It was our best year by far, not only from a business aspect but also outreach. We worked with over 30 clients in 2021 and saw much growth in garden installs and online classes, as well as the new online garden design community. It was exciting and humbling to be stretched in new ways and to come out on the other side of the gauntlet thriving, if not even more energized for what's possible in 2022. That's where theblong-distance, online consult came from, as well as the new online classes that keep appearing. Hopefully, webinars are next. And this fall Benjamin's new book will be released. Here are a few favorite pictures from the past year, both at HQ and some client gardens. Prairie up!
Let's just dive right in. Why mix seed with plugs in your garden? Two of the biggest reasons are:
1) Cost. Doing 100% plugs will always be much more. That includes material and labor costs.
2) Maturity. Some plants will establish slower and those are the ones to plant.
I'm often mixing the too, specifically on sunny sites. What I'll do is design and plant the ornamental layer (forbs) using plugs -- think drifts and masses and tiers -- then sow in a warm-season bunchgrass. If the planting is in spring this is a simple 1-2 step process: plant plugs, sow seed. If it's in fall, the seeding must wait until spring when germination will be much better. When the grass seed goes down -- often using Bouteloua curtipendula, Bouteloua gracilis, or Schizachyrium scoparium -- I'll also toss in some annual forb seed, as well. The benefit there is to increase first year color as clients impatiently wait the requisite 2-4 years until the plugs establish fully and get going.
That grass seed can often grow quite fast, depending on site and climatic conditions that first growing season. I've had projects where sideoats grama shot up in 2 months to full size, and others where it took a year. This is important to keep in mind as you make your forb plug selections and ensure they don't get outcompeted by grasses the first year. In other words, research forbs that compete well with shortgrasses.
In shade I prefer to use 100% plugs. You're always going to get more guaranteed results when you plant plugs compared to seeding, and in shade, I just don't have the confidence with establishing a seed mix. By no means does that mean seeding in shade can't be successful -- I'd probably do it at a double rate and make sure to get a straw erosion control blanket on it.
If you are concerned about cost above all else, and also as anxious as everyone else to see the garden establish faster than a 100% seeding (which can take 4-6 years), then here's a trick -- create some nice 4 foot wide paths meandering through the area. Obviously, scale down the width based on total bed square footage (sometimes 2 feet is enough). Putting some of the space into paths will cut down on how many plugs you need, and have the benefit of creating access to the space which also shows design intention. You can also do this with a seating area or water feature.
If you're going to go 100% seeding for your forbs, sedge, and grasses, consider doubling or tripling your rates, keeping in mind touch up seedings will likely be in order. Do the perennials, cool season grasses, and sedge in late fall or winter, followed by annuals and warm season grasses in spring. You can find more on seeding guidelines right here.
The below garden was installed employing the forb plug and grass seed strategy in spring all at once. While we did have LOTS of crabgrass the first year, the sideoats grama totally outcompeted it in the second year. Right now it's weed tree seedlings that cause the most issues, which is to be expected. The space is mowed down each March and could stand to have some forbs added in a few spots.
I've been thinking a lot about this topic the whole year -- in part as I review installations from the past few years, and in part as I plan ahead for new ones.
In general, the benefit to warm-season bunchgrasses in a natural garden -- one based on plant communities and not specimens -- is that they suppress weeds, increase soil moisture, and hold soil in place. Not to mention habitat benefits for wildlife and winter interest for us. But over time grasses can out compete forbs, and this is especially true of taller species like big bluestem and indiangrass, both of which I'll never plant in a garden. But even little bluestem can self sow pretty well.
Recently, two clients with very small front yard lawn replacement meadows -- in which we used a short grass as a matrix or wood mulch replacement -- have been threatened by weed control authorities. That process starts with neighbors complaining of the unkempt look, aka nothing shorter than six inches. The additional issue here is that grasses tend to establish faster than most forbs, so the ornamental layer is lagging behind. There are ways to even the growth rate -- using grass seed and forb plugs, or planting into a loose soil medium, or using smaller grass plugs and larger forb containers (quarts or gallons). But in the end the same issues will arise -- the forbs need to have a fighting chance because grass is just as valuable to the various ecosystem services, whether the space is a regionally-appropriate meadow or an early succession space on the way to a shrubland or woodland.
What forbs have I noticed that tend to hold their own with bunchgrasses like little blustem, sideaots grama, and even blue grama? Let's start with a smaller, more manageable list with which you can experiment in a smaller space:
Baptisia spp (minor, australis, alba) -- I suspect these do well because of their deep central taproot that competes underground at a different level than fibrous-rooted bunchgrasses, and because the above ground form is branched and open. If a bunchgrass wants to finger up through it, no worries, as the Baptisia stems wire on up to sunlight and with bigger leaves to capture good amounts of sun.
Pycnanthemum tenuifolium -- I'm not sure why this species tends to do a bit better than P. virginianum, but I'm starting to notice a difference. Maybe it's that it is slightly more adapted to drier site conditions. In general I think P. virginianum is fuller and more vigorous, but not when grasses encroach in good density.
Dalea purpurea and candida -- Perhaps it's that these species find the gaps in bunchgrasses and exploit the heck out of those gaps. They also benefit from deep, central taproots and have foliage that's relatively open and airy.
Callirhoe involucrata -- It fingers nicely through and among grasses while taking heat and drought with aplomb. What else do we need to know?
