Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Perfect Antidote to Trademarked Plants

“The chief vice in gardens is to be merely pretty,” wrote American landscape architect Fletcher Steele in the 1930’s. “I believe there is no beauty without ugliness and that it should not be otherwise. Both are capable of stinging us to live.”

This quote has been swirling through my head lately, especially when I encounter advertisements for the latest hyper-hybrid, monster-blooming shrub or perennial. The Proven Winners plants, for example, have become the Barry Bonds of nursery plants. Or what’s worse, now we have celebrity gardeners like P. Allen Smith’s who have trademarked their own laboratory-bred Platinum Collection plants. The American horticultural industry seems bent on producing engineered plants that bloom eternally. Mophead hydrangeas no longer mark the beginning of summer, thanks to the Endless Summer Hydrangeas (trademark). Encore Azaleas promise blooms spring, summer, and fall. What does a fall blooming azalea mean, anyways?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with loving big flowers. Just this week, I passed a neighbor’s peony border with softball-sized magenta blooms. It was glorious. But a garden with nothing but genetically-engineered super-bloomers is a like inviting only models to a dinner party. When prettiness trumps character, we all lose.

Which is perhaps why this year I have been seduced by an ancient family of plants. During some deep winter garden reading, I started to make connections between several bizarre, yet fascinating plants. Turns out, they all belong to the remarkable nightshade (Solanaceae) family. Plants of the nightshade family are the perfect antidote to overly-bred bloomers. First, most of these plants are anything but pretty. This year, I’m growing the rather grotesque Naranjilla plant (Solanum quitoense). It is a nasty looking plant: its massive leaves are covered with deep purple spikes. This ancient Incan plant produces little orange fruits that I understand taste like a cross between rhubarb and lime.

Solanum quitoense in a mixed border [image from Landcraft Environments LTD]

What’s more, the ethnobotanically complex nightshade family includes two of the world’s most popular vegetables: potatoes and tomatoes. Those two plants alone shape the history and cuisines of many of the world’s cultures. Nightshades also include egglplants, peppers, tobacco, and many berries. However, the tomato wasn’t always universally beloved. It was the tomato’s resemblance to the deadly nightshade plant (Solanum nigra) that slowed its acceptance in Europe.

Perhaps the dark and dangerous history of these plants is what makes this family so seductive. While some of the plants create the most nourishing comfort foods on the planet, others are downright deadly. Snakeberry (Solanum dulcamera) has egg shaped red berries just like a cherry tomato that contain high levels of the phytochemical solanine. Solanine is known to cause birth defects, hallucinations, convulsions, fits of laughter, coma, and even death. Even potatoes and tomatoes contain small levels of solanine. Other nightshades contain tropane alkaloids. The term tropane is named after the Greek Fate, Atropos, who cut the thread of life. Tropane alkaloids are found in nightshade ornamentals like Datura and Brugmansia.

Like living dangerously? Several respectable seed sources sell Garden Huckleberry (Solanum nigrum var. melanocerasum), a variant of the deadly nightshade. Several regions of our country make jams and pies from the berries of this plant.  Be careful though:  others claim this plant causes defects of the central nervous system. Want to play it safe, but still explore the wonderfully bizarre world of nightshades? Try the Pepino Melon (Solanum muricatum), a compact South American shrub that produces fruit the size of a large goose egg. Beautifully pendulous cream colored fruit has purple stripes. The fruit has sweet, mild flesh that is somewhat melon-like.

Pepino, Solanum muricatum [Image from B&T World Seeds]

Nightshades are a reminder that there once was a time when plants could strike fear in the human heart. This year, I passed on the goopy Endless Summer Hydrangea and instead planted a nasty looking Naranjilla. It’s massive leaves studded with purple spikes greet me each morning, a reminder that out of fear and understanding, comes respect.

Want seeds of some of the plants mentioned? 
Baker Creek Heirloom
Top Tropicals

Monday, May 24, 2010

Oxford Study Finds that Ivy Can Protect Walls

[Image from]
This article has been linked from The University of Oxford.  For original link, click here.

"The received wisdom that ivy destroys buildings has been overturned by a new study by Oxford University.

In a three-year project, Oxford researchers analysed the effects of ivy growing on buildings in five different parts of England and discovered that the plant plays a protective role. They found that an ivy canopy was like a thermal shield, combating the extremes of temperature which often cause walls to crack.

