Search This Blog


Gardening Heresy Good for Environment

After a rousing introduction that recalled the history of why we garden the way we do, John Peter Thompson got three hundred landscape architects, environmentalists, and government officials (at last week’s Land Ethics Symposium, sponsored by Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania) to entertain an heretical thought: It’s time for a change.

Once he pointed out that today’s McMansion is the U.S. version of an English baronial manor house, he drew the parallel between the current landscape styling of vast lawns and perimeter plantings to the baronial manor house firmly planted in its “park.”

The first European grand-scale gardens were the products of kings, both French and English, who used their gardens as displays of wealth, power, and authority. These gardens took hundreds of gardeners to maintain, as well as the expense of global plant hunts to acquire rare botanical curiosities. They were as far removed as we can imagine from being sustainable.

Ordinary folks of the time had little use for plants that were not utilitarian, providing food, medicine, fuel, or fiber for clothing. Since few Americans today grow plants for these basic necessities, what remains of our landscape tradition is the ideal of surface beauty, which has been shaped primarily by exotic flowering plants.

But gardens filled only with alien plants are not sustainable sites. They provide little or nothing for North American birds, animals, reptiles, and insects. John Peter’s heretical message is simple: Don’t be afraid of Nature. Include native plants, trees, and shrubs to help restore a healthy, natural environment in your little corner of the world. To learn more about John Peter Thompson’s ideas and the Sustainable Sites Initiative, visit and .

Next Week: More from the Land Ethics Symposium – One Drop at a Time.

Ice Storm

Last week’s ice storm devastated our trees, although the cedars along the driveway that screened us from the road seem to have gotten the brunt of it. The only thing on the plus side of the ledger is that they fell parallel to the electric wires. One faithful old giant 40+ feet tall was pulled out by its roots and, as it tumbled down, took a dozen of its companions with it.

In another spot, cedars that afforded us a pleasing view of the golf course lake while masking the view of the asphalt parking lot were damaged as well. One split vertically from top to bottom.

Deciduous species lost limbs the size of whole trees. Some had their tops broken off. All of this took place at heights of 50 – 70 feet, where we can do little except wait for them to eventually fall to the ground --- hopefully not while we are walking beneath.

I have snapshots of myself at age four or five standing beside some of these trees, so they are more than just plants that serve a utilitarian purpose in the landscape. They have been my lifelong companions; silent but dependable sentinels who kept watch over me through both good times and bad. And now, broken and battered from the battle, they lie dead at my feet. There is nothing I can do for them.

Like any loss, this has been a difficult and depressing passage. Yes, after we clean up the battlefield come spring, I will bravely transplant the cedar volunteers that have sprung up in my front flowerbed and have Dan build individual cages to protect them from the deer.

But this time is different from every other. Now more than halfway through my own lifespan, it is questionable whether I will live to see them grow to their full maturity.

Your Garden — A Pleaser or a Teaser?

What’s weight-loss got to do with gardening? Not what you might think. Many years ago, I read Judy Wardell’s classic weight-loss book, Thin Within. She distinguished between foods that are “pleasers” and foods that are “teasers” – between tens and zeros. I’ve since used this “tens” notion in nearly every aspect of my life. What with spring just around the corner, I’ve begun to mull over the concept in terms of gardening.

Think about your garden for a moment. How many of the plants in it are those that hold a special affinity for you? Plants that you consider so special that every time you look at them, or smell them, give you a deep-down, total satisfaction? These are pleasers, tens. They are very specific, may not be easy to obtain, or may be expensive to buy. They may have sentimental value, reminding you of a certain person, place, or time in your life. Furthermore, what you consider a pleaser can change over time.

So what are teasers? Plants that are easy to get and look great, but only for a while; plants we really didn’t plan for, because they weren’t on our minds until we saw them. Teasers can be the wrong plant in the wrong place. Or a plant we picked up to fill a hole just because it was cheap.

You could think of this as junk gardening, similar to eating junk food. If we fill our gardens up with junk plants and junk ornaments, we’ll eventually end up with a garden that is basically a teaser. It might be lush and full, but we won’t find it satisfying because it doesn’t really reflect what we want, or who we are. It will not nurture us. Thus, we might produce a picture-perfect colorful flower garden that requires lots of hot sun, when what we really crave is a low-maintenance woodland garden filled with ferns, shrubs, and trees that lowers the temperature by ten degrees and generates a sense of cool serenity.

Thinking about what really pleases us in the garden is a lot of work. It’s so tempting to have a landscape designer woosh in and tell us what to buy and where to put it. However, we would be spending a lot of money to create a garden that is a pleaser only for the designer. Despite what so-called lifestyle gardening promises, instant results cannot deliver lasting satisfaction — those special atmospherics of the garden that speak to the soul. Some lucky gardeners have a natural ability to produce this result as unconsciously as they till the soil. Others require long periods of introspection and experimentation.

Whether you execute the design and planting yourself, or hire someone else to do it for you, take the time to think through what your garden means to you. That way, you’ll be sure to get a pleaser, not a teaser.

Garden Time

In last week’s blog, guest Eric Maisel raised the concept of re-imagining time so that “it is abundantly meaningful to turn to it (gardening) for short periods of time during the day rather than holding that, unless you have a huge expanse of time, there is no reason to bother.”

This echoes the sentiments expressed by garden writer Marianne Binetti who believes that gardening is a legitimate task to be incorporated into every garden writer’s workday and that time should be set aside for it like other assignments or appointments. Marianne suggests the carrot-and-stick approach, in which the gardening interval is a reward for completing our less palatable duties.

I seems much easier to get into the garden, than to get out of it, however. All serious gardeners are familiar with the elasticity of time, something we are told is a fixed unit. We’re taught that every second is the same length, determined by atomic clocks based on the hyperfine (microwave) transitions in hydrogen-1, cesium-133, and rubidium-7. Each minute equals 60 seconds, etc.

Nevertheless, in the garden we seem to enter Einstein’s realm of relativity. Well, maybe not exactly. Einstein’s theory says that time expands or contracts depending on how fast the observer is moving. My theory of gardening relativity is that garden time expands or contracts depending upon how much fun the gardener is having. Not much fun = expanding time. Lots of fun = contracting time.

Last year, I inserted some gardening work between the time I first start writing and the time I shower (seemed like a practical decision). I take the cell phone with me for two reasons: For 911 calls in case I accidentally slice off one of my own limbs, and to know when garden time is up. Usually, I was having way too much fun and garden time ended too soon. On auspicious days, I’d find any excuse to justify staying in the garden. Looking back now, each of these were times that I, as Eric advises, allowed myself to “do the thing your heart actually wants to do.”

I thought I needed at least 30 – 60 minutes, but I look forward to experimenting with the idea of considering fifteen, or even five, minutes in the garden as vast.