I’m currently working with a panel of other design and landscape professionals to develop an ecosystems component of a ten-year plan for our metro area. The following manifesto and strategies are a first draft of my personal ecological vision for Chattanooga over the next decade. The plan is necessarily limited by my knowledge and experience - I welcome objections, additions, and pointing-out-of-gaps. Dig in and let me know how you’d frame this conversation in your own city or town.
In Chattanooga, we know that land is the foundation for human prosperity. The myth of Chattanooga is based in our natural landscapes - our mountains, forests, waterfalls & streams. Our reputation rests on the land and our relationship to it. However, our municipal policies and personal practices have failed to protect the land we inhabit. We acknowledge that the history of development and land management in our region has primarily been one of destruction. The land on which Chattanooga is built was stolen from its first peoples (who were killed and forcibly removed), developed with resources based on the labor of enslaved people, and continues to be a site of legalized inequity. With that history in mind, we picture a future where shared systems and resources build prosperity and foster community for all Chattanoogans. We are looking for opportunities to distribute, layer, and design landscape’s value and benefits so that the sum is greater than any specific part. We operate in an iterative and prophetic way: the city is an open experiment where interventions and effects are measured, reported, assessed and adjusted.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
In Chattanooga, we know that we have inherited a rich evolutionary legacy of biodiversity. We acknowledge that historical land management and development practices have destroyed habitat and systems. We picture a future where we repair and regenerate in a non-innocent process of healing with our cohabitant species. In Chattanooga, we seek to grow a stable biological infrastructure that supports native (and productive) animal, bird, amphibian, and invertebrate populations. Our endangered and threatened species populations have long-term protection and population redundancy. Visitors and residents have a culture of respect for biodiversity. Our city and our region are known throughout the country as innovators in promoting multi-species thriving.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
To make these values real, in the next 10 years we will:
In Chattanooga, we know that food is a fundamental need that all humans share. We picture a future where the entire population of Chattanooga has access to opportunities to grow and enjoy food of their choice. Chattanoogans are excited about the food that they have available in their city. We are proud of our city’s history of food technology. There’s a central hub that showcases urban agriculture, while each neighborhood has community gardens.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
To make these values real, in the next 10 years we will:
Did you grow up here?
No, I moved here about a year ago.
Oh, what brought you to Chattanooga?
I still have this conversation at least twice a week. My answers vary, depending on who’s asking: I moved for a job, I thought there were interesting design opportunities, I wanted to be able to go hiking in the mountains.
These answers are all a little bit correct.
I find the real answer embarrassing.
I moved here for a memory.
My old Rogue’s air conditioning had gone out half-way through Florida, when my brother and I stopped for lunch at a Caribbean cafe in Gainesville. We drove sweat-soaked through Georgia. Windows down. We had music blasting, but we couldn’t hear it over the highway noise.
I’d been living in south Florida for a year. Before that I spent five years on the Kansas prairies. I was accustomed to flat fire-dependent ecosystems.
Then we drove through Chattanooga. We wove through the forested hills, ribbon roads between the trees. We emerged into a city held in a bowl of hills. The Tennessee River flows through downtown. Ridges rise around. It’s a sheltered place. Lush. Green everywhere. I was in total awe at the little city.
It stuck in my mind.
So, when I’d spent my time in Little Rock and was looking for the next location - Chattanooga kept surfacing.
I’ve been here over a year now. I have a Hamilton County Driver’s License and a Tennessee license plate. (I’ll admit, I’m ridiculously over-conscientious and got those within a month of moving here.) I’ve been lucky to amass a phenomenal posse of local friends. I can now identify most of the common regional native plants. I’m on the Chattanooga 10-year Ecosystems Future Planning Committee (yes, that’s an In the Loop reference).
But moving here, to this place that I held as a fantastic memory, I’ve realized something about belonging and my relationship to place.
