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Books for Garden Inspiration: The Living Landscape

March 5, 2015

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodeversity in the Home GardenThe long winter months when my garden is dormant provide a time for me to seek inspiration from garden books. One important source of inspiration this winter has been Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s The Living Landscape (Timber Press, 2014).  Darke, a horticulturalist, and Tallamy, an ecologist, have combined their talents and perspectives to consider how we can create home gardens that are both beautiful and ecologically functional.

The book is organized into five chapters, but it may make most sense to think of it as having two major parts: Chapters 1-4 lay the conceptual groundwork for Darke and Tallamy’s approach, while chapter 5 (which makes up almost half the book and is longer than first four chapters combined) applies these concepts to the home garden.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the key theoretical framework of the book, the idea that landscapes (both wild and domestic) can be understood as a set of interconnected layers, including vertical layers (canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, ground), horizontal layers (e.g., edges), and cultural layers. A richly layered landscape, they argue, is both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically functional. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on ecological concepts, the interrelated community of living organisms and the ecological functioning of layered landscapes. Chapter 4, “The Art of Observation,” focuses on how we can better see and read both wild and domestic landscapes. Chapter 5, “Applying Layers to the Home Garden,” brings all these ideas together in an analysis of how to create richly layered, beautiful, and ecologically functional gardens.

The Living Landscape is not a how-to book with a set of foolproof steps for creating functional layers in the home garden. It is primarily a conceptual volume, providing us with tools to see and think about our gardens in new ways. It felt to me like the more advanced sequel course to Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (see review here), a book that completely changed how I understood the presence of insects in my garden. In saying that this is a conceptual book, I don’t mean to imply that The Living Landscape does not provide practical advice; it does. This a big, gorgeous picture book, and every idea is richly illustrated with lush photographic examples (mostly by Rick Darke). There are also important pieces of garden design advice. I found this guideline for creating biodiversity in the home garden particularly helpful:

   One potential down side of plant diversity in gardens is that it is often concentrated at too small a scale. For the love of plants, gardeners sometimes group too many species with distinctly different growing needs into areas that are too small or not diverse enough to sustain them…. Looking to healthy natural habitats as models is a reminder that while the overall plant diversity of a landscape may be high, in any given space or localized ecosystem there is considerable repetition of a few key species.

   When designing for diversity, it’s important to aim for the highest supportable biodiversity overall but to avoid unsustainable variety in any one spot. (p. 151)

Practical information is also provided in a series of appendices (organized by region of the United States) that list the landscape and ecological functions of plants that could be used for the home garden.

Darke and Tallamy live and garden in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and their analysis and examples are based primarily on the deciduous forests that characterize the native wild landscapes of that region. This means that their analysis is most relevant for those who garden in conditions similar to that of the mid-Atlantic states. My own home in New England is a geographical neighbor to the mid-Atlantic region, has a similar deciduous forest native habitat, and includes many of the same plants, so the book translated well for me. As you get further afield from the mid-Atlantic  region, however, either geographically or ecologically, the specifics of The Living Landscape become less useful. Although Darke and Tallamy do include some examples in the text from other regions of the country and even the world, the book privileges the mid-Atlantic states. The plant listing for the mid-Atlantic region takes up 32 pages, compared with much shorter listings for the Midwest and mountain states (14 pages), the southeast region (10 pages), New England (8 pages), the Pacific Northwest (7 pages), and the southwest region (5 pages). And, of course, Darke and Tallamy have not attempted to analyze the landscape and ecological functions of native plants for other parts of the world.

Despite these inevitable limitations, I think Darke and Tallamy’s conceptual framework would help gardeners anywhere to look at and think about both their native landscapes and their gardens differently. For those in the United States mid-Atlantic and neighboring regions, the book is a goldmine of information and is likely to become an indispensible reference.

