Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Experts Rediscover Ancient Fern Presumed Extinct

Article from Science reporter, BBC News

"In a small, noisy labratory, tucked away in London's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a tiny plant is growing.

It looks just like a very small parsley bush, but it is actually a very special little plant indeed.  Clean air has to be constantly circulated in the lab to protect it from any bacteria.  This precious specimen is the Anogramma ascensionis fern, commonly known as the parsley fern. Since the 1950s, botanists believed it to be extinct.

It is native to Ascension - an island in the South Atlantic, which is one of Britain's overseas territories. And a small project supported by Kew's overseas territories programme has rediscovered and rescued it - a timely success story, as this year has been dubbed International Year of Biodiversity.

Kew botanist Phil Lamden and local conservation officer Stedson Stroud found the plucky little plant clinging to a precarious existence on a mountainside in the harsh volcanic landscape.  "We were down the back of Ascension's Green Mountain, which has very, very steep slopes. You have to be really careful because if you slip you're a goner," Mr Stroud recalled. "And we came across this beautiful little fern and immediately knew it was the lost Anogramma that had been extinct for the last 60 years."

Ascension is covered by bleak, forbidding lava flows, and only 10 plant species are known to be truly "endemic" - found nowhere else in the world.

Read full article:

Monday, June 28, 2010

On Dwelling: The Delight of Garden Structures

My most spectacular garden is the one I’m constantly creating and re-creating in my head. Where budget, space, and lack of time limit real gardens, these constraints vanish in my ever-evolving fantasy garden. The crowning feature of this fantasy garden is the artist’s retreat: a small architectural jewel mostly swallowed by jasmine vines, climbing roses, and pomegranates. As the sites for my fantasy garden vary—sometimes a small urban courtyard, other times a river valley in the Blue Ridge, or sometimes a high elevation conifer forest—the one constant in every garden is this retreat.

[Mark Twain in his writer's study at Quarry Farm, photo from Elmira College]

Often during quiet moments, I ruminate on the pleasure of inhabiting a small garden shed or retreat draped in vegetation.  Mark Twain’s writer’s study is one of the more delicious structures I've ever seen.  Built as a gift to Twain by his brother-in-law, the small octagonal structure used to overlook the Chemung River Valley.  Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in this study.

[A view inside Twain's study; photo courtesy of Mike Paul]

“It is the loveliest study you ever saw," Twain wrote his friend William Dean Howells in 1874, "Octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window...perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lighting flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it."

The romantic structure in the landscape has a rich intellectual heritage. Even before British Romantic poets exalted the crumbling hermitage tucked into the pastoral landscape, architectural ruins enlivened the imaginations of artists, poets, and gardeners since classical antiquity. Something about these beacons of shelter in otherwise wild landscapes appeals to us at an instinctual level. The British Romantics loved the stimulating effect they had on the imagination. These architectural ruins were an ontological fragment that, in their incompleteness, aroused the mind's eye. Ruins were potent symbols of both the permanence and transitory nature of man. [Image on left is Landscape with Draughtsman Sketching Ruins by Claude Lorrain, 1630]

One of my favorite blogs celebrates the lasting image of ruins.  Romantic Ruins: The Sweet Lure of Decay, Death, and Destruction is dedicated to the continuing power that the image of romantic ruins holds in the contemporary imagination. The blog is written under the mysterious moniker I.N. Vain, and cleverly shows how ruins still influence fashion shoots, movies, and advertising.

[A former storage shed is transformed into an art studio.  John Sutton Photography]

Even hard-edged, contemporary garden design sometimes succumbs to romantic impulses. A backyard terrace designed by San Fransisco-based Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture shows how a garden retreat can work elegantly in a compact urban space.  The firm transformed a former garden shed into a luscious art studio by adding windows and cladding the structure in a metal grid that allows ivy and vines to flourish on the facade.  The studio becomes the visual centerpiece for the garden.

