A more formal garden design

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Change the species used, and this desert garden serves as inspiration for a temperate sun or shade garden of native plants.

I took this photo in one of the desert gardens at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, just outside Pasadena. It’s a semitropical desert environment, and many of the plants used throughout these spectacular gardens come from desert regions throughout the world. But the basic design would work for any kind of border.

First, notice the curves. Curves are dynamic; they draw the eye and force the viewer to take in the entire design. Straight lines, in contrast, are static. Always edge a border with curves.

Now look at the arrangement of plants. Create layers by using short plants in front, taller ones in back, of course. But notice the contrast of texture, color, and shape. Let’s consider how you might mimic this design with plants native to New Jersey.

For a shady border, you might begin with ferns instead of the Euphorbia (the short plants with burgundy foliage). Or, if you wanted red foliage here, you could use Heuchera villosa. For variegated foliage, and for dry soil, you have two excellent choices: Heuchera americana or Pachysandra procumbens. The next row (substituting for the aloes) could be a mid-height fern if you choose Heuchera for the front, or Aralia racemosa, which forms a beautiful green clump for most of the season but sends up large white flower plumes in early summer. Another possibility would be Leucothoe or Diervilla lonicera, two small shrub with pleasant vased-shaped forms. You have many choices for the tallest level (the palms in the photo). If you want an evergreen, consider Ilex glabra, Taxus canadensis (native yew), or the more unusual was myrtle (Morella cerifera). For deciduous plants, you could use Aronia melanocarpa, one of the beautiful Amerlanchiers, Viburnum acerifolium, or many others.

A sunny border gives you almost limitless possibilities. In front, I would choose something with a very long bloom time, such as Coreopsis verticillata or lanceolata (both with yellow flowers). The mid height level could be Penstemon digitalis, especially a cultivar with burgundy foliage, or a showy grass, such as little bluestem, which is beautiful almost year-round. Fr the shrub layer, the other chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, an Amelanchier (they’re adaptable), or Viburnum trilobum, American cranberry bush. There are many, many other choices, depending on your soil.

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Designing from nature

You could tell from my last, hurried post that we were going to the Galapagos, right? The trip was a lifetime dream, and it didn’t disappoint. Of course you go to the Galapagos to walk in the footsteps of Darwin and the other great early naturalists whose work began to show us how the natural world works; you certainly go to see the amazing wildlife (see today’s NY Times for one of the most fascinating examples). But I go to look at plants.

Whenever I hike, I draw design inspiration from nature. I look at the way nature arranges plant communities and use what I see to help me design landscapes for my clients. Depending on the location, the species I see differ wildly, but the design principles are constant: nature abhors a vacuum and loves diversity. Here are just three examples, from two completely different locales. But think about what they have in common.

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Inspiration for a  rock garden on Sombrero Chino (“Chinese Hat”), a tiny island in the Galapagos. Note the absence of empty space and the diversity of plant colors and forms.

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A blueberry barren in midcoast Maine, another dry, sunny site with a similar diversity of plant forms.

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A shady site in midcoast Maine that exhibits the same two key traits of diversity and abundance.

No empty space, and no need for yards of mulch, in these beautiful environments.

Becoming a garden ecologist

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A native meadow on a large scale: a designed, but very natural landscape, in Saucon, Pennsylvania, designed by Larry Weaner Associates. Copyright Larry Weaner Landscape Associates.

On Tuesday I attended a lecture at the New York Botanical Garden, part of the annual Alumni Lecture Series, by garden designer Larry Weaner. Weaner has been designing landscapes focusing on native plants for almost 40 years; look at his firm’s website to see some beautiful examples like the one above.

The lecture was titled “The Self-Proliferating Landscape: Setting a Process in Motion,” and it focused on letting native plants do their thing: designing landscapes that allow for natural progression and change over time, based on careful observational knowledge of how plants behave. Weaner said that we need a new type of practitioner, a “garden ecologist,”  who can plan and then carefully observe, monitor, and maintain native plant gardens.I realized that I’ve been a garden ecologist for almost 20 years. I started in my own garden, went back to school at NYBG to learn the formal aspects of horticulture, and now put the two—experience plus knowledge—together in my horticulture practice. I was thrilled to have someone put a name to what I do.

Gardens are necessarily artificial. We plan them, usually including only a limited number of species, to achieve a specific esthetic goal, and we attempt to maintain that look season after season. Ecosystems are natural and unplanned. Nature “plants” them, including a very large number of species, and their composition changes over time as some species proliferate, some dwindle, new species arrive, climate conditions change. The goal of a garden ecologist is to make a garden behave more like an ecosystem. That means using a large number of native species; choosing species that are right for the site and that live together in nature; recognizing and using the native species that are already present; knowing how to control invasives; knowing how plants reproduce, which plants reproduce vigorously and which need some help; knowing how long different species take to mature; and knowing a lot more besides. The goal is to install a landscape that mimics nature and that provides many of the same ecosystem services–slowing stormwater runoff, attracting pollinators, moderating climate.

This morning I watched a flock of juncos and native sparrows feeding on the snow-covered ground among my perennials, a jay hanging out in the big holly, and cardinals sheltering in the hemlocks. The other backyards I could see were bare of birds. Even on the very smallest scale, a garden can mimic nature and supply some of the priceless services that nature supplies so abundantly. We gardeners just have to set it in motion.

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A native meadow on a very small scale: part of a perennial border approximately 6 x 30′.

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The same border in late fall. Native plants provide four-season interest and year-round food for birds and other wildlife.