Darling buds of rot: gardeners kissing dead and dying plants

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I recently remembered the folk song “The Parting Glass”, thanks to an accidental passage on the radio. It is a song full of joy and sadness; it makes you want to cry and rejoice at the same time, walking the line between happiness and sadness – and life and death.

The lyrics are said to date from the early 1600s in Scotland. Centuries later, the art that tries to capture the beauty of the ephemeral remains as captivating as ever. Yet, it’s only recently that we’ve started to see this kind of aesthetic in our gardens. A new wave of designers are using decaying and aging plants as a feature in their own right.

In the relatively short history of gardens as we know them, nature was subject to us. We wanted to rationalize and bring order, in the form of straight hedges, topiaries, evergreen shrubs and bedding plants. The herbaceous perennials have been put to bed for the winter, so that no unsightly brown lumps are left behind after the summer show is over.

Now plants are chosen for their faded form: flowers not only for their color in midsummer but also for their fall seed heads, grasses for their texture in winter and shrubs for their color. bare branches. As landscapers, we encourage people to enjoy the full life cycle of their garden.

Part of the M&G Garden designed by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg at the Chelsea Flower Show © Rebekah Kennington

Even at this year’s late Chelsea Flower Show, designers Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg embraced the show’s change of seasons and included plants traditionally considered to have surpassed their best – such as when they went from vibrant blooms to heads of seed – in their gold – pocket park M&G medalist. It was almost certainly a first for a show garden in RHS Chelsea’s 108-year history.

“Time passing and rotting are a crucial part of any garden,” says Angel Collins, a garden designer who has become known for her large-scale, perennial, and textured planting plans that delight all year round. “We are so lucky to have our seasons [in the UK] and I like to think that fall has dragged on with the beauty of decaying naturalistic plantings leading to winter. Harris and Bugg captured this change beautifully in their show garden.

It’s hard to pinpoint where the trend – if we can call it that – started, but from Piet Oudolf’s new perennial landscapes to London’s private gardens, ornamental grasses are still standing in December with frozen peaks swaying at next to the faded glory of their herbaceous plants. perennial companions.

Much has been written about the ecological benefits of leaving “outdated” plants in borders over the winter. But there are other ways to encourage this shift towards gardens that are richer in biodiversity and more climate-positive, and that is by changing our perceptions of what we expect a garden to look like. Dead things can be beautiful. Even florists look to dried stems for longevity, durability and contrasting visual effects.

Reighton Wood by Marian Boswall in Kent, where winter and summer are equally important

Reighton Wood by Marian Boswall in Kent, where winter and summer are equally important © Jason Ingram

This embrace of maturity is not limited to gardens; we are also beginning to appreciate the beauty of aging in other areas of our lives.

Award-winning landscaper Marian Boswall has joined the ranks in letting her hair return to its natural color during the lockdown.

“It’s easy to rejoice in that powerful energy you get from being a teenager, or seeing a rose in full bloom or a tree in full leaf,” she says. “But there is just as much beauty in a tree that has no leaves, or a rose with hips when caught in the frost in the morning light.”

One of Boswall’s most acclaimed gardens can be found at Reighton Wood in Kent, where winter and summer are of equal importance. Planting there also blurs the distinction between wild and manicured, another growing gardening theme that incorporates the entire natural cycle into one design. It is about working with nature and co-creating in harmony with the earth throughout the year.

Cubic charms along the main avenue in Reighton Wood

Cubic charms along the main avenue of Reighton Wood and edging filled with dwarf white cedar Thuja danica, Jerusalem sage Phlomis russeliana and Mediterranean spurge Euphorbia Wulfenii © Jason Ingram

As anyone who has tried to create a successful wildflower meadow knows, “wild” doesn’t mean “easy”. All the spaces we interfere with require intervention at some point. We cannot simply go back to a pre-industrial pastoral idyll. But by understanding how plant communities work in nature, we can restore our landscapes to something that feels more natural and better for the environment. And in their natural habitats, plants don’t disappear during the winter just because they don’t bloom.

In their 2015 book Plant in a post-wild world, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West write about the different approaches that environmentalists and horticulturalists take to gardening. Having an understanding of both these days is nothing short of a superpower. It’s the one owned by North London-based gardener Benny Hawksbee.