Echinacea purpurea -- Although shorter-lived than E. pallida (which I prefer aesthetically), it does seem to hold its own. Maybe it's the larger leaves or the moderate self sowing, but it's the coneflower I'd use in a dense grass matrix even though it's over planted in the trade (don't use a cultivar, they tend to be weaker). One benefit to using it in a natural garden is that people recognize it, so it might help people read a non-traditional landscape and better accept it as purposeful. "Ah, I know that plant!"
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium -- After a few years this quasi-shrub, although it's a herbaceous perennial, will not allow much if anything to grow in its shade. Some of my specimens are even 3-4' in diameter but less than 2' tall. Their dense branching, even with small leaves, means little sunlight reaches the ground beneath them -- even Carex albicans vanishes. It's a lovely plant for wildlife cover in rain or snow, and it laughs at drought while being the last flower show of the growing season.
There are taller plants we could consider, too, that neither overwhelm or get overwhelmed by grasses: Liatris aspera, Oligoneuron rigidum, Coreopsis tripteris, Eupatorium altissiumum, and Symphyotrichum laeve. But tell us -- what works for you? And where are you located? Site conditions are also good information to know, as plant communities and their behavior differs.
It isn't. But it also is. (This is going to get deep!)
I can't tell you how many clients come to me lamenting a spouse who loves their lawn because, in part, it is easy maintenance. I think, though, "easy" is getting confused with "simple and clear and familiar." Lawns are NOT easy to maintain -- it takes a lot of time every week, from mowing to weed eating, and requires making sure there's gas on hand (most mowers are gas powered), as well as maintaining equipment with lots of moving parts. That's not easy.
Perhaps "easy" means:
Ok, that last one is a stretch for most, but it's there just beneath the surface. Perhaps the real difference rests in the contrast between the term "maintenance" and "management." The former implies specific actions performed at specific times on the calendar -- there's little second guessing as it's fairly cut and dry. The latter term implies being more actively responsive to what's occurring in the landscape and tweaking / pivoting at a moment's notice. For example, the landscape might be going great in May, but by June it's clear one plant is taking over or some gaps from winter kill have emerged. Now you have to figure out how many plants to remove or what kind to replace with, respectively. And the garden certainly won't look or act "as it should" immediately -- that could take years. A mowed lawn shows off hard work immediately; it's easily gratifying and uplifting.
Of course, gardeners know those last two sentences aren't entirely fair or true. A natural, native plant garden's show-off-ness is in rewarding patience and seeing failure (or hiccups) as exciting opportunities. Gardens change and shift over time, they are not static like lawns. It's that ebbing and flowing which, to many folks, can feel disorienting and destabilizing. In my book A New Garden Ethic I discuss a how at every turn in our lives, personal and cultural, we try to create a sense of order around us as we fight the seemingly chaotic nature of our precarious existence. That existence can be knocked out of whack easily by death or illness, loss of job or spouse -- any number of things positive and negative change our trajectory, and we're often slow to adapt. The more constants we surround ourselves with, the more anchored we may feel and able to adapt.
But similarly, being anchored can mean being stuck and implacable. I think one of the benefits of gardening with natural turbulence -- plants coming and going -- is that we may be better equipped to go with the flow, becoming more malleable and farsighted as we let nature guide us, or as we let the plants guide us. If you keep using a certain plant species and it keeps vanishing, what are you doing? Creating a destabilization willfully and fostering despair within you. For many, this is what gardening is -- opening yourself up to frustration and loss, something we work hard against every day in our lives. "I just don't have a green thumb, so I stick with lawn" could be an entire book bridging sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, culture....
So yes, this post has strayed a bit from the lawn conversation, but can you see why? At play in the great lawn debate isn't grass vs flowers, it's animal brain vs enlightenment brain, emotion vs culture. Ultimately, lawns also represent our victory over nature, a status of dominance that we will persevere over all threats looming in the shadows of trees and prairies. We emerged from forest into grasslands long ago, which allowed us to see predators and other threats coming from a greater distance. There is no greater threat in the suburban landscape, both practical and psychological, then a landscape dominated by unkempt flowers deciding their own trajectory free from our say. Wildness can lead us into unknown territory, even though we come from and were created by such wildness. The more distance we try to place between us and the planet, the more we set ourselves up for the fear, loss, and uncertainty we think a monoculture will alleviate. Just look at your local farm field.
Are lawns easier to maintain? Or are they simply a vain attempt at creating an illusion that, ultimately, causes more environmental, health, and psychological problems?
The #1 topic among native plant / natural / wildlife gardeners is what to do when weed authorities come knocking. The frustration, despair, and aggravation is palpable. I've been there.
I talk a lot about cues to care in wilder, native plant habitat gardens we all love. Cues to care are signals to other folks that the landscape is intentional and being cared for and is open to humans being in it (aka it's physically and aesthetically accessible). So think wide lawn or mulch paths free of weeds, a bench, an arbor, a tasteful sculpture, a water fountain, a fire pit, a lawn circle, etc.
But another cue to care is just keeping up with home maintenance, too -- nothing says dilapidated more than a mailbox hanging on by one screw or siding with paint peeling off. If we can create well-maintained hardscapes, then the wilder softscape or greenscape will be easier to interpret and understand.
I can't begin to tell you how many images I've seen of prized gardens where the landscape and structures look, well, uncared for. While some things are simple fixes -- mulching paths, cutting down tall weeds reaching over sidewalks -- many folks will look to railing, windows, sidewalks, and any number of issues on nearby structures to both read the intention of the land owner and make up their minds of what's going on in the landscape. If the house has problems, that's evidence that the garden is a problem, too. The owner just doesn't care.
