I LIKE SHOWY EVENING PRIMROSE

I like showy evening primrose (or, Oenothera speciosa for those of us who are botanically inclined).  I love seeing the cheerful little flowers that dot roadways, and when the petite, pink parasols pop up in the lawn, it brings a smile to my face.  It was actually one of the first wildflowers I ever grew.  I recall buying a pack of seed at the garden center, scattering them in my tiny garden behind our pool, and watching as they quickly came into bloom.  Success in a season.  What gardener doesn't want that?  

But, I didn't realize there was such animosity towards one of my favorite wildflowers until I read Steve Bender's piece "If you value your life and yard, don't plant this."

 
Such a scary thing, huh?

Such a scary thing, huh?

 

He writes,

If you see pink evening primrose ... for sale at your garden center, I have a single word of advice. RUN. Do not buy. Do not plant. Do not say to yourself, “It’s a native plant, so it must be good.” Do not overlook the fact that any wildflower that can conquer acres of farmland can gulp down your garden in a single sitting...
— Steve Bender

Reading that opinion made me sad.   My biggest qualm with the piece is recommending to thousands of readers to not plant something because it spreads.  He goes on to say, "a pink primrose tsunami swept over my garden the next spring, choking the phlox and drowning the daylilies".  

That's such a boring way to garden!  Plant perennials.  Mulch them in their little cubicles.  Don't let them touch.  Repeat next year.  And, the next.  And, the next.  Ad nauseam.  

I want plants to touch, mingle, grow through each other, and duke it out in the garden.  I want to see ecology in action and for plants to actually live instead of being static chlorophyllic mannequins.  

I'm constantly looking for good groundcovers for southeast mixed plantings, and this native primrose shows such promise for use in mixed plantings.  In Texas, it covers our soil in the winter and reduces erosion, and ours that we grow in the Sprout garden have been blooming now for over three months since March 8th.  Then, come summer it peters out with a reflush of flowers in the fall.  As a bonus for the pollinator groupies out there, research conducted at UT Austin showed honeybees, skippers, and pierid and papilionid butterflies visit the flowers.  

Sure, it's aggressive and seedy as many ruderal species are.  But, in a world covered with mulch, hell strips, and roadsides, I'd rather look at pink flowers.  To tell people to not plant something because it proliferates itself is wrong.  

So, spread the word.  Plants like evening primrose that spread can be a gardener's best friend.  Unless you want to keep mulching...  

PLANTING THE FOOD PRAIRIES

This post is part 2 of 2 of a series where I reflect on our food prairie design and planting in the Sprout garden.  I hope it inspires you.

18 APRIL | TUESDAY PRE-CLASS 7:30–9:20 Am

The blank slate of the food prairies!  How exciting!  

The blank slate of the food prairies!  How exciting!  

I arrived the morning of planting at 7:30 am to set up for my Herbaceous Plants class that would help to install the food prairies as part of their class project.  Hunter, one of my incredible student apprentices, prepped the food prairie beds the week before.  He had cleared them of any debris and small weeds, broadforked them, and then leveled them.  They looked fresh and ripe for planting in the glow of sunrise.

The first task I tackled was to mark and string the boundaries for our planting grid in the prairies.  The inspiration for this tactic was a photo I saw online of one of Piet Oudolf's installations where a massive grid system was laid on the ground.  In Illustrator, I had overlaid the students' design with a grid that partitioned each food prairie into eight 4' × 4.25' quadrants and then printed each species layer.  This paper grid would correspond with the one I was hammering into the ground to simplify plant placement for the students.  I printed several of these so that the students could use them as guides.  I installed stakes to mark the intersecting lines and used twine to demarcate the boundaries of our quads.  John and Rock, two other amazing student apprentices, arrived just in time to help with the stakes and string.  We outlined two of the four prairies for a demo before it was time for class to start.  I had students in class help on the other two.  

 
The food prairie design for the structural layer (plants listed above the design) and seasonal filler layer (plants listed below the design) is a kaleidoscope of color.  Here the four quadrants separated by thick black lines are shown together instead of as their separate beds for ease.  Circles approximate—and let me stress approximate as some species will spread—the final plant size.   

The food prairie design for the structural layer (plants listed above the design) and seasonal filler layer (plants listed below the design) is a kaleidoscope of color.  Here the four quadrants separated by thick black lines are shown together instead of as their separate beds for ease.  Circles approximate—and let me stress approximate as some species will spread—the final plant size.   

 

The other thing I did before students arrived was place stakes with species names on them in the garden.  That way, when students brought the trays up to the garden, they could put each species in its corresponding place.  The labels helped us be very organized as I knew trouble finding small plants or accidentally grabbing the wrong plant could cause chaos.


18 APRIL | TUESDAY CLASS 9:30–10:20 am

I knew it would rain.  I had been planning the food prairie install for a year and a half, and the reoccurring fear I had was that some stalled front would dump 10 inches on us all week. 

I walked into the classroom to get the students, and the minute we walked outside, the wet stuff began to fall.  It wasn't a monsoon.  More like a light shower, barely above a mist.  However, the students didn't complain besides the occasional, "I'm cold."  

I sent a few students to get the plant trays, and I stayed on Sprout hill to help others begin laying out the stakes and string.  Most everything we planted was either a 3.5 inch pot or smaller save for a few species that we dug and divided. 

Once the grids were finished, I began to show students how to read the plans from our design.  I indicated that a plant needs to go roughly where it was on the design in its appropriate grid, but to the exact inch was too tedious.  Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury say in Gardens in Time and Space location matters less than the plant pallete as these designs can and will change over time. 

The food prairie grid and food prairie design for Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Raydon's Favorite' (aromatic aster).  The red, purple, green, blue, and orange circled plants on the left correspond with the circled plants in the design on the right.  As you can see from the plant placement on the left, students were very adept at finding each propagule's final spot.    

The food prairie grid and food prairie design for Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Raydon's Favorite' (aromatic aster).  The red, purple, green, blue, and orange circled plants on the left correspond with the circled plants in the design on the right.  As you can see from the plant placement on the left, students were very adept at finding each propagule's final spot.    

Plants goin' in the ground!  

Plants goin' in the ground!  

I also told the students to not walk on the beds.  I knew with around 20 species to install and 12–14 students helping there would be lots of soil compaction.  Therefore, I encouraged them to use stepping stones as landing pads.  I must compliment them.  They were very diligent about caring for the soil, even when I wasn't looking.  :-)  

These plastic stepping stones helped us prevent excess soil compaction.  

These plastic stepping stones helped us prevent excess soil compaction.  

Since the class was only an hour, we did a trial run installing two species.  The rest would wait for lab.  I was immediately impressed with the students' collective ability to read and interpret the plan.  They worked in pairs and helped each other find where plants went. 


18 APRIL | TUESDAY LAB 1:00–2:50 pm

For lab, we were able to hit the ground running since the grids were in place and most of the plants were on site.  I made comments about it not raining, to which some of the students griped that I was jinxing us all!  Fortunately, it didn't rain another drop for the whole project.

We started by digging a few structural-layer plants like Asparagus officinalis (asparagus) and Rudbeckia maxima (great coneflower) we propagated in the ground for the install.  At first, I checked the students work against our design, and once I saw they were able to follow the design, I let them work on their own.  Overall, we were able to install 13 species today, and we got the majority of the structural and seasonal filler layers installed. 

The chaos of creation

The chaos of creation

Teamwork makes the dream work.  

Teamwork makes the dream work.  

 
Photo from the end of day 1.  From this overhead shot of two food prairies in the midst of our cut flower and vegetable beds you can appreciate how the grid system helps students visualize where plants go.  

Photo from the end of day 1.  From this overhead shot of two food prairies in the midst of our cut flower and vegetable beds you can appreciate how the grid system helps students visualize where plants go.  

 

20 APRIL | THURSDAY CLASS 9:30–10:20 am

This morning, we continued to plant other components of the seasonal layer.  We also started planted dynamic fillers like Gaura (Oenothera) lindheimeri 'Sparkle White' (Lindheimer's beeblossom), Oenothera biennis (evening primrose), and Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri (Winkler's firewheel), and I had a few students start plugging in Carex cherokeensis (Cherokee sedge) that would comprise the groundcover layer.  

