Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dreaming Hard

We walked 40 acres east of Lincoln last week, and while no piece of land will ever be ideal, this one has over 10 acres of hilltop prairie already on it, with an equal size corn field ready for restoration as well as trial / seed beds. We'll walk another one later this week.

I don't know how to afford land, let alone make a life on it. Starting a business requires keeping overhead low, but there comes a time when you also have to leap. I see this business and our permanent home on 40+ acres as an ethical calling -- only a small part of the land will be used for a nursery, event space, artists residency; the majority will be creating wildlife habitat, selfless ecology, defiant compassion. With less than 1% of the tallgrass remaining -- one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet -- wildlife still live that need these places. As climate change exacerbates habitat loss, every patch matters, especially when connected to others.

Maybe my head is in the clouds. Maybe I'm all talk and no action (my worst fear). But how can anyone make a difference in this world without having pie-in-the-sky dreams? And still, practicality demands attention to the details.
  • I imagine the nursery having 1-2 hoop houses, no more. We'll be open on weekends and special events, and it will supply my design / planting business with material. 
  • An affiliated event space will house classes for adults and kids, as well as events from special meetings to weddings to whatever. 
  • A 1 acre display garden will show what's possible with native plants and be a destination to explore year round. It will be quite svelte.
  • The prairie will be open for walks, scattered with signs and pieces of art. A resident artist will have a small studio in a private corner of the landscape.
  • We'll build a modest off-grid home. We'll prairie what we can.
What's your dream?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Freedom, Equality, & Garden Design

Gardeners and those in the business of gardening (designers, breeders, landscapers) can't get past the native vs. non native plant conversation to the root issue. It's seemingly impossible. It's like a Bernie Sanders supporter mentioning how they like free health care to a Donald Trump supporter -- suddenly the gloves come off and no one listens, let alone thinks outside the box.

What the plant conversation is really about is control, and the illusion that we have it in life or the natural world, and that to have control promises more freedom (and economic opportunity, which curtails freedom so often); it's a very old school idea of democracy and free market capitalism that isn't sustainable environmentally or psychologically.

Look at the control of gardens and other designed landscapes -- we make something defined by our hubris, our needs, our uses; hardly ever do the needs and desires of other species come into play, and certainly not in how addressing their needs and desires will, ultimately and exponentially, improve our lives. Perhaps we first have to spectacularly fail in any interaction in life before we can succeed -- it's just sad, depressing, and agitating that it may very well be the entire biosphere we implode. Look at how CO2 levels are disrupting pollen nutrition and harming bees, or how 1/5th of global plant species are in trouble.

Naomi Klein says climate change challenges our idea of control. "It says... all this time that you’ve been living in this bubble apart from nature, that has been fueled by a substance that all the while has been accumulating in the atmosphere, and you told yourself you were the boss, you told yourself you could have a one-way relationship with the natural world.... And we can either mourn our status as boss of the world and see it as some cosmic demotion — which is why I think the extreme right is so freaked out by climate change that they have to deny it. It isn’t just that it is a threat to their profits. It’s a threat to a whole worldview that says you have dominion over all things, and that’s extremely threatening."

So often our personal and public gardens are nothing less than evidence of our bossy desires. We choose plants that are pretty to us but that will be infrequently if ever used by fauna, and have little to no ecological role to play within the larger community. We then go to extremes to defend such plants, saying they shade the soil or hey, look, a honey bee is on the bloom (chances are the plant may only offer benefits to generalist adult pollinators, and especially those it evolved with in another part of the world -- aka honey bees).

William Cronon says that nature is "the meeting place between the world 'out there' and the culturally constructed ideas and beliefs and values we project onto that world." That's also the definition of a garden / built landscape, and to me it's sad. It says nature doesn't exist apart from us, and even if we can admit that it does (something deep ecologists would love to see), it doesn't necessarily have a right to exist apart from how we use it, perceive it, or alter it. In other words, our erratic emotional perceptions dictate what nature is and how it it is, even who it's for and when.

A garden is not for us in the strictest sense. It is a place that mediates between who we are now and our greatest hopes and dreams for the future. If our hopes and dreams are for a livable planet with thriving wildlife, our gardens have to change -- just like our entire sense of freedom and equality has to change. The greatest threat to the world is not someone advocating for native plants and decrying a hosta or tulip; the greatest threat is our inability to have selfless compassion, to think beyond ourselves, and to understand other species -- even entire ecosystems -- have as much right to exist as we do individually (no matter the bathroom we use or who we marry). When we don't build that road through the prairie because we don't want to disrupt the lives there, or when we plant calico aster instead of hosta, we will have practiced the greatest form of gardening possible.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Happy Arbor, er, Prairie Day

Roughly 1% of the tallgrass prairie remains, making it one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. While Arbor Day is all good and noble, Prairie Day would potentially help more species of animal, plant, microbe, etc by calling attention to a gargantuan region we eradicated within the last century.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The End of Nature

300 cheers for Jim Harrison's piece, which I'm quoting from below. He makes his rounds from writing to ethics to agriculture to Native Americans to My Lai and more.

