Growing season ahoy!

Red Russian kale

Red Russian kale

Whew!  Now, that was a day.  I’ve been to a client’s house to measure out the front yard for a base map – thank you, T., for your help.  Bought and ate bagels.  Drafted up that base map and did some preliminary work on the new circular driveway loop.

Out in the greenhouse, we got the new strawberries watered and set up ten flats of greens:  Tyee spinach and Lacinato (both standard and variegated) and Red Russian kale.  Screwed down some of the support frame that came unmoored in last week’s tornado-y winds.    Cleaned the chickens’ waterer out and refilled it and their feeder.  Dug up a mess of weeds from the onion and garlic bed and fed them to the chickens (who know to watch from that corner of their run when I go into the garden).

Back at the house, we refilled the kindling boxes for the woodstove and refilled the water jugs that live in the greenhouse, and finally I mixed up the latest batch of dog bikkies.

I think that’s enough for one day.  Don’t you?  🙂

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Snow day!



We are having the best winter this year – not only is it snowing, but it’s snowing on a day that was a holiday anyway, so I don’t have to stress over whether I can get to work.  The woodstove is keeping the house toasty warm, the dogs and I have already been out playing in the snow, and it’s actually warmer than it was a good bit of last week.

Check your gardens if you haven’t already, and be watching for the spring bloomers.  It’s supposed to be in the 60s in central Virginia this weekend – I bet we get some early flowers!  (I did notice, this past week, the camellias in Capitol Square bravely blossoming despite the shivery cold.)  My own camellia still has that dessicated look evergreens get in extreme cold, but the flower buds are just showing a bit of color.

Get out and enjoy the snow.  That’s what snow days are for.  🙂

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*Now* it can snow

BCS 605 with snow thrower (Richard Dailey photo)

BCS 605 with snow thrower (Richard Dailey photo)

This lovely thing came in last week – just in time to be tested out on the remnants of our 14+ inch snowstorm.  Shout out to Richard Dailey and Dailey’s Walk Behind Tractors for getting this machine in proper working order!  I’m looking forward to tilling up the garden this year.

No, it’s not a tiller, it’s not a DR, and it’s not a toy.  It’s an Italian-made BCS walk-behind tractor.  With a 12.5 hp engine and steel innards, it can run most of the same sorts of implements the larger four-wheel machines can (like the snow thrower it’s pictured with above and the tiller I also bought).  The BCS has the enormous advantage of being able to maneuver in much tighter spaces and the equally large advantage of costing far, far less than one of the big tractors.  For our acreage, this tractor is perfect.

Want to see it in action?  Check out this link to a short video clip taken as we tested out our new two-wheeled tractor:



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Liminal spaces are where the excitement is.

Liminal spaces are where the excitement is.

How many edges do you see?

You know this instinctively. How many times have you looked at something where its edges blend into, or are covered by, something else, and wondered what would happen there next? It’s why, in landscape design, we overlap trees and shrubs to partially hide what’s beyond them; the mystery draws the garden’s visitors in. In fiction, it’s the reason so many stories have elements of two or more genres. There’s tremendous strength in the place where different portions of the Venn diagram overlap.

In the Mid-Atlantic region right now, we’re dealing with an El Niño winter. Last weekend, it brought huge amounts of (thankfully) dry snow – I had something in excess of 14 inches at my house. This week and especially this weekend, we’re seeing temperatures ten to twenty degrees over the seasonal norm. There’s certainly tremendous uncertainty in this weather, if not a lot of pleasure.

What it reminds us of, however, is that even in the weird, up and down weather we’re having right now, there is beauty to be seen. I’m not the only one to observe that blizzards are the only natural disaster that leaves the landscape more beautiful in its wake. Clean white snow is so peaceful. Icicles with the sun shining through them draw smiles. Plant life stubbornly shrugging off winter’s mantle reminds us that spring is just around the corner.

Take a deep breath, and really see your world.  You’ll be the better for it.

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The Best Season

Let me tell you why I think autumn is the best season.

No, let me show you.

Nyssa sylvatica, Black Gum

Nyssa sylvatica, Black Gum

This glorious tree is the Black Gum, Nyssa sylvatica.  It’s native to the Eastern seaboard, it’s architecturally interesting, and in the autumn it puts on its party dress, dotted with pearl-like fruit the color of blue plums.  It’s a tree that’s guaranteed to instill at least momentary mindfulness on anyone who views it.  A really grand specimen will jerk your head around and make you drive a block out of your way just to gaze on it with awe.

