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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