"...accepting responsibility for wrongs is a religious idea, and he hadn’t noticed much religion “in motion” in modern culture. He added that without the element of goodwill, all problems had to be approached legalistically because that was the only effective language for social change. How sad. No justice is possible without lawyers.... If you look at how we spend our time, it is clear that diversion frames our reality.....I have learned that looking at an upland sandpiper or a sandhill crane is more interesting than reading the best book review I’ve ever received. I’ve learned that I can maintain my sense of the sacredness of existence only by understanding my own limitations and losing my self-importance. I’ve learned that you can’t comprehend another culture unless you can stop your moment-by-moment mental defense of your own.... None of the fifty million other species can talk, so we must speak and act in their defense.... If we can’t comprehend that the reality of life is an aggregate of the perceptions and nature of all species, we are doomed with the earth we are already murdering." 

To read the entire piece link here. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Feeling the Tallgrass

When I think about the loss of tallgrass prairie my heart busts open and my body quivers. Then a well of anger springs up. How can I deny the world we've made and make the one we deserve, that all species deserve? How can I show compassion through my language and my actions? How can I be defiant with not just my thoughts but my hands? How can I get people connected to the plants and the wildlife on levels so intimate they will want to take the next, larger steps, and risk more for the common good? Our hearts have to be broken, our senses fully engaged, and our ethical centers pushed beyond the comfort zone that our dominate cultures spoon feed us. Never doubt that gardens of all stripes are ideologies and places for activism -- as well as places for soul food and respite -- which is their greatest power.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A 21st Century Garden Ethic at GGW

Gardens are meant to celebrate the beauty of wildness and translate our emotional connection to nature, but how can they do that if they are primarily created for us alone? I'm honored to be a guest at Gardening Gone Wild where I wrote a piece on garden ethics -- link on over. Here's a snippet:

"How we garden and who we include in our garden, or who we garden for matters. Traditional landscape design, whether at home or in public spaces, so often privileges the needs and wants of one species – instead, our gardens could be designed more equally for the beauty and function of multiple species at once. As we welcome the biological life processes of other fauna into our gardens we welcome a profound element of design and purpose into our lives. A garden designed only for us is devoid of forgiveness, mercy, and hope – it is a signal of our disconnect, our alienation, our loneliness in the world."

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Some Day....

Some day we're going to read about a high end garden designer in a top notch publication, and instead of just talking about pretty plants or beautiful vistas or charming combinations, we're going to hear that designer discuss fauna they're in love with, how a creature deeply moved them to garden in the way they do, and how their designs reflect something more than just candy for the eyes or a brief feeling of awe as someone walks through their landscape. Yes, some day we're going to hear an influential voice speak to the heart of selfless garden design. Some day our sense of community will catch up with our sense of creativity. Some day speaking about wildlife in garden design won't seem nonintellectual or hippy-dippy-reactionary activist. Some day garden speak will represent what gardens actually are -- a way to help us navigate and experience authentic nature more intimately in our daily urban lives.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Rethink Pretty -- 12 Native Plants for Adult Pollinators

We love to watch charismatic species enjoy our gardens -- butterflies and hummingbirds and, sometimes, moths and bees. But these are just a few of the species that make an ecological garden thrive and build the health and resilience of the larger community. More pollinators from diverse groups means better pollination of plants and more food for predators like beetles, spiders, birds, and frogs. And while we need host plants for larvae of insects -- from milkweed to oaks to grasses -- I'm going to share the top native herbaceous perennial forbs (flowers) in my garden that attract a large diversity and number of pollinators. It's time to rethink pretty -- plants that are pretty to us and to pollinators.

Golden Alexanders
A May bloomer here in eastern Nebraska, it's an important pollen and nectar source for our many tiny (and I mean tiny) native bee species emerging in mid to late spring. Sometimes you have to look close, vs. ten feet away like with a bumble bee, but you will see literal swarms of what look like small flies but are, in fact, many species of native bees. Of course, larger bees and flies visit, too. Host plant for black swallowtail butterflies.

Virginia Mountain Mint
Not your typical aggressive running mint, just a moderately spreading clumper that's easily gifted to friends -- and those with too much lawn. You'll see pollinators of every size and shape visiting for weeks and weeks, including the great black wasp, which is scary looking but totally docile. Plus, mountain mint smells great, which is why rabbits don't like it.

