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One approach to sustainable garden design

The India Habitat Centre recently hosted an event led by noted French landscape architect Pascal Cribier. Called Garden, Nature or Landscape?, the workshop allowed Cribier to explain his design approach through a variety of projects.

For me, the most fascinating part of the day was Cribier’s description of what ecological design means to him. (He spoke poetically and passionately on the subject in his broken English, and would I suspect not entirely approve of this short and rather prosaic Anglo-Saxon summary of his views.)

Put simply, Cribier argued for the conservation of gardens. Not conservation in the usual sense of meticulously recording and expensively safeguarding important historical features; but conservation simply in the sense of keeping as much as possible of what was already on site. He does not believe in adding to landfill by ripping out plants and materials just to impose his own design on a garden. Instead he strives to keep what is there and just amend it. He gave the simple example of a brick wall which he did not like; instead of replacing it, he used the same bricks to build a wall in a different style. A more flamboyant example was a fussy little Victorian water feature he found in the garden he was redesigning at Woolton House in England, which he extended into a far more effective large pond while keeping the original feature at the centre.

A conserved but transformed water feature at Woolton House. Image from http://www.etab.ac-caen.fr

There was a second, equally important, part of this approach. Cribier also strives to create a design that will last, that will not in its turn get ripped out as uninspiring or too difficult to maintain. He almost starts with what he considers a realistic maintenance plan and works backwards. And his focus is on producing something that the owner and gardener will love and want to maintain; in this way the garden is more likely to persist.

Several of the young Indian landscape architects in the room pressed him on his use of non-native plants. But Cribier was unrepentant: it was ecologically more important to give clients a pleasurable garden that they would love and preserve, than to strive to recreate some lost ecosystem. He argued that nature is self-balancing, able to cope with disruption and change, and not in need of frantic attempts to return to what has been lost. To be fair, he did say that if France’s native flora was as beautiful as India’s, his attitude would be rather different; but providing enduring beauty was more important than a focus on native plants.

It was a fascinating account of one individual’s approach; not one I am sure I fully support (and certainly his argument that bees will visit hybridised double flowers as readily as native single ones seemed based on nothing more than a fervent wish that they should), but one which left all of us pondering on what really is good ecological practice in garden design.

14 comments on “One approach to sustainable garden design

  1. Elephant's Eye
    October 31, 2011

    It is only thru reading garden blogs, that I have moved from choose indigenous to – and make sure it is the species for the bees, not a new-fangled variety. Otherwise you just choose whatever appeals to your eye.

    Glad to see an interesting new post up from you. It’s been quiet here …

  2. maggie
    October 31, 2011

    I wish I had been in attendance to hear his presentation and answers to audience questions! I like his approach of augmenting or rearranging, and those provocative statements about self-balancing nature and enduring beauty; it sounds like there were lots of points for pondering and discussion.
    The bee comment made me laugh first and then start wondering about it. That’s a claim that needs answering, encompassing ornamental gardens and ecological health as it does…

  3. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    October 31, 2011

    I agree on many of his points. But like Diana, plants need to support the bees.

  4. Cathy
    October 31, 2011

    I, too, would have loved to hear more of the debate he inspired. What is your thought about his “bee” statement? I mean, if they don’t get what they want from the flower that attracts them in the first place, wouldn’t they move on to a bloom that provides what they need? (I guess I don’t know bees as well as I should!)

    • landscapelover
      October 31, 2011

      Thanks for the comments. It was a thought-provoking day and my post does not really do it justice (Cribier also talked with considerable expertise on a range of other issues, from storm water management to historic garden restoration).
      He saw hybridisation as a triumph of modern technology – and argued that good contemporary garden design is characterised by the use of beautiful hybridised plants rather than ‘modern’ materials like glass or steel.
      I suspect his belief in the willingness of bees to visit whatever flowers are available came from his general view that nature can take care of itself, rather than from any careful scientific study. From the little I have read, I think double flowers often have little or no nectar to attract or sustain bees, and that even single exotics may not be structured in a way to suit local pollinating insects. But the issue is clearly complex and not fully-understood even by experts…

  5. Garden Designers London
    November 2, 2011

    10 Stars form my side for this post !!!

    According to me ecological design in the garden means compare gardening to a chess game, and while that may sound far fetched, strategic garden design makes perfect sense if you consider different soil types and climates for each area.

