Monday, July 21, 2014

The aliens might be coming


Rhododendron x superponticum - beautifully strangling a lakeside at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Whether it is kudzu vine strangling trees in Virginia, melaleuca throttling the Everglades or Himalayan balsam on the English river bank, invasive aliens are big news. Gardeners of course have a particular interest in them, as all too often they are responsible for the introduction and distribution of these plants in the first place, and in some regions, anything new in the garden is something of a potential Trojan horse.

A new book about invasives: plants and animals takes a nicely-balanced look. Where do camels belong? Its author, Ken Thompson is one of the best British writers on natural history. A retired member of staff at the University of Sheffield, he has worked on plant ecology for much of his life. I can't imagine a better person to keep a cool head on this topic. He is one of the key people behind the BUGS project which is looking at the relationship (or lack of it) between plant origin and wildlife in British gardens. He is particularly good at poking sacred cows with a science stick, and on occasion, as when he had a go at the fashionable pretences of permaculture, something of a cattle prod.

This is a very readable book and a balanced one. A key message is that many invasive alien stories have more bark than bite, that a species which may appear to be spreading may not be anything like as bad as it either appears to be, or the local press tell you it is. He does discuss some of the real horror stories, and does indeed recognise that aliens can be a very severe problem in some situations. Although if I lived somewhere where an alien species was causing real difficulties, I think I might feel the book didn't go quite far enough in recognising this. Some species really do destroy ecosystems. But, most don't and one of the valuable points of this book is pointing this out, and that over time many invasive plant species reduce in number, or start to get eaten by the local wildlife or infected by the local pathogens. 

One of the key points Ken raises is the cost and the impossibility of controlling many invasions. He discusses the whole new field of invasion biology. One can't help but get the feeling that there are a lot of people with a vested interest in keeping fears of invasives stoked up – a nice source of grant money for research/control etc. The implication is – don't throw money at things you can't do much about and keep it for things that either work or for battles that are really worth fighting. Invasives help keep journalists in business too, with lurid press stories often an opportunity for some covert racism – a topic which the book could have spent more time on. 

Being British and discussing invasives is a slightly odd position. Our flora has (like us) spread throughout the world, often aggressively. The turf-forming grasses of north-west Europe in particular – much of the native flora of western USA has been throttled by these aggressively spreading plants. Sounds like the effect of the European empires on global cultures. However the dense matt of growth these grasses form, and their ability to grow at low temperatures, does mean that it is very difficult to get invaded back. There isn't a single North American species which has become a problem here. The problems we have with our worst invasives (Japanese knotweed and Rhododendron x superponticum) are limited in geographical extent and pale into insignificance compared to the problems many other places face. Ken points out that some of our natives behave as invasives here, on home ground. As with my point about the nitrogen pollution fed nettles a few posts ago.

A recent trip to the US Pacific North West was an opportunity to appreciate just what a huge impact non-native and (in some eyes at any rate) invasive species make. It all depends on habitat. One of the wise points Ken makes in his book is that most invasive alien problems are in disturbed habitats. Any kind of succession process that starts taking a vegetation back towards what might be found naturally there will inevitably reduce their impact. Out in the open in the PNW you see a lot of European aliens, but few in the woods. In an area where thick conifer forest is the norm you could argue that any bit of open land is disturbed. Much grassland, in the Columbia River Gorge for example is populated by European turf grasses, and spattered with the European cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and vetches, the native California poppy appearing in much lower quantities. It was almost uncanny how much of the open habitat was composed of 'interlopers'. But this kind of grassland is largely a human artifact, so should it surprise us that it is full of non-native species? None of which by the way was dominating anything else and incorporated many natives too. It all looked uncannily 'natural'. 
Eurasian vetch Vicia cracca and European grasses make a meadow in Oregon, but natives seem to join in too, but what was here before?

California Poppy - Eschscholzia californica in habitat with the far more common european cornflower, whose presence seems largely benign. This is south side Columbia river gorge, near Hood River.

