Rob Leopold Memorial
marijke heuff
michael king
noel kingsbury
julia voskuil
piet oudolf


‘Visual Ecology’ and Rob Leopold’s concept of the gradient

As the whole of western Europe becomes one enormous park at the end of a metro line, the issue of what we do with rural landscapes becomes one which concerns increasing numbers of people. The numbers of stakeholders in the countryside gets larger and larger, as more urban dwellers buy land – so often fulfilling an atavistic dream or living out a romantic fantasy – rather than making a living from it. In what these people do with their land lies a large part of the future of our cultural landscapes.

In writing about this issue for ‘The Garden’, the journal of Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society, I drew heavily on Rob’s idea of ‘gradients’. The Gradient was the most immediately accessible of his many ideas; it reflected his refreshing lack of dogmatism, openness to others, and his lack of moralistic condemnation. The idea of the gradient is that there is always a spectrum, always shades of grey between black and white. Gradients between wet and dry, high and low, high nutrient and low nutrient are all too familiar to the gardener and ecologist. Gradients allow for zones of transition of seemingly infinite possibilities and as such create space for the incredible intricate interwoven complexity of natural plant and animal populations. By taking the concept to the world of human culture we have a tool with which to appreciate and explore the subtleties of moral positions.

Personally, I think I am one of many who tire of the simplistic reduction of so many issues concerning our world to simple black and white, either/or positions; “if you are not with us you are against us” thunders the first hereditary president of the United States – such cramming of moral and political positions into opposing boxes is the first step on the road to totalitarianism. Black and white thinking is a trap into which many in the ecology movement have fallen as well – and it is against the possibility of yet another front being opened up in the simplistic and self-righteous thinking of much of the ecology movement that I wrote the following piece.

Many involved with gardening care deeply about landscapes, especially about rural landscapes. We want to protect these landscapes and yet make our own, essentially selfish and anthropocentric interventions in these landscapes – yet these interventions are at the core of the creativity which makes gardening an art form. At the same time we need to recognise that nearly all of the landscapes of our European homeland are the result of human intervention – hence the term ‘cultural landscape’. There is a clearly a big contradiction here: between artistic creativity, which is a big part of what makes us human and our desire to preserve and conserve. This contradiction mirrors the private world of the garden and public world of the landscape. Since the ‘garden in the landscape’ so often combines both private and public views, I felt that the concept of the gradient was the best way of trying to reconcile, and be fair to the competing demands of private creativity and public responsibility.

Anyone who has ever worked in a garden centre knows when a particular plant has been featured on Friday night garden television from the refrain of enquiries on a Saturday morning. The fact that everyone from Land’s End to John O’Groats is after the same plants illustrates how gardening is a hobby which operates on a country-wide basis, and how gardeners are increasingly planting the same things in their gardens. With the recent run of mild winters, improved propagation techniques, and the increasing amount of importation of nursery stock from abroad, the range of dramatic-looking plants from warmer climes has been particularly noticeable.

There is potentially a problem here. Do we want the gardens of the whole country to look the same, with no sense of regional diversity, or any sense that planting needs to relate to its surroundings? If everyone grows phormiums and yuccas in their front garden, aren’t we in danger of suburbanising the whole country? The characteristics of many plants which make them so popular in the garden can also make them stand out in more traditional surroundings, drawing attention not only to themselves but also to the fact that here, yet again, is the hand of twenty-first century humanity. I must confess that I have played a part here, having been one of those, who over the last fifteen or so years, have promoted exotic looking plants and extolled the virtues of dramatic foliage. Now I am beginning to feel as if the march of the spiky rosette and the broad glossy leaf have gone quite far enough. The problem is perhaps at its worst when highly distinctive trees which bear no relation to native species are grown in areas of traditional rural landscape; those with yellow foliage such as many cypresses and Robinia pseudacacia ‘Frisia’ in particular can be seen from considerable distances.

