Three years ago, I drove to Little Rock for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect. A year in Florida had turned me off the idea of working as a seaside tropical designer. Only a year out of design school, I was still adjusting to the idea of working outside of that cossetted and challenging environment. I had a potential job, working in the studio of my teen hero, P. Allen Smith. Despite growing up only a few hours north, I didn’t know what awaited me. The city, the gardens, the people, the plants - it was all unknown.
As soon as I pulled across the HWY 30 bridge into downtown Little Rock and saw the city spread out along the south bank of the Arkansas River, I realized that there was plenty for a landscape geek and planthunter to explore. You’ve seen the photos from my nightly walks through the Quapaw Quarter for the past three years. Historic homes, with intricate wooden detailing and beautifully proportioned windows, sit garnished with surrounding pillows of roses and hydrangeas all summer long. Spring brought wash on wash of flowering quince, deciduous magnolias and wisteria. There were plants I’d never been able to grow in any of the gardens where I’d lived - giant waterfalls of lady banks roses, gardenias whose fragrance perfumed entire blocks, camellias the size of a garden shed.
But, as much as I loved the gardens of LIttle Rock, it was the surrounding countryside that captured my imagination. Living in the area for several years, I was able to consistently visit several of the local nature preserves - observing these regional plant communities, not only in singular moments of beauty, but bearing witnessing to their change over the course of several years. Within these plant communities, I was able to encounter remarkable species - some common, some not - that are true Arkansas state treasures.
Starting at the beginning of the alphabet and the growing season, Aesculus pavia (also graced with the inelegant name of Red Buckeye) has some of the largest and showiest flower panicles of any Arkansas Native shrub. It’s not rare, but it looks like it should be. From a distance, the flower looks like the gulf coast and Caribbean native coral bean (Erythrina herbacea). I first saw Aesculus pavia in the wild growing and blooming in abundance on the rocky slopes northwest of Little Rock, heading towards Moss Mountain Farm. But the most generous population that I encountered was at Bell Slough - on the north-facing lower slopes surrounding the central wetland.
These plants were remarkably divergent in plant size and shape. Some had grown into small trees with a few bare trunks (what we’d call multitrunk standards in cultivated situations), while others were large arching shrubs 6-9 foot high, while others stayed put as small shrubs only 2-3 high and wide. Specimens of all three rough habits (and everything in between) would coexist, although it did seem that shelter and proximity to water resulted (generally) in larger plants.
There was also a good variation in flower color, with some having a clear separation of red and gold floral parts, while others were more of a faded coral. The most dramatic coloration seemed to be on the later-blooming plants, which often carried flowers that were an insanely saturated scarlet. Unsurprisingly, given its flower shape and color, Aesculus pavia is one of the plants that supports ruby-throated hummingbirds in their northward spring migration.
Sticking with plants that have significance for jewel-like flying creatures, let’s turn our attention to Asclepias. I’ve written on here before about some of the remarkably colored selections of Asclepias that I’ve encountered - a brick-red population of Asclepias tuberosa at Camp Robinson (north of Little Rock), and some super-saturated Asclepias purpurascens in western Perry County, Missouri (my parents’ county). Today, I want to introduce a species that was new to me: Asclepias hirtella, AKA tall green milkweed.
I’d gone up into the Ouachitas to chase down some Amsonia hubrichtii (threadleaf bluestar) when I came upon a clearing in the forest near the Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area in Saline County. You could tell that there was bedrock close to the surface in this spot, leaving a thin grass cover with wide patches of talinum and hypericum. The showiest plants in this unusual plant community on that late May evening were the fluffy ice-green flowers of Asclepias hirtella.
The plants had a splayed habit, each with 4-6 skinny stems raised through the surrounding loose grass matrix. My initial identification of this species as Asclepias verticillata was quickly corrected by my crew of expert plantspeople (thanks, Kelly! thanks, Eric!): Like Asclepias verticillata, Asclepias hirtella has narrow threadlike leaves - but they’re arranged alternately along the stem, rather than opposite like most milkweed species. The flowers are abundant and showy - reminding me of the translucent white-green effect of Chionanthus flowers. According to Prairie Moon, it ranges pretty freely through the central United States - apparently preferring upland locations. As I said, it’s new to me, but I’d like to see how it performs in a cultivated landscape.
