One of my earliest memories is of being bundled up and taken to Gracemont, a local retirement home. It was a high-gabled, dark-painted house on a hill. We trundled up its long overgrown drive in our brown second-hand Savannah van. Scary for a 6-year old. My parents shoved single-stem carnations into my closed hand. “Give them out,” they whispered. There were only four of us then, four little boys in our striped shorts overalls with a big red embroidered train on the front.
I wandered through the crowd of old people in wheelchairs and cardigans. Some with eyes closed. Were they dead or just sleeping? Others trembled with Parkinson’s, while some muttered guttural nonsense. I remember my mum’s dress, tiny green-and-cream checks. I remember my father’s bashful smile. We handed those flowers out, stem by stem. Red, salmon, white carnations.
As a kid, I didn’t know what was going on. Now, I understand that my my parents wanted us to know how to give presence to people with different physical abilities - older people, people with physical and mental disabilities. We had to learn how to be around others with different experiences and abilities. We needed to value the lives of others with experiences different to our own. When the day came, and my own grandfather (contorted by Alzheimers and only a twisted shadow of himself) had to go to a care home, it wasn’t something new or scary. We sat by his chair, inhaling the funk of old people, and watching John Wayne reruns (volume turned up ridiculously high) on the small and grainy television.
I was jolted back to Gracemont a few days ago. “If what I’m inspiring you to do is go to the gym and say, you’re not like me, so you don’t have to face these barriers, that’s not the kind of inspiration [I want to provide].” Headphones in, coffee mug full, smug in my warm office, I listened to Becca Bunce's experience as a disability activist on the Guilty Feminist. “What does it inspire you to do? If it inspires you to go out and campaign to stop personal independence payment cuts to people, if it inspires you to make your events easier for disabled people to get involved, if you’re taking down the barriers, great! That’s great inspiration.”
As someone who designs both public and private spaces, I set up conditions for other people’s experiences of place. One aspect of setting up those experiences is physical ability. There are requirements enshrined in law - ADA guidelines, anyone? But, as a designer, it’s my responsibility to go beyond legal requirements to set up experiences that are joyous and surprising and beautiful for people across a spectrum of physical ability.
I love hiking and exploring. I wade through weeds and get my legs all torn up. My calves are still poison ivied from last weekend, when I jumbled through a brambly ditch to peer at some butterfly weed and wild delphinium. I take these experiences for granted (and blush super red trying to explain them to the tobacco-spitting pickup driver who pulls over to ask me if I need help). But I only have access to these experiences because of my relatively wide range of physical ability.
As a designer, I’m responsible to make places that bring joy and discovery to others who might be less able to get out into the wild. Design as activism gets backlash from privileged designers who can’t empathize with others of different physical abilities, political columnists who won’t acknowledge their own vulnerability, and clients who don’t see why universal accessibility will benefit them. As a designer, it’s my job to picture a more inclusive future. I can set up conditions for a garden to support enjoyment by people with a wide range of physical abilities. I can specify benches, keep slopes moderate, make a place easy to access and enjoy. Such efforts benefit everyone, not just people in wheelchairs.
By advocating for more accessible landscapes, designers can make a place at the table for people of all physical abilities. Just have a listen to Rebecca Bunce: “If you’re truly inspired by disabled people, you like being around them, you think they’ve got something good to say, you think that they can create change, then be inspired to go out and create those changes to get them in the room.”
My mom and dad didn’t have anywhere near this level of articulation in their desire to expose me and my siblings to people with physical and mental disabilities. But they got us in the room with them. If you, like me, feel that you could do more to support people with physical disabilities but don’t know how to start, here are some resources:
Few gardeners and designers have a full understanding of how plants are selected and produced for their landscapes. Plant selection is a core component of both food production and environmentally-friendly gardening, conversations around it are often politically and emotionally charged. Bring on the trigger words. Native. Hybrid. Heirloom. Enough to make the prudent run screaming in the opposite direction.
We’ve all seen the colorful catalogues and message board discussions claiming that hybridization and plant selection are the devil, a detriment to the environment and deeply disrespectful to god. After all, somebody’s to blame for the squat purple-leaf shrubs we see in every box store parking lot and the horrid mounds of annuals you see out front of golf courses. Plus the yearly round of pimped-out double echinaceas and weirdly colored heucheras.
