‘The Toffs and the Commoners’ – A Garden Designers Round Table Post on designing with native plants.

| August 27, 2012 | 21 Comments


As you fly up out of Bristol

through the hills of Leigh Woods

towards the motor way and the west

the spire of St Mary Redcliffe,

set amidst the hubbub of the city,

lies way back below you.

You are suddenly in the beginnings of semi rural North Somerset, yet you are also really just the length of Brunel’s amazing suspension bridge away from up-town, prestigious, regency Clifton.


This leafy south facing slope is studded with Victorian villas

and turreted splendour. With old money and new money.

So given its proximity to the city it is very much one of Bristol’s premier locations. Second only to Clifton in its salubrious and select allure.

It is a neighbourhood of electric gates, clipped laurel hedges. Impeccably managed lawns.

But, what can they be thinking of?

Scuzzy weeds on the public verge?
As a newbie here your neighbours will point out to you that ‘your gardener should mow the verge’. And any public untidiness represents ‘a decline in standards’ akin to ‘a descent into the moral abyss’!

In the past there would have been sufficient power here for a swift call to the requisite authorities which would result in a public verge ‘crew cut’ pronto.

But of course with the passage of time in cash-strapped Britain we have now all become recessionistas, finding new ways of things costing less.

And ‘ecological’ has achieved street cred!

So here on this verge, this year, we have so far had wondrous flushes of golden taraxacum, clouds of creamy cow parsley, tawny hazes of grasses. For a few weeks the traffic junction at the top was jamming with the acid yellow daisies of ragwort and the rose-mauve glow of thistles.

Now it is the turn of Heracleum and Rumex.

And much as individual plants can be enjoyed for their own sake it is when you combine plants deliberately that, leaving aside the odd happy accident (!!), things really begin to happen.

And when your combinations are quite simple and on a certain scale the results can be quite special.

Of course ‘Dame Nature’, as another Dame, Dame Edna Everage, would call it, is good at both the happy accidents and the scale.

Here, the white flowers of common hogweed and the drying rust coloured spikes of common sorrel flowers combine en masse to make quite a striking sight.

There is contrast of form, texture and colour here.

Me I’d like a third to join it. Say lemon yellow oenothera or perhaps soft orange hemerocallis to make a happy trio. But don’t worry, I am not going to guerrilla garden. That I do not subscribe to.

Is this design? Well, what does design consist of? Space, line, form but also of realism, practicality, working with what’s there and seeing what comes up. 

Yeah, I am calling it ‘designing with natives’!

Still wondering what the natives are making of it tho!

Robert and Lesley

As opposed to this ‘happenstance’  I am sure our US colleagues will really be talking about designing with natives so do check in with them on the links below and find out how it is done:

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT



Category: General

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  1. A charming little moment. I’m always a bit disappointed when our Department of Transportations mow the highways the first time in the summer. The naturalized vegetation is always so spirited.

  2. Mary Gray says:

    Great post, Robert and Lesley. I certainly wish my neighborhood would loosen up and stop obsessively mowing the grassy swale that lines the street. It would look amazing planted with water-loving natives. The “overgrown” strip in your picture is quite beautiful…especially when it’s back by a nice stone wall!

  3. Robert says:

    Hi Thomas,
    Thanks so much for your comment.
    Yes it was a lovely display!
    It has looked rough at other times tho.
    Guess none of us can be perfect all the time tho.
    If you read this I have had trouble leaving comments on your posts in the past.
    Something to do with having to log in.
    I will try my luck again this time.
    Thanks again and best

  4. Robert says:

    Hi Mary,
    I like that things are more natural now in the uk.
    There have been some lovely moments driving along and the desperate need to stop and take pics when traffic allows.
    I am however a bit suspicious that it is just cost cutting.
    It would be great if it also amounted to reintroductions of genuine local plants and a desire to boost populations of local rarities.
    Which would be more expensive.
    But one must not look a gift horse in the mouth!
    Thanks and Best

  5. Jason says:

    I have to do a lot of driving for my job, and there are some stretches of highway in Illinois with native plants growing along the side. Mostly these are managed landscapes, though. These are at their best in late summer and early fall, when the sunflowers and the grasses are blooming.

    When plants are just allowed to grow, it is often the exotics, like chicory and queen anne’s lace, that dominate.

  6. In Sonoma, during certain times of the year the sides of the road are bursting with crimson clover, purple vetch and scarlet pimpernel – a sight to behold. Until the city comes by and mows everything to the ground. I realize they’re all weeds, but still – when they’re in bloom they rival any garden in bloom!

  7. Robert says:

    Hi Jason,
    U r so right. Plants can really liven up a long journey.
    A lot of my journeys are short repeated distances.
    So I am very familiar with the likelihood that a certain plant will be looking amazing.
    My problem is that I always want to foto and mostly the traffic or places to park do not allow this.
    I am guessing that over there, you just pull off some great highway like they do in the movies.
    But that is probably just my brit imagination.
    Thanks so much for commenting!

  8. Robert says:

    Hi Rebecca!
    Well what is a weed?
    Guess the common parlance is that it is a plant in the wrong place.
    Of course these plants you describe are in exactly the right place to wow us as we drive along!
    The effects, often quite simple, gain for just that.
    Of course then you are left with less interest for a while.
    So maybe they are best for us where they are – on the verge.
    Our verge guys are slower than yours to cut.
    I am sure however that it is laziness rather than a considered decision!
    Thanks so much for your comment.
    Loved your pics by the way!

  9. A taste for natives (in a truly native planting) is usually something that is acquired over time. Like a fine wine, few people start out loving a bold, tanin-forward red – they get there by degrees as they make their way past the fruity whites and fizzy champagnes. Maybe this new generation of recessionistas will learn to love a verge planted with natives a bit faster.

  10. Robert says:

    Hi Susan,
    Sounding like you like your wine!
    Oh I am sure there will be all sorts of approaches – a bit like our approaches to the post titles!
    And that is the wonderful thing about gardening and life.
    Thanks so much for your comment

  11. Pam/Digging says:

    Why, yes, we Americans DO all have lovely big highways, with sunset-stained mountains in the distance, on which to pull over whenever we want to snap a photo of a stand of native plants. How did you know? ;-) Enjoyed your semi-humorous post, Robert.

  12. Robert says:

    Hi Pam,
    How relieved am I that the movies have not been lying to me!
    Think natives are not the buzz here they are in the states.
    Clients are not as keen on them as a rule and exhort as one might in our practice client is king
    And I do always look at all the pics of your flora and think y can’t our natives be a bit ‘pzazzier’
    But where you guys lead we often follow.
    At the moment the mode of leaving the verges lax and wider field edges seems to be gaining ground and so these represent a good stab at some quite large reserves of natives. And since they are mostly not planted natives, they are honest to god as close to real nature as is practical without allowing the woods to take over.
    Best as always, Pam!

  13. I especially appreciate your emphasis of “common” but used or even edited uncommonly. May those become common, then reinvented. Thanks for seeing what you are seeing in your part of the vast UK.

  14. Too bad it takes an economic downturn to let a nice planting like this be. Your narration of this tour was as enjoyable as the “verge” itself, full of quips, opinion, and info. I always enjoy your posts!

  15. Robert says:

    Hi David,
    Yeah, often its not what the plants are but what you do with them, right?
    Actually that verge has just been mown.
    A tad early perhaps but it will have enabled much seeding.
    ‘Vast uk’? R u sure?
    Good to hear from you David.

  16. Robert says:

    Hi there,
    What a Scottastic comment!
    Thank you so much.
    Best as always

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