While up in the Middle Fork Barrens, I saw Amsonia hubrichtii growing in its natural habitat, along a rocky streambed. This is one of those amazing plants that - despite its current relative popularity in the nursery trade - has been known in cultivation for less than 80 years. The skinny green threads of leaves in dense mounds were easy to pick out, seeming to grow directly out of the shale.
Showing up in late May as I did, the flowers were long since passed. You can have a look at them in flower on Eric Hunt’s Flickr. While I appreciate their blooms, they’re one of the less showy Amsonia species for flower - I’d cultivate them more for the fantastic foliage texture and glowing autumn coloration. The plants at Middle Fork Barrens held a few seedpods, long and skinny like French haricot vert. They were still green and milky with sap - no seeds had yet developed.
I’d been lucky to have neighbors in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter that had wonderful clumps of Amsonia hubrichtii in their front garden, so I’d had been privy to its incredible November foliage. I’d be interested to see what variation there might be in the flower size and coloration of wild populations, given the showier flowers of some other Amsonia species, such as Amsonia tabernaemontana (Shining bluestar) and Amsonia ludoviciana (Louisiana bluestar) which I’ve seen growing happily on my travels this spring. There are also several species native to the western US that could be interesting to grow.
Within a few days of my expedition to find some Amsonia hubrichtii growing in situ, I was completely taken aback by the flowering of a plant with which I was completely unfamiliar. I was doing one of my usual slow-drives and walks through the Camp Robinson Wildlife Management Area when I realized that one of the ridges was completely studded with flowers of yellow and pink. That’s what I expect from a Victorian wallpaper, not an Arkansas hillside.
Quick internet research revealed that this was Tephrosia virginiana (Goat’s Rue). The watercolor hues - pastel yellow banner with chalky pink wings - and lacy grey-green foliage were unlike anything else I’d seen on an Arkansas native plant. Bonap says it’s widespread throughout the eastern United States, so I guess I’ve been ignoring jewels right under my nose. Apparently, it's tricky to cultivate - so you won't see it at plant sales or in even garden centers with remarkable native plant offerings.
Considering botanical treasures, my thoughts turn inevitably to endemic plants - species that are only found in Arkansas. I don’t have any dramatic stories of finding or seeing endemic plants. One that I wish I’d encountered is the wonderful Sabatia arkansana (Pelton’s Rose Gentian). Sabatia is a really cool genus in the Gentianaceae, consisting of about 20 species - many of which are annual plants native to temperate regions of the United States. Bonap lists 6 species occurring in Arkansas. My first experience with Sabatia was 10+ years ago when it sprung up randomly after a wet spring, transforming a grassy swale at my parents’ farm into a fluttering of pink stars.
The commonest Sabatia, Sabatia angularis came in a startling flush last year. After driving back from my parents on July 4, I’d gone to Camp Robinson Wildlife Management Area (my regular wildflower scouting area) to spend a few evening hours and remind myself of what America is all about. There, the ditches were flush with this unusual annual plant. There’s something wonderful to me about annual plants as a part of native plant communities. They’re so transient. No rootedness from year to year for these beauties. They’ll spring up wherever they please. In a few weeks, they’ll be gone without a trace.
Anybody who’s heard me talk about myself - especially in the context of my family history - knows that I have a good bit of that Sabatia nomad in me. Little Rock was good for me. I got to explore so many wonderful landscapes, be involved with making some incredible gardens, and spend time with glorious people. It’s a pretty great view that I have out my rearview mirror.
If you’ve heard anything about my work over the past three years, designing with P. Allen Smith & Associates, you’ll know that our design practice - while spread across the southeast - is heavily focused in Arkansas and Louisiana. As I’ve read about and experienced more of the region, I’ve been struck by the central role that place (sometimes rural landscape, sometimes city, sometimes garden) holds in the stories that people tell about their histories, their families, and themselves.