[The angle of the terrace draws the eye to the shed and expands the perspective]

I struggle to identify what makes these garden structures so appealing.  My attraction to them feels primal--a deeply rooted human impulse that draws me to these beacons.  Perhaps we've evolved to to seek shelter in otherwise forboding landscapes; we are somehow wired to recognize these harbors of security to survive.  Or perhaps it is just the yearning of the modern man to restore a right relationship with nature--one in which our footprints fit inside the natural order rather than obliterate it altogether.  Or perhaps these structures speak to the essence of dwelling, the Heideggarian understanding ("poetically man dwells") of the way we relate both physically and spiritually to our environments.  Whatever the explanation, I continue to delight in the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pleasure that these dwellings have over me. 

[A boat shed I sited among the schrub oaks and heath in Martha's Vineyard]

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Foraging, by Definition, is Not Sexy by guest blogger, Jeanette Ankoma-Sey

By guest blogger Jeanette Ankoma-Sey

Foraging by definition is not sexy: it is plant material eaten by grazing livestock. When the term is applied to humans, the phrase “eating like a cow” can truly have new meaning to the forager!

I have come to realize that many of the plants that are considered generic weeds throughout the regional landscape are actually well loved, functional, and sustaining foods in other parts of the world. Call it the hunter-gatherer African in me, perhaps, but here are some observations and thoughts on foraging.

Foraging and its possibilities have been gained a new renewal following on the popularity of the 21st century edible food movement over the last 5 years. As Thomas mentioned, groups have set up maps and websites dedicated to the art of foraging. When considering foraging in public spaces, some common questions swirl: what is considered public, and when is it not ok? There is no exact answer other than applying common sense practices and asking the authority in question.  But foraging can be and is a wonderful thing!

[Tomatoes and Flowering Parnsip, a combination for beneficial insect control]

Our property is a corner lot, everyone passes by, and thanks to the invention of chain link fence everyone can see our growing abundance and garden oasis: birds, squirrels, adults, and children. We have plants on our fence that happen to extend into the sidewalk from time to time. And on occasion our yard has become a foraging opportunity for the neighborhood, and that is ok. We have met new friends and shown some neighborly face time behind our garden. The Irish twins rush the sidewalk in late -May when they know the raspberries are sneaking on in. Our Asian neighbors eye our daylily flowers as they too get included as ingredients in some delightful recipes.

I cannot fault our neighbors or other foragers. I have plenty for me inside my fence, but whatever is outside, is open for harvest. If I am not around, I am more comfortable if a raspberry finds a new home, because I honestly, I probably would not notice. If I am obviously right there, a courteous query or “may I” is fine, as I would happily let the foraging commence. A fine line runs between my husband, who claims to be a forager in our own yard, and the other foragers, but I am happy to share the neighborly love as well as open the eyes to folks who may never have seen or tasted said plant.

As I think of my foraging neighbors and culture, I think about last week’s Washington Post article that reflected on the Mulberry tree and its special relationship to those of us who are immigrants or ‘have accents’. These cultures harvest mulberries in their home countries because the fruit—somewhere miles away from Washington D.C.—are prized for their edible qualities. Parks in the D.C. region, and other void, underappreciated spaces, are full of Mulberry trees! Maybe the birds may eat them but humans love them too. My friend was just in Greenwood Cemetery (NY) where some Mulberries were dotting the landscape. He picked some up while reminiscing of his boyhood days in Arkansas, only to be greeted by a guard who shooed him away from the property. “Better in the mouth than on the sidewalk,” may have been my friend’s sentiment in this case. [Image to right shows grapes I share with neighbors]

Picking fruit in Potomac Maryland a few weeks ago, ladies from eastern Europe were happily harvesting and collecting the wild chamomile that is scattered along the grassy edge of the property exclaiming when questioned by other visitors, ‘Where I come from this is the best stuff for calming and soothing and tea making!’ Even down my street in Old Town, the Lindens are a big hit for our Asian and Hispanic neighbors, collecting the flowers for teas and candies. Public space can hold some sweet delights!

