Gardening: Bordering on the revolutionary

There's a new, more relaxing way to garden in which a minimal amount of effort is exerted. Mary Keen reports on the `matrix' method and meets Peter Thompson, one of its chief proponents
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The Independent Online
"Matrix" is the newest word with which to confound other gardeners. The dictionary defines a matrix as an "embedding or enclosing mass, especially the rock mass, surrounding metal, fossils, gems and the like"; mathematically, it means "a rectangular arrangement of quantities or symbols". I think that the first definition is the basis for the latest horticultural buzzword. When the cognoscenti use it, they refer to a planting which is made up, not so much of groups, as of interwoven communities. Think of the ground covered in a Persian carpet, where you cannot quite see where one colour begins and another ends. There is nothing separate or defined about this method of growing plants.

You can say "matrix" when a garden looks more impressionistic than carefully arranged in what my eldest daughter refers to as "contrastifolia" style. If you are the sort of planter who goes in for the hundreds and thousands approach, where flower beds are evenly covered with few varieties in large numbers, then you can use the word matrix. Fusspots, who put a hosta next to a crocosmia and then worry if they cannot find a suitably variegated or filigree leaf to contrast, are in the "contrastifolia" corner. The plant association game has certainly begun to look contrived and old hat with the arrival of the gentler "matrix" style, and if "contrastifolia" means work, then "matrix" means "relax".

At the lying-down-snoring end of the matrix spectrum is the Here- fordshire flowery meadow that I saw last week, where sheets of cowslips alternated with blankets of native orchids among wild daffodils, species tulips, Pheasant's eye narcissi, bulbous (not creeping) buttercups and well behaved grass. It was one of the most beautiful plantings I have ever seen and all the maintenance it demands is a couple of cuts a year. No digging, no weeding, no spraying, no staking, no pruning. A grass matrix is currently the one that most adventurous gardeners are trying to manage, but it is not always as effortless to arrange as the Herefordshire meadow.

Grass is generally too dominant a species to allow other flowers the breathing space to survive. On shallow or impoverished soils, and in shady places, meadow gardening will work in the end, but the knitting together of desirable plants could take more than one lifetime. The Hereford-shire meadow was made out of lawns that had been closely shaved for over a century. Then when the war came and there was no one to cut the grass the fine fescues provided the perfect site for the regeneration of seeds that had lain dormant for years. Now orchids and cowslips seed themselves and the grass never competes too strongly with the flowers. Coarse weeds must long ago have been eliminated by assiduous gardeners. I saw no docks or cow parsley and only one dandelion. Few are blessed with such fine stretches for a canvas. The average garden is subsoil and ryegrass, where no cowslip, let alone an orchid, would settle and multiply.

The last time I wrote about a pioneer of matrix planting, Noel Kingsbury, who advocates swathes of strong perennials to beat the coarser grasses in the best new German Parks style, I had an intriguing letter from Shropshire gardener, Peter Thompson. He wrote to say that the German approach "based on natural communities of plants, suffers from a crucially vulnerable Achilles heel that is grass". He went on to say that in his experience, after a career first as a researcher at Kew and secondly as a nurseryman, "this kind of planting is hardest to set up and maintain in open, sunlit, fertile situations." He had, he added, written a book on how to establish multi- layered matrices using trees, shrubs and perennials in self-regulating associations. The Self Sustaining Garden (Batsford pounds 17.99) is the sort of book that makes you think. Peter Thompson writes from an impressive fund of scientific knowledge but his prose is easy. "Plants are the vocabulary we use to express our dreams or create an atmosphere in gardens. Picked impulsively from garden centre displays, they are no more likely to create the effects we want than words chosen at random from a dictionary." In his letter he said that he now finds himself in a place where there is little opportunity to en-joy the traditional mechanics of gardening, but it still gives him pleasure.

A trip to Shropshire to meet the selfsustaining prophet was too good an opportunity to miss. Peter Thompson, who is no longer physically as strong as he once was, gardens on an extraordinarily difficult and large site in the Welsh Marches. On the steep banks above a stream, crampons would not have been out of place. His valley outlook over lush sheep pastures implied levels of fertility that most gardeners dread, but the threat of encroaching wilderness was nowhere apparent. Even the yellow archangel, a dead nettle of a strength to rival the serpents that crushed Laocoon, was growing meek and mildly. A critical onlooker might find the whole garden a little too tame for modern taste. I saw no flash rarities or blasts of colour, but there was a certain visual logic to the place. Repeated patterns of cranesbills and pulmonarias with imminent martagon lilies cover the woodland soil. In other parts of the garden, there was evidence that earlier there had been plenty of bulbs and later roses would follow.

Everywhere the emphasis was on fewer varieties of plants than in many fashionable gardens.

Peter Thompson's matrix style of planting is probably never going to impress the neighbours, but for those who want a quiet life and less labour it could be appealing. I learnt a lot from his book and from an afternoon spent in his company. He told me with the authority of the Kew-trained plant physiologist that the timing is crucial when dealing with weeds. Dande- lions dug out when flowering will be defeated. Goose grass left until it has finished growing and then rolled up will never be seen again. Each year I pull it out as it appears and wonder why it returns the following spring.

His techniques are the result of trial and error. He says "the more experienced the gardener the more mistakes they make." He does not claim to have all the answers, and the look of his book belies the information between its covers. But if matrix planting is the shape of things to come, then Peter Thompson takes the cause a stage further than anyone else has done. Whether we like it better than what we have now is a different question. For some of us who actually enjoy gardening, less labour can mean less fun. !