Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Photos

I usually do a year-end retrospective of my favorite garden / travel photos -- something like 30 images. Well, I'm in the process of creating a new website for Monarch Gardens, complete with online classes and downloadable garden designs, so I don't have time. Instead, let's cheat -- here are my top 9 images from Instagram.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Native Plants & Equality

I read a lot these days how it's important to include native plants in gardens; especially how mixing them in with plants from around the world will help wildlife. Well, if that's the case, why wouldn't an 80% or 100% native plant composition be even better? But such a proposition seems threatening to lots of folks, and the reason may be this: gardens are often, maybe always at their core, spaces just for us. The most important aspect is that we find them beautiful. And while it is certainly important we find gardens pretty, there is no reason at all natives can't perform that task of prettification. 

It can be threatening (and overwhelming) to have to think beyond ourselves in making gardens, to include the larger consciousness of a place and all of the other lives that inhabit it -- especially because such an awareness opens us up to the realities of our destructiveness on oceans, prairie, wetlands, etc (though I will always argue that this awareness ultimately empowers us to do so much more good because we've tapped into our full compassion). While we champion equal rights and opportunity among ourselves, cry foul and get angry and ask each other to see through another's eyes, we deny the same rights to other organisms -- which diminishes our capacity to love, honor, and cherish one another. Plants are not human culture -- denying a hosta, daylilly, or feather reed grass in your garden does not make you extremist, racist, or anti equality. No, I'd argue the opposite, that including them, plants with minimal wildlife support and not evolved with wildlife or the region, are themselves exclusionary -- evidence that we value ourselves above all else as we erode the world around us... often in a quest to make the world prettier without truly understanding what pretty is beyond an immediate bloom, shape, or leaf color.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Prairie or Meadow?

On Facebook I asked what differentiates the two and got a ton of responses. I've always wondered -- just like what the difference is between the Midwest and the Great Plains (that's a whole separate can of worms, isn't it?). I give you the opinions of gardeners, land managers, prairie restoration folks, and horticulturalists from around the country -- what is the difference between prairie and meadow? Here are a few of the dozens of replies I received, although I'm not sure how much it clears up:

"I guess the way I think of it (not based on anything other than my interpretation) is that a meadow is a grassy area as an interruption of something else--a grassy area that is substantially different than what surrounds it. And a prairie... well that's just prairie all day long. A meadow is an anomaly; a prairie is dominant."

"Meadows seem like such peaceful places; bees hum while butterflies dance above delicate wildflowers and swaying grasses. So it’s surprising to learn meadows are created by natural calamities when droughts or floods wipe out trees and vegetation. Prairies differ from meadows in that they arise in areas that don’t favor the growth of trees; they’re created and in many cases still maintained by fire. Ancient meadows were originally formed by volcanic eruptions and glacial activity. In the wild, meadows eventually give way to the surrounding forests. Nowadays, modern meadows are more likely to develop on unused agricultural grounds."

"The difference between a prairie and a meadow? There is none."

Longwood's meadow garden (pre-opening 2014)
"I think of meadows as often having some link to agricultural use (especially haying) but they don't have to. I would put meadow between pasture and prairie on the continuum of cultivated to wild grasslands."

"I'd say you can cultivate a meadow just as you could cultivate a prairie. On the east coast, a meadow is generally regarded as any grass-dominated plant community that is created or perpetuated by disturbance. Meadows open up in forests on their own all the time."

"I'm not saying you can't cultivate either one. But typically (at least in the Great Plains (!) if a grassland has cattle or hay bales on it, it is not called a prairie (by most people). I don't know from mountains and forests. I imagine their experience with grasslands is so limited as to also limit their credibility in grassland nomenclature."

Spring Creek Prairie -- Denton, NE
"Well, the PNW has some native grassy meadows in various parts of our states but I don't think that we have what could be termed a Midwestern prairie. We can approximate such a thing but our climate is Mediterranean w/little to no summer water so our designed meadows or prairies will definitely not look like the Dutch wave ones, or like the Midwest."     

"I'd use "meadow" for a relatively moist, fairly restricted, or bounded area, perhaps with a different grass species mix than in a "prairie." I'd use "prairie" to refer to a drier area, more extensive, and with a somewhat different mix of grass species than a 'meadow.'" 

"Yes. Meadows do have a more restricted scale than prairies. Good clarifications. Alpine meadows, for example, or wet meadows in the Sandhills."

" A prairie is always semi-arid and usually denotes a natural landform. Meadow has a more general meaning; it can be a grassy opening in a woodland, for example."

"Meadows are cultivated farmland. In the UK anyway."   

