Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Garden Designer's Roundtable: Memory and Plants

NOSTALGIA: The idea that a plant or group of plants can evoke certain emotions based upon an evolved memory of the landscapes they are associated.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our emotional experience of landscapes.  Why do some landscapes make me feel relaxed and contemplative, while others make me nervous or uncomfortable?  Landscape architects, designers, and gardeners have long explored the aesthetic experience of landscapes, but rarely the emotional experience.

I was delighted that the Garden Designer’s Roundtable topic for the month is “Memory and Plants.”  It is the perfect excuse for dwelling a bit more deeply on a concept I’ve articulated before, but only partially.  I want to write about “nostalgia,” a word I’ve used to describe our emotional reaction to planting design. 

Why does this matter?  For me, understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes holds tremendous potential for all those who design or garden.  First, it pushes landscape design past the endless (and tiresome) pendulum swing of geometric vs. naturalistic (or formal vs. informal) design.  This fundamentally formalistic concern has distracted us from exploring the full potential of landscape as a dynamic art form.  Second, it offers designers a framework for understanding how to create emotional experiences within gardens and landscapes.

Plants, Memory, and Emotion

We are all likely to have very personal and subjective reactions to specific plants.  The scent of orange blossoms remind me of a winter afternoon I spent in a Dumbarton Oaks conservatory; Southern Magnolias remind me of a giant tree on my grandmother’s property I played in as a child.  These personal memories are poignant connections to plants, people, and places; but these subjective responses are not what I’m interested in here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gardens are Strange

"The fact that human beings create such things as gardens is strange, for it means that there are aspects of our humanity which nature does not naturally accommodate, which we must make room for in nature’s midst. This in turn means that gardens mark our separation from nature even as they draw us closer to it, that there is something distinctly human in us that is related to nature yet is not of the order of nature…"

Robert Pogue Harrison - Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Garden in October

October is one of my favorite times in the garden.   The weather is pleasant and I find myself less manic than in spring.  I enjoy the garden more now.  As the plants prepare for dormancy, there is simply less for me to do.  I’ll defer decisions about what to plant for dark winter evenings when green thoughts are necessary for my sanity.  Now I move through the garden with a calm repose.   The boxwood, yews, and espaliered firethorn get once last clip before the winter; sprawling summer annuals are cut back; and I make a few strategic transplants.  Otherwise, I walk and look at the angled, autumnal light as it falls over the plants.

The garden is in its second year. Despite the fact that certain parts of the garden have an adolescent awkwardness, the garden is beginning to look a bit more established.  As the garden settles into itself, I have a strange sensation that I’ve never felt before: the feeling of dominion. 

 “Dominion” is sort of an archaic, unfashionable sentiment, isn’t it?  It reeks of colonialism and the idea of man controlling—even dominating—nature for profit.  Not only is it a politically incorrect sentiment, but it is silly as well when applied to a tiny perennial border on a tenth of an acre lot.  This is not Downtown Abbey, after all.  But it is precisely what I feel.  Two years of breaking the earth, planting, watering, re-planting, and endless gardening have resulted in the creation of a place that is anything but natural.  I’m not simply a proud owner; I am the gardener who reigns over this plot.  It is my dominion—not just a place, but an expression of identity and self.

That a garden can be an expression of identity is an interesting idea to me.  The pre-modern man believed identity is a product of birth.  You are who your father was, where you live, and what your social station is.  In many ways, it is good that we’ve liberated identity from birthright.  But modern man has perhaps too much power to dictate identity.   We live in a post-authentic age.  I have to remind myself that each time I participate in social media.  Social media creates a seductive mirage, a watery image of our selves.  Identity is not created by what you tweet, but what you do.  What you create.  What you love.  

A slant of light shifts through the trees and illuminates a tall grass in my border.  The October light is soft yet intense.  The grass seems to glow from within, vibrating in incandescent ecstasy.  I raise my hand to shield my eyes, but stop and instead stare into it.  The intensity of the light makes my eyes water.  Standing on the path, I try to absorb the moment.  But just as quickly as it began, the sun slips again on the horizon and the moment is over.  The grass turns a dull gray in the dusk.

It is enough though.  I may have dominion over this plot, but the life that animates it is from beyond.  I am grateful for a handful of luminous, radiant moments. They remind me who I am. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fabulous Succulent Pots

I had a period where I hated yuccas.  Probably had something to do with their overuse in the 1980s.  Many suburban yards in my neighborhood had one forlorn yucca abandoned in a bed.   Of course, my horticultural tastes constantly change, so now I adore yuccas and other succulents.  What’s not to love?  They are the perfect focal point: their architectural splendor, rich colors, and then there’s the light.  The way a slant of sun spills over each blade creating such magnificent chiaroscuro.

Many of the better agaves, yuccas, and other succulents are Zone 8 and warmer, but those in Zone 7 and above can enjoy them in pots.  What business does a desert plant have in a mid-Atlantic, temperate Piedmont garden?   Well, I am embracing my inner-Victorian: why deny myself the pleasure of a bit of horticultural fetishism?  Go ahead , try it: throw yourself into the crowd of mail-ordering, zone-pushing horticultural compulsives whose lust for exotic species leads them down dark (and expensive) paths.  It’s worth it.  And if my endorsement doesn’t persuade you, perhaps these fabulous succulent pots designed by the U.S. Botanical garden will.

What's not to love about this overloaded succulent pot? I could stare at this for an hour--I think I did actually . . .

