A Frigid Autumnal Fritillary

I love the cool mornings of fall.  They are so invigorating.  Sure, the day may forget that it was ever in the 50's by 2 pm, but I don't.  I revel in them as I'm out and about enjoying this vacation from the heat that's blasted us all summer.  

However, other creatures that depend on ambient temperatures are a bit slower.  

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I remember one of the first cool mornings of fall last year I was out the door before sunrise to enjoy the coolness of the day.  My journal showed it was 54 degrees that morning, and I remember hardly a cloud in the sky.  Brisk and beautiful.

I began tackling my tasks, and inevitably this led to snapping some golden-hour photos.  My subject for the morning was to capture autumn color on my colleague Dawn Stover's ornamental grass collection at SFA.  As I let the shutter fly, a colorful blotch in one of the grasses caught my eye.

"Is that... a BUTTERFLY!?!?" I asked myself quite surprised.  I dashed to get a good photograph as if it were going to fly away, but I needn't rush.  Poor thing couldn't budge since it was so chilly.  It was a Gulf Fritillary. 

 
 

I was mesmerized by the idleness.  Butterflies are fleeting moments in the garden, and being able to snap a picture of them is like trying to photograph a ghost.  Yet, here was one frozen in time.  I paused to admire the minutiae that are usually a blur in flight—the autumn-colored regalia, the black-outlined white spots, and the curled proboscis.  

As I walked away, I savored the up close and incredible experience and thought about it being a once in a lifetime encounter.  I began to turn my attention back to the other grasses when I saw a SECOND one!  This time it had fastened itself onto Schizachyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation' (little bluestem).  

 
 
 
 

I was really perplexed as I've never seen butterflies roost before, and now I've discovered two in one morning?  A bit of research shows that indeed others have witnessed the phenomenon.  Grasses are a common perch for them overnight, yet another reason to add these stellar perennials to the garden.  

As I walked away, I thought how thankful I am of these chilly mornings that inevitably are winter's pregame.  We all know what comes next—frost and the close of the season.  Therefore, as cooler days descend on us, rise early and look for these little moments that add so much to our gardening life.  

 

Tendrils from Speaking of Gardening 2017

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In August I presented with several other outstanding horticulturists at the Speaking of Gardening Symposium in Asheville, NC.  It was a terrific educational event to attend in the mountains, jam-packed with great ideas and awesome plants.  Below I offer three "tendrils", paraphrased nuggets of knowledge or interesting thoughts that you can really wrap your mind around from each speaker.  

 

THOMAS RAINER | PLANTING IN A POST WILD WORLD

  1. Planting design in the public sector has to be legible at 45 miles an hour.
  2. With native plants there is so much focus on where they are from but not enough on how to cultivate them.  When people plant things and then see them fail, they get depressed. They blame native plants.
  3. Use tools like plants shape and plant sociability to determine how to combine plants together.  For example, everything about Asclepias tuberosa is an adaptation to where it grows and what it grows with. Deep roots grow through grass roots, and the leaves are able to emerge through shady areas in a prairie.  

ROY DIBLIK | BEYOND THE USUAL: PLANTING THE LURIE GARDEN WITH PIET OUDOLF

  1. When planting the Lurie Garden, I wasn’t accurate.  I stepped it off.  It took a day and a half to do the site. It's not a building; you don’t have to be super accurate.
  2. Teachers come in to help maintain the plantings with students.
  3. They selectively prune the Salvia river at the Lurie Garden.  If you cut Salvia 'May Night' back, it may never bloom again that year.  'Wesuwe' is the fastest rebloomer. If you cut it back, it reblooms in three weeks.

DAN LONG | GROW UP! USING VINES AND CLIMBERS

  1. Clematis need something slender to hang onto.  For other climbers don’t put anchors right up against the wall because the wrappers can't get through that narrow space. Also, being that close to the wall results in low air circulation.
  2. Campsis likes to bloom on horizontal stems or those that droop.
  3. Tropical Aristolochia species can kill pipe vine swallowtail larvae.