Multigenerational sagas about families in relationship to place seem to be particularly popular in this region. Lalita Tademy’s Cane River explores one family’s upward struggle from slavery to property ownership, particularly the messy hierarchies of life in Creole communities. In Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, the manager of a plantation in Ascension Parish teases out her own family’s complicated relationship to the property as she investigates the mysterious death of a local farm laborer which unfolds alongside the political maneuvers of the plantation’s owner. Throughout these books, the plantations on which the stories occur stand as physical embodiments of the power dynamics between families.
As you move out of the wide flat washes of the Mississippi River Delta, up into the rockier terrain of the Ouachita and Ozark mountains, landscape often enters stories as an isolating agent - the topography and smaller scale of the mountains making large-scale agriculture or commerce unfeasible. Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, set in the fictional Ozark town of Drear’s Bluff, uses the isolation of scattered rural dwellers as a way of exploring the individual isolation of a queer woman who’s been compelled through financial difficulty to return to her rural childhood home. The 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri utilizes the landscape in a similar way to embody the isolation of a mother’s grief after her daughter’s murder. These mountain stories tend to focus more on individual relationships to place, rather than the multigenerational family sagas found in the Delta. In either case, landscape is portrayed as an active protagonist in shaping human life, experience, and identity.
Such a relationship with landscape - as an active force in the life of a family or individual - made sense to me, given the stories I heard growing up. For my father’s family, it was always the Mississippi River. The River brought them to Missouri to work. It flooded its banks and trapped my great-great-great-grandmother in her hotel, killing her in her own home. It sucked my great-great-uncle down off the showboat where he worked, drowning him in its murky embrace. It called to my great-grandfather, who answered, gambling away his wages and weekends. Even my father’s teenage summers were tribute to its call, as he worked the coal barges suspended between its muddy banks.
The way that landscape is talked about in these narratives of Arkansas and Louisiana resonates with me, but I think it’s time to take the narratives a bit further. As a gardener and landscape designer, I don’t just want to have a relationship to a place. Instead, I want a relationship with a place. I see gardening as a practice for cultivating that richer relationship. What might such a relationship look like? As usual, Mark Twain described it best, in his classic Life on the Mississippi:
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
The outskirts of Rome will destroy anybody’s romantic dreams of Italy. Frances Mayes would run shrieking back to California if forced to live in between the cell phone outlets, cheap pizza restaurants, and dubious massage parlors shoved between concrete-balconied 1970s apartment blocks. It’s not necessarily an easy context in which to integrate a new building. On the other hand, it could be said that - in such a context - it’s hard to make things worse.
Richard Meier did it.
The full title is Parrocchia Dio Padre Misericordioso, but they call it the Jubilee Church.
Unfortunately there’s not much to celebrate here.
You drive up the street, cars lining each side, with narrow sidewalks between the road and the surrounding apartment blocks. Out front, there’s a weird trapezoidal plaza with a lone low slab of bench. The church itself rises above a four-foot high white stone perimeter wall, stained with dust streaks and mold. The entry is a gap in the stone wall. Pass through, and you enter a glaring marble. No trees. No furnishings. Just the unfolding shell-like white stone planes, with a few slivers of window in between.
The interior of the building is beautifully crafted. Light shifts through the interior as the clouds drift overhead. Warm wood, exquisite joinery, whisper-delicate sails of stone. Outside, it’s a completely lost opportunity. The building stands adrift.
There are several different approaches to integrating a building - particularly a public building - into its context. One approach is to anchor a building into its context by using a common architectural language: building masses, shapes, proportions and materials. Historically, the urban fabric has often grown up around central public buildings - the buildings set the precedent. Now, they appear as though they were designed to fit into their surroundings.
An alternate approach is to design a public building that contrasts with its setting, stands out dramatically against it. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit stands in rough contrast to the verdant London skyline, the funky twisted tower of red metal stark against washes of green foliage.
