Friday, November 29, 2013

The Garden by the Road

The Photography of Darren Higgins

The border serves as a buffer to the road in a part of the yard that was pointless as lawn. Photo by Darren Higgins

We had such a warm response to Michael Tortorello's article in The New York Times last week that I've decided to share a few photos taken by DC-based photographer Darren Higgins that did not make the article. While I did my best to avoid coverage of the less-than-flattering aspects of the house and garden (they are legion), both Michael and  Darren Higgins thought the full context of the garden's relationship to three roads was worth revealing.  It was a horrifying thought to me. Even in my wild fantasies of glowing media coverage, the subject of my garden on the bus route was not quite the angle I imagined. So here is a last peek at the garden before I hide it for another four years.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We're in The New York Times!

The duck blind in our border garden.

Wouldn’t you know it: the one garden I designed that I'm sheepish to show even to my friends is the one that gets featured in The New York Times. Ah well, I'll have to have a word with my PR department . . .

Today our garden is featured in The New York Times Home section. The story is about our garden: how we started it with little money (and even less design) while renovating a very dilapidated house (still in process); how it’s different than what we design in our landscape architecture firm; and how we live in it. My wife and I were fortunate to spend a Sunday in late September with The New York Times' feature writer Michael Tortorello.  Michael is funny, warm, and wickedly smart in a casual kind of way. His articles are one of the reasons the Times' Home section is such a compelling read. His range is vast, from the ecology of vacant lots, to what happens when trees go dormant, to great human stories such as this recent one of James Golden. His focus on the way real people live and work with real spaces is always refreshing. 

The wonderful images were taken by DC based photographer Darren Higgins. Darren spent most of a day with us, hanging off our roof, clinging to a ladder in the middle of the street—all while narrowly dodging traffic. Considering the garden is surrounded on three sides by ugly roads and one side by our ugly house, Darren did a lovely job telling a story with a not so promising site.

While I love to read the real story of other people's gardens, I tried my best to distract Michael from our garden. Lots of lofty talk on the meaning of gardens . . . but it was all to no avail.  Anyway, please check out Michael's excellent piece on our garden in today's New York Times. 

Our deepest thanks to Michael, Darren, and the editors of The New York Times. It was a pleasure to entertain and work with this amazing bunch of professionals.

One minor post-publication quibble: The print edition of the Times refers to me in two bylines as a "horticulturist." I am, in fact, a licensed landscape architect. I have many friends and colleagues who are indeed professional horticulturists. I don't do what they do, and they don't do what I do. Though both professions deal with plants to a degree, they are two entirely different professions.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Selecting Exceptional Plants

The next future plants? Or not quite garden-worthy?

How great plantsmen use superior plant selection to elevate their designs 

Let’s face it: it’s entirely possible to create an elegant garden out of everyday plants. The highly sculpted gardens of the Belgian landscape design firm Wirtz International almost flaunt the fact that a large, diverse plant list is not necessary to create great design. Their serpentine coiled hedges, dreamy cloud-shaped boxwoods, and fluffy grass-covered mounds are an artistic declaration that less can indeed be more. No cutting-edge plants here: just boxwood, yews, hornbeams, and the occasional ornamental grass.

Even at a less grand scale, simple can be beautiful. I can think of no more elegant space than a simple gravel terrace underneath a beautiful tree. Who can ask for more than dappled light, the sway of a branch, and the change of seasons?

But at the same time, some of the best plantsmen in the world achieve success in part through discriminating taste in plant selection. They seek out not only the most vigorous plants, but also the most interesting selections. This discerning eye is one of the qualities that unite a diverse group of plantsmen such as Karl Foerster, Mien Ruys, Beth Chatto, Wolfgang Oehme, Henk Gerritson, Piet Oudolf, Fergus Garrett, Dan Hinkley, and Roy Diblik. Their gardens are legendary in part because of their ruthlessness in plant selection. And as a result, they made us see their plants (and gardens) in a new light.