Winter Light

February 26, 2015

winter lightTo many who live in northern latitudes, the phrase “winter light” may seem like a contradiction. But in my Maine home, just south of the 45th parallel, winter is a light-filled time. There are a number of reasons for this. Winter is our longest season, beginning fairly early but lasting many months. We typically get some snowfall six months of the year – November, December, January, February, March, and April – and it is not uncommon to have continuous snow cover from late November until early April. This means that winter begins shortly before the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice, but lasts until after the spring equinox.

In many ways, February is the heart of winter here. It is a cold, snowy month (especially so this year!) and spring is still many weeks away. But by the end of the first week in February, we have already journeyed more than half the distance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. By the last week of February, the hours of daylight are increasing dramatically. Today the sun rose at my house before 6:30 a.m. and it won’t set until almost 5:30 p.m. – giving us more than 11 hours of daylight. This is only one hour less than the equal day and equal night of the spring equinox, and it is a big change from the less than 9 hours of daylight we experience at the winter solstice.

But it’s not just that winter is a time of increasing daylight. The winter weather patterns here also make this a season of light. New England is not a place where winters are gray and dreary. Instead, our weather pattern is one of alternating low and high pressure areas. The low pressure areas bring us snow; the high pressure areas that follow bring us days of blue skies and brilliant sunshine. And all that white snow cover reflects and enhances the sunlight.

Sunlight reflected off snow at mid-day can be blindingly bright. (I can’t count how many times this month I’ve gone into a room to turn off a light that I had left on only to find that there were no lights on; the brightness I was seeing was reflected sunlight.) My favorite times for winter light, however, are morning and late afternoon. In the morning, the trees across the road from my house, in the west-southwest, are lit with the rosy glow of the rising sun. By late afternoon, it is a golden glow that lights up the trees in my back garden.

morning glow

evening glow

This has been an arduous winter in New England, and I will be happy to see the snow melt and green shoots appear as March turns into April. Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the winter light.

Mid-Winter Color: GBBD, February 2015

February 15, 2015

back garden in snowSo far, February in Maine has been much colder and snowier than average. We have been getting snow every three days, and temperatures have averaged more than 10 degrees below normal for this time of year. February is mid-winter here. The mild days of fall are just a fond memory, and spring is still many weeks away. And we’re all starting to get just a bit tired of snow. Happily, recent storms have followed a track that takes them out to sea south of here, leaving us on the northern fringes; as a result, we haven’t been hammered with record-breaking snow the way Boston has.

There’s not much to see in the snow-covered garden. The blue tarp that covers my garden bench is barely visible. But the garden is happy to be covered by more than two feet of snow. The snow is a great insulator that protects plants from the cold temperatures, and its melting in spring will provide them with moisture to support new growth.

February pink cyclamen February pink & white cyclamen
For flowers and color in February, however, we must look indoors. My potted cyclamen are still blooming happily in shades of pink and white on the living room window ledge. Recently, they have been joined by the red flowers of a third potted cyclamen in my bedroom. The intense scarlet of these flowers is just what my soul needs in this white season, and I love the intricate pleats of their about-to-open buds. february red cyclamen
scarlet cyclamen flower scarlet cyclamen bud

Two of my potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs have sent up flower buds, promising more colorful blooms in the weeks to come.

tall amaryllis bud I think this one will bloom in February.
And this one gives me something to look forward to in March. short amaryllis bud

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is the brainchild of Carol at May Dreams Gardens and is hosted by her on the 15th of each month. Visit her blog to see what’s in bloom this month in gardens around the world, including colorful summer flowers from our garden blogging friends in the southern hemisphere.

Garden Books

February 11, 2015

garden booksWith many feet of snow on the ground in New England, and much of it likely to be there until April, gardening outdoors is not an option at this time of year. In our long winters, we turn to indoor gardening (houseplants, seed starting) and to mental gardening. I am particularly fond of the latter activity, and garden books provide the inspiration for much of my mental gardening.