After I got them started, I climbed on top of the building and sneaked a few aerial shots.  

 
Hehe, they didn't even know I was on the rooftop for a while.  

Hehe, they didn't even know I was on the rooftop for a while.  

 

From the rooftop, I saw Donna McCollum of KTRE filming students planting, and I came down to greet her.  I was excited that she came out to feature these perennial projects our students were installing at SFA.  Plus, the students were planting these garden beds the week before Earth Day, and they were able to discuss the sustainability of the plantings for the clip.  She asked me some questions, and then she interviewed several of the students.   Here's her segment if you'd like to watch

A rare photograph of me teaching as Donna McCollum films a piece on the food prairie plantings.  Photo by Hunter Walker.

A rare photograph of me teaching as Donna McCollum films a piece on the food prairie plantings.  Photo by Hunter Walker.

Donna McCollum of KTRE interviews SFA Horticulture student and Team Sprout member Hunter about the food prairies. 

Donna McCollum of KTRE interviews SFA Horticulture student and Team Sprout member Hunter about the food prairies. 


04/25 | TUESDAY CLASS 9:30–10:20 am

The food prairies were really becoming full of flora.  Today, our main objective was the matrix layer—Carex cherokeensis, Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama), and Sisyrinchium angustifolium (blue-eyed grass).  At this point it was mainly filling in open spaces that we hadn't filled yet with other flora, and we mostly completed two of the four food prairies this morning.  Also, towards the end of the hour, I had a student begin plopping Narcissus × odorus (campernelle) bulbs into the food prairies according to our design.  

Bouteloua curtipendula plugs lay scattered in vacant areas in the food prairies.  

Bouteloua curtipendula plugs lay scattered in vacant areas in the food prairies.  

 
Even a broken leg doesn't stop students like Cierra from helping plant!

Even a broken leg doesn't stop students like Cierra from helping plant!

 
Reagan smooths soil around Sisyrinchium angustifolium.  The sun came out long enough for the plants to open their beautiful blue flowers.  

Reagan smooths soil around Sisyrinchium angustifolium.  The sun came out long enough for the plants to open their beautiful blue flowers.  


04/25 | TUESDAY LAB 1:00–2:50 PM

We picked up where we left off this morning on the groundcover layer.  And, just like that it was finished!   

Wa-hoo!  The food prairies are planted!  

Wa-hoo!  The food prairies are planted!  

Or, should I say it's just begun since they will change and evolve over time? 

Later in the week, a few of my student apprentices applied a thin layer of mulch to reduce weed germination.  Of course, we want the plants to grow thickly enough to shade the soil so weeds won't have much of a chance, but this initial covering will help the installed plugs gain a solid footing.  

Watering in the students work.  We removed the grid overlay after the install was finished.  

Watering in the students work.  We removed the grid overlay after the install was finished.  

In the end I believe that this type of planting is great for students because of the randomness to it.  They were very capable of following the design, and if they didn't put the plant in the exact spot, it's ok. In total with everyone's help, I roughly calculated that we invested approximately total 80-90 hours in the project for planting and installation.  

SFA students happy to be finished and happy to have a positive impact on the world.  The food prairies will add beauty to the garden and provide habitat for a number of beneficial insects.  

SFA students happy to be finished and happy to have a positive impact on the world.  The food prairies will add beauty to the garden and provide habitat for a number of beneficial insects.  

Now, we wait and watch as the food prairies burgeon with growth.  

Designing the Food Prairies

As a educator, I find the process of learning fascinating.  Maybe even you've caught hints of the magic.  When you're really passionate about a topic, it's like your brain turns into a sponge as you soak up every drop of knowledge, and wring it all back out again to transform something, some surface of existence that needs a good scrubbing.  Read and study all you want, but at some point you have to go and do.  

Heaven knows that's me with mixed plantings.  Probably since 2012 when I first heard Claudia West speak at PPA in Boston or 2013 when I travelled to the Netherlands with Piet and Noel's book in hand, I've been reading about designed plant communities and standing on the shoulders of giants as I've accrued knowledge from those eager to share their craft of interpreting nature. 

I made a special point to visit this park in Leuvehoofd in Rotterdam at a conference in the Netherlands a few years ago.  It was the first Oudolf installation I ever saw, and it was enlightening seeing plants intermingled.  

I made a special point to visit this park in Leuvehoofd in Rotterdam at a conference in the Netherlands a few years ago.  It was the first Oudolf installation I ever saw, and it was enlightening seeing plants intermingled.  

I wanted to do something with all I had absorbed.  Since 2015, I have been working on designing mixed plantings in the Sprout garden at SFA that we've deemed the food prairies.  Like I shared in a previous post, I wanted to have these plantings in the Sprout garden because of the benefits—they would add beauty to the garden, they would help to attract beneficial insects, and let's be honest, I love the prairie-look.  AND, I wanted to teach and educate our students about the design, the installation, and the management of these style of plantings.  Much of the work on synthesizing these planting combinations has been done in the north or abroad, and we need to adapt the methodology for the southern US.  

I started by drawing and iterating several different designs for the food prairie beds.  The design that won was to have four beds, two on either side of our primary axis path totaling a little over 600 square feet of planting space.  The plantings would be in-between our food growing areas, thus dividing the garden into thirds.  I was inspired by Piet Oudolf's work at Scampston Hall where Deschampsia cespitosa (tufted hairgrass) segregated patches of lawn.  This design resonated with me, perhaps because most of my life I grew up around fence rows that partitioned the landscape.  Additionally, our mini fence rows amplify the reclaimed farm theme I'm going for around the SFA agriculture building. 

Decisions on plant material came next.  Initially, I considered adding a few shrubs, but after reading Planting in a Post-Wild World, I nixed them.  Thomas and Claudia argue that open spaces like our full sun slope call for the grassland archetype and herbaceous species should dominate.  Additionally, woody material would likely dominate the space, and the absence of shrubbery would aid maintenance and early season clean up with our student apprentices. 

Since my arrival in Nacogdoches, I documented when species were in flower and how long their ghosts persisted in the landscape.  I had a steep learning curve to climb as the flora of Texas bloomed a month or two earlier (or later in the fall!) than where I lived in Tennessee or North Carolina.  

In the fall of 2015, the students and I installed trial material from Hoffman Nursery, Intrinsic Perennials, and Jelitto to see which species would fare well.  Since we were overhauling the entire garden, I decided to grow them on site.  These evaluations helped to lengthen the plant list that follows, especially for the species comprising the matrix. 

The list of species for the food prairie that I would eventually share with my students.  L = leaf, F = flowering, and S = seed or senescence.  Overall, colors *roughly* match the species, but white was coded as gray so that it would be visible on a white background.  

The list of species for the food prairie that I would eventually share with my students.  L = leaf, F = flowering, and S = seed or senescence.  Overall, colors *roughly* match the species, but white was coded as gray so that it would be visible on a white background.  

Early on in the design process, I knew that the installation would be perfect for my Herbaceous Plants class slated for the spring of 2017.  Many regale this type of planting as the future of horticulture in urban areas, and I'm not going to have my students left in the dust. 

SFA students in Herbaceous Plants learning how plants grow in nature. Exciting times!!!

SFA students in Herbaceous Plants learning how plants grow in nature. Exciting times!!!

I began developing curriculum to teach the concepts of mixed plantings.  For our first lab, I took an idea that Angela Treadwell-Palmer shared with me that she did in school under W. Gary Smith—take students out to observe how plants grow together in nature.  They got to see the patchwork quilt of flora and how plants actually grow in the wild—randomly following environmental gradients, arranged in layers, and sans mulch but smothering the ground with foliage. 

Also, early in lab we began propagating plants for the food prairie to allow them time to grow and develop for our late April install.  Stock plants of Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrow-leaf mountain mint), Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Raydon's Favorite' (aromatic aster), and Allium tuberosum (garlic chives) were ripped apart by green fingers, and the divisions grew to the surprise of a few students.  And, Echinacea cultivars (purple coneflower), Oenothera biennis (evening primrose), and Achellia millefolium (yarrow) seed were sown and germinated promptly.  

