A confluence of German efficiency and Dutch inspiration.

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THE EUROPEANS are coming! This spring, with funding from the Miller Charitable Foundation, the Northwest Horticultural Society is importing four German and Dutch speakers to convince us we have much to learn from “The New European Garden.”

So what does a garden style originating in Germany and relying on American prairie plants have to do with Northwest gardens and sensibilities?

“The New European Garden” has been intriguingly described as a confluence of German efficiency and Dutch inspiration. In the 1990s, public gardens in Germany pioneered the idea of ecology-based plant communities. Toward the end of the decade, the Dutch brought artistry to the style, paying closer attention to the ecology of the site and using wilder-looking perennials. They kicked the concept into high gear by experimenting with residential-scale plantings rather than the public-garden scale the Germans were working with. Gardeners could better understand this intense evocation of nature when it was confined within familiar beds and borders.

It may seem quaint now, but the idea of ecological principles trumping aesthetics was quite revolutionary. Soil preparation proved key to success, and the movement led the way into a new era of gardening by shunning invasive plants, pesticides and herbicides. Which is right in tune with the green ethos here in our corner of the country.

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Cassian Schmidt, director of the German botanical garden Hermannshof, writes in an email, “In general, it’s a planting style that gets its inspiration from natural plant communities.” He hastens to add that the plantings aren’t simply copied from nature but are “transformed and stylized for a garden setting.” The idea is that the ecology-based plantings will develop into sustainable plant combinations. He emphasizes that good foliage and winter structure are even more important than flowers, an idea well-suited to our year-round gardening climate.

The “New European Garden” style has evolved over the past 20 years to be distinguished by:

• Ornamental grasses used generously to create a meadow-like look and to act as foils for flowering perennials.

• Perennials and grasses with similar soil, light and moisture requirements planted together in “communities,” with an eye to avoiding plants that might out-compete each other.

• The communities are planted in drifts that are repeated to create a garden rhythm.

• Plants are chosen for varying bloom times so that something is always coming into flower.

But how can these perennial-rich landscapes be low-maintenance? Schmidt explains that the key to low maintenance is simple: Use the right plant combinations in the right places. Begin by carefully choosing plants for your garden’s specific conditions so they grow more self-reliant over time. Few if any of these perennials or grasses need staking, feeding or even much watering once established.

Schmidt is a featured speaker at the society’s symposium March 23, so you can ask him yourself how some of his favorite plant combinations will transplant to our gardens here.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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