Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Native Plant Myth #3: Native Plants are not as showy or ornamental as exotic plants

I am dedicating the last of my series on “Myths about Native Plants” to a subtle but widely held misconception.  I believe that this particular misconception is the number one reason that prevents people from embracing natives more fully in designed landscapes. 
Myth 3: Native plants are not as showy or ornamental as exotic plants.
It’s not that people think that native plants are ugly; rather, when it comes to choosing plants, natives are perceived to be a bit more natural, less over-the-top-bloomy than exotic garden plants.  Walk into your local garden center and just try to resist the seduction of a lipstick-red Knockout Rose or the voluptuous softball-sized flowers of a Limelight Hydrangea.  The native section, by comparison, is populated by a sad collection of leggy, dull perennials.
Dogtooth Violet
When I was in graduate school, I took my girlfriend to the local botanical garden.   I had just finished a class on native plants, and I wanted to show her how wonderful and unappreciated our local plants were.  When we arrived, the native garden was hard to distinguish from the unmanaged woodland next to it, and the only plant blooming was a Dogtooth Violet.  I got on my knees to show her how delicate and beautiful this little plant was.  It was so exquisite it barely existed.  She seemed unimpressed.  On our way out of the garden, we passed a tulip border that was so colorful, so showy, I was convinced one could see it from the moon.  She exclaimed, “Now that’s beautiful!”  I knew then my cause was lost.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Case Against Mulch Rings

It’s a common sight in the American landscape: trees skirted with a ring of mulch around their base that float in a sea of lawn.  Landscapers started the practice to prevent mowers and weed eaters from damaging tree trunks, and many arborists like the protection that mulch gives to the roots.   But listen up America:  these mulch rings have got to go.  The benefits of mulch rings have long been exaggerated, and they are just plain ugly.  Consider a few reasons for eliminating this practice.
In nature, plants happily share space with tree roots.  Why do we add the rings?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Native Plant Myth #2: Native Plants are Not as Tough as Exotic Plants

Few issues in the gardening world generate as much heat as the debate about native plants.  As a result, native plants have developed their own dogma.  It’s that dogma that I want to set straight.  So I’m here to bust some of the top myths about native plants.  Let the smackdown continue:
Myth 2: Native plants are not as tough as exotic plants. 
This is one I hear all the time among landscape architects.  “This site is too brutal for natives,” a colleague said recently.  He was referring to an urban parking lot that would not be irrigated.  Implicit in the assumption is the belief that natives are somehow weaker and more delicate than exotics plants. 
Wild some natives like trillium
may not be tough enough
for urban areas, others are.
It’s easy to understand where this mythology comes from.  A forest of mostly native species gets razed for an office park.  The client expresses a desire to use mostly natives on the new site, perhaps as a way to mitigate the fact that an energy-sucking office park just ate a forest.  But the conditions have changed now.  The precious native ephemerals such as tiarellas, trilliums, and geraniums that thrived under the cool woodland canopy will no longer survive on the edge of a sunny parking lot, especially once the maintenance crew salts it in winter.  So the designer reverts to a “tried and true” palette of juniper, berberis, and euonymous to green the parking islands.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Leaving a Garden Behind

Thoughts on Moving

My wife and I are preparing to move, and that has me thinking about the gardens I will leave behind.   Our new house is only six miles from where we currently live, but it feels like another world.  We are moving from a third-story flat in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol to a one story house with a yard across the river in Arlington, Virginia.  For the last seven years, my “gardens” have been my container garden on our third-story deck and the parsonage garden I designed and maintained for my church. 
Moving is bittersweet.  The pain of leaving behind a beloved neighborhood is muddled with my excitement about the new house.  I mourn leaving Capitol Hill and above all, I mourn leaving my garden.  How many hours did I spend envisioning that garden?  How many backbreaking ours did I spend with friends installing it?  How many hours did I spend watering, maintaining, and loving it?  Each hour you spend invests you deeper into the place.  Cultivation is just another word for commitment.  You think you are just pulling weeds, but what you are really doing is writing a love letter to a patch of dirt.   

"The Gates" by Christo & Jeanne Claude, 26 years
in the making, but lasted only 15 days.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Myths about Native Plants

I am a passionate advocate of native plants.  And I’m not the only one.  Native plants are as popular now as ever, which may explain why there are so many misconceptions about natives.  So I wanted to dedicate a few postings to busting some myths about native plants.  Now to the first myth.

