It’s been eight years since I’ve had daily exposure to a garden of my own. Oh, my life is full of gardens - I work with them on a daily basis. But that’s a different story to having a garden of your own. I’m one of over 30 million Americans who live in apartments and don’t have their own plot of land. So, I’m dependent on public space for my exposure to nature.
Here in Arkansas, there isn’t great access to public gardens or parks with interesting plant communities. What we do have are Wildlife Management Areas. Like the Conservation Areas that I grew up with in Missouri, these are plots of land owned and administered by the state that are managed lightly to support wildlife and indigenous plant communities. In Missouri, these lands are administered by the Department of Conservation. In Arkansas, they’re administered by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and called “Wildlife Management Areas”. Hunting and fishing - more than ecological conservation - are the top management priorities. But they’re the best examples of lightly managed plant communities and naturalistic landscapes that I can easily access.
Last year, when I took Noel Kingsbury’s excellent course “Planting Design with Perennials”, I realized that it would probably be a good idea to make a practice of observing regional plant communities on some kind of regular basis. So I made a commitment, this year, to regularly visit the Camp Robinson State Wildlife Management Area - ideally as often as once a week.
The Camp Robinson State Wildlife Management Area stretches over 19,000 acres in central Arkansas, 20 minutes north of Little Rock. It’s directly east of the town of Mayflower (population 2,430), and wraps around the east side of Lake Conway. It sits at a location where the Arkansas River Valley winds through eastern tip of the Fourche mountains. I tend to focus my wanderings on the southern part of the site, where an east-west ridge (reminiscent of the cuestas of the Flint Hills in Kansas) rises to form a boundary to the floodplain along the north shore of Lake Conway.
Over the past year, I’ve made a point to get out and explore Camp Robinson as frequently as I could. I’ve ended up out there every other weekend, on average - exploring, walking the landscape and observing the changes from week to week. There are some wonderful tree and shrub communities on the site, but for this piece we’re focusing on perennial plants - especially the forbs with colorful flowers. Gardener’s favorites. Here’s a quick visual essay of five things that I’ve noticed about the perennial plant communities on the site:
Succession of Bloom Changes Quickly
The majority of species bloom for only a few weeks, two or maybe four weeks at a maximum. Some arrive in waves, with populations in different areas erupting into bloom at different times depending on exposure, aspect, and sunlight. As a designer, I can’t help thinking about how this would translate to a planting design - what a high diversity of species would be required for a designed planting to mimic these quick shifts. In the photo above, an annual coreopsis erupts from dense grass - two weeks later, the coreopsis were done.
Individual Species Differ Dramatically Depending on Conditions
While walking around different areas of the 19,000 acres that make up Camp Robinson, I noticed populations of the same species occurring in different conditions. Seeing these differences made me consider how much the appearances of each species might differ from year to year. Designers are usually attempting to strategize for plantings that look relatively similar and create coherence across a site - both in place and in time. It’s an interesting shift to think in terms of matrices that might differ in proportions from year to year. Just in the quick view above, you can see how the different species respond to subtle differences in topography...
Palette of Southern Regional Plants for Horticultural and Design Purposes is Underexplored
Seeing the plants at Robinson made me realize what a narrow selection of regionally native plants are widely available in general horticultural commerce. Just in this year’s wanderings, I’ve seen some incredible variations of Phlox, stunning deep orange and fire-engine red butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) [above], a maypop with pure white flowers (Passiflora incarnata alba) [above], and a Blazing Star with incredible pyramids of bloom (Liatris aspera).
Immersed in a Big Drift of One or Two Species is Wonder-Inducing
We all know that humans have a weird affection for monocultures. Just witness all the lawns. Or the craze for visiting Dutch tulip fields and western American fields of sunflowers. A huge massing of a single species signals that something unusual is going on - especially when it’s some kind of mass bloom event. The sense of being dwarfed by a plant community in bloom is something that tickles me with an absurd sense of joy. Just look at those liatris in the photo above - they felt like a purple haze floating down directly above the earth.
A Successful Plant Community is Full of the Sounds of Life
People talk about the noise of the city. I was overwhelmed in late summer by the experience of a wet meadow in full obnoxious bloom. Vernonia, rudbeckia, eupatorium shouting out in full bloom. All of this Pantone 2018 purple is just a coincidence. Butterflies, birds, dragonflies, and bees make a joyful noise. Watch the videos below for sound effects.