PATRICK MCMILLAN | BLURRING THE LINES BETWEEN NATURE AND CULTURE AT THE SOUTH CAROLINA BOTANICAL GARDEN

  1. Every decision we make at the South Carolina Botanic Garden we ask is this good for life.
  2. BOTANICA CAROLINIANA features letters from early explorers like Mark Catesby that have first hand accounts of South Carolina that were written to Britain.  These perspectives help us understand what South Carolina looked like back many years ago and in some cases helps us find where plants were and still are today.
  3. We filmed Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and captured the fastest video footage of them ever. These birds lift themselves because they flap their wings in a figure-eight motion, which generates lift on both the forward and reverse flap.  And, as you can see at the 1:50 mark, they can fly backwards and upside down!

THOMAS RAINER | THE GARDEN OF THE FUTURE: REIMAGINING THE AMERICAN YARD

  1. Turn wall-to-wall carpeting of grass into turf rugs.  The lawn can make the planting look better. It can be a frame to the wilder areas.  Use lawns like a clearing in a meadow.  
  2. Landscape plugs are best for designed plant communities. Most plugs are grown as liners and sold to pot up; thus, liners can dry out fast in the ground.  Deep landscape plugs are longer and deeper.  Make sure that the plugs have good roots.  They can be soaked in buckets or trays before planting. 
  3. Many perennials maintain green rosettes or basal foliage during winter so that winter weeds like chickweed can't grow.

LARRY MELLICHAMP | THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF FERNS

  1. Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) gets it's name because it is sensitive to freeezing and can burn from cold temperatures.
  2. Ferns can be divided when actively growing.  SUPER IMPORTANT (His emphasis).  Do not disturb the roots and cut off leaves at same time.  You can do either/or but not both.  Broken fronds can still function well.
  3. Lycopodium spores are pyrotechnic!  Light them, and they explode!  The spores were used to make fireworks. 

ROY DIBLIK | THE KNOW MAINTENANCE PERENNIAL GARDEN

  1. First year, install the matrix, and then you keep plugging things in to enhance it over time.
  2. You can wait and plant aggressive plants like Solidago after five years to reduce their competitiveness.
  3. I spray the grass with glyphosate, and then I use a two cycle engine and auger to install the plants into the ground.

Finding a Home

Gardeners are frequently faced with a compelling question—where can I find a home for this new plant I've just purchased on a whim?!  The garden is so full that often no spot can be found. 

I face the opposite problem.  I have thousands of square feet available to me, which in a way creates the paradox of choice.  There are so many places it almost hinders me from planting anything.  Almost.  

My solution has been to put some plants into a holding trial garden to see how they fair in the ground while others are placed in permanent locations.  I'm planting the latter with purpose by citing in favorable growing conditions where they can be enjoyed and will fit my larger overall design scheme.

Edgeworthia papyifera 'Winter Gold' (paper bush) was the first one I wanted in the ground.  I brought it with me from the Pi Alpha Xi plant sale in North Carolina when I moved in July 2014 because it's one of my absolute favorite shrubs, and I was worried I might not find it in Texas.  Why do I like it, you ask?  During the growing season, the large tropicalesque, pubescent leaves collect water and refract rainbows in the tiny, liquid diamonds.  Then, in the winter fuzzy buds that look like dozens of little dog noses huddled together in the cold swell and open to reveal fragrant canary yellow blooms.   The plant also has quite the story.  The Japanese make bank notes and paper (hence the name paper bush) out of this beautiful shrub, which I liken to using the Mona Lisa as toilet paper.  I appreciate the utilitarian purposes of plants, but I cherish the blossoms so much I would never think of destroying a branch. 

Since I purchased it, the plant has grown to be 3–4 ft tall and prone to drying down.  It's ready to go in the ground, but where to put it?

Diamonds are forever on Edgeworthia chrysantha.  Or, at least till the dew dries off. 

Diamonds are forever on Edgeworthia chrysantha.  Or, at least till the dew dries off. 

 
The flowers of Edgeworthia chrysantha face downward, likely an adaptation to protect the pollen from rain.  If you lay on the ground (like I did for this vantage), the glorious chandelier of flowers glows in the winter sun.  Don't forget to brush the leaves off your bum when you stand back up, though!    

The flowers of Edgeworthia chrysantha face downward, likely an adaptation to protect the pollen from rain.  If you lay on the ground (like I did for this vantage), the glorious chandelier of flowers glows in the winter sun.  Don't forget to brush the leaves off your bum when you stand back up, though!    