In class, we discussed concepts about ecology to reiterate the growth patterns plants exhibit in nature like survival strategies, succession, and colonization.  We covered mixed plantings, why this approach is becoming more prevalent, and how to do it.  We covered the layers—structural, seasonal filler, matrix, and dynamic filler.  And, then I had the students design and develop a small modular design much like Roy Diblik presented in his book The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden.  One student even went as far as developing a module where she used the ten digits in the number pi to arrange her 10 species in her module.  (Great example of soaking it up and wringing it out, eh?)

After we covered all this material, we set about in lab designing the food prairies.  I created a 1 in = 1 ft scale drawing showing the four food prairie quadrants, and had students cut out 1, 2, or 3 inch squares to correspond with the rough maximum plant size each species would get.  On these squares students used markers to color and code an abbreviation for each species.  Then, they came up and added them to the drawing, I voicing advice all the way about which plants would look good together and which ones for which layer.  Once we were finished, I photographed the design and imported it into Adobe Illustrator where I overlaid the squares with circles.

Students in Herbaceous Plants plan and arrange the structural (left) and seasonal theme (right) layers for the food prairies.  

Students in Herbaceous Plants plan and arrange the structural (left) and seasonal theme (right) layers for the food prairies.  

I'll admit the first time we did this I encouraged them to put WAY too many plants on the design sheets.  I had to cull some of the squares they placed but, by the end the numbers closely matched the design percentages from Planting in a Post-wild World and notes I took in a Cassian Schmidt talk. 

I showed students the final design, and we set the week of April 17-21 for the install. 

— CHALLENGES —

While I did much prep in the year and a half prior, the biggest challenge I faced was cramming the design and synthesis of mixed plantings into a 3 month period, from the first day of class to the install.  Doing a design by yourself is testing enough, but try organizing things well enough to have 12 other people help!  It's a whole 'nother endeavor.  But, the teacher in me enjoyed it and reveled at the light bulbs going off in class and lab as I exposed the students to the full gamut of the design and install of mixed plantings.  I didn't want to give them a fish; I wanted to show them how to use the bait and tackle. 

I'll also admit I had fears, which I've learned is common when you make the shift from traditional plantings to this novel approach.  Fear of failure.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of weeds.  Fear of too many plants being used.  Fear of too few plants being used.  Fear of the propagules not being big enough.  Fear of this planting not being in my backyard but other there for the world to see. 

But, as most things are in life, if you don't have angst doing a project and you don't feel resistance, it probably means the task is not worthwhile. 

Now with all that we've learned, let's go plant it.  The install, Part 2, is coming soon. 

 

 

The Roadside Flowers

Roads are a lifeblood of civilization.  The veins and arteries that criss-cross our world have provided for our needs, wants, and ambitions for thousands of years.  

To build a road, the landscape must be destroyed and altered.  Wendell Berry writes about these scars on nature in his essay A Native Hill.  He states that "even the most primitive road" is for "haste," and "it's wish is to avoid contact with the landscape."   

But, from the chaos of destruction comes creation as nature covers the wounds with new growth like roadside wildflowers.  In places where fire is now suppressed, bison are dead to trample, and no trespassing signs dot the landscape, roadsides maybe the only places passersby enjoy impressionistic wildflowers, albeit at 70 mph.  These slivers of prairie and meadow are where disturbance occurs on a frequent basis, usually in the form of a mower blade but occasionally there's the rogue smoldering cigarette that will lay waste.  Here, especially in spring, we see color burgeon.  

Ember-colored Gaillardia (firewheel) smolder on the highway shoulders in west Texas

Ember-colored Gaillardia (firewheel) smolder on the highway shoulders in west Texas

Roadside decor.  Oenothera speciosa (showy primrose) and a fire hydrant.

Roadside decor.  Oenothera speciosa (showy primrose) and a fire hydrant.

Phacelia bipinnatifida (purple phacelia) form a river of lilac on the roadsides in the Smokies.  If you pull over and squat amongst the flowers, you'll sniff hints of celery.  

Phacelia bipinnatifida (purple phacelia) form a river of lilac on the roadsides in the Smokies.  If you pull over and squat amongst the flowers, you'll sniff hints of celery.  

Salvia lyrata (lyre-leaf sage) is a common acquaintance to right-of-ways, especially in suburban lawns.

Salvia lyrata (lyre-leaf sage) is a common acquaintance to right-of-ways, especially in suburban lawns.

The lemon yellow flowers of Baptisia sphaerocarpa (yellow wild indigo) are very visible at 70 mph and often warrant a u-turn.  

The lemon yellow flowers of Baptisia sphaerocarpa (yellow wild indigo) are very visible at 70 mph and often warrant a u-turn.  

I like looking at roadside flowers.  These right-of-way gardens are one of the best, most readily available places for people across the world to see a plant community in action.  In fact, the claim has been made that in a fractured nature these areas may be the only refugia for some species here in the US and abroad.  And, while I understand and deeply respect Berry's thoughts about damage to the landscape, to me roadsides are opportunities for contact with the landscape and offer a glimpse at how plants weave themselves together.  

It was looking at a roadside years ago that the epiphany of everything I'd read about how people look to nature to design gardens really struck me.  I've never looked at roadsides the same again.  

I look for patterns in the vegetation as I shuffle back and forth across the countryside.  Some plants cover the ground, some fill for a season, and some rise as icons, towering above the life below.  And, whether the flora are relics of a past age, hitchhikers from trucks, or immigrants seeded in by the transportation department, they are beautiful and make trips zoom by as I enjoy the moving picture.  

Growing up in rural west Tennessee I once thought that the best anti-litter campaign was to plant wildflowers on the side of the road instead of hosing it with weed killer.  I believed if the roadsides were smothered with color wayfaring strangers probably wouldn't litter them with trash.  


Over spring break, Karen and I travelled to the hill country in Texas in search of roadside flowers, specifically Lupinus texensis (bluebonnets). 

The day was perfect for photographs.  Just enough wet stuff was falling that you had to wipe your lens occasionally.  We first saw scattered plants dot the roadsides here and there...

2017-0313-003 Lupinus texensis-2.jpg

and then we found more...

2017-0313-004 Lupinus texensis and Opuntia-2.jpg

AND THEN MORE!

2017-0313-028 Lupinus texensis-2.jpg

I commented to Karen at one point that my soul felt full, overcome with all the beauty.  And, it was right on the roadsides for all to partake.  

Bluebonnet leaves wear a necklace of guttated diamonds.

Bluebonnet leaves wear a necklace of guttated diamonds.

The blur of haste juxaposed with the focus of wildflowers.  

The blur of haste juxaposed with the focus of wildflowers.  

Karen photographing bluebonnets for later drawings.  

Karen photographing bluebonnets for later drawings.  

As you've probably already noticed in some photos, the bluebonnets weren't alone.  Drifts of Castilleja indivisia (Texas Indian paintbrush) also competed for the spotlight.  

*Content sigh*

*Content sigh*

The flowers on Castilleja indivisia were so saturated with color!  Besides the crop, I haven't touched this one with Photoshop.  

The flowers on Castilleja indivisia were so saturated with color!  Besides the crop, I haven't touched this one with Photoshop.  

I noticed time and time again that they occurred in different areas.  Sure, a few rouge plants crossed the lines every now and then, but there were clear demarcations.    Was it from the road department sowing them in different areas?  Varied soil conditions?  Or, parasitism?  I found research after I returned home suggesting that the parasitic Castilleja indivisia grown with Lupinus texensis will produce three times more seed.  Perhaps the paintbrushes weren't just competing for attention.  Perhaps they were stealing it.  

Here you see a family portriat of sorts as some flowers are still young while others are showing their age with faded petals.  No matter how old, they are still beautiful.  

Here you see a family portriat of sorts as some flowers are still young while others are showing their age with faded petals.  No matter how old, they are still beautiful.  

A single peach colored variant in a sea of coral.  

A single peach colored variant in a sea of coral.  

From this trip I realized how much I love Indian paintbrush. I found these more striking than the bluebonnets.  From a distance the Castilleja appear orange, but approaching them I realized that the bracts are really more of a rich salmon (my favorite color!) with verdant bases.  Colors blend at a distance, and I'm sure that's how the orange manifests as the eyes register the two.  


