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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.

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.

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