One group, Fallen Fruit,, capitalizes on public space edibles. They take an organized and civil guerilla gardening approach with food! The art of fruit mapping is great and works, of course with the consent of the homeowners and neighborhoods. Communities can become better acquainted by allowing foraging to occur. If you have too much of something, spread the word and share with others. Allow those willing to pick in unkempt or ignored locations to pick them and share. Some folks make a living this way! Another similar group includes where the “share and share alike” mentality for foraging flourishes.

In closing, foraging can lead to many benefits such as the creation of more productive public spaces or the strengthening of community bonds. Even if it means a small corner of your own space (or a client’s yard) can be dedicated to sharing a random pint or 3 of blueberries with family, friends, visitors alike. I like to think foraging can keep neighborly love (and healthy palettes) alive!

Bon App.

Jeanette Ankoma-Sey is a D.C. based landscape architect and a planting designer extraordinaire. She specializes in landscapes that provide sustenance, children's gardens, and school and botanical gardens. She teaches planting design at the George Washington University's Landscape Design Program.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The End of Groundcovers

If I could banish one word from the English language, it would be "groundcover."  The era of the groundcover must end.  While this age of American landscape design has its roots in the Victorian garden, it has been the dominant landscape ethos since the post WWII housing boom.  The primary idea of this era is that non-lawn planting beds need to be covered in a low maintenance, evergreen groundcovers such as English ivy, periwinkle, or pachysandra.  The results of this philosophy on our landscapes are nothing short of catastrophic: millions of acres of meadow and forest have been decimated by these invasives, and we've forsaken the spiritually enriching act of gardening for the environmentally impoverishing act of landscaping.

The Rise of the Groundcover
It's easy to understand how groundcovers became so popular.  As American suburbs sprawled away from city centers, individual homeowners quickly became absorbed in the enormous labor of maintaining huge expanses of lawn.  With so much lawn to maintain, the rest of the yard needed to be relatively maintenance free.  Planting beds were established where lawn wouldn't grow--typically in the shady areas under trees or at the edge of the lot.  How to fill these leftover beds became a problem.  Next to a manicured lawn, bare earth or mulch looks empty and unfinished, but filling these large areas with plants could be expensive. 

The groundcover became the magic cure.  Tolerant of sun or shade, wet or dry, these low, creeping plants could be sparsely planted in a bed and left alone.  Within a year or two, the bed was covered in lush carpet of glossy green ivy, the bright blue flowers of periwinkle, or the happy white spires of pachysandra. When maintained, the long flowing curves of planting beds created sinuous lines against the lawn, a declaration of the well-tended yard.

But the problem was that these yards were inevitably not well-tended.  The very quality that initially drew homeowners and landscapers to these plants--their ability to spread--became the beginning of an aesthetic and ecological disaster. 

Ecological Disaster
The honeymoon period (two or three years after the installation) yielded to the invasive period, and homeowners quickly realized that these low maintenance darlings actually required maintenance--lots of maintenance.  The plants began to move and destroy: the ivies grew up trees and down slopes; pachysandra crept into a wet area and down stream channels; periwinkle moved across slopes choking all other vegetation in its path.  Not even structures were safe.  The clinging roots of ivies invaded mortar, the muscular branching of wisteria damaged buildings, and the thick impenetrable roots of periwinkle altered the hydrology of yards. [Image to left shows Vinca major, periwinkle, smothering a forest floor].

Often in suburban neighborhoods, the developer backs lots right up against undevelopable land like forested streams or adjacent woodlots.  The groundcovers, unaware of property lines, spread into forests, streams, and meadows.  Vines climb into the canopy, covering leaves and blocking photosynthesis.  The additional weight of the vines often break branches and canopies particularly during snow.  The understory invasives smother the ground-plane, preventing native plants from seeding and regenerating the canopy.  Ecologists call the zones dominated by invasive groundcovers "ecological dead zones." [Image on right shows English ivy decimating forest floor and smothering trees.]

