Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Piet Oudolf: planting design for the High Line

For a recent visit to the finished High Line (Part 1), click here.

Since this post in 2006, the first part of the High Line has been completed with
great success. I visited last night (Aug. 24, 2009) and encountered crowds of visitors.
To find several additional posts on the High Line as it was being constructed and planted,
type "High Line" in the search box at the top of this blog.

The High Line, an abandoned elevated rail line on the West Side of Manhattan, is being converted into a linear park and trail. For the first time in New York City, this innovative park will introduce Piet Oudolf's work on a large scale. While his plantings for the Memorial Gardens in Battery Park are a successful and attractive feature of Manhattan's southern tip, the High Line is a much more ambitious and challenging project that promises to attract widespread attention.

The High Line linear park concept was inspired by the natural growth of vegetation on the elevated line after it was abandoned in the late 1970s. As urban wilderness overflowed the elevated concrete, steel and riveted structure, it developed quite a following among urban naturalists and seekers after the unusual and novel. It was just this wildness, the sense of wilderness within one of the largest cities on earth, that captured the imaginations of so many.

A group named the Friends of the High Line, the City of New York, and numerous supporters have finally succeeded in creating a vision, and finding funding, for the new linear park, which will run from the area of Penn Station south through Chelsea, into the old meatpacking district at 14th Street, a former derelict area that has become quite trendy.

The diverse, opportunistic flora that insinuates itself in the abandoned interstices of cities is an emblem of the power of plant life to recover (literally, re-cover), reclaim, and restore waste areas - as well as a symbol suggesting a lost, abandoned world of the future. The High Line website takes an upbeat and practical view of the project: "Preliminary designs focus special attention on integrating planting areas with planked public walkways, creating a diverse series of interactions between the High Line, its users, and the spontaneous landscapes that come to inhabit man-made structures over the course of time."

The design team selected for the project is Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Piet Oudolf as the planting designer. Design is now under way and necessary demolition work has already begun. Piet Oudolf presented examples of his recent design work, as well as preliminary concepts for High Line planting design, last April at a theatre in Chelsea. If you know Oudolf’s work, you will find this to be a trove of this master plantsman’s sensuous photography and cutting edge garden designs. Go to the Piet Oudolf and the High Line link below to see the five part presentation. You will need Adobe Reader, which you can download from the site if you don’t already have it. For more on the history of the High Line and selection of the design team, see the New York Architecture Images link.

Piet Oudolf and the Highline

New York Architecture Images

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Aconitum carmichaelii and signs of life vanished

At the end of October, I've found three colonies of Aconitum carmichaelii in bloom on the roadside within two miles of our home. Two seem to have been planted many years ago as ornamentals on the grounds of an impressive prerevolutionary stone house on Strimples Mill Road. The third is on Federal Twist Road, apparently near the location of an old homestead, now vanished.

Surviving non-native plants are signs of former habitation throughout this area, and set the mind to thinking of the unknowable history that has passed here - the Lenape people, who must have used the nearby Lockatong Creek as a resource for living and hunted these woods, the ancient stone rows that show this inhospitable land must once have been farmed, though with great difficulty, the wives, almost certainly they were wives, who planted wisteria and monkshood and who knows what else?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pycnanthemum muticum - a short history of an affair with a smelly plant

I've seen Pycnanthemum muticum for over two years at Paxson Hill Farm, a small specialty nursery just across the Delaware in Bucks County. It was always swarming with bees and other insects when in bloom, and I was definitely interested. But I never bought it.

Then I saw it for sale on the website of Bluestem Nursery in British Columbia, which advertises it among a selection of perennials called 'Wolfgang's Picks' (Wolfgang Oehme of Oehme and Van Sweden). I did order a substantial number a year-and-a-half ago, but only about three survived the transit. Looking at these now mature plants I can see that the silvered texture of a mass in bloom could be a pretty, and deer-proof, sight.

Michael King's Perennial Garden Design, which I highly recommend for its valuable information on such little known (in the U.S.), innovative planting designers as Heiner Luz of Germany, has two photographs that convinced me I needed to give this extraordinarily aromatic plant a try on a big scale. One photograph is of a large group of mixed pycnantheum and Petasites japonicus, backed by a wall of Miscanthus s. 'Silberfeder', designed by the Oehme and Van Sweden firm. The other was of a mass planting of pycnantheum alone.

At Bowmans Hill Wildflower Preserve, I saw the plant in its natural setting, growing in tight communities in the open grass meadow (the photos above and below were taken at Bowman's Hill).

