Dunnett On ... May the era of the 'new shrubanista' begin

For two or three decades the "new perennial movement" has infiltrated planting design to the extent that it can no longer be called "new".

The principles behind it were, and are, exciting - taking inspiration from the way plants grow together in the wild, breaking away from the rigidity of planting in blocks and groups, encouraging a certain sense of dynamism and spontaneity, and being altogether more ecological.

But increasingly I wonder why these ideas have only ever been applied properly to the use of perennials and grasses. Of course, at the outset perennials offered huge potential for dramatic combinations, vibrant and/or subtle colours and relatively instant results. Designers were, and are, heavily influenced by the sheer beauty of flowering meadow, prairie and other grassland landscapes.

But one of the main drivers for perennials when the movement began to take hold was a strong reaction against drab, low-diversity landscape shrub plantings - still with us today - and the dreaded shrub border or shrubbery that had dominated gardening.

It is now time to bring back all the "new perennial" ideas into the world of shrubs and other woodies. Perennial and grass-only plantings can be very two-dimensional and, in soggy UK winters, rather depressing. We need more permanent structure in there too. They are also becoming increasingly formulaic, especially the prairie style.

Just as natural plant communities have been the starting point for new perennialists, exactly the same can be true for the new "shrubanistas". How do shrubs grow in the wild and what are the really exciting examples that we can learn from and apply?

I've always loved scrub - that mixture of scattered small trees, flowering and fruiting shrubs and flowering grassland in different forms all around the world. Or coppiced woodlands with their amazing wild flower diversity. The possibilities for working in a naturalistic way with shrubs and small multi-stemmed trees are endless and just waiting to be discovered - or rediscovered.

Nigel Dunnett is Professor of Planting Design at the University of Sheffield

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