Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why Do Garden Designers Resist Native Plant Landscapes?

If you've been reading this blog since early July, you know how I feel about native plants and ecosystems, about what we're doing to the planet and to ourselves.

Gardening with native plants is a moral imperative. Period. A lot of landscape designers and architects who've been in the business much longer than me often decry my plea for all or mostly native plant landscapes. I tend to have a knee jerk reaction that makes me wonder how stuck in the mud they are.
  • "It can't be done where I live"
  • "There just aren't enough choices"
  • "My clients would never go for it"
Aren't landscape designers also educators by nature? Don't clients often simply defer to their judgement and knowledge? And why can't we dream big? What happened to the desire to change the world for the better? Isn't that one of the core tenants of gardening, of wanting to be a gardener, of designing landscapes? If our human vision for a better world fails here in the garden with those who have the greatest environmental imgaination, it fails everywhere. The way we design a garden is the way we live, our beliefs given form. It's time to draw a line in the garden -- just as we'd expect it drawn for healthcare, green energy, poverty, etc, all issues directly related to our environmental footprint.

So, how many of you landscape designers would lose work if you suggested / pushed more native plants? How much work would you lose? Some say compatible and well-behaved exotics are fine and necessary to use along with natives in order to increase the pallet and diversity -- but do we know when an exotic will become invasive? Do we have proof that it is as beneficial to wildlife, especially pollinating insects (for nectar AND as a host plant)? We'd have to have a plant by plant case study, probably county by county too, but there is much research pointing to the fact larvae need native plants as hosts, and that adult insects have as much of an evolutionary tie to the leaves as they do with the nectar and the flower shapes that draw them in. And that's just what's happening above the soil surface.

So without knowing a plant fully (or predicting the future), how can we responsibly suggest these to clients? How can we garden with ALL of the wildlife in mind or the nearby ecology, a holistic gardening that goes beyond just our artistic ideal and vision, and begin to combine how we see a landscape with what it really is and was before colonization and houses and roads and telephone poles, and how it responsibly rebuilds what we've pushed to the brink and insures a healthy future? Designing with natives is a test of our ethics; we are often bankrupt in that regard. We are lucky to live in a country where environmental destruction is relatively recent -- there are still patches, echoes of native wildness we can take a cue from; they call out to us like someone being carried away in a flash flood. Thousands of species go extinct globally each year, most as a direct result of our action, or inaction.

Gardening can no longer be about aesthetics alone, and this move must start with designers and architects. There is a massive and burgeoning desire to garden locally (it ties into the local food movement) -- plants raised within a nearby radius, plants grown from open-pollinated seed collected within that same radius, plants not sprayed with pesticides. When we begin to garden like this, we know our place more, we connect, we thrive, we care about our home. We live better. Maybe our kids will, too. Suddenly, community means something more. All of the above must be at the center of landscape design in the 21st century, and if it isn't, we aren't designing right.

Sure, gardening with natives may not be as easy, as pie-in-the-sky wonderful, as silver bullet as some make it out to be. And this is where the coaching / teaching on the part of the designer comes in. A gardener must always take an active part in any landscape, native or not, and when they do only then does gardening become easier:
  • The right plant in the right spot
  • Learning to identify good bugs vs bad
  • Allowing for insects and plants to decide their own fates in beds and boarders
  • Letting drought tolerant plants go dormant
  • Not freaking out when something does not suit our cosmetic ideal, but learning with nature
These are things landscape designers should be teaching their clients -- homeowners or cities or businesses. Maybe our idea of a garden needs to change; perhaps you can't have a meadow look in New Mexico, just like you can't have lawn, so let's design to local flora and fauna and educate about that locale. If you moved to the southeast you should expect to design for that environment, not New England's. How can we teach to this? If a garden is simply artifice, an outdoor HGTV room, a painting on the wall -- or something to appease local standards and create the illusion of intent (hello 'Karl Foerster' grass and daylilies and barberry in staggered rows) -- then gardens are failures of our imagination and humanity.