I believe that we can learn from what we see on the roadsides.  Roadsides offer us a great testing ground for vegetation that does well in mixed plantings. We can use what we see and the patterns we observe to design better plantings.  

Nature and city life intersect at this designed plant community at the crossroads of Elizabeth Street and South First Street in Austin, TX.  Note the scattered Lupinus texensis filling in around tussock-type grasses.  

Nature and city life intersect at this designed plant community at the crossroads of Elizabeth Street and South First Street in Austin, TX.  Note the scattered Lupinus texensis filling in around tussock-type grasses.  

And as Bliss Carman penned in his poem that I've shared below, they certainly make life more beautiful and more enjoyable.  

ROADSIDE FLOWERS by Bliss Carman

WE are the roadside flowers,
Straying from garden grounds, —
Lovers of idle hours,
Breakers of ordered bounds.
If only the earth will feed us,
If only the wind be kind,
We blossom for those who need us,
The stragglers left behind.
And lo, the Lord of the Garden,
He makes his sun to rise,
And his rain to fall like pardon
On our dusty paradise.
On us he has laid the duty, —
The task of the wandering breed,—
To better the world with beauty,
Wherever the way may lead.
Who shall inquire of the season,
Or question the wind where it blows?
We blossom and ask no reason.
The Lord of the Garden knows. 

 

A Pioneer in the Smokies

The Smoky Mountains are a magical place for me.   Always have been.  Always will be.  Probably once or twice a month I have dreams where I'm driving along the twisted roads or hiking the fabled trails.  It's my parents' fault.  They took my sister and me there when I was nine, rolled down the window, and herded clouds into the car on the high mountain tops.  I was hooked.  

I like to visit the mountains once a year or so, and last spring, Karen and I planned a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over my long Easter break.  I, of course, started searching for great places to see wildflowers, and reports for Greenbrier suggested it was peak for early spring bloom.

Greenbrier is no stranger to me.  It's one of my favorite places to visit.  When I was in grad school in Raleigh and met my family for a long weekend in Gatlinburg, I'd always pass Greenbrier on Highway 321.  Sometimes if I was a bit early, I would stop and say hi to the craggy creek.  

The Little Pigeon River gurgles through Greenbrier.

The Little Pigeon River gurgles through Greenbrier.

For this visit, we would be staying a bit longer in Greenbriar to hike Porters Creek trail.  I had seen pictures online of the Phacelia fimbriata (fringed phacelia) in full bloom, and the effect looked incredible, like a carpet of white wildflowers in the woodlands.     

We parked for the day along the car-crowded road, which suggested we wouldn't be alone for the hike.  We walked for about an hour passing old stone fences and traversing mighty hemlocks.  We hadn't seen many flowers in bloom till we came to a narrow bridge.   

The narrow bridge along Porter's Creek trail.  Hikers provide a sense of scale.  

The narrow bridge along Porter's Creek trail.  Hikers provide a sense of scale.  

However, once we crossed over, it felt a bit like entering Narnia because suddenly we were surrounded by snow!  

Where's the lamppost?!

Where's the lamppost?!

Ok, green and white snow.  But, it was everywhere!!!  

Phacelia fimbriata o'er hill and dale

Phacelia fimbriata o'er hill and dale

And, it continued for about a quarter of a mile.  It was breathtaking to see so many of one organism en masse.  

 
A moss-covered log rests in a blanket of Phacelia

A moss-covered log rests in a blanket of Phacelia

 

Some of it even grew on rocks.  

Fringed phacelia thrive on a boulder, no doubt supported by a layer of detritus and abundant rainfall during the winter and early spring.  

Fringed phacelia thrive on a boulder, no doubt supported by a layer of detritus and abundant rainfall during the winter and early spring.  

 
A close up of Phacelia fimbriata.  The flowers were about the size of a dime.  

A close up of Phacelia fimbriata.  The flowers were about the size of a dime.  

 
Much like footsteps on fresh fallen snow, a trodden path manifests through the Phacelia.  

Much like footsteps on fresh fallen snow, a trodden path manifests through the Phacelia.  

In horticulture design we discuss how the effect of repetition is calming and creates harmony in the landscape.  In fact, just a few weeks ago I shared with my class that seeing the same plant used multiple times in the landscape creates a sense of comfort.  Much like when you travel to a foreign place and see familiar logos or icons. 

So, why so many of one organism?  No human planted this monoculture.  This is nature. 

From my environmental biology background, I learned to ask the question why does a species grow this way?  There have been efforts to classify plants based on their survival strategies, and Grime's universal adaptive strategy theory groups plants broadly into three different categories.  

  • COMPETITORS are plants that take advantages of any and all resources they can muster.  They grow tall and wide to take out the competition.  Usually these stalwarts are perennial in nature.
  • STRESS-TOLERANTS are plants that have adaptations to ensure survival when stress arises and conditions deteriorate.  They are usually perennial and can take many years to flower from seed.  
  • PIONEERS (aka RUDERALS) are short-lived annuals or biennials that are frequently exposed to some type of disturbance, which has selected for plants that quickly produce seed.  

Like most human-made models, plants don't fit neatly into these classifications.  Most plants are a blend of at least two strategies, much like you see below.  

This figure from Pierce et al. (2013) illustrates how one can classify plants as competitors, stress-tolerant, or pioneers/ruderals.  The placement of the symbol equates to what percentage of each strategy each plant exhibits.  

This figure from Pierce et al. (2013) illustrates how one can classify plants as competitors, stress-tolerant, or pioneers/ruderals.  The placement of the symbol equates to what percentage of each strategy each plant exhibits.  

But, thinking about these survival strategies can help us anticipate how plants will perform over time in our gardens.  They help us understand why stress-tolerant Trillium can take several years to flower from seed, or why pioneer Gaillardia can die in our gardens after a few years.  (If you want to read more about Grime's theory, might I suggest Planting in a Post Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West and Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury).

In the case of the Phacelia that surrounded us on Porters Creek trail, we were looking at a pioneer-type species based on its short life span and the sheer abundance of plants.  Phacelia fimbriata is a winter annual.  It germinates in the fall, flowers the following spring, and dies after spreading seed.  It also takes advantage of the full sun that filters through the barren canopies during winter and early spring.  

This environment doesn't match my traditional concept of a pioneer species before I learned of Grime's theory.  I usually associate pioneers with species that come in and colonize an area after all vegetation has been removed, and yet around us were towering trees clambering toward the climax community.  But, as Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher discussed in Garden Revolution, sometimes disturbance only affects a layer of vegetation and not all plants are removed.  

As I began to ponder what disturbance the Smokies get, my mind immediately went to the horrible wildfires that ravaged Gatlinburg this past fall.  Research in the Smokies has shown that fires on average have happened once every 5 to 7 years between the early 1700's to about 1930.  If this pattern was the same for millennia before, it's easy to see how this species evolved to survive frequent disturbance.  

We also encountered a few other spring ephemerals along our hike, and many were like old friends.  I hadn't them seen in a while, but they still brought a smile to my face.  

 
Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches). See the hole? Looks like someone forgot to patch their pantalones before hanging them out. 

Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches). See the hole? Looks like someone forgot to patch their pantalones before hanging them out. 

 
Trillium grandiflorum in all its grandeur.  

Trillium grandiflorum in all its grandeur.  

The freckled petals and coffee-colored stamens of Erythronium umbilicatum (dimpled trout lily) are a delight in spring.

The freckled petals and coffee-colored stamens of Erythronium umbilicatum (dimpled trout lily) are a delight in spring.

Anemonella thalictroides (rue anenome) occasionally dotted the forest floor.

Anemonella thalictroides (rue anenome) occasionally dotted the forest floor.

 
I assumed before we went that we would see Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) everywhere, but I only saw one in flower.  It was actually right as we were coming back to the parking lot.  

I assumed before we went that we would see Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) everywhere, but I only saw one in flower.  It was actually right as we were coming back to the parking lot.  

 

Overall, Porters Creek trail was a great hike, and we both enjoyed the beauty of the spring wildflowers.  But, the wildflowers weren't my only goal for the trip.   

 
DSC_0031-2.jpg
 

I also had plans to propose to Karen the next morning after the Gatlinburg Easter sunrise service.   She said yes, and the Smokies became even more special for the both of us.  

