I’m taking sides with Andre le Notre. Four hundred years ago he was practicing a type of landscape design that is still valid and revered today. It’s handmade, skillfully practiced, and incredibly beautiful. It is the antithesis of today’s trend towards natural gardens. Many consider this type of garden to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and old-fashioned. I disagree.
I’m tired of the so called ‘new’ perennial gardens with all of their blowsy grasses and prairie leanings. I’m all for pollinators and habitat, but understand that there is more than one way to achieve healthy garden environments for all inhabitants. I wonder why it took the Dutch, visiting our vast waving plains, to show the world that a miniaturized, hyped up version of the same could be had at home.
I have a profound reverence for the work of designers like Piet Ouldof and Gilles Clement, but as a designer, their naturalistic ‘new’ style old doesn’t make my heart sing. I find that when I visit these gardens I love to look at them, but don’t really want to be ‘in’ them beyond a good ‘look’. The style isn’t really all that new at all. Ellen Biddle Shipman and Beatrice Farrand, as well as many others, were making intensive American perennial plantings throughout the last century–what’s different now is the mix of plants, the size and shape of the beds, and the tendency to want and believe it to be ‘maintenance’ free. Is that because most of today’s gardeners don’t have the skill or time it takes for something else? What will these gardens look like in 400 years? Will they hold up like Le Notre’s?
Michael King argues in his recent post Never New Gardening that the so called ‘new’ has become not much more than a ‘look’. To my eye, the ‘look’ of the turf parterres and the whimsical topiaries in the Orangerie at Versailles are contemporary…they’re just not wild.
Gardens are made things. It’s not outdated to include planted elements that require a gardener’s hand beyond cutting them down once a year, dividing drifts of plants and pulling some weeds to maintain a design. I don’t support the use of small backpack, gasoline powered trimmers of any variety, but wonder why with the current movement for all things handmade and artisinal that gardeners haven’t taken up the cause with more hand driven pruning? Is it lack of skill or interest?
Did lopers and hedge pruners and rakes get forgotten? Is it because it takes time to learn the methods and when to put those into practice? Or is it because any intervention is seen as an affront to the sustainability of a garden? Andre le Notre’s gardens are 400 years old this year, what’s more sustainable than that?
There will be those who read this post who think that it takes an army of gardeners to maintain immense gardens like le Notre designed. Gardens with structure take skill and time to maintain–just like any other. In fact, they are simpler and less labor intensive to maintain than some of the new perennial gardens. Do the math. Versailles has approximately 2100 acres and 80 gardeners. That’s roughly 26 acres of care per gardener. The 6.73 acre High Line in New York has 9 gardeners and hundreds of seasonal volunteers to help with cutting back and cleaning up each year. Just counting those on the staff roster that’s approximately 3/4 acre per gardener. So which is actually more labor intensive? The numbers speak for themselves. Both can be organic.
Then there is the argument of scale and cost. Dial back Versailles to the average suburban lot and these gardens become do-able with less. The new perennial gardens really need space to work well. Not every town will allow an entire front yard to be taken over by a meadow, and in the eastern hardwood forest where I live and work, that meadow would soon become a forest without constant vigilance to eradicate self seeded volunteer trees. I’m not saying that the selection of plants is what’s at issue here, it’s a design and maintenance issue. I like the evergreen bones of structure in gardens like Le Notre’s- especially in the winter. In truth, in high summer I love a meadow, newly mowed and or fields of wheat or wildflowers and many of the new perennial gardens have elements of evergreen structure. In my own work I blend the two. Create structure as a sculptural and architectural elements and and plant lushly.
Le Notre was born in the Tuileries where his father was a gardener. He was surrounded by generations of skilled practitioners and learned by doing. Imagine the gardens we could have if we get up from our screens, get outside and really learn our craft. Imagine the gardens we could have if we really trained those who we hire to maintain them instead of just giving them a backpack blower and some power trimmers? An apprenticeship program is not a bad idea. Work and get paid to learn from a master and then work to become the master. Le Notre, born to a gardener, learned his craft and became someone who worked for kings and whose work has survived for 400 years. Who of us can say the same?