The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Clement Lecture informs New York Visit

In late October last year, I attended a NYBG lecture by French gardener, ecologist and philosopher Gilles Clement. I traveled from New Hampshire and also visited the new Native Plant Garden at NYBG, The High Line, the Hudson River Park and The Brine Garden, a private garden in Pawling, NY. The gardens complimented the lecture perfectly.

Clement described a garden as a dream of what people want to obtain in the best conditions. The first gardens were a space surrounded by a fence to keep nature out. He talks about the Garden in Movement where plants physically move and the gardener chooses whether to remove a plant that grows in a path, for instance. He also talked about the Third Landscape or the abandoned spaces which are a refuge for biodiversity.

This is the Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden at The NYBG. It was designed by Lynden B. Miller and is a rich tapestry of texture and color. It is what gardeners would call a mixed border consisting of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, biennials and bulbs.

This is another garden designed by Lynden B. Miller. It is a public garden called the Chelsea Cove Entry Garden and it is located in Hudson River Park (Pier 62) in Manhattan. 

This is another view at the Chelsea Cove Entry Garden. This is clearly a designed garden. Clement would call this kind of public space a more traditional garden where living species of animal and plants that defy the gardener's control are excluded. 

The High Line is a designed space that emulates or mimics Clement's Third Landscape. The High Line is a public garden on the sight of an abandoned elevated rail line in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. The last train ran on the High Line in 1980 and for three decades self-seeded grasses, wildflowers and shrubs began growing. It created a beautiful leftover place where "indecision and living things that occupy it act freely".

The plantings at The High Line were designed by Piet Oudolf. Many plants that landed on the abandoned rail line, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), for instance, were used by Oudolf in his design. 

But this public space, like the work of Lynden B. Miller, is very much a designed landscape. This creeping raspberry (Rubus calycinoides) is an Asian native that would never have found its way to the High Line without Oudolf's invitation.

Oudolf uses many American native grasses and prairie plants for a very natural effect.

His plantings are a fantasy of what naturalized on the High Line but requires a cadre of highly skilled gardeners to keep the natural plantings looking natural. It will be interesting to see how much control Oudolf and his team will exert over the garden as it matures. What I have observed so far, makes me believe nature will not be allowed to take its own course.

The new Native Plant Garden at the NYBG reminds one of Oudolf's more recent work but is even more natural looking. The plant palate is limited to plants native to northeastern North America. It looks pretty spectacular in its first season.

The arrangement of plants in the woodland garden reminds me of hikes that I have taken in the Appalachian Mountains. It is a fantasy of what might have been there before Europeans came to the Americas.

This combination of plants looks similar to Oudolf's mature style of intermingling rather than planting in blocks or drifts. You can see that both Oudolf and the designer at NYBG are imitating nature. In this case the palate of plants is strictly limited to natives and all exotics will be eliminated. Again, it will be interesting to see how much resources will be required to maintain this effect.

This large open planting at the Native Plant Garden at the NYBG looked very natural. In northeastern North America, a meadow like this would be in constant jeopardy of quickly becoming a forest. 

The Brine Garden in Pawling, NY was particularly interesting to visit after hearing Clement speak. This private garden was designed by Duncan and Julia Brine and uses a naturalistic and very untraditional approach. This Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’, is planted on the edge of the pathway partially obscuring the front door to the house.

Plants were left in the pathways for the visitor to walk around.  The planting style reminded me of Clement's Garden in Movement aesthetic where plants are permitted to grow wherever they want to grow. This six acre garden used many Asian plants close to the house and gradually switched to more native plants as one traveled away from the house.

This shrub was knocked over during a storm and had new vertical shoots emerging from the roots. Most gardeners would remove the windblown stems and allow the shrub to tidily regenerate.

Even trees blown over in a storm where left in place. It required climbing over some the trunks. This is a very untraditional approach indeed. Again I am reminded of Clement's Garden in Movement where "the gardener aids nature rather than enacting rigid plans". Clement has a theory of the Planetary Garden where the gardener is nature's advocate welcoming vagabond species from around the world. Of all the gardens I visited, the Brine Garden seemed to achieve what Clement espouses.

You can see Gilles Clement doing a very similar lecture in English here.


  1. To me a garden is a place that is created. We have our idea of the ideal and work to create it. And we decide how much we want to work with nature and how much to dominate it.
    There are of course wonderful areas and landscapes that are not designed. But they are not a garden

    1. Clement says 'the correlation between landscape and garden happens when man becomes aware of his environment and finds words to define it." I am still trying to better understand all of this. I linked to his website if you want to read more from the source.

  2. I enjoyed the way you woveClement's lecture around these garden visits. Very interesting.

    1. Thanks, Thomas. I have been thinking a lot about how much control I want to exert over what happens in my public and private gardens. Clement talked about making public spaces more reassuring when the Garden in Motion develops in unconventional ways. For me, as I work in public spaces, it is creating well-defined boundaries showing that the more wild garden is intentional that will make this wilder type of garden more palatable to the public.

  3. Hi Michael
    This is what gardenpeople in Europe needs of a good gardenblogpost. ("something to think about") Here on my continent more and more sites are growing farmland and the wildernes does rarely exist anymore. I´d like the idea that the rennaicance-man; Leonardo used to order his plants in the garden i rows and dotted his flowers precisely in a geometric pattern, mainly because the outside world (outside the garden) was an unknown and unexplored wildernes and unkind to human race. Today still more gardeners seek for the natural habitats and look for inspiration and planttypes in wild areas as meadows, praries and rainforrests.
    Thanks for the lovely post


  4. Thanks, Kjeld. I remain challenged by Clement's idea of the Garden in Motion and not having a heavy hand in the garden. I want more order in my gardens. Perhaps that is because I have so much wilderness around me. Nearly all the woods in New England was forested by Europeans when they settled here so there is very little climax forest left. However, the forest has returned in the last century with new populations of native plants and animals.
    I was going to refer you to Thomas Rainer's blog. I'm glad to see you found it. He is very thoughtful and an excellent writer. I liked your T. S. Eliot quote very much on Grounded Design, his blog.

  5. I think I would have enjoyed the Clement lecture, I know I would have enjoyed the gardens. Your post brings things to mind I have been struggling with in my own garden and with my work. Until recently I let a plant's aesthetics and adaptability to a southeastern climate guide my decisions. If they happened to be native so be it, but where it came from was not my first consideration. Lately though, I feel compelled to add more natives to my gardens, and am thinking twice about exotics, I just hate limiting the palette that way.

    1. Les, I want both natives and exotics in my garden. I have been trying to be sure I include good plants for biodiversity ie naive oaks, asters, and goldenrods for instance and limit my exotics to ones that aren't invasive. That is the compromise I decided on. Looking forward to seeing how you handle it.



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