Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wolfgang Oehme: 1930-2011

Wolfgang Oehme, one of the most influential and brilliant plantsman of the last century, passed away today. 

Wolfgang, along with his business partner James van Sweden, created the New American Garden, a strikingly original alternative to the traditional suburban yard. 

Wolfgang was a personal mentor to me and many, many others.  What was even more impressive than his brilliant and evocative plantings was his generosity of spirit and joy in the landscape.  I plan to write a fuller remembrance of Wolfgang soon.  If you knew Wolfgang and want to post a message for him, his official website is collecting those messages.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Cloud Hedge Experiment

Lust.  The first time I saw a picture of Jacques Wirtz's cloud hedges, I wanted them.  Of course, I often look upon glossy magazines of European gardens and covet one thing or another.  But the overgrown boxwoods that the Wirtz's clipped into iconic cloud-like shapes stayed with me. They were both solid and structural, yet light and whimsical.  Artificial yet organic.  

For years now, I've been thinking about using cloud hedges in a design or my own garden, but to be honest, I haven't been confident I can pull it off.  After all, cloud hedges are more about garden craftsmanship than design acumen.  So I was delighted when I saw Jake Hobson's new book, The Art of Creative Pruning.  I hoped I would find a step by step tutorial on how to create this effect.  The book unfortunately is more of an illustrative coffee table book than it is a how-to manual.  The images themselves are instructive, and Mr. Hobson does give some useful advice for creative pruning.  But I found his advice for creating cloud hedges to be a bit too general: " Rough out the basic forms, following the flow of the plants."  So I went outside and looked at an overgrown yew hedge in my front yard.  I wasn't seeing too much "flow" to work with.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Best New Blog: Black Walnut Dispatch

Black Walnut Dispatch, written by Virginia based gardener and garden designer Mary Gray, is one of the best new garden blogs I’ve come across in a long time.  Full of heart and humor, Mary has already started an impressive number of high quality entries, from mocking oversized outdoor kitchens, to a satirical ode to L.L. Bean catalogues, to a moving manifesto about why we garden.  The writing sizzles.  It is like Garden Rant with a wry sense of humor.  I recently subscribed by email so I won't miss a single post.  Be sure to check out Black Walnut Dispatch.   You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Hot or Not" Hits the Road

This Friday December 2, I will be speaking at the fourth annual "Turning a New Leaf Conference" in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  My talk is entitled "Hot or Not: How Making Sustainable Landscapes Fashionable will Revolutionize the Movement."  The talk was inspired by my original post found here.

Here is the abstract:

The sustainable landscape movement has advanced significantly over the last decade, gaining in acceptance among homeowners and designers. But many remain skeptical of sustainable practices, and there is even evidence of a backlash against using native plants. Has the push to make landscapes more sustainable hit a rut? Is the message being drowned out? How do we reach a broader audience?

The single best way to expand the appeal of sustainable landscapes is to make them fashionable. Until sustainable landscapes are shown to be beautiful, they will never be fully embraced by the American public. This talk will explore how to create a new aesthetic for sustainable landscapes that will make them more desirable. We will examine model projects that are not only ecologically productive, but strikingly original, cutting-edge designs. We will look at how the European garden scene has blended sustainability with an artistic ethos. Most importantly, we will examine strategies that CCLC members can use to create more beautiful, original, and ecologically-rich landscapes.

There's still time to register.  For more on the conference, including other fascinating speakers and discussions, please visit the site's homepage:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Garden Designers Roundtable: Horticultural Idols

Plants are a particular passion of mine, but what fascinates me most is the way we design with plants. I’ve dedicated my professional life to the study of how we arrange and compose living plants. Planting design is not just about the plant as a horticultural or ornamental object; instead, it is a window into our culture, our beliefs about beauty, and perhaps most importantly, our relationship with nature.

For several years now, I’ve wrestled with what it means to develop my own style as a designer. I was fortunate enough to spend the better part of a decade working for Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, apprenticing and learning their iconic New American Garden style. Since leaving the firm in 2009, I’ve wondered how to adapt what I learned there and make my own contribution to the development of a uniquely American garden style, one rooted in the patterns of the American landscape.

It was this quest that led me to a study of the great plantsmen, designers who changed the way we think about plants. I teach a class in planting design for George Washington University, and in preparation for a lecture, I sought to select a list of groundbreaking plantsmen. Of course, one could spend an entire year studying all the great planting designers of history, but I wanted to focus on those who have most influenced the current moment. I wanted to share my personal list of ten great plantsmen, a mix of past and current designers whose designs are, in my opinion, the most relevant for today. This list includes both iconic designers of the past, brilliant contemporary plantsmen, and even emerging talent that has not been fully recognized.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meaning in Landscape Architecture and Gardening

“Just as there are levels of meaning and discourse in language, ranging from laundry lists to business letters, from narrative fiction to lyric poetry, so too are there levels of meaning in landscape. They range from the mundane to the profound whether they are attractive or disheveled, beautiful or not, small or large…Landscapes are made of many diverse phenomena - visual, aural, tactile, olfactory - that may trigger the recall of things from our own personal environmental history, which in turn combine with a world of information from our education and experience. For this reason there is no question in my mind that the art of landscape design - when it is an art - is possibly the most complex and sophisticated art we possess.” 