Renowned plantsmen known for their discriminating plant selection
Consider Piet Oudolf: he is known for his rigorous trialing of plants before ever using them in a design. In the preface to Dream Plants, an excellent reference book by Piet and Henk Gerritson of the toughest plants, Noel Kingsbury describes Piet’s process, “Over the years he has grown a vast range of plants from seed list, collected seed in the wild, trialled innumerable plants bought in nurseries as well as those given him by friends and colleagues. Only a tiny fraction of these are judged good enough to be used in the gardens that he makes.” 

So is it possible to develop a discriminating eye for plants? One that will improve your own plantings? This fall I am looking at the flaws in my own garden. Many of the changes I will make focus on plants that just didn’t perform in my small space. So in order to learn a few lessons, I’ve been pouring over the planting plans and lists of several of these designers. The takeaways I list below are definitely more suited for the horticulturally adventurous rather than the casual gardener. But whether you consider gardening a quiet escape or an extreme sport, some of these points are worth pondering:

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Garden Cannot be Designed

It is November, and for a few brief weeks in autumn, I enjoy my garden. Other than bulbs, there is little to plant. And my constant second-guessing about what to change can wait until late winter. For now, it is what it is. 

This morning I woke early. The dewy dawn puts a soft haze over the border, frosting the tops of the Mountain Mint and bending the inflorescences of the Switchgrass. Many of the plants still look full and summery; others are more skeletal. It is a good time of year for looking. And perhaps even better time of year for feeling the place.

I look forward to the garden maturing. A new garden can have sort of an adolescent energy, with some plants hitting their stride while others sit hesitantly. While this dynamism is fun—never sure what to expect out there—I sort of long for it all to settle down. An older garden has a different feeling altogether. A young garden is all about plants; but as a garden ages, it becomes all about the place.

This morning, however, the autumn light and dew have given the garden a false sense of maturity. What is it that I feel in this place? What am I looking for? Nostalgia is the emotional undercurrent of a garden, the connection of a physical place to our emotions and memories. Nostalgia—at least as I define it in relation to gardens—is not a flight from reality into a fantasy of the past. Nor is it a longing for specific memories. Instead, it represents a constructive desire to recover a way of being in the world that we have lost. The best gardens engage us in this way. 

I’ve long defined a garden as a relationship: a relationship between a person and a bed of soil; between an idea and a place; between our desire for reality and our need to flee it; between the essential loneliness of being and our hope for encounter. So in this sense, a garden cannot be designed. It exists only at the moment we are engaged in it, when shovel hits soil. Only when are we baptized into the soil—the meeting place of the inanimate and the animate—does the relationship begin.

This is not to undervalue the role of a professional designer. We need alchemists who can turn our banal residential yards into spaces for dwelling. But a garden is a relationship. The best a designer can do is to make the introduction. 

This weekend I will spend planting bulbs. I always start this process with some kind of concept in mind: a drift of daffodils here, a pool of crocus underneath the Serviceberry, Camassia poking up through the budding Deschampsia. But after about thirty minutes on my knees, it all falls apart. As I creep through the four-foot tall vegetation, rabbit-like, I end up putting the bulbs wherever they fit.

Come spring, I will be surprised.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mingle or Clump?! The debate is moving to ThinkingGardens!

The question of how we compose ornamental plants in beds—particularly whether species are mixed together or in solid masses—is now moving to the excellent website ThinkingGardens. Last month I wrote a post in response to much of Noel Kingsbury’s writing where he has posited “intermingling” (mixed species planting) as part of a newer ecological aesthetic.  My post questioned whether massing can’t be a part of this aesthetic as well.  

A condensed version of my argument is now on ThinkingGardens.  Later this week, Noel Kingsbury himself will respond. So check out ThinkingGardens and the many great minds who are commenting on this debate about the future of naturalistic planting design.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What If There Was No Landscaping?

What if there was no landscaping . . . only wild plant communities? 

If you have a freestanding house in America, you probably have a yard. And if you have a yard, you probably have a lawn, some foundation shrubs, and perhaps even a few flowering plants. It's a simple set of givens: house = yard = landscaping. This formula is so ingrained in our cultural DNA that it is hard to even imagine an alternative. Think about where you live. Now try to imagine all of the lawns, shrubbery, and planting stripped out of it. What could possibly replace it?

