Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for the Garden

January is one of the best times for thinking about the garden.   While plants rest in dormancy under the frozen ground, my mind starts racing next spring’s garden.  It’s particularly true this year.  Last month, my wife and I bought a house in Arlington, Virginia.  It’s an ugly 1951 rambler that needs quite a bit of work (the real estate ad said “ignored, not abused.  As-is condition”).  But it was a great deal, and has a nice-sized sunny yard that I can’t stop thinking about.  I redesign it every other day.  I keep moving around the different gardens I’d like to have in it. 
My I-can’t-live-without list includes a potager (the French counterpart to the English kitchen garden), a cutting garden, a wild garden, an herbaceous border with a color theme (maybe oranges, saffrons, corals . . . I’m mad about orange this year), some boxwood or yews clipped into dreamy shapes, a potting shed . . . the list goes on and on.  Of course, all this has to be done with almost no budget (the money evaporated with the down payment), so perhaps I’ll have to collect seeds from the wild.  Or steal cuttings from the neighbors under the cover of darkness.
All of this dreamy delirium needs to be harnessed with some disciplined New Year’s resolutions.   Here I’m proposing some of my garden resolutions for 2011.  Perhaps some of them will inspire your garden resolutions.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolution #1: Blog More

Well, I’m hoping that my last post about the joys of being a new parent was a plausible excuse for my lack of blogging recently.  The last several weeks have been a whirlwind including buying a new home, taking a job teaching planting design at George Washington University at night, and tending to my little one.  But thanks to super blogger Susan Harris for nudging me back onto the laptop.  Her recent article in Garden Rant, one of my favorite garden blogs, was great motivation for me to jump back into blogging.  Thanks, Susan.
So if there’s anyone still out there reading this, look out this week for a new articles on “Garden Resolutions for 2011” and “Trends in the Landscape for 2011.”  Wishing you all a joyous and bountiful 2011!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New Manliness: Machismo through Dirty Diapers and Gardening?

Just this week, I read an article in Newsweek that asked a very interesting question: “what’s the matter with men?”  For several years, the media has declared that men are “in decline.”  In 2000 Christina Hoff Sommers pronounced that there is a “war against boys,” claiming that the American education system puts down boys.  This summer, The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin bluntly stated that “The End of Men” is here.
The articles are a reaction to a slate of new research that shows men slipping on a variety of societal measures.  This year was the first time in U.S. history where women have become the majority of the workforce.  For every two men who get a college degree, there are three women who receive diplomas.  In big cities, single, young, childless women earn 8% more than men on average.  Those trends have been exacerbated by the Great Recession, which gutted male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing.  The statistical areas where men clearly lead women—“alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, violence, criminality”—paint a grim picture of the modern man (Newsweek).   Hanna Rosin poses the profound question, “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”
So what’s a guy to do?  Here I would like to present a few suggestions.  Of course, I am no sociologist, anthropologist, or minister—I have no particular qualifications to diagnose this malady.  And to be honest, no one has ever mistaken me for a lumberjack, an oil rigger, or a cowboy.   The only thing I can offer is a few reflections from my own recent life experience. I’ve discovered a resurgence of masculinity through two traditionally feminine arts: parenting and gardening. 
This month my wife and I had our first child, a son.  Like all new parents, our first month has been a flurry of dirty diapers, sleepless nights, endless feedings, and shattered schedules.  My life as I knew it four weeks ago has been flipped upside down, macerated, and then steamrolled by our own 8 pound wrecking ball.  But in the midst of this chaos, I’ve felt a curious resurgence of masculinity.  This was initially puzzling to me.  After all, my last month has been a litany of domestic chores: wiping bottoms, cooking meals, washing clothes, and generally keeping up the house.  As my wife recovers from a complicated delivery, my role at home has exploded, and I look a heck of a lot more like Mr. Mom than Mr. T.  If anything, I expected this new role to feel more feminine, a softer version of my former self.  Instead, I feel more like a dude than I’ve felt in years.  Why? 
At its heart, masculinity is really about utility, potency, resourcefulness, and controlled physicality.  In caring for my child, doing my job, and taking care of the home, I feel a renewed sense of vigor and usefulness that I have not felt before.  Earlier this week, I stood at the stove making a roux for a gumbo with one arm, and holding my infant with the other.  All the time I was completely aware that I had become a feminine stereotype.  Yet my son slept comfortably, and my gumbo was a total success.  Instead of feeling girly, I felt competent, creative, and handy. 