The U.S. Forest Service now estimates that invasive plants like groundcovers strangle 3.6 million acres of national forests, an area the size of Connecticut.  And that's just national forests.  Invasive plants are thought to cover 133 million acres of federal, state, or private land, an area the size of California and New York combined.  Each year invasives march across 1.7 million acres, almost double the size of Delaware. 

An Alternative Concept
The concept behind groundcovers is as pernicious as the plants themselves.  It is based on the mythology of the quick and easy, low maintenance yard.  Groundcovers signal a disconnect between the owner and the land, a message saying "I don't want to deal with you".  The professionals who use these plants, both designers and contractors alike, automatically assume the lowest possible expectations for that piece of land.  Groundcovers are chosen based on the assumption that the area will be ignored, abused, or abandoned. 

Groundcovers represent a failure of the imagination.  Americans understand trees, shrubs, and groundcovers, but beyond these categories, we're pretty much lost.  We lack England's rich garden history and thus fail to understand how to use herbaceous plants like perennials, grasses, annuals, or vines to enrich our planting beds.  Native plant enthusiasts have long recommended native alternatives to invasive groundcovers, but their suggestions typically replace one type of plant with a less invasive counterpart (a vine for a vine, a creeper for a creeper).  What these lists fail to do is to challenge the aesthetic that prompts the homeowner to use a groundcover in the first place. 

The alternative to groundcovers is not slightly less invasive groundcovers, but planting beds filled with native biomass.  We need to re-imagine our beds filled with a rich tapestry of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and low trees.  While our unfamiliarity with these materials make them intimidating, we should rely on the toughest and most resilient native perennials and grasses to fill our borders.  The demand for evergreen should be replaced with plants that provide winter interest: dried grasses, seed heads, and structural deciduous shrubs.  We should transform our ecological dead zones into ecological hotspots by creating connected areas of native biomass.  When we do this, we invite pollinators and birds back into our landscapes. 

[Native biomass: Goldenrod and Echinacea fill a planting bed.  These plants are low maintenance, provide nectar for birds and butterflies, and beautiful as they change through the seasons.]

A Model Project

Ten Eyck Landscape Architects in Phoenix recently completed an award winning project for a labratory building for the University of Arizona.  The landscape around the building functions both as an outdoor classroom and a high performing native landscape.  The project harvests water and provides and interface between students and nature.  The former grayfield is now a thriving habitat for birds such as the roadrunner and hawks searching for ground mammals.  The ASLA awards jury said of the project, "This project shows us everything that we should find in a university landscape.  Not a blurred interpretation of "native" but rather a commitment to accuracy." 

[Students enjoy a break at an outdoor classroom surrounded by vegetation native to the Upland Sonoran.  Photo by Bill Timmerman.]

[The pond is home for endangered fish and is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "Safe Harbor" urban site.]

And I'm including one additional image to show how native grasses can be used as a groundcover alternative.  This photo taken at Chanticleer Garden in Pensylvania by Rick Darke. 

[Native grasses such as Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepsis, make an ideal alternative to invasive groundcovers.  Photo by Rick Darke.]

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Healthiest Fruit on the Planet Happens to be a U.S. Native

If I could plant only one woody plant in my garden, and I wanted one for year-round beauty, wildlife habitat, and ethnobotanical curiosity, the Aronia shrub would be a top choice. Tolerant of wet or dry soils, clay or sand, sun or even a little shade, this easy going native plant is beautiful and adaptable.

This genus is recently receiving international acclaim for its purported health benefits. The berries of the native Aronia melanocarpa (Black Chokeberry) apparently have the highest amount of antioxidants of any fruit yet measured. The USDA gave the Aronia berry an ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity—a measure of total antioxidants) of over 16,000, almost triple the amount of antioxidants of other powerhouses like acai, blueberries, or blackberries. The intense concentration of flavonoids and anthocyanins in the Aronia berry helps the body fight off viruses, allergies, and carcinogens.

