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!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Has ASLA Abandoned the Residential Garden?

Yes, No, Maybe so? By Susan Hines

2009 composed salad LA: Coen + Partners  Photos: Paul Crosby, Paul Crosby Architectural Photography

In just a few weeks, the recipients of the American Society of Landscape Architect’s 2014 Professional Awards will be hustled across the stage in Denver for a quick handshake and photo-op. The purpose of the ASLA Professional Awards is to “honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe.” Although, the society recognizes accomplishments in research, land planning and analysis as well as communications, the majority of submissions are in the general and residential design categories. Here, are completed designs of every project type, from corporate campuses and public parks (General Design) to rooftop terraces and country estates (Residential).

Given the talent pool, the best landscape architects of our time, practicing in diverse regions of the country, indeed, around the globe, one would expect a range of work across a broad spectrum of landscape styles. This would seem to be particularly true of the residential design category.  In theory, professionals submitting in this category must respond to clients’ needs and preferences as well as site conditions and varied architectural styles. The potential for diverse ideas, inspiration and just plain eye-candy seems pretty good. 

LA Blasen Landscape Architecture,  Photo: Marion Brenner Photography
Unfortunately, and ever increasingly, the anticipation of professionals and public alike quickly fades when the winning residential designs are revealed. Taken as a group they are almost invariably contemporary residences, actually modern in the true sense of that word—minimalist, rectilinear, frequently flat roofed, glazing galore, devoid of ornamentation. The landscape response resembles a composed salad: Beets here, shredded carrot there, a well-placed radish, a small pile of asparagus served on a bed of lawn. The problem with this comparison is that the salad described is much more colorful than the award winning projects and may contain a greater variety of plants.  

Yet the same jury selects the General Design awards. Within this category, gardens with intricate planting are ever increasingly among the winning designs. Last year, three gardens and the famed Highline (Section Two)—with its exceptional planting design—captured awards. The growing dominance of gardens in the General Design category is the exception that proves the rule. What is the jury signaling?  

Consider this possibility: Landscape architects do not want to be confused with gardeners, garden designers or, heaven forbid, landscapers or landscape designers. When a house is involved, rather than a major public or private open space, the line becomes murky. Historically the term “garden” is associated with a building, most often a house. In the UK the term is used colloquially to describe the front or back of any residence—improved or unimproved. In the US, we use the term “yard” in the same way, as in, ”I love the landscaping in your front yard. Did you use the same company that mows your lawn?”  

Status anxiety is at the root of this dilemma and is nowhere better displayed than in the ASLA residential design awards. Landscape architects are highly trained, licensed design professionals, constantly forced to distinguish themselves in the popular mind from landscapers—the hoi polloi “mow and blow” crowd-- and from gardeners with their unruly plants. If the ASLA national seal of approval were stamped on a residential garden, rather than a landscape with domestic adjacency it may be hard for your above-average landscape architect to take. After all, these professionals already labor in the shadow of a far greater being: The Architect.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

“Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

“Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.” 

My border in early July
I love this quote from reddit founder Alexis Ohanian because it reminds me of a thought that almost never leaves my head: I suck at planting. Of course, there are times when I don’t—glorious moments when a planting rewards me with a spectacle more fabulous than anything I imagined. But those ultimately fade and I am left with new shortcomings to address next season.

I remember thinking early in my career that I would look forward to the day when everything wasn't an experiment.  But the truth is everything is still an experiment. It always is. I practice, write, teach, and basically never stop thinking about planting design. Have I mastered my craft? Absolutely not.

In many ways, one never masters this craft. Planting design—particularly the naturalistic strain of it—is like playing chess against a computer (“nature” being the computer in this case). It is a perverse game: nature constantly outwits all attempts at control, ridicules all plans, and even when things are going well—even when it seems like we've finally got the upper hand—it taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that the second we stop gardening, all of our efforts will be swept away. Ours is an ephemeral art. 

Control: Cloud-pruned box for a median I designed with my firm RHI
To assert control, one could use formal gestures: clipped hedges, large blocks of single species, plants that rarely change though the year.  These are entirely effective. While I am ultimately interested in the idea of naturalism—that is, a style of planting more closely aligned with the way plants evolved in nature—my goal is to create effects with plants. So I will use every tool in the toolkit.

But even with plantings we can control, we still lose. And here’s the thing: sometimes losing is the best part. All gardeners know this. Some of the best moments in our plantings are not really ours, but a moment of self-seeded spontaneity, combinations we did not really anticipate, or the dull, overused plants that we’d almost ripped out only to discover they had become the anchors of our gardens.