Besides, we’ve all met the crazed hobbyist hybridizer. The bearded iris fiend, or rose fanatic, or daylily fancier. The numbers are staggering. The American Iris Society listed 30,000 registered iris cultivars in 2010. (that's Caroline Dormon's Louisiana Iris collection at Briarwood in the photo above, not quite 30,000 cultivars) 33,000 rose cultivars registered with the American Rose Society. 83,543 registered cultivars of daylilies on the American Hemerocallis Society Database. Nobody needs more than 83 daylilies. Much less 83,000. At least we’ll have a variety of daylily buds to eat in an apocalypse. (Plus the half-bag of dried daylily buds languishing at the back of my cupboard - romantically labelled “golden needles”)
So how do we actually go about defining these thousands upon thousands of plant selections. Most of us know genus and species. That’s the taxonomists’ area - and then once we’ve got used to a name, they change it up again. But plants are differentiated with varying degrees of specificity. It’s within the broad characteristics of genus and species that the real fun begins.
At the broadest level of selection, seeds can be collected from representative populations of a species - maybe wild-collected, maybe cultivated (photo above is of a white Rhododendron canescens that Caroline Dormon selected from a wild white population). Ecological restoration projects, and large-scale naturalistic landscape designs, often use open-pollinated seeds from regional populations in order to establish plantings that are both genetically diverse and physically adapted to regional conditions. You get a diversity of physical characteristics this way, depending on the species - variable heights, bloom times, colors.
Designers and gardeners can use the variability found within open-pollinated plants to their advantage. In From Art to Landscape, W. Gary Smith talks about using a color-variable seed strain of flame azaleas (Rhododendron austrinum) at Peirce’s Wood in Longwood Gardens. Since the plants were grown out as large specimens, Gary was able to selecting seedlings of varying shades and arrange them to create a gradient of color through the yellow to deep orange - offering a sensational effect of enhanced depth. By contrast, at the R.W. Norton gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana, an even wider array of flame azaleas are completely mixed up in giant random swaths with different colors, plant habits, and bloom times (photo above). This results in a constantly-shifting, almost kaleidoscopic effect, as plants of different colors come into and out of bloom.
At a more focused level of detail, you can collect seeds over several generations to establish seed strains that exhibit specific traits - usually height or flower color - and get a more stable population. As an example, consider the seed strains of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) “Hello Yellow” or tropical butterflyweed (Asclepias curassavica) “Silky Deep Red” and “Silky Gold”. With these populations, you can plant a mass - all yellow, all red - but the plants aren’t genetically identical. These changes in flower color don’t make any difference to the the monarch caterpillars that feed on the leaves. But if a gardener or garden designer wants to have a planting in a specific color range, they can get uniformity.
However, if you want to eliminate any variation in your plant selection - go asexual. Plants have this amazing ability to generate entirely new individuals from one bit of an original plant. You can cut a sprig of mint off the original plant and shove it in a pot. A few weeks later, you’ll have a brand new plant. For trickier (and more numerous) multiplication, we can do tissue culture and micropropagation. Every plant is genetically the same as the original plant (for example, if you wanted to propagate more of this very fine specimen of Rhododendron canescens var alba).
This is the method of plant selection that is most often maligned by garden naysayers. Asexual propagation is associated with so many trigger words: Cloning. Micropropagation. True Dolly the Sheep stuff. People say it’s “unnatural”. But plants disregard our human ethical concerns. Most employ their own aesexual propagation methods. Monardas send out runners beneath the soil. Honeysuckles root along their stems. Kalanchoe grow little plantlets along their leaf edges. Lilies make bulbils at each leaf junction along their stems. Plants aren’t binary - they propagate themselves any way they can, both sexually and asexually.
Too much aesexual propagation can cause problems. The Irish potato famine is the classic example. All the potatoes cultivated in Europe were derived from a very narrow gene pool susceptible to a virus. If the entire cultivated population is comprised of just a few cultivars - or even a single cultivar - the lack of genetic diversity in the population makes it highly susceptible to disease and pest stress. However, if you curate a wide diversity of plant varieties - open-pollinated seeds, seed strains, and cultivars - from different ecotypes, you’re helping maintain a wider gene base in your own garden. Studies at Sheffield University in the series Urban Domestic Gardens have offered a thorough exploration of urban garden flora and its role in supporting pollinator and other wildlife populations.
In addition to growing a wider mixture of plant selection types, gardeners can also begin to demand that breeders select for different characteristics. Right now, consumer demand has led to breeders choosing plants with bigger flowers, brighter colors and squatter habits than their parent species. Selecting for these qualities can - but doesn’t necessarily - affect a plant’s viability as food and habitat for pollinators and other species. A seedless sunflower offers no food for goldfinches. But a variety with differently colored flowers - dark red or pale yellow - may not affect the plant’s seeds at all. Through agriculture, humans have developed edible crops that offer enhanced nutritional value, are more flavorful, and are easier to grow - think of the difference between a wild carrot (Daucus carota) and those high-nutrient flavorful varieties (‘Purple Dragon’) we can grow in gardens today.