English Heritage commissioned Professor Heather Viles of Oxford University's School of Geography and the Environment to analyse the effect of common ivy (Hedera helix) to guide them in their important role as the steward of hundreds of historical sites. Professor Viles’s research team monitored the effect of ivy on walls situated in different parts of the country with varying climates and challenges.They found that ivy acted as a thermal blanket, warming up walls by an average of 15 per cent in cold weather and cooling the surface temperature of the wall in hot weather by an average of 36 per cent. The ivy was also found to absorb some of the harmful pollutants in the atmosphere. Walls where ivy was growing were less prone to the damaging effects of freezing temperatures, temperature fluctuations, pollution and salts than exposed walls without ivy.

Professor Viles said: ‘Ivy has been accused of destroying everything in its path and threatening some of our best loved heritage sites. Yet these findings suggest that there are many benefits to having ivy growing on the wall. It not only provides colourful foliage but also provides walls with weather-proofing and protection from the effects of pollution.’

Garden walls at some of Oxford University’s old colleges (Trinity, Pembroke and Worcester Colleges) as well as the Old City Wall were test sites in Oxfordshire. Elsewhere, the research team examined whether ivy at the Dover Drop Redoubt site, one of a series of forts at Dover Western Heights, was friend or foe. Other walls were tested at Byland, North Yorkshire; Nailsea near Bristol; and Leicester in the Midlands.

The Oxford team used resistivity methods to monitor wall moisture levels and fixed monitors to measure the temperature and relative humidity of the microclimate beneath the ivy canopy as compared with uncovered walls. They also conducted laboratory analyses to examine the role of ivy in more detail.

The findings suggest that ivy has protective qualities for buildings that are intact; but they also showed that where walls are already damaged ivy rapidly finds its way into existing cracks and holes in walls. The researchers have built a test wall, planting ivy at the base, at Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. The cube-shaped wall contains different flaws so researchers can measure and compare the different deterioration rates with and without ivy.

The project provides those working for English Heritage as well as gardeners up and down the land with a better idea of how to treat ivy. Many might otherwise be unclear about whether to cut down ivy climbing up the walls of their garden and home.

Alan Cathersides, Senior Landscape Manager at English Heritage, said: ‘English Heritage are always keen to avoid unnecessary work to monuments and hope this research will lead to a more balanced approach to ivy. Removal should not be automatic as so often in the past, but a carefully considered element of long term management.’

Out of this study, English Heritage hope to issue guidelines for staff and provide guidance for the public on their website by early next year. Meanwhile, Professor Viles and Dr Troy Sternberg of Oxford's School of Geography and the Environment, and Alan Cathersides, from English Heritage, will be speaking about the project and providing practical guidance at a one-day conference on ivy at the Geological Society of London on Wednesday 19 May. "

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Groundbreakers: The New Traditionalists

The first of the Groundbreakers honorees goes to the inheritors of the European formal garden tradition. The family firm of Wirtz International, led by father Jacques Wirtz with sons Peter and Martin, has revolutionized traditional garden design. The Belgian landscape architecture firm has redefined the formality of the Italian Renaissance and French classical gardens by imbuing those traditions with a modern understanding of space crafted through sculptural whimsy.

Jacques Wirtz started his practice in 1950 designing and maintaining small gardens. Wirtz studied horticulture and landscape architecture, but it was his years in the field maintaining local gardens that gave him his virtuoso skill as a craftsman. At 79, Wirtz has the characteristic humility and reticence of a master craftsman. Son Peter Wirtz explains, ''My father is such a natural talent that he doesn't always articulate what makes him do things.'' British garden writer and biographer Patrick Taylor adds: ''He's not a 'good quote' person. He's more interested in the eternal verities.''

Perhaps it is this meekness that attracts such an elusive clientele. His clients include celebrities like Valentino and Catherine Deneuve, the Belgian royal family, and former French president Francois Mitterrand. Even his books are discreet, numbering gardens rather than referring to them by name. The firm now works at an international scale. In addition to Europe, Wirtz International has designed gardens in California, New Jersey, and Florida, as well as Japan.

The most iconic aspect of the Wirtz style is his unconventional and sculptural use of clipped hedges. When Wirtz moved into his current house, he inherited a row of overgrown boxwoods that lined a walk. Too spindly to be trimmed into a rectilinear form, Wirtz followed the natural contours of the branching, creating a pillowy, cloud-like effect. It is this attention to natural form that gives Wirtz’s work its creative edge.

''We love structure,” said Peter Wirtz, “we love to feel firmness.'' Perhaps it’s the firmness of their work that challenges me as a designer and a gardener. Each time I look at their work, I have the same thought: my garden efforts are too small and too timid. But I’m invigorated by the clarity of these gardens. There is no ambiguity about control, no illusions of naturalism. Every effort by the designer is not intended to blur their interventions—like Olmsted in Central Park or Capability Brown at Blenheim—but to declare them. It adds an authenticity to their designs.