So dear readers, I wish you many, many failures. I wish you grandiose plans that fizzle into hair-pulling messes, bold gestures that melt into formless puddles, and spectacular fireworks that fail to ignite. I wish you fail often and fail fast. Because out of this comes courage. And out of courage comes good design.

Friday, May 16, 2014

May Days: The Garden in May


In May we are gardening gods. This is the month where the fullness of spring meets the opening of summer, creating a moment in time where the garden in our heads matches reality. May is the month for horticultural hubris. For a few weeks, we are the masters of our plots. Like Midas, all we touch turns to flower.

Of course, May’s glory has nothing to do with us. Even the abandoned lot down the street looks like a field of Arcadia. The florets of the unmown bluegrass hold and toss the morning light like water, and drifts of dandelions emerge from of islands of lilac ground ivy. For a few blessed weeks, the cool nights and warm days grant us the perfect gardening climate. I know what it’s like to live in coastal California or Britain, or one of those places that the glossy garden magazines obsessively feature.

But that’s no matter. My plot is a result of my gardening genius. It has nothing to do with the fact that all of the plants have freshly leafed out, coating even the dowdy foundation shrubs with the glow and firmness of adolescence. Or that all of the perennials have recently emerged low and tight, as if the ancient gardeners of Kyoto had spent decades clipping them. It doesn’t even matter what you planted next to each other. The swelling border makes my impetuous April shopping spree at the nursery look wise and carefully composed. I look over my plot like a champion chess player, confident of my strategy. Gardening mistakes won’t show themselves this month.

May is the month for plants whose glory is short lived. The late spring geophytes—the tulips and the scilla—overlap with the early summer ephemerals like trilliums, bluebells, and trout lilies. These plants emerge from nowhere between the gaps and crannies of plants, bloom for a week or two of glory, then vanish as the heat of summer comes. Why can’t all plants behave this way? They do their thing, and then poof, they’re gone, making room for the other fat hens to swell during June. Gardeners know these are cheap tricks. Stick a few alliums in the ground in the fall, and voila!: nodding purple baseballs declare to your neighbors that you are, indeed, a plant whisperer.

It’s May, and gardeners everywhere should enjoy their mastery. For August is coming and will judge us all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Darrel Morrison's Addition to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Native Flora Garden

Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. Sources from top left: s p1te; DS.JPG; wirednewyork & ennead architects; Poulin + Morris; Prospect Park Alliance.

Conceptual Art in Borough of Trees

Article by Harry Wade

The 2013 addition to Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Native Flora Garden can be found just down a stunningly busy “parkway” from the borough’s symbolic hub, Grand Army Plaza.  

Originally designed in 1867 by Olmsted and Vaux as the pivot point where their pastoral Prospect Park would meet a densely urban neighborhood, the Plaza has undergone dozens of monumental additions, all the while also serving as the biggest and busiest traffic circle in the entire City.  

Major institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, Public Library and Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) were added to the Plaza in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anchoring its role as a crossroads of culture and everyday life. Today, the Plaza embodies Brooklyn vitality at its bluntest – high profile design for landscape, urban spaces and architecture, all thrown together with fine arts and diverse neighborhood life. It is the counterpoint to Manhattan, where the boundaries separating these disciplines are usually more strictly enforced.
The new BBG Visitor Center, literally reflecting the Garden’s commitment to reach out to the surrounding community. Structure designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, 2013.  Source: Albert Večerka/Esto

The neighborhood is an apt setting for Darrel Morrison’s new garden, the first addition to the century-old Native Flora Garden and part of the BBG’s Campaign for the Next Century, a comprehensive expansion program to bring more visitors in and to reach even further out into Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods. Set immediately alongside the original century-old Native Flora Garden, the addition reflects a pride and protectiveness of the Borough’s natural history, and a view forward into the way art, design and life will continue to merge so casually in Brooklyn.

The nicest nativist you'll ever meet

The BBG addition is also an auteur work, to borrow a phrase from Cahiers du cinéma, the 1950’s Paris-based journal in which film critic André Bazin first proposed the idea that great films, like great paintings, must be understood within the context of their creator’s style, traceable as it develops from film to film – thus qualities like Hitchcockian, Truffaut-istic and John Ford-inspired. 