In addition to antioxidants, the berries have been proven to aid with diabetes, cardiovascular health, and the circulatory system. A recent study by the USDA showed that regular consumption of Aronia berry extracts actually slows the intake of insulin in the body, thus inhibiting weight gain. Theoretically, these findings suggest that Aronia might lead of lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.

[Image from Fine]

While Aronia was widely used by Native Americans for teas, medicines, and cooking, European settlers generally ignored this plant. Commonly called Chokeberry, the plants berries have a sharply sour and sometimes astringent taste. The unpleasantness of the raw fruit can be overcome by cooking or processing it into jams, salsas, or baked goods. The internet abounds with recipes that show how to tame the sharp taste of the raw berry.

Aronia cultivation is now growing in the Midwest. Farmers are taking advantage of this native plants’ easy culture to cater to an increasing demand for the healthful berries. The organic farm, Sawmill Hollow, in Iowa cultivates 13,000 chokeberries and hosts an annual Aronia Festival in September. The farmers allow locals to come and pick berries, and sell Aronia jams, syrups, barbecue sauces, and salsas. A recent article from the Des Moines Register features the farm.


I’ve longed loved the Aronia genus for its ornamental value long before I knew its health benefits. Because I plant in large masses of perennials or grasses, the Aronia is an ideal companion shrub. The plant’s loose, upright character allows you to underplant them with other ornamental native perennials or grasses. The plant does not shade out the ground plane. Since the plants are somewhat spindly, I’ve had good luck by massing five or ten of them together to form a bit of a thicket. They are deciduous, so consider placing them in front of a hedgerow, or in the back of your flower border for best effect.

And the effect is indeed wonderful. In late spring the glossy leaves are loaded with clusters of white flowers which pollinator’s love. By late summer, the flowers turn into showy red or black berries which will attract a wide range of local or migratory birds. The fall color is possibly the most outstanding feature of the plant. Most Aronias turn a brilliant red color with strong oranges, purples, and yellows.

 [Aronia arbutifolia 'Brilliantissima' in background shown at maturity for planting I designed while at OvS.]

My favorite ornamental cultivar is Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’. The upright habit, full blooms, bright red berries, and intense fall color are outstanding on this plant. If you want to grow the plant for its healthful berries, I would recommend Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’. This European cultivar is apparently one of the more productive black-berried plants. For a compact cultivar, try Aronia melanocarpa ‘Iroquois Beauty’, developed by the Morton Arboretum. The wonderful folks at Lazy S’s Farm sell a wide variety of Aronia cultivars mail order through the internet. Here is a link to that page.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fruit City and the Joys of Foraging

Why settle for fruit grown in Brazil or Chile when you can walk down the block and pick your own ripe darling?  Recently, I've stumbled onto a couple of delightful websites dedicated to mapping or networking all of the fruit grown in cities.  These sites focus on fruit grown in public spaces, or on private lots where the owners don't want the excess fruit.  My favorite is Fruit City (  Fruit City provides a "living and growing map" of all the fruit tree and vines in public spaces in London. The site has an interactive map that provides directions to the closest apple, pear, or even hardy kiwi growing in London's public spaces.  If you discover a new foragable jewel, then users can update the map themselves.

Another site, City Fruit ( is a developing non-profit that works with Seattle neighborhoods to help residential tree owners grow and harvest fruit and share what they don't need. Since July 2009, City Fruit has harvested over 4800 pounds of pears, plums, apples, and grapes from 50 home and donated them to food banks, senior housing, and daycare centers.  The video below is one of their advertisements.

[Or click the link here if the video is not displaying for you.]

Of course, as an amateur forager myself, the thought of mapping and alerting the rest of the world to my treasured hotspots spoils some of the joy of discovering these trees in the first place.  It's bad enough to compete with the jays and starlings for the pound of two of delicious serviceberries I harvest every June.  Now I have to share with a bunch of foraging newbies?  What's worse, Fruit City even suggests foraging paraphernalia like the fruit collecting basket-back, a brilliant yet ridiculous contraption that provides consumer apparel for urban foragers. 