Black-Eyed Susan
Over 150 species of insect use this flower, which self sows making this biennial or short-lived perennial a more long-term perennial (if you have a bit of open soil around it). I confess I love the fuzzy leaves, but it's the blooms and summer-long re-blooming that keep it busy with pollinator action -- the more nutritious pollen being the main draw, particularly for native bees. 

Rattlesnake Master
A cool-looking plant for its blooms and foliage -- totally underused in designed garden landscapes. Flowers don't last more than a week or so, but in that time the entire neighborhood of pollinators visit. Ornamental seed heads last deep into winter, as well.

Culver's Root
I'm also flummoxed as to why this plant isn't used more; the flowers go on for weeks, and the winter seed heads stay until you cut them down in spring. Tons and tons and tons of insects coming for nectar and pollen day and night (remember, white flowers will also attract moth species, most of which fly at night and far outnumber our butterfly species).

Tall Boneset (and Common Boneset)
Drought tolerant and a nice clumper, tall boneset has a long bloom time. You'll enjoy the large number of soldier beetles (not fireflies, which look similar) that come in droves. Common boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, is a shorter and prefers consistent soil moisture while blooming earlier in the summer.

Smooth Aster (and Calico Aster)
On a sunny day you can wave your arm over this forb and literally create an inverse snowfall -- a hundred insects might rise up into the air. Bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, beetles, you name it come to gorge on some late season nectar for migration or overwintering. If you have dry shade look to the white-blooming, pink-centered calico aster, Symphyotrichum lateriflorum, which easily pulls in an equal number if pollinators.

There are many sunflower species to choose from for any site condition and desired form  -- just get one! Not only are the blooms themselves used for pollen and nectar, but there's extra-floral nectar behind the bloom and along the stem (just look for crowds of insects in those places). Picture here is Helianthus maximiliani, not recommended for small gardens, however, since it spreads by runners.

Stiff Goldenrod (and Zigzag Goldenrod)
Any goldenrod will do, just like with sunflowers, but for me stiff goldenrod is behaved in tightly-planted and lush garden. The pollen of goldenrod is sticky and not airborne, making it welcome for those with allergies. If you have lots of shade look to zigzag goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis, which is about half the height and will moderately spread to form a nice, friendly colony of bright blooms in dark corners. And zigzag smells divine from many feet away.

Looking for more native plants to try in a variety of conditions? Check out these online classes that feature flowers, shrubs, trees, as well as garden design strategies for winter, ecosystem function, and sustainability.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Landscapes as Generosity

For your reading pleasure, two quick snippets from a longer interview:

"It isn’t inevitable that human beings degrade these systems; we simply have to understand them. It is our understanding, our consciousness of these systems that determines what they look like. What I’ve noticed is that degraded landscapes are coming from human ignorance and greed. If you change that scenario to one of consciousness and generosity, you get a completely different outcome."

"Landscape restoration does not only change ecological function, it changes the socio-economic function and when you get down to it, it changes the intention of human society. So if the intention of human society is to extract, to manufacture, to buy and sell things, then we are still going to have a lot of problems. But when we generate an understanding that the natural ecological functions that create air, water, food and energy are vastly more valuable than anything that has ever been produced or bought and sold, or anything that ever will be produced and bought and sold – this is the point where we turn the corner to a consciousness which is much more sustainable."

Read more John D. Liu's thoughts here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An Ethical Being Has A Choice

As an ethical being I make choices based on instinct as well as critical thinking that displaces myself (puts me in the shoes of others). Do I stand up for equal pay and equal rights, do I alter my perspective to gain empathy (and power) to see someone else's situation and how they might feel or suffer? How can we do this with other species? We do it with pets. We do it through touch, sight, and sound -- yet we continue to sequester ourselves from wildness and even the echo of wildness. We build housing subdivisions and cover perceived empty spaces with lawn, then douse those lawns with weed & feed while hiring companies to spray; we do this at schools, churches, business, roadsides, and parks. We are covered, soaked in, and made of toxic chemicals we've added to the environment. Our landscapes hum during every hour of daylight for up to eight months a year with sound and air pollution as we cast dominion over earth, helping ourselves lose empathy by seldom seeing more than a robin or a swallowtail. Right now the tv is poisoned with commercials for achieving the perfect green lawn -- a place not suited for children or pets, a place devoid of creating critical thinking or creative engagement so it stunts social and personal development. 

As an ethical being I continually reframe my perspective to include more of the animate, living world as I experience it -- but I have to experience it. What happens when wildness is absent from our daily lives? We perceive our lives as less fulfilling, our jobs as more cumbersome, our homes as having less value. When wildness is absent it takes longer to recover from illness, test scores drop at schools, and we become narrow-minded individuals who grow comfortable with complacence, never knowing what's absent. Kids growing up today see 35% fewer butterflies than their parents did 40 years ago and 25% fewer mammals, birds, and amphibians. 