We can and should go further, of course, looking to the garden specifically. Let's take out aggressive plants, design in masses and drifts (and manage to keep those masses and drifts by, yes, killing our darlings), adding plants when holes open up, making sure flower succession is continuous, not having tall (over 4' in front beds) or leaning plants or plants that touch people on the sidewalks, et cetera. Signs always help, too.
This isn't rocket science. These are small things that show to others -- like weed enforcement officers -- that this "something different" is on purpose, it is loved, and it is a place for humans and wildlife to meet safely. If we're going to change minds we have to meet people in the middle, even if we are anxious for everyone to quickly come on over to the wild side as we face unprecedented climate disruption. Humans are slow to change, slow to rethink, and slow to act, but we shouldn't be giving our neighbors easy reasons to dismiss natural gardens -- that's clearly our fault if we do. How many examples of wilder, natural landscapes do people see compared to manicured, simplified, lawn-dominate landscapes in the course of just one day? It's a 100-1 battle where our frame of reference of what's acceptable and professional is skewed. Your garden matters. Show that it does.
In the fall of 2020 a dozen volunteers sowed nearly two acres of parking lot margins at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. We used over 50 species and broadcast some 200 seed per foot. Why so much per foot? Because most of the areas where killed lawn and / or on slopes. Erosion control blanket was placed over most of the two acres, and this spring we sowed in more grass and annuals.
It was very dry in May and most of June, so seed germination is not what it could have been. However, those seeds are still there in teh soil and 2022 isn't that far away. We'll do more seeding next spring where some areas are struggling, but in areas where density is good (see below), we should be ok as much is coming up in the cool shadow of both weeds and annual / biennial / perennial flowers. In time the composition will change, but right now -- today -- the mid-summer flush is on. Soon, many of the annuals and biennials will die and set seed, and next year more and more perennials will take over the flower show. Prairie up.
Over the last 7-9 years I've heard this term tossed around a lot. While thankfully not as as prevalent a term today, it is still used. Just this week someone employed it on a social media thread and, to be honest, I partially lost it because by this point we should be more cognizant of the repercussions (especially after this year). Here's what I said:
"Anyone using this term is practicing and defending human supremacy by invoking another term that brings up horrid images of supremacy and genocide. It's ignorant, disgusting, and uncalled for. In many ways, horticulture is an act of supremacy, and to call that out will always upset, alienate, and confront those we wish would look more reflectively at their practice as gardeners and professed lovers of nature."
For too long there's been this ideological impasse between native plant gardeners and those that use a large proportion of exotic plants. The latter group accuses the former of being racist, xenophobic, and exacting unreal purity standards, while the former accuses the latter of not really caring about nature and continuing a tradition of ecological destruction that's part of larger cultural systems of power. I've fallen on "both sides" many times, but to be honest, I live in the grey with the majority -- which is probably where we'll make the most strides since, ultimately, we all agree on the importance of nature in any form, the need to garden ecologically and naturally, and that human-caused climate disruption is real. How we turn the tide is as much about what we do as it is what we say as we get there.
As I explore in my book A New Garden Ethic, when anyone from any perspective starts name calling and labeling, the jig is up. Those who are slinging labels are: 1) tacitly aware of their precarious situation and 2) feeling afraid, angry, cornered, and called out, so need a way to easily dismiss challenging ideas. When the latter happens it's simple human psychology 101 and totally natural. For example, it's my book's job to call out people and make them uncomfortable, to elicit self reflection, and to force a reconsideration of our perspectives. Insist that someone who finds immense beauty and purpose in gardening with a majority of exotic plants that they should be employing more natives, and of course they're going to feel that their identity / profession / passion are being undermined -- and thus their world, which is seemingly becoming more destabilized by radical thinking, will need to be defended in order to right the ship and have, once again, a clear sense of self and order. This is all covered in chapter 3 of A New Garden Ethic -- and is labeled as one step of five in processing grief.
But using the term "native plant nazi" says something much more insidious about the person using it. That term simply has no place in any discussion no matter how heated it is or how aggressive / radical / ideological / passionate any perspective may be.
Ultimately, any conversation about native and exotic plants is not about the plants themselves. Instead, the conversation is really about human privilege and supremacy, about confronting ecological injustice, systemic genocide across species, and a society dominated by an economic system which not only marginalizes groups of humans but entire landscapes and geographies for the temporary gain of a very few. Until we start having these larger, deeper, and more uncomfortable conversations, there will be no progress made on the complex cultural reflection that a garden is, and the meaning a garden will have in a time of mass extinction caused by one species (and keep in mind the entire planet is now a garden, for better or worse). Unfortunately, it's hard for any of us to step back from our first, passionate responses -- responses that are necessary and part of any worthwhile conversation -- and to listen objectively, search deeply and feelingly, and begin to reassess our belief systems in light of challenging ideas.
For a more comprehensive conversation on the phrase that instigated this post, I can't think of a better source than Nancy Lawson's erudite piece with extensive links entitled "Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden."
Our focus as a boutique design firm started as native plant gardens, pure and simple. At the core is a commitment to wildlife, sustainability, habitat, and climate resilience -- all of which mean diverse and dense plantings tailored to each site. But over the last two years a new angle has emerged, and it's all about de-lawning urban and suburban landscapes. Roughly 50% of our gardens are lawn-to-prairie conversions. From a few hundred square feet to thousands, we're excited to shift the paradigm with you and create examples that we hope inspire others to bring nature closer.
