buy Lauren Springer's book. Get the other two (and Oudolf and Kingsbury's other books) from the library.