And at other times of year, we completely ignore the Nyssas that hide in our woods’ edges – or worse, we cut them down because they’re informally structured or even sparse.  Nyssa sylvatica, you see, is like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree:  not appreciated for what it is.

Until the autumn.  And then, oh then, Nyssas take center stage.

Ginkgos and a Cornus florida make an unforgettable sight

Ginkgos and a Cornus florida make an unforgettable sight

Joining the Nyssas in catching my attention are trees you’ll likely recognize.  Dogwood (Cornus florida) is beautiful for more than its crop of berries.  Ginkgo biloba is well-regarded as a street tree nowadays.  Maples get a lot of attention, but what about the glowing torches that hickories and tulip poplars turn into?  Autumn is too brief; they blow their leaves after the first cold snap, leaving us crunching golden carpets underfoot.


Amongst my favorite shrubs are the Viburnums.  As a class, their largest use is as undistinguished hedging, perhaps grown for the fruit that sparkles on the branches or, for some varieties, for the  splash of white flowers like a heavy snow.  Viburnums should be the star of the show, though, for the texture of their leaves and, yes, for their color.

Viburnum x judii, Mahonia bealei, and Cupressus arizonica 'Carolina Sapphire'

Viburnum x judii, Mahonia bealei, and Cupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’

(Also in this photo:  Mahonia bealei, whose branches full of sharp-pointed leaves overlap like plates of armor, and the blue Cupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’.  A garden full of color can be overwhelming.  A garden with lovelies like this cherry-red Viburnum bracketed by steady evergreens has what designers like to call winter interest.)

Yep, autumn is my favorite season.  It’s a riot that reminds us to pay attention as we race to the conclusion of the year.  Take the time to stop and really look, and once you’ve looked your fill, relax.  What comes after autumn is nature taking a break, which has glories all its own.

Southern wax myrtle, Morella cerifera, in a heavy frost

Southern wax myrtle, Morella cerifera, in a heavy frost

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Making Beauty Sustainable

Circium seedhead in winter

This past October’s biennial reappearance of the Gillette Forum focused on a topic which many design professionals are wrestling with.  Given the current interest in native plants and the environment, how do we as landscape designers fit those native plants and environmental concerns into the desires of our clients, which are frequently still focused on appearance and formality?  How do we successfully challenge the American suburban aesthetic of neatness?  How do we reach the denizens of “screen world,” where the natural world is filtered through what they see on their electronic devices’ screens?  The speakers—landscape architect and blogger Thomas Rainer, Mt. Cuba Center director of horticulture Travis Beck, and Oehme van Sweden principal Sheila Brady, along with Washington Post columnist and editor Adrian Higgins—offered a lot of thoughtful discussion on the subject.

Thomas Rainer explored the concept of designing using plant communities.  In trying to interpret (rather than re-create) nature in our clients’ landscapes, it is easy to struggle with plant selection.  Thomas suggested we look instead to the sorts of relationships plants commonly form in nature and use that as our guideline.  Instead of focusing just on the showy design layer of plants, then, he recommended we also include groundcovers and non-showy perennials to ensure our native plants receive the support and weed protection they need to look their best and satisfy our clients.

Andropogon ternarius, a "weedy" native grass

Travis Beck provided the panel’s scientific side, discussing the principles of ecologic design.  It’s a real challenge, when you’re aiming for a proper distribution of species in a design plan, to figure out how many of a given species you will need to reach that distribution ratio.  And how do we take into account the competition and succession of species?  Using ecology to determine which new trees to use in rejuvenating a woodland grove, Travis showed us how to tackle this very complex subject.  Travis also suggested the use of a framework to impose a sense of deliberateness on the relative unstructured forms of a naturalistic planting.

Sheila Brady gave insights into the recent re-imagining and re-installation of the New York Botanic Garden’s native plants display, showing us how her team tackled science and expectations to distill the essence of New England native flora across multiple habitats.  Imagine designing the layout for 75,000 plants in a multi-acre space!