In my less stingy moments, I realize that there's probably enough for everyone.  I truly think more people should engage with the primal joys of discovering, harvesting, and eating wild foods.  Even my friends who are totally disinterested in nature ask a dozen questions when they see me swipe a handful of obscure berries from a tree and pop them in my mouth.  Their interest signals more than mere curiosity; it is an expression of a deeper desire, a primal urge to engage in the world's oldest occupation. 

For most of human history, we have relied on wild foods to feed us.  Of course, it's not practical for us to rely solely on wild foods; however, the act of foraging reminds us that we are not fed by the supermarket.  Foraging connects us to the sun, the soil, and the seasons. When we forage, we no longer just observe nature--as one might in a National Park--but we participate in the event of nature.  To forage is to return to our first role as ecological beings, and understand our connection with the splendid mosaic of life. 

So if you're a homeowner, plant a fruiting tree or vine.  If you're a designer or landscape architect, consider adding fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines to public spaces.  Nothing grounds you in the cycles of nature like harvesting your own food.  It is the single most human engagment I know.

SNEAK PEAK: In the next upcoming blog, I feature a foragable fruit and gorgeous native plant whose fruit has the single highest antioxidant levels of any measured plant to date.  It is actually been shown to inhibit weight gain.  Stop by the site later this week to find out.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Groundbreakers: The Garden Heard Round the World

It was the garden heard round the world. Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex, England, is perhaps the single most influential garden of the last century. The rather modest gardener with a unique flair for underappreciated plants stirred the waters of British gardening, and as a result, sent ripples throughout the world. Begun in 1960 on a farm property that was a wasteland of "starved gravel and soggy bog,” Beth Chatto transformed the site by creating a string of contrasting yet complementary gardens. Chatto embraced the site’s difficult features and matched plants to fit the inhospitable terrain.

Beth Chatto is the grand dame of English gardeners, the reigning heir of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and painter-gardener Sir Cedris Morris. Though not the first naturalistic gardener, Chatto nonetheless is the pioneer—the first garden structuralist—who blazed the way for brilliant plantsmen like Dan Pearson and Piet Oudolf. “Success depends on knowledge of plant provenance and on an understanding of natural plant associations,” writes Chatto in her book The Dry Garden. Chatto credits her late husband, horticulturist, and farmer for creating an interest in natural plant associations. Andrew spent his life studying where garden plants originated. Her husband’s passion for ecological patterns stirred a curiosity in Beth that would fuel her most daring garden experiment.

Her most famous and influential garden is the Gravel Garden. Begun in 1991 as a horticultural experiment, the Gravel Garden was converted from a former parking lot. Chatto was inspired by hikes she and her good friend, the legendary Great Dixter gardener Christopher Lloyd, took through various countries. During these walks, Chatto would notice how native plants would miraculously thrive in the harshest conditions, from salt-crusted sand dunes to wind-battered alpine rockeries. Inspired by the “miracle of growing plants,” Chatto set home determined to prevail with her experiment. The site was a heavily compacted parking area that consisted mostly of yellow gravel that went twenty feet deep. Chatto carefully prepared the soil (including subsoiling and several homemade blends of compost), cut in beds by using a hose to lay them out, and selected plants to fit the harsh conditions.

The most revolutionary part of the Gravel Garden is that it has never once been artificially watered. This is especially remarkable when you consider how ornamental and colorful the garden is year-round. The Gravel Garden is not a dry meadow or succulent garden, but a richly-layered perennial garden. This feat is doubly impressive considering that Essex is perhaps the driest corner in all of England.

Of course, Chatto’s concept garden would not have been a success had it not been stunningly beautiful. Chatto began her career arranging flowers, and it is her flair for arranging boldly structural plants in strikingly original combinations that accounts for her critical acclaim. As a founding member of the Colchester Flower Club, Chatto’s experience arranging plants in vases shows itself in her gardens. Chatto structures the garden with tall vertical plants like verbascum, acanthus, and foxgloves (“church spires in my village”); then artfully creates mass with textural filler plants like eryngium, euphorbia, or santolina; finally, she punches through the texture with moments of startling contrast—a luminous Stipa pulcherrima—resolving the tension between the architectural lines and the soft mass.