Inevitably I think about what is escaping from my garden. Geranium x oxonianum 'Claridge Druce' is scattering itself into the hedge bottom. I have often seen this species escape. I suspect it will settle down to evolve into a true species and a widespread component of the British flora. With its parents from northern Spain and Italy, it is effectively a neighbour and can be expected to settle down decorously. Persicaria amplexicaulis has, somewhat surprisingly, taken up home in the hedge bottom too – funny as it never seeds in the garden. Its habit is much reduced compared to how it grows in the border and hardly has spread at all. Its scarlet spikes look oddly at home though. It is Senecio fuchsii which I think will inevitably take off. A tallish yellow daisy, it lights up woodland edge habitats from one of Europe to another, except that is did not get across the English Channel in time after the last ice age. A native really. In fact I think we can say that any north European plant is effectively a native for this reason, as they would almost certainly been here before the ice scraped everything off. The senecio seeds like crazy in the garden and will no doubt one day wander into the woods, where really it belongs. There is little in the wild flora that flowers in shade at this time, so pollinators will probably be really glad of it. Maybe it just wants to come back home.
Senecio fuchsii (S. nemorensis) good but slightly tatty as a garden plant, great in light shade.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.




Friday, July 4, 2014

Telling the story of UK naturalistic planting to Japan

        I was asked recently to write a piece summarising the recent history of naturalistic planting in Britain for the Royal Horticultural Society Japan journal. So I thought I should share the untranslated version.
  
The garden at home in August.
      Naturalistic planting in Britain arguably started in the 18th century with the landscape movement, in which the grounds of country houses were laid out in a style that evoked a semi-natural, pastoral, landscape. This movement largely concerned itself with the large scale, the main ingredients were woodland, lakes and extensive areas of grass – the latter usually grazed by livestock such as cattle or sheep.
      The first person to promote a naturalistic style of planting on a smaller scale was the writer and magazine publisher William Robinson ( 1838-1935) with his book The Wild Garden, published in 1870. This book was however not based on real experience, and although much discussed, had relatively little real impact. A contemporary of Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), chiefly known for her colourful perennial border plantings, promoted a naturalistic style of planting for woodland.

Early summer -
A very fertile and moist soil means that strong-growing perennial species need to be chosen to form a solid canopy of vegetation through the growing season. Perennials grow amongst occasional shrubs and bamboos.

       The success of Jekyll's woodland planting points to a key issue which has affected the development of naturalistic planting in Britain. With a long and cool growing season, open areas in Britain are dominated by a very competitive grass flora. In some shade however, grass growth is reduced, and other perennials and small bulbs are able to grow with less competition. For much of the 20th century the most successful naturalistic plantings were to be seen in light shade.


 
      During the last quarter of the 20th century, new approaches to naturalistic planting developed. There was a growing interest in growing British native plants – however the flora is relatively restricted, and is of only limited ornamental garden value. More influential, and arguably the most influential movement of all, has been the concept of 'wildlife gardening', where gardens are seen as mini nature reserves, supporting biodiversity. This encouraged a more relaxed, less tidy and desner style of planting, more tolerance of some weedy native species, and an awareness of the role of trees, shrubs and perennials together creating habitat for birds, insects and reptiles.
       Wildlife gardening fitted easily into a relaxed style of gardening which had been developed by an older generation of gardeners, particularly the use of long-lived perennials and small shrubs promoted by the popular garden writer Margery Fish (1892-1969), and the work of Beth Chatto whose garden in the relatively dry county of Essex, just north-east of London stressed the choice of plants based on their habitat preferences. Chatto was one of the speakers at a conference in 1994 at Kew Gardens to discuss new developments in naturalistic planting; the event brought together a number of speakers from The Netherlands and Germany, as well as the UK.


