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.
“It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Anyone who’s seen one of apartments - or helped me move - knows that I live that sentiment voiced by Lev Grossman in The Magician’s Land. But, while books are often celebrated for their ability to transport the reader to a different place, the experience of reading is often tied strongly to the specific circumstances - place and time - in which you encounter a book.
I’m an incredibly moody reader and will respond differently to the same book encountered in different circumstances. So, when the moment is right and the right book finds me at the right moment - it’s something to celebrate. Here are a few of the my favorite books from this year, in the context of the places where I read them.
2018 opened with a bitter cold week in Arkansas. The camellia buds were killed off by several flash freezes. Even the pansies were looking sorry for themselves. My sister came to visit, decided it was too cold to keep making the effort at being a good houseguest, and returned home. I had only a few bottles of wine and a very beautiful amaryllis in my tiny apartment in the Quapaw Quarter, the historic district next to downtown Little Rock. Fortunately, I had a hearty stack of books to keep me busy.
Top of the stack was a magnificently fun comedy of manners, The Windfall by Diksha Basu. The novel focuses on the Jha family, who have recently received an unexpected fortune and make the effort to transition to a wealthier strata of society. As someone who grew up in a small town where all aspects of neighbors’ lives were observed and discussed in infinite detail, I found this novel really resonant of the attentions of a small community. The book was very well written, wry and funny, while still treating its characters with dignity and respect. It warmed me during the long winter nights.
At the end of January, I had a work trip up to northwest Arkansas - Bentonville and Fayetteville. I stole a few minutes on the way up to wander through the grounds at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. Typical of the lower Ozark woodlands in late winter, things were mostly brown and grey. But I did get to watch the colors change at James Turrell’s Skyspace - both inside its dome and in the sky overhead.
After a chilling walk, I was able to toast my feet in bed and enjoy the strange and wonderful The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This book hits all of the points I love - it’s weird, deals with sibling relationships, has children of gods, and is lushly written and pasted over with literary references. I loved it.
Spring was late in coming, but when it finally erupted, the Quapaw Quarter was covered in a rush of bloom. The few camellia buds that were left opened their flowers, fat and flashy. Hyacinths, irises, daffodils, erupted from every crack to pile over the edges of the sidewalks. And the magnolias hoisted their open chalices to the sky. With all this abundance filling the neighborhood, I was able to go back to sitting on my stoop, drinking adult beverages and chatting with my glorious neighbor (shout out to Heather!).
And, just in time for the start of stoop season, we had the release of Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up. You probably know Ruby from her amazing performance in the Great British Bake Off. I fell in love with Ruby’s writing during the Eating Dirty series that she wrote for Vice in 2016. Eat Up completely lives up to the promise of Ruby’s earlier writing - it’s a wonderful, joyful celebration of food in all its forms. I’ll definitely come back to it again and again.
After spring had fully settled in to Little Rock, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina for their Spring Symposium. This 120-acre nature preserve celebrates the wonderful high-elevation plant communities of the southern Appalachians. I was astonished at the waist-high Solomon’s seals, luxurious carpets of phlox, incredible populations of trilliums, and hillside-smothering duvets of Vaseyi rhododendrons.
On my wandering drive up into the mountains to visit the Reserve, I was fortunate to listen to the audiobook Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. If The Library at Mount Char wasn’t strange enough for you, take a crack at this. It’s a fantastically scary and weird story that investigates what happens when creativity goes wrong. The horror of this book is well offset by the tenderness of the relationships portrayed. I loved it.
It’s great enough when one book really resonates with me - that feeling is even more exciting when I get two great books in a row. On my way back down the mountains, I read another winner. Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods was a fun action-packed adventure. I zipped through it. If you like interesting technology & future worlds, this book delivers. If you want action and adventure, this gives it with characters you'll quickly grow to love. This became my default book recommendation for the summer.
While my trip east to the North Carolina mountains was mostly focused on the Southern Highlands Reserve trip, it had the secondary function of allowing me to continue preparing for my summer move to Chattanooga. At my new studio, while I no longer have the luxury of going back home to stoop-sit for my lunch, I do have the privilege of getting to use great public spaces like Miller Plaza and Miller Park. I can sit beneath the lindens, eat a vegetable quesadilla from the magnificent corner shop Taqueria Jalisco, and watch people wander by while I read.