So I bought all the plants available at Paxson Hill Farm (only six or seven). In August, after Jessie and Brian's wedding, I traveled further upstate (New York) to Loomis Creek Nursery (you may have seen it featured in the lavish British magazine Gardens Illustrated a few months ago), where I had seen several gallon pots of Pycnanthemum muticum earlier in the summer. I bought 20. Later I found 10 more at Bowman's Hill.

They're all planted now, and I'm hoping for a rapid spread across my wet clay this winter. I know I have to wait a couple of years, at least, to get the effect I'm seeking. In addition to visual interest and a neat addition to wildlife habitat, I do hope the odor and taste of this plant will send deer fleeing. (I should know better).

I need about 30 more plants.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Autumn light: confirmation

A group of Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', Miscanthus purpurescens, Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues', and Panicum v. 'Shenandoah'.

Following several days of intermittent, heavy rain, the early morning sun is backlighting a group of grasses in my Federal Twist garden, confirming my plans to add other groupings of grasses that echo one another in an apparently random, but complementary, way.

The forms and colors of each grass stand out against the dark backdrop of the woods, and the backlighting brings out the character of each. The fluffy, white plumes of Miscanthus purpurescens add an especially natural feel to the planting, almost like white smoke, and contrast with the more formal calamagrostis. The Panicum 'Dallas Blues' has begun its turn toward pale yellow, which I remember will darken to a rich russet throughout winter.

We are nearing the end of the second year of planting, which has been slowed by need to control invasive weeds - the worst is a smothering blanket of Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), with enough poison ivy and multiflora rose to cause additional trouble - and by my budget. So as winter nears, planning for next year's planting begins (I should say "continues").

Monday, October 16, 2006

Gardening blogs

This weekend I found a gardening blog I can really resonate to, published by a Yvonne Cunnington in Ontario. If you haven't seen it, check out the Country gardener.

Viburnum dilatatum

Driving along Rosemont-Raven Rock Road on Sunday, I had to stomp on the brakes and back up (almost into a ditch) to better see two colonies of Viburnum dilatatum. These are on both sides of the road near the Westcott Nature Preserve. Nice berries.

For info go here

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Blogging help

I've been at this only a few months and continue to have questions about blogging, how to make it easier, how to make contact with others who have similar interests. Here's a link to Amy Stewart's help spot.

Dirt: Don't Get Dirt in the Keyboard, and Other Blogging Tips for Gardeners

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Is planting Dahlia ‘Bishop of Landaff’ an immoral act?

Look closely through the fog; the red blossoms near the center are Bishop of Landaff.

I support use of native plants in gardening. But I can’t find the visual richness and expressiveness I want with native plants alone. In my Rosemont Garden, and in my evolving garden on Federal Twist Road, I’m using both natives and non-natives. Where I live, that’s taking a political stand.

As preface, I want to say I attend the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference at Millersville University every year, I am a member of the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania, a member of the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance, and a supporter of the Plant Stewardship Index (see June 9 posting below). I believe the American nursery industry should not sell plants known to be highly invasive in local habitats, and it should do much more to educate its own staff as well as its customers in the growth habits and needs of plants.

The native plant movement has accomplished important work — conserving local species, preserving remnants of vanishing habitats, creating awareness of the need to protect threatened natural resources, and educating people about their natural plant heritage. And by insisting on the importance of using plants appropriate to the environment, rather than trying to alter soil and other conditions to grow plants not naturally suited to a given site, the movement has had a pervasive influence on gardening.

The New Perennial Movement — as practiced by Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden in the U.S. and Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury, Henk Gerritsen and many other European and American garden designers too numerous to mention — grew out of a long European tradition. Designers have been riffing on the concept of naturalistic gardening for more than a century, perhaps starting with William Robinson in the 19th century, and probably going back much further. The Germans, in particular, have done very important theoretical and practical work matching plants to habitats and testing their behavior under controlled growing conditions over many decades. This movement toward ecologically appropriate gardening has paralleled the native plant movement, and helped set the trajectory of 21st century gardening (at least for a time). For now, native is good. Constructing a drainage system and replacing your soil so you can grow bearded iris and lavender in a wetland is bad.

But in the face of this success, many native purists appear to be boxing the movement into a dead end. (For more on this subject, read Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, and "The aliens have landed! What are the justifications for 'native only' policies in landscape plantings" by A.E. Kendle and J.E. Rose of Reading University, published in Landscape and Urban Planning 47 (2000).)

By most definitions, a plant is native only if it arrived in its environment without human intervention — on the wind, in bird poop, or in some other way not involving human intervention. In North America, many native plant enthusiasts accept only those plants that preceded the arrival of white Europeans. In the UK, which was pretty much wiped clean of all its native species during the last Ice Age, the Channel delayed the return of many plants that were previously native. Because humans accelerated that process of return in the UK, bringing back plants that had survived the Ice Age in the more favorable environment of the Continent, previously native plants are now defined as non-native invaders. They would have returned by “natural” means, but they didn’t arrive in time.

