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The Interface of Nature and Culture with Garden Futurist Noel Kingsbury

Articles: The Interface of Nature and Culture with Garden Futurist Noel Kingsbury

Spring 2024 

Listen to the podcast here.

“On all scales, at a time when nature biodiversity is facing enormous challenges because of urbanization and climate change, the garden in the broadest sense should be a place where we can celebrate the beauty of plants and the functionality of that space—it should also serve nature.”

Internationally acclaimed horticulture writer, garden, and planting designer Noel Kingsbury breaks down ecological and naturalistic planting design practices for a new era.

Noel Kingsbury and Haven Kiers challenge regional garden designers to submit to Design Futurist Award 2024.

Pacific Horticulture’s Design Futurist Award elevates the power of garden design to achieve climate resilience, steward biodiversity, and connect people with nature. Find your theme: Growing for Biodiversity, Drought and Fire Resilience, Nature is Good for You, Garden Futurist, Sustainable Gardening 

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Sarah Beck: You’re listening to Garden Futurist. I’m Sarah Beck, and here to help me introduce today’s episode is Haven Kiers, associate professor of landscape architecture at University of California, Davis. Hi, Haven.

Haven Kiers: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Beck: I have to say, Noel Kingsbury is really in such an interesting, evolved place in a lot of conversations that I think we have all the time, and it’s fun to let him take us there.

This goes so much further than, “I don’t want some messy habitat garden.” We’ve all seen a messy habitat garden. It’s hard to almost convey without having a knowledge of how these design movements have occurred over time in different places. It feels like he’s giving us a window into something that’s further along than I think a lot of the rest of the conversations are.

Haven Kiers: He speaks with confidence, which makes it feel we can get there.

When he was talking about gardens as that interface of nature and culture—just the acceptance of that and the statement, that is what it’s all about—then makes everything else work, all of the craziness of messiness, and how does that work with ecology?

It’s just like, okay, this is the interface. If you want to get fancy, reconciliation ecology approach or novel ecosystem, whatever term, but he’s putting it in this nature and culture. So it’s about people. It’s about people understanding gardens and seeing them, but doing so in an ecological way, and he just made it sound so attainable, right? Then giving these ways of how can you do that?

Sarah Beck: Let’s listen to my conversation with internationally acclaimed horticulture writer, garden and planting designer Noel Kingsbury.

Sarah Beck: The level of analytics that you have been bringing to just the design process components, it’s really interesting to me. We’re in an interesting 2.0 era, or maybe it’s even more than 2.0. I don’t know. If coffee can be third wave, fourth wave…

I just think it’s really interesting how far you’ve gone with the analysis of the components. I want you to feel free to really elaborate on that.

You’re talking about very naturalistic or ecological processes and yet you’re really using this really almost scientific human framework. I don’t know if that resonates with you.

Noel Kingsbury: It speaks of confidence, which is really nice, yes. Yeah, your kind of “which one” about these things. It’s nice to hear every now and again, people think you’re saying the right thing. Not just talking to the void, yes.

Sarah Beck: We are obviously facing some serious climate challenges, especially here on the West Coast and many, many parts of the world. Urbanization is big. We’re all going to be living in cities in future years. I’m just curious if you can talk a little bit about the future and just our opportunities to think about garden design as part of this integration of humans and habitat?

Noel Kingsbury: One of the key things about the garden is that it is the interface of nature and culture. For a great many people, this is their predominant engagement with something that could conceivably be called nature. On all scales, at a time when nature biodiversity is facing enormous challenges because of urbanization and climate change, the garden in the broadest sense should be a place where we can—as well as celebrate the beauty of plants and the functionality of that space—it should also serve nature.

So my point really was that we should be planning garden spaces as also conservation spaces, that obviously we have to please people and that is what a garden, public or private, is about. But at the same time, it should support biodiversity, but perhaps that should be targeted. Perhaps we should be thinking very much about particular threatened species, flora or fauna, that could be served by the habitat that we create and we label as gardens.