Kay in the meadow garden - Andropogon and Muhlenbergia

Adrian Higgins asked us to consider an Adolph Gottlieb quote:  “We always talk about going back to Nature.  Why don’t we ever talk about going forward to Nature?”  Adrian noted that we no longer have the luxury of dealing with the landscape as an exercise in aesthetics—but we do have the advantage of amazing native plant compositions like New York’s Highline which will influence the public’s acceptance of naturalism.

As Thomas stated and the other speakers reiterated, we have reached the point where there is no longer any going back to the untouched wilderness conditions our forefathers venerated.  This is planting design for a post-wild world, and it’s an exciting time to be a designer.


Of course, some recommended reading came out of the lectures.  Travis Beck’s 2013 book The Principles of Ecological Landscape Design was praised by the other speakers for its exploration of the science behind what had been an emotionally charged, subjective topic.  Thomas Rainer’s influential blog, grounded design (, is often cited by other design professionals and happens to be one of those I regularly read.  (Thomas also has a new book, to be released late in 2015, with Claudia West, which will explore the concept and implementation of designing within plant communities.)  Other resources recommended by the speakers were Perennials and Their Garden Habitats by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl; Design with Natureby Ian McHarg; the Missouri Botanic Garden’s MOBOT (; and North Creek Nursery’s catalog and landscape plug manual. (

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Take a deep breath…

Dogwood leaves hinting at the fall

You can feel the seasons changing.  It’s there in the shortening days – we’re nearly to the autumnal equinox, when day and night are in balance, and we’ve lost a full hour’s worth of daylight in the evenings since Midsummer.  It’s there in the changing angle of the light, too, where even on the hottest days there’s shade to be found where there was none back in July.  Native grasses are casting their inflorescences (you’d probably call them flowers) up at the sky.  Autumn’s palette is golden yellow and rusty red, bottomless blue and green fading to olive.  We still have to endure summer’s last few brutal hours, but there is hope that, around the calendar’s corner, we will have relief.  It’s coming.  You can feel it.

Which means, for us gardeners, that there’s work ahead.  We will no longer have the excuse that it’s too hot to get out there and experience the garden!  Plan now:  make a list of the things that need to get taken care of before the garden goes to bed this winter, and set a date to begin each.  Beginning, of course, is that hardest first step we’re warned about; summer’s inertia is oh! so hard to overcome.  Set dates, and don’t talk yourself out of them.

Gardening Grand Master Michael King has had a lot of wise things to say lately about gardening with perennials, and today’s post continues that trend.  It’s a very American habit to tidy up so that nothing but plants and bare ground (or more likely mulch) remains visible, and not to rest until it is.  However, Mr. King and I would argue that you do yourself and your gardens a disservice by removing from them the perfect fertilizer provided by Nature.  Rather than dumping all of that lovely organic material on your compost pile, how about returning it to feed the soil right where it came from?  Doing so maintains the nutrients your plants need and reduces your dependence on mulch – the broken-up stem pieces and decayed leaves and flower buds are mulch, just not mulch you had to purchase and spread.  Break the mulch-and-tidy habit, folks…and remove a couple of things from your To-Do list while you’re at it.

Which will give you time to read Mr. King’s blog and think about how your gardens might come to resemble his.  It’s the season for that, too.  🙂

Michael King’s Perennial Meadows blog is at

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Pollinator 411, or, the Good, the Less Good, and the Gorgeous

Question Mark butterfly

Everywhere you turn, there’s another blog, another Facebook post, another news article about climate change.  Even the climate change deniers have switched to complaining that we don’t know why it’s changing.  From the perspective of a landscape designer, this is a major challenge; we don’t know if the plants we’re specifying for that lovely perennial border are going to cope with too much rain, or no rain, or if that community will permit watering in an ongoing drought.

But we’re not the only ones who live here on this changing world, and we really have to take that into account when designing.  Many of those other dwellers – most of them insects – have an enormous impact on our landscapes and on our very lives.  Did you know that one in three mouthfuls of food or drink is only possible because of pollinators?[i]  It matters to us and our clients that the landscapes we’re designing are beautiful, but it’s becoming more apparent that beautiful is not enough.  The push for the use of native plants is not just plant snobbery; it’s a recognition that we need all those unseen, unacknowledged neighbors so we can continue to live here.