This past week, I was in coastal Alabama to see my sister get married. We had a wonderful time visiting with family and enjoying the beaches and fresh seafood. We stayed in a rented house near Fort Morgan, an isolated peninsula that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Mobile Bay. The thin peninsula is a beautiful, yet brutal natural landscape. The soil is entirely sand; desiccating winds batter the shoreline daily; fires regularly burn large portions of the landscape; and sea surges from hurricanes inundate large portions of the peninsula every few years. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Intermingling and the Aesthetics of Ecology

Is intermingling really more ecological? Or just the stylized look of ecology?

This summer the Highline had its four year anniversary. Perhaps the greatest testament to its massive success is the extent to which the strategy of “intermingling” plants—as opposed to solid massings of single species—has been accepted as a new ecological best practice. The traditional horticultural practice of massing plants together in solid blocks is now seen as static and old school. Mixing plants into carefully woven tapestries is the expression of the ecological zeitgeist.  Almost all of the world’s planting avant-garde (Oudolf, Kingsbury, Sarah Price, James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett, Cassian Schmidt, Dan Pearson, Roy Diblik) have projects that celebrate this mixed style.

Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf’s latest book, Planting: A New Perspective, is a celebration of rise of a more intermingled style. Kingsbury has long been an advocate of this mixed planting style, but this latest book positions intermingling as a part of a new international movement. Intermingling is seen not only as a new design trend, but as a way of creating better ecological function. In a recent article in the journal Topos, Kingsbury writes:

Creating intermingling plant combinations, whether aesthetically driven or strictly functional, creates an ecology. In a conventional horticultural planting, plants are discouraged from interacting, but when they do, ecology starts to take over. "Trends in Planting Design." Topos, 83, 2013

Statements like these raise several questions in my mind: is intermingling really more ecological? Or is it just an aesthetic that imitates ecology? And what about function? Does intermingling plants result in more stable, lower maintenance plantings? Or does it require more intensive gardening to maintain it? 

My own experiments with intermingling have been eye-opening. I wanted to record a few of my own thoughts about intermingling and also hear your reactions to this rising trend.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Design Trend: Collage

Why Landscape Architects are Getting Beyond the Grid.

A spate of recent landscape architecture projects are loosening up the traditional orthogonal geometry that has dominated both traditional and modern design and instead embracing a more layered, intentionally incongruous approach to space-making.  

These projects use design strategies closely related to collage and montage.  For much of the past century, strength in design was assumed to be a result of closely adhering to a single geometric framework. Classical design relied on axial arrangements; modern design relied on the grid.  The result has been over a century of primarily orthogonal geometries underlying landscape architectural projects.

But a new trend is emerging that breaks the grid and embraces incongruity.

Friday, August 16, 2013


While I still feel like a complete blogging newbie, Grounded Design is now over three years old.  Since blog years are like dog years (a year on the internet = at least seven years in reality, right?), I am feeling a bit reflective about all the great interactions that have happened here.  I may not blog with the frequency of my first six months (17 posts in one month--was I on amphetamines?), I still feel a fire in my belly when it comes to creating honest, content-focused posts that fosters dialogue. 

So it is with a sense of renewed commitment that I announce Grounded Design 2.0.  Ok,ok so maybe I just updated a dreadfully outdated banner and a few fonts. But I want to use the much needed graphic update to symbolize a revived charge to engage in more relevant content, cutting-edge design, and deeper immersion into where we connect with our landscapes.

So here is to you: thank you for reading, engaging, and sharing your own trials and tribulations. The interaction with so many talented designers, gardeners, and thinkers has stretched me in so many wonderful ways.  As I dig deeper into the process of writing a book and in engaging with some of the top minds in our field, I want to promise more of myself through this journey.  I look forward to sharing my adventures with you.

With the deepest gratitude,


Monday, August 12, 2013

Fab Late Season Annuals

My favorite selections from a year of experimentation

Thomas Rainer

The wet spring and early summer has been a blessing and curse in the border this year.  Moist-loving perennials like Mondarda and Eupatorium have swelled to gigantic proportions, growing several feet higher than they've grown in the past two years. All the while, my drier-loving perennials have melted with fungus and mildew.  I've just finished ripping out several dozen fungus-covered Perovskia and Agastache ‘Black Adder’.  It’s funny, because if you asked me last year what kind of plants would be on my list of “plants of the future”—that is, climate change worthy plants--I probably would have listed those two.  But one wet season and they are gone.