In this idyllic setting, I had the opportunity to listen to the best YA book I read all year: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This book showed, better than I’ve encountered anywhere else, the way that modern friendships often occur partly online, partly in person. I have many friendships that occur to some significant degree online, sometimes intertwining with in-person friendship - other times not. This book represented the vulnerability and honesty that occur in online interactions which might be more difficult or take more time to come to in a purely in-person friendship. There’s also great representation of an aesexual character.
For me, reading isn’t just for lunchbreaks. I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m driving around, running errands, or doing household chores. I’m a sucker for a good short story collection. Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado scratched that itch perfectly. It’s strange and wonderful and beautifully written. What more do you want?
One of the factors that attracted me to Chattanooga (forget the incredible landscape and interesting urban development was its proximity to two metro regions, Atlanta and Nashville - both only 2 hours out from my current abode. Whenever I get a craving for exotic restaurants, art boutiques, or fashion labels not available in our little scenic city, I can hop on the road for a quick day trip. Hello, Beltline!
On a recent trip to Atlanta, my audiobook adventure for the day was Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo. This book is a fictional memoir of an adult son coming to terms with the death of a trans parent who he’s reunited with late in life. Think of Transparent, but you don’t hate the characters. Also it’s set in Trinidad and Toronto.
I haven’t gone full #bookstagram. I don’t have photos of these books carefully staged in the places where I read them. I’ve only got the mental picture of those stories, those settings. Hopefully you have such glorious memories too. I’m looking forward to stories and settings that 2019 brings…
I also have two honorable mentions of short story anthologies that stood out in my reading this year. They don’t have the clear specific place-memory that the rest of the books in the post have, since they’re written by a multitude of authors. But definitely come running to add them to your reading list for 2019:
Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick
Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction edited by Kathryn Allen
For someone so involved with the world of gardening and plants, I’ve been on remarkably few garden open days, tours of multiple residential gardens in an area open to the public for one or a few days. I can count them on one hand: St. Genevieve Historic Society Garden Tour (2008), St. Louis Garden Conservancy Open Day (2012), NGS Shoreditch Garden Open Day (2017). For the most part, it’s been a location issue. I’ve mostly lived in smaller communities in the southeast without a strong tradition of local garden open days. Besides, as a professional designer and plant geek, I often get to visit residential gardens when they’re not open to the general public.
So, when I heard that the Chattanooga chapter of national naturalist group Wild Ones were putting on a tour of local gardens, I slapped on some sunscreen, pulled on my garden tour sneakers (the ones with limes, coconuts & dendrobium orchids printed on), and ventured out to see what was growing in local gardens.
First stop was the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, the only non-residential garden on the tour. I’m always interested most in gardens that respond to their greater context, whether through contrast (Lurie Garden) or through integration (Beth Chatto’s Garden). The institute sits in a wonderful low-lying site within the Tennessee River floodplain, with the river to the west, Signal Mountain to the north, and Stringers Ridge to the east. Local landscape architects W.M. Whitaker & Associates approached the site with sensitivity and care. You approach the Institute through a low-key gravel drive that winds through a wonderful meadow which, in early September, was billowing with Vernonia, Eupatorium & Solidago.
The butterflies were nearly as happy as I was to be drifting through this phenomenal damp meadow of head-high native wildflowers. The ratio of forbes to grasses seemed really high, but that enhanced the feeling of walking through a field of flowers. It'll be interesting to see how that balance changes over time.
Behind the building, an intense stormwater garden demonstrates the aesthetic and functional potential of green infrastructure. The central basin is filled with rushes, lobelia, shrubby dogwoods, and other damp-loving plants. Designer Matt Whitaker was on hand to answer specific questions. It would have been useful to have a few posted times for a garden walkthrough with designers or caretakers, so nerds like me interested guests could get a deeper knowledge of the design intent and management practices. Overall, this site was really beautiful and an exciting exploration of naturalistic design based in regional native plant palettes.