Bumblebee on Echinacea


Unless you like bugs (like me!), pollinating insects are not something you think about every day.  We and our clients worry about bugs, but usually only in terms of what damage the bug is doing.  If we worry about the health of the bugs, it’s the really visible, friendly insects like bumblebees and butterflies that get the headlines.  There are a lot of other native[ii] insects, however, who play a role in the pollination that’s so essential to our well-being, and getting to know them will hopefully lead you to think of the insects, too, when designing landscapes.  (You might also be interested to know that only about one percent of all 4 million insect species interact with humans in negative ways[iii], and that studies have shown the overall value provided by the world’s insects to be $57 billion – that’s billion with a B.)

We have grown a lot as a culture.  We use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) now instead of indiscriminately tossing around poisons (well, not as much, anyway) – but remember that IPM means controlling pest numbers, not destroying the pest.  That’s not just an acknowledgement that we can’t effectively destroy a pest without poisoning ourselves.  It’s also an awareness that what is, today, a pest may very well be a pollinator once it grows up.  Or it might feed those oh so important pollinators in either their larval or adult forms.  And it’s a reflection of the fact that, when we zap all the pests, we often zap the insects that prey on them…and pests multiply far, far more quickly than predators.  Use poison, and you might very well end up with a rebound population of pests larger than the one you initially “took care of,” without predators to keep them in check.

Native bee

There are four major classes of pollinating insects:  bees and wasps, flies, butterflies and moths, and beetles.  Bees (both native and imported) are considered the most important pollinators, because they deliberately gather pollen and nectar to feed their young, rather than just transferring what they happen to have bumped up against.  Honeybees are the bees most people are familiar with, but native bees are far more efficient pollinators than the imported honeybee; they forage over a longer period of daylight, in weather which keeps honeybees in their hives, and they visit many different plants in a given foraging trip, thus increasing the pollination across many species at the same time.  One study showed more than twice as many hours’ foraging for blue orchard bees—33 hours—compared to honeybees pollinating in the same area (15 hours).   It takes only 250 female orchard bees to pollinate an acre of apples–a task it would take 15,000 honeybees to accomplish![iv]  Bumblebees are often the first bees active in the spring and the last still active in the fall.  Bumblebees also have the ability to “buzz-pollinate,” vibrating their bodies to shake pollen from the plant’s anthers.  That’s what they’re doing when you hear them making a racket down inside a flower!

There are about 500 species of native bees in Virginia, including about eighteen species of bumblebees.  Most are solitary bees; they do not form colonies, which gives the added advantage (to us!) that, lacking a colony to defend, they tend to be far less aggressive than honeybees.  Instead, they nest in the ground, in bunchgrass clumps and brush piles, or inside woody stems of plants.  Bumblebees also favor abandoned mouse burrows.  Not all types of soil are favored by the ground dwellers.  If you happen to find an area of the sandy, south-facing soil they like, and there are bees nesting there, do your best to conserve the area as it is; any sort of deep disturbance of the soil can destroy the bees’ nests before they can reproduce.

The area covered by an individual bee depends largely on its size.  Large carpenter bees and bumblebees can travel a mile or more from their nest.  Mining bees and leafcutter bees might forage 400-500 yards out.  Small bees like the sweat bees[v] and the smaller carpenter bees only go about 300 yards.  The tiniest bees might be limited to no more than a couple hundred feet.

Wasp on Tardiva hydrangea

Wasps[vi] are relatively weak pollinators, lacking both body hair and the long tongues possessed by bees, but they do carry grains of pollen from plant to plant as the adults feed on nectar or hunt other insects to feed their young.  Wasps’ real value to the gardener is as a predator of pest insects from aphids to cicadas.

Flies[vii], members of one of the largest insect orders on Earth, are the most frequent visitors to flowers.  They are often important pollinators for specific plants, including some human food plants (strawberries, onions, and carrots, yum!).  Lacking a sting, many flies mimic bees or wasps in their shape and coloration.  To tell them apart, remember that flies have one pair of wings (bees and wasps have two) and shorter, clubbed or down-turned antennae; bees’ and wasps’ antennae are longer and uniformly shaped.

Fly on pineapple sage

Most flies we see are syrphid flies, though we may also encounter bee flies and tachinid flies.  Their mouthparts are short, limiting them to the disk-shaped flowers (e.g., Queen Anne’s Lace, the wild relative of the carrot).  Many flies are predators of other insect species.

