Gardening on the Land

Last August, a native plants and wildlife gardening buddy, Deb, sent to me a link to a New York Times article which I’d somehow missed in my own subscription. Written by author and podcaster, Margaret Roach, the article profiles landscape architect Darrel Morrison’s gardening philosophy, developed throughout his remarkable career. Roach also highlights Morrison’s knitting of ecological diversity with traditional design elements, as well as a thorough description of his “four principles” of landscape design.

The first principle involves planting for “natural diversity” to lessen water and chemical use in the garden and to mitigate climate change. Morrison suggests that a variety of plants native to a region offers the best outcome to achieve a diverse garden. Avoiding the use of invasive non-native plants is paramount to achieve this goal.

Morrison’s second principle promotes an “experientially rich” garden, one with active pollinators and other wildlife. Additionally, gardening with plants of differing structures and growth habits adds life and movement, enriching the garden community.

The third principle is that a garden should reflect where it is. My garden in Austin, Texas should look, feel, and smell different than one situated in Eugene, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin. A garden should be of its geographic place.

Morrison’s final principle is that of change. A garden should be “dynamic,” changing with time and seasons, which is opposite to the typical American outdoor space of expanse of green turf and pruned shrubs which looks the same year-round. I like Morrison’s quote on this particular point: “Painting is two-dimensional; architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional,” he said. “But landscapes are four-dimensional, with time being the fourth dimension.” Seasonal change, and planning for it, is important.

March/April blooming Gulf Coast Penstemon, Penstemon tenuis.
Gulf Coast Penstemon in late July-August: dried seed heads that have opened and spread seeds; leaf stalks turned burgundy with summer’s heat and drought. At the base, evergreen rosettes keep the plants’ place in the garden.

In my garden, I’ve mostly followed these principles, though I’ve never assigned names to them. While I am a native plant enthusiast and grow quite a few, I’m not a purist. Most of my non-native choices are Mexican, as these are all excellent pollinator plants and hardy in Central Texas. Other non-natives provide for structural and/or evergreen appeal. Some non-natives have an emotional connection, as they originally came from my parents’ garden or as pass-along plants from friends.

Early on in this garden adventure, I developed some guiding principles of my own. I knew that I wanted a garden of mostly native plants, chosen for their beauty, resilience, and variety. I also wanted plants that require little supplemental irrigation. In short order, I recognized that planting natives meant that a whole new world of wildlife soon followed. In brief: if you plant them, they will come. My garden is alive with movement and life–in the air that surrounds and on the ground that supports.

For me, design elements are least important, though I recognize that it’s a more attractive garden if there is a conscious blend of evergreen and deciduous, a deliberate pairing of soft form with structure, and glorious pops of color throughout the year, changing with light, time, and temperature. Whimsical or elegant, non-plant items also enhance a garden and add a human touch. Pathways allow experience of the garden.

My garden is different today than it was five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. The back garden was once full-sun, but oaks grew it to mostly shade. With recent freezer-burned thinning of the trees’ foliage, it now straddles those two extremes. The front garden was shady; going forward, the Texas sun will shine on it for years to come, until a small oak tree grows up and eventually casts its form over the garden.

Garden creation requires experimentation and mistakes are part of that process. Garden creation also requires patience and observation.

At the conclusion of the linked article about Darrell Morrison, the author recounts a story about how he began his work on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin:

For Mr. Morrison, ever the willing pupil, every place has something we can learn from, especially the natural areas.

In 1992, when he was engaged by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, nine miles from downtown Austin, he borrowed a sleeping bag and tent, and spent the first night camped out on the 42-acre site.

“It’s a good thing to do: to see the sun go down, smell the smells of the junipers, hear the morning birdsong,” he said. “I think you do know the place better for it.”

Apparently, that got the former first lady’s attention. Years later, Mrs. Johnson was receiving guests at a reception. She had suffered a stroke and her eyesight was diminished, so when Mr. Morrison reached the head of the line, he reintroduced himself: “You may remember me, Mrs. Johnson. I’m Darrel Morrison.”

