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Posts Tagged ‘horticulture’

04garden1-jumbo

Photo: Mark Baldwin
A dense carpet of woodland perennials. Thomas Rainer, a landscape architect, calls plants “social creatures” that thrive in particular networks.

Today we understand that trees and other plants are the lungs of the planet and that we are losing too many every year, so it behooves us to understand them better and do what we can to help the remainder thrive. Even in our yards.

At the New York Times, Margaret Roach offers some tips from a landscape architect.

“Thomas Rainer and I have both been doing the botanical thing for decades,” she writes. “We know, and use, many of the same plants — and even much of the same horticultural vocabulary. But what he and I see when we look at a butterfly weed or a coneflower, or what we mean when we say familiar words like ‘layering’ or ‘ground cover,’ is surprisingly not synonymous.

“It turns out I’ve been missing what the plants were trying to tell me, failing to read botanical body language and behavior that could help me put plants together in combinations that would solve challenges that many of us have: beds that aren’t quite working visually, and garden areas that don’t function without lots of maintenance. … I asked Mr. Rainer, a landscape architect based in Washington, D.C., to lend us his 3-D vision.

“Roach: You visit a lot of gardens, and probably hear from gardeners like me with beds that just aren’t working. What’s the most common cause?

“Rainier: First, we have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks. Take a butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, named this year’s Perennial Plant of the Year by the industry group the Perennial Plant Association), for example. The height of its flower is exactly the height of the grasses it grows among. Its narrow leaves hug its stems to efficiently emerge through a crowded mix. It has a taproot that drills through the fibrous roots of grasses. Everything about that plant is a reaction to its social network. And it is these social networks that make plantings so resilient.

“So if we think about the way plants grow in the wild, it helps us understand how different our gardens are. In the wild, every square inch of soil is covered with a mosaic of interlocking plants, but in our gardens, we arrange plants as individual objects in a sea of mulch. We place them in solitary confinement.

“So if you want to add butterfly weed to your garden, you might drift it in beds several feet apart and tuck some low grasses in as companions, like prairie dropseed, blue grama grass or buffalo grass.

“Start by looking for bare soil. It is everywhere in our gardens and landscapes. Even in beds with shrubs in them, there are often large expanses of bare soil underneath. It’s incredibly high-maintenance. It requires multiple applications of bark mulch a year, pre-emergent herbicides and lots and lots of weeding.

“The alternative to mulch is green mulch — that is, plants. This includes a wide range of herbaceous plants that cover soil, like clump-forming sedges, rhizomatous strawberries or golden groundsel, and self-seeding columbine or woodland poppies.

“Roach: If I want to try to do it more as nature does, what am I aiming for? Where do I take my cues?

“Rainier: The big shift in horticulture in the next decade will be a shift from thinking about plants as individual objects to communities of interrelated species. We think it’s possible to create designed plant communities: stylized versions of naturally occurring ones, adapted to work in our gardens and landscapes. This is not ecological restoration, it’s a hybrid of ecology and horticulture. We take inspiration from the layered structure in the wild, but combine it with the legibility and design of horticulture. It is the best of both worlds: the functionality and biodiversity of an ecological approach, but also the focus on beauty, order and color that horticulture has given us. It’s possible to balance diversity with legibility, ecology with aesthetics.

“And it is a shift in how we take care of our gardens: a focus on management, not maintenance. When you plant in communities, you manage the entire plantings, not each individual plant. This is a pretty radical shift. It’s O.K. if a plant self-seeds around a bit, or if one plant becomes more dominant. As long as it fits the aesthetic and functional goals. We can do much less and get more.” More here.

What do you think? I’m not a gardener, but I have a little yard, and I take Rainier’s point about how every patch of bare soil creates problems. I wonder what the Meadowscaping folks might have to say about combining horticulture and ecology in this way.

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My husband’s spring visit to the Arnold Arboretum and a guided tour by Andrew Gapinski, manager of horticulture, got us looking up information on witch hazel.

Steve Kemper at Yankee Magazine had this to say: “Witch hazel grows from southern Canada to Florida and from Minnesota to Texas, but it flourishes most densely in the eastern half of Connecticut. Not quite a tree but more than a shrub, witch hazel has speckled gray bark, a slim trunk typically just a few inches in diameter, and a bushy top that ends well shy of 20 feet. For three seasons of the year, it’s inconspicuous in the understory.

“But after all the leaves have fallen and the last aster has succumbed to frost, witch hazel displays its exuberant eccentricity, bursting into festive yellow blossoms that Thoreau compared to ‘furies’ hair, or small ribbon streamers.’ At the same time, the previous year’s blossoms have ripened into hard fruits, which now explode, propelling the small seeds up to 30 feet. …

“The Native Americans called this strange plant ‘winterbloom’ and ascribed special powers to it. They used it as a cure-all, steeping the bark and branches to make a tea … which they put on cuts, bruises, insect bites, pinkeye, hemorrhoids, and sore muscles — maladies for which witch hazel is still used. “

At the Boston Globe, David Filipov adds, “Native Americans used witch hazel as a cure-all. So did the early European settlers. … Because of that, Dickinson Brands Inc., the world’s largest producer of witch hazel, has quietly prospered here, in what is arguably the witch hazel capital of the world.

“Owners and employees say they have avoided the layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts that have benighted so many companies. And in this season of shrinking sales and mounting losses, the privately owned company says it has experienced double-digit growth. …

“Sometimes the product’s rich history as an all-round remedy intrudes upon the company’s attempt to place the Witch Hazel brand as a gentle skin-care product for the modern woman.

“ ‘Back in the day, they used to use it a lot on the animals’ who had cuts and scrapes,’’ [an employer] recalled. ‘As a matter of fact, most of the race horses of today use it. After they work out, they wipe the horses with it. Yep, cools the horses down.’ ”

Read all about this built-to-last Connecticut industry at Yankee Magazine and the Boston Globe.

(Witch Hazel was a character in the Little Lulu comics of my childhood. Different witch.)

Image: Franz Eugen Köhler

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