  6. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    November 3, 2011

    Jill, this a very interesting relevant post for current discussions not only in garden design, but in other ecological subjects. I think that the concept of uses of natives or suitable plants, will always bring provocative discussions and could depend on intellectual convictions, but what is impossible to deny is that biodiversity is the only way to a wise bio-preservation, though we must admit that change is in the esence of life. Thanks for sharing these controvesies from so far away, it definitely talks about that, in global world, we can share interestes and discussions. Lula

  7. I agree with this philosophy of keeping what is on site, but that would seem to extend to whatever native plants are there too. Creating gardens that suit the owner’s maintenance abilities is a good idea too. However, Cribier seems terribly unevolved in the ecological area and should probably educate himself better before he makes ridiculous statements about bees and native plants. Of course, nature is self-balancing, but self-balancing evolutionary change occurs over millions of years not in decades, which is how fast we are changing the ecology. I have no doubt that the Earth will survive and continue to evolve, but the human species won’t be along for the ride.

    • landscapelover
      November 4, 2011

      Thanks for the further comments. Carolyn – I knew you would scoff at his remark on bees!
      To be fair to Cribier, I’d say two things: first, the native flora of northern Europe is generally much less attractive and showy than, say, the native plants found in the US or Asia, so it is hard to expect any designer to make something beautiful without using exotics or hybrids (regular readers may remember my post on the jardins des Grands Moulins in Paris https://landscapelover.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/the-park-of-the-future/ where a park planted with natives looks like a weed-infested abandoned landscape). Second, his comment on bees was a throwaway remark in response to persistent questioning, rather than part of his main argument.
      I think what interested me about Cribier’s approach was that he tries to produce sustainable gardens without any sort of focus on native plants. He argued that it is all too easy for people to think they have done enough so long as they use indigenous flora, and is instead pressing designers to think about other issues, like landfill use, water capture, and carbon emissions.

  8. OK, I agree that he has some really important ideas that will contribute to sustainability. However, the reason he was “forced into” that throwaway remark and subject to persistent questioning to begin with is that he is trying to ignore an important part of the equation of sustainability (some would say the most important part) and the audience wouldn’t let him get away with it. If he truly believes natives are not that important to sustainability, he needs to be well prepared to defend his position or how can he expect his audience to accept the other points he is trying to make? Perhaps you should educate him in your calm and reasoned way :-).

  9. Stacy
    November 9, 2011

    Interesting. Even setting ecological balance aside, the whole native-plants argument seems to hinge so much on climate. In most of the US the climate runs to such extremes (compared, say, to the UK and France) that native plants are integral to any sustainable garden–it’s not that you can’t find other plants from similar climates that might do well, but the natives are reliable and don’t need extra resources to survive. In contrast, I was just reading a Scottish blog today about winterizing melianthus and tree ferns, which basically just involved putting some extra mulch on them. That wouldn’t be sufficient in Vermont, which is quite a ways south of Scotland… I would think that in India’s climate(s) they’d have the opposite problem–non-native plants might adapt too easily and crowd out the native flora?

    Were there echoes of permaculture in what Cribier said? Some bits and pieces sounded drawn from there, but in a less earthy-crunchy way.

    • landscapelover
      November 9, 2011

      Cribier thought that most people prefer highly-managed places – pleasurable gardens and efficient landscapes – over raw nature, which is increasingly perceived as distant, unpleasant, almost repellent, with its insects, bacteria, and disorder. So arguing for beauty and order was more likely to have a real impact than suggesting that people should embrace something barbarous, red in tooth and claw.
      His argument (if I have represented it fairly) reminded me of the splendid Neil Evernden book “The Social Creation of Nature”, with its debate about what we mean by “nature” and what exactly we are trying to preserve or sustain.

  10. Annika Tenghall
    November 16, 2011

    Just found your lovely blog 🙂 with lots of interesting gardens to read about!

    I thought he had a very wise point of view when he would rather use and improve what is already there and also to think much more about making a garden that is possible to maintain instead of a “chic” design.

    Best regards,

  11. Pingback: In Which I Decide To Be Thankful « CAROLYN'S SHADE GARDENS

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2011 by in Gardens, India, Modern design, UK and tagged , , , .

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