Saturday, October 25, 2008

Statement of Principle

Late October 2008

What? With the world in virtual financial collapse, wars and cultural conflicts threatening the lives of millions, perhaps billions, I'm making a statement of principle about gardening? What sort of silliness is this?

I avoid using the words 'green', 'sustainable', 'sustainability'. They've already been appropriated by the world of business and capitalism, and are well along the way to becoming meaningless. Perhaps I should use 'stewardship' because this is about keeping the earth and enjoying the earth. Perhaps it's best not to use labels, keep quite, and just try to take care of my own bit of the land. I can do without labels, but I can't keep entirely quiet. So herewith, a statement of gardening principles, and a little of my local history.

The Future Garden in Late 2004

A Time for Taking Stock
As the end of the gardening year approaches, refocusing seems in order. Time for a gardening life checkup.
My garden on Federal Twist Road is an experiment.

Apart from clearing the land of close-packed weedy cedars to make space for a garden, I take the land as given - no soil improvement, no measures to change the heavy, wet clay, no mass extermination of existing plant life, no change in natural drainage patterns, no fertilizers. My goal is to make the most of what I have - to create an artificial wet prairie with a self-sustaining community of plants appropriate to this place and its environment, and a habitat for wildlife. Most of the plants are native, but there are also many exotics - because they will grow here, because they are appropriate for this environment, and for aesthetic reasons (and to satisfy the desires of a plant mad gardener).

The constraints of the site - very wet, saturated clay particularly in winter, surrounding woods that reduce direct sunlight, a cold microclimate that retards plant growth in spring - limit plant choices and force a lot of trial planting just to see what will thrive.

I don’t fool myself into thinking this experiment is a wholly idealistic, or scientific, endeavor. It’s a practical matter of time and money. I can garden only on weekends, and money to purchase plants and pay for labor is limited. My ultimate goal is a garden that is relatively self-sufficient.

Why Here?
We fell in love with the house and its location. A 1965 mid-century reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright in his Usonian phase, the house and its secluded location amid 19 acres of preserved woodland are what originally attracted us. Designed by a notable local architect, William Hunt, the house has a wall of windows at the back overlooking the main part of the garden and surrounding woodland. It clearly refers to both Japanese and Arts and Crafts design conventions, both of which are associated with naturalistic settings. Visually, the house is an unobtrusive presence from outside; its gray wood siding and low profile blend easily into the forested location. The house is so unobtrusive, one contractor we hired told me he had been driving past for 20 years but had never realized a house was here.
View Out to Garden

From inside, the ample fenestration brings the outside in, even in winter when a surrounding snow cover can provide special delight. The hope for a new future, the tranquility of the wooded location, and the immediacy of the experience of nature won out. We bought, and moved the four miles from Rosemont.
While we were thinking about moving, I did have doubts. What had been a view across an open field in 1965 had become congested with 50-year-old cedars, and the change to a mixed hardwood forest was immanent. I counted trees and guessed we would need to cut down 80 or 90, mainly weedy cedars, just to get less than an acre of open space.
I understood that making a garden in this place would not be easy, and I certainly regretted giving up my Oudolf-inspired garden in the nearby hamlet of Rosemont, but I felt up to making a change. An opportunity for a new garden!

Garden Practice
A naturalistic garden seemed most appropriate to the style and location of the house. Anything remotely formal, other than some topiary shapes to provide sharp contrast with the surrounding wildness or some kind of symbolic structure or artwork, would be out of place. I started by planting directly into the existing matrix of plants, figuring the weeds I already had would suppress potential new weeds lurking in the seed bank and maintain existing stable groundcover as I developed the garden over the next several years. (I quickly discovered that many of the existing 'weeds' consisted of highly desirable Carex communities, Scirpus, Juncus, Sysirinchium, Lobelia syphilitica, fleabane.) My aim is to develop communities of more desirable and ornamental plants that will form a new weed-suppressing matrix.
Planting Directly into the Existing Matrix - Summer 2006

I took help wherever I could find it, mainly from books. For sizing the garden area and establishing spatial relationships to the house, John Brookes' many books on garden design were extremely valuable. For approaches to plant selection and planting design my main sources were Oudolf and Kingsbury's 'Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space', Kingsbury's 'The New Perennial Garden', Hansen and Stahl's 'Perennials and their Garden Habitats', 'Dynamic Landscape: Design, Ecology and Management of Naturalistic Urban Planting' edited by Nigel Dunnet, King and Oudolf's 'Gardening with Grasses', and Rick Darke's 'The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest' and 'The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses'. There are many others, of course. Most of my sources were European simply because I could find the information I needed there, Rick Darke being one notable exception. (One might ask what this says about much of American garden writing.)

Plants remain standing over winter to provide visual interest and as a framework to display ice and snow. In the early spring I burn plants I can safely put flame to (historically appropriate prairie practice) and cut down the rest using electric hedge clippers, leaving the remains in place as a mulch and to gradually increase the organic content of the soil. This leaves a rather dismal view for a few weeks until the early irises and grasses begin to provide some visual interest.
The Garden after the Early Spring Slash and Burn

After three years of work planting, building stone walls, and this year making a small pond, the garden is nowhere near completion but it does achieve moments of beauty, and it is thriving without the kind of intensive intervention typical of more conventional gardens. I have found that many perennials have a hard time getting established in my stressful environment; large plants, though they are expensive, have much greater success.

Moments of Beauty

Although my conditions are not conducive to successful seeding, I've found that many seeds do germinate in the second year following random broadcasting and I now have communities of iron weed (Vernonia noveboracensis), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) established from seed. I'm still lacking sufficient groundcover plants to complete the matrix planting, and that is a challenge I will continue to focus on next year.

Some weeds do still make life difficult, especially Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), which usually covers virtually the whole garden by season's end. This year I got the upper hand (I think). Using repeated cutting and hand pulling, I prevented most of the grass from seeding. Since it's an annual, I hope to see less of it next year, and to entirely eliminate it in in a few years.
So... these are the principles I'm using to develop my garden:
  • Consider the culture and history of a site before designing a garden
  • Use plants appropriate to existing ecology and environmental conditions
  • Establish self-perpetuating plant communities, keeping watch for overly competitive or invasive behavior
  • Intervene minimally
  • Don't use supplemental watering (except when needed to establish new plantings)
  • Don't fertilize - use only compost and allow organic matter from previous years to decay in place (unless diseased)
  • Make aesthetically appropriate design decisions (make it pleasing to the senses)
  • Provide habitat for wildlife
Please don't take offense. This list is for me, not you - to help me keep on track, measure progress, and decide when change is needed.


  1. and what you have created is beautiful. Thank-you for sharing it with us.

  2. Your garden and your philosophy are wonderful. I am glad to have found your blog through looking for Piet Oudolf.
    I sometimes volunteer at the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park. It is a beautiful garden year round that inspires a more wildlife friendly garden style.
    As does your own garden.

  3. R. Pete Free,
    It's always a pleasure to hear from you.

  4. Gloria,
    Thanks for making contact. Pete Oudolf's website added a link to an Oudolf High Line post on my blog a few months back. I've been getting quite a few hits through it.

    It must be a pleasure to volunteer at the Lurie Garden. I've only seen it in photographs, but I hope to get to Chicago soon to see it in person.



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