As an ethical being I see that plastic floating in the oceans now equals the weight of every living human on the planet. I see coral bleaching as oceans warm, reducing biodiversity while fisheries collapse and the ability of ocean currents to cool our planet diminish. I see half of North American bird species set to be extinct by century's end. I see that we have so altered the world nothing is left untouched by us, and the echo of that realization is as much a haunting indictment of deep emotional power as it is an opportunity for great empowerment. If we can so negatively recreate the world, we can so positively work to help it heal. 

As an ethical being I make choices every day that directly impact the world around me, and that also subconsciously accrue in my mind and heart just like pesticides and plastic fragments. The more I expose myself to the reality of my actions the more I take control of my life. I am a wild creature. I am unique in the level of evolution I've attained to be able to think on multiple levels at once, to consider emotional and physical variables in the same thought, to weigh action and reaction, and to form and reform an ethical response that guides my belief system grounded in the world I perceive, study, deeply feel, and ultimately honor.

As an ethical being I have infinite power to be more than my biology and to evolve beyond what's given to me by my culture. As an ethical being I have freedom to experience wildness as the reason I exist. As an ethical being I make a difference in my home landscape, connecting birds and butterflies to the larger world beyond the fence, and in turn, waking myself and my species to an equality that transcends us but also begins with us. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What's a Garden Designer? What's a Landscaper?

A garden designer is different than a landscaper. Most commonly when we want a new garden we go online and look up "landscaper." A landscaper is a very loose word and can mean any number of things, from a company that does a basic / carbon copy design for new foundation beds then does the install work, to a company that performs a landscape design that's artistic and unique to your home. Most landscaping companies have design and install wings, as do many garden nurseries -- where the variable often is will be in the quality and skill of the designers themselves doing site visits and drawing up plans.

A garden designer is someone, in my mind, a step up from a landscaper or landscaping company. They'll meet with you on site and discuss the nitty gritty, just like a landscaper, and come up with a  hardscape and plantscape plan, just like a landscaper. I believe the difference is in TLC as well as artistry. A landscape designer will likely have fewer clients in a year than a landscaper; the latter tends to make money on quantity of jobs. This is not to say a landscaper can't or won't give you a highly personalized or artistic design. Landscapers might be more likely to give you a design with overly-planted specimens and lots of mulch as a major design element -- the kind of stuff we see too often in front of businesses.

Then there are garden designers like me who focus almost exclusively on plantscapes, or, designing the planting plan itself. I'll consult with you and the contractors / landscapers you hire to do the hardscape -- patios, sidewalks, grading, walls, etc -- but I work with the plants in relation to the hardscape features. This means you'll hire a crew to install the plants, and I'll work with that crew to insure proper install.

I obviously take it a step further by focusing on native plants, which can be used in formal and informal designs. I'll carefully match plants to every micro climate in your landscape (trust me, you have many), being obsessively particular in matching plants to soil, light, drainage, exposure, etc. And I'll give you a design that focuses on lower maintenance long term -- one that uses plants as a living, green mulch, eradicating the need for wood mulch and improving wildlife habitat and environmental function. I also won't just use what's available or in stock at local nurseries -- I'll search far and wide to find the right plant for your landscape, one that fits the design aesthetic as well as wildlife value and performance over time. I also provide complete plant lists with wildlife value (what uses them, when, and why), as well as annual maintenance info for each plant and the overall garden.

So, there you go. Thought I'd toss this up on the blog and maybe someone would find it helpful as spring gets revved up. :)

If you'd like a consult, or want to dip your toes into an online class or mini trial garden, link here. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Garden Ethics in Colorado

This past weekend I spoke to some employees at Denver Parks and Recreation about naturalistic and native urban garden design, then headed to Pueblo for the Western Landscape Symposium to talk garden ethics. For this introvert it felt like a whirlwind trip. While in Colorado I visited some prairie dogs at a state park, took in art at the Denver Art Museum, and saw vintage aircraft at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum (I'd never seen a B29 -- wow). So, yes, I have eclectic tastes. :)

Denver Botanic Gardens
The WLS was humbling. I still can't figure out why people invite me, or even want me to come speak at their conferences -- my wife says I have impostor syndrome, because I also feel this way about garden design, but less often about writing (maybe it's because I've been writing for 22 years). Are Midwesterners inherently self effacing?