I have long complained that summers in Washington, D.C. area are essentially subtropical.  While perennial gardeners in cooler climates like Maine, England, and the Netherlands enjoy spectacular bonanzas of July and August blooms, we humidity-bound gardeners watch all but the most thuggish of our perennials flop and generally poop out.  Of course, it is entirely possible to have a beautiful late season perennial garden in the mid-Atlantic; it is just hard to have both a beautiful early season and late season perennial garden here—particularly for space-challenged gardens.  Our growing season is so stretched out (with a thirty degree temperature differential); what looks good in May most definitely does not look good in August and vice versa.    

So this year, I've invested heavily in annuals and tropicals to pump up the late season border.  I can’t tell if my foray into annuals and tropical is a strategic master-stroke or a sign that I have slipped too deep into horticultural self-indulgence. Whatever my diagnosis, I've learned quite a bit this year about combining these plants in perennial garden—including quite a few missteps (such as giant Colocasias shading out half a dozen sun-loving plants).  But there have been enough happy accidents that I thought I’d share a few of the better moments.  I've seeded almost two dozen different plants this year and tried a range of different tropicals. Here are my favorites:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mulch Addiction

The United States of Mulch.  Why do we use too much mulch?  What is the alternative?

One of the idiosyncrasies of the built American landscape is our fascination with mulch.  It’s in our yards and gardens; it is in the parking lots of our fast food chains and grocery stores; and it is in our airports and along our highways.  We spread it everywhere.  We spread it thickly.

Our use of mulch is so ubiquitous and so frequent, it is easy to forget how unusual this habit is.  Traveling through Europe or Asia, however, the contrast is clear.  In most other countries, it is the plants themselves that occupy the most space; here, however, mulch is often even more visually dominant than the plants themselves.   I remember a friend from Europe asking me once, “Why are Americans so proud of their mulch?”  At the time, it had not really occurred to me that we use mulch more than other parts of the world, but slowly I too began to see that he was right.  What is curious to me is that our mulch addiction is not limited to socioeconomic class or status.  The liberal use of mulch is as prevalent on wealthy estates as it is on strip malls and tract housing.  And it has little to do with training.  Thick blankets of mulch are specified by landscape architects as often as maintenance crews.  

Where do we get this peculiar habit?  Perhaps part of the issue is that mulch is abundant and cheap.  We’ve always had lots of trees.  Mulch is a byproduct of the large timber industry, making it relatively affordable.  Perhaps our use of mulch is a result of the fact that our landscapes regenerate so quickly.  A recent blog by Noel Kingsbury remarked on how quickly the American woodland regenerates compared to English forests. It’s true: if you leave a piece of cleared land alone almost anywhere east of the Mississippi River, it will likely revert to an invasive-choked woodland within a decade.  Below our lawns and suburbs, there is a feral landscape just waiting for its chance.  Perhaps we mulch (and mow) to keep the beast at bay.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pleasure Garden

Thoughts about our garden.

“We desire,” the Emporer dictated, “that in the garden there should be all kinds of plants.”  Charlemagne the Great

I do a lot of writing about gardens, but our own personal garden has never been the subject of this blog.  Our garden is always a backdrop to my thinking about gardens and gardening—a sort of character in my story whose face is never revealed.  There are many reasons for this: first, our garden is just in the process of being established; I’m a terrible photographer and our garden is surrounded on three sides by unattractive roads and on one side by our unattractive house; and mostly because the act of gardening feels profoundly personal to me.  It was designed for us, for our own pleasure, so the idea of opening for public consumption is a bit terrifying to me.

BEFORE: The garden area when we bought the house.

But I love other blogs that openly share their own gardens.  James Golden’s View from Federal Twist is a brilliant blog about two wonderful gardens.  That James bears his own soul through the garden is a source of endless inspiration to me.  I’m just not that brave.  And Scott Weber’s Rhone Street Garden is another fantastic blog.  Scott transforms his small garden into and endless expanse through the lens of his camera.  Through his images, I see and enjoy Scott’s garden much in the way he probably does.  