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Winter Gardens Are in the Details

Wouldn't you say? Winter is when the design comes forth in its raw, naked beauty. Purpose is the echo, the shadow, the negative space. Birds are among the seeds, diving in and out of cover. Everything is more alive, to my eye, than it ever was in summer.

Tall boneset
Rudbeckia, sideoats grama, buffalo grass
Baptisia australis
Coreopsis and Amsonia

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Objectifying Nature in Gardens

Objectifying nature, say with plants, limits our ability to respond ethically to environmental issues. When we choose a plant for our gardens just because its pretty or visually interesting, we are minimizing the role of nature to heal and adapt... we are minimizing our understanding of life, eroding ability for empathy, and privileging want over need, self over ecosystem. A garden ethic would imply we take into consideration something in addition to aesthetics -- beauty of purpose, fit, and function among other lives and concerns. Carbon sequestering, water filtering, soil building, pollinator feeding, habitat-giving beauty will make gardens gorgeous deep down to the roots; and it just might help us transcend our petty selves in landscapes otherwise made to alienate nature and make us feel superior to what we fear, and to what we don't understand. Can we be humble in our gardens, and understand or feel how uplifting, how empowering that is?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why I Design Native Plant Gardens

I don't design 100% native plant gardens because I'm trying to return Lincoln to tallgrass prairie (though that'd be fine); I understand we've murdered that ecosystem. I design 100% native plant gardens because the insects, and more, that evolved with the tallgrass prairie still exist and play a critical role in the current and future ecosystems that are developing in the wake of our ecocide. I design with native plants because it creates awareness for the prairies that are left (mixed and shortgrass), their benefit in carbon sequestration, topsoil retention, and water filtration. I design with native plants because it helps us look at ourselves, our place as gardeners that remake the world for our idea of beauty and utility, and how just relying on our sense of what pretty is can be short-sighted and unethical. I design with native plants because so many of them can help urban soil remediation. I design with native plants because they already, in part, work together from an aesthetic point of view (though we can and should push the artistic limits of that built in natural aesthetic). I design with native plants because without them I would not care for Nebraska one bit. I design with native plants because my heart has broken, and I know no other way to mend it. I sing the grassland. I shout the prairie dog and fringed orchid.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Difficult Eco Realities are Empowering & Liberating

If talking about climate change and extinction depresses you, it's partly the realization that you feel powerless and also realize you might be complicit. But facing that reality is empowering; because we are the cause we are also the solution. If the actions I take every day cause so much harm, then my actions can also cause so much benefit. That's awesome! That's liberating for me and the species around me who I influence. While we all struggle with the pain, sorrow, and fear associated with seemingly insurmountable problems like climate change and extinction, it is the touch, sound, and call of wildness that binds us -- it is a love for health and caring and selflessness that reaches out beyond our inward reflections. Be free. Be empowered. Face the world in every moment and fall into life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

First Snow

For as far back as I can remember an impending snowstorm has excited me to no end. I'd watch (and still do) the weather forecasts every hour, counting down the minutes to the squall line as if it was Christmas morning. Although we only had 1" or so, it's still gorgeous, and makes me feel warm; snow is a great insulator, after all, and just look at what magic it does in the garden:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Winter Gardening is Sublime

A few images to wet your whistle. I tell you what, summer gardens don't hold a candle to the magic of winter -- 5 months of shadow and light, profound silence and absence, negative space, rest and rejuvenation, gathering purpose, habitat for wildlife. And since prairie plants lose up to 1/3 of their roots each year, lots of soil amending is going on. Wow.

The main garden

Smooth aster still showing off

Accidental designing is the best

Joe pye weed dressed to the nines

Birds deserve some art, too, with this feeder

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Refugees Aplenty on Earth

The lesser prairie chicken is a refugee. Black-footed ferrets. Salt Creek tiger beetles. Prairie fringed orchids. Literally hundreds of species, flora and fauna, from the former prairies are homeless and vanishing. The tallgrass prairie is the most endangered ecosystem on the planet, once filled with great diversity that made central North America rich in abundance, health, and resilience -- a culture of uniqueness that thrived on interactions of give and take, niches of refuge and hope. There is a world of refugees out there, the vast majority not human, and yet all connected to the same root violence, fear, and distrust we force upon them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Looking for Land

This 80 acres of soybean / corn rotation is looking to be a prairie, nursery, and arts residency. Wouldn't it look fabulous in bluestem and monarda?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Talking in North Chicago 11/14

If you've been dying to hear my ideas about garden ethics, then November 14 in Grayslake, IL is your chance. The same topic will also be shared come March in Pueblo, CO. Only at my talks will you have the opportunity to buy the below 40 page booklet -- a collection of blog posts, articles, and short essays.

