Friday, November 6, 2015


Reflections on a Year of Plenty

There’s a good bit of speculation that 2015 may be a mast year for many oaks. “Mast” is the fruit of forest trees, like acorns or nuts, but unlike traditional agricultural crops which have a (somewhat) predictable yield each year, forest trees have highly variable fruiting. Some years, oaks only produce a handful of acorns, but in mast years, the trees produce a ridiculous abundance of nuts. Over vast regions of the country, almost all of the oaks of a single species (and sometimes more than one species) prepare to produce the crop of a decade.

In Old Town, Alexandria, my walk from the metro has become as treacherous as the “black ice” of winter. The red oaks of King Street shower the sidewalks with small, perfectly round acorns like thousands of ball bearings. Ankles and knees: beware! When the wind blows, acorns pop on the hoods of parked cars like dried corn in a skillet.

Since medieval times, farmers have taken advantage
of mast years to feed livestock
In the forests, the impact of these boom and bust cycles ripples throughout the entire ecosystem. Bumper crops of acorns produce a feast for all kinds of birds and mammals. Throughout history, farmers have taken advantage of mast years to feed their livestock. In the wild, populations of Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) on the West Coast of North America spike during mast years. And when one population spikes, it creates a domino effect through the whole system. Researchers at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies documented a surge in mice and deer during masting years. This in turn produces an uptick in ticks who feed on deer and mice. And because ticks produce Lyme disease, the incidences of it in human populations increases. Mice pillage ground-nesting birds such as some veery and warblers, so following mast years, these species decline. But increases in mice also result in a decrease of gypsy moth (Lymanthria dispar), a notable pest which defoliates a significant percentage of the eastern forest. Scientists call this chain of events a “trophic cascade.” The result can literally change the community composition of an entire ecosystem for years.

Why do trees mast? Some scientists speculate that trees deliberately develop an abundance to satiate seed eaters who might otherwise eat all the available acorns. The resulting leftovers increases the odds for germination of a next generation of oaks. Likewise, lean years help to keep populations of seed eaters so low that there are not enough to eat all the seeds during subsequent years. In a Machiavellian scheme, trees satiate animals one year only to starve them the next.

Masting may also be a way of balancing a tree’s limited resource. Producing a large seed crop takes a lot of energy. During mast years, trees shift energy into flower and seed production; the next year, seed production tends to be very low, but the trees grow more. There is an inevitable tradeoff between reproduction and growth.

My walks down acorn-littered sidewalks have me thinking about my own cycles of preparation and production. After several years of chaining myself to a desk at nights and early in the mornings, I have emerged with a book. The years spent in development with Claudia only heighten my relief and pleasure in having it out in the public. Writing a book is so different than a blog post; it lacks the immediate gratification of sharing an idea online with peers. But that long season of waiting has resulted in an extraordinary season of abundance.

Path through dune in Cape Cod near Newcomb Hollow Beach

For me, this has been a year of plenty. Not only in terms of my own work, but also in the relationships I’ve developed, the rich conversations I’ve had, and the wealth of knowledge shared with me. Travel has taken me to many wonderful places. In Dublin this past winter, I felt the palpable energy of a new generation of designers and gardeners eager to innovate and adapt. In Des Moines, I witnessed a small but mighty botanical garden creating genre-blurring plantings. In Portland, I toured some of the most idiosyncratic and expressive gardens I’ve ever seen; gardens that challenged me to rethink the way I approach place-making. I’ve driven across the dry savannas of north central Texas, traveled through the rolling fields and forests of the Brandywine Valle, wandered the boulder fields of the Alabama piedmont woodlands, and explored the craggy coastlines of the Massachusetts Cape. We are spoiled with so much beauty, so much life. I’ve sat in kitchen tables and broken bread with thoughtful, kind, and fascinating people—all united by a love of plants.

Meadow at Mt Cuba Center this November

This is my mast year. To all of you who have invited me, opened your gardens and kitchens, and shared with me pieces of your life, I thank you. You’ve stretched my mind, and you’ve stretched my heart. I am certainly not worthy, but I am so grateful.

Source: Koenig, Walter and Johannes Knops. “The Mystery of Masting Trees.” The American Scientist. Volume 93. July-August 2005

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


A Behind the Scenes Look at Co-Writing a Book

Like many of you, I garden and I write about gardening. Both of these are essentially solitary acts. As a blogger, I get to do and say what I am interested in. But I have spent the past few years doing something very different: writing with someone else. It was a process unlike anything I’ve ever done. So I thought I’d share an honest account of that collaboration, revealing both the ups and downs of the process.

