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European garden masters of the New Perennial Movement follow a more naturalistic approach to gardening

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“Around 20 years ago, I fell in love with gardens all over again — through the visionary work of Dutch planting designer, Piet Oudolf,” says award-winning garden designer Tony Spencer.

As a gardener, I am an unashamed nativist. I most admire gardens that celebrate the natural landscape in which they find themselves. I love the way that gardening has become much more regional in the course of my career, drawing on the unique beauties of the local landscape and, especially, the native flora. As Tony Spencer made me aware in a recent conversation, however, there is a danger in becoming too introverted horticulturally.

Spencer is a writer and photographer based in Ontario, Canada. He’s also an award-winning garden designer who has won a world-wide following with his online chronicles of the “New Perennial Movement.” That was how I first encountered Spencer, as the author of a wide-ranging blog, “The New Perennialist” (thenewperennialist.com). He’s also the founder of a very popular Facebook group, “Dutch Dreams,” which originated from a group tour of cutting-edge gardens in the Netherlands, and has, as of this writing, more than 25,000 followers as @the_new_perennialist on Instagram.

Spencer discovered this European-based movement when he assumed the management of his English-born mother’s cottage garden outside Toronto. Undertaken as a way to assist his aging parent, this soon became a passion. He was fertile soil, then, when someone directed him to "Designing With Plants," a book co-written by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury, an English designer and garden writer.

It was appropriate that this should have been Spencer’s introduction to the New Perennial Movement, as it was the work of Oudolf and his Dutch colleagues that brought international attention to this more naturalistic approach to gardening. Americans may recognize Oudolf as the creator of the High Line in New York City and the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park. These landmark gardens typify the Dutch designers’ innovative work, which has focused on mixing perennial flowers and grasses in a wilder aesthetic more closely attuned to nature. This, according to Spencer, coincided with related movements in other European countries, notably Germany and England. In Germany, in particular, this new school of gardening picked up a more scientific bent with an emphasis on “biotopes,” habitat-based gardens planted with communities of ecologically compatible plants.

This is similar in some respects to the current ecological landscaping movement in the United States, but according to Spencer, there are key differences. For example, practitioners of the New Perennial Movement do not, typically, insist on the use of locally native plants in their landscapes. Indeed, especially in Great Britain, this school has popularized the concept of “novel ecosystems.” These are artificial plant communities assembled from species native to similar habitats all over the world, in which the selection process is as much aesthetic as well as ecological. As Spencer pointed out to me, this more cosmopolitan outlook is partly due to the fact that Britain was scrubbed clean repeatedly by waves of glaciers during the last ice age and as a result has a relatively limited native flora. If the gardeners on that island want a rich display throughout the growing season, they have to include exotic species. Perhaps in testimony to the contrasting richness of our flora, German garden designers have had a long love affair with North American plants, and these play a prominent role in their biotopes.

One outcome of this more cosmopolitan plantsmanship is that the New Perennial designers, although they have promoted biodiversity in their landscapes and plants that benefit pollinators, have not for the most part encouraged the use of seed-grown, wild type plants like their American counterparts. This, I think, reflects the reality that the western European landscape is far more distant from its wild roots than that of North America. Even its “natural” areas have typically been shaped by human interactions. In this respect, the New Perennial Movement may arguably have a greater relevance for gardeners in thoroughly domesticated suburban and urban areas even here in the United States than the effort to restore a wild ecosystem which has become so popular on this side of the Atlantic.

For a more in-depth explanation of this intriguing school of gardening, I recommend The New Perennialist blog, which documents Spencer’s work in his own award-winning garden as well as his visits to notable gardens and encounters with the leaders of the New Perennialist Movement. I find particularly interesting its video archive of talks with garden designers. For a visual introduction, Spencer’s Instagram feed, @the_new_perennialist, is essential. To listen to my conversation with Spencer, "Looking to the European Garden Masters," log onto the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Growing Greener” podcast at berkshirebotanical.org.

Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books. His companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.

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