In the fall of 2019 Bellevue University (in Bellevue, Nebraska) contracted with us to design and select 5,000 native plants for a new 8,000' meadow that would serve as a living lab for science students. The entire space was once lawn, and now includes a state-of-the art nursery and bio pond. In mucky, cold rains a group of volunteers spent days and even weeks installing plugs. In the spring of 2020 we sowed in a healthy dose of annual forbs to provide some weed suppression as well as first year color, along with grasses that will become the matrix / green mulch. We did that seeding again this spring, especially the grasses which had a lack of rain last year -- a theme again for this year, but the maturing perennials are providing shade for seeds to germinate better this time around.
We hope you'll drive by the garden if you're in the area. We're currently working to get a two acre site at the University of Nebraska Medical Center going, 100% seeded and suffering from 50% less rainfall this spring. Every garden is different, with fresh challenges and opportunities to help us learn together. Prairie up.
Of course you can have a beautiful, ecological garden full of native plants in dry shade. And of course you can even have a meadow -- it just might not be as tall as a full-sun prairie garden composed of warm season grasses, but that can be a benefit. Gardens with shorter plants might look less weedy to others, and in smaller spaces this is a boon. Take our modest 200' shade meadow at HQ where we're using Carex albicans and Carex pensylvanica, along with a few forbs (Solidago flexicaulis, Geranium maculatum, Aquilegia canadensis, Thalictrum dioicum).
The C. albicans is a clumper that lightly self sows, but C. pensylvanica is a runner that fills in the gaps. Between the two species you get excellent coverage or a living green mulch which you can leave as is, or bring in some drifts, masses, or dotting of flowers with various habits and seasonality. Check out this short video of a 5 year old sedge meadow created by Roy Diblik to see how these sedge develop. And below, enjoy a client's developing Carex albicans space, and another's newly-planted shade garden composed of four intermingling sedge species (with 10 flower species).
You can even use these shade tolerant sedge in a different setting, like full sun. Carex sprengellii and Carex blanda are two we can add to the list. All can do well beneath the shade of taller plants, and in the case of C. blanda you'll have an aggressive, spreading groundcover that (like the others) greens up earlier in the the spring. If you don't have taller plants to throw some shade, a consistently moist soil could work -- especially for C. sprengelii. But of course there are dozens and hundreds of sedge that fit every site condition and plant community imaginable; I'm just trying to push sedge as much as I can because we're only scratching the surface of what they can do in a layered garden community.
I was recently asked what an American garden is, and here is what I said:
Since we are a country of immigrants we’ve brought over a lot of landscape traditions from other countries and, unfortunately, too often used these traditions to colonize indigenous peoples (human, nonhuman) and ecosystems. So I think in the 21st century an American garden is about facing our history of colonization and cultivating indigenous wisdom -- especially through plants and the ecosystems they create over time. When we learn from plants and local ecology we become more balanced, more centered, more aware, and more compassionate -- and what that can do for a garden and our community is exponential. Ultimately, a garden is an art form, it’s not REALLY nature, but when we get closer to the source we get closer to the power of gardens, plants, and wildlife in our human lives.
It's that time of the year when social media is flooded with folks posting images of their landscapes -- often trouble spots like under large shade trees, dry corners, and wet low spots -- asking for plants that will do well in those areas. Before you rush to offer advice, try to both educate and challenge the online community to get us closer to true success in such spaces. Usually, people asking for plant ideas are relatively inexperienced and just starting out, so if we suggest the wrong plant they may quickly get discouraged. What is the wrong plant?
And why do these things happen? Because we haven't asked the good questions about the site or the gardener in order to make the most informed suggestions for long-term success and empowerment. Parameters we need to consider:
There are more we could add but this is enough for now. Can you see why these are all important factors in creating a successful garden of any size? I know we just want to offer quick advice that makes gardening seem simple, but sometimes simple can lead to unnecessarily hard when we don't stop to think and plan a little bit before exploring plants, plant communities, design, and management. My biggest fear is that the social media advice I run across -- advice that is well intentioned but often not applicable -- will ultimately frustrate gardeners. But maybe asking these questions will, too, making the process seem more like those paragraph-long math problems from junior high. Still, they are necessary parameters to consider and will save us headaches over the long term. So ask the tough questions and get us thinking better.
In A New Garden Ethic I make the case that any conversation or debate we have about native plants is less about the plants and more about human privilege and avoiding environmental grief; because this is what's really at the core of how we approach the topic, as well as gardening itself, emotions are automatically rich and complex. Gardening is a very personal act, an expressive art, and like the students in my writing workshops, it takes time to learn how to speak to one another about our lives and to do so honestly so we can make constructive changes.
All that being said, I've run out of patience with some native plant proponents who are overly aggressive and hardline in their perspective. Yes, that will sound odd coming from me, someone who will always advocate for 100% native landscapes (please don't argue with me on what native is). The problem is we have folks in horticulture whose identity and livelihood is tied up in seeing plants as either pieces of art or commodities to earn a living from, or both; of course the conversation is going to escalate, it's human nature, especially at the start of a conversation where we all feel like we have something to defend that's intimate. (This is why many equate fundamentalist religion and native plants -- it's easy to feel judged, it's almost pre-built into our pscyhe.) I mean, we can't even discuss renewable energy without hand grenades going off about various socio-economic issues.
I'm never going to mix lots of exotic species into my garden designs, and I'm going to shake my head at overly designed landscapes many times a day, but I also know that even though all of us approach gardening differently (because we all are different), our end goals and desires and concerns are almost always similar: climate change, mass extinction, habitat loss, beauty, resilience, low maintenance, etc.
