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Miss Floribunda: Jardinage nouveau

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Posted on: November 9, 2023

Miss Floribunda is currently away, visiting her sister Polyantha in France, and suggested that we republish a column she wrote just after such a visit back in 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 some of us consider weeds, and even tall grasses.  Ecologically, I admit this sounds very good, but I have aesthetic reservations. It seems to me there’s no way such a garden can look anything but messy and unkempt. I’d like you to weigh in on this.

Mowed and Manicured on Madison Street

Dear Mowed and Manicured,

You will be as surprised as I was to find out that being unmowed is now the mode in France, that most horticulturally elegant Eden. Our own native plants, including tall grasses, are very popular. 

Just last month, while visiting my sister Polyantha and her husband, Bonhomme Boutonnier, 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 justly 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 what looks like a dwarf form of pampas grass. 

I think these grasses and fluffy flowers have charmingly loosened the almost uncomfortably formal look French gardens are known for. But even before now, gazons japonais, or Japanese lawns, full of Old World wildflowers were seen in France. 

If you have traveled to the British Isles, you must admit that nothing is more enchanting than their “messy and unkempt” cottage gardens. And even if you do prefer the broad expanses of clipped grass that originated in England, the grass is that incomparable — and (for us) unattainably — intense shade of emerald green because the moist and temperate British climate permits it. 

Gardeners over there do not ordinarily contend with our often brutal summer sun, long dry periods and sudden extremes of heat and cold. 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 conceptually, the Japanese can 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 ornamental grasses and aquatic plants, most of them native.

All of this leads me to conclude that any competent 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 inviting and pleasing to the eye. 

I’m sure your meticulously tended conventional garden is lovely, but so are some more exuberant alternative gardens in Hyattsville.

If you would like to continue this discussion, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 10 a.m. in the Hyattsville Municipal Building (4310 Gallatin Street). A wreath-making workshop will follow.

Miss Floribunda writes about gardening for the Life & Times. You may email her at fl*********@gm***.com.

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