I’ve spent years searching for a place that felt like home. A place where I felt like I belonged. I felt a tinge of it the first time I went to Portland. In London. Later, on Bainbridge. Here in Chattanooga. Those were momentary experiences of physical environments where I felt safe and comfortable and motivated.
But now I’ve realized that home isn’t really about the physical place: it’s about my relationship to the place where I happen to find myself.
Home is somewhere that I make. It’s somewhere that I choose. Years ago, Dan Pearson gave a Sunday Sermon at the School of Life where he talked about commitment - how gardening, any act of landscape-making, is a practice of commitment to a place. To garden is to invest time and attention into a place. Whether it’s cutting back invading ivy or coaxing out the delicate twining tendrils of a jasmine vine, gardening is an act of commitment to place - devotion of time, attention, and effort. You make home, one humble act at a time. I watched the video of Dan’s lecture almost daily for two years, until it was taken down from both Youtube and Vimeo, and have been trying to track down a digital copy ever since.
I may never walk into a landscape, stumble into a place, and have it instantly feel like home.
But I’m here. Now. I can choose to live as an observer, keeping my hands clean, not getting involved. Or I can commit to this place. Get to know it closely, earn a sense of belonging. And that’s how I’ll find real home in this fantasy place.
A couple of years ago, a Sunday morning, in Little Rock, I remember going to an abandoned dance studio. It was a few blocks down from my apartment, crammed between an ice cream parlour and a novelty gift shop. It was dark inside, and cool. You could look out the big front windows and see the hot street, sweaty people under faded umbrellas at the cafe across the road, sunflowers and hibiscus hanging droop-headed in the sun. There were only six of us, maybe seven. We sat on squeaky metal folding chairs arranged in a circle.
We sat in the cool dark room. There were a few faltering songs, some words of invocation. In the light of truth and the warmth of love, we gather to seek, to sustain, and to share. Then a woman in a crisp white shirt stood and began to speak.
I don’t remember who she was or why she had been chosen. I don’t remember what personal experience compelled her testimony. But the core of her talk has stuck with me, surfacing in my mind when I’m feeling strained or overwhelmed.
She spoke about rest. Sometimes, she suggested, we need to retreat. We may be fighting a good fight, doing good work. Doing something important. Making the world wonderful. But, as individuals, we can’t be fighting all the time. We need to give ourselves space to heal and to transform.
In landscape terms, we need to take time to lie fallow. A fallow field is repairing itself. It’s not being broken or aggressively managed. It’s renewing its internal structure after being exhausted. To be fallow is to let yourself shift and settle. Avoid disturbance. Let the slow inner work happen.
Going fallow is a radical act. We’re used to proving that we deserve to exist. Internalized capitalism coerces us into measuring our worth through our productivity. Our cultural obsession with work as identity permeates even into children’s entertainment. Mindfulness, spirituality, and wellness are pushed forward as business tools for increasing employee productivity.
So far this year, I’ve been trying to go fallow. Do some deep work. Let things shift and settle. Take time to find myself again.
In the quiet, I’ve also been working on a new type of project that I’m excited to share with you soon. It’s not about landscape or design. Not even about plants, although they’ll push and jostle their way in as they do in the life of anyone who is primarily a gardener. (Yes, I know that’s a Beverly Nichols ripoff.)
These past four months, the focus of my creative practice (outside of my day job - yay for Asa Engineering where I’ll soon have exciting work to share) has been on an essay cycle, Memos to Myself. These memos reflect my experience as a queer kid growing up homeschooled in a large household in rural Missouri. My intent for the cycle is highly personal - to recognize the ideas about the world that I’ve been carrying around, name them, and dismiss or transform them. I hope that reading these essays will help other people - especially queer homeschooled kids - who are struggling to figure out how to deal with life. The essay cycle concept is an homage to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a collection that was transformative for me in my early 20s. I’m expecting to release Memos to Myself by the end of summer - you’ll be able to purchase it digitally and in print through Amazon. You can read the introduction here.