This is where I want to change how we talk to one another. I wouldn't call it an olive branch, but it's something I've learned talking about climate change: first you have to listen and find points of agreement before you can delve into the issues you see causing problems. A good pun doesn't hurt.
How can we discuss native plants without getting red hot in three seconds? By asking questions where we can find common ground in our own experiences and stories:
1) "Ok, we clearly don't agree about native plant percentages in a designed garden. Let's put that aside. What wildlife do you enjoy seeing in your garden?"
2) "Why do you like to garden? Why does it matter to you?"
3) "What can we do to address climate change and mass extinction in our private gardens, and then perhaps further out into our neighborhoods?"
4) "You love your heirloom daylily collection? Cool. No one's asking you to rip it out. But how can we increase ecosystem function with them? Maybe a ground layer of sedge, purple poppy mallow, or geranium. Maybe late-season flowering perennials that can help cover up the daylily foliage that gets ratty by late summer."
Native plants are not low maintenance. You're likely to hear from folks that they are -- that just using natives means you can stand back and let the magic happen.
Your garden is STILL a garden -- an unnatural space that has little resemblance to what your natives plants evolved with in the wild. We're not only talking soil microbes but plant competition above and below ground, not to mention a host of other disturbances that constantly help shift plant communities from year to year and create dynamic stability. Your garden is a pampered space by default simply because 20 plants aren't trying to exist in the same square foot. Your garden needs tending -- but the tending will look different than the regimented, joyless slog that commercials suggest is necessary.
What does low maintenance mean?
1) It does not mean no maintenance.
2) Plants carefully researched to suit the site (soil, sun, slope).
3) Plants carefully researched to match one another in a dynamic community. This means considering seasonal and annual succession, root habit, above ground habit, etc. For more, see our online class "Fundamentals of Garden Layers."
4) Less weeding because you used way, way more plants than a traditional garden -- we're talking plugs on 6-12" centers, perhaps even combined with seeding a green mulch around them. Plus, you count on and want the plants to reproduce to give you more plants for even more ecosystem function.
5) Less watering because you matched plants to the site and to one another. So plants that like it dry are placed in dry conditions, plants that like it moist are placed in moist conditions, etc. The knowledge required goes well beyond a simple plant tag.
6) Plants that don't spread aggressively where you don't want them, creating a monoculture. This means you have to research the plants to know something about their behavior such as: how they propagate, how easily they propagate, in what site conditions, etc.
And the big one....
7) Low maintenance is also about a shift in perception to accepting that plant composition changes over time and we want that. Plants are not marble statues that never move and always look the same. Plants move, proliferate, diminish, self organize, and generally show us what and where they want to be. The problem is in traditional design and horticulture we treat plants like collector items and gardens like canvases, when plants are living organisms interacting often unpredictably with other living organisms, and we are simply managers. How we manage a garden dictates how much maintenance we feel a garden requires.
For example, if you believe plants should never spread and are constantly yanking seedlings, you may think the garden is high maintenance; same goes if you put a moisture-loving plant on a sandy slope and discover you have to water it every two days. Management is different than maintenance. In management we don't obsess over every plant or detail in a bed (no helicopter parenting), but let the plants guide the conversation a little bit more; we can let the plants lead because we researched the plants heavily before installation and studied wild plant communities and understand what they will do in the years to come. Obviously, every garden space is different and we can't predict with 100% accuracy what plants will do in that specific space, but the more knowledge you bring to the table the less maintenance you'll do. Instead, you'll be managing, learning from the plants with patience over the years, never assuming the garden or gardener is a failure if a plant performs in a way you didn't desire it to perform.
Gardens need tending. Even a lush, layered, natural garden using native plants in similar communities that are found in the wild. They shouldn't need fertilizing, watering, annual mulching, heavy weeding, or chemical spraying if you're planting them considering natural layers. But they will need management because things happen: storms, late freezes, voles, extreme drought, extreme flooding, natural lifespan, etc. You'll likely need to mow the space down every spring vs every week if it were lawn -- that is less maintenance off the bat, but not no maintenance. You'll need to thin, add, and replace -- but not constantly and maybe just once a year.
Maintenance tends to be joyless and soul sucking, a battle of wit and will; management is giving up some level of control and tending the space when it tells you it needs it. In this way management is a constant surprise that some may find challenging, and others inspiring and in sync with their own rhythm. If you can get to a place where plants are co-conspirators in habitat and design revival, then maintenance will never exist for you.
I've written and erased a version of this post several times the last week trying to get the ideas down right -- this is a complex topic. Ultimately, I just want to ask questions and express some concerns I've not seen addressed elsewhere in my professional circle and see where it leads us (hopefully, somewhere helpful).
I'll say two things first: 1) I'd rather see a garden of coneflower cultivars than lawn or daylilies and 2) I have intense respect for the work Mt. Cuba does. We'd be in the dark without Mt. Cuba, yet this trial is just one preliminary, necessary step forward and not a final clear-cut answer.
If you don't know, the Echinacea trial evaluated coneflowers in the mid-Atlantic based primarily on garden performance -- how the plants grew, looked, and lasted. However, one issue regarding pollinators really stands out to me: the trial noted the number of adult pollinators visiting the blooms of cultivars, and used this to say which would be of best value to adult pollinators. This doesn't fly (pun intended) for a few reasons:
1) What species were visiting the blooms and how were they using the blooms? Until we have these answers we can't even begin to understand value or benefit or what's occurring in the ecosystem. There are nuances to nectar and pollen use, as well as life cycles and habits of various pollinator species, that help us get a much more complete picture of what's going on. I'd also like to know what pollinator species were showing floral fidelity.