Noel Kingsbury's home garden in Portugal. Photo: Noel Kingsbury

Sarah Beck: We’ll get into that a little deeper, I think, regarding the specific habitat plants. I’d like to do a little bit of defining of terms here.

I know you mentioned naturalistic planting as a term as opposed to ecological planting. Can you just share the difference, if there is a really clear difference between those two terms?

Noel Kingsbury: So many terms we use around describing planting are very, very relative, and they’re very relative to the culture in question at the time in question.

I should never forget the late Jim van Sweden, showing him around a planting I was doing in probably 1996, and he said, “Oh, the American public, we’re nowhere near ready for this.” X number of years later, this is what Phyto Studio, Claudia West, and Thomas Rainer, this is what they’re doing. So I think that acceptance can change quite quickly.

The more formal and the more constrained a garden culture is in its use of plants; the more people use words like informal or naturalistic to describe something that’s not in a straight line or isn’t clipped within an inch of its life.

In terms of these two particular terms, naturalistic and ecological, I use them both. A lot of us use them both. I’m really very keen that we do try to keep these quite clearly defined because they operate as two ends of a spectrum.

I love this thing of the gradient. You have black and white and infinite shades of gray in between, and it’s a very, very good way of understanding a lot in nature, but also a lot in culture as well, because in culture, again, it’s like nature, there’s this whole series of gradations.

By naturalistic, it’d be useful if we think about this as plantings that, for most people, look pretty natural, but in fact have a very strong human priority aesthetic. Piet Oudolf planting, I think, would be a very good case in point. In fact, anyone who really had any appreciation of wild vegetation could look at a Piet Oudolf garden and say, this does not look the wild.

In actual fact, as far as the majority of certain Western urban viewers, it is pretty wild. The key thing is it’s wilder than perhaps what went on before, but it is absolutely not ecological.

By ecological, I mean a planting that I think crucially has something like the density of biomass of natural vegetation. So much planting, including quite a lot of naturalistic planting, when you consider the number of plants per square meter, the biomass per square meter, it is still pretty low compared to what you find in a natural environment.

I get paroxysms of delight when I come across a clearly designed planting, but which has been allowed to develop to the point where there is no bare soil and where you’ve got this really dense, multilayered occupation of volume by as many different plant species as possible. I have seen examples in the temperate zone, I’ve seen it in mediterranean gardens, and I’ve seen it in tropical gardens. It is possible, but it requires a particular confidence in using plants, but also an understanding of how plants fit together in space.

In terms of really helping biodiversity, we’ve got to have that vegetation biomass there for it to have any real ecological function.

Sarah Beck: This is a really interesting element of this conversation, this idea of density. I want to just expand on this question around looking at wild landscapes.

It’s very natural for those of us who are in the world of horticulture to also love delving into wild places. We have to temper this. Maybe definitions are important here, too, because there really are very few truly wild landscapes in the world left, unfortunately.

When we go into naturally managed landscapes, like national parks and spaces that are preserved that are not truly gardened, when we go into those spaces, I think, as horticulture people, we get so inspired, especially at this time of year. We think how, as a gardener, how would that translate back to an actual garden setting?

Do you feel like the core of that is really this planting density, or there are other things that are tangible ideas that might translate from our inspiration of a wild landscape into a garden setting?

Noel Kingsbury: The wild or supposedly wild landscapes that people get inspired by are often relatively short lived. They’re often early succession landscapes or they are created by a very specific set of conditions.

The European meadows, for example, they don’t last very long and are in fact anthropogenic in the first place. So I think that we really should be inspired by things at a deeper level.

One key element is often repetition. The repetition of particular forms or colors in space is what you typically find in many natural environments. I think that the intensity of repetition, which is something we appreciate, I think very, very intuitively, is something that’s very important.