Chatto’s international fame came as a result of winning medals at the Superbowl of British gardening, the Chelsea Flower Show. Chatto won her first medal in 1976 and went on to win ten more gold medals during subsequent years. The show attracts thousands of visitors a year, and her unusual yet seductive combinations launched Chatto as an international garden figure. Her ability to mix traditional garden flowers like delphiniums and roses with weedy thistles, grasses, and structural seedheads gave her designs an edge and freshness that few could match. Chatto went on to publish several books, including The Dry Garden and The Damp Garden, that became instant garden classics.

Beth Chatto is widely celebrated for being one of the first ecological gardeners. But she describes her philosophy of pairing the right plants to the right habitat as nothing more than common sense. While her Gravel Garden rightfully deserves the attention it has received for its sustainable approach, it is her artistry in plant combination and natural association that makes her a Groundbreaker. Chatto orchestrates an international ensemble of plants into combinations that have the same resonance and harmony of a native palette. Like no one else before, Chatto understands form, color, and texture not as abstract design principles, but as an extension of a particular place.

For Chatto, all of the acclaim and attention her garden has received is missing the point. "Our time is so ephemeral, and no one can say how long any garden will last,” says Chatto, now 87 years old. “It is being part of that continuous chain, passing on plants and the love of plants from generation to generation, that matters."


The Dry Garden, Beth Chatto and Steven Wooster 2001.
Beth Chatto Exhibition: A Revoutionary Revisited.” Telegraph. 13 November 2008.
All photos by Steven Wooster.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Salad Days: The Garden in June

June is the green month. The sharp spring hues of chartreuse and lime mellow into their summer fullness, adding depth and dimension to field and forest. In June green overwhelms all. The roadside thickets swell with elderberry, wineberry, and honeysuckle, puffing and billowing like smoke. Fields of fescues and wildrye crown themselves with wispy inflorescences, catching and holding the afternoon sun.

For the gardener, the green of June is difficult to combat. The gaudy late tulips and peonies of May have gone, and gardeners are left to counter the green onslaught with only daylilies or astilbes.  These bits of color are short lived, however. One would be better to try annuals, but even placing these vigorous bloomers in a garden is like throwing pebbles in a well. The green is ubiquitous and absolute.

And why shouldn’t the green rule in June? For plants, June is the peak of the year. The horticultural year climaxes in the summer solstice. The long days and warm temperatures allow plants to ripen to their perfect potency. Just after the solstice, many plants start their preparations for winter, triggered by the shortening days to store energy in bulbs and tubers. While the rest of us blithely eat ice cream and watch fireworks, our green brothers and sisters are already preparing for the end.

This is perhaps why June makes me contemplate my own ending. If I could script my final act, what better way to expire than in a garden in June? There are so many good endings. Perhaps I would be reaching for a mulberry atop a ladder, after picking clean all the lower branches. Why is it that the branch just above your reach is always the most laden with fruit? They would find me tossed in the tall grass with purple-stained lips and fingertips. Or perhaps I could go at the hands of one of the highly poisonous horticultural oddities I decided to grow in the desperation of winter. I would be hunched over in the cutting garden with Felco pruners in one hand, and the thorny stem of Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) in the other.  [Mulberry Image on left from]

But these endings are enjoyable to me because they avoid a long demise of old age. The demise is inevitable, of course, and I suppose that a June garden is still the best setting for that as well. In this case, the thought that gives me comfort is not so much being in the garden when I decline, but actively cutting, potting, and digging. The act of gardening is the most human engagement I know, and I want to feel most fully like myself during the years that I lose myself. The green onslaught of June will ultimately come and erase any evidence of my garden, but my great hope is that I will be there at the end with trowel in hand to resist it.

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