Plastic is far from fantastic when it comes to the garden, but there are lots of real-world plants that will deliver the funtime Barbie-core aesthetic, should you dare to go there. By Liz Potter
In an era of climate change and biodiversity loss, when Greek wildfires are hitting the headlines daily, it seems anathema that our summer blockbuster movie centres on a 29cm plastic doll derived largely from fossil fuels. Hard to recycle and with an estimated lifespan of just three years, Landfill Barbie is made from a cocktail of different plastics: her arms are made of EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate), torso of ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene), bend-leg armatures of polypropylene, outer legs of PVC, head of hard vinyl compound, and eyes of developmental water-based spray paint.
Indeed, Barbie the movie has surprisingly little to say about the environment, focusing more on the perils of the patriarchy. Barbieland™ is a celebration of a world that’s entirely synthetic – no water, no sand, no sea – not even gravity to weigh you down. The fluffy pink mis-en-scene is weightless and so over-the-top kitsch it will doubtless win plenty of gongs come award season. As postmodern pastiche, it’s perfect. And funny too.
But I confess I am a little disappointed that the Barbie DreamHouse™ Airbnb, a real-world $25million ocean-fronted mansion in Malibu, California, also has plastic grass rather than the real stuff. All too often, this bristly green carpet is presented as a low-maintenance option for those without time for mowing, but from an ecological point of view it’s a disaster. Fake lawns release microplastics into the environment; are neither recyclable nor biodegradable; provide no habitat for invertebrates and thus deprive garden birds of food; and they come with a sizeable carbon footprint in their manufacture and transport. The Royal Horticultural Society has joined with other environmental campaign groups to call for a ban.
A better alternative, for fans of camp who quite fancy the idea of a funtime Barbie-core garden, would be to keep the lawn or lay chic grey gravel instead. Then focus on pink flowers, blonde grasses, tropical-looking hardy palms and drought-tolerant plants that might evoke summer in Malibu.
To start the year, go for fragrant Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ (H3m) flowering Nov-March, and Japanese quince Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’ (H1.5m), flowering March-May. Pink blossom from double-flowered cherry Prunus ‘Kanzan’ could be echoed by an underplanting of simple pink tulips ‘Early Glory’ in April and ‘Synaeda Amore’ in May. Pink foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, stuffed with nectar in dappled shade, would take you from June-July.
Next, you’ll need some Stipa tenuissima – a sun-kissed beach-blonde grass if ever there was. Reaching knee-height (on tippy toes), this wispy grass could be woven among a wide range of sizzling, hot pink daisies – Echinacea purpurea (June-July), Cosmos bipinnatus (June-October), frothy Erigeron karvinskianus (June-October) and later asters such as pink Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Harrington’s Pink’ (August-October).
Taller Miscanthus sinensis ‘Flamingo’ (H1.8m) has pink-tinged feathery plumes July-August and fades attractively into autumn, too.
Planted in among this confection of saccharin blooms I would use shapely phormium ‘Pink Stripe’ (H2m) whose evergreen grey, sword-like foliage would look completely at home in Malibu, but needs a little frost protection in exposed British gardens. Hardy Fatsia japonica (H4m) and palms such as Trachycarpus fortunei (eventually H15m) would lend a jungly twist, planted next to Barbie’s Tiki-thatched poolside cocktail bar.
Offering dappled shade and elegant pink-tinged summer foliage, variegated Acer negundo ‘Flamingo’ (H6-8m) adds a light, elegant touch, or to darken the mood, Cotinius coggygria ‘Grace’ (H5-6m) has candyfloss flowers and dark purple foliage. Other fluffy pink flower options might include Thalictrum spp (H1-2m) and Astilbe ‘Bressingham Beauty’ (H90cm).
Interestingly, Mattel has released a gardening Barbie – little pink watering can, trowel, sun visor, tool trug, trellis, vegetables and a little white rabbit. Not sure the outfit – green wellies and onesie hotpants in a sunflower print – is quite what I’ll be wearing this weekend, but as girl toys go, it’s a start.
PANEL:] Top 10 Barbie-core plants
1. Stipa tenuissima Grasses don’t get more blonde than wispy Stipa tenuissima. This easy-going self-sower needs the occasional comb through with your fingers. Evergreen, ideal for gravel. H60cm S30cm
2. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Flamingo’ Pink flower plumes from July to August, shifting to silvery-grey in autumn. Cut back in late winter/early spring. H1.8m S1m
3. Phormium ‘Pink Stripe’ Architectural New Zealand flax ideal for a jungly silhouette. Best colour in full sun; frost hardy but may bneed winter protection. H and S1.2m
4. Echinacea purpurea Large pink flowers on robust stems June to September. Best in moist, well drained soil and full sun. H1.5m S45cm
5. Buddleja ‘Pink Delight’ Pink cultivar of the vigorous butterfly bush – cut back hard in spring and it’ll put on 2m fresh growth, flowering July to September. Deadhead for more flowers. H and S4m
6. Anemone hupehensis ‘Hadspen Abundance’ Free-flowering Japanese anemone with semi-double cup-shaped pink flowers that seem to float above clumps of attractive green foliage. Flowers July-September. H1m S60cm
7. Phlomis italica Small evergreen shrub with whorls of lilac-pink hooded flowers on upright stems, above aromatic grey-green foliage. Ideal for a sunny border, flowering June-July. H30 x 60cm
8. Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’ Japanese quince with dark pink flowers March to May and aromatic green fruit. Train against a wall or fence in sun or part shade. H1.5m S2m
9. Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ Japanese pink pussy willow produces pink catkins on bare stems ideal for a pink vase, January to March. Catkins followed by silvery willow foliage. H and S1.5m
10. Cotinus ‘Grace’ Fluffy pink flowers from July-August give the smoke bush its common name. Dark purple oval leaves turn vivid red in autumn for seasonal fireworks. H6m S5m