This revelation has made me somewhat skeptical of the resurgence of retro-manliness.  Advertising and entertainment has exploited modern man’s angst by returning to dusty old narratives of masculinity—the rugged outdoorsman (Marlboro Man), the urban gangster (hip hop music), the retro corporate guy (Don Draper)—but these images miss the point.  “The truth is, it’s not how men style themselves that will make them whole again—it’s what they do with their days,” says Newsweek writers Romano and Dokoupil. 
The goal of feminism was to gain equality for women by pushing them into roles traditionally reserved for men.  This has largely been successful.   And for the most part, women have not had to abandon femininity.  Why shouldn’t the same be true with men?  The path to the new manliness is not to retreat to the woods or hide inside one’s tool shed; instead, we should start by engaging in the home.  We need a definition of macho that includes home-making as well as home improvement projects.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as the expectation for fathers is still sadly low.  Just last week, my father-in-law came to town to visit the baby and remarked, “you’re a great dad” simply because I held the baby for about an hour.  Would he have come to the same conclusion if my wife were holding him at that moment?  I doubt it.  When it comes to the home, there’s much room for men to grow.
WWII poster promoting manly gardening. 
From the National Agricultural Library.
Like parenting, gardening is the other odd place I always feel like a dude.   Of course, this too is at odds with the traditional image.  Yard work (particularly anything involving power tools) was for men, while ornamental gardening typically is left to women.  My friend from college jokingly calls me a “pansy-ass flower guy” whenever he refers to my profession.  Yet my experience runs entirely counter to this stereotype.  Gardening to me is the most creative, physically engaging, and potent activities I know.  Breaking the ground, creating spaces, working outside . . . these activities are that perfect combination of physical and mental challenge. 
In essence, the point of rediscovering masculinity (or femininity for that matter) is not just about gender identity; it is an attempt to rediscover our humanity in a postmodern age.  For me, the antidote to the hundreds of hours a month I spend in a cubicle staring at a computer screen is engaging in my family or my garden.  These are the activities that make me feel not only masculine, but human.  My theologian friend reminds me that the etymology of the word “human” is the same as the word for “humus” or dirt.  We are meant to be in relationship with each other; we are meant to be in relationship with the earth.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Park(ing) Day 2010

PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.

The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!

This year's Park(ing) Day was held on September 17 and featured over 700 parks in over 21 countries.  Check out photos from the event.

For more information about Park(ing), visit the official website:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seed Saving: A September Ritual that is Good for the Planet and your Soul

Late September is an ideal time to think about next year’s garden.  Collecting and saving seeds might be the world’s most ancient garden activity, and one of the most rewarding.  Why should you consider saving seeds?  Especially when there are so many great seed companies available?
First, it’s insanely economical.   Remember the sticker shock you got in spring at your local nursery when you HAD TO HAVE those 12 new plants?  Collecting and saving seeds cost you almost nothing.  Not only is it cheap, but it’s good for the earth.  Why?
Propagating plants from collected seed preserves the genetic diversity of open pollinated plants.  Most of the plants you buy in a nursery are propagated by some means of asexual reproduction, often through techniques like tissue culture.  While asexual reproduction guarantees you the same ornamental characteristics of the plant’s parent, all of the offspring are genetic clones of the parent.  In nature, the vast majority of flowering plants develop seeds by being pollinated openly by insects.  This means each pollinated plants gets mixed with the genetic material of another plant close by, resulting in more genetic variation.  More genetic variation creates new strains of plants that are often tougher and more resilient than their parents. 
Paper envelopes available here.
Heirloom fruits and vegetables are all the rage these days, and for good reason.  Most of the great heirlooms were the result of open pollination.  Plants that reproduce through natural means tend to adapt to local conditions over time and evolve as reliable performers.  Over the last 100 years, we’ve lost literally thousands of varieties of vegetables and flowers due to a reliance on commercial hybrid seed.  Overuse of hybrids and asexual reproduction has eroded the gene pool.  Collecting and saving your own seeds creates stronger, healthier, and more genetically diverse plants.
First time seed savers may want to collect from species that are easy to sow.  Most annuals and some perennials such as zinnias, basil, arugula, chives, borage, catnip, dill, parsley, mint, monarda, lemon balm, summer savory, and anise hyssop are easy to collect and sow again the in spring.  As you get the hang of seed collecting, try more challenging plants. 
Here are some tips for seed saving in your garden:
1. Understand the plant’s anatomy: 
Each plant has evolved remarkable techniques for developing and dispersing seed.  The first time I tried to collect seeds from my Acanthus hungaricus, I was rudely alerted to the fact that Acanthus actually catapult their seed through the air.  When touched, the dried fruits exploded from tension of it members and literally shot seeds across the yard.  I lost most of the seeds.  After doing some research, I learned how to put a bag over the dried fruits before picking them.    Some plants seeds are so small, they must be shaken in a paper bag.  Each plant is unique and learning their reproductive strategies is an entirely fascinating journey.  Do a little research first.
2.  Find out if your plant sterile:
If your plant originated from a nursery, it may produce sterile seeds.  Corporations are producing cultivars that cannot be reproduced (to protect their patent and profits).  Many popular cultivars can only be reproduced asexually.  Check the internet to see if the species and cultivar of your plant is able to seed.
3.  Make sure the seeds are ready to harvest: 
If the flower or fruit of the plant is still green or wet, it’s probably too early to harvest.  After the flowers fade and start to turn brown, it’s time to cut and dry the seeds.  It will probably take another few weeks of drying before the seed is ready to store.  Wet seeds can create fungus and other undesirable diseases.
4.  Dry the seeds in a dark, well-ventilated area:  Bright sunlight can actually kill a seed, and too damp an area spreads fungus.
5. Sift seeds through a sieve or colander: This helps to remove plant fragments from the seed.
6.  Use paper envelopes, not plastic:  Paper allows for a modest amount of transpiration, whereas plastic holds moisture. 
7. Label your packet: Remember to write the name of the plant, where and how you collected it, and the date.  This will prove entirely valuable a year or two down the road. 
To learn more about seed saving, check out these links:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Garden Featured in the Hill Rag Magazine

My most beloved garden was honored in this month's Hill Rag magazine as one of "Five Great Corner Gardens: Our Annual Paen to the Hill's Urban Gardeners."  The garden is the parsonage for the pastor of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church.  I designed the garden in collaboration with the previous pastor Ginger Gaines Cirelli and her husband Anthony.  Ginger and Anthony were both avid cooks, so the idea for the garden was to combine an herb garden with an oramental flower garden. 

