This post is part of this month’s Garden Designers Round Table Blogfest on ‘Underused Plants’.

But any one expecting to read a list of plants which we think should be more widely grown will be sadly disappointed. Because we have repunctuated the title in order to explore the issue rather than the plants themselves!

Individual plant types can certainly be underused. No doubt the vagaries of fashion play a part in this, both as regards use and availability. The power of television to hype and conversely to depress the market for certain plants can also not be over estimated.  Robert vividly remembers as a nurseryman being unable to sell Eucomis. And then, at the word of Alan Titchmarsh on BBC ‘Gardener’s World’ one Friday night, being able to sell 150 the next morning! And what becomes the buzz then becomes the norm and all the time the buzz is hyped some other very worthy and no doubt more appropriate propagule gets ignored. It’s common denominator stuff.

There is also a layer of general ignorance which the TV companies have done little to change, presenting the world of gardens as a series of makeovers, blasts of decking punctuated by the odd palm, tree fern and water feature. So much so that Elizabeth Banks, President of the RHS recently castigated the BBC for dumbing down gardening programmes and urged them to concentrate on plantsmanship, including giving the latin names of plants! Cue prolonged applause from this particular design partnership. It is time the world woke up to the skills and knowledge involved in professional horticulture.

General public ignorance about plants and gardens is one thing but of more concern is ignorance within the design industry and a general laziness which results in formulaic use of plants such as  Trachelospermum, Astrantia and the odd umbellifer as though mixing the ingredients for concrete or ‘bulky organic matter.’ One of our fellow students when training had a target for his entire plant knowledge of 100 species! In our book this is not poor plantsmanship, but no plantsmanship!

Some in the garden world go further and adopt a rather studied pose as to the supposed unimportance of plants altogether. ‘You can have a garden without any plants.’ It is said with a smug, ‘There, cap that’ expression, such as might be worn by a boasting little child in the playground! This stance reaches its apogee in ‘Conceptual Gardens’, where the plants are unimportant or absent altogether. Call it a concept if it deserves that title. But garden it ain’t if there are no plants. Gardens  do contain plants per se. If you want it to contain no plants, it is a yard in the English sense or a sculpture gallery.  

‘Lipstick Forest’, an inside garden(?) in Montreal

In an article in The English Garden garden designer Cleve West confessed to ‘an on-off relationship with plants.’ The off- bit being a kind of studenty bravado which ‘did a good job of covering up my shortcomings’. And that for us says it all. The no – plants stance was partly, he admits, ‘to wind up horticulturalists.’ Interesting tactic. They might just be the guys maintaining your designs!

If you told your prospective clients that they could have a garden without plants 99.9% recurring would think you were barking and rightly so! For most people gardens are about R and R and context. They are unlikely to think your concept of a desert of hard surfaces suitable and you are unlikely to get the job.

Of course plants are not the first priority for the designer unless, as a concept for the client, they are critical to the Brief, the Big Idea and the Genius Loci. All of these come first. But plants are a tool, an ingredient about which we should have as much knowledge as any other. You would not as a designer have an on–off relationship with ‘South Cerney’ gravel. It is or is not appropriate to that particular job. Why should you about plants?

Once you admit to plants being an ingredient, on which it behoves you to deliver just as on any other, then knowledge of plants of course frees you to make choices. Your choices can be site specific, fit for purpose and with a bit of effort they can also be just that little bit more creative – a facet which appeals to many clients. You can use the real repertoire as opposed to the narrow one which your ignorance has tied you to.

This is of course a cumulative endeavour because then demands on the nursery trade lead them to upgrade their services. They grow what they are asked for, and respond well to a change of diet.

And then we have no underused plants at all!

Robert and Lesley

Want to read more about underused plants?

Please check out all the fab posts  below from our esteemed GDRT colleagues:

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA »
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN »
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA »
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO »
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK »
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT »
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ »
Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden Life Home : Atlanta, GA »