“Of course, I remember you, Darrel,” she replied. “I tell all my friends how you slept on the land.”

I garden in a moderately sized urban lot in a large city. While I’ve lived here a long time, I’ve never slept on my land, aside from some lazy afternoon snoozes in the swing chairs. But I have watched this space. I’ve observed the sun and shade, seen sunrises and sets, and felt the breezes. I’ve noticed the insects and birds, and lived with plants from seed to compost. The garden and I have experienced triple digit temperatures, snow and ice, and floods and drought.

I’ve gardened on the land.

18 thoughts on “Gardening on the Land

  1. Lovely post, Tina! I’m in agreement with your methods, striving for similar goals. It is a blessing to be able to garden in place for decades. I’m at a loss for words to describe the connection one feels, rooted in the land. A whisper in the soul!

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    • Thank you, Eliza. I know you’re a gardening kindred spirit! I wish I had a larger space to indulge, but even with my typical urban plot, I’ve been able to experiment and watch things grow. I had the opportunity a few years back to buy some land about the size of what you garden on and I didn’t move on it. I have some regret about that, but that’s life.

      I like your last two sentences and couldn’t agree more! We’re very fortunate to do this work.

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    • Thanks, Allison. Truthfully, part of this process (aside from loving gardens and their plants/critters) is that it’s just practical. The efforts involved are less work in the hot summers and more interesting and engaging work when it needs to happen. I like that quote, too!

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  2. As I was reading, I kept thinking, “That’s just how Tina does it!” I also found myself thinking that someone needs find a way to reach people who don’t have a house and land with this same wisdom. People in townhouses, condos, and apartments who can’t garden still could find some ways to create a welcoming environment — if the management only would let them. A friend just was made to pull out the garden she’d established at her condo so that the areas around the buildings could be covered with gravel — all in the name of uniformity and neatness. Years ago, I lived in an apartment that forbid any bird feeding — or even water bowls.

    There are other ways to indulge the pleasure of watching a place grow and change, of course. That’s one reason I return to the same refuges time after time. It’s great fun to know where a certain plant grows, or to see the same birds back at their usual nesting place. I’ve not slept on that land, but seeing it in every season and at every time of day is nearly as good.

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    • You’re so right about the need for condos, apartments, businesses and HOAs to get behind the native plants/diversity movement. I’m not sure what it will take, but that’s been slow to happen. I’ve heard similar stories about people in multifamily units putting in gardens, then having to rip them out because management wants turf and for the reasons you state, uniformity and neatness.

      Thank goodness for wildlife refuges and the like, but of course, there aren’t nearly enough of them.

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  3. Such an inspiring post, and it cannot be overlooked that your beautiful photos demonstrate so well how lovely a garden created according to the principles followed will be, season after season. Beyond pleasing the eye, it is equally stunning how frequently visited and well used your garden spaces are by local (and migratory) wildlife. Such a brilliant example of “if you plant it they will come”. Your garden treats the senses, supports wildlife, and your writing about that garden feeds the soul. (Please) Don’t ever stop!

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  4. Your principle that “a garden should reflect where it is” aligns with the gospel that native plant people preach. It’s been a hard sell to much of the general public, but there does seem to have been some progress in the past two decades.

    You did well in catching the hummingbird at the Turk’s cap.

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    • I agree with you that the native plants have been a ‘hard sell’ for most of the general public, but you’re also right that native plants and trees have become the norm for many landscapes, private and commercial, even though there’s still too much blank, boring turf. We’ll get there. I hope.

      I’ve used that hummingbird photo in another post, last fall. I don’t get many clear shots of them when they’re moving.

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  5. “Garden creation requires experimentation and mistakes are part of that process.” Truer words were rarely spoken. I think your principled experimentation has yielded a wonderful, inclusive paradise for critters of all kinds. I think you and Mr. Morrison are kindred spirits – those are very good principles to garden by!

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