Plantings at the Queen Elizabeth Park by Prof. James Hitchmough. Photographs: James Hitchmough
A mix of plants of South African origin include species of Agapanthus, Dierama, Diascia, Kniphofia and Galtonia. Originating in the mountains of the Drakensberg, there is a long history of growing these species in Britain, but this is the first time they have been used in this large-scale way. This is midsummer. Credit: James Hitchmough

         From this time on, an informal grouping of gardeners and landscape professionals began to actively promote naturalistic planting. For the first time in European gardening, there was a real sense of cross-border communication. My own book, The New Perennial Garden, published in 1994, and a number of book collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, helped publicise new ideas about plant selection and combination. Whereas old-style perennial plantings had tended to use highly-bred, high maintenance varieties, the new planting used long-lived species, often close to their wild ancestors, and shorter-lived species which would survive in plantings through seeding. The idea of the border as a narrow strip of planting, was challenged. The wildflower meadow was an inspiration, and plantings created where the viewer looks across a blend of flowering perennials and grasses.
Credit: James Hitchmough
       During this time, more British gardeners began to visit places on the European mainland where the new planting could be seen, for example the parks of Amstelveen, near Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, which used native plants, and the parks created in German cities through large-scale garden shows. An important role has been played by two academics in the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield: Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, who are primarily interested in public space. They argued for 'enhanced nature', naturalistic plantings which offered city dwellers a stylised version of nature with plenty of colourful flowers, either combining native and non-native species or which were based on natural plant communities, foreign to the country, but which worked well in the British climate. Of these, the North American prairie has been particularly important; many of the species popular in perennial borders for the last century were in fact of prairie origin. A number of cheap seed mixtures of annuals developed by Dunnett have been commercially successful, whilst a number of gardens he made for the Chelsea Flower Show have brought his name and his idea of the wildlife-friendly sustainable small garden to public attention. He has also promoted the use of plant communities for green roofs and sustainable drainage schemes.
      Hitchmough's approach has perhaps been the most radical. He believes that the most successful plantings are those which are started from seed. The density of seeded plantings helps to exclude weeds, and allows a community of plants to develop which have a natural, rather than a human-imposed, set of relationships with each other. His work is based on a rigorous application of plant ecology science, and his doctoral students engage in work which looks at various aspects of the creation and maintenance of what are essentially artificial ornamental ecosystems. Maintenance has to be extensive, i.e. applied to all the plants simultaneously, so for example the time of mowing may be used to reduce the growth and spread of more vigorous species, and the use of a flame gun to simulate the burning which is a key part of the management of semi-natural prairie and other grasslands.
      For private gardeners, this rich variety of ideas, influences and methodologies, has proved a stimulating source of ideas. Whereas as once upon a time gardeners cleared away dead stems at the end of the year, now many leave them for several months, to appreciate their beauty in winter sunlight and as a source of seed for wild birds. Species which seed are now more likely to spread themselves through plantings, creating an atmosphere of natural spontaneity (and occasional unruliness). There is a greater willingness to create small areas of native plant community, such as miniature wetlands adjoining ponds or meadows of rough grass and wildflowers which may be only a few metres in extent. Even small areas of aggressive weeds such stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) may be left, as they are a vital food source for some species of butterfly larvae.

A mix of European wildflowers created by seeding, which flowers in early to mid summer. Normally, the flowering species would be a minority component of a community dominated by grasses; here the grasses are not included.Credit: James Hitchmough


Based on a North American plant mix, species of Aster, Heuchera and Rudbeckia flower in mid summer. 
 Credit: James Hitchmough

     Designers, as well as private gardeners, are now more likely to create blended plantings, imitating the pattern of plants in natural environments. There is an irony that one of the best publicly-accessible examples of this is to be seen, not in Britain, but in Hokkaido, where the British designer Dan Pearson has created a series of blended perennial plantings at the Tokachi Millennium Forest near Obihiro. The planting style here, and its sensitive management by gardener Midori Shintani, offers Japanese visitors a good insight into an exciting and beautiful new way of using plants.

More on the Tokachi Millennium Forest later!


SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Weeding the Countryside?


Spotted orchids en masse, I wish I understood how and why they spread

Following on from my last post about weeding the garden, specifically a very naturalistic planting (which some folk might think was a mass of weeds anyway), the next task has been to try to do some vegetation management in the fields we have.