We could do something similar for “ornamentals”. Start selecting for different characteristics. No more double flowers, virulent neon colors, or blobby plants. Instead start selecting cultivars with characteristics that are beneficial to other species - berries with more abundant nutrients for birds, nectar-heavy flowers for butterflies, flower color that’s most attractive for hummingbirds. Phlox trials at Mount Cuba Center in Delaware revealed that certain cultivars were more attractive and had higher nutrient levels for pollinators than straight Phlox paniculata.
Despite the excesses which we see on box store shelves and sold out of cardboard boxes at local plant sales, don’t blame the plant breeders for those characteristics. It’s not the act of cultivation and selection itself that’s problematic. It’s that consumers buy short plants with large double brightly colored flowers. Stop buying those double rose pink impatiens and the breeders will turn their attention in other directions.
“Rocky, you see, lived down on Long Island somewhere, miles away from New York; and not only that, but he had told me himself more than once that he never got up before twelve, and seldom earlier than one. Constitutionally the laziest young devil in America, he had hit on a walk in life which enabled him to go the limit in that direction. He was a poet. At least, he wrote poems when he did anything; but most of his time, as far as I could make out, he spent in a sort of trance. He told me once that he could sit on a fence, watching a worm and wondering what on earth it was up to, for hours at a stretch.” (P.G. Wodehouse, “The Aunt and the Sluggard”, My Man Jeeves, 1919)
I haven’t watched a worm for an hour. But I have spent an entire afternoon laying on my back on a wide flat stone, staring up into the wind-stirred canopy of a vast white oak (Quercus alba). I've spent equally joyous afternoons robotically potting up hundreds of fragrant lavender, standing at the potting table eclipsed in a cloud of their resinous aroma. recariously Jumping over roadside ditches in attempts to grab photos of roadside larkspur (how else do I get these photos?). Or immersed in the wonderland of a Wodehouse story.
For me as a teenager, nothing could thrill me like the complete overflowing promise of joy brimming from Wodehouse’s stories. They offered endless sunny afternoons full of hilarious adventure. I especially loved his “creative class” characters. Rocky Todd the Long Island Poet who could watch a worm for hours. James Rodman who resists romance and writes mystery thrillers in Honeysuckle Cottage. Joan Valentine, the Home Gossip magazine editor who competes with her neighbor to steal a rare scarab from a country house. Lucius Pim, the arrogant and misogynist painter who gets run over by his girlfriend in a red two-seater automobile.
Of course, some of the stories seem dated now - and ignore the issues of race, class, and modern sexuality that we expect from serious literature. But a part of me still wants to be one of Wodehouse’s characters. An eccentric artist or writer, wearing comfy clothes, living in a tiny cottage out in the woods, bumbling around with like-minded friends. Sitting on the porch, watching the cars go by, smelling the honeysuckle. Sign me up.
I’ve been exposed to so many incredible images of the High Line since it opened in 2009. Its timeline of garden opening and install coincided with my sojourn in landscape architecture school. Photos shot with perfect light, framed from tip-toe views at the back corners of beds appeared in magazines and on landscape blogs from coast to coast and across the world. Most of the coverage is breathlessly enthusiastic. So I was fizzing with excitement to visit this remarkable project.
The story behind the High Line is phenomenal. One sentence summary: abandoned railway line is about to be torn down, when it is rescued and transformed into one of the most famous landmarks in the world. You can read the full story here. The design team was phenomenally high-profile. Landscape architecture celebrity firm James Corner Field Operations were project leads. Diller Scofidio + Renfro architected it. And the phenomenal Piet Oudolf did the planting design.
Time to ratchet back on the expectations. First off, the High Line is a highly trafficked and narrow public space. The actual experience of the High Line is like walking down a long hallway with prints on the wall. Given the traffic on the walk, you don’t have an opportunity to stand back and look at the plantings. It feels like a corridor - a gallery where you can’t step back far enough to actually take in the paintings on display.
I couldn’t help contrasting the experience of the High Line with the experience of visiting the Lurie Garden in Chicago. At the Lurie Garden, the setting affords an expansive view that’s more similar to the tallgrass prairie landscapes which have inspired the grandeur of Oudolf’s style. The wide open garden space is laid out against the phenomenal backdrop of the city skyline. Oudolf has this phenomenal way of taking the forms and structures of prairie plants and and combining them into magical jewel-like panoramas. At the Lurie Garden, you feel truly immersed in billows and drifts of foliage and flower.