Nasella tenuissima and Salvia 'Caradonna'

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Noel Kingsbury: The Ghost in the Machine

Thoughts on Noel Kingsbury's contribution and a review of his latest book with Piet Oudolf

Noel Kingsbury is the great chronicler of contemporary planting design.  Kingsbury has been involved in over twenty books spanning the last two decades, most of them focusing on the topic of design inspired by nature and ecology.  Few garden writers are as prolific or as influential.  Garden writers tend to be an anonymous sort. In an industry still dominated by the soft pornography of photographs, garden writing offers little more than annotating captions. But Kingsbury has transcended the role.

In terms of the contemporary planting avant-garde, Noel is this generation’s Gertrude Stein: the thought leader that holds together a generation of loosely-affiliated, but intellectually-kindred designers, plantsmen, and nurserymen—all working in within the “new style” of naturalistic plantings.  Like Stein, entrĂ©e into the Kingsbury salon is a kind of validation in itself.  To draw the attention of Kingsbury is to have your work remembered by (planting) art history.   The Kingsbury “salon” includes international celebrities like Piet Oudolf and Dan Pearson.  But it also includes little known thinkers of central Europe, thinkers such as German Professor Richard Hansen; landscape architect Urs Walser; and Dr. Walter Korb of the Bavarian Institute.  The former group gives the Kingsbury posse cachet and international celebrity; the latter gives it intellectual credibility and authenticity.  Kingsbury’s blandly titled 2004 essay, “Contemporary Overview of Naturalistic Planting Design,” included in the book Dynamic Landscape, remains one of the finest summaries of the “new style” and its practitioners ever written.   It proves that Kingsbury remains the central voice in an increasingly international movement.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gardening After the Apocalypse

The very nature of nature is changing. What then about our gardens?

Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage at Dungeness. Photo by Michael Peters
I’m no doomsday watcher. I scoffed at Y2K, ignored the Mayan calendar, and can’t even bother to keep a Homeland Security-endorsed emergency supply list. But lately it has become increasingly hard to ignore the fact that something is stirring in the waters.

First, there are the climate-related problems: the continuing drought in the Midwest; hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy; and the fact that 13 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years. Zone maps are changing, species invasions are increasing, and extinctions are rising. I don’t care whether you believe climate change is man-made or just some temporary blip; there simply is no normal anymore. Gardeners more attuned to seasonal changes are the first to notice a difference. In my own garden last year, I noticed several bugs I have never seen before; I lost several perennials because the winter was not cool enough; and my daffodils started to emerge in December.

Throw in some global political instability (the American fiscal cliff, the European debt crisis) and there’s only one reasonable conclusion one can make about the future: the only certainty is a whole lot more uncertainty.

Ok, ok, so maybe the sky is not falling yet, but it is reasonable to say that the threats we hear about in the news lately are particularly ominous. Perhaps more catastrophic in nature. Globalization has linked us in many wonderful ways, but it has also exposed the fragility of world systems. Thus, a single financial firm (Bear Stearns) declares bankruptcy, and the global economy collapses. A water shortage along the Mississippi River causes food prices to skyrocket in China. Volatility breeds volatility.

It’s with this context in mind that I think about gardening. What does it mean to garden in an era when the threats we face are apocalyptic? The very nature of nature is changing. What then about our gardens?

Or to put the question more pointedly: Do we continue to grow marigolds even as the emergency sirens blare?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Interview with Travis Beck

I recently caught up with author and landscape architect, Travis Beck, whose recent book Principles of Ecological Landscape Design was just released last week.  I was lucky enough to read an advance copy over Christmas.  The content blew me away.  The book will be an indispensable text for designers interested in ecological planting.  After reading the book, I was interested in following up with Travis with a few questions.

What prompted you to write this book?

I've been interested for a long time in how to design landscapes modeled on natural systems. I kept looking for the book that would answer all of my questions. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to really think this through, I would have to write a book myself.    