For those of us who make and create and design and grow, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the inundation of great work that our peers are doing. I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a cloud of friends and mentors who astonish and inspire me daily - whether they’re sewing 100s of beautifully crafted tarot bags or making incredible public gardens or training new generations of plantspeople or telling garden experts’ stories. Making good work matters. Being visible is important. We all want a mast year.
But to keep doing that work, to keep building the world with wonder and delight - you may need to retreat and rest for awhile. Let yourself be fallow.
I often write about the landscape where I grew up, there at the little hump of Missouri - right where the Ozarks tumble down to meet the beginning of the Mississippi Delta. As a child, and then as a teen, I was searching for knowledge about this specific landscape in which I lived. I was continually frustrated in trying to identify wild plants, understand how and where they grew, as well as any kind of horticultural knowledge about the cultivated plants I admired in books and garden magazines. Which form of wild hydrangea grew in our sinkholes? When should I prune the cherry trees in our orchard - and what varieties had any chance of fruiting with our surprise late-spring frosts? Should I plant mizuna?
People in books always seemed to have mentors - bearers of local knowledge who instructed them in the deep wisdom of place. Maybe a first nations neighbor, wise in the ways of forest and field. Maybe a grandparent. Maybe a local back-to-the-lander. Even Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies - though played for laughs - reflected a myth of deep knowledge about plants, their cultivation, their uses.
My grandparents weren’t much help. One gardened in northern Illinois with its flat plains and chocolate cake soil. The other set grew up in row houses in downtown city Saint Louis. No help there. And the country people around me didn’t know squat about the landscape in which they lived. They could tell you about growing the big three - corn, beans, wheat - which mostly involved large machinery, RoundUp and industrial quantities of nitrogen (unless the methmakers got to it first). They might have some tips for growing the biggest tomatoes (generous applications of Miracle Grow) or keeping racoons out of the sweetcorn (big guns).
The closest I came to finding about about the wild things to be found and foraged was on a spring day when we wandered down the road to take an elderly neighbor a strawberry rhubarb pie. Mary lived at the edge of the woods in a ruined trailer with her twenty-seven cats (we counted). My mother stepped gingerly up the splintered stairs, hoping they wouldn’t fail. She tapped on the door. Mary leaned out. “We brought you a pie,” my mother said. Mary looked down and considered it. “It’s a pie,” my mother said, “strawberry rhubarb. From the garden.” Mary looked confused. “It’s the time of year,” she shouted, “When I used to go out into the woods and harvest mushrooms.” I asked what kind of mushrooms, where we might find them, in what parts of the forest they might be found. But Mary’s mind had wandered on to other things. “Can’t go out anymore. Can’t even get down the steps.” She pointed to the blue tarp pulled over one side of the trailer’s roof. “Rusted through,” she shouted, “Tarp keeps the rain out.”
I never found out what kinds of mushrooms Mary used to harvest. No one in town or country had much use for knowledge about the wild things that grew. They preferred animals. Those, you could shoot, trap, or catch on a hook.
A few years later, during the mushrooming of hot takes that followed the removal of 50+ nature related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, I found myself reacting with a shrug more than anything else. While they may have had more access to unstructured play in nature, the boomers and their parents that I grew up around didn’t have any richer knowledge of the landscapes where they lived than their iphone-toting grandchildren. And this within a highly rural community that hadn’t changed much for the past 120 years. Knowledge of local environments and plants had always been shallow in North America, after the colonizers killed off the people who lived here and knew the land. The shallow of knowledge retained during colonization was erased in the Industrial Revolution, not because of cell phones.
As the cottage nurseries gave way to larger more commercial concerns, one way that such deep knowledge-building worked in the late 90s and early 00s was through personal websites and blogs. I built much of my knowledge through reading different individuals’ - some professional, some amateur - pet projects. Consider Paul Barden’s Old Garden Roses, which is now only available through the Way Back Machine. The amount of detailed information about different heritage rose varieties and Paul’s breeding experiments contained here are a phenomenal body of work that’s incredibly fragile.