Before I talk about that, I've spent about an hour today on my new method of controlling cow parsnip/hogweed – Heracleum spondylium. In some ways this is a wonderfully architectural biennial, with very impressive foliage, we might even pay good money for it, but it seeds so aggressively, and even little seedlings can be so difficult to get out as they have such deep forked tap roots. So I keep them in the outer fringes, not even allowed in the wild garden, although I am only too happy to let them flower. However it will also produce mature seed within 10 days of the flowers dying. So you have to be on the ball. Today, I cut off the flower heads and injected the hollow stems with herbicide. Should do them in without harming anything else with any luck. Got the idea from how they deal with Japanese knotweed.



Anyway, the fields, which have in parts, a very interesting flora, the wetter it gets, the more dominated by rushes and sedges, hardly any grass, with Pulicaria dysentrica, Potentilla anserina, and much else, some great patches of ragged robin, Lychnis flos-cuculi and spotted orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, in ever greater numbers every year. The diversity is pretty amazing, but it is very vulnerable to be overtaken by the next stages in succession - leave it ten years and it would an alder/willow forest, interesting but not the same.

To keep it in its current very biodiverse state, and even improve it, needs extensive management, i.e. operations that you apply either to the whole thing at once, or to multiples of plants. It is very different to 'gardening' as such. The timing of mowing, or whatever else you do, can make an impact on the species mix, but the effects are complex, subtle, and take time to take effect. One of the papers I was reading suggested that a mid or late season cut maintains the flora, an earlier one will have more impact on the species, mix, and make a bigger impact on the more competitive species. Because the Pulicaria (fleabane) flowers so late, September, we don't mow til really late.

In parts there is meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, which tends to exclude other species, and is the immediate next stage in succession, and so there is a need to control it. It also tends to work in concert with greater bindweed, an alien weed species which can smother other plants with a vengeance. The bindweed runs along the hedge, and climbs up the meadowsweet and then out into the grass. So out with the brushcutter to take down all the meadowsweet which runs along the hedge.

Trying to find out whether this really is a good course of action was difficult. Actually finding out much about managing semi-natural vegetation like this is surprisingly difficult. Googling brings up lots of research papers, most of them seem to be studies undertaken in Czech or Poland, so not sure how useful they are for here. In other cases there seems to be a lot on the conservation of meadowsweet, rather than a concern for its impact on other species.

One thing which is definitely a problem is the bramble, who needs invasive aliens when you have brambles? In our part of the world they grow almost all the year round, reaching out from the hedgerows rooting and running and before you know it they are shading out everything beneath them. But a small area of rooting can support a lot of top growth. They are difficult to deal with by mowing, as they get tangled up with the mower. So, I plan to cut them all off with secateurs at the base, then mow and herbicide spray the regrowth, which will be limited to just a few rooted growth points. Should do them for the next few years.

The DR, our main heavy grass cutter, with a fallen tree behind which acts as a bridgehead for brambles which come out of the hege (right). We might leave the tree as it is still alive and has lots of fruit (sloes).
Two years ago, I did a post on Adding to a Meadow. I can report back that we seem to have success, all the species added seem to be present, a few of the Trollius flowered and some of the Polemonium this year too. Plenty of foliage of the added species is there too. Progress will be slow as competition is so intense, and it will be interesting to see if we get any spreading.

With more and more people managing little bits of land like this, an acre here, a quarter hectare there, the need to understand how to do extensive management is going to grow. It is a different kind of gardening.


SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

On the attack - early summer weeding



A day spent in the garden – weeding. Having been away for 2 weeks there is a lot to do at this time of year. This is the crucial period, to stop things seeding. It is also a very good time to evaluate what we're doing. And – more generally to reflect on what naturalistic planting is, and how realistic a proposition it is.

I must admit I have a slightly bipolar relationship with the gardens – sometimes revelling in its rich assortment of plantlife that very largely looks after itself (and wildlife, like the almost deafening sound of bumble bees feeding on Symphytum caucasicum), and at other times feeling almost despairing at holding the ring against an incredibly aggressive weed flora. I sometimes worry that if I don't get on top of things, grass and nettles could overrun everything in no time at all.

