What is it that makes gardens like the Lurie so alluring? Dr. Jared reflects on this incredible naturalistic planting from the Perennial Plant Association Symposium earlier this summer.Read More
Dr. Jared reflects on his visit to Northwind Perennial Farm and the wisdom Roy Diblik shared about perennial plantings.Read More
“I’m probably the only person in Texas doing this. Well, let’s be honest, Jared. Probably the whole US.”
I chuckled talking to myself as my shovel loosened the eighth clump of spring beauty from a bed in my vegetable patch. With a sunny afternoon and the return of warmer temperatures, the flowers were beginning to explode and made finding them easier. I stood up with the transplant, paused to pull off any weeds that still had purchase in the loosened soil, and reached underneath to check and make sure the corm was there and intact. It was.
I smiled thinking about someone else moving this plant because who would waste their time relocating these little guys? Spring beauty by itself isn’t super showy. The flowers are maybe the size of a dime, and they are finicky opening and closing with the day or rainy weather conditions. However, looking up at my yard I was reminded why my fingers were coated in the warming winter muck; drifts of pale pink flowers wafted in the breeze. And, I couldn’t stand the thought of harming any of them, even if this area was where I would be cultivating vegetables.
I have adored spring beauty since I first observed it growing in someone’s yard down the road from our house in Tennessee. I was amazed at this tiny white bloom that abundantly covered their entire front lawn every spring. Why couldn’t our homeplace look like that? I didn’t know the plant at first. I kept wanting to stop and look at it more closely to ascertain its identity, but soon I found it growing in a nearby woods and collected a few to take back to my garden. I had turned an interesting-looking stranger into a friend by finally meeting Claytonia virginica.
The few I transplanted those many years ago don’t even begin to compare with the thousands that now grow in my Texas yard. I didn’t know they were here when I chose this location for the edible patch, hence my moving them now to a bed that needs more early spring color and vegetation. I didn’t even know they were here at all when we bought the house in August 18 months ago! But, when the first frost erased the turf’s chlorophyll and created a mosaic of tans, thin strips of purple foliage caught my eye. The Claytonia was slathering on some anthocyanins for winter sunscreen. And, as the winter unfolded into spring, I would see it was everywhere as it came into full bloom.
In Tennessee this species became my herald of spring and a sign of warmer days to come. But, here in Texas I have caught it blooming even before the onset of winter. In 2017 I noted the first bloom on 05 December, and this past year, I caught two separate plants flowering just shy of the solstice on the 16 of December. As an ephemeral, it must use its 15 minutes on stage wisely to grow, flower and set seed, and store energy before the canopy closes. After that, the plant vanishes until the show returns next year. Therefore, it makes sense that through natural selection it start performing as early as it can.
I’ve learned much about spring beauty in recent years both digging in the soil and the literature. There is a single corm from which the flowers and foliage arises. Some sources will label it a bulb or a tuber, but from what I’ve deduced a corm more accurately reflects the circular storage organ. The flowers grow out and then up from the mature corm, which gives the appearance of the shoots arising in a circle while the foliage tends to emerge straight upwards. So, if you decide to move some from the lawn, take care not to slice through the shoots. I like to sink the shovel in the soil on the outside of a clump and lift. Then, I take care to settle the plant back in to the same depth.
I have often thought of spring beauty as the deep south’s alternative for Galanthus. We have a sparse selection of geophytes due to our lack of chilling. Yes, the flowers are smaller, but their bloom time lasts longer than snowdrops due to a dozen of flowers on one raceme. Claytonia virginica also has color variation within a population. You will likely see white-flowering and dark-pink-flowering plants in the same area with color morphs along that gradient. Research done in 2004 sheds light on why. Pollinators prefer dark-pink-colored flowers; thus, with natural selection you would expect to see the population flower color get darker and darker pink over time. If pollinators prefer a color, that usually means more pollination, more seed set, and more individuals expressing that trait in the population. However, the white flowers get their coloration from compounds like quercetin and kaempferol. These molecules protect the plant from herbivory and fungal infection. It’s a really fascinating look at different selection pressures maintaining variation in a population. One plant I moved had darker pink flowers has some rust-like disease on the leaves. Maybe this research explains why!
And speaking of pollinators, since spring beauty blooms so early, it makes a good model species for studying early spring behavior of bugs. One paper I read demonstrated that 22 species of insects visited the flowers over a two-year observation period. Filaments (the structures supporting the pollen-loaded stamens) that reflect UV light no doubt light up the runway for our antennaed friends. Humans used to depend on them, too. A student once taught me that Native Americans once dug them and ate them.
It’s been a few weeks since I transplanted the Claytonia, and they are settling in nicely. I enjoy walking out the door and seeing them a stones throw away. With spring on the rise, other tasks call for me in the garden, but know that next year when they emerge again, I’ll find loners that need to be relocated from cultivated beds to less disturbed and more permanent plantings. One day my garden beds will look look a little less barren and like the lawn will be dusted with this spring beauty, too.
Today, we mowed the food prairies, our prototype herbaceous plantings at SFA. I was hoping to wait till January 22nd to have a lab the first week of class and teach students about mowing naturalistic plantings. However, with the warm weather the underplanted Narcissus × odorus had flower buds emerging from the soil. This problem is one I outlined in detail in a previous post.
I did get to show Anna Claire and Jevon, two of our Plantery student apprentices how mowing is accomplished. For clearing the vegetation, I was inspired last year from a video Austin Eischeid posted to just raise a push mower on the highest setting and rev it into action.
This year is our second mowing of the food prairies, and it went off without a hitch. It took about 40 minutes to mow 650 square feet, but that includes some down time to refill the mower with gas.
I prefer to mow when we can because the ground up residue provides a mulch that prevents weed growth for much of the rest of the growing season. Even late into the fall of 2018 I was able to find ground up grass clippings from the January 2018 mowing.
And, we were able to find Narcissus × odorus buds still intact after the cut. Mission accomplished.
Oh, and here’s a video from last year if you want to see the process. Yes, our students do really mow that fast.
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.
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.
I asked one question. "What was your inspiration? Why did you do this?" Patrick replied,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
The natural look was everywhere in the garden, and Patrick and Sylvie are true artists at intermingling plants.
Here, as in most mixed plantings, repetition created a sense of unity. Grasses of some sort played a role in almost every garden. White Camassia, Persicaria 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.
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.
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?
Briza maxima (quaking grass) was a new grass for me. The little inflorescences look like little cocoons all hanging from a thread.
And, there were several double types of Aquilegia, which brought a cheerfulness to the gardens.
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!
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.
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.
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!!!
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?
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 species. I 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.
I also considered species other than Narcissus. Leucojum 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.