This garden concept was popular for church gardens in Charlemagne's time.  In France, they are called jardins de cure or jardins de simple in reference to the unpretentious gardens the priest cultivated in the churchyard. These gardens used both edible and medicinal plants as well as flowers for the altar.   Food writer Patricia Wells described these lost medieval gardens, "Whatever is grown in a traditional jardin de cure, it should give the impression of profusion, mystery, and surprise and evoke the simple pleasures of life."

Hakonechloa macra, Chasmanthium latifolium, Hydrangea 'Limelight', Acanthus hungaricus, Nepeta 'Walker's Low', and Nasella tenuissima.

The Hill Rag writes:

This is a great example of beach garden meets Victorian herb garden.  The garden is well proportioned since it sits on a raised wall and the homeowners have made sure there are not any oversized plantings.  The garden skirts the home and is a melding of the best of two garden styles.  The grasses and bear's breeches are reminiscent of a beach side garden.  The roses and annuals would be found in the best of both garden styles and the lavender and mint are perfect specimens of the formal herb garden.  Large oversized field stone steppers are both functional and add the right amount of drama.  The garden is full and lush, but not messy and unkempt.  Urban tranquility.  Derek Thomas

Perennials, grasses, and shrubs are composed on site before installation.
Mazus reptans blooms in May between large Pensylvania boulders.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Project Featured in Maine Home+Design

The site of Winslow Homer's iconic paintings is the setting for a modern Maine summer house. Photo by Thomas Rainer
One of my favorite projects I worked on is featured in this month's Maine Home + Design magazine.  The August 2010 issue features the residential garden located on the rocky coast of southern Maine.  The house is perched atop the craggy cliffs of Prout's Neck, a sleepy penisula that juts into Casco Bay.  It was one of the most stunning sites I've ever worked on.  A ferny hemlock and birch forest opens into a perfectly flat lawn that overlooks dramatic black cliffs that plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.  Indeed, the coastline is so dramatic that Winslow Homer painted some of his most iconic watercolors on this exact site.
Deschampsia caespitosa frames the oceanside lawn.  Photo by Francois Gagne.
The project began five years ago while I was with Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.  Principal Eric Groft set the tone for the project by insisting the garden not be overly fussy.   The house is a Maine summer house, after all, and the garden is meant to capture the spirit of a midsummer retreat.  The local zoning code excluded any impervious surfaces on the ocean side of the property, so that became the place for a small lawn.  Since the lawn borders the dramatic wind-shearn cliffs, we wanted to keep it natural and relaxed, so native grasses such as Panicum and Deschampsia mix with Monarda and Rudbeckias.  The lawn became the obvious place for the client's children to play raquetball or other summer sports. 

A timber frame pergola anchors the wild garden in the front of the house. Pot by Maine based Lunaform.  Photo by Francois Gagne.

Since the ocean side was so simple, the front of the house is where we added a bit of intricacy.  Eric suggested we look at the Beatrix Farrand's palette at Reef Point.  This became the inspiration for the wild garden in the front.  A low stone wall frames the entry garden.  Outside of the wall, we planted blueberry sod purchased from a nearby Maine farmer who was converting part of his fields into pasture.  The sod blends into a riot of deciduous ferns and bunchberry that spreads from a nearby stand of woods.  Inside of the entry garden, a blue and chartreuse themed wild garden teems with delphiniums, iris, goatsbeard, and globe flowers.  A large, timber frame pergola anchors the south side of the garden.  Learning how to design and construct this pergola was a real education for me in the ancient craft of timber-frame construction.  The entire structure is held together without a single nail.   

The entry garden is framed by a low stone wall that holds a Maine style cottage garden. Photo by Thomas Rainer.

The path to the ocean side passes panicle hydrangeas and native Clethra 'Hummingbird'.  Photo by Thomas Rainer.
The other joy of this project was working with local Maine craftsman to adorn the garden.  Maine based Lunaform supplied the large hand-crafted planters that animate the entry garden.  Their collection of rugged but perfectly proportioned pots were ideal for this site.  Maine firm Weatherend supplied one of the curved settee benches, while New Mexico artist Benjamin Forgey created the other bench out of driftwood he collected. 
A gently curving lawn is bordered by native cedars, switchgrass, and black eyed susans.  Photo by Thomas Rainer
It was indeed a rare privilege to work on a site with so much character and to work with such skilled craftsmen.  Designing the details of this project and managing its installation was a great learning experience for me.  Eric Groft's intuitive and gestural approach to designing landscapes--what you feel a site should be--is something that has stayed with me until today.  It's hard for a young designer to learn to trust your gut, to hold on to those first impressions you had when you walked onto the site.  It's especially hard once you throw in all the demands of a project: the client's wishlist, the regulatory constraints, the horticultural requirements . . . all those things start to cloud that original vision.  But the best designers know how to listen to their instincts and simplify.  When I look at photos of the garden, I remember the first quick lines Eric drew on the survey.  Those first gestures were preserved through the design and installation, and it is those lines--those gut-level responses to a powerful site--that hold the garden together today. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Ecological Restoration Just Gardening?