So, when I finally got the bookcases installed in my new study about a week ago, the first books I moved in were garden books. I have long dreamed of having my garden books readily at hand near my desk, so that I could just roll over to them in my desk chair and pluck the one I need off the shelf. And that is just what I now have – three shelves of garden books given pride of place in the spot most accessible to my desk.

And what did I do when those books were in place? I added to their number. For many months now, I have been keeping a list of garden reference books that I wanted to get as soon as I had a place to put them. One evening last week, I took out that list, counted the value of the Barnes & Noble gift certificates that I received both as retirement gifts from my colleagues and as Christmas gifts from family members, and placed an order. Yesterday, in the midst of yet another snowfall, my books were delivered to my door.

garden book delivery new garden books

Here are my new purchases:

  • The third edition of Allan Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants (Stipes, 2008). Armitage is my go-to reference for learning all the particulars about any perennial genus, and my 2nd edition is falling apart from long use. I have been coveting this new edition for years, but have been deterred by the price. But with all those gift certificates waiting to be used, the moment seemed ripe to satisfy this longing. And satisfying it is! This is an encyclopedic volume, with over 1000 pages and a wonderful new-book smell.
  • The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy (Timber Press, 2014). I put this on my wish list as soon as Timber Press announced its publication last year. Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home was critical in my education as a gardener, and a volume that weds his ecological principles with an approach to garden design that models the layering of wild deciduous forests is very exciting to me.
  • Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso (Cornell University Press, 1997) is a basic reference book and an identification key that can help me to learn more about many plants already growing on my property.
  • Science and the Garden, 2nd edition (Blackwell, 2008) is the Royal Horticultural Society’s guide to the scientific basis of horticultural practice. This is one of two books that I chose to  improve my scientific education in relation to gardening.
  • Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 2010) is my second science selection, this one to help me understand soil science. This seems like a particularly important subject for me because so much of my experience of gardening involves dealing with the very sandy, nutrient poor soil on my property.

garden readingOnce I had unpacked my new books, I felt a bit like a kid on Christmas morning – unsure which new toy to play with first. After some deliberation, it was The Living Landscape that I moved to the table beside my reading chair in the living room. I am about to begin the process of designing my new front garden, with the first flower beds scheduled to be prepared and planted this spring and summer. Darke and Tallamy’s approach to garden design seems particularly helpful in thinking about the relationship of this new garden to the rest of my property, particularly the surrounding woodlands, and for making the best selection of plants and creating a lush, layered look with sound ecological principles in mind.

After the Blizzard

January 30, 2015

house after blizzardTuesday was an exciting day in Maine, as we were visited by a classic Nor’easter blizzard. A Nor’easter is a big (usually winter) storm that travels up the east coast of the United States and brings a lot of precipitation accompanied by strong northeasterly winds. If the storm has sustained winds of at least 35 mph and blowing snow with visibility of one-quarter mile or less, and if those conditions last for at least three hours, the storm is a blizzard. This is what we had on Tuesday. The snow actually began on Monday evening and continued for more than 24 hours. For much of that time, the snow was falling at the rate of an inch or more per hour and was whipped around both in the air and on the ground by howling winds.

I was well prepared for this storm. The National Weather Service had issued blizzard warnings days in advance, and in this age of weather hype, meteorologists had excitedly predicted a “historic storm.” By the time the snow began, I had done grocery shopping and tucked my car into the slot between retaining walls at the basement entrance, out of the way of the plow. I also made sure I had plenty of water on hand in case of a power outage. (Like most people in rural Maine, I get water from a drilled well with an electric pump. No electricity, no running water.) As the storm raged on Tuesday, I stayed inside, snug and warm, except for one brief foray out to sweep drifting snow from my roofed front porch and front entry.

snow on trees

I woke up on Wednesday morning to wonderful light and deep snow (as seen here in the back garden). Usually, when trees are covered with snow like this, it is because the snow is heavy, wet and sticky. That was not the case here. Cold temperatures throughout the storm (10-15 F) meant that this snow was light, dry and fluffy. It was the force of the wind that left it stuck to the trees – as though it had been sprayed on with a high-pressure nozzle.

