Planting Seeds: Why I love working with plants
28 March 2014
Architectural Association, London
A scribbled stem and tangled suggestion of branches – the miscellaneous vegetation of architectural sketch lore – humble plants are drafted in to provide that crucial nod to a softer, slower side of life. Plant life gets a raw deal, though. Reduced to the generic, some 315,000-odd species are overlooked as a creative resource – but to me plants are the ultimate palette, the most intriguing, restless, stimulating material.
Every plant comes as a specified unit: that is, it is not simply a rose, an oak or a daisy. Botanists have done all designers an enormous favour by using a classification system which crosses language barriers and allows us to pin-point the exact criteria we desire. Genus, species and cultivar – these are your allies. Thinking of a birch tree – with horizontal patterns in the bark: Betula. A delicate arrangement of trailing branches: Betula pendula. A sturdier, more upright form? Betula utilis. Seeking the whitest-of-white bark on this birch tree? Betula utilis Jacquemontii. A slow growing version for a smaller space? Betula utilis Jacquemontii ‘Snow Queen’. And so it goes, enabling your ‘common’ oak to be agreed on by those for whom an English woodland is as alien a space as the terrain of Mars (Quercus robur – the English Oak tree was associated with Mars Silvanus, the god of agriculture and healing, by the ancient Gauls and the Romans).
Cornus Alba Sibirica
Image credit: The Royal Horticultural Society
Such specificity matters when we then take into account one of the greatest assets plants offer as a design material: seasonal change. Plants provide a space with a form of stage lighting, delivering full intensity at certain times of year, yet fading away according to an annual cycle of growth, reproduction and rest. Thanks to the myriad variants in existence there are different plants offering their own form of display at every stage of the year. Some will play a trick, and in losing their leaves (the obvious illumination) reveal striking slices of colour: the vivid red of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ provides a point of sharp contrast in a greying winter landscape.
The quirks of evolution plus extensive human meddling mean that some cultivars will flower in winter, whilst others of the same species peak in summer. Autumn riches can be played off against the strong, solid dependability of an evergreen, framed and contained, or massed, to run riot and clash in a short-lived extravagant flourish. A plant will flare up, distract you, lead you astray, and then cool off, allowing your gaze to trail elsewhere…
Plants offer up the opportunity to create a space with no fixed end. A tree may grow for centuries, becoming broader, gnarly, riddled with holes, before dying slowly and then entering the incredible process of decay – weathering, fading, rotting, warping, splitting, springing out violent orange crops of fungi and thickets of vivid moss. A snowdrop (Galanthus) bursts out of the ground in late winter, provides an urgent flurry of white and vanishes, unseen for another year. Yew trees (Taxus baccata) hold the secret of eternal youth: by cutting them back in their ‘juvenile’ stage, they remain buoyant and flexible, able to be sculpted over and over again.
A Forsythia Hedge in Westbourne Terrace
Image credit: Lucy Moss
Playing games with their insatiable appetite for growth allows us to outwit plants and form them to suit our own needs. We can espalier (the act of pruning or tying branches to a frame) trees for linear definition, train climbers to weave and cloak, carve the tight structure of dense hedge into a crisply defined block, lay out order and wilderness with the line of a mower, or chop low down to force a reactive burst of sideways shoots.
The textures and colours of plants allow for the painting of a three-dimensional canvas – and Piet Oudolf is the grand master. In his work, the repetition of form in loose long grasses sweeps across space in impressionist waves. Occasional hits of the spiked and the fastigiate (where branches grow parallel to the main stem) kick through – the strident, bold stroke of a different energy.
If the plant got there first, it is offering its own set of parameters to a space: it sets an agenda. The specific nature of that plant can imbue a place with folklore, with atmosphere, with shadows, with scent. It can determine the light, welcome or repel visitors, dictate the view.
The High Line, New York
Image credit David Berkowitz
Working with plants we can: dissipate the wind, take shelter from the sun, create disguises, or spotlight situations. We can play off the plant; it will give us that flick of colour, that unplanned line, that introduction to a pattern, that nod to an unacknowledged dream. A plant is a time machine, a travel portal. It can provide a place with a double life: New York’s High Line is simultaneously the prairie and the post-industrial on account of those wisps of long grass. Greenwich’s Barrier Park is both the tough, solid continuation of maritime infrastructure and the hazy lavender farms of Provence.
I love working with plants – and I invite everyone to join me, in thinking beyond the squiggle, the template, the CAD block, the cop-out. I invite you to start playing with plants, as the most fabulous, varied, adaptable, incredible, surprising and inspiring material we have.
For more information:
The Royal Horticultural Society