It’s very personal. A lot of people appreciate landscapes that are often in some way tidy or inevitably fit to a human aesthetic.

I remember going to New Zealand, the wet, wild west coast, and everywhere just look a really well-designed office car park. It was just such a graphic vegetation.

We need stuff that we can read. People vary enormously in their levels of vegetation literacy, and that’s often very much related to one’s culture. That’s part of the balancing act between satisfying the human aesthetic, but also satisfying that biodiversity demand.

Diversity and complexity in themselves can be very attractive. If the diversity and complexity is readable, then the more depth there is to appreciate something, the more pleasure it should give.

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Sarah Beck: There’s this moment in time, as you were just saying, and then you go back to your garden and it’s like you want to maintain some kind of freakishly long period of something that really in nature only exists for a moment.

You’ve talked a lot about the management of the ecological garden and how this is a little bit more of a journey, not a destination, in a very real sense. You’ve talked about the design process of editing.

Can you just talk a little bit about how you can maintain something that is densely planted, and what is the perspective shift that needs to occur there in order to really keep it thriving?

Noel Kingsbury: Well, when a planting matures to a certain level of density. to some extent, it does look after itself. When you’ve got every ecological niche filled, there’s often less work to do, less work fighting off undesirable weeds or invasives or whatever. You’re then editing, managing, snipping away, occasionally doing something more drastic to restart a process.

It’s intervening in a natural process, doing it in ways that are often very intuitive, often very, very site and environment, habitat specific.

Any garden is a garden in transition. It’s just that in the conventional garden, it’s very much about bringing it always back to the same point, whereas in an ecological garden, we are accepting that there will be changes that will perhaps be inevitable. We can’t always have the same effect every year, and it would be unrealistic to do so. And we’re working, really, with change, continually moving forward.

Sarah Beck: This really makes me think of my way back ecology learning that natural progression between, say, a meadow moving to, say, a forest in a home garden, maybe you stop it before it actually becomes a forest.

Noel Kingsbury: This whole way of working with succession, it has been formalized, in a way.

The Dutch heem parks, which, from the 1930s onwards, there’s a cycle. I don’t know quite how long it is. It’s probably something like about 20 years or so. They will take everything back to the bare peat, so the ruderal species of a peat bog flora, that’s quite pretty for a few years. Then the heathers and the Vaccinium, blueberry relatives and things, move in, and it gradually changes and you end up back with a forest and scrub again in 20 years or whatever. They very, very consciously use that succession cycle.

I think an awful lot does come back to succession. I always start my workshops with succession. Getting people to think through how succession works in their particular locality.

Sarah Beck: So what are some of the factors to consider in terms of how we can manage landscapes this way? Can we imagine the horticulture industry evolving in a way that our greater knowledge and our landscape skills can evolve to manage these types of landscapes? Is this even possible? How would we go about that?

Noel Kingsbury: There needs to be a lot of rethinking about careers and training. The fact is that if you have people who are doing the really tedious mowing and cutting to keep it all the same, that is more labor, whereas an ecological landscape can be maintained with less labor, but it needs a higher standard of supervision. You’re basically paying for skill rather than grunt effort.

I just think it would be wonderful if we could develop a way of bringing together those skills of horticulture and ecology. So we’re training people who can manage landscapes or supervise the management of landscapes in a way that’s really very subtle and very responsive to what they are reading going on in that situation at the time. So the job would be infinitely more satisfying.

I’m not the only person who’s making noises about this. I think we inevitably will move toward a new training. The new Royal Horticultural Society Level 2 Certificate is kind of a step in that direction. I’m glad to say I teach on that. That is very nice to see the institutional change beginning to move in that direction.

Sarah Beck: If you’re accustomed to seeing someone show up and run a bunch of equipment and blow things and cut things, as you were saying, I almost feel there’s this mental shift that needs to happen.