Because of the linear nature of the High Line - set up by the underlying railroad structure - the plantings become a fringe or frame that you look through and over to views of the city. There's not much depth to the plantings. You can cheat that depth in photos. Skillfully shot photographs - the beautiful images that you see across the internet and print media - give a sense of depth and immersion. The High Line doesn’t feel like that. The diffuse plant structures - grasses and persicaria and Japanese anemone - that get layered up to magical effect in Oudolf’s plantings at the Lurie Garden and Battery Park seem thin and insubstantial in the High Line plantings.
Some of the most successful plantings on the High Line are the areas that are built up with large shrubs and small trees - Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea, A. laevis), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) & Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla). The larger leaves and dramatic structures of these plants give them formal presence within a smaller space - they claim space individually in ways that diffuse grasses and prairie perennials can’t. These areas of more structurally-developed planting remind me of how Atelier le Balto approached a similarly corridor-like space in their Jardin Sauvage at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Massive round leaves of Umbrella Plant (Darmera peltata), jagged whirls of European Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis), and giant pinnate Ailanthus rise around a narrow boardwalk that snakes through a narrow alley between looming apartment buildings. Such strong forms claim a narrow space in a way that diffuse grasses can’t.
As a public space, the High Line is undoubtedly a success. It draws immense crowds of people. It has turned a curious public gaze to landscape architecture and planting design that is rarely turned in our direction. But because of the corridor-like nature of the spaces, isn’t the best example of Oudolf’s planting genius. Go and enjoy the public life along the High Line. Catch the views from a garden thirty feet in the air. But go with expectations for a park, not a garden. And go see another instance of Oudolf's work (like Battery Park in the image directly above - it's just a few miles from the High Line) to appreciate the full range of his talents.
My first experience with native plants was with my parents’ poorly informed experience with a “wildflower seed mix” that they bought on clearance at the local farm store. We’d just moved to the country. My father shooed the cows out, borrowed a local friend’s tiller (didn’t remove the grass first), and tilled up a 15 foot x 50 foot bed. My mother bought a can of “wildflower seed blend” on sale from the local farm store (most likely branded and sourced from Michigan and/or California) and waited for the magic to happen.
Looking back on that perennial mix, I remember the listing saying that two of the primary species were Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea - which needs a cool period of dormancy before seeds germinate) and California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica - not really adapted to summer sowing in southeast Missouri). This canister full of seeds and dust was just setting my parents up for failure.
Nothing ever bloomed from that canister of seeds. But things bloomed in the woods. When my parents purchased our farm, ⅔ of the 72 acres was virgin forest. Never cut. So many wildflowers! The remaining ⅓ was grazed pasture which still had a fantastic native seed bank - if they’d left that alone and not mown it for a few years, it would have yielded exciting plants, too.
I went back and visited my parents last weekend. Easter weekend 2017. Guess what? There were amazing plants in flower throughout the roughly 48 acres of woodland that we’ve been managing lightly for the past 17 years.
First off, the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata). I had some grief on social media about this, after posting it under the title of “wild sweet william”. That’s the name you see in the catalogues. Apparently some settlers called it this, comparing it to the the sweet william (Dianthus barbatus) that they knew from European gardens. Nobody must call it that any more. It seems to be a disturbance species, growing best in light shade at the edge of thin woodlands - that’s where you see it on my parents’ property, at least. I transplanted a few clumps into our woodland garden ten years ago or so - now it’s seeded itself around and is blooming phenomenally in the gaps between oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) and lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus). This seems to be a boom year for the phlox - it’s exceptionally abundant in the garden and throughout the woods. That color and fragrance bowl me over every time.
Besides woodland phlox, one of the most classic southeast Missouri woodland flowers is the prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum). I’d haul up its old fashioned name (all props to the internet on this one) “bloody butcher”, but I’m sure I’ll get grief for that as well. We had a major storm come through a decade or so ago, thinning out the oldest trees in the wood, opening up the canopy to light - since, I’ve noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of trillium. Apparently they like a more solid shade. In the denser parts of the forest, they’re still standing happy with their strange blood-colored petals and beautiful mottled foliage.
Another species having a boom bloom this year is the wild larkspur (Delphinium tricorne). Texas has their bluebonnets, New England has their lupines - we in Missouri have this glorious violet-blue treasure. It likes shady-cool-damp positions (don’t we all?), especially along temporary streambanks. It’s a transient species, lasting only for a week or two in full bloom, but completely worth integrating into a curated wildflower planting. It's having an especially heavy flowering this year, picking up where the drifts of phlox fade out.