2) What is the chemical and nutritional make up of the nectar and pollen? What amino acids (nectar) are being provided and what's the protein content (pollen)? Sure, it may very well be a cultivar is providing something a straight species can't -- or vice versa. There's also the nuance of these things being affected by climate, ecoregion, etc.
3) What's happening to UV markings on petals that plants use to communicate with adult pollinators? What about aromas? What about electromagnetic fields?
4) Tallamy's study a few years back on woody cultivar larval hosts indicated that changes to leaf color (leaf color effects larval host ability), specifically purple, greatly reduces larvae -- whereas variegation doesn't. Dr. Annie White looked at adult pollinators and flowers (species and cultivars) on herbaceous perennials and found mixed results on her preliminary study, but species plants had the edge. We know double-flowered coneflowers are terrible. However, I still wonder if, by selecting over and over for one trait (bloom color), we're creating a loss of genetic diversity that may translate into increased chances for something to be amiss in the foliage for larvae.
There's still so much we don't understand, especially on a region by region basis. Certainly, I also don't want to see these cultivars placed anywhere near remnant ecosystems that harbor straight species Echinacea, either (which would be my house). To fully understand the above issues will require a significant amount of resources we probably won't ever have; but I think it's as problematic for folks to say something like "see, when we manipulate plants it's all good and may even be better for wildlife" as it is for someone like me to say "we should always use straight species natives no matter what everywhere, every time, period."
And I still believe we can't have this conversation without also considering how we manipulate plants for commercial gain and / or to please the aesthetic desire of one dominate species, along with the messy ethical implications behind human supremacy that readily colonizes plant culture. But I wrote a book on that.
I believe there are a few critical choices that gardeners must practice if they want their native plant garden to be both sustainable (with lots of ecosystem function) and look less weedy next to the traditional monoculture landscapes that dominate urban areas:
1) Selecting plants that are behaved and relatively short (under 3ft). This means doing research, as plants can spread / grow differently based on soil type, moisture levels, and levels of plant competition. This is one reason gardening by ecoregion vs. hardiness zone is a good idea.
2) Planting in drifts and masses. The larger the bed, the larger the masses and drifts. And you can do this in layers (ground, mid height, architectural).
3) Limiting blooms. In a smaller garden (under 1,000ft), having no more than 3 plants in bloom at any one time may show more control and less visual cacophony.
4) Employing a monochromatic base layer. This green mulch / matrix not only replaces annual wood mulch applications while fighting weeds and conserving soil moisture, it helps tie the landscape together and make it more legible. Consider how lawns do this.
5) Plan for winter interest. Many of our native grasses and herbaceous perennials carry much structural and textural interest deep into winter. Using the same principles as #2 above, we can hit two birds with one stones (please leave birds alone -- their numbers are falling fast).
Of course, every site requires nuance with the above points, so they are not hard and fast rules but more like core guidelines. And when we use native plant communities we increase ecological function, especially wildlife habitat.
If you want to learn more, try our online class "Fundamentals of Garden Layers." We'll dive into the above even further in Benjamin's new book Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design (spring 2022).
Chances are you have a native prairie, meadow, savanna, or grassland near you. Chances are your region was recently covered in prairie. Where you see a farm field it was likely prairie. Where you see a shopping mall it was likely prairie within the last century.
From the Gulf Coast of TX and LA, to the Palouse of WA and OR, the Great Basin desert step of UT and ID, large chunks of CA, the Mescalero Sandsheet of southeastern NM, and the Piedmont of VA, NC, SC, and GA, not to mention others like the longleaf pine savannas of FL, SC, AL, MS, LA, TX, or meadow remnants in TN and AR. Prairie is everywhere, not just in the center of the country.
As disturbed landscapes heal themselves, prairie / meadow is often the first stage of restoring ecosystem function; we can use principles from this natural succession in ecological garden design by first planting prairie and meadow plants that, over time, give way to a more woody or open canopy forest structure (if that is actually the late-succession / climax stage of your area). This succession rebuilds and heals the soil, increases water infiltration, and out competes weeds among a cadre of benefits. If you are converting from lawn -- even if you live in Maine -- the first step is likely a meadow.
So yes, if you can tell, I'm often asked if the principles, design ideas, and even plants I espouse here and across social media channels are relevant to Pennsylvania, Florida, or California. And while we should all be gardening with the local ecoregion in mind, we share many of the same plants as well as many of the same principles regarding ecological succession, matrix garden design, as well as the vast list of ecosystem services a garden can provide (cleaning air and water, providing habitat, reducing a structure's energy use, etc).
These ideas form the fundamental approach of my forthcoming book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design (spring 2022), and are explored more in depth through online courses. Ultimately, what we can learn from one another across the country when it comes to sustainable and resilient garden design far outstrips what makes our gardens different. The things I've learned from southwest gardeners concerning drought tolerant landscapes is profound, just as I learn from conservationists in the southeast about the differences and similarities of their endemic grasslands and their struggle to reclaim ecological heritage.
Chances are, if you stop to research your ecoregion and locale, you'll find a prairie remnant that can teach you much about how to rebuild ecosystem function and habitat in your highly-disturbed home landscape. From lawn to meadow, from meadow to open woodland, from open woodland to forest, we can easily deliver habitat connectivity where we live while helping species adapt in a time of human supremacy and climate change.
