I lived and worked in New England for nine years, from 1997 to 2006. In the gardening and landscaping business in the U.S.A one thing that always struck, and surprised, me was how conservative they are regarding what they are prepared to do, or even try, in the garden. My default preconception heading to America would have been that anything goes, and that that strong spirit of adventure would pervade the garden just like it did everything else. I could not have been more wrong. Perhaps it was something to do with the region of the country in which I was living but when it came to gardens, or design in general for that matter, formulaic and boring doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The planting palette is a case in point. In New England if it’s not an azalea, a rhododendron, a hydrangea, a holly or a juniper forget it. Don’t even entertain the notion of bringing it anywhere near the house. Ground cover was pachysandra or vinca, and nothing else. It made for a homogenous streetscape, a streetscape which, and I have made this point before, hasn’t changed one iota since Don Draper first walked through the front door of Sterling Cooper back in the early 1960s. They know what they like, and they stick with it.
I’m starting to see some of the same outlook here. People are generally guilty of incomprehensible conservatism when it comes to design choices in the garden. We lean immovably towards the formulaic, what has been done before. Unless, it seems, we can cite a reference point for a choice it just won’t happen.
A few years ago, I remember doing a back garden makeover for a customer in an adjacent province. The focal elements were a tall horizontally configured timber perimeter to screen a shabby block wall, an upper and lower deck with connecting boardwalk and a weathertight twelve square metre garden room. My colour scheme was slate grey for the perimeter, duck egg blue for the deck work and black for the garden room.
Black. We’ve all seen it before, we all know how effective it can be as a means of making a potentially domineering element disappear into the background. I knew it would work, but the homeowner was not having it. We ended up using a really deep, teal type blue which was nice but not what I wanted. So why did the homeowner reject the black in the first place? Well probably because they had never seen a shed/ pavilion/ garden room painted black before. They had no reference point and therefore jettisoned the idea on the simple basis of fear of the unknown.
You get the occasional exception, I can remember a customer from around the same time who quite happily embraced the idea of a jet-black perimeter, and loved the results. But generally, we’re not there yet.
There is also another major issue that practitioners in my game must contend with; the curse of the low maintenance imperative. If anything gives the slightest hint that it will provide any headaches in the upkeep department it is instantly dismissed. The low maintenance imperative, by definition, precludes any adventurousness.
So, when it comes to planting, essentially what we see is the same selection of species used in the same settings over and over again. Certain things work in certain contexts, and that’s fine but they’re not necessarily the only things that might work in that context. Hedging is a great case in point. Who decreed that beech, laurel, privet, griselinia and escallonia are the only species available for hedge planting? Nobody, but it seems to be a bye law at this stage. We daren’t dream step outside the confines of what we have seen work elsewhere.
I recently saw Hypericum used as a hedge around the grounds of a well- known hotel. It was a big moment for me. There is hope. Face the fear and plant it anyway.