British gardeners are often accused of being parochial, and we rarely make much attempt to defend ourselves against the charge. We think it is probably true but wonder what anyone expects, considering the advantages of climate, soil and geography we enjoy and how beautiful our gardens can be as a result. It is scarcely surprising if we rarely see much reason to raise our eyes above, and beyond, the horizon. We can rely on nearly 5,000 gardens opening their gates to us, for charity or profit, at least once a year, not to mention our own gardens to enjoy each day. Who can blame us, we say, if we lack a proper appreciation of what is going on elsewhere?
It is slightly shaming to say it, but only when I am abroad does this forcibly strike me. I have just come back from a short visit to California, which has an awesomely rich native flora as well as a substantial number of fascinating and beautiful gardens, the older ones influenced by European ideas and using European plants, while the modern ones are more likely to contain indigenous ones. There are 6,000 species of native Californian plants, many of them endemic, occurring in a great number of ecological niches, under the general headings of woodland, coastal, wetland, mountain and desert. (Of course, the vegetation types are far, far more complex and interesting than that short list implies.) The range of topography in the state is so great that it influences the flora more even than the latitude. Part of California, especially near the coast, has a ‘Mediterranean’ climate, with warm, relatively wet winters and long, dry, hot summers, while inland it is Continental, with a much greater difference between winter and summer temperatures.
California has fostered dozens of garden designers of real note, including the hugely admired Thomas Church, working after the second world war, while currently there are a number, in particular, Nancy Goslee Power, Ron Lutsko and Bernard Trainor. They are rather more interested in ecological planting than Church was. Their ideas, especially on how to use wildflowers, have had some influence on British garden designers but, until recently, rather less on the average British gardener. We seem to need to see foreign ideas filtered through the consciousness of prominent British gardeners before we get the hang of the plot.
However, that has been happening of late. A number of British contemporary designers, influenced by the New Naturalism movement, are using plants to create something resembling ‘natural’ plant communities. Moreover, influential garden owners are experimenting with the use of foreign vegetation types, particularly those of the Californian coastal strip and the Chaparral, as well as the Midwest American prairie, the Mediterranean maquis and garrigue, South African winter rainfall areas, even arid areas and desert. Parts of gardens, planted to resemble these habitats, can be seen in a number of gardens presently open to the public.
There is both a Cretan garden and an African one at the Garden House, Buckland Monachorum in Devon, developed by Keith Wiley before he left to run his ‘Wildside Plants ’ nursery in 2003. The late Christopher Lloyd, influenced by the experimental work on prairie plantings done by Dr James Hitchmough of Sheffield University, brought back seed from Minnesota for his last garden project, an American-style prairie at Great Dixter in West Sussex. At the Old Vicarage, East Ruston, quite close to the sea in Norfolk, Alan Gray and Graham Robeson have made not only a Mediterranean garden and a South African one but also, fascinatingly, a ‘desert wash’, designed to mimic the Arizonan desert after twice-yearly heavy rainfall, using some of the plants which can survive in that harsh environment. And at Elmstead Market, in Essex, Beth Chatto has made a highly successful Mediterranean gravel garden out of the erstwhile nursery car park.
Some may argue that these are classy pastiches, and that these gardeners might have been better employed perfecting ‘the English garden look’, since it is suited to our climate, and usually successful. To do so, however, is to ignore the fact that this climate is changing, and summer drought in the south and east of England is now the spectre at the feast. Much of this experimentation with foreign plant communities is simply a considered, informed response to that. If it is possible, as Beth Chatto has shown us that it is, to grow a mixture of southern European, Californian and South African plants, in a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating community, with no watering after the plants have become established, why, gardeners in the south-east would be bonkers not even to consider following suit.
What is more, these attempts at developing plant communities, as they might be seen in landscapes abroad, seem to me a homage paid by British gardeners to the variety and quality of other countries’ native flora. Indeed, you might say that British gardens have always paid that homage. Once it was the Middle East, the Himalayas and China, now it is California, the Midwest and Australia. Perhaps we are not so parochial after all?