Laurie Olin from an essay in Meaning in Landscape Architecture & Gardens

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Umbellifers: Selections from my Favorite Plant Family

As an admitted plant-aholic, it is pretty easy for me to fall for a plant. I have a bad habit of seeing virtue in almost every green darling. Of all of my plant crushes, one in particular stands out: I am particularly crazed about umbels.

The plant family Apiaceae (also referred to as Umbelliferae) is a family of aromatic, hollow-stem plants most commonly known for their lacey, umbel-shaped flowers. For herb and vegetable gardeners, you are probably quite familiar with many characters in this cast: carrots, parsnips, cilantro, chervil, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage, and parsley. It was the family’s usefulness for cooking that initially attracted me, but it is their striking forms ultimately seduced me.

Umbels often have low basal foliage from which mostly leafless stems arise to support striking disk-shaped flowers. From the side, the flowers look like an umbrella turned inside-out by the wind. A close look at the tiny flower clusters (umbels) is a joy in itself, as radially-symmetrical fractals reveal hundreds of sparkling blooms. Staring into an umbel, I have the same thought as I did when I gazed upon the rose window in Chatres cathedral: how can there be such exultant power in so much delicacy?

Tom Stuart-Smith's 2010 Laurent-Perrier Garden, Chelsea.  Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
Usually flowers with such intricacy lose their effect from a distance. But seeing umbels from a distance is precisely my favorite vantage point. Think about the frothy and effervescent effect of Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) tossing among a tall grass. Placed in a smaller, garden setting, few plants are as evocative of larger, wild landscapes as umbels. Their spumous blooms channel the ephemeral like few plants are capable of doing.

While I have long loved these plants, I have not gardened with them enough. Seeing Tom Stuart-Smith’s use of Cenolophium denudatum stunning 2010 Laurent-Perrier garden has convinced me of their power in designed landscapes. Stuart-Smith has the rare ability to create plantings with a dreamy, ethereal quality, but I am convinced his use of Baltic Cow Parsley gave this garden its transcendent, fairy-tale like quality.

Here are few seeds I have ordered for next year’s border. I’d love to know if any of you have gardened with them:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The One Plant Pot

Large pots are delight in a garden. Pots are perhaps the purest expression of planting design. Composing a pot is like a chef creating a salad—all of the rules of design get stripped down to their essence. In a larger landscape, the hand of the designer can be lost, but with a pot, the artificial environment is a pure display of horticultural skill.

Earlier in my career, I was obsessed with highly mixed pots. With pots, you can pull off things you never can in a larger landscape. One year, I did a theme pot of nothing but plants I found on the side of the road. It actually turned out ok. Other years, I’ve had fun combining annuals with huge leafed perennials like Tetrapanex. A well designed combination lets you see plants in a new light.

But recently, I’ve been drawn to simpler, single-plant pots. They seem to have more impact in a garden than a fussy, highly mixed pot. I wanted to share a few images of gorgeous, one plant pots from other designers:

Monday, August 15, 2011

When Metaphor Fails

This year, my wife and I made a token attempt to start a garden. We managed to pull ourselves away from the home renovation long enough to carve a perennial border out of a piece of our side yard.

Right now, it looks like a tattered tapestry. Some perennials have established with athletic vigor, while others lie low, perhaps waiting till next year. I’ve seeded the holes in the border with summer annuals, which have quickly taken advantage of their slower to establish neighbors.  The riotous color and size of the annuals have eroded what bit of compositional clarity that initially existed. Weeds run rampant throughout.  Crabgrass, Bermuda grass, and Bindweed dominate the area where we plan to add a stone path and terrace. They control territory like a Mexican drug cartel.  With so little time for the garden, the weeds and I maintain an uneasy détente—they have their territory, and I have mine.

Already I’m making notes about what needs to be changed. Too many filler plants, not enough structural ones. Needs more upright spires. Dot in a few architectural shrubs. Add low, dark-leafed annuals along the edges for contrast. Too many thin, linear masses: re-mass perennials in block-ier, thicker masses. The list grows by the day.

August crushes my idealism. All winter and spring I made pretty pictures of the garden in the soft light of my mind. In May, these images felt almost attainable. But August is the ultimate judge; the glare of the midday sun bears upon me the inescapable force of reality. All prior imaging disappears with the dew. The garden is simply what it is.

Realism is the theme of my summer.  Last month my father went through a complicated open-heart surgery and began a miraculous recovery from a stroke. Seeing him suffer through an intense recovery has also confronted me with a jarring reality. With a recovery like his, nothing goes the way you expect. With every hurdle he overcomes, another battery of complications sprout up. He has faced his recovery with a strength and grace that is indescribable unless witnessed. The man I knew as the sweetest man on earth has proved to be one of the strongest.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beyond the Border 4: Maintaining Perennials to Last

This is the final post in a series I’ve been doing on how to design perennials and grasses in landscape settings. By landscape settings, I’m referring to non-garden sites, including public parks, commercial and institutional landscapes, or even residential sites larger than a single bed. Throughout this series, I’ve made the claim that herbaceous plants—the most dynamic and expressive plants a designer can use—ought to be used more often in our built landscapes.

My last post talked about how to select plants for these low maintenance sites. This post will focus on the single greatest reason people avoid using perennials and grasses: uncertainty about how they should be maintained. Almost every time I suggest using herbaceous plants in landscape settings, here’s what I hear: perennial plantings are fussy and high maintenance; clients don’t understand them and won’t take care of them; in a year from now, it will all be a weedy mess; use more shrubs or lawn.