Lagoon Park in Santa Barbara by Van Atta Associates.  Photo by Saxon Holt
I recently read a wonderful and thought-provoking article by Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Del Tredici has been on my radar since he published a subtly subversive book called Wild Urban Plants that I reviewed earlier this spring. This new article posits the question: “Is ‘landscape restoration’ really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology?’. Here is a bit more context:

“Implicit in the proposals that call for the control and/or eradication of invasive species is the assumption that the native vegetation will return to dominance once the invasive is removed, thereby restoring the “balance of nature.” That’s the theory. The reality is something else. Land managers and others who have to deal with the invasive problem on a daily basis know that often as not the old invasive comes back following eradication (reproducing from root sprouts or seeds), or else a new invader moves in to replace the old one. The only thing that seems to turn this dynamic around is cutting down the invasives, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species in the gaps where the invasives once were. After this, the sites require weeding of invasives for an indefinite number of years, at least until the natives are big enough to hold their ground without human assistance.

What’s striking about this so-called restoration process is that it looks an awful lot like gardening, with its ongoing need for planting and weeding. Call it what you will, but anyone who has ever worked in the garden knows that planting and weeding are endless. So the question becomes: Is “landscape restoration” really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology, or is it based on scientific theories with testable hypotheses? To put it another way: Can we put the invasive species genie back in the bottle, or are we looking at a future in which nature itself becomes a cultivated entity?”  Peter Del Tredici from "Neocreationism and the Illusion of Ecological Restoration," Harvard Design Magazine.

I’ll confess: I am not an ecologist or an expert at ecological restoration. I have, however, worked with ecological restoration experts like Rutger’s Steven Handel. Consider my recent experience on a two thousand-acre agricultural site that we intended to convert into a mosaic of different native habitats. After going through the process of analyzing the site and preparing a restoration concept, my impression was that restoration was really not that different from the design process I use for any ornamental landscape. Obviously, the goals were different and our application of native habitats was based in a much more thorough site analysis. But the end result was the same: we imposed a human concept of what “nature” should be on the site. The end result would be entirely artificial and constructed.
Vernal Pool created in an area that once wasa parking. Van Atta Associates. Photo by Saxon Holt
In addition, our constructed “native” landscape would require years of intensive maintenance to get it established, and decades of ongoing management to keep it native. After this experience, Del Tredici’s analogy to gardening resonated with me.

Del Tredici’s conclusion for designers and gardeners is to “not to limit themselves to a palette of native species that might once have grown on the site.” He argues for using plants that will tolerate the conditions of the site, native or not, particularly in the tough urban conditions.

I have two responses to the article. The first is to agree with Del Tredici’s claim that ecological restoration creates “entirely artificial and constructed” landscapes. It’s absolutely true. It bursts the romantic notion that we can bring back plant and animal communities as they existed before Columbus arrived. It also challenges the myth that native plants are natural, good, low maintenance, and self-sustaining. They aren’t. They require human intervention. The sooner we can lose the mythology that “nature” will come back one day, the sooner we can get to the real work of creating entirely artificial, native landscapes that perform essential ecological services.  See my posting here for more on this.

Boardwalk at Lagoon Park in Santa Barbara by Van Atta Associates. Photo by Saxon Holt
Secondly, I disagree somewhat with Del Tredici’s direction that designers abandon the native only approach. I certainly don’t mind using some non-natives. But implicit in Del Tredici’s assumption is that natives are somehow weaker or less adaptive to the tough conditions of an urban site than some non-natives. I entirely disagree with this point.

Of course, some natives—many of which are ubiquitous in the nursery trade—are not tough enough for urban sites. The natives that are widely available in the nursery trade are mostly selected for their ornamental value. We’ve hardly explored the full potential of native systems to address the environmental challenges of the day. To judge the adaptability of native plants based on the scant selection of natives that are currently available in the trade is preposterous. Mark Simmons, a researcher at The Lady Bird Johnson Center, is doing research that proves that many native plants are much tougher than non-natives and capable of solving many of our environmental problems. I will feature an article on his research later this month.

I love articles like Del Tredici’s. The debate over natives vs. exotic plants is really a debate about what is natural. I look forward to the day when we drop our romantic notions about nature existing somewhere “out there,” and can start to focus improving the ecology of the human-impacted landscapes that we encounter every day.

What do you think?  I would love to hear other reactions to Del Tredici's article, especially any who have some experience or thoughts about ecological restoration.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Landscape Architecture versus The Garden

Between Two Worlds

I am a landscape architect by profession. It is a career I chose out of passion and calling. I love the nobility of the profession’s history. Frederick Law Olmsted’s sweeping democratic vision created parks that made America’s great cities habitable after the Industrial Revolution. I love the expansive scope of the profession. Landscape architects design almost any site under the open sky, including highways and bridges, water treatment plants and power lines, urban plazas and parks, green roofs and greenways. I love the breadth and diversity of projects. In the last two months, I spent one day wading through a woodland swamp, one day in the Library of Congress researching historic letters, one day sketching a plan for a three-acre urban park, and one day designing a high speed race track. Next month will be entirely different.