Plants of a Feather

In the fall of 2015, I was asked to help lead a study abroad trip with SFA students to France the following May, and when the discussion of great gardens to see arose, I immediately thought of Le Jardin Plume. 

I can't recall the first time I saw images of the grasses and the manicured boxwood at Le Jardin Plume—probably from this article written by Stephen Lacey—but I do remember being mesmerized and enchanted by the photos.  

I knew that Le Jardin Plume was a garden we had to visit.  Why, you ask?  Well, I wasn't being selfish in trying to mark off a bucket list garden, but I wanted to show students GREAT horticulture.  The study abroad trip was a joint effort with agriculture/horticulture and interior design, architecture, and hospitality.  I felt that the other majors outside of horticulture would enjoy design techniques employed with a different medium—plants.  And, the people who I knew who had visited Le Jardin Plume raved about it being one of their favorite gardens in the world.  Fortunately, it wasn't too far from Paris, our excursion center.

When I was in the garden, I did my best to soak up as much as I could and photograph everything.  Now that I'm back stateside and some time has passed, I'm reflecting on what made the garden so attractive and appealing.  Let's see, shall we.

Entering Le Jardin Plume for the first time!  Giddy, giddy, giddy!  

Entering Le Jardin Plume for the first time!  Giddy, giddy, giddy!  

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Le Jardin Plume, which translates as The Feather Garden, was started by Patrick and Sylvie Quibel approximately 20 years ago.  Fortunately, they were there the day we visited, and as we braved a light mist, Patrick was able to share some perspective about the garden in French.  Thanks to our group leader Aristea translating his introduction, we better understood the history and essence of the garden.  I offer a typed, paraphrased version of his videoed dialogue for you below.  

Patrick Quibel chatted with us about Le Jardin Plume's origins and design.  

Patrick Quibel chatted with us about Le Jardin Plume's origins and design.  

There was no garden. It was just basically land with apple trees and lambs that would eat the grass. This is flat, windy land. Because of the wind, we have a lot of walls of hedges, and because we like fantasy, we cut them. This part beyond this garden is something constructed but at the same time gives total freedom to the plants.

We kept the Norman style garden in the middle because we didn’t want to touch that, but then we kept the alleys and the structure on the other side. Where you will be seeing the big squares with the high vegetation, we are trying to reintroduce diversity into the vegetation. Those plants are from around here. We are taking seeds from nature and reintroducing them to the garden. We introduce plants from outside from now and again, like the Camassia from North America, the blue and white. But, the blue are over for the season, and you are going to see that the whites are in bloom now. They are from North America.

In the gardens, there is one central one, and they are all around. They all have a different theme. This is the beginning of the season, so the plants are still small. It’s going to flourish progressively, and it’s going to come more and more during the spring and then the summer and some of them even in the autumn.

The garden behind you gives the name to the entire garden. It’s the feather garden. Feather means light. And, that’s why there’s a lot of plants that are high and flexible. They grow quite high. There [in the spring garden] the theme is spring. Over there is colors. You have red and blue. In the garden we are planting herbaceous and graminae plants [grasses]. And, on the west side you have the fall garden, so you will have to come back mid-September and see it. [Everyone chuckled.] And the last one behind the fence is one called the flower garden.

But, it’s not worked on like in Giverny. In here we are trying to work in a very natural way as close to nature as possible. We have a lot of flowers, annual flowers, biennial flowers, perennial flowers, all mixed together. We have a lot of grass alleys and higher grass. We only cut it off once in the growing season.

And, around the back isn’t very visible because the grasses are quite small at the moment, but the graminae are grasses from North America. Sporobolus. Panicum. Andropogon. In North America you have many herbaceous plants that are very interesting. In our garden, we introduce plants that come from everywhere. Not just France. But, we still manage to give it a very natural look.
— Patrick Quibel

I asked one question.  "What was your inspiration?  Why did you do this?"  Patrick replied, 

we like classical French gardens. And [André] Le Nôtre gardens and 17th centruy gardens and Germanic-Dutch type gardens. Also, American gardens by Oehme and van Sweden.

One final note to keep in mind.  He also shared with us that day that they and another helper care for the garden.  That's it.  I was amazed with all they were able to accomplish and manage with so little, and you can tell they put their heart and soul into the garden's design.  In my opinion what made the garden so successful design-wise is the contrast and harmonies created through the use of plants and hardscaping.  

CONTRAST

The juxaposition of the formal with the informal created beautiful drama.  This approach repeated itself time and time again in the gardens, usually via some straight or curved line etched by man against a wilder, more natural look.

From entering the garden from the nursery area, the orchard was immediately visible where rectangular patches of wild grasses and flowering plants dotted the countryside between fresh mown turf.  No formal border existed between the tall and short grass; the legibility came only from a mower blade.  It was a reversal of the farmed fields and untouched fencerows that comprise the surrounding countryside.  Here in the orchard, the tamed surrounded the wildness. 

A view of the orchard and the meadow patches.  A perennial bed featuring Aquilegia (columbine) is in the foreground.  

A view of the orchard and the meadow patches.  A perennial bed featuring Aquilegia (columbine) is in the foreground.  

To the right of the entrance was a perfectly manicured hedge of Buxus (boxwood) shaped like waves cresting and crashing on the sea.  Yet, this wall was stoic and served as a backdrop for various herbaceous flowers and grasses that swayed in the breeze.  As Patrick noted above, this area is also referred to as the Feather Garden and gives Le Jardin Plume it's name. 

Patrick's description of the hedge pruning as fantasy was spot on.  The shape resembles the back of a dragon from a fairy tale.  

Patrick's description of the hedge pruning as fantasy was spot on.  The shape resembles the back of a dragon from a fairy tale.  

Just like at the beach, I could sit here and look at those choppy waves all day long.  

Just like at the beach, I could sit here and look at those choppy waves all day long.  

A view of the Feather garden.  The boxwood hedges really frame the planting and segregate it from blending into the the wild beyond.  

A view of the Feather garden.  The boxwood hedges really frame the planting and segregate it from blending into the the wild beyond.  

A close up of the plants in the feather garden.  I spy Thalictrum (meadow rue) and Aquilegia in flower.  

A close up of the plants in the feather garden.  I spy Thalictrum (meadow rue) and Aquilegia in flower.  

Near the house, clipped boxwood were planted to provide a maze-like structure for other perennials to grow inside.  The plantings they contained were not quite as wild and wooly as the area by the boxwood waves. 

Close to the house, topiaried box provide a framework for rambunctuous perennials.  

Close to the house, topiaried box provide a framework for rambunctuous perennials.  

And, the lines in the boxwood PERFECTLY aligned with the primary axes in the orchard.  I found myself asking, "Is this Heaven?!"  (It was certainly not Iowa.)  These manmade, straight lines contrasted with the naturally gnarly apple trees in the orchard beyond.  

 
Those perfect lines that lead the eye to the horizon!  How is this even humanly possible?!

Those perfect lines that lead the eye to the horizon!  How is this even humanly possible?!

 

In two areas of the landscape, the square blocks of turf were replaced by square ponds.  Again, another contrast was used—same shape, different medium.  These small reflecting pools acted as mirrors and made the garden feel larger.   

 
An apple tree is reflected in one of the small square ponds at Le Jardin Plume.  White Camassia (camas) flowers in the forefront.  

An apple tree is reflected in one of the small square ponds at Le Jardin Plume.  White Camassia (camas) flowers in the forefront.  

 

REPETITION

While contrast created drama, repetition of key elements and themes provided harmony and united the garden as a whole.  The shape of the square continually popped up throughout the landscape from the square-shaped plots in the orchard, the edged turf under the apple trees, the reflecting pools, the Miscanthus cloister, and the right angles in the formal boxwood by the house. 

Square-shaped meadows, and just beyond one can see the small reflecting pool.  

Square-shaped meadows, and just beyond one can see the small reflecting pool.  

What catches your eye first?  The topiaried boxwood wave in the background or the square-shaped edging around the apple tree?

What catches your eye first?  The topiaried boxwood wave in the background or the square-shaped edging around the apple tree?

In spring it is easy to see that the Miscanthus cloister pond mimics the shape of the just emerging grass rectangles in the background, but by summer this view will vanish once the grasses rise.    