“We have to fight against the principles of ‘tidying up’ we almost all grew up with,” says Hawksbee, who runs a number of private and community gardens in the capital.

“I am passionate about death and decay because I am drawn to and directed by nature,” he says. “I’ve heard, and I can easily imagine it’s true, that dead wood can give life to more species than living wood.”

Nature fruit cage: parched Physalis fruit husk with fruit still inside, Eden Nature Garden

Dried Physalis fruit casing with fruit still inside © Benny Hawskbee

Spider web encrusted with heads 'Spear Thistle', with autumn dew, Eden Nature Garden

A spider web encrusted with ‘Spear Thistle’ heads with autumn dew at Eden Nature Garden © Benny Hawskbee

Hawksbee runs the Eden Nature Garden in Clapham, where a few years ago he persuaded city council to leave a fallen black poplar in situ. It is now a piece of natural architecture, a seat and a home for insects.

“As nature intended,” he says, “the mature bark is now gnarled and laden with moss, which glows an almost iridescent green when conditions are sufficiently humid.” Can you imagine trying to create a design feature like this, without working with nature?

Garden design is fun work because you are only a small part of a big cycle. You make things easy and organized, but at the end of the day you know that nature is the most powerful influence on a garden. Channeling that power and working with it is how we end up with some truly beautiful spaces.

“The role of time is very important: it’s another dimension of garden and nature design and it’s one of the things you need to consider at the start,” says Boswall. “You can’t control when you’re not around, and that’s something we have to live with as humans, we’re here for a very short time. But we have to do what we can while we are here.

Beyond hard landscaped plants, there is room for this approach throughout the design process. Boswall’s studio tries to use as many natural materials as possible that are from the local vernacular in each of its gardens.

The benefits we can derive from a lifecycle approach can extend beyond the gardens we design.

“I think that death is still a fairly taboo subject in Western society but
by examining closely the cyclical habit of the natural world, we can learn to accept that every living thing has a time to flourish and a time to die, ”says
botanical stylist and garden writer Carolyn Dunster.

“Working with plants in this way has helped me deal with my own mortality and accept that the aging process is nothing to worry about. “

Cut & Dry Dried Flowers and Branches

The beauty of the dried flowers and branches can be appreciated inside © Ida Riveros

Dunster wrote a book on the art of working with dried flowers, and as part of it learned the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi.

“The main principles of impermanence, simplicity, imperfection, melancholy and asymmetry are all elements that come into play strongly in the process of drying and styling the preserved plant material. Doing this encourages us to look at nature with new eyes and celebrate the decaying beauty. “

For many, this is where we find solace in gardens. They remind us of what is fleeting, fleeting and fleeting. As Boswall eloquently puts it, “By honoring things throughout their lives, you understand that they won’t be here forever, and neither will we. ”

Eight tips for a beautiful winter garden

Winter borders with alliums and grasses

Winter borders with alliums and grasses © GAP Photos / Lynn Keddie

  1. First of all, take a look at your own plants now that they are starting to grow: what interest and what shape do they bring to the garden? For example, the spiky heads of alliums can appear majestic in the colder months.

  2. “Try to keep wilted or dead plants upright,” says Benny Hawsbee.
    “It will also provide height in a grassy border in winter if you can keep some of the [the taller specimens] upright, although they may need a subtle and unobtrusive staking to do so.

  3. Do it en masse. Groups of Eryngiums intertwined with Stipa tenuissima create a beautiful patchwork effect from summer to late winter.

  4. It is important to keep the soil covered in the winter, whether with mulch or evergreen ground cover plants.

  5. Explore the world of Veronicastrums. “They’re all amazing, I think. They are beautiful, bees love them and they love to mix, ”says Angel Collins. “And they’re even gorgeous after they’ve been through most of the winter.”

  6. “We would tend to leave things like Melianthus, which is pleasant to the structure,” says Marian Boswall, “as well as Sedums, Miscanthus, Cephalaria and Cortoderia selloana.”

  7. If the plants are likely to tip over, plant them in quantity with support species on either side.

  8. Finally, “roses are a big no-no [for a winter garden], says Collins. “They need dead heads to encourage more flowers. Just like geraniums, nepeta and salvias. But although salvias don’t come back as strongly as they first bloomed, their spikes contrast well with the paler winter grasses.

Tabi Jackson Gee is a writer and garden designer

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