Maybe we're afraid to face ourselves in our landscapes because we know the implications of our hand in nature, we know what's going on, and to garden in a different way means accepting that how we usually garden may be problematic (to say the least). But how else do you grow? Is gardening with natives really any different than being kind to each other, taking care of ourselves, paying it forward, or ensuring future human freedoms by protecting the planet that sustains us? Of course not.

Gardening with natives is something any landscape designer needs to get on board with and get clients into -- gently or vigorously. Now. We can't just talk about simple maintenance issues or aesthetics, we must go beyond and talk about the health of our planet and our families, clean water, carbon sequestration, helping specific local wildlife, backup ecological systems (redundancy), about nature deficit disorder causing increased mental health issues in children. I do not see how any of these subjects is separate in a designed landscape. Every time we consult with clients the discussion should be as much about the design as the moral implications of that design. This is a new, brave paradigm we desperately need, and it will expand our creativity as landscape managers and engage our clients in more meaningful ways.

We can help each other live and garden better, or we can keep making excuses and shooting holes in the idea of gardening with natives, but the core issues still remain -- our planet is sick, so are we, we have caused it, and we can do something about it. It's simply irresponsible and short-sighted in this day and age, given what we know, to design with an extensive use of non native plants (or lawns and impermeable hardscapes). If designing with native plants is restrictive then our landscape professionals have had a failure of education or imagination, and maybe even hope in the medium they use.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Re-Prairie Lincoln

Prairie is my home. Nebraska is my home. Yet there is so little prairie. Therefore I feel homeless. I finally began to articulate this idea the last few days as I've prepped tonight's Ignite Lincoln talk. I have less connection to this ground precisely because so much of its ecology is not local. I can't begin to make Lincoln my home without prairie, but everything we do works hard to destroy the last of the prairie spaces (and certainly not to restore much of it). So I begin to loathe the place, I get angry, I get depressed, I shut down, and then I lash out. And then I dig. Toss seed out my car window. Ignite.

Friday, August 23, 2013

I'm Speaking at Ignite Lincoln

Ok folks. I'm one of 16 people speaking on 8/29, from 7:30-9:30, at Ignite Lincoln. We each have 5 minutes and 20 slides to make you laugh, cry, or get angry. I chose the latter. My topic will be "Re-Prairie Lincoln."

All proceeds benefit a local nonprofit, so get your ticket here.

I've been a bit nervous already -- the largest group I've talked to is about 100, twice, but this could be hundreds, even a thousand. Will I ignite a flame in you, or perform spontaneous combustion on stage when the spotlight hits me? Come find out! It'll be a blast. (oh, stop the puns.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Our New Acreage

I like to torture myself -- but also dream. If you can imagine the thing, you can make it happen.

There is a fairly ideal acreage for sale in Prairie City, IA, which is 30 minutes east of Des Moines. It is also just 2 miles south of the 5,500 acre Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, where prairie and sedge meadows are being restored along with bison. What a link we could have with them educationally and ecologically.

Here are 80 acres we can't afford, and what I'd do with it if we had another $150,000 - $200,000.

The red lines are the rough property edges, and the yellow lines are future additions to start the business and outreach programs we propose.

1 -- Possible sites for artists residencies that would be off the gird and self supported. We'd only be able to start out with 1, but I hope for 2 or even 3 down the road. Each would be about 200-300 square feet with an efficiency style space -- bed, desk, kitchen, bathroom, covered porch.

2 -- A newer barn already exists for storage / education space. Outside a hoop house or greenhouse would be built, with a parking lot off the main driveway.

3 -- There's a neat little chunk to the east across the road. I picture this as a formal in-the-ground, in rows, prairie plant cultivation area -- for seed gathering or roots.

4 -- A current 50% finished house stands. The space could be used as temporary housing or as an event space for weddings, meetings, etc. It's plumbed for four baths with four bedrooms. The view to the north off the covered porch is stunning, looking down the slope of a long prairie field.

5 -- Our future permanent home -- passive solar design, using grey water, off the grid, etc.

6 -- My future writing shed

7 -- Destination / test garden (1/2 acre)

The fields are in hay right now. There is a creek. So, there you go -- me playing around.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

3 Monarch Caterpillars

It's the latest I've ever gone by well over a month, but found three eggs on Asclepias sullivantii and brought them in. I thought for sure I'd have none this year, after I raised 25 in 2012, 150 in 2011, and 200 in 2010. If it weren't for Liatris ligulistylis, I'm sure I wouldn't have any monarchs dashing through the garden.

