Miss Floribunda - November 2008

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I understand that the new city ordinance on grass and weeds permits alternative gardens now, and sanctions use of native plants and tall grasses.  Ecologically I admit this sounds very good, but I have esthetic reservations. It seems to me there's no way such a garden can look anything but messy and unkempt. Please weigh in on this.

Mostly Mowed on Madison Street

Dear Mostly Mowed,

You may be as surprised as I was to find out that the mostly mowed look is no longer the mode in that most horticulturally elegant of edens, France. Our very own native plants, including tall grasses, are everywhere. Just last month, while visiting my sister Polyantha and her husband, Bonhomme Boutonniere, in Picardy, I noticed tall grasses such as miscanthus even in window boxes. Then Polyantha and I went to Normandy to visit her daughter Noisette, who took us to the celebrated
Jardin Botanique d'Evreux, where I was astonished to see our own native plants and grasses featured prominently. In the photograph I took you may recognize Mexican firecrackers, dahlias,  miscanthus, black-eyed susans, marsh marigolds, and pampas grass. Then in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens I saw how our native grasses charmingly fluffed up the almost uncomfortably formal look of the traditional beds.  But even before now gazons japonais ( "Japanese lawns") full of Old World
wildflowers were seen in France. Most visitors to the British Isles find their exuberant cottage gardens enchanting rather than "messy and unkempt.". And even if you prefer the broad expanses of clipped grass that originated in England, the grass is that  incomparale emerald green because the  British climate permits it. Gardeners over there do not contend with our brutal summer sun, long dry periods and sudden extremes of temperature. We do well to design our gardens using the plants that can withstand our own climate and still look fresh and perky. Going to another extreme both geographically and conceptionally, the
Japanese work wonders without any grass at all--they create  beautiful gardens with just sand and stones and a few accent plants. If you've ever seen Joe Fox-Glover's garden you will realize that even in deep shade where grass will not grow, a judicious selection of shade-loving plants and an impeccable sense of composition will result in a harmonious alternative garden. The Minnowhavens' water garden provides another example of imaginative use of  native ornamental grasses and
aquatic plants. My conclusion is that any gardener with common sense about plant choice, a good eye for color and texture and a flair for landscape design can make any style of garden visually inviting.