Snowstorms here are usually followed by sunshine, good conditions for getting out and cleaning up. The neighbor who plows our dirt road and my driveway plowed twice during the storm and then came back again on Wednesday morning with a front-end loader. It wasn’t that the snow was too deep or too heavy for his plow. The problem was that this fine powdery snow doesn’t stay put after you plow it. The front end loader allowed him to pick up the snow and dump it behind the existing snow banks – slower than plowing, but very effective.

I got out to begin shoveling in late morning. I began by cleaning off the new porch and deck at the front of my house.

porch and deck before porch and deck after
And then moved on to the front entry, steps and walkway. shoveled front entry
shoveled back entry By the time I worked my way around the end of the house to the back door, I had worked up enough body heat to steam up my glasses – time to take a break for lunch.
I did another 90-minute stint of shoveling in the afternoon, clearing the steps down to the driveway and digging my car out from its narrow slot. I saved the last of my shoveling chores – the basement entrance, the garden path to the heat pump and back deck, and the deck itself – for the next day.

So was this a “historic storm,” as some weather forecasters predicted? Not by my standards. We had a significant snowfall (a little less than 2’ here), but it didn’t set records. And, despite the high winds, the light powdery snow did not bring down any power lines or cause power outages.

My standard of “historic” is the blizzard of February 1978, which I experienced as a graduate student in Providence, Rhode Island. Knowing a snow storm was coming, I rode a bus for the three-mile trip from my apartment to the Brown University campus that morning, rather than bicycling as I normally would have. At the last minute, I grabbed a toothbrush and threw it in my purse – which was a good thing, because by the time I got around to leaving school, a few hours after the snow began, the snow had already piled up about a foot, visibility was almost non-existent, and the city buses had stopped running. I walked with a friend to her apartment a few blocks from campus and ended up spending a week there, finally walking home on the 7th day when the city buses were still not running. About 3 feet of wind-whipped snow fell on Providence that day, and it came down so fast that thousands of motorists were trapped on interstate highways. State police rounded up people from their stuck cars and walked them off the highway to places where they could shelter – for example, schools, fire stations, and restaurants.

My friend Jan and I went to bed in the eerie silence of a city brought to a standstill by the storm and were awakened several hours later by pounding on the front door of the building where she lived. When she went down to investigate, she found Joyce, an art teacher at a suburban school who had been stranded on the highway on her way home from work. Eventually rescued from her car, she was taken to shelter at a public utility building and allowed to sleep in a room with bunk beds for crew. When she was awakened after a few hours and told she would have to get up to allow someone else an opportunity to sleep, Joyce decided that she could walk the mile home and sleep in her own bed.

By the time she had gone a few blocks, Joyce knew she had made a mistake. Trying to walk through waist-high snow in gale-force winds was exhausting, and she was covered from head to toe with wet snow. She realized that she was in trouble, but what to do? She wasn’t sure she had the strength to make it back to the utility building. At that moment, she noticed an open doorway and went in to get some shelter from the snow and wind. She was in the small vestibule of Jan’s apartment building, where the door had blown open. But the vestibule had no place to sit down, was filling with snow blowing in, and the door to the stairs beyond was locked. By the time she began pounding on that door, she was desperate, sobbing and shivering.

The next day, the snow stopped, the sun came out, and people began to make pedestrian paths on top of the snow that clogged Providence’s streets. Having dried off, gotten warm, slept, and had something to eat, Joyce was feeling better (although very much shaken by her ordeal) and ready to finish her walk home.

One year later, I walked home with my friend Jan after we left campus on a beautiful winter afternoon in February 1979. In the vestibule of her apartment building, we found a basket with a bow on it and an envelope with her name. The basket contained a thank-you note from Joyce, a bottle of wine, and an illustrated volume of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” – a fitting way to remember a historic snow storm.