After this very generous, outward-facing garden that blended seamlessly into its landscape context, it was interesting to note that the residential gardens all seemed mostly inward-facing, despite some fantastic settings. My favorite of the residential gardens was an intimate set of clearings in the forest, surrounding a low wooden house with spreading wooden decks. The planting at this garden wasn’t particularly inspiring. There were some great large specimens of native trees and shrubs, but the perennials were pretty patchy.
But the space that I’d want to return to again and again was the gravel terrace right off the back of the house. With the narrow winding paths and fanciful structures, this terrace felt like a fantastic place to live in a little bit of sun and shade, sheltered by two chunky blocks of magnolia. Just add a pitcher of sangria and you’ll never get me to leave.
One of the widest plant palettes was to be found in a sunny garden atop Lookout Mountain, just across the way from the summit station of the once-famous Lookout Mountain Incline Railroad. You had to pay extra for parking there, $9.00 an hour - almost the cost of the garden tour ticket for the day. The owners of this garden are dedicated plantspeople. They own property in several states and have an eclectic collection of plants, primarily seed-grown individuals of regional native species. I had the opportunity to listen in on a walkthrough of this site with the owner, which offered some great insight on the mismatch between the hyperbolic claims of many native plant proponents and the realities of getting any planting figured out and established. The conversations with gardeners and guests at this property reinforced to me how easy it is for those of us who work in horticulture to make assumptions about our guests/clients - and how unhelpful those assumptions are. I don’t look like the typical garden tour guest. I can only imagine how many potential garden enthusiasts have stopped gardening after been treated condescendingly or weirdly in their encounters at garden tours and businesses.
After this open, sunny collectors’ garden, I was excited to visit another garden in the woods on Signal Mountain. This gardener had a wonderful way of using large masses of woodland plants to create elegant waves of green beneath an open forest canopy. I was particularly excited to see large drifts of Carex plantaginea. I’m looking forward to using this plant in local gardens for its phenomenal texture.
One of the most unusual features of this garden was its labyrinth, made of stones interplanted with wild ginger (Asarum canadense). I’d never seen this plant used in such a graphic way before, but it was highly effective. Unfortunately, the light by this time was splotchy and overhead, resulting in a poor image quality. I didn’t get to join in on an owner walkthrough at this garden, either - I’d have been interested to hear how the garden was developed. It definitely felt designed, rather than piecemeal. This garden was also heavily cluttered with metal plant labels. I can see how labels could be useful in a garden open situation, saving the owner from having to answer 500 plant ID questions. I hate them. To me, they detract from the aesthetic experience of a garden.
So, overall, I’m pretty proud of Chattanooga for this garden tour. It was an excellent idea to open the gardens in early autumn when so many of the charismatic megaflora are in full bloom. Thank you, Wild Ones, for opening your gardens. I’ve seen what’s been done here. Now it’s time to get my hands in the soil and start making some gardens of my own.
It's easy to view Florida through one of two modes. There’s postcard Florida:
Sandy beaches. Old people. Palm trees. Manatees. South Beach. Disney.
Then there’s wacky headline Florida. Man throws alligator through Wendy’s drive-thru window. Scammers sell golden tickets to heaven. Pythons invade the Everglades. These absurd stories are just part of daily life in America’s southernmost peninsula.
With these two modes of approaching Florida, it can be hard for those of us who live in the rest of the world to take the place seriously. Like the rest of the American southeast, it's neglected in contemporary dialogue about planting design - especially in the trendy naturalistic circles.
Five years ago, I visited Florida for the first time. My parents had booked a house on St. George Island, a barrier island off the coast near Apalachicola. They stuffed all twelve of us in a van and we rattled down to the island. During that week in Franklin County, I was captivated by the plants, the landscape, the aesthetics, and the cultural narratives of this place. I ended up choosing Apalachicola as one of the sites for exploration in my masters project and did deep research into the ecology, history, and literature of this place.