It kills me. Some days I wonder if I will spend half my career battling the tyranny of low expectations.

The reason it kills me is because I know from experience how low maintenance perennials and grasses can actually be once established. I know that clients can have a lasting, beautiful, and sustainable planting in a fraction of the time it takes to maintain a lawn.

To understand how to maintain perennials and grasses, one must first understand a few basic concepts:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Native Plants & The Wild Look: An Argument for Design

Marcus de la Fleur's design for a residence using native plants prompts the question: does using natives in wild patterns help or hurt the native plant movement? Image by Marcus de la Fleur
I have a conflicted relationship with wildness.

When I think about the sea of lawns and generic plantings that dominate our built landscapes, when I reflect on how quickly our native woodlands are disappearing, I yearn for more wildness. In many ways, our landscapes are too tidy. Our shrubs are too clipped, our lawns too manicured, our planted spaces too restrained. Despite recent progress with more sustainable gardens, the McLandscape is still the dominant form in our country.

"Yard of the Month"
Just to get a sense of what’s considered beautiful in our country, try this experiment: do a Google image search for the phrase “yard of the month.” The aesthetic is clear: tightly clipped evergreens smashed up against the house, an endless expanse of weedless lawns, and—for landscapes with a special flourish—a floating bed on annuals around the mailbox or a tree.

So in this context, wildness is desirable. How liberating is it to banish lawn altogether from one’s yard? How delightful is a project like the Highline that has an elevated meadow that winds between skyscrapers? How welcome are spontaneous, self-seeding wildflowers in an institutional landscape? Wildness adds an element of drama and dynamism sorely needed in our landscapes.

While I praise wildness on the one hand, I am concerned that it has become the de rigueur of native gardens these days. It is as if a native garden, by definition, must be wild and sprawling. To create a native garden is not only a statement against exotic plants, but it is a statement against traditional garden forms altogether. Almost all of the sustainable landscape techniques, including rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs—have adopted a wild aesthetic.

So what, you might ask? Don’t we want to import not only native plants to our built landscapes, but the patterns and forms of our native landscapes? Yes, but I want native gardens to embrace a diversity of design styles. I have a couple of problems with a “natural only” look.

An advertisement for native planting, or an argument against it? Rain Garden.  Photo and design by Marcus de la Fleur
First, designing a garden or landscape with a wild look takes quite a bit of effort and planning. There’s a difference between a carefully crafted wild look and sloppy planting design. Too often, sustainable landscapes emphasize plant selection at the expense of overall composition. Plants are not massed, so they don’t have visual impact. Small wildflowers are placed next to towering prairie plants, creating a chaotic scene. Lines, form, and order are banished, so all sense of relationship to existing structures is lost. Herbaceous plants are often placed too far apart. In our effort to imitate nature, we’ve turned our back on the forms and meaning of 4,000 years of garden history.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beyond the Border Part 3: How to Select Plants for Landscape Settings

This is the third post in a series I’m doing on perennials and grasses in the larger landscape. I’ve made the claim that perennials and grasses—possibly the most dynamic and interesting plants a designer can use—ought to be used more often in our built landscapes. Imagine our public landscapes, yards, and office parks cloaked in a rich tapestry of sustainable and beautiful perennials and grasses inspired by the patterns and palettes of our native vegetation.

My last post talked about a compositional strategy of massing plants in order to reduce their maintenance and increase their legibility. This post will focus on the second strategy: how to choose the right plants. Plant selection is absolutely critical to the long term success of a planting, and to be honest, it’s not easy. Here are some general strategies that can help.

What Plants Do I Choose?

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is hard enough. With every site, there is a dizzying list of cultural requirements (exposure, slope, soil, climate) that one must consider. In a larger landscape setting, there are additional design factors to consider.

1. Filler Plants to Create Volume

Aster oblongifolius creates volume against a drive.
Design by Ching-Fang Chen
Large perennial and grass beds are most attractive when they create volume against a void, such as a lawn, path, or street. Let me share a secret with you. Great perennial planting in landscape settings is not about perfectly balanced flower colors—though color matters. It’s not really about creating great photogenic combinations—though combinations add style to a composition. Half the battle in creating herbaceous plantings that endure is to simply cover the ground at a relatively uniform height. If you can find perennials and grasses that thickly carpet the ground and range in height from 12-42 inches, you're halfway there.

In his books and interviews, Piet Oudolf talks much about the distinction between structural and filler plants. This distinction is key to his compositions. A structural plant is one whose form is distinctive and architectural, whereas a filler plant has a more amorphous, cloud-like form. Consider the strongly structural flowers of an Echinacea or an Echinops. In a composition, the eye will fall onto these distinct forms. These plants also tend to dry into distinctive seed heads in the fall and winter, creating enduring interest through the year. Filler plants include most ornamental grasses (Switchgrass) and many mounding perennials (Asteromea mongolica). Oudolf recommends using a ratio that heavily emphasizes structural plants to filler plants, around 70/30, mostly to make sure the composition has strong form throughout the year.