Yet despite my love for landscape architecture, it is the garden that I keep returning to. The garden speaks to my intellect, my emotion, and my spirit. I am beginning to understand why Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho calls himself a ‘gardener’ rather than a landscape architect. “I say ‘gardener,’” says Caruncho, “because this mythical word belongs to mankind and contains memories of our purest origins, so full of resonance and touching aspects both elemental and fragile.”

What’s the difference between landscape architecture and gardening? Some have described the difference between the garden and landscape architect as a matter of scale. The garden is simply a more concentrated version of landscape architecture. Gardens are to landscape architecture what poetry is to prose. But I think the differences are more profound. Each discipline involves a different approach to land.

Corporate Headquarters, San Francisco.  OLIN.  Photo by Marion Brenner
Landscape architecture adopts an essentially rationalistic approach to analyzing land; after all, the profession emerges from a hybrid of architecture, engineering, horticulture, and ecology. The term landscape can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which refers not to land but to a picture of land. Landscape architecture creates a concept of land, an idea of what land should be, and then executes it. Celebrated landscape architect James Corner writes, “Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imaging.” It is this imaging or conceptualization that is the hallmark of the practice.

Image from The Ministry for Food, 1941
Gardening, on the other hand, is essentially relational. It is not about a picture or an idea for a piece of land, but about a personal relationship with a piece of land. Literary critic and garden theorist John Dixon Hunt calls gardens a third nature. Resurrecting concepts from the golden age of Italian gardens, Hunt recounts that the First Nature is wilderness, an undomesticated wild that predates man; the Second Nature is man-made agriculture and towns. The garden resides between these two zones. Gardens are a third nature, a place where art and thought are in relationship with nature.

One of the themes of this blog is to advocate for gardening. Garden more, garden now, just get out there and garden. What we need now is not so much a new concept for re-shaping land, or a new image for landscape. What we need now more than ever is to be in relationship with land. The blessings that flow from this engagement are myriad and mighty. Be absorbed in a garden: I can think of no purer expression of the human condition.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Plant Local: Provenance Matters

The dramatic shift toward native and sustainable gardening in the last decade is remarkable. As images of giant plumes of oil spilling into the Gulf gave us all reason to despair, I drew deep comfort from seeing so many fellow gardeners join the green revolution by converting their plots into islands of biodiversity, or by plowing up their lawns and planting vegetable gardens. These small acts of resistance are reasons to hope.

Plants being propagated by tissue culture in a lab.
As the use of native plants in gardens has moved from fringe activity to mainstream practice, gardeners need to pay attention to where their native plants come from. Here’s the problem: the vast majority of plants in the nursery trade, natives included, are being mass propagated from a relatively small gene pool. For example, consider the meteoric rise of the use of tissue cultures to propagate plant. Nurseries select unique or beautiful cultivars of a plant, say for example, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’—a truly vigorous and ornamental native shrub. They want to reproduce the ornamental characteristics of this exact plant and at the same time eliminate the possibility of genetic variation or aberrations. So they take samples of the plants tissues (such as a stem tip, node, or meristem), place it in a sterile nutrient medium and allow it to multiply. In this artificial environment, propagators can develop roots, multiply the number of plantlets, or create new embryos for artificial seed.

Now as weird science as all of this sounds, it’s not terribly different than taking a cutting of your favorite plant to share with a friend. The great advantage of tissue culture—and other asexual propagation techniques—is that it creates predictable plants. Gardeners can be guaranteed that the Itea virginica they purchased will have the deep crimson fall color, the prolific blooms, and the cascading stems of the ‘Henry’s Garnet’ cultivar. It also offers a much-needed alternative to native plants that were taken from the wild, a once prevalent practice.

The great problem with asexual propagation is that as we lose native habitats to development, the natives we are replacing them with represent a much narrower genetic pool than what existed. More often than not, the native plant you buy at your local retail nursery was probably populated by tissue culture from a native population somewhere far away. For example, how native is a plant that was derived from a source in Tennessee, propagated in a petri dish in Oregon, shipped as a liner plant to Michigan, and then delivered to a retail nursery in Massachusetts? By the time that plant hits your garden, its passport is full.
On the left, an unplanted Panicum in Texas (photo by Rick Darke); on the right, the Panicum cultivar 'Cloud Nine'
Why should you care if your Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ came from a tissue culture that originated from a plant in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania when you live in Alabama?  Because it could affect the performance of your plant. Plants have phenotypic variation associated with geographic sources that allow plants to adapt to the stresses of a particular locality. Local populations have adapted over thousands of years to the particular region, developing what biologists call alleles, or alternative forms of gene. An Itea from Alabama may have alleles that allow it to adapt to high humidity, while the Pennsylvania Itea might be more cold-hardy.

Provenance matters. Right now the native plant movement still relies on horticultural approach to plants—one that focuses on ornamental characteristics of plants without concern for the plant’s provenance or community. By doing this, we lose not only the allelic diversity of local plants, but also the aesthetic appeal of plants that have been perfectly evolved to a specific region.