You'll need to register for the 11/14 talk, where many others will be speaking on such topics as Leopold's land ethic, native plants and pollinator relationships, prairie restoration, identifying invasives, and a ton more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Front, Back, Old, New Gardens

 I sure love fall -- it's gorgeous and I get most of my gardening done in October.

The front yard, de-lawned garden coming in. Should be ready next year.
The 2007 garden evolving and morphing.

Working in a presentation, remembering my first "garden."

Tripling the back prairie garden with seeds, divisions, & seedlings.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Consciousness & Empathy

Humans are not the only form of consciousness on this planet. There are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands that have some level of scientifically documented self awareness and empathy for others -- from elephants to birds to plants. What happens when we join these species in awareness and empathy? I suspect our corn fields and business parks would look much different, our feed lots, our shelters for the abused and neglected, our systems of welfare, our gardens and our roadways.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Here Come the Leaves, and the Light

Every day brings different color, texture, and light. This is the most exciting time in the garden! I wish every day was an autumn day.


Joe pye weed

Our American elm died this year. Gorgeous.
Agastache foeniculum
Senna hebecarpa
Looking up through joe pye and ironweed
Verbena hastata
Wild senna and indian grass
Wild senna, Senna hebecarpa

Smooth aster

Sumac all fuzzy
Sumac and tall coreopsis
New England aster

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Judging Plants by Beauty Alone

I have a dream that some day our primary metric for experiencing plants won't be just how they look. Perhaps when we visit a botanical garden plant tags will give us more than Latin, but also ecosystem services, how the plant fits into the web of life. Some day plant tags at nurseries will be both accurate and informative, telling us more than how the plant grows in ideal situations but in real situations, what role it plays, what niche it has in an ecological landscape. Does this plant fix nitrogen, or harbor beneficial soil bacteria? Does it support a plethora of pollinators, or some rare native bee? Is it an ideal companion for a specific grass or sedge, like we'd see in the wild?

Gardens are not plant museums, they are plant symphonies, plant communities, wildlife communities, life communities, life partners. I have a dream that some day the first words out of someone's mouth, when observing an evocative plant for the first time, won't be how pretty it is but the number of pollinators on it, the line of ants harvesting aphids along its stem, the birds picking off those ants or seeds. We are loathe to judge others by surface appearance, but that is apparently how we judge -- or find value / worth -- in the natural world. How can we go beyond and deeper? How can we rethink pretty? What happens to other human social and cultural viewpoints when we do?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ecological Landscape Design

I'm two years late to the party, but I just finished Travis Beck's book, Principles of Ecological Landscape Design. It was incredibly life-affirming and instructive. But what really impacted me was how so much of what he was discussing I've intuited over the years experimenting, walking prairies and meadows, and now designing gardens (including doubling the size of my own in 2016). Here's just a little of what I mean:

"For long term stability in the face of environmental fluctuations, broad-scale resistance to pests and pathogens, and the ability to continue to evolve, genetic diversity in a plant population is essential. This is as true in the constructed landscape as it is in nature. To benefit from these advantages of intraspecific diversity, designers should use cultivated varieties selectively, consider developing regional or site-specific landraces, and insist on broad-based collection of seed for the production of straight species for landscape use."

As most of you know, I design gardens using as close to 100% straight species as possible, and when a cultivar is called for it's at least a wild-found species, not a lab-crossed hybrid. It will be interesting to see how these species fare in urban environments as the climate changes, and how their genetics will change.

"A little explored ecological approach to designed plantings is to allow self-thinning to maintain the balance between plant diversity and plant size. Applying self-thinning principles, the number of plants to include depends not on the ultimate number desired [old school thinking], but on the size at which they are planted -- either fewer larger plants or more smaller plants. In either case, plants should be planted in numbers necessary to fill the desired area, at such spacing that as soon as they are established, they face intraspecific competition."

I have literally backed my way into designing gardens in the above ways (and more in his book -- the guy is not a butterfly bush fan). I'm not saying I'm a genius, simply that while working with plants I felt what was happening and what was going to happen, and what I and the plants together desired to happen and feared would happen. My gardens are planted thickly for many reasons, from wildlife cover to conserving soil moisture (green mulch) to mimicking prairie habitat -- but now I see I was also trying to foster competition, rich competition, and a gene pool that interacts with the wilder prairies near my home (also thinking about wildlife corridors).

If every landscape in my city had a native plant garden we'd have wildlife corridors and resiliency up the wazoo. Maybe it's time to start a project that fosters this action here in Lincoln.

And now off to read Thomas Rainer and Claudia West's hot-off-the-press book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.