Darrel Morrison is a man whose personal kindness and unassuming manner is at odds with this kind of top billing. Hardly a Devo, Darrel happily adapts to the goals of his clients, even when it means working double-time to capture the essence of multiple plant communities in a very limited space and making it all look natural.   He agreeably rationalizes the presence of a giant English Oak (Quercus robur) in an otherwise strictly native garden, crediting its longevity and the fact that it looks a lot like the native Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa). He’s even willing to look the other way when a pretty “nativar” pops up in a garden or a conversation.

Monday, March 31, 2014

April is the Cruelest Month

"Primavera" Eugenio Gignous 

"April is the cruelest month . . . "

writes the poet. That line has confused me for years. Is it cruel? April is the springiest month, when elementary school teachers paste tulips and yellow galoshes to bulletin boards, and little old ladies dress up for church looking like pastel Easter eggs.

But the gardener understands the cruelty of April. The derivation of the word April can be traced as far back as Varro, where the etymology, omnia aperit, literally "it opens everything" may be a reference to the opening of flowers and trees. I have been thinking about openings lately as I contemplate the seeds growing in every window sill. Annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs splay across every surface of my house. Today I ate my cereal with a tray of zinnias and three naranjillas. For the last few weeks I have been a witness to the openings of seeds. Birth is an act of violence. These dry brown seeds burst into life, ripping off their skins, splitting cotyledons, thrusting root into ground and stem to sky. Sometimes I lean in, expecting to hear the cries and wails of these infants. We enter this world in an act of violence, as if to test our mettle and prove our worthiness to cross the threshold.

April is the most lavish month . . .

"Frühling in Worpswede" Hans am Ende, 1900
March left us with mulch and daffodils. April starts with mostly bare ground and the few cherished heralds of spring, but ends cloaked in a gaudy quilt of greens. Chartreuse, viridian, lime, olive, jade, and celadon foam and froth across the ground. The poverty of March yields the extravagance of April.

Even the old, dying maple next to the church parsonage has engaged in a fit of fecundity. The tree blasts an armada of twirling, papery helicopters into the parsonage garden. A mini forest of maples has erupted in the garden, making it difficult for me to tell my annual seedlings from the young trees. They say plants approaching death often go to flower, a last effort at immortality. I look to the knobby old tree and then to his sea of babies. I'm not sure I have the heart to weed them.

April is the maddest month . . .

February stirred in me a restlessness to get outside and start digging in the dirt; by April, I am consumed with a howling lunacy. For weeks, the only planterly life I've seen are the seedlings in my window sill. Now April spews life in every form, across every surface. The eye has no place to rest. I move around the garden like an ant, delirious and distraught by the riotous explosion of leaf and limb.

April is the month for madness. We mark the first of April by acting like fools. In France, the "days of April" (journees d'avril) refers to a series of violent insurrections against the government in 1834. In England, they mark St. Mark's Eve (April 24) by sitting on the church porch to watch the ghosts of those who will die this year pass.

This month I am a fool, a rioter, a ghost. I enter into the garden and find not asylum, but bedlam; not harmony, but cacophony. The desperation of winter has blossomed into the desire of spring, and I pass the murderous tulips with a suspicious eye.

Originally published, April 2010

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Muscota Marsh Park: A Lucid View of Troubled Waters

From left, a current day aerial photo of the site for Muscota Marsh Park; a graphic recreation of the site in ancient times; a 2012 designer’s rendering. Sources: Photo and illustration by Markley Boyer, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric W. Sanderson, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2009; designer’s rendering by James Corner Field Operations

This harsh winter seems sure to linger in New York City past the official first day of spring on March 20, and we will likely have a few more weeks to see things in our newest naturalistic City parks and gardens that might go unnoticed in growing season.  First up is this little park by famed designer, James Corner, that sits so unassumingly on the edge of an ancient estuary, yet manages to raise complex 21st century questions.  

In coming weeks, before things get too busy outside, we will also talk with Darrel Morrison about the deep structure of his recent additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, and visit the New York Botanical Garden’s newest big attraction by the team at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates.  Thank you for your interest so far in this off-season experiment.    -- Harry Wade for Grounded Design

Time + Space = Place

Here, a thousand years or more before the first Europeans sped up what is now the Hudson River on their way to India, a small estuary thrived where an easterly tangent of the river met a tidal strait at the northern tip of today’s Manhattan.

The Munsee tribe of the Lenape people lived among these waters. At low tide, they could walk across the mudflat from the mainland to their Manhattan village, Shorakkopoch.  They shared the estuary for work and play – harvesting oysters, clams and crabs; using intricately woven reed weirs to trap striped bass and bluefish as the tide ebbed. Skilled small boaters, the Lenape would paddle almost silently and low in the water, face-to-face with the estuary’s flora and fauna. 