My advice is to reverse that ratio. Of course, Oudolf’s work is undeniably beautiful and masterful. But I have two problems with using that many structural plants in landscape settings. First, structural plants tend not to cover the ground as well as filler plants. So when they’re not maintained well, it creates gaps where weeds can fill in. Second, since structural plants are more about a distinctive profile of a flower or leaf, they tend to have shorter bursts of interest. Yes, they look great in winter, but there are moments in early spring, for example, when they’re wiry or just not as full.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Beyond the Border Part 2: Massing Matters

The same rules that create impact and drama in art can be applied to perennial planting.
My last post set up my proposition that perennials and grasses—the most dynamic plants a gardener can use—ought to not only be used more often, but used in as a larger percentage of our built landscapes.  It’s time to liberate perennials from the confines of the British border and embrace a new aesthetic inspired by the patterns and palettes of our native vegetation. 
This post will ground my lofty rhetoric with some practical how-to advice.  How do you design for long term success with plant material that is inherently ephemeral?    To achieve lasting, low-maintenance perennial gardens, there are two areas one must master: composition and plant selection.  This post will focus on the first, and most important, rule of composition: massing.
First, let’s understand the context we’re discussing.  Perennials in a landscape setting (parks, civic landscapes, large residential) are inherently different than a flower border.  They are larger in area, typically set farther away from the viewer, and are not gardened as intensively.  So the rules of composition must address this context.
Massing Matters
More than any other strategy, massing perennials and grasses together is the golden rule for landscape perennials.  Why?  We group several of the same plants together in order to make them more legible and give them visual impact.  A single flower in a half-acre planting disappears; but a block of 100 (residential), 200 (small park), or 500 (large park) has dramatic impact even from a distance.  Massing perennials together draws attention to their ornamental characteristics.   It amplifies their color, form, and texture.   More importantly, it also helps relate the scale of the plantings to the scale of a house, building, or park.  A mass of 20 Echinaceas, for example, can look paltry next to a monumental building. Massing plants together gives the planting proper proportions to their context.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Beyond the Border: How to Use Perennials and Grasses in Landscape Settings

Of all the plants I frequently obsess about, herbaceous perennials and grasses are perhaps my favorite.  Of all the plant categories, they are the most ephemeral, dynamic plants.  One can mark the seasons with these plants; they are harbingers of change.   And as a designer, perennials and grasses are the most expressive plants within my palette.  Rich layers of bold perennial massings can express a site in powerful ways. 
The British border
When it comes to designing with perennials and grasses, however, we have a limited language for their use.  The perennial border—an intricately arranged, delicate frame of flowers—is really the only concept we have for their use.  And while borders can be beautiful, they have limitations.  They are generally high maintenance, fussy, and require a high degree of horticultural knowledge.  As a result, American gardeners and landscapers are often hesitant to use perennials and grasses because we associate them with British-styled borders.  But it does not have to be this way.
Let me propose an alternative.  Instead of limiting our landscapes to two distinctly British genres (the manor lawn and the perennial border), let us take the border and explode it out of its box.  Let’s blanket our landscapes in bold massings of perennials and grasses.  Let’s convert our wall-to-wall carpeting lawns into well-proportioned area rugs surrounded by perennials and grasses.  Let’s drape office parks and civic landscapes in vibrant tapestries of flowers, ferns, and sedges. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gardens and Memory

Photo of Reservation 232 taken in 1927 (photo courtesy of Historical Society of Washington)

Gardening for me is mostly a solitary activity.  But the last few months, I’ve been sharing my watering, weeding, and transplanting with my ten-month old. 
It gives my wife a few moments of peace, and it is a pleasant distraction for Jude, who would otherwise be tugging on an electric cord or grubbing dust balls from underneath the refrigerator.  Jude is fascinated with the ornery mockingbirds (“dta” while pointing), the cloud of bees over our perennials, and the raisiny fruit on our Serviceberry tree.  He often notices something that I do not.  Yesterday, he leaned over to grab the seed clusters of our Kousa Dogwood.  They had budded into these gorgeous emerald orbs.  “Huh,” I thought.  “That’s cool.”
Image by Fred Jeranes
To see the garden with my son changes the way I experience it.  The filter through which I see the garden is dislocated, and I not only see the garden in a new way, but see my son as well.  I get these glimpses into his precious mind, experiencing the world all fresh and new.
Moments like these make me think about other gardeners.  If I feel most like myself—most grounded—while I wander through my garden, then I want to know other gardeners as they are in their gardens.  How do they see their gardens differently than I do?  What do they care for and love? 
Kim Breneger
Several months ago, I was contacted by a woman who is working with a group to create a memorial garden for Kim Brenegar.  Kim was a garden designer who lived and practiced in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C.  Kim died at the age of 49 in a tragic car accident.  Although I never knew Kim personally, her presence was everywhere in the neighborhood.  Friends of mine were her clients, and they raved about her.  Kim was passionate and colorful gardener and designer.  I only knew people who knew Kim, but her enthusiasm was infectious.  Her loss was not just for those who loved her, but the entire neighborhood and gardening community in Washington, D.C. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Native Combinations: Late Summer Glory

Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) has seduced garden designers for the last decade.  Its haze of hot pink inflorescences set the late summer garden ablaze.   But unlike other ornamental grasses, it is a surprisingly tricky plant to design with.  Muhly Grass does not offer the same early season mass and volume that Switchgrass and Fountain Grass provide.  In fact, through most of the summer, it sits low and wiry—barely substantial enough to cover the mulch.  I planted a large mass of 120 plants beside a path in a southern garden I designed.  The result was rather disappointing.  Until August, it looked rather weedy and insubstantial.  Once it bloomed, the effect was glorious.

