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.