I think we have to translate something. So it’s not like, “Oh, you need something to do for X number of hours, because you were blowing or mowing something for five hours. We need to make five-hours-worth of money out of this.”

I mean, in a way that’s sort of the bigger leap, right?

Noel Kingsbury: Yes. Yes.

Noel Kingsbury's home garden in Portugal. Photo: Noel Kingsbury

Sarah Beck: Do you have advice for designers who want to move into this? Obviously, designers are interlinked with this maintenance story, but I think there’s also a part that backs even further up.

If you’re designing for someone else, how do you bring them into this conversation? This comes back also to our Design Futurist Award and really the motivation behind it, which is, “Let’s encourage those designers who want to work with the ecology.”

Noel Kingsbury: One answer is, head out into the hills and look at natural vegetation and really, really, look at it and try to read it. Try to analyze it.

Also, I think crucially, garden at home. I think there’s a real difference between designers who know their plants only as secondhand through to those who actively garden. I think that some of the best people in planting design are certainly those who have really very actively gardened, and even perhaps involved in the nursery trade and in plant production, where you really do get to understand about how plants grow over time.

It’s like a chef in a Michelin restaurant who only eats burgers. Unless you’re actually engaging with what you are producing, yeah, I just don’t see how you can really appreciate how those ingredients are going to work out.

I just realized it’s one of those things you do just need to build up a massive amount of experience over time, which is very much about getting out and seeing designed landscapes, planting designs, successful, unsuccessful. That’s really being observant, photographing, making notes, whatever means people have that works for them in terms of recording and analyzing.

Sarah Beck: Getting out and looking and just really learning observation. That’s a really powerful piece of this, I think.

Noel Kingsbury: Yeah, it is. Yes.

Sarah Beck: And it’s sciencey, too, which is fun.

Noel Kingsbury: In the West, where you are on the West Coast of the United States, you do have the most incredible range of very different habitats within a very short space. You are really blessed that in a way that most of us simply are not.

Sarah Beck: That is very true. The range of plant communities that we can just pop into and experience, because there’s so many microclimates. It is very, very cool.

I want to get into a nice controversial topic. Because on the Pacific coast, when you get really nerdy on this, there is some disagreement about whether to favor only native species in biodiverse garden plantings, or whether to embrace this idea of the novel ecosystem.

At Pacific Horticulture, we’ve covered a lot of these conversations and recently even delved into what are we even talking about when we’re talking about a native plant? Because there’s not an agreed-upon definition when we’re talking about origins and floristic province and all of that.

Can you just talk about the argument for that, this new nature idea? We’re not dealing with a wild space.

Noel Kingsbury: Yeah, yeah. I think increasingly now people do accept that the “natural vegetation” of an area is the outcome of a set of stochastic events, that if you were to rewind the tape of history—and how many ice ages we had over the last 2 million years, I think six—you would end up with a somewhat different flora.

There’s nothing holistic about natural flora. It’s just what’s ended up there in that space after X amount of geological time.

Novel ecosystems, sometimes we are presented with them by not necessarily even invasive species, but non-native species that we simply can’t get rid of, we have to work with. That’s the sort of bottom line.

Obviously, with climate change, then ecosystems are going to change anyway, and therefore we cannot afford to cling to too restrictive an idea of native plant.

A more useful concept, I think, is probably one that relates to taking native in a very broad sense, because there is increasing evidence that, if you think about some of the worst invasives are very often not from the North American continent. They’re from Australia or South Africa or Eurasia.

Over the last few millions of years, there’s been so much toing and froing of vegetation within each continental block that there are certain adaptations that mean that you would be very unlikely to have any real surprises. It’s often very subtle biochemical markers, for instance, that make particular plants from another continent very, very problematic. Just flagging up the hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolate) inhibiting oak seedling growth through the suppression of symbiotic fungi. That’s the level of which now invasive theory is moving toward.