Order and Chaos in the Garden

January 25, 2015

The best gardens are a perfect balance of order and chaos. The tension created by this constantly threatened balance is the pulse of the garden itself. (Helen Humphreys, The Lost Garden, p. 19)

Recently, when I was trying to decide what to read next and looking for some garden inspiration, I picked up a gift from a friend, The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (W.W. Norton, 2002).  I thought this was a garden memoir, but it turned out to be a novel, set during World War II in England. The protagonist of the novel, Gwen, is a horticulturist who joins the Women’s Land Army, is posted to an estate in Devon, and ends up falling in love with a garden.

The novel was mesmerizing, and it certainly provided the garden inspiration I was looking for. I was particularly struck by the quote at the top of this post, a theme that runs throughout the book and which led me to think in new ways about my gardening experience.

I am a person who loves order (describing me as borderline OCD probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration). Not surprisingly, my early gardening attempts were characterized by too much orderliness (e.g., lining up plants in straight rows like soldiers in formation!). Even after I learned to think in curves and circles rather than rectangles and rows, my garden design process remained a very orderly one. I make lists of plants with their characteristics, do systematic sun studies of new garden areas, and plan everything out on graph paper before I plant.

First fence border planting plan

fence border tallOnce I have planted an orderly new flower bed, it is time for Mother Nature to move in and disrupt all that order by introducing elements of chaos. Plants don’t always behave as expected. Some don’t get along with their neighbors and need to be relocated. Some plants don’t make it, and I may choose their replacements in a more impulsive way, without all that orderly planning. Plants that are happy in their new homes grow in unexpected ways and make unplanned (and often very pleasing) combinations. Not only do the plants grow together as they mature, but I find myself squeezing in new plants that are impulse purchases or gifts from friends or divisions of much-loved plants that grow elsewhere in my garden. I can’t say that any part of my garden has ever achieved Humphreys’ “perfect balance of order and chaos,” but the plantings improve as they mature.

fence border inner blooms

I am never going to become a gardener who brings plants home and puts them in the ground, expanding old flower beds and creating new ones as I go; that would require a personality transplant! But my education as a gardener is very much about learning from Mother Nature and being more open to the chaos of living things. As I become a more experienced gardener, I have more confidence in my ability to decide when to let the chaos introduced by natural processes go and when to intervene. (Is that a charming self-sown wildflower that should be allowed to stay or a weed that will turn into a thug if I let it get a foothold?)

Some have described gardens as a delicate balance of natural processes and human intervention. I am still pondering how that is related to Humphreys’ balance of order and chaos. Your thoughts?

Splashes of Color in a White World: GBBD, January 2015

January 16, 2015

winter garden jan 2015My Maine garden has been under snow cover for more than 6 weeks now. Although we had some unseasonably warm days in December, they never lasted long enough to melt all the snow that had piled up earlier, and more snow has been added in the new year. Here and there in the snow, seed heads of various perennials provide some “winter interest.”

hosta seedhead in snow spirea seedheads in snow

But my flowering houseplants are where I turn for color and promises of spring during the white months of winter. Although my various amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs have shown no signs of making flower buds, the stalwart cyclamen plants are ever-reliable.

pink cyclamen with flowers

pink & white cyclamen bloomingMy oldest cyclamen, with its small pink flowers, was already blooming profusely in December and has shown no sign of slowing down in January. Near it on the living room window ledge, two potted partners, one with large deep pink flowers and one with white flowers, are both in bloom.

My smallest potted cyclamen, which has flame-colored flowers, has found a home on the new glass étagère in a sunny corner of my bedroom. I had hoped to see it blooming by now, but instead have only buds. We can look forward to its scarlet blooms for February.

red cyclamen jan 2015

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see January blooms from gardens (and windowsills) in many climes.


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