After my keynote address I had more people than I expected come up to me or stop me in the halls -- again, humbling. You want to talk to me? You enjoyed what I said? Really? One person said they'd never thought of gardening in the terms I put it -- ethics, climate change, extinction, empowerment, activism, social responsibility -- and now they were going to garden differently. Another said his wife had been working on him about the ideas I presented, and he thanked me, saying he was going to give in to her. A woman told me I kicked the audience's ass, and they needed kicking, and was thrilled to be kicked even as it stung a bit.

Finally, another woman came up to my table to purchase a book; I asked her what she thought of my talk and she said nothing. I looked up and her eyes were red, then she muttered something like "you really spoke to me." I can't remember what she said exactly, but after seeing her tears I felt like nothing else needed to be said. Ever. I've never had an experience quite like that. I taught college English for 15 years and many times students would break down in my office as we worked on an essay, me trying to push them to get at the deeper truth, the deeper story of their lives that would empower them in the class, and hopefully, beyond the class.

As a writer I don't often get to see how, or even if, my words make an impact. The one thing speaking does is help me more fully experience with others what it is I mean, what we mean, gardening during the anthropocene when the entire planet is a now a garden we have forcefully constructed and must now manage (and it's beyond us to manage it responsibly, I think, let alone economically feasible). I am exhausted and thankful for the long weekend -- just as I feel after taking a prairie hike or writing an essay.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Native Plants Don't Turn Back the Clock

That's the phrase I often hear -- we can't go back. The implication is that any sense of restoration using native plants and native plant communities is folly; the world is much different now than before we altered it, and the ecology of place no longer resembles the past. And this is true -- we've totally remade the world, from corn fields to parking lots to acidic oceans to 400ppm of carbon in the air. But here's the best response I've ever heard to the above critique:

"Contrary to claims by advocates of fostering and molding novel ecosystems, modern restoration ecology does not attempt to recreate the past; rather, the goal is to re-establish the historical trajectory of an ecosystem before anthropogenic influences derailed it.... There is no evidence that any particular ecosystem cannot be restored in the sense of modern restoration ecology; the impediments are economic and political, not scientific and technological... The contention that novel ecosystems are inevitable and perhaps desirable encourages any tendency to delay prevention and redress of various harmful environmental impacts rather than to undertake new approaches and to devote new resources to long-term solutions to environmental problems."-- Daniel Simberloff (read his complete piece here)

A small restoration -- but it will only ever be a prairie echo
Folks who may be uncomfortable with native plants might be uncomfortable with what they represent, which is a full awareness of our heavy hand on the planet and our emotional and mental inability to overcome the grief associated with immense and even overwhelming loss (we are in the 6th extinction). The first response when confronted with massive levels of grief or loss is to protect ourselves via anger, denial, and a refusal to open up our wounded hearts again -- or as one might call it, expansive thinking or emotional awareness beyond ourselves. When someone uses the critique that we can't go back, that native plant gardens are backwards thinking or a fool's errand, we must understand that this perspective comes from grief, not malice or ignorance or even arrogance. Opening our hearts to other species, gardening more selflessly and with humans a bit more in the background (or at least equal to other species) is hard to do -- we think control will save us from further grief and environmental harm, but it will only prolong it.

We seek control by gardening with plants we find pretty but wildlife don't, plants that have no evolutionary history with soil life or fauna around them, let alone other natural processes and communications. We seek control by saying that plants which local wildlife can't use, that play no role in the latent natural ecosystem, are still working ecologically in some way (often because a non native bee is gathering pollen, or a generalist butterfly is gathering nectar, or robins are nesting in the layers of a forsythia shrub border). Too often in garden and landscape design the focus is largely on, or at least disproportionately, the appearance of landscapes for humans -- no matter how beautiful we make them for us, this does not by default guarantee beauty for other species or wild processes.

Our gardens must reveal a new, deeper sense of beauty, one that embraces the concept from more than a single species' perspective. We must allow our mind and hearts to grow and to hold in one total perception of place the web of all life as we celebrate the healing that urban gardens can give us. When we do this, we'll be happier and healthier in the near and long term.

Shortgrass prairie in northwest Nebraska
We can't go back in time, this is true -- but to overcome the emotional anguish of the anthropocene (that term given to the geologic epoch where humans reshape the world), we can't retreat even further from the knowledge of the planet and assume ours is superior; we have to dive headlong into an understanding that we do not know better than all life around us and the evolution that brought the largest abundance and diversity of species the planet has ever seen. We still have so very much to learn, and it's ok that we don't know it now -- maybe that's faith, a belief in a world beyond ourselves (even as that world is all around us). When we humble ourselves in the face of nature we bring ourselves back into nature -- and the novelty will be that we've come back home in peace and health. How can gardens humble us? How can gardens help us overcome environmental grief, despair, and anguish? How can gardens make manageable the overwhelming problems we face due to climate change? The smallest garden is a doorway to the greatest growth needed in all of us -- the world is not for us, but we can be for the world. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Not So Beautiful Gardens