The planting is largely made up of robust perennials which can indeed look after themselves: some of them stay more or less the same size, others spread out to form solid clumps, some seed around and are gradually insinuating themselves themselves all over, some seem to get overwhelmed – either by stronger-growing neighbours and/or weedy spontaneous species.

The best way to keep unwanted weedy wild species at bay is to have as complete a vegetation canopy over the soil as possible. A lot of my planting is a lot more dense than most people's. Eventually, I aim and intend that it should be as dense as natural vegetation - but with a composition which is aesthetically pleasing for as long as possible. At this density, some garden plants have a different form to how they are grown more conventionally - for example many clump formers like geraniums and astrantias form long stems which wend their way through other plants. This method of growing does not suit species with ground level foliage, like asiatic primulas, which will not tolerate taller things growing above them; primrose/polyanthus/oxlips though seem ok, as their become semi-dormant in summer and don't mind being crowded and overshadowed.

We have an incredibly aggressive weed flora: pasture grasses, creeping buttercup, stinging nettle, dandelions, wood avens. My recent visit to the USA has illustrated just how successfully some of these have joined/invaded the North American flora – and yet not a single species of North American origin has become a problem alien in Britain (a few have, possibly, in mainland Europe). Weeds are a problem because if not dealt with they would quite quickly out-compete almost all garden perennials (and many natives too).

Our garden gets high rainfall, the soil hangs on to it, and we have a very high level of fertility, so if a plant likes it here, it grows incredibly vigorously. Such a situation is exploited most effectively by the species which can make the most of the resources available – which varies enormously. Those which can turn nutrients into leaf and root the fastest tend to be the most troublesome.

 But what makes a plant a weed? Such a question leads onto my idea of the hierarchy of weeds.
  • Public Enemy Number One(s)
  • Those to eliminate as much as possible, but not necessarily totally
  • Wild Plants which are not really Bad Weeds, but Which I Don't Like
  • Minor nuisances, usually tolerated
The list can be cross-referenced to the different parts of the garden, where different standards apply:

The Wild Garden where Those to eliminate as much as possible, but not necessarily totally can be given plenty of scope (because the inhabitants of the wild garden will, for the most part, keep on top of them).

The Borders – where Minor nuisances, usually tolerated, are indeed tolerated, as well as a certain number of Wild Plants which are not really Bad Weeds, but Which I Don't Like are also allowed to get away with it.

Vegetable Garden, areas for annuals and test and nursery beds – have to be kept clear of almost anything and everything.
    Public Enemy Number One(s)
There are a few (very few) species which are so effective at utilising nutrients and turning them into growth which suppresses all else that they just have to go: dug out or Rounded-upped (or otherwise herbicided). The Stinging Nettle tops the bill. This is a very worrying plant, not just because it will get the better of just about any non-woody plant but because it is capable of slowly smothering the entire British non-forest flora. L
isten to this BBC podcast . Fed by nitrogen pollution, septic tanks and over-use of fertilizer, I have seen nettles advance over more diverse floras here since we moved – in places where they must be being fed by nitrogen pollution (caused by car exhausts primarily). It was worrying to see them in the Pacific North-West recently too. Mind you, they make nice soup!
Cocks foot grass (Dactylis glomerata) is another, an aggressive tussock former which eliminates all competition.

Those to eliminate as much as possible, but not necessarily totally
 The Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is a good example here, which flourishes on our damp soil. It makes establishing anything difficult, and can cover ground with frightening speed. However I cannot help but be charmed by its yellow flowers at this time of year, which when dotted around between and beneath other plants are undeniably part of the visual mix here. The fact is, most the stuff I grow gets bigger than it does, and so it gets out-competed, so it is simply not a major issue for the borders and certainly not the Wild Garden.