Or contrast the intricacy of the previous pot with the simplicity of this arrangement:

Can anyone identify this species?  Some kind of Euphorbia? Really wonderful, especially with the yellow fall color behind it

I can't imagine a place where this pot would not look good:

Euphorbia tirucalli is always visually spectacular:

And sometimes the pot can speak for itself . . .

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Best Daffodil Plant List Ever

Gardeners and Designers, save this List! Naturalizing Daffodils Organized by Bloom Time
Daffodils blooms may be months away, but fall is the time to order and plant your spring bulbs.  I've always said that bulbs are by far the best bang for the buck of any plant you can buy.  For a few hundred bucks, you can create a spring spectacle with flowering bulbs.  Bulbs are a wonderful asset for the gardener and designer.  Designing with bulbs can be as complex or simple as you like. I've experimented quite a bit with different bulbs, from species tulips to woodland ephemerals, but my staple—the most reliable and rewarding spring bulbs—continues to be naturalizing daffodils.
All Narcissus are good perennial plants, but there are a handful of daffodil varieties that actually naturalize.  Naturalizing plants actually reproduce new bulbs underground, thickening over time and producing more flowers.  Since these bulbs reproduce rather easily, they have another advantage: they are the cheapest daffodils on the market.  You can’t beat that.
In my designs, I like to mix at least three varieties of daffodils—an early, mid, and late-blooming Narcissus—in order to extend the bloom time over two months.  But I’ve always had the problem of determining when daffodils bloom.  Bulb catalogues are notoriously vague about this information (mostly because it varies so much depending upon where in the country you are).  They often organize their catalogues by Divisions, making it almost impossible to determine what blooms when.  There are so many hundreds of varieties of Narcissus, it becomes incredibly difficult to choose.
But thanks to Van Engelen company out of Connecticut for providing this wonderful resource of naturalizing Narcissus—the most affordable and reliable Narcissus on the market—and organizing them by bloom sequence.  This list includes bulbs from multiple Divisions, including the ever popular Large Cupped and Small Cupped daffodils.  But what I’m increasingly drawn to are the smaller, heirloom Cyclamineus, Jonquilla, Poeticus, and species daffodils.  These smaller bulbs have tremendous potential for combining with other perennials in the garden, creating outstanding spring combinations.  Designers and gardeners, you’ll definitely want to save this list as a resource:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fall/Winter Talks & Speeches

I have the pleasure of talking with different groups about landscape architecture, garden design, and sustainable design.   This fall and winter, I have a number of talks and lectures lined up throughout the mid-Atlantic.  Most of these talks are open to the public.  Click the links below to find out more information or register.  And see who else is speaking at some of these events—there are some great rosters here. 

September 30, 12:30-1:30: Adkins Arboretum, Tent Symposium Queen Annes County, MD 12610 Eveland Road, near Ridgely, MD

October 20, 9:15-10:15am: Green Springs GardenGarden Design Symposium: Nature’s Inspirations
4603 Green Spring Road Alexandria, Virginia 22312

November 17, 1:00pm: Piedmont Blue-Ridge Horticultural Society.
Learning Center, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley at Glen Burnie in Winchester, VA. 801 Amherst St, Winchester, VA 22601

February 6, 2013: Annapolis Horticultural Society, “Native Plants in the Cottage Garden.”  St. Anne's Parish Hall, 199 Duke of Gloucester Street, Annapolis, MD 2140.  Open to the public.

February 13, 2013: Lewis Ginter Botantical Garden, Winter Symposium
Massey Conference Center, 1800 Lakeside Avenue, Richmond, VA 23228

Friday, October 5, 2012

My Turn to the Dark Side

How an Annual Snob became an Annual Obsessive

I’ll admit it: I was an annual snob. I really wanted a T-shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends plant annuals.” For me, annuals meant overused bedding plants: red begonias plopped in front of the Wendy’s sign; straggly petunias past their prime in a hanging basket; or squatty little orange marigolds that never blended with anything else. Plus, annuals are simply impractical. Why spend money on an annual you’d have to throw away in the fall when you could plant a perennial?

Plus, there was something just downright tacky to me about annuals. They are loud, over-the-top, and always stick out in a crowd—kind of like that redneck cousin who drinks too much at family reunions. Perennials, on the other hand, were more refined. I spent the better part of a decade mentoring under the late perennial genius Wolfgang Oehme. I understood the medium. Perennials are a thinking man’s plant. I loved the cerebral challenge of arranging perennials. They constantly change. Arranging a border requires the mental acumen of a chess master. Leave the annuals to the fast-food chains and gas stations; perennials were my game.

But something’s happening to me now. No, I have not stopped adoring perennials, but I am increasingly captivated by annuals, tropicals, and bulbs. It first started when I was tasked with designing a raised median in downtown D.C. The client wanted a seven-foot wide median to be a beacon of color. It had to be beautiful in every season; stand out among the busy downtown environment; and never have a down moment. Gulp. I quickly sped through my shortlist of long-lived perennials. Nope. Long blooming shrubs? Nope. It would have to be annuals.

Median with boughs and stems in winter

We ultimately decided to combine annuals and bulbs with sculptural shrubs such as columnar hollies and cloud-like hedges of boxwoods. Designing four seasons of spectacle—including the dead of winter—proved to be a one of my toughest horticultural challenges. At first, I was reluctant to use bedding annuals at all. We specified an elaborate mix of rare tropicals, designer annuals, and shrubs with colored foliage. I was rather pleased with the cutting-edge selections I made until I found out that the contractor could not find most of the plants. Not to cover a median that stretched three blocks. Last second substitutions meant dealing with what local annual nurseries had available: lots of pansies, lots of mums, lots of vinca. I remember being horrified with the first season rotation was almost nothing but yellow pansies and blue mums.