People call me a "nativist" and "native plant purist," and my defense is sitting in a plastic container on the kitchen table. Morality just emerged from an egg casing. Bite me -- and the milkweed.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My Other Garden Writing

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, my articles below will be redundant to you, but I wanted to share with you the writing I'm doing in other places that connects to what I do here.

I recently began expanding my writing at Houzz, and my fist foray was a piece entitled "3 Ways Native Plants Make Gardening Better." You know how I feel about using native plants -- it's a moral imperative going far beyond simple aesthetics. This piece practically went viral on Facebook, much to my shock (and my editor's). Very cool. My thanks to all who shared it! I hope you'll follow me at Houzz as I write on native plant combinations, butterfly gardening, and other ways to garden for the environment and with nature.

At Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens I'm confronting a crisis as I look out over my garden -- is it really native? Lots of cultivars and hybrids that I wonder might not be as attractive or beneficial to wildlife.

On my Facebook group page Milk the Weed, I shared a story yesterday of a black swallowtail female, battered and nearly wingless, who was flapping all over the ground. I lifted her to some fennel and got a few eggs out of her before she became exhausted. I thanked her, told her I'd look after her eggs. I was honored. 

And here are gratuitous pics of a bumblebee on wild senna and my garden. :)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dream Talking Out Loud

Last week my wife and I visited an acreage for sale that's 20 minutes west of Lincoln. It's 80 acres of rolling land, with two tree stands, some CRP restored prairie, some hay, some corn. I'm not saying I want to move there -- the massive power lines are a health concern and eyesore -- but I'm trying to imagine myself living in such a space. And if I imagine, perhaps the reality of it is that much closer.

I liked the land because of the CRP, because it has differing terrain, because it adjoins a wildlife management area and small lake. It felt private. In a lot of ways it's perfect. In a lot of ways it isn't -- like the half million dollar price tag with no structures; that's what you get for being close to a larger city in prime farming country.

My thinking has always been to have multiple incomes: our prairie plant nursery would be open on long weekends during the spring and summer, and the plants I grow would be winter sown in a hoop house, not coddled in a heated nursery. But it takes time to build stock in such a way. And I don't have a horticulture or business degree -- I have three English degrees. At least I've done some marketing in my life and know how to spell.

I imagine an enclosed learning space for workshops and presentations, perhaps it could be picturesque enough to host weddings inside, or host that outside in the open or under some sort of shelter. I imagine two artists residencies that are 300 square feet, have a kitchen and bath, are completely off grid. They'd be further out into the acreage to provide solitude and serenity for a two week period. We'd drive residents into town for supplies (or provide them before arrival), and let artists raid our vegetable garden.

I'd still be doing garden consulting -- hopefully more than I am now, since folks apparently stop thinking about plants after July 1. Ideally I could teach English classes at a nearby college to tide us over in the winter months.

I'd like our home and buildings to all be off the grid, or at least 50% so. We'd harvest rainwater, use grey water outside. We'd host prairie walking tours, educational events, immersion programs for kids and adults but with some sort of unique twist. Maybe we'd sell plants at farmer's markets and other events.

Where does one do this? Where are tax laws favorable? Where are incentives for renewable energy best? Where is a community that would be open and supportive of these business ideas? Where is there affordable land, with part of it preferably already in CRP? How does one raise capital without the weight of loans and mortgages?

And then I wonder about my mental health. I've long wanted to "be out there," away from suburbia, in a place I can wander and explore at will. I need copious amounts of solitude and silence to remain even moderately balanced and healthy. I crave diversity in what I put my hands to (as does my wife). Would I turn into a mountain man and vanish? Would I feel more centered and grounded? Would I feel lost? Would I feel whole?

Could the acreage have a writing shed for me? Could I write books that would mean something? Sell? Provide another source of income, from royalties and readings and conferences?

I know a few things -- if I had the money I'd move today (no brainer); if I don't do this, I might regret it my whole life; if I do it, and go bankrupt, I'll regret that, too. Anyone out there have experience with this sort of thing? Any specific or philosophical advice for a guy in his late thirties?