In spring it is easy to see that the Miscanthus cloister pond mimics the shape of the just emerging grass rectangles in the background, but by summer this view will vanish once the grasses rise.    

X marks the spot, forming an illusion of a square. 

X marks the spot, forming an illusion of a square. 

In the spring garden, repetition was also used with the roly-poly pruned boxwood, which provided a foil for the rampant Aquilegia (yet another contrast!). 

Bounce, bounce, bounce on round-mounds of box in the spring garden.  

Bounce, bounce, bounce on round-mounds of box in the spring garden.  

The natural look was everywhere in the garden, and Patrick and Sylvie are true artists at intermingling plants.  

The meadow squares utlized the matrix planting style where lower growing grasses and forbs provide a backdrop for other wildflowers and seasonal interest plants to pop out against.   

The meadow squares utlized the matrix planting style where lower growing grasses and forbs provide a backdrop for other wildflowers and seasonal interest plants to pop out against.   

The mixed planting style was employed not just in the orchard but also in other parts of Le Jardin Plume.  Here one sees more seasonal interest items near the nursery.    

The mixed planting style was employed not just in the orchard but also in other parts of Le Jardin Plume.  Here one sees more seasonal interest items near the nursery.    

Here, as in most mixed plantings, repetition created a sense of unity.  Grasses of some sort played a role in almost every garden.  White CamassiaPersicaria bistorta (bistort), and other spring-flowering forbs were used repeatedly in the squares to unite those disjunct areas, and Aquilegia were scattered to and fro in several different gardens. 

Glancing toward the house, one sees the haze of white Camassia bloom throughout the meadow patches.  

Glancing toward the house, one sees the haze of white Camassia bloom throughout the meadow patches.  

Another shot of white Camassia erupting from the grass matrix.  

Another shot of white Camassia erupting from the grass matrix.  

Here, white Camassia combine with pink Persicaria bistorta (possibly the cultivar 'Superba'?) in the meadow squares.  Notice that as you look further into the distance, you see less and less wildflowers.  

Here, white Camassia combine with pink Persicaria bistorta (possibly the cultivar 'Superba'?) in the meadow squares.  Notice that as you look further into the distance, you see less and less wildflowers.  

And, as you can see in the photo above, the repetition of apple trees in the orchard created a cadence. 

I also have to give them credit for the rustic farm look.  However, for them it was an actual farm, not something contrived from Pinterest.  The hardscape and buildings added an ancient and agrarian feel to the garden.  

A ruin serves as a backdrop for herbaceous plants like Angelica (angelica) and Allium schoenoprasum (chives).  

A ruin serves as a backdrop for herbaceous plants like Angelica (angelica) and Allium schoenoprasum (chives).  

 
Near the nursery, a lovely rustic nursery shed greets you.  Sidenote, Patrick shared with the students that he occasionally spends about two hours pulling weeds out of the gravel path that you see on the left.  

Near the nursery, a lovely rustic nursery shed greets you.  Sidenote, Patrick shared with the students that he occasionally spends about two hours pulling weeds out of the gravel path that you see on the left.  

 
A lone chair sitting by the house beckons visitors.  But, no time to sit.  We must see more of the garden!

A lone chair sitting by the house beckons visitors.  But, no time to sit.  We must see more of the garden!

THE PLANTS

The last note on design I'll share is the plant material.  I found some old and new floral friends in the garden. 

They used one of my absolute favorite plants at Le Jardin Plume—Allium siculum (honey garlic).  I love how the umbels resemble an upside down chandelier.  I delight in seeing it in gardens further north and abroad, but how I hate that it's not a perennial for us in the deep south.  The flowers were a bit pinker than I'm used to seeing which made me wonder whether it was a subspecies or different cultivar.  Do you know?

As Sia sings, seeing Allium siculum in a garden makes me want to swing from a chandelier.  Chan-de-li-er!!!

As Sia sings, seeing Allium siculum in a garden makes me want to swing from a chandelier.  Chan-de-li-er!!!

Briza maxima (quaking grass) was a new grass for me.  The little inflorescences look like little cocoons all hanging from a thread. 

 
le-jardin-plume-briza-020517
 

And, there were several double types of Aquilegia, which brought a cheerfulness to the gardens.

Double Aquilegia have self sown in abundance in the autumn garden.  

Double Aquilegia have self sown in abundance in the autumn garden.  

Some of the double Aquilegia I found in the garden looked like Ikea Knappa light fixtures!  From discussions on Facebook, Caleb Melchior and Jason Chen suggested this might be 'Christa Barlow' or perhaps a seedling of the series.   

Some of the double Aquilegia I found in the garden looked like Ikea Knappa light fixtures!  From discussions on Facebook, Caleb Melchior and Jason Chen suggested this might be 'Christa Barlow' or perhaps a seedling of the series.   

Alas, all good garden visits must come to an end, and as we left, we passed their expansive nursery.  I do wish I could have brought some plants back with me.  Perhaps next time!

The nursery at Le Jardin Plume.  How many suitcases did I bring?!

The nursery at Le Jardin Plume.  How many suitcases did I bring?!

As I think about it now, I revel with the word imagery of Patrick and Sylvie calling this plot of terra firma The Feather Garden.  Feathers are what allow birds to grasp the heavens and have inspired man and woman throughout the ages to soar higher, as John Magee, Jr. says to "slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."  Similarly, their creation and stewardship has elevated horticulture.  I remember leaving the garden that day on cloud nine, and still months later I feel inspired having visited.  More importantly, I believe that Le Jardin Plume has ruffled the way that our students view plants and gardens for the better, and I thank Patrick and Sylvie for their experience.  

Reckoning with Foliage

In my studies of mixed plantings, I've noticed that bulbs are frequently prescribed to add flavor to the plant recipes.  And, why not?  You've gotta love the little, ephemeral jewels!  Just a few can add spice and zing to a garden, and no matter the season, it seems some are always popping out of the earth, blooming feverishly, or returning to the ground from whence they came.  

In horticulture design we often use geophytes—plants that return every year from underground storage organs—to fill a niche, whether it's a place or a time in the garden when little else is in flower.  Take spring, for example.  Bulb foliage and then bloom carpets the ground long before anything else has barely emerged from winter slumber. 

Tulipa ‘Orange Emperor’ (tulip) and Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ (grape hyacinth) jump out of their beds in the gravel garden at Chanticleer in Wayne, PA while other perennials keep pushing snooze.  This photo was taken in late April 2014. 

Tulipa ‘Orange Emperor’ (tulip) and Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ (grape hyacinth) jump out of their beds in the gravel garden at Chanticleer in Wayne, PA while other perennials keep pushing snooze.  This photo was taken in late April 2014. 

Early Narcissus mix and mingle in one of Greg Grant's bulb prairies in Arcadia, TX.  Note that this photo of bulbs blooming in the south was taken on 12 February 2017, a full two months earlier in the year than the photo above.   

Early Narcissus mix and mingle in one of Greg Grant's bulb prairies in Arcadia, TX.  Note that this photo of bulbs blooming in the south was taken on 12 February 2017, a full two months earlier in the year than the photo above.   

In thinking of how to integrate bulbs into matrix-style plantings here in the deep south, that's where I've hit a snag—the foliage.  For us, spring bulbs are winter bulbs, often having finished flowering long before the vernal equinox.   And, if they are flowering that early in the year, it means we need to back up even further for when the foliage actually emerges.  Many paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are already in their full greensleeves before Christmas, if not in bloom.  In fact, I noted one paperwhite that had it's foliar costume on right before Halloween on 19 October 2016 and was in subsequent bloom on 11 November 2016.  This time of the year is usually when people are planting bulbs, not watching them flourish and bloom!!!

 
A bee rests on the parchment-like petals of Narcissus papyraceus. 

A bee rests on the parchment-like petals of Narcissus papyraceus. 

 

The early bulb foliage presents a maintenance problem in a planting where a myriad of other grasses and forbs are. I'll quote Piet Oudolf and say that "brown is a color, too," and I don't think it is right to cut short our freeze-and-then-dried finale by removing winter interest very early to allow the bulb foliage to emerge.  I delight in seeing the ghosts of perennials past remain on into January.   But, if we wait to cut back, we risk damaging these recharging solar panels that keep the bulbs blooming, especially if a carte blanche cut is performed over an entire area. 