The way we speak about gardens is primarily as human-centered pieces of art. We use grandiose words praising the evocation of a place on our senses, privileging form and texture and color at every turn. We objectify nature for what it can do for us -- even in "natural" gardens. Beauty is not primarily what a plant is, but what a plant does; this level of beauty is far deeper and impactful, leading us into an experience of designed spaces that awakens the ethical in us as we also garden for life and environment. When we can look at a plant beyond our immediate senses -- when we can call upon our greatest gifts of intellect, inquiry, and compassion -- we'll soon realize that beauty as we've known it pales in comparison to beauty as we've forgotten to live it. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Every True Moral Act is Made in Freedom

For years now I've been waving the flag about garden ethics -- how empathy is at the heart of how we should be gardening. I'm always looking at how others speak to our environmental world and how we live in it, and this piece resonated, especially the last paragraph:

"We are empathic beings. As such we are profoundly connected to other human beings, as well as to all of nature. We can feel the joy and suffering of others, and as innately moral beings, we seek to mitigate suffering and promote the flourishing of others, even at a cost to ourselves. True morality carries the marks of insight and imagination. Every true moral act is made in freedom. Yes, we are informed by experience and the values of our society, but ultimately through self-knowledge, we have the potential to become free of their determinative force and choose the good (or evil) freely. In my view this is the moment in which love takes on the character of knowing.

Love allows us gently, respectfully, and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the Earth itself and to know it from the inside. In this way, love can become a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight. Then our highest challenge and aspiration is to learn to love with such selflessness and purity that love becomes a way to true moral insight, one that transcends social construction and biological imperatives."

Read more....

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Where's Your Faith?

Put your faith in people or the systems we've created to govern ourselves and our world, and you'll be disappointed more times than not. Put your faith in what you see, taste, touch, and feel -- in the real, literal world around us -- and your entire being is lifted with purpose, joy, and centering strength. I just came inside from trimming trees and listening to the wings of two hawks slap against the air above me. I just came inside from tasting dust and broken leaves in my teeth. I just came inside from my cat running across the garden with the greatest speed and joy I've ever seen, and he's almost 15 years old. I'm going back outside and I'm never coming in again.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Celebrating the Past Present Prairie

Today is my grandmother's birthday -- it's easy to remember because all of the numbers are the same. She would have been 94, and in fact, it's been almost 10 years since she passed away. As her only grandson I often felt like I had a place of honor or responsibility (often unfair to my siblings and cousins). See, Grandma always wanted to teach me about our family's past, about who she was and where we came from, how she and her ancestors lived as estranged German-speaking Mennonites in Oklahoma. I never listened for very long, was often bored because I was too young, and I always hated Oklahoma (the heat, the wind, the flatness). But the tables have tuned and her wishes have been granted -- I am the keeper of our family's history, and I can't get enough of it or Oklahoma, a place so stunningly-ecologically diverse. I have a 90,000 word memoir in draft form about immigration, prairie, wildlife, land allotment, oil, outlaw gangs, the Cheyenne, and more.

Whenever I visit my folks I rifle through drawers and closets for relics my Grandma held on to. This weekend I found the below image, which on the back simply states that one of the women pictured is Katie Peters, who is my great grandmother. I don't know the date, so she could be anyone. Still, these are my people, who plowed up the prairie and helped conquer the last "wild" places in the central U.S. with sweat and hunger and hope -- even as the hope of other cultures (human and plant and animal) were marginalized. I honor my family, and with my work in prairie advocacy, I honor the wild places hungering to come back with their full resilience. In a way, I've been given an opportunity by my ancestors to heal the misunderstandings of people and place -- not to condemn or undermine what they sacrificed, but to fully come home to the places where they sought refuge and freedom. Our lives are imperfect circles made whole by questions we can never answer.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Here Comes Everything

Wow, what a week! I'm so glad I stopped being a part time college teacher (dead end job, but always wonderful students) and decided to go full time into garden design and speaking! Terrifying, liberating, hopeful, purpose-driven faith. This week:

1) Confirmed a talk in Indianapolis for October.

2) Spoke with a local organization about doing native plant pollinator talks and short videos for them.

3) A Houzz article on small garden design hit 46,000 reads.

4) Fielding several garden design clients and started a project.

5) Invited to contribute to an anthology.

6) Helping start a local ecotype advocacy group in Nebraska for seeds and plants.

7) At Monarch Gardens I made live pre-planned garden designs to help folks get started with a native plant bed for any of 6 site conditions. If you get my newsletter you also got a discount code for those (as well as for the online classes).

