Thursday, April 23, 2009

Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens that Honor Plants, Place and Spirit

Plant-Driven Design by Scott and Lauren Springer Ogden is a beautifully produced book about using plants in creative combinations, and in communities, to create gardens sublimely suited to their environments. The attention-grabbing name, the high production value with loads of photographs mostly by Lauren Springer Ogden, and the sophisticated “how to” approach, profuse with anecdotes and examples from the Ogden's own experience, may gain this book a significant readership.

The Ogdens wrote Plant-Driven Design to get your attention. The book clothes an old idea—plant the right plant in the right place—in western (that's the North American west) drag, and serves it up as a new way to make gardens. The Ogdens are opposed to all the commercial and cultural influences that keep people from actually coming into contact with their gardens and experiencing plants first hand—the design/build landscapers who install the hardscape and garden (mostly high-profit hardscape) as a package deal, the legitimate landscape architects who know garden planning as a profession but know little of plants, garden designers who design beautiful gardens but leave their clients ignorant owners of gardens they don't love and can't properly care for. They are, in fact, stating their opposition to all the forces that make people indifferent to plants and keep them from learning about plants, or even wanting to.

Fighting ignorance is a difficult thing when the ignorant don't know they are ignorant. Perhaps this is one reason the authors adopted such a self-consciously provocative title. They repeat “plant-driven design” like a mantra throughout the book; it has a false ring, but it's a memorable rallying cry, certainly, and it will be interesting to see if it works.

The Ogdens appear intent on creating a new American garden for the wide open, mostly treeless, big sky landscape of the American west. Plant-Driven Design is a polemic—one intended to demonstrate a superior approach to gardening far more suited to the American landscape than, say, a British-influenced approach. Its focus on plants and their creative use appropriate to specific regions and microclimates still hasn't penetrated to the general gardening population in the U.S., and perhaps the Ogden's book will help spread the word.

Oddly, the Ogdens take some unusual stands, and this seems to be a direct result of their “plant-driven design” message which, in brief, suggests that if you love and understand your plants’ needs and how they grow under natural conditions, your garden’s design will emerge from closely observing plants and matching them to their environment. They recommend against designing a garden, then selecting the plants to go into it – not a bad recommendation in itself – but they go further – in fact, too far. In some passages, they appear to attack the very concept of garden design. In the opening chapter “Putting Plants First—a different approach to designing gardens” they quickly move to a discussion of “how structure-driven gardens fall short,” in which they dismiss the work of Thomas Church and Roberto Burle Marx—Church because he subjugated plants to design and Burle Marx because he turned plants into abstract art. They never talk of gardens as art, or directly discuss design. Such a narrow view of gardening does them no credit, and it relegates some great garden designers to the compost heap.

This is also a book about love of plants, and it seeks to imbue some of that feeling for plants and the generous acts of gardening in the reader. The Ogden's write powerfully about the emotional connection between gardener and garden, and about the importance of plants to making this connection. This is the heart of their book. The Ogden’s approach represents a regional offshoot of the naturalistic gardening movement begun in the 19th century by William Robinson, his followers in the UK, and the German ecological planting movement. The Ogden’s even use photos of the garden at the Weihenstephaner Institute in Bavaria, where the great grand-daddies of ecologically appropriate gardening, Karl Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, did the years of research that resulted in the classic Perennials and their Garden Habitats, though they make no mention of this seminal book. They place value not on flowers or color, but on the whole organism—structure, shape, texture, appearance through all seasons, appropriateness to environment, importance of sense of place, and plant communities that naturally evolve over time, with minimal involvement from the gardener. Where they take the book in this direction, writing about the connection between plants and their natural habitats, between garden and gardener, it is at its best.

One word of warning. Readers on the east or northwest coasts of the U.S. and in other more temperate climates will be hard pressed to find practical examples for their gardens, though underlying concepts (dare I say 'design concepts'?) are the same. There are some references to gardens in more temperate climates, but the focus is clearly on drier habitats of the west. I recommend the book primarily for residents of arid areas of North America, and gardeners in areas with Mediterranean, steppe, and alpine habitats in other parts of the world. The Ogden's dry climate approach and popularization of a broad range of plants unknown to most North American gardeners points the way to a viable future for gardening in a large part of the continent where rapidly growing population, a changing climate, and increasing scarcity of water make the Ogden's kind of gardening—they live in Colorado in the summer and Texas in the winter—a model for the water-scarce future.

I often read gardening books from cover to cover, but I had a hard time with this one; it is simply too long and in need of more rigorous editing. The writing is uneven—smooth sailing at times, at times irritating, occasionally inspiring. Nevertheless, this is an important book that may have a significant role to play in American gardening. The Ogdens should be congratulated for writing a gardening book with serious intent—something much too rare in the American garden publishing world. I'll certainly keep it on my bookshelf; it's likely to become a well worn reference over the years.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pond Cleaning Time

Now that the ice has melted and we've had a few warm days, the algae in the pond is growing like crazy. This algae came with the water lilies last summer - blanketweed it's called.

As you lift it out with a strong rake, it sheds water and forms a thin blanket of dark green. I'm grateful this is a natural clay pond. If it had a liner, removing the algae would be virtually impossible - certainly a lot harder than it is now. I think we removed 40 or 50 pounds. We'll have to stay on top of this or we'll have a pond that looks like green pudding.

The frogs love it though ... lots of cover and protection from predators.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Weeping Cherry

The house came with this weeping cherry, which was planted sometime in 1965, just after the house was built. It appears on the planting plan from that year. Each spring I think how inappropriate it is for my garden, but enjoy it nevertheless.