Sarah Beck: I’m going to bring up another classic argument, and I think this is a classic bias that’s really common, which is the, oh, the habitat plantings, the ecological gardens are described as messy. I think this is where I find it really interesting that you go so deep on your analysis of design principles and some of these underlying structures and when you about the form of plants.

I’m just curious to hear you talk a little bit about how that structure gets imposed, or even how the aesthetic changes so that we can see structure within and actually see design in those settings that are ecological and biodiverse.

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Noel Kingsbury: I think having signature species for each season is always helpful. Something that you’re growing that definitely does look good for every season, that always just helps attract attention away from what others might perceive as mess.

I do think the whole history of clipping stuff in the United States has so much bad energy about it. Just going back, again, to Jim van Sweden, you could not have a sensible conversation with that man about clipping because every example he knew was just so goddamn awful.

Where I think one of the really nice things that comes through from twentieth-century Dutch design is this rethinking of the clipped shape. If you’ve got stuff that is geometrically clipped that so obviously reads intention, and if the stuff in between looks a bit of a mess, well, it’s fairly obvious that is allowed for that particular season.

I think very simple contemporary clipping can achieve wonders. For a lot of people, clipping reads art and other stuff.

I should never forget a Kurdish friend of mine who has absolutely zero interest in plants or vegetation. Brought him to where I was living at the time, for, say, the weekend. It was a wild garden, and he didn’t show any interest in it. But I had this magazine lying around from the Boxwood and Topiary Society, ooh, he loved that! I felt duly put in my place.

Their ability to use just occasional really skillfully clipped elements can do so much. In Britain, now we have unfortunately fall into the same trap of an awful lot of low-quality, shrub-based environments, which were never intended to be clipped are now being clipped and almost 99 percent without any artistry whatsoever. Whereas, in fact, with a little bit more training, you could be training those personnel to do stuff that looks more intentional, but also has the ability to carry off wilder surroundings.

I think that’s rather nice because clipping and training was always a part of traditional horticulture, giving that a new life and a definitely contemporary aesthetic working alongside ecological planting. It’s just a wonderful way to combine culture and nature.

Sarah Beck: I also remember from your book on the Dutch gardens that there was some subtle hardscape elements that did a little bit of that framing as well. Do you feel like the hardscape is an important component?

Noel Kingsbury: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Yes. Yeah. Particularly for ordering framework in the winter. Yeah.

Sarah Beck: You mentioned this concept of boundaries between wild species and planted ones. I think that it was your own garden that you were talking about doing some experiments with. I’m curious if you could talk about this idea of allowing some wild species that are maybe on the periphery of your garden space and letting those be part of the landscape?

Noel Kingsbury: My last garden, which was on the England–Wales borders, high rainfall, fertile soils. My weed problem was huge, but it was overwhelmingly perennials, but there were certain elements, particularly early spring things, cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), that invite themselves in, but post-June, tend to be either become dormant or be overshadowed by taller perennial stuff.

So it was an introduction to being quite pragmatic. The Ranunculus repens is a particular pet hate of anyone who gardens in the western half of the British Isles, but in fact, it can’t grow that tall, and if you grow any perennial that’s growing bigger than it by May is going to be suppressing it anyway.

Now here in Portugal, my weed flora is huge and overwhelmingly annual. And I’ve got this really sandy, gritty soil. So weeding here is so easy. We have so many wonderful Asteraceae, so many yellow daisies of various different kinds and various other things.

I’m now getting to know this spontaneous flora, and a lot of it, you can just let it flower, and it’s wonderful having this mist of yellow daisies amongst all your stuff. Then just before they start to seed, start pulling them all out, obviously targeting certain things first.

It does mean that that element that can be part of the garden, but I now know how to manage it. On a heavier soil, it would be less easy to manage, and I would need to be stricter about it. But even so, you could develop other techniques, such as hoeing off or deadheading just before the dry period when it wouldn’t be enough moisture after that to make the stuff seed anyway.