A multitude of blogs emerged at this time. Miss Ruphius’ Rules (now Susan Cohan Gardens’ blog), Noel’s Gardens blog, Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design, Deborah Silver’s Dirt Simple, and others blew up my bookmarks bar with hard-won advice. The comments on blogs like ThinkinGardens and James Golden’s View from Federal Twist brought together people and ideas who are at the forefront of planting design today.
There was also an array of other wilder online spaces. I spent hours on Baker Creek Seeds’ forums - now I DigMyGarden.com - as well as some time on GardenWeb (now part of Houzz). The information on these discussion boards varied significantly in quality. It was also a great introduction to the reality of human behavior online, before we were all on the internet all the time.
Social media offered another opportunity to build knowledge - more visually oriented, perhaps, but still offering some of those enlightening conversations. From the personal blogs, discussions shifted to special interest Facebook groups. Emergent: A Group for Growing Professionals gathered professionals, particularly from horticulture and public gardens. Tony Spencer’s Dutch Dreams has assembled a wealth of people and imagery of naturalistic planting. Both have resulted in many in-person meetings and assemblies, as well as deep online conversations. Instagram and Youtube have their own vast networks of plant enthusiasts and landscape lovers.
The popularity of shows like BBC’s Planet earth and Netflix’s You vs Wild demonstrate the very human need to learn about the places and ecosystems in which we live. Citizen Science projects like iNaturalist and Audubon’s Certified Backyard Habitat program show that contemporary humans are interested in ecology and want to actively engage with it.
The poor state of knowledge about landscape today doesn’t mean that modern humans aren’t interested. Instead, it reflects that our current knowledge infrastructure fails to foster learning and curiosity. There is so much room for individuals and organizations to fill this need. And if you’re a kid today living with people who can’t tell you what that plant is that’s growing in the ditch, why it’s there or what you can do with it - the answer is out there waiting for you. Go find it!
A week after I got a copy of Overgrown: Practices between Landscape Architecture and Gardening in the mail, special ordered from the Big Bad, I received a few Facebook messages from the phenomenal Ann Amato - “Have you read this book? It sounds great…” Great minds - at least those interested in phenomenology and place (and gardens) seem to run on parallel tracks.
I don’t know how I’d missed this book’s publication. Perhaps because I’m very bad about actually reading materials from ASLA, the landscape architects’ society?
But, once I got into it, I was very pleased with this book.
I hadn’t heard of Julian Raxworthy before reading this book. Despite my enthusiasm for subtropical landscapes, I don’t know that much about gardens in the southern hemisphere. Throughout my five years of landscape architecture school, my only instruction about about landscapes south of the equator was in summary discussions of the dandelion water features in Sydney (thanks to Jeannette Ciesyzkowski) and articles by James Corner (who is an honorary American at this point). I’m trying to learn more post-design school, but there seems to be a weird disconnect between subtropical horticulture in the United States and that of the rest of the world.
Overgrown attempts to tarmac over that knowledge gap by focusing on universal issues in landscape design. Raxworthy brings his experience as both hands-on-the-tool landscaper and hands-on-the-mouse designer to bear in this treatise. As someone with a similar range of professional experience, I see this book as a starting point for discussion and exploration rather than a definitive theoretical framework.
Raxworthy focuses on several issues in landscape. One of his primary foci is the gap between designers and gardeners. Raxworthy notes that landscape architects and planting designers are most accustomed to working with secondary forms of landscape representation - plans and perspectives. By contrast, landscapers and gardeners are accustomed to dealing with plants directly. They deal with living plants - not computer models and drawn simulations.