Friday, June 3, 2011

2011 Topic List for Speaking Engagements

I occasionally get requests for to speak to garden clubs, public agencies, or other groups.  I love nothing more than talking with other interested gardeners, designers, plant geeks, and landscape architects.  I've just added a page to this blog that list topics that I have already developed talks for.  I've attached a link to the sidebar called "Talks."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Best Planting Tip I Ever Received

This spring my wife and I started to convert the expanse of lawn around our newly purchased ranch house into gardens.  While we focus on renovating the insides of the house, the focus for our garden is its infrastructure and bones.  To that end, we’ve been smothering several hundred square feet of lawn under cardboard, newspapers, and compost; planting young shrubs to create screens; carefully carving specimens out of overgrown trees; and generally preparing the soil for future garden spaces.  Last week we installed several hundred perennials and grasses on the side of our house.  During that planting, I remembered the best planting advice I’ve ever received.

This advice came to me by way of a representative from Monrovia Nursery.  Monrovia is one of the sleeker national nurseries with big ad budgets and relentless branding strategies.  While I’m typically turned-off by glossy national nurseries and their patented plants, I must admit that Monrovia knows their stuff when it comes to installing plants.

A root bound container plant. Image from Virginia Cooperative Extension
The advice focused on techniques of installing container plants.  The big problem with container plants is that they get root bound.  Roots naturally grow out and down (mostly out) away from the plant.  When the roots of a plant in a pot reaches the wall of a pot, it has nowhere to go and will begin circling the perimeter of a pot over and over again.  Almost any gardener who has brought home a new plant from a nursery has seen how a container plant can get root bound.  It’s best to avoid plants in this condition, but often gardeners don’t have that option.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Native Combinations: 2 for the Shade

Solidago flexicaulis (Zigzag Solidago) blooms on the side of the road in Vermont.  Image by Thomas Rainer
A shade tolerant Solidago?  A few years ago, I saw a beautiful clump of Solidago flexicaulis (Zigzag Goldenrod) on the side of the road in Vermont.  It was so stunning I stopped the car and pulled out the camera (my wife loves it when I do this—our vacation pictures have more plants in them than people).  Initially, I could not identify the flower.  The plant’s broad-leaves have sharply serrated edges.  That foliage combined with the glowing-yellow racemes reminded me immediately of the ornamental perennial, Ligulara ‘The Rocket’.  Was this some kind of native Ligularia I did not know?

Monday, May 16, 2011

To Dig or Not to Dig: Are 'No-Dig' Planting Methods for Real?

photo by Jim Richardson, National Geographic

One recent garden trend that is spreading with inexorable speed is the “no-dig” or “no-till” method of planting.  The basic idea is that plants are installed directly into the ground without tilling or turning over the soil.  While this method is centuries old, it challenges conventional gardening practices of tilling and breaking in the soil before one plants.

I’ve been aware of this method for a while, but have been surprised by how quickly it has become dogma, particularly within sustainable landscape circles.  When teaching a class on soil preparation, I mentioned tilling and watched as many of the students recoiled in protest.  “Isn’t tilling bad?” one student immediately asked.  I was taken aback.  ‘No-dig’ is not just an idea, but a doctrine, a creed, a badge of one’s eco-credentials. Proponents spread the message with revolutionary fervor. 

So is it time to put your tiller on Craigslist?  Let me weigh in on this complex issue and hopefully provide some clarity.  The gardening world has more than its fair share of old wives tales and superstitions.  This is particularly true with anything regarding soil.  We understand so little about what goes on in the soil, yet we dig, till, fertilize, and amend it with reckless zeal.  When it comes to soil cultivation, what’s true?

Here’s the bottom line: ‘no-dig’ is great, but not when the soil is severely compacted. 

After going through quite a bit of research, the evidence certainly favors the ‘no-dig’ approach.  Part of me really wanted to find flaws with this method; after all, breaking the soil before planting just feels so natural, so downright human.  Egyptian paintings 1200 years bc show people plowing fields.  But the evidence generally supports the wisdom of not digging.  Why? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The New Azalea Garden at The New York Botanical Garden

photo by Angel Franco/The New York Times
This week The New York Times wrote a glowing review of the newly renovated Azalea Garden at The New York Botanical Garden.  I worked on the design for that garden while at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates. 
The assignment was one of the most complex planting projects I’ve worked on.  The New York Botanical Garden was in the process of redesigning the eleven-acre azalea gardens in house, but they hired OvS to design a complete palette of herbaceous plantings to compliment the sprawling shrub garden. 

The challenge was to provide seasonal spectacle throughout the year, not just around Mother’s Day when the garden attracts thousands of visitors.  Designing a perennial garden with year-round spectacle is hard enough; but doing it in deep shade and underneath and around 3,500 azaleas was an especially daunting task.  How do you plant around, under, and next to so many azaleas?  And how do you use perennials to blend and soften the jarring bubble-gum pinks, corals, oranges, and fuchsias of the azaleas?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

RadioGarden: The Best Garden Podcast Period

If you haven't checked out Andrew Key's RadioGarden, my friend, you are missing out.  Andrew Keys wears many hats in the gardening world: designer, writer, entrepreneur, and blogger.  Andrew has made gardening hip for the iPod generation.  I had already been following his witty blog Garden Smackdown, when I saw that he was starting a radio podcast for Horticulture Magazine.