But the bedding annuals looked good, particularly at 45 miles per hour. From then on, we figured out how to use a base of bedding annuals and interplant more interesting combinations of tropicals, bulbs, and even shrubs used as annuals. The bedding plants provided the impact, and the accents provided the designer look.

Janet Draper's fabulous Ripley Garden
Of course, through my horticultural journeys, several great plantsmen have tempted me with the dark and seductive world of annuals. Janet Draper’s Ripley garden at the Smithsonian Institute always featured fabulous exotic selections like the purple-spiked silvery leaves of Solanum quitoense or the inspired combination of Golden Shrimp Plant (Pachystachys lutea), the deadly Firestick Plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), and Yucca ‘Hinvargas’. And there is Dan Benarcik’s mind-blowing combinations of tropicals and annuals at Chanticleer. And of course, Nancy Ondra’s blog was another inspiration. Every time I see one of her combinations of annuals and perennials, I immediately go out and drop $20 on some mail order seed catalogue. Finally, there’s the Long Border at Great Dixter. I’m obsessed by what Fergus Garrett is able to do in that strip. So much horticultural expertise goes into such a concentrated space. Is it over the top and gaudy? Perhaps, yes. A hot blooming mess? Definitely. But it is one of the most brilliant stretches of planting anywhere on the planet, and I am forever haunted by what they are able to do.

My final turning point to the dark path of annual obsession was my own experiment doing a perennial border. After smothering a large area of lawn for six months, I was so tired of looking at mulch and cardboard that my wife and I filled the area with a bunch of aggressive “filler” perennials. That did the trick. It was an instant garden, but the border immediately became one big hazy blob of green. And that’s what I call it now. It’s not the border, but the big-hazy-blob-of-green (BHBOG). Last year, I tried to cut the garden with some “structural” perennials—perennials with more distinctive silhouettes—but they had a hard time establishing in the BHBOG. The BHBOG is hungry and it eats everything you plant in it.

So I’ve had it. Next spring, I’m ruthlessly hacking into the BHBOG. No more mild-mannered perennials. I want over-the-top, shocking color. Ridiculous color. Burn your retinas color. I don’t care what it takes, but I’m throwing every cheap trick for color and foliage I know. Bulbs? Yes! Bazillions of them. Tropicals? Yes! If the leaf is less than six feet long, I won’t consider it. Self-seeding annuals? Yes! I’m buying seeds by the pound, not the packet. Spiky plants? Yes! Agaves,yuccas, acorus . . . it’s all going in. More is more. Yes is more. Everything will be considered as long as it’s effective. If it doesn’t scream color or texture, it’s gone.

And that’s how it happened. An annual snob turned into a foaming-at-the-mouth annual obsessive. “Horticultural exuberance is the new civil disobedience,” I heard Dan Benarcik say recently. Yes. Yes, it is. Now I want a T-shirt with THAT on it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fantastic Native Cultivar: Amsonia 'Blue Ice'

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' in my garden late April next to Nepeta 'Walker's Low' & Phlomis

Who needs a compact, attractive, tough-as-nails perennial that--by the way--is gorgeous in two seasons?  Yes, everyone.  Then let me enthusiastically endorse Amsonia tabernaemontana 'Blue Ice.'

The horticultural world is still rightfully swooning over its feathery cousin, Arkansas Amsonia (Amsonia hubrichtii), recent winner of the Perennial Plant of the Year.   I will make the claim, however, that Amsonia 'Blue Ice' may be the more versatile and durable plant.

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' was discovered in a seedling block of Amsonia tabernaemontana at White Flower Farm in Connecticut.  It sports the same broad leaves of the species, giving it a handsome texture to contrast with finer-foliaged plants.  But it seems to be more compact (12-15 inches in height), longer blooming (three weeks + in my garden), and has this incredibly dark blue color of the bud of the flower.  Dark blue is incredibly rare in perennials.  The dark blue buds have this incredible shadowing effect underneath the lighter blue periwinkle-like flowers.  In the mid-Atlantic, it bloomed late April through early May.

Dark blue buds shadow the lighter blue open flowers of Amsonia 'Blue Ice'

Amsonia tabernaemontana is a member of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae).  Like other members of the dogbane family, it has a white, milky sap that is toxic to mammaliam herbivores--perhaps making this a deer-resistant plant?  (Have others of you grown this plant in deer country?  I'd be curious to know how it fares.) It grows natively in rich open woods, rocky woodlands, limestone glades, and moist sandy meadows.

'Blue Ice' is a hybrid, but the exact parentage of this cultivar is still unknown.  Tony Advent of Plant Delights Nursery guesses it is a cross with the taxonomically-debated dwarf Amsonia montana (which most nurseries seem to categorize as Amsonia tabernaemontana 'Montanta').  Others have wondered whether it is a cross with the Asian Rhaza orientale, which after looking at images of Rhaza, seems highly plausible.  Whoever the papa is, Amsonia 'Blue Ice' has proven to be incredibly tough.  I planted it where it spills over a public sidewalk.  The heat off this sidewalk regularly tops 95 degrees for weeks in the summer.  And yet the foliage remains steadfast and handsome.    Based on my two year trial, I'd recommend it as a replacement for groundcovers. 