Our culture holds collaboration as a virtue. Working together toward a common goal is a parable preached by preschools and MBA programs alike. But actually doing it—sitting down with someone and then developing, for example, a 316-page manuscript focused on a marketable idea—is quite another thing altogether.

So the celebration of having an accepted book proposal was short-lived. The euphoria quickly melted into doubt. Wondering whether I could pull off a book on my own was worry enough. But seamlessly melding two viewpoints and voices into a single message was something I’ve never done before.

Of course, I had a great partner. Claudia’s big ideas and hands-in-the-dirt experience were huge assets. And her passion is contagious. I found myself looking forward to talking to her every week. We logged hours on Skype. I’d fill notebooks with thoughts; mental kindling that set my mind on fire.

But starting was hard. One of the beliefs that initially paralyzed us is the idea that you need permission to do anything. In co-writing, civility is certainly a virtue, but politeness can be a waste of time. Clear writing results from a strong point of view and logic; yet our fear of offending the other left us with little resolution on complicated points. We would end long Skype conversations courteously, but without firm resolutions. It left us mushy ground to launch our next week of writing.

Plants are social. The layered structure of naturally occurring plant communities was the inspiration for the book. Photo by Claudia West.
And it took us many months to get into a rhythm. Initially, we both tried to write pieces of the same chapter. But our styles were so different, the early drafts were a total mess. I was verbose; Claudia was brief. I wrote in paragraphs, feeling my way through arguments as I wrote. Claudia worked from clear outlines that progressively expanded into narrative. I would spend hours polishing a paragraph without knowing what was coming next. Claudia could quickly develop content, but had a hard time expanding this into a narrative.

So we changed course. What ultimately worked best was that we’d both hammer out a basic outline. Claudia would free-form several pages of bullet points about a single topic. I would organize them into an argument and rewrite them in a draft form. Then we’d both tweak the drafts. We each had separate roles, but we also each controlled the content at several points. It was an iterative process that allowed us each to shape the idea in the way what we did best.

We struggled the most with the big idea. Our first proposal was for a book called Native Planting Design. While there were several regional books on native planting, we wanted to write the definitive resource on designing with natives from an international perspective. But several chapters into that book, we realized that the concept didn’t work. For us, where a plant came from was less useful than how they fit together in communities. So four months before our completed manuscript was due, we scrapped that idea and started over. Throwing away tens of thousands of words was painful. Getting Timber Press to agree to a new angle (and re-vet the book through several layers of approval) was even more painful. But in the end, we all agreed on the new direction.

What held us together was a single-minded obsession about the same inspiration: plant communities. The social nature of plants had been almost entirely forgotten by traditional horticulture. Yet I could not even walk down my urban street without being confronted intricately interwoven carpets of weeds. I’d bend over to examine an upright spike of green foxtail, nested in a bed of Indian goosegrass, coming out of a mat of spotted spurge. Though the plants were different, the same scene was happening in the native meadow and forest floor.  It was so seemingly obvious, so ubiquitous, that writing a book on the subject sometimes felt like proclaiming that the sky was blue or water wet.

The patterns and legibility of long established plant communities motivated me. Photo by Mark Baldwin

And yet we came to these inspirations from different points of view. For me, native plant communities were design exemplars, compositional allegories waiting to be explored. My hikes through the grassy balds of the southern Appalachians, or the granite outcrops of Georgia’s monadnocks, or riverside prairies of the Potomac Gorge told a story of patterns and structure. Though the structure is often blurred and the patterns overlapping, the arrangements of plants within these communities are for me a triumph of legibility over chaos. I could not pass a weedy median or walk through an old growth forest without filling my mind with mental notes of new combinations, new matrixes, new X’s and O’s to put together on the next plan. I came to the book wanting to tell the story of design. And to confess to my own ideological bent, I believed deeply in the potential of our native plants, but the lack of good design examples that was holding them back.

For Claudia, it was the layering of plant on top of plant—the gorgeous morphological diversity of plants above and below ground—that was the story to tell. Claudia wanted to weave the science of plant interaction and ecological niches (the natural story) together with the history of the German perennial movements (the cultural story). Claudia’s experience in Germany immersed her in the world of Karl Foerster, Richard Hansen, Wolfgang Oehme, Cassian Schmidt, Bernd Hertle, and Norbert Kuhn. Germany’s emergence from the desolation of World War II produced a renaissance of thinking about how perennials could be viable plants for covering much of the country’s public landscapes. Unfortunately, our book only covers a small amount of this fascinating history (Timber Press wanted us to focus on the larger narrative). But hopefully, Claudia will write and speak more about this in the future (her talk this summer on Karl Foerster at PPA in Baltimore was a big hit).