Left: Liatris scariosa var. novae angliae only exists on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket; Right: Liatris spicata from the Midwest
Consider another example. I worked on a few projects on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard where we sold the clients on the concept of a mostly native landscape. We worked with a local meadow specialist who pointed out that several of the native species we were considering had unique varieties on the island. For example, we wanted to use Panicum virgatum, but learned that the Panicum native to the islands looked completely different than Panicum you see in the tall grass prairies of the Midwest. The island Panicum was short and had this wonderful vase-like profile, whereas the Panicum evolved in the prairies was tall and upright. We also learned that the island had its own unique species of Liatris (Liatris scariosa var. novae angliae) that had evolved to stand up in the wind and salt of the islands much better than the Liatris spicata being sold on the main land. For one project, we ended up using a local propagator who grew all his plants from seeds collected on the island. Not only did we preserve the allelic diversity of the island’s plants, but our finished garden fit into the context much better than if we had used tissue-culture natives from Midwestern sources.

The copper tones of Little Bluestem collected from local seed sources have a deeper color than Little Bluestem from off island..
So how can you truly plant locally? Gardeners should support nurseries that propagate natives from local populations. If you’re not sure, ask your local nursery owner where he or she gets her plants. This strategy has been remarkably successful in supermarkets; it can work for the nursery trade as well. Choose seed sources that you know are harvested from local populations. Or even better, learn how to sustainably collect seed from wild populations. There’s nothing quite as grounding or satisfying as going into a wild landscape, gathering seed, and then raising that plant in your garden. Go local with your garden. I promise, you will love it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

All You Need to Know


Gardeners: throw away those glossy coffee table books. Everything you need to learn is in the black and white planting plans of the great designers.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing to teach a planting design class for the George Washington University professional studies program. It is a program that teaches aspiring garden designers the basics of contemporary garden design. As a part of that preparation, I’ve gone through my garden books, project photographs, old magazines, and my personal image collection in search for the raw material to teach planting design.

In that process, what’s become clear to me is the utter uselessness of glossy photographs. If you’ve ever taken a great photo of your garden, you know that a beautiful photo has as much to do with the time of day, the quality of light and the tight cropping of the photo than it does the skill or composition of the gardener. I’m not saying one can take good garden photos without a good garden. But let’s face it: photos tell only part of the story. They speak of one corner of the garden during a single moment in time. Scroll through the myriad of garden blogs out there on the internet. The vast majority are tight close-ups on a single flower or group of flowers. Rarely do they show you the entire garden, or even a large part of the garden.

The garden publishing industry only makes it worse. The tyranny of the glossy photo dominates the medium. We consume books full of sugary garden moments, but have lost our appetite for meaty garden writing or design discourse.

But there is an alternative. Seek and collect planting plans of great designers. These inglorious black and white diagrams filled with obscure Latin names tell the real story of the design. Like a piece of sheet music, these diagrams communicate the structure, rhythm, detail, and score of the original design. From these plans, one learns the scale of the massings, the plant combinations, and the balance of the composition.

For example, I recently came across Piet Oudolf’s plan for the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millenium Park. I printed out this plan and have spent hours studying it. It’s fascinating in that it demystifies much of Oudolf’s technique. The most photographed part of the design is his massive river of salvias that runs through the middle of the field, a moment of striking clarity in the midst of an otherwise intricate design. From his plan, I’ve learned that the river is composed of at least four different cultivars of salvia, adding slight color variation (giving the river depth) and extending the season of bloom. I also noticed that he interplants the grasses Panicum virgatum and Sporobolus heterolepsis through one section of the river, allowing it to disappear later in summer when the grasses emerge.

The southern section of Piet Oudolf's plan for the Lurie Garden
Or take a look at the southern section of the plan. This is the most fascinating part to me. Whereas most of the design has a single plant located in a single spot (not dissimilar from a Gertrude Jekyll plan), the southern section is more complex. The plan indicates a field of Molinia caerulea ‘Moorflamme’ that has four or five perennials that emerge out of this matrix. It’s almost as if there’s two melodies going on at once, the sweeping score of the grasses and the counterpoint of the Silphium, Echinacea, and Eryngiums. This style of designing is subtle, yet revolutionary. It’s the first real step toward garden design based on ecological succession. For me, this is why native plants arranged in traditional border arrangements are so dissatisfying. These plants have evolved to grow within a matrix of other species. Oudolf’s arrangement preserves the beauty of these relationships.

Gertrude Jekyll's Impressionistic plan; Roberto Burle Marx's cubist inspired planting plan.

Other planting plans are equally revealing. Compare Gertrude Jekyll’s impressionist-styled planting plans with Roberto Burle Marx’s cubist-styled planting plans. The plans become a key to understanding the most elusive aspect of planting design: style.

But why study a two-dimensional plan when a garden is an ephemeral, three-dimensional medium? Doesn’t this bias the initial act of creation over the garden over its lifetime? Yes, it’s true, gardens often outlive the initial act of creation, and it’s the acts of maintenance and gardening that ultimately determine the way a garden looks. So get out there and visit gardens in person. No plan can substitute for firsthand experience. I would encourage gardeners to take plans with them when they see a garden in person. Your experience will be so much fuller.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Can You Spoil Plants?

Is it possible to spoil a plant?  According to science, the answer may be 'yes.'

After a wet spring, this past June was the hottest month on record in the Washington, D.C. area. As a result of this dramatic shift, I have watched my planted darlings go from plump, fat hens to emaciated whips, all in a period of a few weeks. Which makes me wonder: did all of the watering, feeding, and coddling I did in the early spring (when my garden fever is at its peak) actually spoil my plants? Did my overindulgence make them unprepared for the hot, grueling summer? Is it actually possible to spoil a plant?