For all the angst, suffering, and downright conflict last year presented us, it also seemed to go by really fast. I walked the garden more times than ever in all seasons, and found great delight in discovering nuances I'd have glossed over if I had been busier -- even though I definitely was busy installing some 100,000 square feet of gardens this year.
Below please enjoy a quick stroll through some of my favorite landscape images of the front and back beds at HQ. If you follow me on social media (FB, TW, IG), you've seen the collages of client spaces as well as seasonal changes at HQ. My best to you all in this new year -- prairie up!
Here are the practical and the dreamy for the garden lover in your life. Or, what works well for me after much trowel and error. And NB -- these are Amazon links, but I encourage you to get them from local shops when you can.
Fireman's Hose Nozzle
Tired of sprinkler nozzle handles breaking off? Or ones with odd water pressure? Try a fireman's nozzle, especially this one which I've had for years with no problem at all. Takes a licking and keeps on watering.
Gardens hose are a necessary evil, which is one reason I try to design drought tolerant gardens. The coil, kink, are heavy, and take up lots of space. Not an expandable hose. While it might rip if dragged too much over sharp stones or metal, and shouldn't be left out over winter, I'm smitten. It shrinks to half its size when drained and is as light as a feather -- and seldom if ever kinks. Bam.
I don't need to try any other soil knife, or any other hand tool. This one saws through roots, cuts twine, treats clay soil like butter, and opens bags and boxes and more. #1 tool in the garden.
I've spent decades trying to find the perfect garden glove -- one I can use while planting, watering, cutting, or hauling stone. There is no perfect glove, but this one gets close. You'll find others that will probably work just as well from different brands, but what I like about this design is a complete coating on the back of the hand (think abrasion and water resistance). There's a cooler summer work glove option, as well as an insulated autumn / winter option.
These are garden design books that changed my perspective and helped me grow (I'd suggest my book but it's not a design book -- however, the next one will be, in 2022).
Planting in a Post-Wild World -- Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden -- Roy Diblik
Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains -- Jon Farrar (ok, not a design book per se)
Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden -- Jessica Walliser
Pollinators of Native Plants -- Heather Holm
I've been thinking a lot lately about how we choose garden plants; it's almost always about how the plant looks. And one thing that happens is a gardener may choose a native that isn't meant to live a long time, but when it dies it leaves a hole and the gardener feels like they have a black thumb in year two and three. This happens a lot with early-succession plants, or colonizers.
I'm thinking about Ratibida pinnata and Rudbeckia hirta. The former is a short-lived perennial meant to vanish over time when it's in a thick, naturally-layered and resilient bed. If you use it on its own there are many problems: it's too tall (flops) and too open (weeds can easily compete underneath). In a tallgrass prairie it's one of the first plants to move in but won't stay around in large numbers until the area is disturbed, often via fire.
Rudbeckia hirta is more like a biennial, with basal foliage the first year that's good at weed suppression, and in year two it flowers but by late summer is getting leggy and / or dying back in ugly fashion. So if you have an open garden bed, Rudbeckia looks great for a while, and it will even reseed, but you have to wait two years to get a similar show again, and by then weeds are back and the bed may look lopsided.
And maybe a big part of the issue we have with plants like the above is that we tend to treat them as static, sculptural individuals. These plants evolved to grow in a rich, lush, layered, dynamic, ever-changing landscape. A traditional garden bed is too often the opposite -- specimens placed individually apart from others in single layers with wood mulch meant to look the same for a decade. For example, if you put a grouping of Ratibida pinnata (a tall plant) behind a grouping of shorter Asclepias tuberosa, it's going to 1) look weird and 2) behave in ways detrimental to the health and longevity of the bed. Those Ratibida are going to slouch over the Asclepias and fade away. These plants did not evolve in this kind of community.
One way to rectify the situation is to bring in sedges -- Carex radiata, Carex praegracilis-- or some bunchgrasses like Bouteloua curtipendula and Schizachyrium scoparium. What we're doing is building the layers and community, creating some buttresses for the taller forb, and ensuring weeds will have no long-term foothold or new space to move into. It's also going to look so much better -- fuller and more uniform in all seasons.
If you walk into a prairie it's more likely you'll see small groupings or even smatterings of individual Ratibida and Rudbeckia. Now, in a home garden where it's critical to up the aesthetic show, we can bring in more of each species in larger masses -- but we still absolutely have to have the main component of the wild community they came from, plant layers underneath and alongside, especially the grasses. We can up the layering and seasonal show even more by including Callirhoe involucrata, Liatris punctata, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium, Baptisia minor, and Solidago flexicaulis -- all weaving in and out of the sedge and grasses like we'd see in a prairie, but brought down to scale and floral impact for the home garden. If we don't have those other forbs in the mix, then in a few years (if we're dependent on the Ratibida and Rudbeckia) we'll have few to no flowers at all.
So let's bullet point the above:
With cooler weather comes seeding season. After a few hard freezes and before the new year is the best time to sow, giving seeds ample time to be stratified and break dormancy for spring germination. Following is a brief guide on creating a custom seed mix and sowing it by hand.
