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Garden Design, Garden Process and Editing: A Lesson from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

October 6, 2017

CMBG JoePyeThis year, I have been pondering the relationship between garden design and garden process. My reflections were particularly triggered by reading Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher’s book, Garden Revolution, which argues in favor of a focus on “garden as process” rather than “garden as product.” (See Favorite Garden Books: Garden Revolution.)

My thinking about this tension in garden design took a leap forward this summer when I had the opportunity to take two courses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with Bill Cullina, President and CEO of the gardens. Bill was recruited to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens from the New England Wildflower Society, where he was in charge of plant propagation. He is a knowledgeable horticulturalist, a scientist who gathers information through experimentation and observation, and a creative thinker.

The two courses I took with him were “Selecting Native Herbaceous Plants for the Maine Garden” and “Horticultural Ecology,” both required courses for the Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture that I am working toward. Like all courses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, these were intensive (each two full days) and they combined periods in the classroom with periods walking around the gardens to examine plants in situ. Walking around the gardens with Bill is an extraordinary experience, not only because he knows so much about plants and horticultural science, but because he seems to be intimately acquainted with every plant growing there.

Our first foray into the garden on the first day of the Horticultural Ecology class was to the rain garden immediately behind the Borsage Family Education Center, where classes are held. The Education Center is a LEED-certified building, and the rain garden for handling runoff from the roof  was part of the design for LEED certification. As Bill pointed out and discussed the various plants growing in the rain garden, it became apparent that many (most?) of them had not been part of the original rain garden design. It seems that the design philosophy practiced at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is to begin with a planting designed to fit the site; then see which plants thrive, which do not and (most importantly) which plants not originally part of the design show up on their own; then edit.

Editing involves removing plants that do not thrive or are otherwise unsuitable for the place where they have been planted. One of the plants that volunteered to grow in the rain garden was common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a plant which tends to form large clonal colonies. The milkweed was allowed to stay in one part of the rain garden, where it is completely surrounded by rock and has created a lovely island of milkweed. In the rest of the rain garden, where they were likely to become thugs, common milkweed seedlings were pulled up.

CMBG JoePye & Lemon QueenAnother plant that had shown up as a volunteer in the rain garden and had been welcomed there was spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum). Indeed, Joe-Pye weed has seeded itself in many parts of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens; and its stately pink blooms are a glorious presence in the September gardens. In one part of the Haney Hillside Garden, Joe-Pye weed has created a beautiful combination by planting itself side-by-side with the perennial sunflower (Helianthus) ‘Lemon Queen’

If one advantage of the botanical garden’s design philosophy is the creation of beautiful combinations like this one that weren’t envisioned in the original planting design, another advantage is the cost savings when plants are allowed to propagate on their own. I saw an example of this when I visited the garden in May and was struck by colorful masses of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) blooming around ponds in both the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses and the Children’s Garden. It turned out that only a few of these, along one edge of one pond, were part of the original planting; the rest had seeded themselves.

marsh marigoldsAs someone who came to gardening from a love of wildflowers, I find this design/process/edit strategy very appealing. The concept of garden designer as editor provides a middle path between Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s idea of creating designed plant communities (see Favorite Garden Books: Planting in a Post-Wild World), which can be intimidatingly complex, and Weaner and Christopher’s idea of creating gardens that mimic wild plantings by using communities of plants already found growing together in similar conditions.  I like the idea of letting natural communities develop as volunteer wildflowers seed themselves into my designed gardens and of being more intentional about which self-sown volunteers stay and which ones get edited out.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2017 11:48 am

    That sounds like a wonderful class, Jean – I envy you the opportunity to attend. The philosophy used by the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden is a sound one. I’ve gravitated in a similar direction myself, albeit less analytically determined. As something of a plant collector, I’m now firmly in the editing mode, focusing on the plants that do best in my hot and very dry environment.

    • October 20, 2017 11:32 am

      Kris, All my classes at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens have been wonderful; sometimes I feel as though my brain might explode from all I’m learning. 😉 Like you, I’ve found myself honing in over the years on plants that are happy growing in my sandy soil.

  2. October 9, 2017 10:42 am

    Jean, Thank you for sharing your insight from this class. Like Chris, I envy your opportunity to take such a class. I came to gardening through a love of cooking and a need for fresh herbs. Herb gardens are more formal and planned. After moving to my wooded acreage, I discovered wildflower gardening. Without knowing it, I’ve followed the design/process/editing mode as ferns, wild ginger, golden rod and others have moved into my gardens as volunteers. At first I was frustrated by the interlopers, but learned to love their surprise appearance culling them in areas where they struggled and letting them flourish where they thrived. Thanks for a great article!

    • October 20, 2017 11:34 am

      Kathy, This gardening strategy spoke to me, too. I think what I was missing before was the knowledge to think through how a volunteer would behave if I let it stay. Would it play nicely with others or become a garden thug? Now I feel better equipped to make those assessments.

  3. October 10, 2017 1:00 pm

    Letting go of complete control of your garden seems to be something with which most of my nursery customers struggle. It has been years since I even thought about controlling my garden and now welcome plants to decide where they want to grow. I wrote about this in 2014 and quoted famous Latvian horticulturist Janis Ruksans. You may be interested in what he has to say: https://carolynsshadegardens.com/2014/04/10/letting-go-part-2-naturalizing-bulbs/. Those courses sound great.

    • October 20, 2017 11:36 am

      Carolyn, The courses are wonderful! One of the things that makes them so great is that they are kept small (usually no more than 15), with lots of opportunity for interaction between teacher and students.

  4. October 11, 2017 5:37 pm

    Weeding mindfully can be delightfully rewarding. I lost one of my pair of Polygala. But, the seedling that volunteered was moved to where I want (blue) OK purple flowers and it now stands hip high and happy.

    • October 20, 2017 11:41 am

      Diana, Just today, I was noticing how big a goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) seedling that I rescued several years ago from where it had sown itself by the woodpile has gotten. I need to find a permanent home for it soon or it will be too big to relocate from my nursery bed.

  5. October 13, 2017 3:49 pm

    Hello Jean, I’m not sure what process I follow for garden design and planting. I know it’s definitely “organic” as it were. I think I start with and idea of the end product and work backwards to see how to get there. I’m not sure I understand the “garden as a process”, definitely more reading required on my part.

    • October 20, 2017 11:43 am

      Hi Sunil, The idea of “garden as process” focuses on the dynamic nature of gardens — that the “end product” we imagine as we are designing and planting is never really the end product, since the plants will inevitably grow (or not) is surprising ways, move themselves around, and self-sow.

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