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winter and Spring 2013 Talks

I have the pleasure of talking with different groups about landscape architecture, garden design, and sustainable design.   This winter and spring, I have a number of talks and lectures lined up throughout the eastern U.S.  Most of these talks are open to the public.  Click the links below to find out more information or register.  And see who else is speaking at some of these events—there are some great rosters here. 

February 6, 7:00pm  Annapolis Horticulture Society, Annapolis, Maryland.  St. Anne's Parish Hall.  199 Duke of Gloucester Street, Annapolis, MD 21401.  SOLD OUT.

February 13, 10:00am, 2013, Winter Symposium "A Natural Love Affair,"  The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden  Richmond, Virginia.  Massey Conference Center, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.  Michael Dirr, Alan Weakly, and Holly Schimizu also speaking at this event.  SOLD OUT.  Email registrar to be added to the waiting list.  

March 21, 7:00pm, Landscape Designer's Group, Bethesda, Maryland.  Bethesda/Chevy Chase (BCC) Regional Service Center, 4805 Edgemoor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814, Conference Room “A”.  Space is limited, so if you plan to attend, please register at

April 20, 10:00 am.  Garden and Landscape Symposium, Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  

May 2013.  Hahn Horticulture Garden Spring Seminar Series, Blacksburg, Virginia.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Most Important Landscape Book Since McHarg's Design with Nature

I rarely write book reviews, but I am making an exception for a remarkable new book.

Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, written by Travis Beck and published by Island Press, is the first attempt to write a comprehensive text addressing how ecology can and should inform the design of landscapes and gardens.  This may be the most important landscape book since Ian McHarg’s groundbreaking work, Design with Nature, pioneered the concept of ecological planning.

Most ecologically-based designers rely on a handful of truisms to guide their designs: use natives; right plant, right place; consider biodiversity.   But when it comes to actually selecting plants, one quickly realizes that eco-slogans provide few answers to complex questions.  How many different species should we include, and in what proportions?  Do you mass plants, or mix them?  And how should different species be mixed?  What happens when the plants start to compete with each other?  How do you maintain a designed community to encourage the right outcomes?  How do we measure success?

Travis Beck’s book delivers answers.  The book’s scope is sprawling.  Each chapter could itself be its on book.  It covers biogeography and plant selection, assembling plant communities, competition and coexistence, designing ecosystems, materials cycling and soil ecology, plant-animal interactions, biodiversity and stability, disturbance and succession, landscape ecology, and global change.  But this very broadness of scope is the book’s strength.  Beck gives us a survey of the last fifty years of ecological research and boils it down in an accessible language for the designer.

This book could be the defining textbook for ecological planting.  As more landscape architects and designers seek information about how to design sustainable landscapes, Beck’s book will be an invaluable resource.  If you are a designer and are interested in getting beyond greenwashing, Beck’s book provides principles, strategies, and detailed instructions.   

I will be including an interview with Travis in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nature in the Future Will Look More Like a Garden

Fifteen years ago I went on this amazing hike through a Hemlock forest in the Shenandoah National Park.  Hemlock groves have a wonderful Gothic quality: dark, angular spires of the trunks are contrasted with the intricate tracery of the needles on bended branch.  Ten years later, I convinced my wife to go with me to re-create the experience.  This time, however, all of the Hemlocks were gone—victim to the wooly adelgid.  Brambles and vines stood in the sunny areas where there were once dark groves.  

Hemlock Forests have been decimated by the wooly adelgid

It is hard for me to talk about my love of native plants without thinking about loss.  The scale of the loss is well documented.  The natural spaces that remain are often riddled with invasive species.  Emma Marris' excellent book, Rambunctious Gardens, makes this point quite powerfully.  In 2013 there is almost no pristine wilderness left on the planet.  We have disturbed it all. 

photo by Ernst Schutte
Yet despite this loss, I am an optimist.  I am an optimist because I believe--as Marris points out--that nature is everywhere.  It is the Paulowinia that forces its way through the crack in the city alley; it is the praying mantis in my garden, it is the Burmese pythons in the Everglades, and it is the pockets of rare native orchids in the farmer’s ditch.  Nature is everywhere.  But it is not nature as we once knew it.  It is our nature, our garden, influenced by us.