In designing anything - a garden, a building, a subdivision - understanding and relating to context is always the most challenging aspect. But it’s also the aspect of design that I love most.
The extents of a landscape intervention are often bounded by survey lines. But, regardless of property boundaries, experience of any given place is part of the constant stream of human experience.. As long as you’re on a planet, you’re enveloped and immersed in landscape. So, if you’re designing something in intergalactic space, you can get away without understanding the context. Otherwise, you have no excuse.
“A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot. Rose plot, fringed pool, Fern’d grot.” What a use of language! I wholeheartedly approve of Thomas Brown going full rapper in this bit of verse. I, mean, come on - “ferned” as a verb? Dropping the “e”. Abbreviating “grotto”? Magical. Brown turns this banal sentiment into something unique and memorable - even after it’s replicated on countless items of garden statuary.
A friend asked me to write something that might actually be useful for home gardeners going about designing their own landscape. This request made me think. When my design team and I consult on a garden, we bring the full weight of our combined education and experience to the process. We spend days, hours, weeks walking a property, testing design ideas through drawing and modeling, then mocking up our ideas on site. Our intent is to create a something as memorable and unique as Brown’s verse, something that that will fulfill the owner’s desires while adding value to their community.
So, if I was a homeowner, how would I got about creating a plan for a residential design? I always start with context. The unique thing about landscape design amongst the design disciplines is that landscape is immersive, encompassing, and intact. Landscape is never clearly bounded. It’s always messy. Figuring out the edges of an intervention - and its impacts - is hard. The first defining quality of a property’s context is whether it’s rural, urban, or something in between. In a rural or suburban property, the garden will be outward focused and blend into its context. With an urban property, an inward-focused approach is essential. Lauren Springer Ogden explored this distinction in her books The Undaunted Garden and Plant-Driven Design.
Beyond context in general, approach is another determining aspect of creating a plan for any garden. The approach sequence to a property is usually the most frequently experienced aspect of a garden for both owners and guests. Curating this experience is key. Start a few streets away. What’s the feeling when you turn in to the neighborhood? Do you approach the site primarily on foot or by car? Are there plantings at the subdivision entry? How are houses set relative to the street? Are they nestled up along it, or set back deep in the forest? Is the experience groomed and geometrical - or loose and naturalistic? What plant species and hardscape materials make up the surrounding vocabulary? Approach extends to the site as well. What’s the first glimpse of the house? How is the building mass presented along the approach? When do you have a full reveal of the facade? Is it direct or asymmetrical? Where do guest and resident experience diverge?
Once you’ve thought through the context and approach, it’s time to think about the spaces directly around the residence. Start with the program. Designers use the term programming to describe activities located in specific places around a garden. Some activities take more space. It’s important for some activities to be adjacent to each other - and for others to be separate. If you haven’t already, start a list of activities you want to occur around your garden. These can be people-focused (entertaining, children’s play area, or even a spot to have a cup of coffee) or oriented towards something else (chicken run, motorcycle yard, vegetable garden, or space for a cut flower peony collection). You’ll always want spaces for more program than you have time or budget for, so think about how the spaces supporting different activities can be multipurpose - and staged over time.
If programming is a general bubble diagram, architecture can help guide your formal decisions. As part of P. Allen Smith’s design team, I’m accustomed to starting from the idea of creating a “garden home” composed of clearly defined garden spaces that relate to the site’s architecture - usually a house and its accompanying outbuildings. Your previous consideration of context will help inform your spatial decisions. The ways that a house’s massing and room are articulated will influence garden spaces dramatically. Echoing or contrasting the design language of a building in the garden spaces are both valid options. Time to bring out the stakes, string, and paint gun to figure out how your proposed spaces might actually feel.
Home gardeners like to start with specifics. “Rose plot, fringed pool, fern’d grott.” It’s easy to fixate on the new patio you want for grilling with your friends, the tree branches that are overhanging from your neighbor’s property, the playground your kids need to keep their destructive tendencies in check, or - if you’re a plant geek like me - space for woodland planting full of all your favorite ephemerals. But the benefit of hiring a designer is that we can help you take a step back.