Those that use the designed plant community concept further north don't run into this problem.  For them, they get full die back in the fall and winter and then can have a massive clean up and/or mow down in the spring as Roy Diblik elegantly illustrates on his website.   (Thanks, Roy!)  The cold keeps the bulb foliage in check so that the two usually don't coincide.

So, how does one reckon with all this foliage?  More specifically, how shall we have our spring... or should I say winter display? 

 
Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo' (Chinese sacred lily) flowers and fades amongst blades of Panicum (switchgrass) foliage. It's brown vs green.  How do we in the deep south enjoy the architectural show of our winter grasses while integrating bulbs into mixed plantings?

Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo' (Chinese sacred lily) flowers and fades amongst blades of Panicum (switchgrass) foliage. It's brown vs green.  How do we in the deep south enjoy the architectural show of our winter grasses while integrating bulbs into mixed plantings?

 

Here's some ideas that I've had as I've pondered that question.

1.  Don't plant bulbs.  Hahahaha!  An option, yes.  But, it's quite boring.  Next. 

2.  Planting a later flowering speciesI really sank my teeth into searching for these bulbs.  I remember thinking, "Surely, there are later spring-flowering geophytes that will perform well here in Texas." 

Last winter (2016), I started noting every Narcissus that I could and the weeks I saw them in bloom.  Paperwhites started as early as December and continued into January.  Next, Narcissus italicus (minor monarque) began flowering in January along with Narcissus × odorus (campernelles), and finally, Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo', Narcissus tazetta 'Erlicheer', and Narcissus 'Ice Follies' (daffodil) were the last of the bunch, blooming throughout February.  This year, as of 10 February 2017, all of these were in flower.  Thanks to a visit this year to Greg Grant's gardens in Arcadia, TX, I can also add Narcissus jonquilla (jonquil), Narcissus pseudonarcissus (Lent lily), Narcissus × intermedius (Texas star), and Narcissus 'Carlton' (daffodil) to my list, which I've learned usually bloom in early-to-mid February here in east Texas.  From my local colleagues, I understand this parade of performances is typically what we experience here in east Texas.

A family photo of Narcissus that shows the wonderment of hybridization, all thanks to the handy work of Greg Grant.  He arranged; I photographed.  From left to right:  Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo', Narcissus × intermedius, Narcissus jonquilla, Narcissus × odorus, and Narcissus pseudonarcissus.  Those noted with a hybrid '×' in their name exhibit intermediate characteristics between the two species on either side.  (Note:  Straight tazetta is the supposed parent for Narcissus × intermedius.)

A family photo of Narcissus that shows the wonderment of hybridization, all thanks to the handy work of Greg Grant.  He arranged; I photographed.  From left to right:  Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo', Narcissus × intermedius, Narcissus jonquilla, Narcissus × odorus, and Narcissus pseudonarcissus.  Those noted with a hybrid '×' in their name exhibit intermediate characteristics between the two species on either side.  (Note:  Straight tazetta is the supposed parent for Narcissus × intermedius.)

 
The buttery yellow coronas of Narcissus × italicus

The buttery yellow coronas of Narcissus × italicus

 
Narcissus × odorus, a vigorous hybrid for the southeast originating from crosses of Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus jonquilla.  Occasionally, these geophytes will throw up flowers that have less than six petals.  Do you spy any in the photograph above?

Narcissus × odorus, a vigorous hybrid for the southeast originating from crosses of Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus jonquilla.  Occasionally, these geophytes will throw up flowers that have less than six petals.  Do you spy any in the photograph above?

 
'Erlicheer' is one of the last Narcissus to flower in the deep south.  Overall, double forms of Narcissus are usually later than their single counterparts.  

'Erlicheer' is one of the last Narcissus to flower in the deep south.  Overall, double forms of Narcissus are usually later than their single counterparts.  

 

I also considered species other than NarcissusLeucojum aestivum (summer snowflake) is definitely a candidate.  As of 10 January 2017, it's foliage was a mere four-to-six inches out of the ground.  Last year when we had a mild winter, these beauties were in bloom on 29 January 2016 with their full accompaniment of foliage.  This year, I observed the first bloom on 2 February 2017.  

Summer snowflakes are winter snowflakes in zone 8.  

Summer snowflakes are winter snowflakes in zone 8.  

Muscari neglectum (starch hyacinth) is on my list, too.  Right now, it's stringy foliage is starting to poke up, and last year, it was in bloom on 20 March 2016. 

I believe that Tulipa clusiana (lady tulip) and its cultivars would work as well.  While I haven't trialled them in the ground in Nacogdoches yet besides what I grow in containers, I have reports that they grow well in Houston, much further south than us. 

The blushed-red and buttery petals of Tulipa clusiana 'Cynthia' look almost candy-like.

The blushed-red and buttery petals of Tulipa clusiana 'Cynthia' look almost candy-like.

For the majority of the other early spring species, it's either too hot or too wet for them.  However, thanks to Brent and Becky's Bulbs, we are trialling some additional types to see if there are others out there that will perform well for us. 

3.  Cutting Time.  If we can't change the plant palette, perhaps we can adapt the timing of our cut to fit the plant's growth to avoid damaging bulb foliage.  But, this practice is going to have limited application because weather varies so much during the cooler months of the year.  During the 2015–2016 winter, it was so mild I had to finally cut grasses back in January that were still showing some green from the previous fall.  However, this winter, a cold snap on 6 January 2017 dropped us from 75°F to 25°F in one day and was followed by two nights of 16°F and 18°F.  This arctic blast killed many of our perennials down to the ground.  Some years we'll have die back, and other years we might not.  Because of varying weather conditions each winter, I don't believe that in the south we have the opportunity to wait and then cut everything back in one fell swoop like our friends up north if we include early season geophytes in our plantings.  If we wait for everything to die back, the bulb foliage may likely already be fully emerged.   

4.  Strategic Intermingling.  Instead, I believe that one will have to go in and edit the mixed planting as he or she sees fit.  That may add more work for those who are wishing to do large scale bulb and perennial plantings.  

And, this practice ties in well with my observations of plant growth here in Texas.  One of the climatic characteristics that has amazed me about living in zone 8b is that our growing season never really stops.  Last winter, I also noted what other species still looked good during the winter.  All winter long, Carex cherokeensis (Cherokee sedge) that we trialled from Hoffman Nursery looked absolutely incredible.  Even with the arctic plunge we had in early January 2017, the plant is still holding it's green.  

 
In the middle of winter, Carex cherokeensis keeps it's green. 

In the middle of winter, Carex cherokeensis keeps it's green. 

 

The foliage on our native Rudbeckia maxima (giant coneflower) is also surviving the winter like a champ.  The leaves barely show any sign of winter damage, and many plants are beginning to produce new foliage now for the spring.  

The foliage of these other perennials also presents a management challenge if included in matrix plantings.   Perhaps we could interplant bulbs whose leaves emerge early with some of these winter-foliage stalwarts?  Thus, we could combine plants that have similar cut back requirements.  

If it's green, do not clean.  If it's brown, cut it down.  

I believe that strategic intermingling is the best option to be able to maximize bulb foliage growth AND the winter interest display.  And, as we integrate this approach into our gardens, I'll report back to you. 


With the presence of bulb foliage in the gardens of the deep south, we may never have a slate that we can just fully erase in February for the new year like our northern counterparts.  But, we may not be the only area of the world reckoning with bulb foliage in the near future.  I asked Cassian Schmidt about the above conundrum when we spoke together at the Perennial Plant Conference in Swarthmore, PA last fall, and he told me they are also having to cut back foliage for their bulb emergence earlier and earlier at Hermannshof in Germany.  Even last year in London, Narcissus were in full flower in December, a surprising and startling observation in a world where temperatures are on the rise.  As a result we may have to begin adapting our gardening practices to the change.  

 

 

 

Food Prairies

I love the look of a prairie.  I'm not sure when the adoration began, but my earliest memory of taller-than-turf grasses is as a child walking on the back hill at my grandparent's house where my great-grandfather had allowed the vegetation to grow wild for a few seasons. 