The foliage of Amsonia 'Blue Ice' in the midsummer heat near the U.S. Senate office
In the fall, this Bluestar turns a golden yellow, though  not quite as brilliant as its Threadleaf-cousin (A. hubrichtii).  Fall color was ok the first year, and much better the second year.  The warm yellow autumnal foliage is nice in combination with low grasses and native deciduous shrubs.

The fall foliage of Amsonia 'Blue Ice' is good, though not as strong as A. hubrichtii

The success of two U.S. native Amsonias (A. tabernaemontana and A. hubrichtii) should convince plant breeders to explore more of this wonderful genus.  Piet Oudolf has used Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia to great effect on projects such as The Highline and the Lurie Garden.  This variety differs from the species in that is has narrower more lanceolate leaves that makes it more willowy in texture.  There are at least 22 known species of Amsonias--most native to North America--and many of them have horticultural potential.  Southeastern natives Amsonia illustris and Amsonia ludoviciana are two others worth noting.  I'm particulalry interested in the Louisiana native A. ludoviciana for its compact habit, heat tolerance, and whitish, whooly undersides.  Could be a great native groundcover that might have some deer tolerance.  Plant hunters and breeders, get to it!

Amsonia hubrichtii in fall is incredibly dramatic

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Landscape Architecture's Finest Moment?

Is the profession of landscape architecture entering into a new golden age? If the 2012 ASLA awards are any indication, the answer may be yes.

Award of Excellence: “A Green Sponge for a Water Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park,” Haerbin City, China. Design by Turrenscape and Peking University, Beijing. Photos by Kogjian Yu.

Landscape architects have long lived with a dualistic view of the profession. Inside the profession, LA’s see themselves as heirs to Frederick Law Olmsted’s heroic and sweeping ambitions. Landscape architects shape cities, create National Parks, protect the environment, and even stimulate social reform. But this rather ambitious internal view of the profession is undercut by landscape architecture’s relative obscurity in the public eye. Introduce yourself as a landscape architect at a cocktail party and questions about lawn mowers, flowers, or plant diseases immediately follow. Since Olmsted, the chasm between what landscape architects think they do and what the majority of them actually do has been very deep. Until now.

Landscape architects may indeed be gaining influence. “Landscape urbanism,” the theory that landscape—rather than architecture—is more capable of organizing and enhancing cities has moved from obscure theory to the dominant pedagogy in design-related higher education. Large scale urban projects all over the world are being lead by elite landscape architecture firms rather than by architects. Landscape architecture is moving away from merely ornamenting buildings and instead shaping the very infrastructure of cities.

The 2012 ASLA Awards are another indication of landscape architecture’s emboldened scope. The awards feature a stunning array of projects, including a seven thousand acre stormwater park; a park highlighting urban agriculture; a former quarry turned garden; the defining memorial for 9/11; and two new botantical gardens that feature not just plants as horticultural objects, but the ecological relationship between them.

Honor Award: “Quarry Garden in Shanghai Botanical Garden,” Shanghai China. THUPDI & Tsinghua University.

What is remarkable about this year’s ASLA Awards is not just the variety of projects, but the ambition of each of them. The Qunli Stormwater Park in China shows that a gorgeously designed recreational park can also be a green sponge for the entire city. Lafayette Greens in Detroit shows how an engaging public space can also be a productive vegetable garden. The Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus shows how the ecological fabric of the Sonoran desert can be a setting for a campus. Canada’s Sugar Beach shows that playfulness and whimsicality can contribute to the beauty of an urban waterfront.

What’s different about these projects is not just their scope, but their voice. The names of the projects by themselves—“Quarry Garden,” “Green Sponge for a City,” “Sugar Beach,”—suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of all these projects. These projects are not about making spaces that slip quietly into their context; they are instead a declaration of war. Their anthem is a simple: landscape matters.  Lanscape architects are no longer decorators of architecture; they are green knights who march foward with with the conviction that any outdoor space--from quarries to waterfronts, from gardens to cities--can be conquered with design.

Honor Award: “Canada’s Sugar Beach,” Toronto Waterfront. Claude Cormier Associes Inc. Images by Claude Cormier Associates and Nicola Betts.

Honor Award: “Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability,” Detroit, Michigan. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture.  Images by Beth Hagenbuch.

Honor Award: “Sunnylands Center and Gardens.” Rancho Mirage, California. The Office of James Burnett. Images by Mark Davidson and Dillon Diers.

For the full list of the 2012 ASLA Awards, including more images and fuller project descriptions, click here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thirty Seconds Until You are Totally Inspired

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post comparing texture in music to planting design.  The other day, I read this quote by one of my favorite landscape architects in the world, London-based Tom Stuart-Smith, which also compares music to the garden.  Like everything he does, the quote is simple, yet briming in shimmering detail.  Enjoy!

"I rarely listen to music while I’m working since I cannot concentrate.  But instead, some musical phrase takes up permanent residence in a chamber of my ind and accompanies me through the day.  In one very facile respect music is like a garden, with its contrast between form and content.  The formal structure of music is often quite rigid, as with sonota form, which is then contrasted with the embellishment of detail. 

"With Beethoven’s late quartets and piano sonatas, contrast is taken to an extreme: an almost savage starkness and sparse construction is set against passages of eloquent lyricism or gaping silences.  If this music depicts anything, it is a succession of emotional experiences.  Perhaps this is like a garden, with its crescendos and diminuendos, its sudden bursts of energy and silences—all set within an overriding architecture.  Doesn’t the garden at its best become an abstract expression of man’s connection to the world beyond himself?  Like music . . . but just a little less turbulent than Beethoven.” 

Landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith.  Quote originally appeared in Garden Design Journal, September 2004

Monday, September 3, 2012

Garden for a Modern Pavilion

I was pleased to see a garden I had recently worked on featured in the fall issue of Home and Design Magazine. My involvement in the garden began when director Elliot Rhodeside of my firm, Rhodeside & Harwell, introduced me to a long-time friend and client of his. The client had hired local architect Robert Gurney to design a modern pool house for his Bethesda home. Elliot had designed several phases of the garden several years before and oversaw all aspects of this garden design.

Robert Gurney is a celebrated modernist architect. For this project, he created a jeweled glass and stone pavilion to sit atop a new swimming pool. The old pool was ripped out and a new pool was created to connect the house and pavilion. Gurney sensitively sited the pavilion as far back against the existing woods as possible to ground the structure in vegetation.

The existing planting beds did not relate at all to the new structure, so our challenge was to blend the pavilion into the landscape and the woodland behind it. To that end, Elliot and I enlarged the planting bed and focused on a palette of perennials and grasses to create a foreground for the pavilion. The planting also had to blend the orthogonal geometry of the pool and pavilion with the more curvilinear geometry of the existing lawn. To add structure to the garden, clusters of boxwoods were added at key corners. These clusters will eventually grow together and be clipped into gumdrop shapes. Behind the pavilion, we planted a grove of Stewartias with Palm Sedge grass (Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’). We wanted to intensify the feeling of woods immediately behind the pavilion.  Elliot suggested the row of columnar Magnolia 'Alta' that flanks the fenceline along the pool.  These stately trees draw screen the neighboring property and draw the eye toward the pavilion.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Garden Designer's Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants

Native plants have a particular allure for me. Perhaps they evoke memories of my childhood. I remember drawing Tolkien-esque maps of the forest that bordered our suburban home in the Alabama Piedmont. The thicket of Sparkleberry trees (Vaccineum arboreum) I drew to look like Mirkwood Forest; I sketched the huge Southern Red Oak—the meeting spot for my neighborhood friends—to look like one of the mythic trees of Fanghorn. And while I romped through these woods with a pack of irreverent boys, we all had a certain reverence for a cluster of Beech trees that resided at the intersection of two streams. When the winter sun backlit those copper leaves, that golden grove became our Lothlorien.

But the allure of natives is stronger than just memory; in them, I feel a more primal pull. For me, there is something very powerful about that attraction—something even ancient. I want to articulate why native plants have this appeal and how this can be used to create bolder, more emotionally-rich gardens and landscapes.

illustration by Alfred Parsons for The Wild Garden
Readers of this blog know that I am an advocate for native plants, but sometimes I get frustrated with the reasons I hear for using natives. Yes, the environmental benefits are real: their value to our bees, bugs, and birds cannot be understated. But as a gardener and plant lover, choosing plants based on environmental ethics is kind of a bummer. Life is serious enough already; I want to garden as an escape from weighty moralism.

To understand designing with native plants, you have to understand the garden itself. Designed landscapes and gardens are manipulated fantasies. They are our mental projections, our ideas, and our desires projected onto a piece of land. And gardens and landscapes don’t really live apart from us. Ultimately, without our input and continued maintenance, they would cease to be. That gardens are fantasies does not undermine their value; on the contrary, this very fact is what makes them art. If all gardens are fantasies, then native and naturalistic gardens are a particular kind of fantasy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can a Small Garden be Grown from Seed?

Another horticultural experiment in our garden

See list below for species

I have several horticultural experiments brewing at my own home garden. Last year, my wife and I bought a small, mid-century Ranch house on a corner lot. The architecture is functional, but not terribly charming. We spent most of last year gutting and renovating the interior and still have big plans for the exterior. While most of our efforts have focused on making the house livable, we have started a few different garden experiments.

We’re keeping a small patch of lawn in front of the house, but the two side yard areas have been the focus of our efforts. We located gardens in the side yards mostly out of need for screening. Both spaces are close to streets, so gardens serve the dual function of screening and embellishing those spaces. Each of the gardens will be somewhat opposite in character, a sort of yin-yang of moods. On one side, we planted a sunny, exuberant border—what will be my mid-Atlantic version of the splendor of Great Dixter. That border will eventually be a raucous, over-the-top assembly of all kinds of plants—a hot mess of North American prairie natives, tropical bulbs, Mediterranean herbs, and lots of landscape annuals. So far, that experiment has not been terribly successful—mostly because it has been half-heartedly implemented—but more on that later.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"Cottage Garden, American Style," featured in The American Gardener Magazine

Can the British cottage garden style be adapted with American native plants?  Absolutely!  To find out how, check out this month's (July/August 2012) issue of the The American Gardener Magazine, featuring a full-length article that I wrote addressing this very topic.  "Cottage Garden, American Style," explains the design principles behind creating cottage gardens and includes lists of native plants best adapted to give it that unique look.  As a web special, The American Horticultural Society included my list of native cottage garden plants organized by regions of the country

The article expands upon a post I wrote on this blog called "Native Plants for the Cottage Garden" back in 2010.  The American Gardener Magazine is the official publication of The American Horticultural Society.  A subscription to the magazine is available for a very reasonable membership fee. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why I Don't Believe in Low Maintenance Landscapes

The American obsession with low maintenance landscapes is a problem. Here’s why.