Butterflies and moths, even more than bees, are the insects most people recognize and, while they are not the most important pollinator, they are certainly the most conspicuous and one of the reasons most often cited for wanting a native plant garden.  Their pollinating is by virtue of brushing up against the pollen-bearing anthers while they sip nectar with their long, long tongues.

Hummingbird moth on Buddleia

Moths, the less visible of the two, are actually represented in much larger number—more than 10,000 species in North America compared to about 800 for butterflies—and are far more important as pollinators, especially for plants which bloom at night.  You may very likely have seen a large, hovering shape sipping at coneflowers and thought it was a hummingbird, only to realize it was a moth—a hummingbird moth!



Ground beetle

Beetles, our final category of native pollinators, comprise the greatest diversity of pollinators with nearly 30,000 species in North America alone (and more than 340,000 worldwide).  Because they are an ancient creature and very likely the first insect pollinators of prehistoric flowering plants, they are adapted to flowers which still retain their ancient, open bowl characteristics, like magnolias and water lilies.  Flowers which are pollinated by beetles often give off a characteristic odor to attract them.  In addition to their pollinating duties, beetles are important because their larvae burrow tunnels in decaying wood which wood-nesting bees later use.  One of my favorite beetles, the soldier beetle, looks a lot like a firefly.  Other important (for our purposes) families of beetles include the long-horned beetle with hugely elongated antennae; jewel beetles, whose bodies are amongst the most brightly colored in the insect world; scarab beetles, including one of the most important pollinators of native magnolias, the flower scarab; and blister beetles, whose name is very apt if you’ve ever tried to pluck the adults off tomato plants.  As adults, many of the beetles listed above feed on nectar and pollen, and in doing so, promote pollination.  They’re also great predators of other insects, including pest species.  Blister beetle larvae hitch rides on foraging bees, returning with the bee to the bee’s nest, where they then feed on bee larvae; their numbers are an indicator, therefore, of the relative health of the local bee population.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly on Echinacea

Want to know more about what these various insects look like, or how to identify them in the wild?  Check out the Xerces Society, dedicated to the preservation of invertebrate species, at  Various Xerces Society publications formed much of the basis for this article, including their book, Attracting Native Pollinators.  There are also a lot of great photos of pollinators at

[i] “Pollinator Conservation:  Three Simple Steps to Help Bees and Butterflies,” fact sheet produced by Xerces Society,

[ii] I’m focusing on native pollinators here because, in fact, there are more of them and they’re far more effective pollinators than the imported, and beleaguered, honeybee.  Honeybees are important…but it’s the native pollinators that are going to save our stomachs.

[iii] Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home, p. 109.

[iv] “Native Pollinators on the Farm:  What’s In It for Growers,” fact sheet produced by Xerces Society.

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A little self-promotion

This year, I was re-elected as Secretary for the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers (, of which I am a certified member.  It’s a great organization whose sole purpose is to assure you, the client, that the VSLD-certified designer you hire has the skills and experience needed to deliver a beautiful design.  As a result, my local paper interviewed me, and I wanted to share the article.  Yes, the first order of business really is to get your soil tested!

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To Mass or Intermingle?

The Value of Plant Community-Based Design 

In his latest blog post, landscape architect Thomas Rainer advocates for a more plant-community-based landscape aesthetic, one which emphasizes neither the masses of single species which have been so omnipresent in the American landscape in the past ten years, nor the more recent trend of intermingling a multitude of species within a garden bed.

Natural plant communities along the Atlantic coast (Quinby, VA)

His reasoning makes sense to me; while the intermingling technique is said to better mimic plantings found in nature, unless they actively are designed to mimic the roles of plants in communities, they will quickly move through succession as the stronger outcompete the slower, the taller shade out the lower-growing.  (Or you spend a lot of time pulling seedlings and rooting stems and snipping off fertile seed heads.)  Eventually, if you allow nature to take its course, you will end up with only a few species dominating what had been a mixed composition.

This constantly changing landscape may be exactly what you want – in which case, more power to you!  There’s certainly value in observing nature in a microcosm.  If, however, what you’re after is to experience the three dimensional version of a favorite landscape painting, consider working with your landscape designer to incorporate Ranier’s plant community-based ideas.

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