Generally speaking, a prairie-style seeding has the following ratios:
50 seeds / ft
50% grass (25 seeds / ft)
50% forbs (25 seeds / ft)
Let’s break the percentages down further on our 50/50 mix into functional groups that fill various ecological niches:
35% warm season grass
15% cool season grass and / or sedge
Why are we using these percentages? While some site and / or aesthetic goals will require different percentages, this is generally a solid breakdown to hit as many goals as possible at one time. The warm season grasses will do the bulk of the matrix work, while the cool season grasses and sedge will help with weed control and site stabilization in the shoulder seasons when they grow most actively. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil, while annuals provide first year weed competition, erosion control, and color. Perennial flowers will do the bulk of the aesthetic show, and within their 30% is a mix of early successional species as well as those that take longer to establish but that are also longer lived. Now, let’s take a look at a sample list and seed weights; do note that this is a very basic list using illustrative species and is not necessarily meant for application.
Since you’ll be buying seed by the ounce, you’ll need to know how many seeds are in an ounce; that information (along with more details on germination codes) can be found most easily online at Prairie Moon Nursery for each species you’re using.
Calculating seeds per foot
Here's a sample calculation for Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), assuming it alone would comprise the warm-season grass category:
50 seeds per foot x 0.35 (35%) = 17 seeds per foot
17 seeds per foot x 2,000 square feet = 34,000 seeds
34,000 seeds / 6,600 seeds per ounce = 5.15oz
For a 2,000’ area at 50 seeds per foot on bare soil, our seed list might look like this:
35% warm season grass (17 seeds/ft)
6,600 seeds per ounce, 17 seeds per foot, 34,000 seeds = 5.15oz
15% cool season grass / sedge (8/ft)
29,000 seeds per ounce, 4 seeds per foot, 8,000 seeds = 0.28oz
53,000 per oz, 4 seeds per foot, 8,000 seeds = 0.15oz
10% legumes (6/ft)
16,000 seeds per ounce, 3 seeds per foot, 6,000 seeds = 0.375oz
15,000 seeds per ounce, 3 seeds per foot, 6,000 seeds = 0.375oz
10% annuals (6/ft)
87,500 seed per ounce, 3 seeds per foot, 6,000 seeds = 0.069oz
2,700 seeds per ounce, 3 seeds per foot, 6,000 seeds = 2.2oz
30% perennials (15/ft)
11,000 per oz, 2 per foot, 4,000 = 0.36oz
5,200 per oz, 2 per foot, 4,000 = 0.77oz
4,300 per oz, 2 per foot, 4,000 seeds = 0.93oz
378,000 per oz, 2 per foot, 4,000 seeds = 0.01oz
Rudbeckia hirta (pioneer / early successional)
92,000 per oz, 2 per foot, 4,000 seeds = 0.043oz
16,000, 2 per foot, 4,000 seeds = 0.25oz
Ratibida pinnata (pioneer / early successional)
30,000, 2 per foot, 4,000 seeds = 0.13oz
55,000, 2 per foot, 4,000 seeds = 0.07oz
Total weight of pure live seed -- 11.162oz
There’s probably not a magic bullet on creating a custom seed mix. Generally, I’m trying to give you a middle-of-the road baseline which you can tweak. Warm season grass seed may do best with a late spring seeding -- but it also might not be practical, which is why doubling its rate in a dormant seeding may be a good idea. Seeds of any plant type can be eaten or washed away or just never do anything, so I subscribe to the more-is-better-if-you-can-afford-it scenario. When you buy seed you should see a tag that shows PLS (pure live seed); this percentage is calculated by taking into consideration seed purity, germination rate, and seed dormancy. You can use PLS to increase or decrease rates of each species based on the expected germination rate. See, it gets quite complex, and if it’s too much for you right now just know that the most important aspect in a seeding is diversity -- diversity of species, niches, and ecosystem function so we create resilience. The above list could easily benefit from increased diversity in habit, succession, bloom color, bloom time, and bloom sequence, for example.
In the end, we simply want to cover the ground ASAP and we want competition ASAP; the more plants we have with a diversity of functional groups, the sooner a garden can perform ecosystem services. Several studies of prairie restorations show that the ratio of survival from seed to mature plant is generally around 5-10%, so if you want 5 plants per square foot you’ll need to sow 50 seeds per square foot.
A person can do 1 acre tossing seed by hand in under a day, and most people reading this book probably won’t be sowing anywhere near this size. To get a more uniform seed distribution when hand sowing you’ll want to use a very slightly moistened or dry seed carrier, a medium that bulks up the mix. Most folks use compost, sand, sawdust, or vermiculite at a rate of 0.5 cubic feet (3.75 gallons) per 1,000 square feet. However, for small areas, you can eyeball it -- one handful of seed per 4-5 handfuls of carrier. I prefer vermiculite, which isn’t heavy like sand or compost and, to my eye, provides the most even seed distribution with the carrier (you can also see where your seed has landed very easily -- broadcasting on top of puffy snow that does not have a surface layer of ice on a sunny day also works well). You do not want to hand broadcast on a windy day -- generally, less than 10mph is good, and 0 is best. Walking with the wind to your back is also helpful as a light breeze can help carry the seed forward as you broadcast.
Divide your seed mix + carrier in half; walking one way broadcast the first half, then walking perpendicular broadcast the second half. Be stingy as it's better to have too much than not enough, but you won't hit every square foot and you don't necessarily have to. In the first growing season mow the area down to 4-6" when weeds get 8-12" tall. In the second season mow or trim the space at 12" tall to continue depriving annual weeds of flowering and setting seed.
Benjamin Vogt's thoughts on prairie gardening in Nebraska. With a healthy dose of landscape ethics, ecophilosophy, climate change, and social justice.
In a time of climate change and mass extinction how & for whom we garden matters more than ever.
"This book is about so much more than gardening."
The Deep Middle
Gardening & writing in the prairie echo