For me these gardens are about control. There is nothing subtle in the Wirtzes’ manipulation of earth and plants. The gardens flaunt control. They bend and shape plants like metal. They flatten the earth. They cut deep lines into the ground. The pageantry of power shown in these gardens both horrifies and delights me. For the Wirtzes, control and geometry are not about a display of power and wealth, but an expression of modern space. The strength of their forms creates beautiful volumes that hold light and air. This architectural touch to garden-making gives him “a great power to evoke space,” says Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho. The Wirtzes are masters of using space to produce mystery. One room unfolds into the next; the result is surprising and whimsical.

The real story of these gardens is not the heroic moment of creation, but their perseverance over time. The Wirtz gardens require so much clipping, trimming, edging, and mowing. In these gardens, maintenance shares equal weight with the initial act of creation. Though I’ve never seen their gardens at initial installation, I would imagine they are a bit messy: small unshaped shrubs tightly packed together, lumpy forms waiting to take their shape. Their gardens emerge through time. The gardeners with the hand clippers are as much the hero as the designer with the pen. It is a reminder to me that gardens are never a single act of creation, but a constant act of recreation and renewal through the acts (vita activa) of gardening.

Last photo by Wirtz International.  Some of the information from this article was sourced from The New York Times article "The Constant Gardener" by Pilar Viladas

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Box for the Birds

I don't normally feature products on my blog, but these two I could not resist.  Our good friends from graduate school have recently come up with two brilliant products that I wanted to share. Artist and designer Michael Oliveri created Box for the Birds in collaboration with his six year old daughter and wife, Laura Hoffman. Laura suggested the two of them make a birdhouse as a father/daughter project, thinking they’d go into the basement and start pounding nails into wood. Within a week, Michael had emerged with a computer prototype for a birdhouse that requires no nails, no saws, and no glue. Within minutes, you can slide together a fully functioning modern birdhouse. The entire ensemble comes minimally packaged.

Also for you bird lovers, Michael designed a set of sleek, folding bookends that uses the profile of a bird to hold a stack of books.  The product is called BENDZ:

Here's a link to where you can buy these.

Monday, May 17, 2010

PREVIEW: Groundbreaker--Brilliant Planting Design

I am dedicating a handful of upcoming blogs to highlighting some of the world’s most outstanding planting designers in a series entitled Groundbreakers. I want to focus on great planting design, not because I think it should be a separate discipline from landscape architecture or garden design, but because so little critical attention is given to this aspect of environmental design. Planting design is a subject that unites the separate but related fields of landscape architecture and garden design, a fertile ground for conceptual exploration.

I have chosen these designers because their work elevates design beyond the conceptual confines of traditional vs. modern and geometry vs. naturalism. For centuries, design style has swung between these two pendulums, fed by an impulse that is often more reactionary than critical. The designers featured in Groundbreakers pay homage to the past while freshly expressing a modern consciousness.

A critical discourse about what constitutes great planting design is needed more than ever. For too long, great planting design has been relegated to oversized coffee table books and interior design magazines. It is time to get beyond the domination of the glossy photo. Whether you are a professional designer, or an amateur gardener, we need to better understand why we arrange plants in the ways we do. These designers challenge our assumptions about how, what, and why we plant.

I've selected five designers whose work are stylistically different, yet each reveals an inspiring direction for the future of design.  Be sure to stop by in the next few weeks!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Super Perennials: Five Little Known Cultivars You Should Know

Trying out the occasional new plant in the garden is a low risk endeavor; using a new plant in a mass of 1,000 or more for a client, the stakes are higher. That’s why I lean heavily on several tried and true plants that always perform, even when the gardener may not. New perennial cultivars come out almost daily. The explosion of Echinacea cultivars in the last two years is an example of the future of plant breeding: quantity over quality. Knowing the right cultivar matters, as plants vary wildly from one another. Here is a list of a few of my favorite perennial cultivars in the last few years.

Purple Lance Astilbe, Astilbe chinensis var. taquetti (also ‘Purpurlanze’ and ‘Purpurkerze’)
One of my favorite Astilbe is also one of the latest to bloom. This late-July bloomer is unbelievably vigorous, handling even full sun if given enough moisture. The color is spectacularly showy, a blazing purple that transforms a shade garden. Originally introduced to me by mentor Wolfgang Oehme, this plant has also been used to great effect by Piet Oudolf. Great for massing.  Image from Benson Gardens.