Takes a bit of a time to learn what your local weed flora is, how difficult it is, how aggressive or pernicious, but also potentially what it can offer. If something is easily controllable, then we need this new category, almost, of a spontaneous plant that needs managing rather than something that is inherently problematic.

Sarah Beck: I love that. You have also said that designers need to be more analytical about the plant forms and in thinking about the seasonal change in structures of the plants and how they can be intermingled or maybe even act as scaffolding for each other at different moments.

I’m seeing that as being connected to your whole idea about where you’re creating that feeling of the hand of the gardener, as opposed to just reading it as a more chaotic space.

I think it’s similar to what you were just talking about. Can you talk a little bit about this observation for structure?

Noel Kingsbury: That was something I think I was vaguely aware of, I think it was one of the very early books I wrote was called Architectural Plants, but that was more about dramatic spiky stuff.

It was Piet Oudolf who very much introduced me to this idea of categorizing plants by structure. That’s been a very key part of why he has been so successful as a designer, but his way of using plants is actually, at the end of the day, really very formulaic.

But it really introduced me to this idea with perennials, herbaceous perennials, they go through a number of phases through the year that. They are genetically determined to develop a particular shape. Unless Tracy DiSabato-Aust comes along and does a mid-season prune, in which case, again, what they do is different. But again, it’s kind of predictable. It’s all about where the plant is actually putting energy into flower spikes or branching or whatever.

With woody plants, of course, they’re much more plastic, much more flexible. But again, they all have a tendency to develop particular architectures.

Of course, in ecological plantings, we are growing stuff together so much more tightly, we have to think about how things, in spatial terms, actually mesh together.

I thought this through in terms of herbaceous plants, but I’m going for this walk in a particularly rich, what we would call a maquis-type habitat. I suppose the equivalent for you would be chaparral—mediterranean climate, dominated by subshrubs.

Suddenly, light bulb moment, that we think of subshrubs as being going towards a hemisphere. In fact, realizing there’s a whole typology that some of them do form, given the chance, nice round form. A lot of other ones, grow them in a conventional term, they’re so messy, but in fact, what they’re doing, they’re penetrating the others. They’re sending branches up through other plants and others are coming under, others are going over. In fact, the space is being occupied by a number of different architectures.

What we needed is a typology of, of these plants to help designers mesh things together, make the most effective use of space. Pack in as much biodiversity as possible, but also create a planting that is complex. but at the same time, it would reduce maintenance, and also enables you to use more plants.

You’re not rejecting things like Cistus albicans or Salvia candelabrum because they are messy, but, if they’re meshed in with nice hummock form, it’s certain other Cistus or Lavandula, then it all works. and I think the same really applies with herbaceous perennials, where there’s a real difference between North American and European.

And in Europe, we have a lot of climbing herbaceous plants, which we hardly use in horticulture at all. Vetches (Vicia), mostly pea family stuff that can be incorporated.

We certainly have a lot of floppers, things that are grown in a conventional garden border don’t just collapse. In fact, in nature, their long flowering stems are supported by surrounding plants. They never grow in isolation. They grow in with others, and it’s those spatial relations of genetic traits towards shape that we need to do more characterization of, but I think anyone who works with plants develops a lot of this stuff intuitively anyway.

Noel Kingsbury's home garden in Portugal. Photo: Noel Kingsbury

Sarah Beck: There’s not necessarily a conscious formula of, “Yes, I’ve classified each of these as having this different structure and the flopper goes with the spike,” or however that gets assembled.

You have talked a little bit also about the underground structures having a support of what you’re talking about, right? There’s an element there of what are the root systems and the rhizomes doing to help you with how that all performs. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Noel Kingsbury: Years ago I ran a small nursery, grew a lot of herbaceous plants. And I think the people who understand often the best about what goes on underground are people in the nursery business if they’re digging plants up and dividing them.