Turns out, the answer may be ‘yes.’ I consulted plant science guru William Cullina whose recent book Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old Favorite had some revealing answers.  According to Cullina, an abundance of water and nutrients is a signal to plants that it is ok to grow, whereas drought signals to the plant that it is time to cut back. Over watering and over feeding, particularly in a closed environment like a planter, can be a problem once you stop. Just like a person who gets used to a large income, and then has a sudden decrease in salary, plants also struggle at sudden shifts.

In most areas, the amount of rainfall and available nutrients varies during different times of the year. In the eastern U.S., the month of May has a highest average rainfall of the year, while September is significantly lower. Plants adjust slightly to feast or famine by transpiring at higher or lower levels. After a soaking rain, the soil is saturated and roots can easily absorb water. But as the soil dries, it becomes increasingly hard because the remaining water becomes both progressively dirtier as it is concentrated. Some plants can actually raise the solute levels in their roots to create more osmotic pressure to suck up the water, acting like a built-in pump. However, as the soil gets drier, this phenomenon can actually reverse, causing the soil to pull water out of the plant. This is why fertilizing during drought is a bad idea. Inorganic fertilizers are essentially a mix of salt which actually pulls moisture out of plants.

Sudden drought can be particularly damaging to plants as it causes the root hairs to die and the plant stops growing. This makes absorbing water that much harder because a plant has to re-grow new roots in order to take in new water. Even if the immediate symptoms of drought like wilting and dieback go away, the long term effects of drought linger. To replace dead roots, a plant must use its food reserves it was saving for dormancy and flowering.

“Let’s say you plant a hibiscus in June and water it well for the first two weeks,” explains Cullina, “then you go off on vacation and find the poor thing badly wilted when you return three weeks later. After watering it well over the next three weeks, it appears to recover and even blooms, but then it fails to return the next spring. While cold damage would be the obvious suspect, it is equally likely that drought stress a full six months earlier is to blame.”

The solution to this problem, says Cullina, is to choose plants that are adapted to your region’s average rainfall, and then water them consistently. While the amount of rainfall from year to year may not be predicable, one reality is increasingly clear: water use is quickly outpacing the supply. Gardeners must learn to adapt to the future of water scarcity before it is too late.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Native Plants for the Cottage Garden

Ten Bold Native Plants to Update Granny's Cottage Garden

I recently read a great article in the British Gardens Illustrated magazine that took a fresh look at plants for the traditional cottage garden. I’ve always had a soft spot for cottage gardens, as they are one garden archetype that adapts as well for small American gardens as it does for British ones. Plus, the charming jumble of perennials and shrubs is a truly sustainable model for American gardens. It made me think: can we create an American cottage garden out of a purely native palette?

The answer is a resounding “yes”. American gardeners can have all the advantages of a cottage garden—the romantic appeal, the low maintenance, and the goopy prettiness of it all—with a wildlife-friendly native mix.

The key to designing a successful cottage garden is to create the appearance of abundance in small spaces. Good cottage gardens recall moments of rural landscapes: loose grasses, towering ubellifers, and architectural spires. Here a few design principles for creating a cottage garden:

1. Create volume with herbaceous plants. Good cottage gardens overflow with a voluminous massing of pernnials, grasses, and shrubs. The actual mix of species is less important than creating mass and volume within planting beds.  Americans are notoriously bad at creating this kind of massing.  If you can see mulch in your beds, your plants are too far apart. And don’t use groundcovers; cottage gardens need full, heaping beds of plants that spill over the edges.  As a rule of thumb, use plants that are two to four feet tall on average with accent perennials that reach for the sky.

2. Use a high percentage of filler plants: The trick to making a cottage garden look good year-round is to rely on a base of filler plants. Filler plants are those that lack a distinctive shape and fill in around other plants. Think about baby’s breath in a bouquet of roses. Use ornamental grasses like Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis), or cloudy perennials like Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides) as a base, and then dot in drifts of taller structural plants like Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum). The filler plants typically look good year round and create a backdrop to contrast the real stars of the cottage garden: the structural perennials.

3. Mix a variety of structural flower types: Perhaps the most recognizable feature of cottage gardens are the distinctive mix of  flower types. There’s nothing quite as romantic as a richly layered composition of architectural spires (like Baptisia), button shaped flowers (like Monarda), feathery plumes (like Aruncus), statuesque umbels (like Heracleum), and the bright daisies (like Rudbeckia).

And now, what shall we plant? If you follow the design principles above, the truly great advantage of cottage gardens is that there’s a lot of flexibility about what species you select. Here are some native plants that would be ideal for creating the cottage garden effect.


1. Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis): The colorful spires of Wild Indigo have much of the romantic effect that Foxgloves or Hollyhocks had in the English cottage garden. Used in the back of the border, Wild Indigo doubles as both a filler plant (when not in bloom) and a structural plant (when in bloom). The plant also fixes nitrogen in the soil, actually improves the fertility of your planting beds. If you like yellow in the garden, the cultivar ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is spectacular.

2. Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata): Nothing says grandmother’s garden like the billowing blooms of garden phlox. This sweet, upright perennial reaches 3-4 feet tall, and blooms in late summer when many other perennials are spent. Great for butterflies or hummingbirds. Try some of the newer mildew-resistant cultivars like ‘David’ or ‘Katherine’.

3. Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus): The great William Robinson called Goatsbeard “perhaps the finest plant for the wild garden,” and I would have to agree. This edge-of-the-woods native can handle light shade or full sun if kept moist (if you live in the deep South, keep it in the shade).  In early June, the tangle of raspberry-like foliage erupts into stately cream-colored plumes. Allan Armitage claims that the males are more sought after than the females because they produce fuller blooms, but either is great in the garden.  When it's happy, it can grow as tall as five feet, but it's usually closer to three to four feet tall.  No fence line is complete without this versatile forb.

4. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’): Butterflies can’t resist these big clusters of mauve-pink flowers, especially Swallowtails and Monarchs. ‘Little Joe’ is a more compact cultivar (4-5’) ideal for small gardens. It’s less likely to top over than the sprawling species. 'Little Joe' can handle light shade better than the species, although it does best in sunny, moist soils in the back of the border. This cultivar has all the intense color that 'Gateway' has.

5. White Dome Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’): No cottage garden is complete without a hydgrangea. I like Hydrangea arborescens species because it grows more like a loose perennial than the native Oakleaf hydrangea. The large, flat disks of the cultivar ‘White Dome’ are better suited to the wilder look of a cottage garden than the goopy ‘Annabelle’ cultivar. The lacy white disks highlight the best aspects of the native species while at the same time giving it a bit of that Victorian charm.  ‘White Dome’ also dries beautifully in the winter.

6.  Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum): One of the most overlooked native flowers for the garden is the common Cow Parnsip.  Easily confused with the non-native Queen Anne's Lace (Cow Parsley for you Brits), Heracleum maximum is a dreamy addition to the cottage garden border.  This is the only member of the Hogweed genus native to North America.  In early summer, hummocks of architectural foliage emerge out of the base of the plant, providing a great textural contrast to finer textured perennials and grasses.  Lightly fragrant umbels unfold in late June.  Plant in groups of three of five in the midst of finer textured grasses like Sporobolus or Deschampsia flexuosa for a truly expansive effect.

7.  Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris): I fell in love with this plant while wading through the swamps of the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  The blackgum swamps were about the last place in the world I expected to see a rose, not to mention one as showy as this one is in June.  But there it was, loaded with single pink flowers that attracted a cloud of native bees.  The graceful, arching habit of the shrub was as appealing as the blooms, and bright orange rose hips and brilliant red fall color are some of the other advantages this rose has over it's exotic counterparts.  If you've had trouble raising roses because of damp soil, this plant is your answer. 

8.  Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum): This perennial is a flat-out show stopper, dispelling the myth that native plants are not as showy as their exotic counterparts.  Culver's Root looks like a Veronica on steroids.  Slender white spikes that look like a candelbra crown strikingly upright stems.  It blooms for up to eight weeks in mid-July and will last as long as ten days in a vase. This plant is highly effective in the back of the border where it can be mixed with taller shrubs and grasses.  Plant in clumps of seven or more for a truly dramatic effect.  Culver's Root loves moist soil but will tolerate some drought once it is established.  Newer cultivars like the lavender-colored 'Fascination' and pinky lilac 'Apollo' will make you wonder why you ever even bothered with Foxgloves.

9.  Wavy Hair Grass (Deschampsia flexuosa): Every cottage garden needs grasses.  I don't care how smitten you are with blooms, you must make room in those beds for light catching grasses like Wavy Hair Grass.  Low grasses like these are essential in giving small gardens that expansive effect, recalling larger rural landscapes like meadows or pastures.  This particular grass is a delightful and elegant native that thrives in full hot sun or dry shade.  It can even withstand the heat and humidity of the mid-Atlantic and deep South unlike its better known cousin Deschampsia caespitosa.  In spring it is topped with feathery inflorescences that capture and hold light and sway sleepily in the breeze.  Incredibly tough and attractive year-round.

10.  Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum): My former mentor Wolfgang Oehme introduced me to this plant several years ago, and since then, it has become one of my favorite plants.  This plant is easy to overlook at first, but it will quickly become one of your most effective garden plant.  This waist-high perennial is tolerant of wet or dry, sun or shade.  And it's incredibly vigorous, slowly spreading and filling in between gaps.  Mountain Mint's silvery bracts make it a lovely foil to more brightly colored roses or perennials.  This wonderfully aromatic plant is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies.  So when you plant it, you feel good about all the life you helped to sustain.  Plus, it makes you look good.  Whenever one of my perennial experiments does not work, or I get stuck with a problem spot in the garden, I place Mountain Mint in that spot and it almost always solves the problem. 

11.  Great Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima): Every year I fall a bit more in love with this plant.  The king of all black-eyed susans, this Rudbeckia grows six to seven feet in height, creating a spectacle that will surely draw comments from your neighbors.  Huge powder blue leaves cover the bottom 1/3 of this plant, adding a cool contrast to green grasses or warm colored perennials.   In June and July spikes explode with large deep drooping ray flowers with a dark black center.  Goldfinches loves snacking on the seeds in late summer.  It's easy to develop a relationship with this human-sized plant.  Interplant this among low grasses or filler perennials.

Ok, gardeners, those are my top picks.  What other American natives am I leaving out that would be perfect for the cottage garden? 

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