 

As I wrote in a previous post, I've already begun sectioning the 2.5 acres here into smaller parcels, and the front yard will be a winter garden that will feature color, fragrance, and interest during the dark season.  We have a large wrap-around porch to enjoy the outside—summers in the back and winters in the front.  Also, our master bedroom windows face this area, and what we plant will be easily enjoyed regardless of the weather. 

I hoisted the 12 gallon faux terra cotta pot in my hand out of my make shift nursery.  It was light and needed some moisture.  I walked around to the front yard and sited it in the shrub border that runs the length of the front part of the property.  There are several openings where we want shrubs to grow to block the view from the road.  I chose a gap beneath a large, weathered Juniperus virginiana (eastern red cedar) and plopped the shrub down.  I walked to the front door, the swing on the front porch, and the bedroom window to make sure it was in the line of sight from each view.  I walked back to the transplant and pulled it out just a tad from the shrub border to make room behind for an evergreen.  I imagined the flowers popping against the verdant foliage of a future Osmanthus or Camellia.  

I dug the hole, the shovel slicing through the sandy loam like a hot knife through butter.  I chuckled to myself that with my 27 years of gardening experience in sub-par soils that I've leveled up enough to reach soil heaven!

I took the plant out of the pot and looked at the roots.  I was surprised at the absence of any circulating.  They all looked healthy and growing downward.  I teased them slightly. 

I put the rootball in the hole.  Too deep.  Pull out.  More soil in.  Rootball back in the hole.  Perfect.  I made sure the pretty side was facing the house. 

We were left a nice long 100 ft hose with the house, and I hooked it up and drug the nozzle to the gaping hole.  I turned the water on a slow trickle and walked away to find more homes for my weary plant travelers that have journeyed with me from place to place.  It is dry, and I want to make sure that the plant has enough water to get it adjusted.  When I returned, the hole runneth over, and I turned the spigot off. 

I started to return the soil to the hole, it slurping as it sank to the bottom.  Once finished, I let it settle, and I turned the water on again a bit later to further remove any air pockets. 

This process, digging a hole and planting a plant, is something I've done a thousand times (nay, 10,000?!  100,000!?!?) in my life.  But, this time, this first planting at our new home, feels extra special.  I've been a container gardening vagabond, travelling from place to place, accumulating plants as I've moved about.  Some have not made the entire journey, but for those that have, it's going to be fun finding them their homes just like I've found mine. 

Settle in for the long haul, paperbush.  It's gardening time!

Settle in for the long haul, paperbush.  It's gardening time!

 

 

Dyeing to Learn

During the Perennial Plant Association's symposium this year, we visited Chatfield Farms, a beautiful extension of the Denver Botanic Gardens with an agricultural twist.  Here in the farm's productive, flat fields surrounded by towering mountains, we learned about agricultural education and food production that occurs in the greater Denver area.  I was inspired by seeing the short grass prairie and other perennials planted, but one section of the garden really impressed me because it was different than anything I've ever seen in a garden.  

Eventually we came to an area surrounded by a fence.  I didn't know exactly what was inside, but from the table set up outside and the colorful cloths displayed, I quickly put two and two together.  It was a demonstration garden for educating people about how fabrics are dyed.  

The Chatfield Farms dye garden featured a variety of common garden plants that can be used to color-change clothes.

The Chatfield Farms dye garden featured a variety of common garden plants that can be used to color-change clothes.

I immediately fell in love with it!  The whole concept.  I'm always looking for new ways to connect people to horticulture, and right now plants fulfilling utilitarian purposes are a gateway for reaching people who aren't horticulturists or gardeners.  Also, kids these days seem to change their hair color every time they wash it, and the link between dyeing your locks and dyeing your socks could could be another connection with young people.  

Using plants as dyes is always something that I've know can be done.  Colors have come from plants and been used for thousands of years, but to see it so eleqantly displayed was engaging.  

The carpeting Coreopsis matches the drapes.  Simple scraps of cloth hung near each color's source offers a teachable moment.  

The carpeting Coreopsis matches the drapes.  Simple scraps of cloth hung near each color's source offers a teachable moment.  

A sphere made from dyed strips of wood demonstrates that the craft isn't just limited to cloth.  

A sphere made from dyed strips of wood demonstrates that the craft isn't just limited to cloth.  

