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? 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Groundbreakers: The Philosopher King

The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho

Fernando Caruncho discovered his calling by reading Euripides. The Spanish landscape architect, a celebrated designer who has received international acclaim for his contemporary interpretations of classical gardens, got his start in a philosophy class. “I discovered the garden,” writes Caruncho, “while I was studying philosophy at the University of Madrid.”

Caruncho, 52, was born and raised in Madrid. While in school, Caruncho was enthralled to discover that the ancient Greeks used gardens as the places to study philosophy and the nature of the world, a meeting point between the physical and spiritual. “Because of this I have changed,” says Caruncho, “my desire to become a philosopher became a desire to become a gardener. Returning to my studies of the first philosophers, the pre-Socratics, I understood that today, more than ever, we need to study, once again the essential elements of the universe.”

For Caruncho, those “essential elements” are found in the garden. Unlike most landscape architects who often distance themselves from the less prestigious scale of the garden, Caruncho embraces the title of “gardener”. “I am a gardener. That is the name that has been handed down from the past. If you change a name, you lose the connection with history, and forget you are thinking timeless thoughts and simply expressing them in a new way for a different historical period. To be original you have to know your origins.”

[Parterres of wheat are framed with cypresses and olives in this Catalonian farm.  Photo from The Telegraph]

Caruncho’s gardens are strongly marked with classical geometry. “I am a geometrician,” says Caruncho, “I inherit the culture of the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Persians.” It was Carucho’s experiments with geometry and agricultural plants that first brought Caruncho to the attention of the world. Arguably his first masterpiece, the wheat parterres in the Mas de les Voltes garden in Castel del Ampurdan, Spain, uses a simple grid of wheat parterres and reflecting pools punctuated with olive trees and cypresses. The bold geometry of the grid becomes a net cast over the land that holds light and expresses the ephemeral.

[Image from The Contemporary Garden by Phaidon Press]
 The signature garden elements that reappear in Caruncho’s gardens—the gridded orchards, the sensuous clipped hedges, the reflective expanses of water that mirror the sky—are examples of the extraordinary lyrical gestures that are at the heart of Caruncho’s gardens. It is that lyricism that elevates his work; the shapes are nothing new, though no contemporary designer has executed them better or made them matter more. Their familiar romance is part of their power: the fields of golden wheat hold the Catalan sky; the orchards of olives and grapes recall the landscapes of Greece and Rome; the sculpted, sinuous hedges echo the spirit of Kyoto’s great gardens. We know these forms: these shapes are fragments of the Ur-landscapes of our ancestors, the building blocks of ancient civilizations.

[The sinuous clipped escallonia recall the gardens of Kyoto; photo from The Telegraph]

What is new is the renewed meaning Caruncho has brought to his gardens. While a thousand contemporary designers recycle formal garden styles for suburban landscapes—little theme parks for clients with expendable incomes—only Caruncho reconnects modern man with the meaning of these ancient forms. For Caruncho, using traditional garden forms is not about repackaging a style that conveys “taste” or wealth; instead, it is a way we can connect to the universal. “Garden and gardener,” writes Caruncho, “ these are words that belong to a source language and have been asleep, silenced by terror and the uncivil past century, but that today flourish and offer us comfort.”

The courtyard of Caruncho’s home and studio in Madrid—both designed by Caruncho—is a space so stately, so intimate, that looking at it feels like peering into someone’s diary. There is an overwhelming sense of recognition: the garden is utterly idiosyncratic and private, yet at the same time, it is universal, belonging to the ages. The low, ochre-colored house is rather spartan: large windowless expanses of wall protect the insides from the heat of summer. Inside, the house opens onto a central courtyard, an area Caruncho calls his “central cloister”, a space that is part Aristotle’s Lyceum and part Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji. A large raised pool of water dominates the central courtyard. Colonnades surround the pond on three sides and clipped escallonia shrubs woven like contours frame the far side of the pool, recalling the nearby Guadarrama Mountains.

The simplicity of the space is intentional: it is meant to be a volume for capturing light. “To me,” describes Caruncho, “the central idea is to control the light.” Caruncho is fanatical about light. As the sun moves across the courtyard, the shadows from the colonnade contrast with the reflective pool. In this space, the light has a physicality that is palpable.

“In order to travel into the future, it is necessary to walk toward the pure clarity of the past,” writes Caruncho. That contradiction is what keeps Caruncho’s work strikingly original; it makes his rather simple formal gestures vigorous and fresh. Caruncho is not the first designer to resurrect ancient garden forms; but he might be the best at making these forms relevant once again.

“The Spirit of the Geometrician” by Fernando Caruncho. An essay from Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens. Edited by Noel Kingsbury and Tim Richardson, 2005. First Frances Lincoln.

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