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Plant Off! Top nursery puts talented garden designers on trial 

Beds influenced by US designer Thomas Rainer
When top plant nursery Arvensis offered several garden designers a free trial bed, the result was a riot of risky plant choices.

Designing a border is a demanding process, and it’s a rare landscape architect who has time to devise a new plant composition for each site and client. Most designers rely on what they have tried and tested over years. This summer, the trade nursery Arvensis Perennials, owned by Rob and Gussy Macdougall, gave several garden designers the chance to ­occupy trial beds on its large site near Bradford-on-Avon, using plants available from its stock.

Dedicating enough space to do this and guaranteeing maintenance of the beds was a generous offer. Each bed measured roughly 10m x 2m and plants were sold at wholesale prices. In mid-May, eight of the beds on an open sunny site, with free-draining soil, were planted with each entrant’s choice of 9cm pots. Two of the beds were planted last autumn and one was planted only a fortnight before the mid-August day when everyone met to assess the results. It was a meeting to share ­experiences. With lunch laid on.

It’s hard to give an out-of-context, narrow border the atmosphere that makes a garden. But I found that all the beds had something to offer. With minimal watering, feeding or staking it was an impressive exercise in sustainability and everyone had been brave about including plants they had never used before. The odd Geranium Rozanne, Verbena bonariensis and quite a lot of gaura had inevitably been chosen, but on the whole, encouraged by Rob of Arvensis, there were plenty of adventurous choices. Rob was keen that the trial beds should be as varied as possible, so where there was a risk of duplication, he recommended a substitute. The beds were mainly geared to peak in late summer, but over lunch there was talk of adding bulbs for spring.

Although all the beds were full, it was interesting to see that one of the more mature beds planted last year by Alison Jenkins, who went for a grass matrix with an airy feel, was being overwhelmed by Succisella inflexa ‘Frosted Pearls’. Alison had suspected this might happen, even though the succisella is said to prefer moist conditions. But unless you try things out you never discover how plants behave. The beauty of the ongoing Arvensis trial beds is that everyone will have a chance to change and improve their selection.

Chloe Woods' Border Plan

The briefs and designs produced by some were every bit as interesting as the end result. I learned most from the thoughtful 12-page document by Giacomo Guzzon of the firm Gillespies. He has a name for being more knowledgeable about plants than most landscape architects, while challenging the Eighties perception that a palette of 30 resilient and super-hardy plants might be used on any and every scheme. Guzzon teaches at Sheffield and Greenwich and can be read on the Federal Twist blog. He was looking for answers to questions about resilience and longevity in difficult urban conditions; for low maintenance with aesthetic value, as well as layers and density of planting.

I was surprised to see a phlox included. He wanted to use Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’, but the nursery could only offer P. x arendsii ‘Hesperis’.

Beds based on a strong concept seemed to me to produce the most interesting results. Annie Guilfoyle teaches garden design, and tells people that concept is critical. Ambitiously, she chose to interpret the Paul Klee painting, Harbinger of Autumn. All misty blue rectangles with a flash of ­orange, her presentation was a terrific echo of the original. But Annie admitted plants were difficult to drill and the striking new cultivar, Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra ‘Bleeding Hearts’, which Rob suggested instead of a geum, was not, we agreed, completely right for her scheme.

Chloe Wood also entered a beautiful presentation, influenced by the American designer Thomas Rainer. Her theme was orange and yellow, because most of her clients hate those colours, so she wanted to show her scheme could be subtle, restful and charming, not strident and jarring. Which she did.

Gussy & Robert in the Stock Beds Credit:  Jason Ingram

Duncan Armstrong, a professional gardener, also wanted to challenge a ban. The daisy family is off limits where he works, because the garden owner is allergic. His bed was based on the rich colours of a Persian carpet, but it contained almost twice as many varieties as everyone else (16 was average, with a couple with only 10. But Duncan had 31). In small borders, it probably helps to ­repeat good plants for cohesion.

Globe Gardens had an interesting idea: “Order versus chaos” involved dividing the bed in half, “to explore the different visual impacts achieved using the same set of plants in a controlled geometric layout, compared with a free-form naturalistic one”. Everyone agreed that order won by miles, although I wonder if this would have been so evident over a larger area.

Rory Dusoir used the tall, upright grass ‘Karl Foerster’ in his bed to form a hazy matrix and he also included the unusual Ratibida pinnata, a tall lemon yellow coneflower. His work on a book about Piet Oudolf inspired the design.

John Davies, another garden designer (who works at Arvensis), aimed to increase his plant knowledge. He chose some rarer plants, including a giant Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’ and an Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’ which does not flower until late October. But his repeated symmetry was effective.

Pippa Shennan majored in more conventional plants, with clouds of Verbena bonariensis as well as V. hastata f. rosea and Phlox paniculata ‘Blue Paradise’. I find ‘Blue Paradise’ quite picky on dry soil, so it will be ­interesting to watch that space.

Trial beds by Giacomo Guzzon and Duncan Armstrong 

Harriet Parsons, who only planted her bed a few weeks before we all met, thinks of her schemes as a mix of “attention seekers, leg warmers and fillers”. Her infant planting contained pretty, airy things like the tiny hollyhock on stilts, Althaea cannabina, which is my new favourite see-through replacement for Verbena bonariensis. She also chose the shorter form of ­Salvia uliginosa ‘Ballon Azul’, with the hot-from-the-States mosquito grass, Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’.

The choice of well-grown plants at Arvensis is mouth-watering. “Like being let loose in a sweet shop,” Harriet says. The sweet shop remains open and there are still a few vacant plots for designers wanting to join the experiment. Unfortunately, the nursery is trade only, but we all tried to persuade Rob and Gussy to open once or twice for charity, so that everyone can see what a generous, genius idea they have had.

  • Arvensis Perennials has a good instagram account (@arvensis perennials) with pictures of plants from its nursery all year, which is almost as good as visiting (arvensisperennials.co.uk).