Excerpted from The Authentic Garden by Richard Hartlage (The Monacelli Press, 2015).
Ecological Planting Approaches
Planting styles based on the idea that plants should be arranged by their native ecologies were first proposed by German and Dutch landscape designers, and arrived in America only after works by their early proponents were published in English. Karl Foerster (1874–1970) was one of the earliest to initiate and promote these concepts, which have had immeasurable influence on garden design ever since. His core goals were to reduce maintenance and management in finished gardens, to limit the need for applications of fertilizer, and to reduce excessive water usage. Ecological plantings are not always based on an exclusive use of native plants; more often, interest is added by grouping plants from the same ecologies but different countries or continents. An example of this would be combining moor grass from Eurasia, coneflowers from North America, and knotweed from Asia—all are meadow plants. The same approach can be applied to perennials, trees, shrubs, or bulbs. Plants from similar habitats simply require fewer resources to manage if placed in a garden setting that replicates their native environment. This all sounds logical in hindsight with our now-ingrained ecological sensitivites, but it was a revolutionary theory for its time.
Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl wrote a very comprehensive book, Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, originally published in German in 1981, that includes dozens of site assessments and formulas for specific planting applications. It is a compendium of keen observation, clear illustrations, tables and lists of plants to be used together, and information on soil conditions, light, water regimens, and maintenance protocols. It is essentially a textbook filled with formulas for a modern planting style.
Piet Oudolf has also published many books in English now, with Henk Gerritsen and Noel Kingsbury. Piet’s own garden—and former nursery—Hummelo, which he runs with his wife, Anja, were the proving grounds for the development of his own interpretation of this style. His work has now become familiar to U.S. audiences due to his participation in Millennium Park, in Chicago, and on the High Line, in New York City. His books often include extensive plant lists, and their evocative images make them enticing and accessible. Roy Diblik expands on these ideas in The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, a title that is intended to be friendly for the North American home gardener. Cassian Schmidt, who is virtually unknown in the United States, teaches planting design and manages the Schau- und Sichtungsgarten Hermannshof in Weinheim, Germany, and is driving the style further.
He publishes prolifically, gives away tested plant combinations to the trade, and defines maintenance regimes for his planting associations, but all in German so few are aware of his work in the English-speaking world—except in association with the popular fountain grass Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassian’s Choice,’ named by plantsman Kurt Bluemel to honor his friend.
What Karl Foerster pioneered in Germany in the mid-twentieth century is here to stay. As garden design moves toward celebrating plants first and built forms second, and as awareness of the necessity of environmental stewardship continues to seat itself deep in the collective cultural psyche, the ecological planting style begins to look increasingly compelling. This style of planting allows designers to explore the diverse plant offerings today’s global connectivity provides while helping to conserve resources for tomorrow.
Environmental considerations are the single biggest driver causing professional landscape architects and designers to learn more about new plants again and to develop new and inspiring ways of using them, and the gardens are benefiting. As an appreciation for design in general has spread to the masses, the demand for well-crafted and intriguingly detailed gardens—public and private—has increased. Plants used in an attractive way can make people celebrate local ecology, leading to increased curiosity about the environment as a whole and perpetuating the cycle of good environmental governance.