Wild Plants which are not really Bad Weeds, but Which I Don't Like
Horrible smelly Stachys sylvestris is one, can't remember its English name, runs but not a real nuisance, if it had better flowers I would have no problem with it. Ditto Wood Avens (Geum urbanum). To be honest, i can't see it out-competing most of the things I grow, as it does not spread but stays very tight, it just seeds so such, and doesn't earn its keep, but there is no way I can do much more than keep its numbers down. There is a grass too (not very good at IDing grasses), I think it is Agrostis stolonifera, which seems to get everywhere, but it is so light and it seems very uncompetitive that I can't get too overexcited about it. Trouble is, these are not problem plants, but they seed so much, and in quantity could become competitive against desired plants in spring. If the worst comes to the worst they can be hoed off in dry winter weather (on the rare occasions we have it) or Rounded-Upped if they are growing en masse at this time. Most native weedy species start into growth before non-native perennials, which is part of the problem as it gives them a competitive advantage, but it does mean you can see them and eliminate them.

Epilobiums/Willowherbs too, but they are quite easy to pull out, or hoe off the seedlings. They don't compete and as they canopy builds up they lose their habitat.

Plants that some people think are weeds but I don't (at least in perennial plantings).
Hairy Bitter Cress, little speedwelly things,

One final point, because the garden vegetation is very dense, which is one of the visual delights, plants tend to support each other - weeding or stepping into plantings can cause gaps, plants to collapse - and they can take some time to pick themselves up again and sort out their positions again. Something to think about, when we have a garden opening coming up, but then if you don't deal with those creeping buttercup plants now they'll seed and spread.



SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.



Sunday, May 18, 2014

Land of the balsam-root, blue camas, and housing sprawl



Balsamorhiza sagittata and an Eriophorum sp. on Rowena Bluffs, OR.
 Spending two weeks in the USA. Mostly in the Pacific North West. Between doing lectures and workshops I have been out and about seeing as much of the wild plant life in this most beautiful of regions. At the moment, I can't bear the thought of going back to England, which seems so tame, limited and ecologically damaged by comparison. For those who have never been, the PNW offers a truly amazing range of epic landscapes and incredible biodiversity.

For all sorts of geological reasons connected with ice ages, the flora here is richer than in Europe, and far more than in Britain. There is also that extraordinary change as you go east – west, which is what you find all the way down the western spine of mountains and intermontane basins from British Columbia to Chile. Quite unlike anything in the Old World, a few hours west-east driving takes you from lush temperate to semi-desert (or even real desert) and then to cooler montane temperate, and so on. So, different floras mix and match and interweave in relation to different climates but also of course geology.
Lupinus sp. possibly L. sericeus in Ponderosa Pine woodland

The Rowena Bluffs area of the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, is Quercus garryana (Garry Oak) savannah, with castilleja, lupin and Balsamorhiza sagitata (Balsam Root). Castilleja is a semi-parasite, related to the yellow rattle beloved of by British wildflower meadow restorationists. And famously difficult to grow in garden conditions. Pictures here.


Turnbull Wildlife Refuge is in eastern Washington. It is a truly epic landscape. You can get the feeling that this is what this country looked like before white settlers - as far as you can see there is no trace of human habitation or obvious impact. It is also a very attractive landscape – parkland, a kind of Ponderosa Pine savannah, which alternates grassland with a very loose open forest. I think (as indeed do many others) that we respond to this kind of landscape because we came from the African savannah and it is somehow hard-wired into our brains. The wildflowers were sensational, a result of a dramatic geological history which has left shallow, even minimal soils over basalt, with closely intertwined wet and dry places. The blue Camassia quamash grows on the wet while yellow umbellifer Lomatium triternatum on the drier. You can see pictures here.

Balsamohrhiza again, unlike the lupins, a long-lived perennial which apparently takes 5 years to reach flowering size, with a deep taproot, hence not seen much in gardens.

Being here is also an opportunity to look at a characteristically American way of living, which is kind of worrying for the future – low density living. Travel outside any US city and its aureole of suburbia and you hit huge areas of housing more or less hidden in the woods. Lots of houses on big lots - often over an acre. I think of it as 'exurbia'. Rarely do folk 'garden' most of this area, which stays wild, but only sort-of. Ok, but not great for shy wildlife (although increasingly US wildlife is anything but shy). However over time, the whole process of woodland regeneration will inevitably suffer. The inevitable suppression of fire means that the species mix will change, and all too often when there is a fire, it will burn out of control because of the fuel build-up of years worth of dead leaves, branches etc. How many homeowners know anything about forest management anyway?