 
A close-up of the colorful wood slivers.  

A close-up of the colorful wood slivers.  

 
 
A variety of threads dyed from a plethora of plant pigments.

A variety of threads dyed from a plethora of plant pigments.

 
 
Indigo. Cerulean. Salmon. Russet.  The blue- and pink- colored threads were my favorites, and I was amazed to realize that all these colors can come from nature.  

Indigo. Cerulean. Salmon. Russet.  The blue- and pink- colored threads were my favorites, and I was amazed to realize that all these colors can come from nature.  

 

The educational aspect of the garden really enchanted me.  As a professor of horticulture at an agricultural college, it made me ask how can we replicate this approach throughout the gardening and natural world because the experience left me dyeing to learn more.  

 

 

Delightful Plants from Denver

Now that our house move is over, I'm reflecting on photos from this past summer like July's Perennial Plant Symposium in Denver.  I wanted to share a few plants that two months later still impress me.  Some were old friends, and others were new acquaintances that I'm dying to try here in Texas.  

SESELI GUMMIFERUM (MOON CARROT)

The nebulous foliage and flowers of Seseli gummiferum just inside the entrance of the Denver Botanic Garden made myself and many others starry-eyed.  I first encountered it at Wave Hill a few years ago and tried to grow some from seed in Texas.  Alas, it never germinated for me from a fall sowing.  Seeing these great growing plants has inspired me to try it again and figure out the germination minutiae.  

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That's no moon!  It's a moon carrot!  

That's no moon!  It's a moon carrot!  

SOLIDAGO 'CROWN OF RAYS' (goldenrod)

The Denver Botanic Garden herb garden looked—and smelled—fantastic, and brightening the beds was a dwarf goldenrod.  A member of PPA identified it as Solidago 'Crown of Rays'.  I love goldenrods that aren't too thuggish, and I added it to my wish list of cultivars to trial for the southeast.

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Solanum wendlandii (giant potato creeper)

Scrambling through a planter near the greenhouses was a new-to-me tropical climber, Solanum wendlandii.  The lilac, half-dollar sized flowers really stood out from a distance and harmonized well with the diversity of textures and colors in the planting.  

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Jarava ichu (Peruvian feathergrass)

I had never heard of this species before, but the smoky wisps remind me of a more plumose Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'.  It was beautiful watching the panicles dancing in the dry, mountain breeze.

 
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Lonicera 'Kintzley's Ghost' (honeysuckle)

I met Lonicera 'Kintzley's Ghost' last year at Chanticleer for the first time, and it seemed to be growing well in Denver, too.  The gray-powdered bracts give a much longer season of interest even in absence of the flowers.  

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Epilobium canum ssp. garrettii 'Orange Carpet' (California Fuchsia)

California fuchsia.  Roughly translated, instant death in the heat and humid south?  Perhaps, but it's worth admiring in Denver as a groundcover with red flowers.  

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Oenothera macrocarpa (Bigfruit evening primrose)

Hubba hubba!  I've professed my love for evening primroses before, and you can certainly add Oenothera macrocarpa to that list. While I couldn't find a label on some of the plants I photographed, this might be the cultivar 'Silver Blade', although the foliage in the background looks a little less silvery.

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catananche caerulea (cupid's dart)

Cupid's dart in Washington Park was a new plant for me, and it looks like a chicory on steroids.  Ruth Rogers Clausen was standing nearby as I snapped away, and she said that it used to be as common as dirt years ago.  

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CRAMBE MARITIMA (SEA KALE)
¡Ay, crambe!  I delighted seeing the glaucous blue foliage of this plant in Washington Park.  I've lusted after this species for a while for it's giant leaves, and I finally have seeds to try this fall!  No, I didn't steal them from the plant below.  

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SALVIA PACHYPHYLA (Mojave Sage)

This plant stopped me in my tracks.  Holy.  Cow.  I'll pause for a second while you take a look at it.  

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SEE!!!  Blue-green foliage adorned by mulberry-colored bracts and purple flowers.  I want to grow this so bad...  Maybe it would live in the southeast?  Also, I rubbed the foliage and discovered it's covered in oils.  

IPOMOPSIS RUBRA (STANDING CYPRESS)

I enjoyed seeing this Texas native in Colorado as did several people on our tour bus.  While we were photographing away, a hummingbird flitted down and perused some flowers.  We grew this in our trial garden this summer, and I've already been at work scattering seed for next year.  