 Autumn Bride Coral Bells, Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’
Another Heuchera cultivar?!  All the Heuchera breeding mania has focused on wildly-colored leaves, so this little gem has hardly been noticed. Heuchera villosa (technically Heuchera macrorhiza, but all of the nurseries use villosa) are perhaps the most versatile and landscape appropriate Heuchera on the market. Tolerant of full sun or deep shade, moisture or drought, this semi-evergreen Coral Bell produces large hosta-like foliage. It blooms in August when little else in the woodland garden is blooming. Excellent as a specimen or in mass. ‘Autumn Bride’ is the green leaved variety, but if you have the colored-foliage bug, then try “Brownies” or “Mocha.”  Image from

 Wlassov’s Cranebill, Geranium wlassovianum
This excellent groundcover Geranium was introduced to me by my friend and Geranium guru, Ching-Fang Chen. The handsome lobed foliage with chocolate splotches is every bit as spectacular as the purple-pink flowers that emerge in early summer. If properly irrigated, this Geranium will handle full sun or light shade. Full, dense foliage makes an excellent carpet, unlike the increasingly ubiquitous 'Rozanne' cultivar.  Fall color can be outstanding orange to red tones. Good mixed with other vigorous groundcover Geraniums like Geranium macrorhizum, or excellent by itself. 

Horatio Goatsbeard, Aruncus x ‘Horatio’
A cross between A. aethusifolius and A. dioicus that combines the best of both parents. Downy white plumes emerge in early summer from delicately cut golden foliage. Like the species, this blooms best with lots of filtered light, but can handle some shade as well. A good plant to interplant with ferns or sedges, or excellent in mass for a bigger show.  Slightly more compact than A. dioicus.

Serenade Japanese Windflower, Anemone x hybrida ‘Serenade’
I’ve always been confused by which of the many Anemone cultivars to use. Not any more. Unlike other Anemones, ‘Serenade’ is a vigorous ground cover. It is shorter than most Anemones, making it good for the front of the border. In addition to its full foliage, ‘Serenade’ is one of the longest blooming Anemones on the market.  Recent trials at Chicago Botanic Garden show this plant to bloom an average of 64 days. Light pink blooms from September through early November. Strong stalks are less susceptible to flopping.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Art of Landscape Ecology: The Paintings of Philip Juras

Shining Rocks Wilderness, Pigsah National Forest
Landscape painting once had a rich dialogue with landscape design. The English landscape garden, for example, was greatly influenced by paintings. This rich connection hardly exists today. But painter Philip Juras might have something to say about that.

Formally trained as both a painter and a landscape architect, Juras is the perfect link between landscape painting and design. His large scale paintings capture the beauty of specific ecological communities. Juras paints primarily remnant native landscapes. Like the Manahatta project in New York, Juras’ work focuses on depicting specific ecological communities as they may have looked before European settlement.

His canvases are large and luminous, capturing the feeling of space as light moves across it. He deftly balances abstraction and ecological specificity. The compositions are serene yet teeming with life. Juras most recent series are paintings used to illustrate a book on naturalist William Bartram’s travels through the American South.

I first met Philip when I was in graduate school at the University of Georgia. My professor and native plant expert Darrel Morrison developed a class that took students to remnant virgin landscapes around the Southeast. Juras joined us on some of those trips. The landscapes we witnessed changed the way I thought about design. The complexity and majesty of these spaces were unlike any other human disturbed forest or meadow I had experienced. The patterns created by the mature plant communities were strong, legible, and distinct, a offering a storehouse of ideas for modern design. Juras’ paintings recall these landscapes.

To see more about Philip's work, visit his website:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Modern Naturalism: Artifice in the Natural Garden

For several weeks now, I have been extolling wildness and naturalism as a virtue in the design of landscapes. My claim is that man-made landscapes need to embrace “nature” in a more intentional and expressive way. In making those claims, I have been perhaps too dismissive of the importance of artifice in designed landscapes. A few thoughts about that here.
First, any designer that calls his or her work “naturalistic,” “sustainable,” or “ecological” cites nature as an authority to justify their designs. Obviously, many landscapes claim to be natural that are entirely different from each other. What is abundantly clear in the age of greenwashing is that terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “green” are human constructs, loose signifiers that can be applied to almost anything--particularly anything in a landscape. Ideas about nature ultimately reveal more about us than it does about the landscapes they describe.

“Nature is an abstraction,” writes Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture at MIT, “a set of ideas for which many cultures have no one name, ‘a singular name for the real multiplicity of things and living processes.’” In landscape design today, naturalism is a science (ecology), a moral calling, and an aesthetic. Designers sling these terms around without much thought or discussion about what they mean.