I feel like folks think I'm crazy when I talk like this -- they immediately come up with reasons not to do any of these things. It's all so big and dream-riddled. But isn't that what cool people do? Muir. Leopold. Carson. Thoreau. So many more. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Prairie Rescue

Last week I was invited to a surprising space in the country club area of Lincoln, a typical older home on a small lot. As one would expect in this portion of town, each home nestled among mature tree-lined streets has perfectly manicured landscapes full of lush green lawn. Certainly picturesque, and certainly high maintenance and of less value to wildlife.

When I stepped around back of a home on 30th street, made my way around the secluded sidewalk hugging a detached garage, I was amazed at the backyard. A sunny expanse of around 1,500' filled with blooming prairie flowers.

You don't often see this sort of thing. So alive, so colorful, so lush -- more of a perfect pairing with the architecture of the home than the lawn next door. Insects were literally dancing on the horizon of petals. The coneflowers were certainly going bananas. And milkweed! Everywhere! God save the fledgling monarch butterfly! This space is at least five years old, and you can see how happy it is, established and doing its prairie thing well (though the flowers have shaded out the few shortgrasses I saw).

I was invited here by the landscaper hired to tidy up and prepare the space so the house could be put up for sale, but the homeowner is inclined to mow it down, spray it, and sod over this wildlife mecca. With dwindling populations of monarch butterflies, and other pollinating insects that give us 70% of our food, I can't imagine this space being anything other than a literal oasis. And no lawn means no mowing or fertilizing or wasting water.

Yes, it needs some tlc. A pathway through the flowers would give it some structure; a mulched or paved seating area / patio near the back door (instead of a formal iris bed) would make it a welcoming outdoor space to sit in and absorb the atmosphere; and on the west side behind the garage underneath tall trees is an opportunity for a shade or meditation garden with sculpture or a water feature. But all those things would be pointless without the mini meadow.

I saw wild quinine. I never see wild quinine in home landscapes. My prairie nerd radar was beeping like crazy. These plants filter groundwater, improve soil fertility, are adapted to the boom / bust cycles of Nebraska drought, bring in tons of wildlife, and need attention only in early spring when they should be cut down or burned. If you know of anyone interested in a home with some good prairie landscape bones, I can hook you up -- the place is alive and thriving.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


I've been in a musing mood this week on my personal Facebook page, and thought, hey, I'll share them here -- because sometimes leftovers taste better when they have a day or two to soak in the fridge.

Tell me, is there anything more wonderful than walking the garden path as bees, wasps, moths, and butterflies travel parallel alongside? They are like close friends keeping you company in the silent cacophony of a morning meandering. Wake the world. Break into blossom.

Watching bumblebees on the sunflowers out my office window. Their flights from bloom to bloom are erratic to me, yet I know they are simply feeling their way to the next flower -- ultraviolet light on petals, oppositely charged pollen. And just as I was typing this a goldfinch landed on a bud and began stabbing at something (eating ants?). A black-capped chickadee also landed and the two birds flapped and screamed at each other a few moments until the chickadee retreated. The finch soon flew off to another sunflower, then toward the garden, allowing the chickadee to come back. Plant sunflowers by your windows!

Cicadas remind me of August 1995 when I was scared out of my mind arriving for college in Indiana. It was so hot and my dorm had no a/c. I spent hours outside alone on a bench or drove to a park, and the cicadas pierced their echo into my heart while I cried, longing to be home again. I feel that anxiety today as I hear the cicadas in Nebraska, but I also feel the hope and excitement of later years, of growing up and becoming myself -- which must be the most frightening thing any of us can do. I can't wait to meet my college freshman in a month and help them (and push them to the place / people they will become).

It's that time of year when one has to be careful walking the garden; invisible threads of spider anchor lines cross in the least expected places. How do they drape these webs seemingly out in the middle of nowhere? Their silk is many times stronger than kevlar, holds droplets of dew that sparkle like flat chandeliers, then tear apart as the morning winds strengthen. Hunger. Purpose. Design. Loss. Repeat. Everything that we are a spider was long before.