In Overgrown, Raxworthy examines six landscapes, situating them on a spectrum from the most architectural/designed to the most relaxed/informal. He introduces the concept of the “viridic”, a unique synthesis between the biologic growth of plants and the intentions of human designers/strategists. Reading these sections, I wished I’d had Raxworthy’s vocabulary to describe the concepts I was thinking about during my studies in planting design at Kansas State.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Overgrown, for me, was the breadth of citations and research referenced. I spent a significant time googling people and projects of interest. If you’re anything like me, you will, too. These are only a few of the significant ideas in Overgrown. Go get your own copy - give it a read and mark it up. Then shoot me an email with your thoughts. We’ll keep this viridic conversation growing...
As a rural kid, I didn’t have much exposure to gardens beyond the standard country person’s appreciation of a few heirloom flowers (early daffodils, mophead hydrangeas, perhaps a few climbing roses) and the commonest summer vegetables (green beans, sweetcorn, tomatoes).
So my primary introduction to the world of plants and gardening was through books and catalogues. Books were expensive. Our local library only had a few. But catalogues - catalogues could come free or for a few dollars through the mail.
We’d always gotten a few plant catalogues. My father bought seed for his vegetable garden from companies with names straight out of the 19th century - Gurney’s, Henry Field’s. Their graphic design was equally archaic, long newspaper-like columns of text with tiny square images - often black & white line drawings. We also got a few of the classic late-90s horticultural mail order catalogues: Wayside Gardens, Jackson & Perkins, Breck’s. These were were the big glossy-paged color catalogues with incredible photos of larger-than-life flowers in hypersaturated colors.
But, once I’d gotten past the basic excitement and started to actually learn something about plants, these ordinary plant catalogues weren’t enough. It was around this time, when I was 13 or 14, that I read Ken Druse’s The Collector’s Garden, and started to learn about specialty nurseries - where the real treasures could be found.
It’ll take someone with a more academic and journalistic scope to adequately represent the specialty nursery scene of the 90s and early 00s. People who owned these nurseries were mostly rare plant enthusiasts whose interests had gotten a bit out of hand. Many were queer or female (or both). And they had an audience - baby boomers benefiting from post WWII affluence. Their clients owned homes in the suburbs; had comfortable incomes, spouses and insurance; and didn’t think twice about paying top dollar for the latest rare and trendy plants.
By the time that I became aware of specialty nurseries, in the mid-00s, the big two in North America were Heronswood (Kingston, WA) and Plant Delights (Raleigh, NC). All the weirdness and individuality of these businesses manifested through their catalogues. They were low-tech, easy-to-reproduce, intimate, and weird. Reading them, you could picture the individual nursery proprietor sitting around a messy desk, whiling away the long winter nights writing descriptions of hundreds, even thousands of plants.
Besides these two (relatively) well-known sources, there were many others - often far weirder. I remember being overjoyed when one of my grandparents’ neighbors passed along a catalogue for Cottage Garden, in Alton, Illinois. I hadn’t been impressed by this neighbor’s garden. It was filled mostly with plants that she’d grown from various fruit pits and foraged seeds, a warped garden of eden, where all of the trees bore small and bitter fruits, surrounded by self-sown cosmos and daylilies that reached higher than my head. But I loved the catalogue she gave me.
It was the first specialty nursery catalogue that I’d received that wasn’t coastal. These were plants that had been grown only a few hours north of where I lived. If anything, the winters were colder up at Cottage Garden. These were plants that wouldn’t just grow - they’d thrive in my garden. That Cottage Garden catalogue fell apart years ago. But it introduced me to many plants that are still some of my favorites: Canna ‘Australia’, Coleus ‘Kiwi Fern’, Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’, Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’, Salvia guarantica. Within a few years, I was able to take a trip to the nursery (thanks to my ever-adventurous grandfather, thank you!). The owner, Chris Kelley, has continued to be a great friend - offering ever new insight to great plants and introductions to great people.