Claudia and me at a recent talk in Oxford, MD. Photo by Susan Harris

In the end, it was the power of the idea—and a trust in each other as colleagues and friends—that got us through the grueling process. That idea was big enough to hold together both our points of view. It’s a big tent idea: I’m confident it will support many, many other expressive variations. Whether the book is a flop or success, the collaboration itself was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. It blew open my thinking about plants, and has set my thinking onto much broader horizons. I am grateful for the experience.

Planting in a Post-Wild World is available anywhere books are sold. You can find it online here at Amazon or here at Timber Press.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


It has been a long time since I’ve written here. I have missed it immensely. And I have missed you.

I am writing to say that I am back. I am returning to write refreshed and re-energized by a much needed sabbatical in which I wrote a book. I may not write the frequency of my earliest posts, but when I do, I’ll try my best to make it worthwhile.

I want to share a bit about the project that has absorbed me for the last two years. Several years ago, Timber Press approached me about submitting a book proposal. I said no initially (overwhelmed with a new baby and home renovation), but when they asked again, I was ready.

Claudia West
A few months prior, I had run into Claudia West at a conference in which we both spoke. She gave a talk about the color ranges of native plants that blew me away. It was wonderfully researched and rooted in science; but it was her ability to synthesize a lot of little details into a big picture that totally changed the way I thought about plants. I drove home looking at the landscape around me as if the scales had fallen off my eyes. I wanted more.

I had met Claudia many years before when I was working with Wolfgang Oehme at OvS. Claudia grew up on a family nursery in eastern Germany. Wolfgang was a family acquaintance. When Claudia was finishing school, she came to the U.S. to work at one of Wolfgang’s favorite perennial nurseries: Bluemount located outside of Baltimore (unfortunately, now closed). One of the great things about working at OvS was Wolfgang’s weekend tours. Wolfgang would invite all the young staffers (plus members of his posse—a random assortment of people who sought him out to learn from the master) up to Baltimore to look at his projects tucked all over the city. His garden tours were an odd mix of joyful discovery and grueling 10 hour forced marches (we never stopped for food or drink). But seeing plants in the landscape was a great way to learn them, and the tours bonded the participants. I got to know Claudia through these epic events.

Claudia West with the late Wolfgang Oehme. Image by Rick Darke

Many years passed. Claudia became a landscape architect in Germany and then came back to the mid-Atlantic, eventually making her way to North Creek Nurseries, one of the preeminent perennial and grass nurseries in the country. Infused with ideas from German mentors and her rich knowledge of American native plants, Claudia’s unique approach to design and mixed perennial planting developed, particularly as she experimented with real sites. Claudia’s current role at North Creek is expansive. She runs the ecological landscape division, the fastest growing branch of North Creek that grows perennial plugs for direct installation in the landscape. Most perennial plugs are sold as liners to wholesale nurseries to be potted up as quarts or gallons. But North Creek’s landscape plugs are especially long, allowing them deeper roots that can be planted directly. Claudia not only sells, but she designs and installs dozens of plantings a year. This provides her with a real world laboratory to constantly trial her ideas and designs.

Claudia West in her element laying out plants for a trial garden at North Creek Nurseries. Photo courtesy of North Creek Nurseries

While Claudia made her way back to the U.S. from Germany, I was making a transition of my own. I joined Rhodeside & Harwell in 2009 out of a longing to design more public scale parks, urban sites, streetscapes, and historic landscapes. While I loved creating gardens, I had a sort of Olmstedian itch I needed to scratch. I wanted to do more than just shrub up the estates of the uber-wealthy or the private landscapes of developers. I love plants, but I also love cities and wanted a practice that fully engaged in the issues of the urban realm. The shift from mostly private work to mostly public work was difficult, particularly when it came to planting design. No longer could I rely on trained gardeners to keep plantings perpetually maintained. Now I was dealing with sites that would be planted and minimally maintained. It required a different kind of planting. And a deeper knowledge of plants naturally interact with each other and their sites.

So when Timber Press contacted me about a book, I knew immediately that I wanted to work with Claudia. We were both dealing with the same challenges. We knew intuitively that there were plants that thrive in any site, but we both wanted to understand how to arrange plants in compositions that simulated the function and beauty of naturally occurring plant communities. We were both highly aware of the problems that many native plantings had in getting established. This was our starting point.

Next post: Writing a Book Together
The book will be released this month!

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