Now that the earth’s population has reached over 6 billion, it is very difficult to attribute the arrival of a new species in any environment to "natural" causes. Human influence is simply too pervasive. This is a bad situation because it means all the native plants that will ever exist, exist now. The time and geographic doors have been shut. No new plants will be admitted to the native plant lists (at least in the most conservative circles).

Why is this a bad thing? Because the climate is changing, and human culture is changing natural ecosystems, constantly, in huge ways. So the number of native species will necessarily decrease over time, as species after species succumbs to an altered environment. Regardless of current preservation efforts, only a minute fraction of the earth’s land area will actually be preserved in so-called pristine condition.

What is wrong with this picture? Have we defined native plants in a way that will result in extinction of most native species unless we create isolated “plant zoos”? Are we moving toward preservation of native species only in highly artificial preservation environments, on pieces of landscape preserved from human development? But even preserved areas are subject to changing climate.

Perhaps our definitions are wrong. Perhaps the human race is a part of nature after all, and we make a huge mistake to see nature and humankind in eternal opposition. In fact, the landscape the first Europeans found on arrival in North America was not pristine nature, untouched by human activity. Native Americans had been managing the landscape for centuries, and the landscape that was first viewed by European eyes was, in fact, a managed landscape. It just looked different from the one they left on the other side of the Atlantic. The endless prairies in the American Midwest are a notable example. The prairies remained prairies only because fire burned them and buffalo grazed them. The native Americans saw the natural result of fires started by lightening, and started setting fires themselves to revitalize the land for grazing and to prevent growth of trees, which would have turned the prairies into forest within a generation. There are many who now argue that the very idea of a natural environment untouched by human culture is a fiction.

Much of the impetus of the native plant movement stems from fear of the effects of invasive species, many from far away places. But many plants of foreign origin thrive in our environment without becoming a problem — while some natives are quite invasive. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources asks: "Are all exotic plants invasive? No, most non-native plants are not invasive in natural areas. Of the more than 700 non-native plants in Ohio, fewer than 100 are known to truly 'invade' their natural settings." (Ohio DNR link)

Some studies have even demonstrated that exotic species can enrich habitats, adding new genetic material when local plant populations become weakened by inbreeding, and providing useful habitat for a variety of insect life. Not to mention their aesthetic value.

The answer, of course, is knowledge of a plant’s growth habits in different environments, knowledge we have far too little access to.

The United States National Arboretum does not equate non-natives with invasiveness. "In many cases, plants from other parts of the world are welcomed, manageable additions to our gardens. In the worst cases," it adds, "invasive plants like mile-a-minute, purple loosestrife, and kudzu ruthlessly choke out other plant life. Ultimately, invasive plants alter habitats and reduce biodiversity." But the Arboretum does not make the error of equating non-native with invasive. (National Arboretum link)

As climate change continues — and we know it will — after all, we are only in a temporary warm spell between periodic glaciations — what is native or not may come to have less meaning. Better to know what will thrive in the changing environment and creatively adapt to coming changes. I admit there are serious problems with some non-natives. The preserved woodlands surrounding my house are dotted with Berberis, Euonymus alata, and Rosa multiflora. But the threat from these non-native species is very small compared to that of our prolific native deer population, which is the source of the greatest destruction of native flora.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of preserving native species and local genotypes. We need to do everything we can to preserve the genetic diversity of our biota. Preserving native plant populations, and renewing them, is a part of that. But moving plants from threatened environments to other areas where they will thrive is another part of that story. In some cases, that may mean moving a species across an ocean as climate and growing conditions change in a plant’s native range. Consider the Franklinia alatamaha. If Bartram hadn't collected it and propogated it in his garden in Philadelphia, it would be extinct now.

If we see human ecology as a part of the world’s ecology, for better or for worse, we are in a better position scientifically to manage change. The potential for harm is great, great enough to inspire fear of some terrible consequence of human action. But it does no good to deny the part humans play in nature, and to abandon hope for responsible action. Simply defining nature to exclude the human race is not an answer we can desire. That’s a wish for return to some pre-human paradise.

Last summer I attended an all day workshop on identification of native grasses and carex. As we walked the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve identifying plants, one woman kept asking, “Is it good, or is it bad?” (Meaning is it of native or non-native origin?) Her question points to how value driven the native plant movement has become. And some ardent adherents believe with an almost religious fervor. I exaggerate, maybe, but in many cases, belief has replaced scientific inquiry.

So was planting Dahlia ‘Bishop of Landaff’ in my country garden in Rosemont a churlish or an immoral act? I don’t think so.


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