As my infatuation with rare plants grew, I found ever more sources of the weird and wonderful. Singing Springs Nursery, in North Carolina, had effusive descriptions of all the plants that thrived and grew so easily in my teenage garden. They had salvias and coleus in more colors than the rainbow has ever dreamed. I still have copies of their catalogues from 2005 and 2006. Over a dozen years later, Pam Baggett’s descriptions remain fresh and clear. On Lantana ‘Desert Dawn’, she writes, “I dream of a desert I’ve never seen, where sunrise awakens in a blaze of colors. Lantana ‘Desert Dawn’ is my sunrise, greeting me each day with clusters of deep gold, orange and pink blossoms.” Who wouldn’t want to grown that plant? Her descriptions have a clarity that I wish I could achieve in my own writing.
On the opposite end of the clarity spectrum, there were the endlessly fascinating catalogues from Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan. You knew from a quick flip through the densely printed lists that this was a catalogue for people who knew something. No space wasted on description. And absolutely no photographs. Take this description of Sambucus canadensis ‘Laciniata’: “One of the many cut-leaf elders, the differences between which are rather subtle however we think we finally have the names correct, thanks to Tim Woods”. Not for amateurs.
By reading through these catalogues, looking up things that I didn’t know, I finally got to know a little bit of something myself. Of course, I was growing things, too, with varying degrees of success. As the internet came around, I was able to order from some places that I’d heard of but had never managed to get my hands on a print catalogue - probably because I didn’t have checks, and many of these people required checks or cash to be mailed in exchange for a print catalogue.
From Ellen Hornig of Seneca Hill in Ithaca, NY, I got various forms of Cyclamen hederifolium and and several beautiful variegated forms of Arum italicum. From Gossler Farms in Salem, OR, I got the incredible Corylopsis palustris ‘Aurea’ with coral edges on pleated golden leaves - plus a few vibrant selections of belgian Witch Hazels. From Pine Knot Farm in Clarksville, VA, I got tissue culture hellebores of intricate and beautiful design. From Arrowhead Alpines, forms of Cyclamen, Epimedium, Corydalis. Many of these plants still grow in my parents’ garden.
I had really only witnessed the tail end of the specialty mail order nursery boom. By the time I was in my late teens and headed to college, most of these companies had moved their catalogues and ordering operations online. Many closed.
The weirdness and individuality of those little specialty nursery catalogues are expressed differently now. For awhile, you’d find blogs as such intriguing personal projects - I’m thinking especially of James Alexander Sinclair’s blog and Marc Diacono’s writing for Otter Farm. There were a few books that follow this tradition of the individual eccentric description of favorite plants. Ken Druse’s The Collector’s Garden was at the top of the list. I always loved Lauren Springer Ogden & Rob Proctor’s Passionate Gardening, which had the distinction of representing the arid conditions of Colorado. More recently, Kelly Norris’s Plants with Style continues the tradition. Also, from the UK, Carol Klein’s Plant Personalities.
Today, you’re most likely to find individual eccentric planting projects documented on Instagram. I absolutely love what Christopher Griffin is doing @plantkween, playing with gender and fashion as a component of plant geekery. Valeria Paria, a nursery owner in Lucca, Italy, has been keeping a really wonderful humble and personal record of the plants she’s growing @ilpostodellemargherite. There’s also the endlessly entertaining @plantslutproject and the various iterations of @(boys/girls/gays/etc)withplants.
These efforts aren’t the same as the little specialty nursery catalogues that I loved as a teenager. The world is different. Our industry is different now. Our audience is different. I wouldn’t go back to the way things were, but I’m happy that I was able to witness this moment of wonderful, weird, individual plant geekery through those nursery catalogues.
Maybe we plantspeople of the future have something to learn from those old nursery catalogues. Instead of feeling compelled to make everything we turn out feel glossy and professional, perhaps it’s useful to keeping things a little less polished. Be a little less certain and a little more open. Be weirder, cobbled-together, eccentric, individual. Things might be more fun that way.