You want to know designer secrets? Design doesn’t start with answers. Instead, we bring a barrage of question to interrogate both client and space. We’re going to take you through a process designed to tease out the possibilities - and identify a clear way forward. Pay attention and your garden, too, will become a lovesome thing, god wot - or not.
I spent most of last weekend trundling through the backroads of three states in a white pickup truck. Usual every-hour stops to hop out and look at wildflowers. Baptisia nutalliana and Rudbeckia maxima in Texas. Phlox drummondii and Rhododendron austrinum in Louisiana. Chionanthus and Narcissus in Arkansas. One of of those stops, no less whistle-stop than the others, I was lucky enough to get to hear Thomas Rainer speak to the Horticulture club at Stephen F Austin University in Nacogdoches. Most of the lecture focused on the plant community design techniques that Thomas (along with Claudia West) wrote about in Planting in a Post-Wild World. But one idea, buried at the center of the lecture, has been running through my mind all week.
Thomas showed a slide of images of statues of confederate soldiers. Cast iron figures of men who didn’t want to admit they could have been wrong, erected eighty years after their deaths to intimidate new generations.
He showed images of several iconic southern landscapes. A misty panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A leafy forest understory near Birmingham. Then he flipped over to photos of cloverleaf highways and strip mall complexes. You see these in every southern city.
Hysterical editorials and radio talk show hosts followed the confederate statue removals. Even I, the most anti-combative person on the continent, almost got in a complete shouting row with a mothballed and mustachioed Uber driver who brought up the statues. But nobody’s even moderately worked up about the destruction of irreplaceable, irreparable ecosystems.
As I’ve often said before, I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. It’s a weird spot. At various points, the area now considered the Mississippi River Hills was inhabited by the Illini Confederation, who were then displaced by Spanish explorers, French settlers, and German Lutherans. Anybody who grew up in the real Midwest considers it part of the South. Those who grew up in the Deep South consider it part of the North. It’s a messy hybrid region, with no clear and consistent cultural narrative.
Over the time I lived there - and as I hear stories of the town since, I’ve heard the cultural narrative change. When I was little, the predominant stories were of World War II vets, people who grew up without electricity, speaking German at home, people who had benefited greatly from post WWII prosperity. Today, after twenty years of constant cable network vitriol (thanks, Fox News and NRA propaganda), the stories have changed.
Hillbilly Elegy was mostly nonsense. But one thing that it got right was that rural populations, especially low-income white populations, have bought into a narrative that offers them little hope for a better life. These communities need a new story. I need a new story.
But how would we go about bringing southern landscapes to the center of the of the conversation about heritage?
In every place, landscape is deeply entangled with the human dramas that have occured within its all-enveloping embrace. The dramas that have played out across the United States make this particularly tricky. Any narrative about southern history founded in landscape must start from a position of acknowledging the privilege of the people who live there now.
Most of the people who live in these areas now have no ancestral right, no natural heritage, tying them to the place they live now. Even in New Orleans and St. Augustine, those oldest of European settlements in North America, Europeans have only a 400-year history. First Nations people were weakened by disease, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands. Throughout much of the south, there’s the additional complication of enslavement and sharecropping. So any talk of heritage must acknowledge the messy, often uncomfortable, history of these places.
I don’t have a clear idea of what a narrative that adequately represents landscape as a component of southern heritage might look like. Reading, for me, is always the start. For now, I’d start with the the written historical record. Not just the big celebrated southern gardeners. Look to Eudora Welty, who learned to garden from her mother. Read Elizabeth Lawrence. Eudora signed her up for the Market Bulletins, where people traded slips of one heritage plant for another. Read Zora Neale Hurston’s writing about landscape and agriculture in the Caribbean and the south. Read Marjorie Kinnans Rawling on rural life in early 20th century Florida. Maybe a first is just that, to build a primer on the southern landscape.
Beyond reading, I don’t know. I’ll let you know as soon as I come up with a next step...
