Monday, August 27, 2012

Garden Designer's Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants

Native plants have a particular allure for me. Perhaps they evoke memories of my childhood. I remember drawing Tolkien-esque maps of the forest that bordered our suburban home in the Alabama Piedmont. The thicket of Sparkleberry trees (Vaccineum arboreum) I drew to look like Mirkwood Forest; I sketched the huge Southern Red Oak—the meeting spot for my neighborhood friends—to look like one of the mythic trees of Fanghorn. And while I romped through these woods with a pack of irreverent boys, we all had a certain reverence for a cluster of Beech trees that resided at the intersection of two streams. When the winter sun backlit those copper leaves, that golden grove became our Lothlorien.

But the allure of natives is stronger than just memory; in them, I feel a more primal pull. For me, there is something very powerful about that attraction—something even ancient. I want to articulate why native plants have this appeal and how this can be used to create bolder, more emotionally-rich gardens and landscapes.

illustration by Alfred Parsons for The Wild Garden
Readers of this blog know that I am an advocate for native plants, but sometimes I get frustrated with the reasons I hear for using natives. Yes, the environmental benefits are real: their value to our bees, bugs, and birds cannot be understated. But as a gardener and plant lover, choosing plants based on environmental ethics is kind of a bummer. Life is serious enough already; I want to garden as an escape from weighty moralism.

To understand designing with native plants, you have to understand the garden itself. Designed landscapes and gardens are manipulated fantasies. They are our mental projections, our ideas, and our desires projected onto a piece of land. And gardens and landscapes don’t really live apart from us. Ultimately, without our input and continued maintenance, they would cease to be. That gardens are fantasies does not undermine their value; on the contrary, this very fact is what makes them art. If all gardens are fantasies, then native and naturalistic gardens are a particular kind of fantasy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can a Small Garden be Grown from Seed?

Another horticultural experiment in our garden

See list below for species

I have several horticultural experiments brewing at my own home garden. Last year, my wife and I bought a small, mid-century Ranch house on a corner lot. The architecture is functional, but not terribly charming. We spent most of last year gutting and renovating the interior and still have big plans for the exterior. While most of our efforts have focused on making the house livable, we have started a few different garden experiments.

We’re keeping a small patch of lawn in front of the house, but the two side yard areas have been the focus of our efforts. We located gardens in the side yards mostly out of need for screening. Both spaces are close to streets, so gardens serve the dual function of screening and embellishing those spaces. Each of the gardens will be somewhat opposite in character, a sort of yin-yang of moods. On one side, we planted a sunny, exuberant border—what will be my mid-Atlantic version of the splendor of Great Dixter. That border will eventually be a raucous, over-the-top assembly of all kinds of plants—a hot mess of North American prairie natives, tropical bulbs, Mediterranean herbs, and lots of landscape annuals. So far, that experiment has not been terribly successful—mostly because it has been half-heartedly implemented—but more on that later.

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