The Apalachicola River basin is one of the unique and threatened landscapes of the southeast. Steep bluffs and ravines have created microclimates which enabled plants which usually wouldn’t persist this far south to flourish. The Apalachicola River and its surrounds form one of six biological “hot spots” in the United States. The area has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians of any region in the US. Many of our most beloved southern landscape plants have primary populations in this region.
Rhododendron austrinum. Magnolia ashei. Stokesia laevis.
Beyond ecological richness, the Apalachicola Basin is thick with layers of narrative culture. Like the rest of the southeast, landscape is fraught with overlapping stories of appropriation and reclamation. The porous land is affected by conditions arising both upstream (consider the contemporary Supreme Court case of the ongoing battle between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over water) and out to sea (Hurricane of 1863). For decades in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the swamps surrounding the Apalachicola River were populated by First Nations people whose property in the north had been stolen by white settlers. Throughout the early 1800s, Maroons (African-Americans who had escaped from enslavement) established settlements throughout the area - particularly in the area currently commemorated as Fort Gadsden. For a more detailed history of the area, consult Kevin McCarthy’s excellent history of the area, Apalachicola Bay.
But, at the end of the day, the plants and the landscape are the aspects of this place that truly capture my imagination. So, when my parents announced that they’d decided to return to St. George, I was ready to head down the Georgia backroads and return to the coast.
Last time that I visited, I’d known nothing about the place and simply explored the most obvious destinations. This time, I was determined to experience more of the region’s unique flora. My first expedition was in search of a pitcher plant meadow. I’d seen a few Sarracenia on the way south, but nothing particularly dramatic. So I determined to drive the backroads until I found a significant population.
The first hour didn’t turn up much. I had my little brother, Izzy, in the car. We tried to get to the Kendrick Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk, but the road was flooded in too many locations to get access. Instead we witnessed wonderful patches of both white-flowered fragrant waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) and yellow-flowered waterlily look-alike Spatterdock (Nuphar luteum).
We were also amazed by the incredible pink daisies of Sabatia bartramii (above). Unfortunately its preferred growth location out into the water made it highly difficult to photograph.
After driving too many lumber roads with only a few glimpses of straggling colonies of pitcher plants, we came upon a location deep in the woods where open pine forest lightened out into a giant meadow. Even fifty feet away, we could see that the meadow beyond was chock full of chartreuse and burgundy trumpets. My words give out on me - this Sarracenia meadow was truly one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve seen.
After a day exploring Tate’s Hell and the Apalachicola National Forest, we decided to focus more time on the landscapes of St. George Island itself. We were staying in the western third of the island, on a private development designated as The Plantation. One of the trades that I’d read about on the island was the extraction of turpentine from pine trees on the island. The process for extracting turpentine seems similar to the process used for tapping maple trees for syrup in the northeast - bark would be stripped from the tree, then a metal channel installed to direct the running sap down into a bucket. Carolyn Finney writes about the history of turpentine harvesting in Black Faces, White Spaces (Finney 2014, pg 119-120). She notes that turpentine was often harvested by black Americans who’d been press-ganged into hard service in remote landscapes, a situation close to enslavement, long after slavery had been legally abolished. The racial history of turpentine harvesting on St. George itself is unclear. However, Jim Mott has prepared a tour of pine trees that show physical evidence of turpentine tapping on St. George Island. My mother and I walked this tour. It was incredible to see the physical evidence of human industry on the island more than 80 years after turpentine harvesting ceased.
The eastern third of St. George Island is designated as a the Dr. Julian G. Bruce State Park. The vegetation here is less dense than on the western part of the island. There are dramatic sand-dunes rising through the middle of the island - you could almost call them bluffs - covered with scrub pines. Taller pines rise on the bay side of the dunes, fading through scrubby underbrush to sawgrass marshes and the calm waters of the bay. On the southern, gulf-facing side, sea oats (Uniola paniculata) and railroad vine (Ipomea pes-caprae) anchor the sands, creating a landscape palette typical of the gulf coast all the way down to the Keys.
I sent a few photos of our Franklin County adventures to my auntie. “Those photos aren’t what most people think of when thinking of Florida”, she replied. Perhaps there’s more to Florida than the postcard image or the weird headline. I hope it doesn’t take me another five years to return.