Issues such as these have been raised before occasionally; a good term to cover them, occasionally heard in California, is ‘visual ecology’. Writer and designer John Brookes has been one of the few who have so far really tackled the problem head on, and promoted the need for gardens to develop a sense of belonging to the land around them. 'Visual ecology’ is about the balance between elements in the landscape, in particular how well new interventions fit in with existing natural or cultural features.
I would like to take the discussion a stage further, looking at the issue in the context of the passionate plantsmanship which is such a characteristic of British gardening.
Don’t gardeners have a right to grow what they like? Don’t we all have freedom of expression? In an era when this freedom in the cultural world is increasingly being threatened by vociferous groups (mostly religious) who want to restrict our right to read certain books, see certain plays or operas on stage, or indeed to criticise their beliefs at all, surely we don’t want our gardens to the list of what can be censored? There are already voices amongst the ecology lobby who take an attitude towards non-native flora, which is after all the mainstay of our gardens, which could well be described as intolerant and condemnatory.

Personally, I do not want to restrict freedom of horticultural expression, but at the same time I think heritage landscapes need protecting from a tide of phormium-stamped sameness. Where do we draw the boundaries? This is essentially a similar philosophical question to the ongoing questions society faces about pornography, blasphemy and other issues of expression in the cultural sphere; with workable solutions revolving around the appreciation of the distinction between the private and the public.

First we need to note that the British countryside is not natural, but cultural, the result of thousands of years of human management, secondly that our native flora is notably poor, and thirdly that for the last few centuries we have been busily importing and planting a vast range of new plant material. On the latter point, I think most of us would accept that the wellingtonias of the Victorian rectory garden, the cedars of the country house lawn, and the Monterey pines of the seaside resort are a valid, indeed important, part of our cultural heritage. But I suspect like many others, I do wish the Victorians had not been so free with their laurels, or had understood just how large Prunus laurocerasus can get, or the extent to which they shade out everything beneath them.

Perhaps the best way of striking a balance is to think in terms of gradients. I shall suggest two, as a way of thinking about how to draw a balance between competing claims – a procedure which has a long history in liberal and tolerant societies. Firstly, I think we need to look at the greater or lesser extent to which plants fit into rural, semi-natural landscapes, and secondly, how gardens may impact on their surroundings.
Native plants clearly belong anywhere the habitat suits them. The vast majority of hardy non-native garden plants have a similar habit and colouring – to the extent that virtually everyone simply will not recognise deciduous trees of American or Chinese origin as being significently different in landscape terms to native species. Most wildlife does not appreciate the difference either, and given how species-poor our native flora is, it might well be argued that many non-native species actually contribute to bio-diversity. Conifers and evergreens however certainly stand out more as ‘alien’, and I would argue need more careful placing; in all urban and the majority of rural areas, they will fit into the landscape, but where deciduous trees dominate, or where trees and shrubs are only very scattered, they could be seen as inappropriate.
Trees with prominent yellow or variegated foliage however have a strong tendency to stand out, and indeed may be visible several miles away; there is a good case for saying that they should not be grown in areas of traditional or ‘unspoilt’ rural beauty. Finally, those species which look very dramatically different to native plants, such as palms and yuccas, which tend to immediately seize the attention, need perhaps to be restricted to where they do not impinge onto rural landscapes.

Gardens can be hidden from their surroundings or can be visible from far away. The extent of this visibility would be a good guide to how we choose what we grow. Perennials and most shrubs soon disappear into the background, and are so not a problem. Gardens in urban areas or which are screened from their surroundings are clearly the concern of the owner and no-one else, but with the greater visibility of the garden the greater needs to be the care with which those who plant trees or ‘attention-seeking’ plants need to think about how they will be seen. At the far end of the gradient is the garden in a prominent position in an area of great natural beauty. The Countryside Agency is beginning to recognise certain planting styles as being typical of certain parts of the country – which could be a useful start to regional guidelines. The vast majority of us would not want any ‘policing’ of our gardening activities, or any extension of the power of the planners, but most would probably be open to intelligently argued ‘guidance’, which takes into account our tradition of adventurous gardening. At the end of the day, perhaps the key issue is ‘sensitivity’. Gardeners and designers need to develop an awareness of their surroundings, a sensitivity to what is appropriate, and to remember that in rural or in built environments with a traditional character, the key word is perhaps not ‘contrast’ but ‘complement’.

 Noel Kingsbury

Originally published in The Garden, March 2006