This peaked my interest.  For years, I've been searching for a GOOD garden podcast to pass the time while I do my studio work.  But it's slim pickings in the garden podcast world.  The vast majority of them are overly polite how-to's (today's episode: how to prune hydrangeas); or call in shows where every other caller wants to know what they can plant that will withstand dog pee.  Mind numbing stuff.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Grounded Design is One Year Old

Grounded Design is celebrating its one year anniversary this month.  Aren't blog years like dog years?  One blog year feels like at least seven human years.  Of course, so many of my favorite bloggers have been doing great posts for multiple years, like Susan Harris whose been blogging since 2005.  Now that's inspiring (I'm a bit of a late adopter myself . . . oooh, iPods?!).

I had meager expectations when starting this blog.  I thought I'd give my wife a break from my rants about gardens, landscapes, and planting and direct these ramblings into a blog site.  I expected only my parents and perhaps a few other friends I guilted into signing up for emails to read this.  I still remember the joy of getting my very first comment on the blog (even if it was an angry complaint from a company in the UK named Grounded Design).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Native Debate Heats Up: Doug Tallamy Takes on The New York Times OpEd

While I try to avoid link-posting on this blog, this interview in Garden Rant with scientist Douglas Tallamy is too good to pass.  Tallamy rocked the gardening world a few years ago when he published Bringing Nature Home, a book based on scientific studies that show exotic plants support exponentially less wildlife than native plants.  Tallamy, a professor and chair of the entomology and wildlife ecology department at the University of Delaware, believes that biodiversity is an essential, non-renewable natural resource that people are forcing to extinction.

Tallamy addresses some of the backlash against native plant advocacy, addressing in particular the article in The New York Time's OpEd "Mother Nature's Melting Pot" that compares negative feelings towards exotic invasive plants to xenophobia.  The Times article likens the native plant movement to the anti-immigration movement:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Exile from the Garden

My wife and I recently bought and moved into our house.  It is a single story 1950’s rancher that does little to combat the idea that all post World War II architecture is crap.  The location is killer, and the house was incredibly priced.  After almost seven years of trying to get into the DC market, we made the plunge.  Of course, the house was incredibly priced precisely because it was so run down.  The previous owner had some issues with hoarding and an apparent aversion to maintenance.  The listing called the house “ignored not abused”—one of those euphemisms that only a realtor could spin.

Since we closed on the house in December, our lives have been absorbed by the enormity of the projects.  Every surface of every room needs to be replaced, re-covered, and re-done.   The bathrooms and kitchens must be scraped down to the studs and rebuilt.  The floors have to be refinished or replaced.  Every window, door, and heat register must be made new again.  It's not because we're perfectionists; the place was just nasty.  And because we dumped all of our savings on the down payment, we are doing the entire renovation ourselves.  Thanks to the epic kindness and patience of my father-in-law, who comes over almost every weekend to help us, we have been able to do things I never imagined doing myself.  But the scale of the project, combined with the care of a seven-month old baby, is overwhelming. 

We live in the midst of the construction.  The rituals of domesticity merge with our construction projects in confusing ways.  Our “kitchen table” is a piece of plywood set on two sawhorses.  The other day at dinner, I reached for my fork and picked up a wrench instead.   I brush my teeth and wash dishes in the same sink I clean my drywall knives and fill up the tile saw.   And I’m beginning to think of our Shop-Vac as our family pet (we call him Vacu-saurus, and he’s always at my side).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Grounded Design Joins the Garden Designer's Roundtable for 2011

Grounded Design will be joining the Garden Designer's Roundtable as a guest blogger for this year's roundtable.  The topic will be "Horticultural Icons" and the post will be this September.  Here is a preview of other designers contributing this season:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Research Shows How Trees Affect Shopping

A multi-study research program has concluded that the presence of trees—particularly mature canopy trees—affects how people shop and spend.  While much research has been done on how interior environments such as lighting and music affect consumer preferences, very little hard research has been done on how exterior environments affect people’s behavior. 

Study participants reported they would be more likely to shop, pay for parking, and spend more in environments with large canopy trees.  Merchants often prefer smaller ornamental trees because they fear large canopies will block store signage.  The study emphasized how the co-design of signage and vegetation can resolve these issues. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Fashions and Trends are Good for Gardens

Tom Stuart Smith's award winning garden at Chelsea Flower Show
Last week I wrote a post about plants for spring 2011 that were “hot” or “not.”  In the post, I took a deliberately sardonic tone imitating the fashionistas I had just seen reviewing trends for the Academy Award show.  I knew I’d get some flak for that post, but was rather surprised by some of the condemnation I got for even paying attention to trends.  The reaction raised some interesting questions for me.  Should we pay attention to garden or design trends?  Are gardens immune to fashions?  One commenter wrote on another blog:

"Real gardeners don’t pay attention to which plants are in or out. I shudder to think about those that pay attention to such nonsense and am concerned about those that disseminate such marketing misinformation."


I wonder, who are 'real gardeners'?  One of my favorite bloggers, Nancy Ondra, wrote a rather compelling photographic response to my comment that Amsonia hubrictii was “out.”  Of course, I should have known better than to pick on such a beloved and versatile plant.  I still think it peaked out a year or two ago, but I must be honest: Nancy’s gorgeous photos of Amsonia through the year crushed my argument.  I know when to admit defeat.  By the end of her post, I wanted to run to my nearest nursery and buy 50 A. hubrichtii.