8) Excited to see the Heartland Native Plant Summit happening at Lauritzen Gardens this fall.

Prairie up, people!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Into the Prairie Echo

Spending a small amount of time with my 85,000 word Oklahoma memoir, a draft that's been silent on my computer for three years now. I come across two excerpts that resonate today:

A bison bull is standing 30 feet from the car. Straight on, it looks narrow though quite tall. The perspective changes when he slides to his right and gives us the long, full angle of his body shedding the winter coat. A massive hump of muscle on his back supports his equally massive head as it sways back and forth over grass, dipping into the sinew of blades and blooms like a wobbly pumpjack. I’ve never been this close to a bison. I’ve read enough stories to know to stay in the car – a mature bull can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, more than half this sedan.

I’m snapping a photo every five seconds in a gap between the A-pillar and my wife, who is leaning all the way back in the passenger seat while she balances her camera out the window. I’d seen a herd in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, but that was at a distance of a half mile. I want to reach out and touch this bull’s crown, which is like a mane right behind his horns – it’s as fluffy looking as a shag rug. Occasionally I can see his eyes, big and dark, but dwarfed by his forehead. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me, or just coming up for visual air. I can hear him eating. I can hear him eating.


There’s an emptiness in the Plains. It’s not a literal emptiness because it is our absence which is most present. And yet our existence has redefined the absence: you can get lost in a corn field, lay down in the wheat and just vanish—no one will ever find you.

It’s a dangerous thing being lost to the horizon. Walking any open field we are both compass point and sun dial, searching for home in the time allotted us on this earth. At most we will discover that while alive we’re as ethereal as a memory. Cross paths with a mountain lion or sandhill crane or butterfly or prairie dog and we will know the silence we carry inside, the silence we insist upon field after field. There’s nothing here because we made it so. Our absence is present in the rows stretching to infinity off the highways and county roads.

But stop. A dung beetle is moving from shadow to shadow underneath the sunflowers, pushing its brown marble over pebbles, past cracks, and through thick brush. When I was a kid I’d sit near an ant hill—the inverse funnel pushing out ants like a great heart pumping blood. Each body scatters in every direction, following the marked trails out beyond the center of their lives. Can you imagine being an ant or a dung beetle? Can you imagine? You have never been anything else, following the narrow path laid out for you, but pushing your burdens before you like they were the only treasure you’d ever had. When we enter the earth from another perspective we become our truest selves—we give up the right to take away other lives and enter into an unwritten contract that we signed at our births. We are here, made of the same stuff as everything else. We are here for only a moment, too, already absent in our presence until we go mad with the terror of our short lives and break the contract. The only way to rewrite ourselves is to walk the horizon, with seed in hand, until the prairie comes back.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Natural Mainipulation and Garden Design

The below is taken from a ruminative essay on the term "natural resources," which has so many sinister and unhealthy connotations full of exploitation and navel gazing. But in this snippet I see how we should approach garden design:

"It is how we represent, and thus come to know, the things we manipulate, that influences the nature of our acts. Do we take from nature with respect and with love in our hearts? Or do we do it with a self-interested utility, that is over-intellectualized by economics, resulting in the bastardization of our evolutionarily functional greed? I believe that if we come to understand these subjects as treasures, our processes are more apt to be respectful and loving, leading us on a decision-making path toward understanding the other subject on its terms, rather than only on our terms, or exclusively in human terms."

Read the full piece "Pro-Aesthetic Language" here. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Stop Trying to Change Your Soil

Tell me when to stop -- in order to have a successful garden we must have highly-amended soil. That soil should be a rich, puffy loam that smells like a damp woodland. Such soil will need regular amounts of fertilizer, and it wouldn't hurt to water it every two days. Additionally, a constant layer of wood mulch will not only add more organic matter and help plants grow, but it will help the garden be more aesthetically pleasing.

Mulch for landscapes was created as a byproduct of the timber industry, a way for them to make more money selling the scraps they had no consumer for. We go to nurseries and big box stores buying bags of mulch, and then bags of topsoil; who knows where that topsoil is from, how it was gathered (destructively is my bet), or how it's going to help / hinder the soil life you have now in your landscape. The best mulch I know of is living, breathing, pollinator-producing green plants structured in such a way as to mimic natural ecosystems in nearby wilder areas.

If you have clay soil I want you to fall in love with it. I want you to stop working against it, seeing the stuff as imperfect. We already have enough problems perceiving the natural world as imperfect, needing to be "improved" upon; what happens when you work with what you have? What joy, peace, and centering purpose arises when you celebrate the miracle of clay soil and thickly-planted landscapes? What happens when you realize that large chunks of the planet have clay soil and, wouldn't you know, thriving ecosystems (including tons of plants) growing very well?