There are several phrases I’ve learned to dread from clients. “I want to swim by Memorial Day,” is always a heart-stopper, particularly when you were hired in March to design a swimming pool and garden. “I want this garden to look perfect for my daughter’s wedding,” is perhaps the most dreaded phrase of all. If you ever hear that one, run far away. But the phrase that makes me cringe the most is a phrase I hear all the time: “I want this to be low maintenance.”

A low maintenance landscape is a rather innocuous request. It is also, of course, an absolutely sensible one. After all, who has the time or resources to pour endless hours into a landscape? Plus, traditional maintenance often focuses on chemical inputs and gas-powered machinery, all of which are bad for the environment. Perhaps low maintenance landscapes are both good for people and the environment, right?

Yes and no. “Low maintenance” is not just an idea, it is an ideology. It is the promise of more for less. As Americans, we still believe cheap, fertile land is our manifest destiny. We deserve bounty without labor, satisfaction without commitment.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Garden Like You've Never Seen It Before

The magical photography of Magdalena Wasiczek

The first time I saw a photograph of Magdalena Wasiczek, my heart hurt.  It was an image of Heleniums, but it took me a moment to recognize the flowers.  The image focused on three sculptural flowers with planet-like orbs in the center.  The color of the flowers were muted, yet intense, like the last moments of a sunset.  The flowers floated on this turquoise-black background that conveyed an endless depth and all around the flowers. Dust (or pollen? or water? or fairies?) twirled around flowers, animating the image like a constellation in motion.  I tore the image out of the magazine and took it with me to work. I tacked it next to my computer screen.  When I look at it, I feel energized yet calmed.  I imagine that this is what God sees when he looks at Heleniums. 

Summer in Rain, on right, the image I referenced above.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Most Ambitious Public Planting Ever?

London's Olympic Park brings together three of the most innovative plantsmen in the world.  Will the results live up to the hype?

Not since the Victorian era--at the height of the British empire--has a park been created with as much ambition or swagger.  The London Olympic Park, a 247-acre "park with venues," is the largest urban park developed in Europe in 150 years. 

Professor Nigel Dunnett standing in one of his annual meadows.
The master plan for the park was developed by American landscape architecture firm Hargreaves and Associates together with British LDA Associates.  Hargreaves Associates is known for their sculptural treatment of large, post-industrial sites--an appropriate choice for this former industrial site at Stratford in east London.  But for once, it is not the architecture of the park that will take center stage, but the planting instead.

The planting was lead by  two of the most innovative, cutting-edge plantsmen in the world: Professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett of the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield.  Their research-based approach to planting has produced landscapes that are both ecologically funtional and jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Hitchmough and Dunnett pioneered a unique approach to urban planting, which combines native and non-native plant species in low-input systems based on semi-natural vegetation types, such as meadows, woodlands and wetlands.  This approach has come to be known as `The Sheffield School´ of planting design.  The two men bridge the gap between ecological restoration and horticulture, creating landscapes that address urban ecology and beauty.

A 'pictorial meadow' in South Park developed by Dunnett/Hitchmough.  Photo: Dunnett

Friday, June 29, 2012

Graphic Design as Garden Design

I'm a big fan of graphic design.  Good graphic designers are alchemists.  Smart use of font, illustration, and design can transform one's identity.  I occasionally peruse the websites of my favorite graphic designers looking for inspiration for my landscape design.  I came across this recent design by the firm Filthy Media.  They created a branding package for a fascinating new arts and entertainment district in London. 

Here is their description of the project: London Pleasure Gardens (LPG), the major new 20 acre site is opening its doors for the very first time on Saturday 30th June 2012 in the heart of Olympic East London. The colossal project has transformed this forgotten stretch of wasteland into a bonafide wonderland, ready to host a plethora of innovative, world-class art and culture events.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Garden Designers Roundtable: Texture in the Landscape--A Musical Analogy

I’ve been thinking about texture lately.  Texture is one of those generic garden topics like “color” that every garden book dedicates an obligatory chapter.   Photos of hostas, ferns, and other foliage plants often follow.  Despite the rather clichéd use of the word in garden literature, the idea of texture in the landscape does not seem fully explored.  So to better understand what texture might mean in landscape sense, I turn to music. 
According to one source, texture in music means “a structure of interwoven fibers.”  In music, texture refers to the way multiple voices (or instruments) interact in a composition.  Texture in music is a way of understanding hierarchy.  Which voice is prominent?  Are they all equal?  How do they combine to create the whole?  Already my mind was spinning about materials in a landscape.  Texture is not just about a type of plant (i.e. big leaf foliage plants), but about the way materials or plants work together to create effects.  That got me thinking: how do we combine materials for artistic effect? 
Music theory describes four types of texture in music: monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, and heterophonic.  Now before you glaze over, each of these concepts has some rather fascinating ways of understanding texture in a landscape setting.  Consider these visual analogies:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Native Cultivars on Green Roof

How do I pick my favorite gas stations?  Lowest prices? Nope, it's the plants, of course.  Here is a great gas station on the corner of 22nd and M St. NW in Washington, D.C.  The roof of this Exxon station was designed as a part of the 22 West Condos.

photo by City Paper

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gardens are Frivolous

Gardens are Frivolous: So go outside and get silly.

Readers of this blog know that I am endlessly fascinated by planting design in all its historical and contemporary forms. The human impulse to arrange plants for our own pleasure is so utterly frivolous and entirely unnecessary that it attracts me even more as a topic of study. Farming and vegetable gardening are logical, right? After all, we need to eat. But ornamental gardening is a deeper mystery. It is as if gardeners are compelled by some atavistic duty to scratch in the dirt like hens.