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Vernonia lindheimeri var. leucophylla (Wooly IronweeD)

Wowzers... it's like a plant covered in gray suede. Evidently, it's a Texas native, and I cannot wait to try this in Nacogdoches.   Can you imagine it dotted with purple flowers?

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Homeowners... and Garden Owners

I am ecstatic!!!  Karen and I have purchased a beautiful log cabin just outside Nacogdoches!!!  And, in the process, we've gotten a school-of-hard-knocks education in house buying.  There were times we thought the whole process would fall through, but it all worked out in the end.  

 
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But, that's not all…  the house came with 2.5 acres of land!!!  Approximately an acre of it is shaded with mature trees, and the rest is open turf, ripe for planting various woodies and forbs.  Holy.  Cow.   

It's so much fun to think about finally having a place of our own that we can tend to and transform.   I love finally using design techniques and themes that I've taught for years and did at clients' houses to our own place.  And, it's amazing to be cognizant of all the iterations my brain has as I really ponder the genius of the place. What does a landscape in east Texas look like?  How can it be functional, beautiful, and ecological?

First, I'm considering views from the house.  Where can we stick plants to enjoy them inside and out?  Also, there's a spacious wrap-around porch that surrounds most of the house, save for the garage, and I'm dreaming of beautiful vistas that can be enjoyed from these outside sitting areas.

 
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From a brief survey of the property, I already know that I want an edible garden by the kitchen.  Karen has already made a long two-column list of all the edibles she'd like to grow here.  I'm up to the challenge.  Yes, sometimes vegetable garden areas can look a little rough, so how can I make it beautiful year-round with foodscaping?  Or, perhaps we use this space for edibles for a year or two and then transform it into another type of garden all the while creating a larger edible garden out back.

 
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The north and east sides of the garage and the back porch, respectively, create guidelines for a large rectangular area where I'd like to kill the turf and create an entertaining space.  I envision a fire pit off to the side with seats around and perhaps some wooden tables scattered about for succulents. 

 
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There are no gutters on the house, so I'm considering some type of short ornamental grass groundcover that could take the rain coming off the roof.   Having this feature has become even more apparent with Hurricane Harvey dumping rain on the house a few weeks ago.

To the west of the garage, there is a slight slope and a large back lawn that receives abundant sun.  I detest mowing large spaces, and these areas will give way to gardens such as a larger production vegetable garden for corn, pumpkins, etc.; a moveable hoophouse; an orchard type space for figs and muscadines; a cut flower garden; and of course, a mixed planting prairie. 

 
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To the east of the house is a glade framed by large oak trees.  I understand this area was the old home place.  The mature trees form a nice backdrop for another outdoor entertaining area, perhaps a place where bocce ball or croquet could be played.  However, the glade is currently populated with an arboretum-like scattering of various immature woodies like Vitex, Punica, Camellia, Spiraea, and others.  I plan to move these to open the area up, and it will also help create a long vista from the front of the house.  Karen has mentioned wanting a white garden somewhere on the property, and whites at the end of the glade would help to pull the eye through this garden.  

 
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In front of the house and to the east are more mature trees and shrubs in a line by the road.  I'm already calling this planting the shrub border where I can plant a variety of plants over the coming years.  Directly in front of the house are a few Camellias, and I see this area becoming the winter garden.  The front porch would be a great place to sit on warm winter days, and I've had an Edgeworthia cramped in a pot for long enough. 

 
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South of the line of woodies the land slopes off suddenly for about a four-foot drop.  My guess is that this bank may have been the side of an old road bed since it looks like the ditches that flank roads back home in Tennessee.  We were walking by it the other night, and I commented it would be a great place to plant daffodils and other shade-loving ephemerals.

 
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My mind also drifts to the problems we will have, mainly in the way of deer.  The lady who previously owned the property actually fed them corn!  No more of that.  And, we've found in our backyard evidence from pigs roughing the soil up, too.

But, even with the potential problems, the possibilities here seem endless.  (Did I mention the soil looks like sandy loam!?!  The shovel cuts right through it!)  But, enough writing for today.  I've been a container gardening nomad for long enough.  It's time to go out and garden. 

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.