Myth #1: Native plants are more drought-tolerant than their exotic counterparts.
One of the top reasons people give for using native plants over exotics is that natives are more tolerant of drought than their exotic counterparts.   You hear this claim spread even by knowledgeable gardeners and horticulturalists. 
Hibiscus in its native wetland habitat
Here’s the problem: it’s simply not true.  At least not as a categorical statement.  
Why not?  The claim is based in the assumption that plants in their native habitats do not require artificial watering; therefore, native plants are more drought-tolerant than exotic garden plants.  The problem with this assumption is that native plants refer to any plant indigenous to a local area.  This includes mesic (wet-loving) plants and xeric (dry) plants.  So if you are to compare a wet-loving native Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), for example, with your average Japanese azalea, the azalea would be more drought-tolerant.  Native plants are too broad a term to categorically say that they are more drought tolerant than exotics.  Some natives are tolerant of drought; others are not.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Garden Trends 2011

What will be the trends that dominate the landscape and garden this year?  In 2011, the garden matters more than ever.  Americans are turning to their under-utilized yards and realizing their potential.  The era of the lawn is waning as homeowners create spaces for living, for ecology, and for food.  Take a look at my top seven trends for the garden in 2011:
1.  Intentional Gardens:   By far the biggest trend of the year is that yards will have a purpose.  Yards are no longer viewed as pretty filler space between the street and the house; more than ever, home-owners are viewing their gardens as places where they can make a difference.  This year, expect more home-owners to embrace their roles as conservationists and stewards of the earth.  Lawns will be dug up and replaced with vegetables, meadows, pollinator gardens, and places for prayer and meditation.  Pretty is out, purpose is in. 
2.  Landscapes Go Wild:  Landscapes and gardens designed to look wild will increase in popularity this year.   Take a quick look at the 2010 ASLA award winning landscapes.  The vast majority of them used highly naturalistic, if not downright wild-looking planting.  Or look at last year’s winners of the Chelsea Flower Show, a trend-setter for garden design.  The carefully choreographed meadow-look dominates. 
The wild look is being fed by a nostalgia for wilderness and wild places.  Children spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of computers and televisions.  At no time in human history have Americans spent less time in wild and natural places.  Expect to see more landscape architects introduce constructed wild places in highly urban areas.  Projects like the Highline in lower Manhattan and Shanghai Houtan Park  juxtapose hyper-naturalistic plantings into intensely urban areas.  The contrast is delightful. 
The wild look at the Highline in lower Manhattan
3.  The Farm-Yard: It’s the new domesticity.  Urban and suburban home dwellers will continue to convert their yards into places of urban agriculture.  Consider these statistics from 2010: seed sales were up 30%, canning was up 45%, and vegetable gardening was up 19%.  Neighbors beware: the urban farm movement is not just about veggies.  Expect to see more henhouses, bee boxes, and even ducks in your neighborhoods.  Citizens across the country are lobbying  to change zoning codes to allow for more livestock use in neighborhoods.
4.  Go Native, Go American:  Last year, Americans preferred domestic cars over foreign cars for the first time in 13 years.  The local food movement is reaching a fevered pitch.  Even during the recession, Americans were willing to spend as much as 18% more for food labeled “local” than for non-local food.  That same impulse will continue to influence plant selection in gardens. 
I predict that hyper-native plants—plants grown from regional seed sources—will be increasingly in demand.  Nurseries such as Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota are leading the way by providing  “source-identified ecotypes,” telling you exactly what ecosystem and region the seed was harvested from.  
5.  Propagation Nation:  Last year, Americans embraced canning as the new self-reliance.  This year, I predict that propagating one’s own plants will be more popular than ever.  People will not only grow plants from seed, but also harvest seeds from the wild in order to bring nature into their yards.  Expect a reaction against laboratory-cloned nursery plants as gardeners embrace the genetic diversity and beauty of straight species plants. 
6.  Edible Ornamentals:  This year, homeowners will maximize every square inch of the yard by selecting plants that are both edible and beautiful.  Since 2006, the average American home has shrunk by 9%.  These smaller abodes mean that plants must perform double duty.  Expect to see more demand for small fruiting shrubs and trees, highly-colored greens, and compact veggies as Americans begin to mix these edible plants into their ornamental flower beds.  Hot plants may include rhubarb, cardoons, banana trees, lavender, swiss chards, ornamental melons and peppers .
7.  Mandated Sustainability:  Uncle Sam wants you . . . to be green.  In fact, they are downright demanding it.  More than ever before, governments are mandating that new construction meet the highest sustainability standards than ever before.  The LEED Green Building Rating system is only the first step.  The newly released Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) is an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden to create national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction, and maintenance.  Right now these guidelines are voluntary, but not for long.  After the SITES program finishes its pilot projects, the standards will soon be adopted by municipalities across the country. 

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