These three woodland treasures weren’t the only wildflowers in bloom in my parents’ wood last week. We also had American dogwoods (Cornus florida), Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis - it's the feature plant in the photo above), and innumerable smaller and less showy species. I saw emerging buds of Shooting Star (Dodecathon meadia), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), and Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) getting ready to speckle the woodland with astonishing beautiful flower. That doesn’t even cover the shrubs and grasses that are slowly springing to life throughout the Missouri woodland.
It’s easy to get carried away with the shiny photographs that show up on your Facebook feed. Or the lurid photos in mail-order catalogs. Or the glossy photo on the outside of a can of wildflower seed mix. Before you get carried away with trying to add new plants to your garden, have a look around. Take that year (advised by thoughtful garden design professionals) to get to understand what’s actually growing in your plot of earth. No doubt it will turn up treasures that you’d overlook if you get going gung-ho on the garden plot. What a shame it would be to miss out on the treasures that you’d already inherited as your garden legacy - look out!
Beyond going to New York as a general expedition, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to a specific exhibit: An Island Garden, the Impressionist exhibit at New York Botanical Garden inspired by Celia Thaxter’s book of the same title.
Who’s Celia Thaxter? Celia Thaxter (1835 – 1894) was a poet and hotelier who ran a resort-type hotel on Appledore Island, off the coast of Maine, popular with American artists and other creative types. “ A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old,” she wrote in the introduction to An Island Garden.
As she grew older and took over the running and maintenance of the inn (originally run by her parents), Celia’s interest in gardening continued to grow. Frigid winters off the Maine coast made it impossible to live on Appledore in winter. Celia would start growing out her summer annuals in early spring on the mainland, then transport them out to the island by boat when the weather warmed in the spring. Out on the island, she’d plant the sturdy seedlings into the ground - where they flourished, to the delight of the many painters, musicians, and poets who visited her hotel in the summer. Childe Hassam, one of the few American impressionists painters to still be celebrated today, was a frequent visitor to Celia’s hotel and garden on Appledore Island. I first became acquainted with Hassam’s work through his incredibly vibrant image of the Street of the Great Captain in Cordoba that’s on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum. His paintings that illustrate An Island Garden (see image to left) display the vibrant summer light and saturated colors of Thaxter’s plantings.
The horticulturists at New York Botanical Garden didn’t have to transport their plants by ferry across the ocean, but the effect was still entrancing. Few gardens in our modern culture are primarily composed of large and showy annual flowers. Drifts of larkspur, nigella, iceland poppy, snapdragons, and queen anne’s lace filled the exhibit hall with sensational soft and rich shades of blue and orange.
The exhibits picked up on the romantic, flickering style displayed in Hassam’s paintings. Just look at the diffuse textured foliage and starry blue blooms of the nigella, clouds of pale blue scabiosa and pillars of ice blue larkspur. For someone who gardens in the south, where these annuals won’t tolerate the summer heat, it’s unusual to see these plants in the shimmering summer light rather than the softer light of spring.
I often don’t like garden exhibitions, typically finding them precious and contrived. But with the diffuse habit of so many of the plants in this display, like the Nicotiana mutabilis above, helped the garden feel real. This exhibit reminded me of why An Island Garden convinced me to fall in love with annuals. These elegant varieties, with rich colors and graceful habits, live up to Thaxter’s incredible descriptions of flowers. Here’s Celia writing about a poppy: “There is a kind of angry brilliance about it, a sombre and startling magnificence. Its large petals are splashed near the base with broad, irregular spots of black-purple, as if they had been struck with a brush full of color. The seed-pod, rising fully an inch high in the centre, is of a luminous, indescribable shade of green, and folded over its top, a third of its height, is a cap of rich lavender, laid down in points evenly about the crown” (Thaxter, An Island Garden, g 85).
Directly outside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory where the Island Garden exhibition was displayed, there’s a giant perennial border designed by Piet Oudolf. Unlike the plantings in the exhibition, this bed is made up almost entirely of perennial species. However, this bed has a similar flickering impressionist quality - that incredible use of light and color which has made Oudolf projects famous around the world. The plants used may be different, but the aesthetic affects carry on a proud tradition of bringing an artist’s eye to the garden. It might be a crinkly scarlet poppy or a flickering screen of salvias, but those intense moments of color and light will glow in visitors’ memories long after the gardens themselves have faded away.