I rather expected good natured responses like Nancy’s.  What is puzzling to me is how strongly some readers objected to the very idea of trends in the garden.  One commenter rather eloquently wrote, “It is sad when we find the obsession with newness and being on-trend spilling over into gardening.  We need to preserve its value as essentially a slow process—the experience of designed landscapes growing and maturing and becoming more desirable with the patina of age.”  Another comment remarked, “I have to laugh, because there’s such a funny part of human nature, that when something becomes ‘too popular’ those who consider themselves ‘in the know’ are obliged to hate it.”  Both comments make some excellent points.  But I find myself having a very different reaction to trends.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Gardening Honeymoon by guest blogger Jeanette Ankoma-Sey

Honeymoon, noun: period of enthusiasm or goodwill.

As a gardener and designer, when we moved into our first home I had mixed feelings about starting my garden with my husband. It was August of 2007; it was a 100 sizzling degrees and when we pulled up to the corner unit we were surprised at the size of the yard that came with this tiny 1950's duplex. Yes, we knew the size and had walked the yard before we bought the house.  Living in an apartment with a shady balcony for 5 plus years, we always thought just a little more space would be nice, just a little bit more . . . So we committed to 4500 square feet of southern exposure (think zone 8b) and a wickedly sloping yard that begged for screening, greening, living. I warned my husband about the undertaking and ultimately we had no idea where to start with getting some green (and blues, oranges, pinks, purples) in our yard.

We are still miles away from having my yard the way I dream it could be. I envision a terraced heaven with a space to do yoga in the privacy of my lawn, amongst plenty of planted beds and garden rooms of sweet sounds, sights, tastes, and smells. Miles away I say.... BUT here is how we and a few clever plant/designer friends have fared with the budget garden challenge.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Favorite Native Plants

Check out today's posting on Betsy Franz's excellent site Metro DC Lawn and Garden.  I discuss some of my favorite native plants with Betsy and talk about how I like to use them in gardens.  Betsy's series on gardener's favorite natives is a great source of ideas and inspiration.  Plus, her blog site is an excellent source of news, tours, and garden information for the Washington, D.C. area.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spring 2011: What's HOT, What's NOT

Image from Tom Stuart-Smith's 2009 Chelsea Garden.
The week after the Academy Awards, the internet is abuzz with fashion experts declaring who was the best dressed and who wasn’t at this year’s show.  This ritual is ridiculous yet captivating.  I yell, “Who cares!” at my screen, yet find myself clicking through the slide show.  The disasters are as interesting as the beauties. 
And then it hit me.  Why not do the same for plants?  When it comes to designing plants, I am as opinionated as any Hollywood fashionista.  And probably as obnoxious.  There are so many undervalued plants whose gleaming moment has come.  And then there are a host of other plants whose overuse of them has made them, to be honest, clichéd.  Gardens are not immune to fashion trends, otherwise why are you reading those glossy garden magazines?  So here it is dear readers, my recommendations of what will be hot this spring 2011, as well as a list of plants whose moment has passed.  Remember, just because a plant is on the “not” list, doesn’t mean it’s not a great plant.  It’s just not trending now.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hot Plants for Spring 2011

With Witchhazels in bloom and daffodil buds emerging, my spring fever is nearing its peak.  I wanted to dedicate a few blogs to plants that I think will be hot this spring.  I’ve spent time going through stacks of 2011 catalogues, going to nursery trade shows, and talking to designers and breeders, so I have narrowed down my finalists.  Today’s pick for hot plants 2011:
The Genius Geum Genus
Geum 'Totally Tangerine' bred by Tim Crowther UK.  Image from Bluestone Perennials.
Try and say that three times quickly.  It’s clear that this once overlooked genus is hotter than ever this spring.  It’s easy to see why these plants have been ignored.  They tend to take a year or two to get established, can sometimes look scraggly, and don’t really stand out in a pot.  But what makes Geums uninspiring the first year turn into assets over the long haul.  By the second year, Geums really make a show and prove themselves to be long blooming additions to any border.  Plus, they come in almost every color imaginable.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two of the Nation's Most Beloved Trees Poisoned

David Bundy/Montgomery Advertiser via AP
Have you heard this story?  Two of the most beloved trees in the country were poisoned because of a sports rivalry.  The 130 year-old live oaks that graced Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, Alabama mark the spot where Auburn University fans celebrate victories.  On January 27, a man identifying himself only as “Al from Dadeville” called a local sports talk radio show and said that a week after the Iron Bowl—the annual football game between Auburn and Alabama—he had driven to Auburn and poisoned the trees at Toomer’s Corner by injecting Spike 80DF, an herbicide that inhibits photosynthesis. 
“Is that against the law to . . . poison a tree?” asked the radio host. 
“You think I care?” replied the caller.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Horticulture Magazine Names Grounded Design "Best Gardening Blog"

Horticulture Magazine named grounded design “Best Gardening Blog” for 2011.  I’m delighted and humbled by the recognition from such a great magazine.  The article highlighted the recent series on native plant myths, as well as other postings for 2011.  Many thanks to the magazine for the recognition, and mostly, thanks to all of you who keep coming back to read my ramblings.  Happy gardening!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Slumming It