We are so inevitably and obviously divorced from what goes on underground, made worse by container growing, you buy plants from the garden center in a container, knock it out of the pot. You don’t really see what’s going on underground, whereas if you were bare root, you do.

About seven or eight years ago, I started digging up a lot of stuff, power washing soil off the roots—which in the winter with heavy soil is a pretty cold, horrible, messy exercise—then photographing them. which is actually very difficult because you’ve got to have a studio set up and you’ve got to get the depth of field right. Looking through all my pictures, I realized that so often I’ve left roots that are obscuring. You actually need to prepare specimens really well, but it contributed enormously to my understanding of how plants, how perennials operate over time, particularly with different. rates and types of rhizomatous spread. It’s that ability I think to try to look at a relatively unfamiliar plant and say, “Well, I think in five years’ time or 10 years’ time, it might be like that.”

Four or four or five years ago, I discovered a 1962 doctoral thesis from a Polish university which just had this incredibly elegant theory, that has been enormously useful in helping me understand many different aspects of perennials.

I recently met a brilliant young self-trained botanical artist who will do those amazing drawings from photographs or from live.

This is definitely a zeitgeist thing. I spotted the other day, an academic colleague in the Czech Republic, who’s just started off quite a cartoony blog called “What Goes On Underground.” What hoes on underground is increasingly going to be a bit of a zeitgeist because it is, in a way, certainly with herbaceous plants, this is actually the most important part of the plant because the top stuff just dies back every winter. And it’s this stuff underground that really tells you what that plant is going to do over time.

Sarah Beck: Even just the project you were just talking about, with the trying to spray the soil off the roots totally reminds me of the project that Jerry Glover did at The Land Institute years ago. And it ended up being a really fascinating show at the US Botanic Garden. Dr. Glover did something really similar with prairie plants. There is a mind-blowing moment for people to recognize the entire portion of a plant that’s existing underground.

You just mentioned perennials, too, this idea of the herbaceous perennials being a really long-term garden design trend for people. I think you were wanting to make a little bit of a case for some woody plants.

Obviously, a lot of conversation has happened, at least in the US recently, in terms of ecology and the importance of these keystone species. I know for where we are on the West Coast, the oak tree is now considered just an absolute keystone piece of this.

What’s your thought on integrating trees, woody plants?

Noel Kingsbury: Yeah, I mean I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that the revival of interest in herbaceous perennials in the 1990s coincided with this development of interest in ecological planting and biodiversity in gardens. And I think if, again tape record of history, that might have played out differently at another time.

And unfortunately also, because herbaceous plants deliver pretty quickly, within three years, after having spent out in your whole new border, it can be looking pretty established.

The fact that a lot of the best private gardens have been funded by the financial kleptocracy, who are impatient people anyway, whose short-term investment decisions are screwing all of us. They want something that’s almost like an instant garden. Another Dutch colleague described a lot of new perennial planting as being like Victorian bedding, instant. Trees and shrubs you have to wait for, if you can afford to buy a load of semimature stuff.

All the evidence is that a woody plant layer is hugely important for biodiversity. I’ve been in correspondence with Doug Tallamy a bit lately, and he sent me paper on keystone species, but it was all woody plants. Now there’s absolutely a very small number of species, all of them woody, support a huge amount of biodiversity.

So actually integrating the woody and the perennial. And of course for winter, once your perennials have been cut down, and wait for your bulbs to come up. It looks pretty bleak. And we do need that woody plant structure.

So I’m very much keen that we start to think about using woody plants and not just sticking a few around the edge, but actually really integrating them into designs, thinking about understory species, about how we treat the shrubs in terms of creating more space for the herbaceous underneath. And I was delighted to see that really totally far out, and could only be produced on the American West Coast, book on shrubs.

Sarah Beck: Oh, I know the book you’re talking about. I think we have somebody reviewing that.

Noel Kingsbury: Amazing book drawing our attention to the amazing complexity of scrub-, chaparral-, maquis-type habitats. It is getting that integration between the two that is I think vitally important.