Estuaries like this have always been among the most fertile areas on the planet.  The daily ebb and flow of both sea and fresh water deposits a unique blend of nutrients and diverse species, without high salinity levels. For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil.  The hills also protected the cove from storms, allowing the Lenape to hunt the densely wooded hills of Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus rubra right down to the water, where they fished and farmed in gentle turn.

This setting, with its natural forces in balance with modest cultivation, may seem like an unlikely site for the British landscape architect and urban planner, James Corner, whose highly aesthetic tableaux of seminatural forces at work upon one another have become iconic of ecological urban design.  But here sits Corner’s newest park – also New York City’s newest – on the edge of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, in the shadows of the City’s last original growth trees. 

What is it about this site that has brought the team from James Corner Field Operations 11 miles uptown from The High Line, one of the City’s proudest parks today? What does his eye for urban decay and reclamation see here? 

From left: The overgrown elevated train track platform in lower Manhattan before restoration and reconstruction began on The High Line in 2006; The High Line today. Source: Friends of The High Line

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The New Perennial Movement: Exhausted or Just Getting Good?

Is the New Perennial movement losing its integrity? Or will its expansion reinvigorate it artistically?

This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.

But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun. And Michael should know: he is a veteran writer and designer. His work documenting and experimenting with naturalistic perennial design (his preferred term is “perennial meadows”) is vast and impressive. Here is the core of his critique:

Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting. Michael King

Ouch. This well-written, stinging review left me thinking: is my enthusiasm about contemporary naturalism in all its diversity naïve? Is it all a bunch of imitative knockoffs of a few original practitioners? Or is there something more to it? 

After some rumination, my impression is that Michael is right. The appellation of the term “new” to any of these ideas is not accurate. There is a long history in the 20th century alone of herbaceous planting inspired by nature. Both the New Perennial movement and the American native plant movement owe much its intellectual credibility and artistic expression to earlier generations. Michael’s article was a refreshing, well-reasoned call for a more honest, more pragmatic approach to gardening.

New Horizons

But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Off-Season Visits to New York's Newest Naturalistic Parks and Gardens by Harry Wade

The First in a Four-part Series on Seeing Garden Design In the Light of Winter

Article by Harry Wade

I'm delighted to introduce Harry Wade to Grounded Design. Harry and I started corresponding last fall about naturalistic gardening. For me, it was one of those thrilling exchanges with a keen mind who understood the naturalistic garden trends in terms of their broader artistic and cultural contexts. I invited Harry to write a few posts for this blog, and he graciously accepted. Harry Wade is a part-time student in the New York Botanical Garden’s Certificate programs for Landscape Design and Horticulture and has a small residential garden practice with his husband focusing on agrarian-inspired design in Schoharie County in upstate New York. 

He has a Master’s in Critical Theory from The University of California at Irvine, has directed a number of award-winning documentaries, and is currently a communications consultant for the healthcare industry in New York City, where he lives.  He says “I've worked with a lot of brilliant experts in all kinds of fields, and the best of them always welcome an outsider’s perspective.” Hoping you enjoy this series--Thomas

Hibernation Hermeneutics

There are many things that occupy gardeners and designers in the wintertime, though they rarely include time in gardens considering design.

Instead, as gardeners, we tend to displace this time of year by thinking about other times – reconsiderations of past seasons and plans for what we will do next.  For designers, it too easily becomes a time to dwell in the abstract, pushing through imaginary planning or theoretical agendas, but rarely spending time with gardens themselves.  And while it is a near universal experience to be awe struck by snowfall or stark winter tableaux, these are more emotional reactions to natural forces, not design.  

But there is another side to a garden in winter – a way in which it conspires against us in small ways to undo our warmer weather certainties and linear productivity to insist instead on its own slightly alien autonomy.   In the garden, winter’s effect on perception and thought is gradual, accumulating meaning in layers, like the season itself.   

As best as I can make out, winter changes our awareness of gardens in three phases.  First, like the old design chestnut about black and white photography revealing the deep structure of a garden, winter eliminates many transitory details.   But since it exists in four dimensions, winter clarifies much more than a photo, allowing us to walk among the chiaroscuro lines and curves, feel how wind amplifies negative spaces, how ice activates small textural contrasts, how cold and fog reveal the shifting optics of atmosphere.   Who would not benefit from a greater awareness of these nuanced dynamics?  

A second effect that winter works on awareness is more related to our own physicality than the landscape –

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