Remember: I make a living designing, writing, and teaching about gardens, so I have much to lose by claiming that garden-making is frivolous. But let’s be honest: it is pure silliness. We ornament and embellish our dwellings with flowers; we weed and mulch to prevent natural succession from happening; and we create little dioramas of nature in our yards. The more I think about the whole pursuit, the more absurd it is to me. I wonder what anthropologists from another planet would say about these rituals.

Hold on, you say: there are many good reasons for gardening. Yes, of course, there are many reasons for gardening and many benefits of gardening, but ultimately, none of these really justify a garden. Nor do we need a justification. In fact, I’m personally weary of feeling the need to defend gardening, of trying to turn it into a solemn or academic subject. It isn’t.

So what if it’s silly? Yes, exactly! So what! Accepting that garden-making is frivolous is the first step of liberating it from all those forces that try to tame it: the real estate industry, good tastes, garden designer’s need to justify themselves, eco-evangelism, or the horticultural industry. It frees us to take risks, act foolishly, and embrace failure.

That gardens are frivolous is exactly why so many of the great gardens in history have been designed—not by professional garden designers—but by gardeners who made their own gardens their life’s work. British garden writer Tim Richardson wrote an excellent essay on this phenomenon. It makes sense. Professional garden designers don’t have the luxury to take risks. It’s too expensive and requires too much of the owner. The home gardener, on the other hand, can spend decades cultivating an emotionally powerful, personal vision. They can get silly.

And it’s high time for us to get silly. The recent focus on native and sustainable gardens has had many benefits, but one of the unfortunate side effects is the rather lugubrious, solemn tone it’s added to garden-making. I don’t mind the zealotry of eco-evangelists—in fact, how can you create anything lasting and beautiful without a bit of zealotry? But please, let’s not take our gardens too seriously.

Let’s make gardens with our hearts, not just our heads. Give me exuberant plantings dripping with emotion; richly layered spaces that thrill me with color and chill me with darkness; and above all, give me romance. Let’s look upon our tiny plots with the inspired eyes of lovers, lost in a vision of what can be. And if our yards don’t love us back, don’t give us what we hoped for, then let’s double down on our bets and try again. It’s a fool’s strategy. But I’ve always been a fool for a one-way romance.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why the Perennial Border Matters

Why mastering this high maintenance style will make you a better gardener.

The British perennial border has been out of vogue in the last decade. Cast off as high-maintenance relic of old estates, the perennial border has never really found a place in the American landscape. Our yards are too small. And so many of the great British examples have full time garden staff to take care of them. But the final blow to the perennial border has been dealt by bold visionaries like Piet Oudolf ( the Dutch “New Perennial Garden”), Oehme, van Sweden (“New American Garden”), Dan Hinkley, Beth Chatto, and many others who have busted perennials out of the border and spilled them into the larger landscape. This new aesthetic eschews high maintenance dead-heading, watering, and transplanting required by a perennial border and instead embraces plants’ natural forms, patterns, and ecological succession.

I consider myself a devotee of this new approach to herbaceous planting. I even wrote a series about getting beyond the perennial border. But this past spring I have had a revelation: the old-fashioned, high maintenance, not-particularly-American perennial border matters. Not only does it matter, but mastering the perennial border will dramatically improve your skills as a gardener and designer. This is particularly valuable for all you naturalistic and native gardeners. Let me tell you why.

My wife and I began a garden in a new house last summer. We bought a rather generic-looking midcentury ranch house and decided that the best way to make the house look better was to drape it in gardens (distraction is our only hope). We planted a perennial border in our sunny side yard. The idea to plant a perennial border was not so much because we love the look; instead, it was more a strategy to deal with my obsessive plant collecting. Quite frankly, I needed a place in the yard that could absorb my manic garden energy. What better than a fussy, British-style perennial border? Other parts of the garden will be more intentionally serene and restrained, but the sunny border is meant to be an over-the-top riot of color and texture.

So when I started last year, I approached designing the border the way I do with larger landscape plantings: I selected a bunch of voluminous, ground-covering, filler perennials. While filler perennials—that is, vigorous perennials that spread quickly and “fill-in” the ground—work well in larger landscape settings, the end result of my border was a rather soft, hazy blob. It was like looking through a blurry camera—there was nothing sharp or distinct to give the garden focus. In larger landscapes, big masses of filler perennials create contrast and variety from the sheer scale of the massing. But in this smaller border, it was monotonous.

Frustrated by my initial attempt, I decided I needed to expand my education. I’ve arranged perennials for years, but I’ve never really studied a British-style border. How do they get pop week after week? I knew exactly the source to turn to: Christopher Lloyd.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Spring Inspirations: What I’m Planting this Year

Last year, my wife and I began smothering large sections of lawn in the house we moved into. We decided to create two very different garden zones on each side of the house. On one side, we’d have a traditional perennial border—an area we could constantly fuss and change. On the other side of the house, we are planning a native garden inspired by a woodland opening. The two gardens will be a kind of yin/yang—one fussy, self-conscious, and highly maintained; the other simple and evocative of particular moment in nature.