Sarah Beck: Is there anything you would to share just in terms of your hopes for the future? Since we’re futurists here. For anyone who’s going into these fields and, or is in a design field or an ally of horticulture, can you give us some encouragement that this is going to work and we’re going to get somewhere?

Noel Kingsbury: Our knowledge of vegetation as a system increases all the time. When you look back 100 years to William Robinson and just how completely they knew nothing about ecology then, we have learned a lot. We’re learning a lot more all the time.

I think anything that gets that across to young people, anything that gets kids growing or people in communities growing is really, really important. I think those of us who understand about vegetation, we need to get out there and explain it.

Sarah Beck: Haven, as one of our founding committee members from just the inception of the Design Futurist Award, I’m really interested in your insight around what this tells designers, especially in the Pacific region, who are pursuing this type of work. They’re really evolving their own practices and developing designs that can seek to achieve this idea of this balance.

These are living plants. They’re in their ecosystem.

Can we take some of this advice from Noel Kingsbury and can that help to guide some of the design movement that we are trying to encourage through Design Futurist, which is really making these design ideas accessible to more people, whether you’re a designer, a plants person, or whether you are a gardener and you’re wanting to engage in these same practices, right?

Haven Kiers: Yeah, and I think what was really great about what he was saying is so, yes, it is a process and it’s about a long-term collaboration with the designer and the person who’s maintaining it, which with a home garden usually is the same person.

So there’s that understanding that it’s long term and it takes time.

Even the small thing, talking about signature species for each season, I thought was brilliant. Especially in California, where our spring garden is the most spectacular and I’m like, “Okay, when’s it going to be April? When’s it going to be April? So that then my garden bursts in,” and it’s like, okay. That’s great. But you really have to start thinking about what are those other seasons and how to have something spectacular at each of those?

Just because something is messy in nature doesn’t mean it has to be messy in your garden. And so going to the cues to care. So really taking some of these and using those to display to bring in the ecological principles, but do it in a way that people can understand.

Sarah Beck: This is a really exciting moment to share the 2024 Design Futurist Award. The call for submissions is out. We want to see great ideas. We want to see accessible, intimate-scale projects.

We want to see things that are urban. We want to see things that are community. I think there’s a really wide range of what can solve the question that we’re asking for designers to solve, and I think there are just so many innovative wonderful designers out there who are doing this work.

I also feel like a lot of folks that work at a smaller scale don’t get recognized.

Haven Kiers: Oh, there’s no question about that. That’s my favorite part of this award is that it is the super cool, innovative, small designers that are doing these things, that are making changes.

It’s a lot harder to make a spectacle on a small scale and to be able to do that and to get that wow factor in a yard or a smaller project. If you’re just working in the scale of a small front yard, you really have to be good at it.

I think this is super exciting. I can’t wait to see the new submissions.

I would just add a challenge of is there a way to make your submission more dynamic in terms of seasonality? Because we are obviously asking for photos and drawings and all of that, but can you show your garden at different seasons? Even how it’s changed over time, right? Because that is what we’re talking about, is that it’s not just the moment in time.

Sarah Beck: Haven, thank you so much for issuing the call.


Noel Kingsbury  is the author of several books, including Dramatic Effects with Architectural Plants (1997), Wild: The Naturalistic Garden (2022), and The Story of Flowers and How They Changed the Way We Live (2023).

Kingsbury teaches coursework for the recently reorganized Royal Horticultural Society Level 2 Certificate in the Principles and Practices of Horticulture.

He mentions work by James van Sweden, Piet Oudolf, and Phyto Studio. He also discusses Dutch heem parks, which he explored with Nigel Dunnet in the 2004 article for The Garden, “The Heem Parks of Amstelveen.

The Design Futurist Award is accepting submissions until July 26, 2024.  

Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots | United States Botanic Garden (usbg.gov)




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