I don’t remember the first time I heard of Lotusland. It was probably in the early naughties on the pages of Garden Design, when they were in a coastal infatuation phase. It could have been when I was a librarian in the drafty shelves of Weigel at Kansas State University - reading Winifred Dobyns’ California Gardens or David Streatfields’ California Gardens, dreaming of warmer days and balmy nights by the sea.
My love was cemented watching the beautiful footage in Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens. A surrealist garden made by an opera singer with multiple love affairs? Her last husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances? This is a garden for me.
*by the way, these songs are the songtrack as you listen to this: Robert Ellis's California and Katy Perry's Teenage Dream
I got into Los Angeles late, 4am to my jet-lagged central time adjusted body. I dragged through the rental car station, the In-and-Out full of paper caps and teenage enthusiasm, then the airport hotel. Next morning, I hauled myself up the coast to Montecito. Excavation from the mudslides had only begun. I could see buildings shifted in place, tidewater marks showing where the mud had enveloped buildings, crushed and consumed them.
Fortunately, the forces of destruction had stopped short of Lotusland. You’re not allowed to just wander around and enjoy the place on your own. I was lucky to be assigned to a quite knowledgeable guide called Madge, along with a relatively innocuous group of fellow tourists - a straight couple from Victoria, a gay couple from San Francisco, and an enlightened family group (the daughters had done time helping out with ecotourism in Argentina and Belize) from Seattle.
The thing that had always captured my imagination with Lotusland is that it seemed to explore a treatment of plants in a highly artistic way. In the photos that I’d seen, plants were utilized as aesthetic elements. Their physical qualities were utilized in keeping with an individual, brave, exploratory aesthetic. The actual experience of the place didn't betray that thought. My presuppositions were correct.
There seemed to be a complete innocence and sincerity in the choice of garden elements. Madge explained that the glass edges were the trash from bottle molding at a nearby soda plant. After pouring, the leftover chunks of clear green glass were tossed away. Madame Walska, the creator of Lotusland, saw a new use for them in edging garden walks. The chunks of glowing green glass resonate with the glowing garden greens.
An innocent approach to materials characterizes the entire garden. One of the most iconic images for me has always been the giant shells in the swimming pool garden. Madge explained that these weren’t sculptural replicas, as I expected, but actual giant shells imported from islands in southeast Asia. You could get big pearls out of those.
Such innocence isn’t limited to inanimate objects. It extends to the use of plants. Since my time in south Florida, I’ve thought that it would be amazing to create a forest of ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). Their weird strappy leaves, corky stems, and swollen root bases give them a Dr. Suess quality that I really want to explore en masse. Of course, there’s a ponytail palm forest already growing at Lotusland. You can walk adjacent to, but not through it - so there’s still scope for my design imagination.
I’m not going to go into the full history of Ganna Walska and Lotusland. Suffice it to say that this garden is a multilayered landscape that reflects multiple individual aesthetics - all layered in to the garden that exists today. The cactus garden is an incredible collection created post-Walska. In it, hundreds of towering cylindrical clusters and bulbous clumps create a singularly monumental experience.
I’ve never seen anything like this cactus garden. It’s so sculptural, with the spires and spines. Hummingbirds flying around, buzzing between jewel-toned iridescent flowers.
After the cactus garden, it was almost a relief to get back to familiarity with an allee of hundred-year old olives. The contorted trunks, silvery leaves, fallen black fruits, resonated with my classically-educated soul. Those filtered shadows felt like home. Not to mention the terminal fountain with horsey motifs.
So far, I’ve been slathering on the adjectives. The next area of the garden needs only two nouns: tree ferns.
In this woodland, coastal live oaks are interplanting with a multilayered canopy of lacey tree ferns casting the most incredible flickering shade. Baskets of staghorn fern are suspended from the live oaks. Begonias and blechnum carpet the forest floor. I’m in heaven.
My vision of Lotusland had been built up to incredible heights over the years. It’s very rare for such hopes not to be ground into the mud on actual experience. But Lotusland was as good as I’d imagined.
Possibly better. Let’s go back soon.