Help me!  I need your advice
I’m spoiled.  My job as a landscape architect has distorted my notion of how to install a garden.  For years, I’ve devised grand plans for gardens and landscapes.  Plants show up to the site by the thousands, and the contractor installs them over a period of a week or so, creating a dramatic and instant transformation. 
Now my wife and I prepare to move into a new house.  All the money went into the down payment and renovation (we essentially gutted the inside).  So now, penniless, I turn to yard and wonder: how the heck do you install a grand garden for cheap?  I mean, really cheap.
This spring, I will dig up several thousand square feet of lawn to create garden beds.  It will take thousands of plants to create the lush, richly layered garden that I want.  So I’m wondering: how the heck do you populate a garden with no money? 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Warm Season vs. Cool Season Grasses

Understanding the distinction can improve your designs

Confessional moment: I am a grass freak.  Of the vast universe of plants I adore, ornamental grasses are among my favorite plants to design with.  No other plant expresses the ephemeral and sensory beauty of a garden like grasses.  They catch light like a stain glass window, rustle with the slightest breeze, and glisten with the morning dew.  Grasses are a wonderful and sustainable addition to any border, yard, or planting.  But there is one pitfall to designing with grasses that almost no one mentions: understanding the difference between warm season grasses and cool season grasses.
Before a garden book seduces with you photos of a grasses glowing in the sun, you really should understand how to use warm season and cool season grasses in a designed setting.  I’ve learned the hard way.  Some of my biggest planting fiascos resulted when I failed to pay attention to this distinction.  Here’s what you need to know. 
Gardeners frequently call anything that looks grassy a “grass.”  True grasses are members of the Poacaea family.  Other grass-like plants include the popular  Carex genus (Cyperaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), and cattails (Typhaceae). But none of these are true grasses.  Horticulturists divide true grasses into two general categories that describe their growth cycle through a year: cool season and warm season grasses. 
Cool season grass Nasella tenuissima "browns out" in the heat and creates a lovely effect.
Cool season grasses start their growth early in spring and continue that growth while cool temperatures and rain prevails.  When summer gets hot, these grasses typically go dormant, often “browning out.”  Some cool season grasses even die back in the summer, leaving seeds to germinate during the next cool season.  If you’ve ever seen your lawn covered in Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua) in May only to see it disappear by June, it’s because this is an evolutionary strategy devised by this cool season grass. Cool season grasses are best planted/seeded in early spring or late summer/early fall.  They tend to germinate and establish quickly.  Cool season grasses foliage color looks best during late spring and early summer.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Is Your Planting Evocative or Provocative?

The secret of great planting revealed.

Of all my various rants, one point I am consistent: planting design is an art.  Planting design needs to be liberated from its traditional role as ornamentation to architecture.  For too long, the role of the American planting designer has been to ‘shrub up’ the base of buildings, like placing parsley around a pot roast.  Instead, planting can be an expressive and dynamic medium in itself, capable of conveying meaning and emotion. 
If you’re reading this blog, you are obviously highly intelligent and artful (wink) and believe that garden design is an art.  So dear readers, here is my question for you: is your planting evocative or provocative? 
Here’s what I mean.  I’ve been mulling over great planting design.  Not just good planting, but the icons of great planting: Getrude Jekyll’s borders, Jens Jenson’s prairie-inspired landscapes, Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist ground-planes, Christopher Lloyd’s border at Great Dixter, Beth Chatto’s gardens, Piet Oudolf’s perennial landscapes, Tom Stuart-Smith’s cutting edge designs.  Each designer is incredibly different, but what they all have in common is an ability to manipulate human’s associations with natural landscapes.
Evocative planting design: Beth Chatto's gravel garden.  Courtesy of BBC.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Native Plant Myth #3: Native Plants are not as showy or ornamental as exotic plants

I am dedicating the last of my series on “Myths about Native Plants” to a subtle but widely held misconception.  I believe that this particular misconception is the number one reason that prevents people from embracing natives more fully in designed landscapes. 
Myth 3: Native plants are not as showy or ornamental as exotic plants.
It’s not that people think that native plants are ugly; rather, when it comes to choosing plants, natives are perceived to be a bit more natural, less over-the-top-bloomy than exotic garden plants.  Walk into your local garden center and just try to resist the seduction of a lipstick-red Knockout Rose or the voluptuous softball-sized flowers of a Limelight Hydrangea.  The native section, by comparison, is populated by a sad collection of leggy, dull perennials.
Dogtooth Violet
When I was in graduate school, I took my girlfriend to the local botanical garden.   I had just finished a class on native plants, and I wanted to show her how wonderful and unappreciated our local plants were.  When we arrived, the native garden was hard to distinguish from the unmanaged woodland next to it, and the only plant blooming was a Dogtooth Violet.  I got on my knees to show her how delicate and beautiful this little plant was.  It was so exquisite it barely existed.  She seemed unimpressed.  On our way out of the garden, we passed a tulip border that was so colorful, so showy, I was convinced one could see it from the moon.  She exclaimed, “Now that’s beautiful!”  I knew then my cause was lost.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Case Against Mulch Rings

It’s a common sight in the American landscape: trees skirted with a ring of mulch around their base that float in a sea of lawn.  Landscapers started the practice to prevent mowers and weed eaters from damaging tree trunks, and many arborists like the protection that mulch gives to the roots.   But listen up America:  these mulch rings have got to go.  The benefits of mulch rings have long been exaggerated, and they are just plain ugly.  Consider a few reasons for eliminating this practice.
In nature, plants happily share space with tree roots.  Why do we add the rings?

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