The idea that houses in large lots keeps the rural character is an odd one. You can't escape the houses, their drives, the aggressive 'keep out' signs. By building at such low density, vast areas of real rural areas, in the form of unmanaged or natural forest land is being effectively lost. I can't help feeling that the big lot sizes are part of an unsustainable 1950s 'American Dream' way of life along with enormous houses ('MacMansions') and the widely criticised 'trucks' (enormous gas-guzzling cars, which seem so essential to the expression of masculinity here). It also feels that, amongst some people, there is a deep aversion to living in any kind of community; a landscaping style which also mean a long-term loss of natural communities as well.

Link here to a fascinating piece on the vanishing White Oak in eastern forests, which relates to these issues:

 
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If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.










Saturday, May 10, 2014

A flying visit to Chicago and the Lurie Garden



Interesting being at the Lurie Garden in Chicago after such a viciously cold winter and seeing it all coming back to life, garden director Jennifer Davit tells me that “everything” of Piet Oudolf's planting has survived. All down to snow cover – with a decent depths of snow you can get away with a lot. Its great to see everything coming back to life and the first bulbs, which are almost over at home in England, so I feel like I'm getting a second crack at spring.
Muscari do well here, this is the support act for the Salvia River later on but they do not spread like they do at home.

What's so great about the Lurie Garden is the intensity and diversity of the planting, you can look at a bit a few square metres across and say “there's so much going on here, I could imagine having this at home” which you couldn't with a classic Oehme van Sweden planting. It's what convinced me to work with them on doing the little book, a sort of primer for gardeners: Gardening with Perennials: Lessons from Chicago's Lurie Garden.

One colleague I had breakfast with, said he thought the Lurie was too much an “intensive care unit for plants” which isn't really fair, as although it takes a lot of work, some of it done with volunteers, the comparison you have to make is with the convention of summer bedding, which takes vastly more work, an annual expenditure, offers only the most temporary home for biodiversity and raises so many sustainability issues. The fact that it does take effort to maintain is actually a way of getting public engagement with gardening.
Lovely pale form of Mertensia virginica, which seeds itself around here, is summer dormant to fits well with other later perennials and grasses. At home in Hummelo Piet finds it even grows in with big clumps of grasses.


It's such a great place, this time I felt, not its scale, but actually its intimacy, it is quite a small area compared to the vastness of the whole lakeside park area. Which helps, I think, get the message across that this is something relevant to home gardeners. And if you are here, make sure you check out the plantings on lake side of the Art Institute of Chicago too, designed by Roy Diblik. Who, by the way has got a very good new book out.

Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' in Roy's planting at the Art Institute.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Piet Oudolf in Somerset


Just popped into Durslade Farm, just outside Bruton in Somerset, home of the new Hauser + Wirth gallery. The Guardian are talking about it as the "new Guggenheim". We shall see.  Whatever artworks it will host, it is a wonderful design project, with the 19th century farm buildings being lovingly and imaginatively restored to provide gallery spaces, all being done to an incredibly high standard.

Piet Oudolf is doing the planting, of a courtyard area and a field out the back which will link the gallery to the surrounding countryside via blocks of perennials. He seems very pleased with the project. A distinct feature is the elevations in each block, which don't look much now, but will probably have quite an impact on how we see the plants.

Jo walking down the newt fencing
The newt fencing is a legal requirement apparently, special buckets have to be set out for them to fall into so they, and other trapped amphibians can be then removed to the safe side. All well and good, except that I don't see one of the causes of reptile/amphibian decline being dealt with anytime soon - the shooting industry and its legions of pheasants which gobble them up wholesale.
Jo with Alice Workman, gallery Director
This promises to be a very exciting project, and nice to have it relatively nearby for frequent visits.
Sporobolus clumps escaping into the walkway

Positioning artworks using 2D representations.
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If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.