So in all my eager advocacy for naturalism, I too have been a bit loose with the terms. Anne Whiston Spirn writes that “nature is both given and constructed.” I believe in both of those realities: nature as outside of me and nature that is inside of me. The line between those two is a fuzzy one. This is not reason to despair; instead, we should celebrate this fuzziness.

For me, the myriad of meanings for what is natural is no reason to reject naturalistic design. Instead, it is an invitation to explore this conceptually fertile ground. The medium of our art is living, ever-changing elements of plants, water, light, and soil. Designers get the rare privilege of working with an ephemeral palette, of asserting our control and then losing it. Lately, I’ve gotten much more joy out of losing it.

That is why I am drawn to designed landscapes that celebrate the evanescent with bold artifice. Trying to erase the evidence of human intervention feels inauthentic to me, as flat and unconvincing as a trompe l’oeil. All true naturalism must first be a humanism. The landscapes that captivate me both intellectually and spiritually are those that blur the lines between natural and cultivated, between nature as other and nature as me. Artifice is not only acceptable in naturalistic designs, but necessary. It prevents plagiarism by forcing the designer to show her hand. The benefit of artifice is that is grants the designer sweet catharsis: it reveals to the world that this design, like all good landscape design, is a blessed forgery.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Monumental Fragility: The Stunning Design for the Expo Milan 2015

World’s Fairs have long been a celebration of human industry and invention, our Promethean spirit on display. Most World’s Fairs have a central architectural icon, a monumental masterpiece that embodies the ego, glory, and aspiration of the human spirit. Think of the Crystal Palace in London (1851), the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889), or the Space Needle in Seattle (1962). The Expo Milan 2015 recently released the master plan for its world's fair, themed “feeding the planet, energy for life.” The concept is stunning in its humility: monumental fragility.

Designed by architects Herzog de Meuron in collaboration with Mark Rylander, Ricky Burdett, Stefano Boeri, and William McDonough, the Expo Milan offers a “planetary botanical garden” that proposes to feed Milan, “literally, spiritually, and intellectually.” The architects created a flexible framework for the exposition, a tent city surrounded by a series of canals that serve as an agrofood park. The concept is based on the Roman plans that use twin axes (the cardo and the decumanus) with a central forum. A series of reusable shade sails is imposed on top of this geometry, a romantic gesture from antiquity. The scale of the tents will be breath taking—almost a mile of breeze and light-catching fabric arranged orthogonally throughout the Expo.

Water surrounds the site and creates a biofiltering wetland that also produces food. The canals will integrate into Milan, extending the benefits of the system beyond the site. The series of canals are a clever system that allows all countries equal frontage along the boulevards and water.

I’m entranced by this notion of monumental fragility. In this exposition, the human creative spirit will not be channeled into celebrating our own glory, but on creating the conditions for nature to show its efficiency, fecundity, and beauty. The challenge for these designers is how to execute real moments of fragility within this monumental framework. This requires understanding the site at the scale of the garden, an outdoor scale which architects often fumble. The other challenge will be how to balance the energy and waste of a building project of this scale with its environmental goals. Architect William McDonough has brilliantly executed the “cradle to grave” approach on other projects, so the project has the right design thinking to make this happen.

I am enchanted by this master plan. Road trip, anyone? Milan 2015.

Credits: All renderings by Herzog de Meuron. Summary of design based on text from and

Lewis Mumford on Architecture: Scalding and Irreverent

In 1941 writer Lewis Mumford--known as "the last of the great humanists"--published a book The South in Architecture, a plea for architects of today to create buildings that respond to their time.  I've selected one incisive quote that seem particularly relevant today:

"Let us be clear about this, the forms that people used in other civilizations or in other periods of our own country's history were intimately part of the whole structure of their life.  There is no method of mechanically reproducing these forms or bringing them back to life; it is a piece of rank materialism to attempt to duplicate some earlier form, because of its delight for the eye, without realizing how empty a form is without the life that once supported it.  There is no such thing as a modern colonial house any more than there is such a thing as a modern Tudor house.

"If one seeks to reproduce such a building in our own day, every mark on it will betray the fact that it is a fake, and the harder the architect works to conceal that fact, the more patent the fact will be . . . The great lesson of history--and this applies to all the arts--is that the past cannot be recaptured except in spirit.  We cannot live another person's life; we cannot, except in the spirit of a costume ball . . . Our task is not to imitate the past, but to understand it, so that we may face the opportunity of our own day and deal with them in an equally creative spirit."

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