It doesn't appear to be in the best of health, and I continue to wonder how long it can last.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Vista Lecture: James Hitchmough

The latest Vista lecture, with James Hitchmough, professor of ecological horticulture in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Sheffield University, is available on the Gardens Illustrated website. As Noel Kingsbury says in his introduction, "Sheffield is becoming synonymous in the gardening community with some exciting new directions in planting design." This is important work that offers something to offend almost all entrenched interests, from scientific ecologists to traditional (whatever that is) garden designers.

James Hitchmough has been a leader in a new movement in gardening probably best called "enhanced nature"--plantings based on nature, mainly for use in urban settings. This is gardening for the common man and woman, not for gardening experts and aficianados, using seed-sown plantings modeled on various natural plant communities--from the North American tall grass prairie to the South African montane.

Plants are selected for their ability to remain sustainable within the overall community of plants, for flowering time, for suitability to specific ecologies and climates, and other factors related to sustainability, low maintenance, and attractiveness to the general public. Most of these gardens are in public spaces, where people who normally would not visit a garden encounter them. An important part of Hitchmough's research has been into environmental psychology, what most people consider attractive, what they like or dislike or are indifferent to in such a planting. Color, as you might think, is very important.

This research has been carried out by Hitchmough and others at Sheffield University in the UK. I've read of his work over the last several years, mainly in Noel Kingsbury's books, and it has certainly influenced my approach to gardening. (Kingsbury recently received his Ph.D. from Sheffield University, where he has worked closely with Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnet, and others.)

As you might expect, Tim Richardson, who co-hosts the series with Noel Kingsbury, and who has most recently written a book on conceptual gardens (many without plants!), gives Hitchmough a hard time. This is an entertaining hour of informal talk and stimulating Q&A.

For more information on Hitchmough's work, go to his website.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Sanguinaria canadensis

The Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) finally got enough warm sun during this chilly spring to open last weekend. This is a small colony just outside our living room window. I don't know whether it self-seeded or the original owners of the house, the Howeth's, planted it.

Most of out Sanguinaria grows out by the roadside (below) where it finds better drainage. It usually blooms in great profusion. This year there was much less. I hope this is temporary and not a permanent change.

I wish I had marked this semi-double form (below) so I could collect the seed later in the season. I'll check today and see if I can still find it.

Though I like the simplicity of the common form.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Garden Diary: Homage to suburbia, minus lawn

I've always disliked Arborvitae (Thuya occidentalis). For me, it epitomizes the unimaginative, dreary US front yard of unbroken lawn with a few accent shrubs and "foundation plantings." But I'm forced to try to love what I thought I hated. I want evergreen winter structure in my garden, at least near the house, and Arborvitae is my only option considering my extremely wet clay soil. So I'm playing with the concept, turning the American front yard on its head, so to speak, making a parody of it, by using one of its most popular cliches in an entirely different way. In this case, making a rather formal hedge at the edge of a naturalistic wet prairie planting. There is grass, to be sure, but no lawn in any sense of the word.

This photo from last July shows Salix alba 'Britzensis', a colorful willow (colorful in winter, that is - brilliant orange-yellows) in the large yellow box. The smaller box highlights Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), with its silver mid-summer foliage. I point out these two plants because they are important components of a big change at this end of my garden, nearest the house.

I've planted a row of Arborvitae across the view you see in the photo above, with the willows on the far side of the Arborvitae (see previous post). Actually, there are two layers of Arborvitae, eight larger ones nearest the willows and, at each end, several smaller ones about 30 inches behind (closer to your viewing point).

I've also added, as you can see below, two others in the mid-distance to give a sense of visual depth to the flat background of the garden.

The layers allow opportunity for planting perennials in and around the hedge to better integrate it into the wild summer garden, yet leaving a permanent framework in winter - a structure of hedge, willows, and long-lasting perennials.

Below is the first row of Arborvitae, planted two weeks ago, with the brightly colored willows in front (cloudy day, so not so bright appearing here).

My intent is to add many more Salix a. 'Britzensis' in front of the hedge, as well as some behind it, and to fill in with the Pycnantheum muticum around the smaller shrubs and other areas needing added visual interest. But this first attempt seemed too piddling. I needed a grander gesture, and thus the additional shrubs.

So here is the final arrangement, sans perennials, which are all still dormant.

Returning to the summer photo, you can see many plants have to be moved, especially a vigorous planting of rather invasive Prairie cord grass (Spartina pectinata 'Aureo-marginata') on the right. Since I'm adding more salix a lot of reworking of the area will be needed. I'm rooting cuttings to make the new willows, so I can take my time if I just take care to provide room for the new shrubs to grow.

With hedges and stone walls, perhaps other plantings, eventually I hope to have a structural frame - made of many parts - to hold the wildness of the central prairie planting - my own bit of anti-suburban front yard (mine is behind the house).

Early aliens

Gardeners are often warned to avoid Petasites. I've even had a nursery refuse to sell it to me, and I agree I've seen it growing with such vigor I want to either cheer or run. In my garden - so far - it's been willing to spread slowly but seems easily controllable.

I have two kinds. One, sold as Petasites japonicus 'Giganteus' (above), with great round leaves, and another, sold as Petasites hybridus x Dutch (below), with roughly triangular leaves. The flowers of both are in bloom now. They're small, no more than three inches high and less wide, for the Giganteus.

The inflorescence of the 'x Dutch' hybrid is much smaller and strikingly different in appearance. Long blossoming stems will rise from the cone-like flowering body in the next few weeks, then wither as the foliage grows. I have no idea what the Petasites x Dutch was hybridized with, but its flowering behavior is dramatically different from its cousin. The flowering stems are similar in appearance to those of Darmera peltata, so I do wonder if the cross was made with some form of Darmera.

Maybe you know the answer.


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