So while the future native garden is being smothered, we are busily adjusting the border. For perennial borders, my formula for creating them has gotten simpler over the years. First, I start with a handful of simple base plants (typically filler plants like grasses and reliable perennials) and then add accents plants with annuals, bulbs, and ephemerals. What I like about this formula is that I don’t have to replace the entire border to do something new. But with annuals and bulbs, I can change enough of the accents so that the border looks entirely different from year to year.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring Fever: The Latter Phase

My spring mania is finally tempering, and fortunately, I did not hurt anyone in a plant-induced craze. Except my wallet, of course. My house still looks a band of maraudering garden pirates attacked it--seed packets are still strewn all over the house; my bedside table is a precarious stack of plant catalogues and garden books; and you can follow the trail of dirt-covered shovels, trowels, and soup spoons from the bedroom to the back door—which remains permanently open in the last few weeks.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thomas Rainer to Speak at LAHR Symposium

I'm pumped about attending this year's annual LAHR Symposium hosted by the U.S. National Arboretum.  I will be speaking on "Contemporary Planting Design Using Native Plants."  It is a part rant and part how-to speech that looks at how to artfully abstract native plant communities into bold, modern garden spaces.

This year's theme for the symposium is described as "Inspiring New Directions."  Here is the official blurb:

The 26th annual Lahr Symposium explores the work of landscape architects, authors, and gardeners who were inspired by native plants to change their career paths to pursue unique callings. From journalist turned naturalist to researcher turned native fruit aficionado, these individuals explain how native plants have influenced their work. Learn how native plants can foster creativity in the garden and inspire new insights into nature and landscape design.

For complete program details, including a map and directions, see the Lahr Symposium brochure .  Registration fee includes lunch and early access to the Native Plant Sale. Fee: $89 ($71 FONA) Registration required.

Note: This year the symposium will be held at the Beltsville Area Research Center at 10300 Baltimore Blvd, Beltsville, MD.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring Fever

It happens every year about this time. The soil warms and roots begin to stir. The slant of light from my window grows a bit longer. A few subtle shifts—a few degrees of warmth, a few minutes more of light—and I erupt into a fit of howling lunacy.

When the earth shifts, it is like some enzyme gets triggered in my brain that tips everything off balance. I become plant obsessed, soil obsessed, garden obsessed. Yes, I am fully aware that when it comes to plants, I am already borderline obsessive. Already I write, teach, speak, and make my livelihood with horticulture and landscape. But in spring, my seemingly controlled curiosities turn into wild hysteria.

Remember how Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk, right? It feels exactly like that, except without the muscles (could have used those . . .) Mild mannered landscape architect turns into raving plant lunatic. The other night, I awoke at four in the morning thinking about the soil in my garden. Did it have too much organic matter? Should I move some leaf mulch over against the house? Which edging should I use for the path I’m planning in the border? Fieldstone? Can I get it square enough? How would I set that so that it looks crisp? And what plant would work best with those brown colors in the stone? It needs to pop, so maybe orangish—no, that won’t work next to all those red blooming plants.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012 Speeches

For readers in the Washington, D.C. metro area, there will be several opportunities to hear me speak about topics related to my blog posts.  Here's how the schedule is lining up:

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why We Plant.

Garden design magazines and blogs dedicate a lot of space to answering the questions "how" and "what" to plant.  But in the last few weeks, I've become rather fascinated with the question: why do we design with plants?  In many ways, planting design is one of the most frivolous, silly activities I can think of. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter. But it is certainly not necessary, like paychecks or vaccines or heart surgery. It is a pure extravagance, something we do for our own pleasure.

We can survive without gardens, yes, but the question is, can we live without them? What I love about plants, in particular, is their ability to reveal the invisible world. The way a grass moves in the wind, or the way a seedhead glows when backlit by the setting sun. The goal of great planting design is not simply to arrange pretty plants in pretty patterns. When garden design becomes another form of interior decorating, it loses its soul. No, what interests me is creating landscapes that are more alive than we are, but in a completely different way. When we enter into a landscape brimming with life and let that life enter into us, let it move through us, then we get a glimpse of the horizon we were created for.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Perennials to Interplant in Grasses

Of all my plant obsessions, herbaceous plants are among my favorites. Several years back, I remember walking through the woods with a colleague, a tree expert. After several hundred yards, we laughed at each other. He was always looking up at the canopies, and I was always looking down at the ground—scanning the forest floor for herbaceous plants. It is my perpetual posture: head down, scanning right to left.

Amorpha canescens
As a perpetual ground-scanner, I’ve recently had a revelation about the way many perennials and grasses are meant to grow together. This revelation has influenced the way I design.

It’s actually quite simple: many perennials from meadow/prairie ecosystems have evolved to grow within a matrix of grasses. While that is not a particularly ground-breaking concept, it does challenge the way many perennial gardeners arrange their plants. Most perennial gardens focus heavily on forbs (blooming perennials) that are scattered one by one in planting beds. Grasses, if used at all, tend to be added as specimens or accents. But if you consider the way most meadow perennials grow, this ratio should be reversed. The grasses are meant to be the dominant plants with forbs emerging through this matrix.

Consider the morphology of an Echinacea (Cone Flower). Echinaceas typically have low basal foliage and tall spindly stems which support the flowers. This very structure is designed to help the plant grow out of a lot of grasses. The low foliage first emerges in late spring before the warm season grasses emerge, grabbing sunlight to ready the plant for its flowering. Once the grasses put on their height, the Cone Flower sends up its flowers on delicate stalks. The grasses support the flower (like a stake). If you’ve ever had perennials flop over, it may be because it is missing its support system.

As a gardener or designer, this does not mean that your perennial gardens need to be mostly grasses. It does, however, provide a real opportunity for people interested in designing with ornamental grasses. I love the look of large masses of ornamental grasses in a landscape. They are easy, low maintenance, have a long season of interest (particularly in winter), and add a wonderful looseness and spontaneity to a landscape.

Dalea purpurea growing in grasses

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