Clay soil is high in organic matter. Its structure helps it hold on to more nutrients and for longer periods, reducing the need for fertilizer and amendments. It's also great at sequestering carbon. Link here to read more on this miracle soil, and strategies to work harmoniously with it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Nature is Not a Garden. Or is it.

Why don't you read my latest Houzz piece:

"Nature is not a garden, but it’s too easy to see nature as something imperfect. When we can take a step back and see a fallen tree as beautiful and purposeful or appreciate an assassin bug enjoying its moth dinner, we can see that the world doesn’t seem to need us in it, and we can start to become a more humble and rewarding part of it. A garden can teach us how to interact with life and guide us into deeper self-discovery if we design with purpose, then let that design evolve with the species that come to call it home."

Link to the full article here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Our Century's Garden Legacy

It's been argued that we live in an age of novel ecosystems -- wild landscapes now so altered by humans that they no longer function as they once did. Climate change influences species life cycles, migrations, and food supplies. Plants escape cultivation and become invasive. Urban areas can’t support native plants and ecosystem function. Wildness now is something very different -- something we have created.

It's also been said our managed landscapes -- parks, roadsides, and gardens -- are wildlife refuges; places where a little could help a lot. But in reality, these spaces make up only a small percentage of what can help wildness thrive, and yet they are also the key places that can wake us to the larger changes we can make (agriculture, consumerism), helping us become intimate again with a faltering  natural world defined by human estrangement. 

Our gardens matter not because they can literally save species, but because they are a call to action. They are living testaments to our wonder and joy, our part of the larger world and the web of life. Gardens matter because they bring birds and butterflies closer to us, they help release endorphins that make us feel happy, maybe even spur empathy as we learn again to care selflessly for other species simply because it's the right or ethical thing to do. 

When we learn what our landscapes can do, how they can help directly for wildlife and as symbols for people -- when we learn how essential native plants are, how gardens can sequester carbon and filter water and serve as larval hosts -- then the choices we make after these revelations carry even more weight. Do we choose to garden for ourselves only, for our idea of beauty alone, or do we more fully -- more equally -- integrate a selfless gardening that creates mini ecosystems composed of essential native plants and designs that mimic the natural, wilder areas just beyond the garden fence? Or do we embrace our role as an indifferent species, bent on emotional and physical conquest that will undermine our health, happiness, and peace in the years to come. 

Does a large home need all that grass and boxwood parterres? Does that fit the local environment aesthetically and ecologically? What happens when we go against the grain of our home places, when we can't or won't accept the natural beauty and purpose of our immediate world? What happens to a species that sees landscapes as never quite right, never perfect enough, not entirely what we want? Does that species lose any right to be part of the larger world, does it lose its identity and potential to be something better?

Our gardens matter, and the way in which we create them, grow them, and rethink them matters on a level far more important than whether they simply function aesthetically. While we must always find a garden beautiful, and while it will always be a kind of artifice, the truth is the entire world is now a garden we have made. How we tend it, how we honor those species we've ignored, dishonored, and betrayed, will say much about who we are and who we will become. Our legacy won't be how pretty our gardens looked; our legacy will be how gardens and other managed spaces woke us to a revolution of belonging in this world, and a renaissance of ethical thinking that helped us evolve into our fullest potential as stewards of life and as gardeners of our own hearts.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Winter Beauty, Silence, & Purpose

I know lots of folks find winter unbearable -- a season of darkness and imprisonment. I find winter liberating, though. The garden is so tranquil, the smallest sound an echo piercing into the heart with more genuine resonance. The shadows and light take on greater profundity, too, and the way plants bend in the ice and snow, the sheltering birds, the sunrise moving up, over, and through the bare branches and stems still holding their autumn leaves defiantly.

Freezing fog a week ago

My American Elm died, but is still alive

There's so much to learn from winter in the landscape. Not just about biological processes and a celebration of aesthetic simplicity, but about ourselves, too. For me, winter is a great time of repose and purposeful thought, a regathering. I get some good writing done, interruptions are less. I don't feel like I'm missing so much outside that I can't concentrate on the inside -- my spirit, my soul, my restoration. This is what the winter garden teaches us -- that while there is apparent stillness and quiet, a whole world is gathering like a coiled spring, strengthening and learning from the past seasons. Coldness is a lesson not in endurance but understanding. Snow is as warm a blanket as hand-spun wool. A different kind of beauty wakes us to a deeper understanding of other types of beauty we associate with joy, happiness, and freedom. Give me my full measure of each season so that I might live more purposeful, understanding life from every angle, a seeker of a finite moment that if lived openly will humble and open me to the world.

Red chokeberry after a dusting of snow

Switchgrass and freezing fog

Sideoats grama and little bluestem in wet snow