I can see it now—my head barely bobbing out of the ocean of amber broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) as I trod along the paths I had tromped down.  It. Was. Fun. 

While the prairie at my grand-parents house is long gone, seeing grasslands like this one basking in the glow of sunset brings back memories of my childhood prairie rambles.  

While the prairie at my grand-parents house is long gone, seeing grasslands like this one basking in the glow of sunset brings back memories of my childhood prairie rambles.  

Parts of west Tennessee actually used to be tallgrass prairie, and that little patch of broomsedge on the hill was remnants of that ecosystem being expressed.  Now, it's uncommon to find a large patch of tallgrass in west Tennessee since much of the land is farmed.  You instead see traces of the prairie along the roadside and in fencerows, mere borders of the angular, agricultural puzzle pieces that cover the countryside.  Still, even these little slivers can be inspiring to a horticulturist such as myself, and on my driving trips to and fro, my eyes scan the open roadsides (very safely of course!) for plant patterns and new species. 

I believe this love of grasslands is why I have gravitated toward designed plant communities and mixed plantings of perennials that have really taken off within the past few years.  Seeing that people were actually wanting to create designed grasslands was and is thrilling for me as a horticulturist.  And, to be able to go and experience some of these designs over the past few years has been enlightening.  Inspiring.  Exciting. 

Piet Oudolf's Hummelo, a central nexus for the mixed planting movement.  Here, grasses and forbs seamlessly intermingle together and appear as if planted by nature. From my reading of Hummelo, I learned this planting where the nursery used to be is mainly derived from a seed mix.  

Piet Oudolf's Hummelo, a central nexus for the mixed planting movement.  Here, grasses and forbs seamlessly intermingle together and appear as if planted by nature. From my reading of Hummelo, I learned this planting where the nursery used to be is mainly derived from a seed mix.  

Flowering Echinacea (purple coneflower) and verdant Amsonia hubrichtii (threadleaf bluestar) on the High Line provide a foil to the metallic cityscape of New York City.  

Flowering Echinacea (purple coneflower) and verdant Amsonia hubrichtii (threadleaf bluestar) on the High Line provide a foil to the metallic cityscape of New York City.  

The rectangular meadow patches at Le Jardin Plume in France are anything but square.  

The rectangular meadow patches at Le Jardin Plume in France are anything but square.  

Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master) and Kniphofia 'Wet Dream' (red hot poker) erupt from the haze of muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) at Chanticleer's elevated walkway.

Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master) and Kniphofia 'Wet Dream' (red hot poker) erupt from the haze of muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) at Chanticleer's elevated walkway.

Now, I'm wanting to learn more about how do we create and employ these mixed plantings in the southeast US.  Much of the approach has been developed in regions further north, and I believe that the technique needs to be trialled and tweaked for the south.   Our habitat is different, our climate is different, and our species composition is different. 

And, in an attempt to learn, this semester my students and I will be designing grassland-style plantings in the Sprout garden on the campus at SFA.  With Sprout we focus on creating tangible growth for plants, students, and the community to bridge the gap between horticulture and people.  So far, we have found relevance with students and the locals though our growing food and cut flowers.   And, now part of this garden will be planted to provide food for beneficial insects like pollinators and predators.  Students care about sustainability, and designed plant communities are considered a more sustainable approach to landscaping

We call these areas food prairies, since the garden has been designed with food in mind AND because the areas will provide food and habitat for beneficial organisms.  The name arose one day in a conversation with my colleague Dawn Stover, another meadow aficionado.  I was telling her about how I wanted to plant perennials in the Sprout garden to make it more beautiful and to add habitat and resources for beneficial organisms, and she commented on how we would have food for people and food for our insect friends.  From that conversation, the name for these plantings just clicked.    

Of course, to know what will grow well in mixed plantings in the southeast, we must evaluate plants.  Thanks to trial material from Hoffman Nursery, Intrinsic Perennial Design, and Jelitto we've been able to assess many different species in unofficial trials like you see here.   

Of course, to know what will grow well in mixed plantings in the southeast, we must evaluate plants.  Thanks to trial material from Hoffman Nursery, Intrinsic Perennial Design, and Jelitto we've been able to assess many different species in unofficial trials like you see here.   

Since the Sprout garden is designed to resemble a reclaimed farm, the prairies will fit in quite nicely with our overall theme by resembling fencerows between fields.  After all, most agrarian areas have some type of wooly part or "idle spots" as Aldo Leopold called them where wildflowers and grasses bloom in the absence of disturbance.  Usually, these areas are rejects and castaways, but in our garden this flora will be planted on purpose.  Plus, research shows that having fencerows that have been enhanced with pollen- and nectar-rich plantings can reduce pest pressure in surrounding fields.  

I'll keep you posted on the food prairie's progress.  Conceptualizing them and designing them is exciting. The whole process makes me feel like a kid again.  

Cut flowers are not sustainable?

Maybe my students at SFA shouldn't create any more flower bouquets, you know, since they're not sustainable and will be thrown away.  Or, NOT.  

Maybe my students at SFA shouldn't create any more flower bouquets, you know, since they're not sustainable and will be thrown away.  Or, NOT.  

I read an interesting article about the absence of flowers at the Olympics.  Via Thrillist, "A Rio 2016 spokesperson said handing out tropical flowers to the athletes -- which would later be thrown away -- would be wasteful and not sustainable."

Wow, isn't that weird!?  Flowers, a renewable resource.  Not sustainable.  Hmm...

I'll admit at first I was angry, miffed that the Rio Olympics had degraded part of my hortiCULTURE into trash.  "Now we have to do yet ANOTHER marketing program...," I thought.

But, the quote’s peculiarity continued to eat at me.  What was it?  

I asked myself, "What if they are right?"  What if cut flowers are not sustainable?  I know there are qualms about the ways flowers are grown—fertilizers, pesticides, fair work practices, and transport to name a few.  Therefore, I would understand that kind of comment, and horticulture is working hard to remedy those growing challenges.

But, their perspective doesn’t seem to be centered on the production practices; it's on the flowers being thrown away.  Just like a bottle or old tire, it'll be tossed once it's used.  

The focus on flowers shouldn’t be the landfill.  They are part of the magic moments in our lives that feed our souls.  And, being so, they aren't sustainable because they will fade. 

So will a sunset.  A laugh.  A tree.  A life.  A shooting star.  An ice cream sundae.  A song.  A kiss.  A painting.  

These things each have a beginning and an end.  As Ben Rector says, "It's the walking in between" that make these treasures count.  The middle ground is where memories and the quality of life grow, and intangibles are sustainable. 

In this case I see common sense and sustainability as disjointed.  Ty Montague has taught me that every action an organization takes is part of its story, and the Rio Olympics committee's actions don't match their story.  

Are the flowers any less sustainable that the amount of resources that were used to make the trinkets that are now being given to the athletes with a sustainability sticker slapped onto the present?  I would love to see some of that data.  They could have done SO MUCH MORE with flowers and sustainability like wrap them in biodegradable sleeves, or start a flower composting program at the Rio Olympics.  

The essence of sustainability is to preserve the earth so that life is worth living.  A flowerless life is not.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruts in Grass

This afternoon as I walked my bicycle up a very steep hill near my house, I noticed riding lawn mower ruts in the grass of a neighbor's yard.  At first, one or two, but then more became visible as I rounded the corner.  

It was ironic.  In trying to beautify, they had made their property ugly.  A tool made to control had created a mess.  Of course, part of the reason why those ruts were there is because the slopes were WAY too steep for a rider.  

Questions began to swirl in my head.  Did the owners mow it?  Or, even worse did they hire a professional to do it?  I thought of analogies like how beauty chasers alter and ultimately destroy their bodies in a vain quest for looks or how in the pursuit... or make that the purchase of happiness drains not only the back account but the soul.  

Ultimately, the take away for me was there are tools in horticulture that make our lives easier.  But, we need to make sure that we are using the tools appropriately and that they are actually helping us accomplish our goal.  We are here to improve and enhance life—not destroy it.  

It is February, and I'm sure the scars will heal once the grass begins to grow again.  But, the mark on my mind stays.  

+++++++

Today, I saw Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) in bud and the first Vinca major (bigleaf periwinkle) blooms open.