The problem is that we want nature to be pristine.  The landscape architect Martha Schwartz said that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores.”  For us, if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature.  To focus exclusively on the preserving the last of our “virgin” or “old growth” woods is to lose site of the larger issue right under our noses: the spaces that surround us every day.

This realization was quite empowering to me as a designer.  I recently worked on a master plan for a large-scale ecological restoration. The goal was to use the development of a several thousand acre site to re-create a mosaic of ecosystems that we believed were likely once on the site.  Our plans called for the eradication of invasive species by cutting them down, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species.  After this, the site would have to be weeded for years on end to make sure the invasives were kept in check.  Parts of the site would require managing through mowing or burning.  The more I thought about this process, with all its weeding, mowing, and planting, the more it felt like gardening to me.  And any gardener knows that the process of gardening never ends.  

So my first realization is that pristine nature does not really exist OUT there.  My second realization is that pristine nature cannot really exist apart from massive amounts of tending on our part.  

Tending, yes, this is something I know about.  I've spent my professional life designing artificial landscapes for people, and then trying to teach them how to tend it.  It’s not a perfect process, but it is a process that can be replicated on all sorts of sites.  Maintenance matters, but smart design matters more.  

I believe in design.  Today is Inauguration day, and despite the goodwill I still have for our elected leaders, I do not count on much.  Now is not the era of the politician.  No, now is the era of the designer.  Design focuses on resolving conflicts by looking at all angles and finding feasible solutions.

Designer ecologies. Deschampsia and Leucanthemum.  Photo and design by Nigel Dunnett for the London Olympic stadium
One example of the kind of smart design I am optimistic about is the work of British landscape architects James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett.  Their work is aimed at studying naturalistic herbaceous vegetation for use in urban landscapes and parks.  They use a palette of “semi-natural” plant communities (both native and exotic species) to create visually dramatic ornamental plantings.  I featured a post on their stylized meadows at the London Olympics.  What is most exciting is that their work focuses on creating low cost, low maintenance management strategies such as mowing or burning.  Their projects are not simply ecological restoration, but also beautiful, ornamental plantings.  Without beauty, they write, there would be little public acceptance for the ecology.  Their work is one part garden design, one part ecological restoration, and one part community development.  For me, it represents the best of the future: designed ecologies that feed our souls as much as it feeds the butterflies. 

Future Nature: Entrance Garden at Morton Arboretum
The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members.  Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature.  And the future nature will look more and more like a garden.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Garden Design Trends 2013

Once again, Cleve West's Best in Show Chelsea garden shows what themes will dominate design in 2013
Oooh, goody!  The 2013 Garden Trends report is out at Grounded Design.  Another post where I stare into my glass ball and pretend to be an expert prognosticator.  Trend predicting is, of course, utterly obnoxious. But I love trying to articulate the zeitgeist without any real accountability (everyone forgets the trends one week later).  With that confident assertion, here are my predictions for 2013:

1. The New Romanticism, Simplified

Yes, I know this was last year’s theme for my trends, but the the romantic mood that has swept over garden design will persist in 2013. As Western states teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, and we increasingly experience the world through our smartphones, people will turn to their gardens for a spiritually authentic, but emotionally-soothing experience.  We crave something real from our gardens, but not too edgy.  This year’s romanticism will be simpler and less fussy than previous romantic periods in history.   Historic revivalism (a la Downton Abbey ) will continue to influence designers, particularly Victorian gardens (check out Cleve West’s Best in Show Chelsea Garden last year for an example), but these styles will manifest themselves in simpler, sleeker ways.  The elegance of the past gardens is stimulating, yet comforting.  Other romantic trends such as exoticism, a renewed interest in the emotional experiences of gardens, and the glorification of wildness will be big themes in designs this year.

2. Nostalgic for Nature

Nigel Dunnet's Olympic meadows were a game changer for planting design
Nature has always inspired garden design (see my recent post on "nostalgia"), but gardens in 2013 will express a particular longing for certain iconic naturalistic scenes: meadows, prairies, forests, and wetlands. The meadows at last summer’s London Olympics are an excellent example of the kind of stylized natural scenes that will trickle into gardens and landscapes this year.

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