Monday, January 30, 2012

Review of New York Botanical Garden Premiere Lecture in 12th Annual Winter Lecture Series

Larry Weaner
Breaking the Rules:  Ecological Design for the Real World

New York Botanical Garden (NYBG)
A few years ago, NYBG started a new trend as part of its successful winter lecture series.
To borrow a baseball metaphor, they bring in a switch hitter, prior to the featured speaker.  It’s like the audience warm-up to the main show except when it’s not.
In the beginning, audience members just didn’t like the Garden cutting into their time. After all, these are subscription tickets and people want what they paid for.
The brief intros were more like commercial announcements, as in what’s coming up at the Garden/don’t miss this or that exhibit…
Over time, I think the warm ups have yielded more substance, offering more of a coming attraction kind of lucky-strike extra. 
I’m not saying there aren’t some attendees who still text one another during the preview talk wishing it would end, but I do think the quality of the bonus talk has earned a few stars. 
The Garden should own up to the new format though, as part of its truth in advertising, rather than just popping it in or seeming to “sneak” it in.  Especially if they stand behind the commitment and quality of the talk – after all, the Garden possesses world-class plant experts in many fields who can add to the dialectic between science and environmentalism and sustainability and plant science.

Todd Forrest, vice president of Horticulture, Living Collections, NYBG provided the preview.
Todd is an informed, confident professional, who can also communicate complex earth science paradigms and triage the worlds of horticulture, garden art and botany so that the narrative is compelling and sometimes, downright funny.

Fittingly, Forrest talked about the issues of history, preservation, and sustainability surrounding the Garden’s old growth forest. 
This is a man born to his calling.

He impressed upon the audience how the 50-acre hemlock grove is a “changing forest” rather than a preserved, pristine place that is more of an archived attraction. 
NYBG took possession of the forest in 1895 – in the spirit of the Hudson River school and in the context of expansion and a retort to the city’s rapid industrialization.  
The rest of the Garden was, in fact, built around the forest.  

Forrest used nostalgic images, government surveys from more than a hundred years ago, through to today’s Garden and volunteer staff to demonstrate how the forest has been studied and documented.  The baseline was established by the WPA in the Depression to create a statistical picture of the oak, hemlock and cork trees there; 17% was re-mapped about five years ago.

The Garden tracked the history of the forest’s soil composition, its chestnut blight, theft of the native jack-in-the-pulpits, and the exuberant bird watchers who inadvertently contribute to soil compaction when they go off-trail.  
He pointed out the fact that the squirrel population is now off the charts—used to be 2-7 per hectare. Now it’s 45-51!
Then, there are all the invasive species the Garden has to deal with and manage.  Exotic species alone are up 92% since 1984.

Gardeners are hopeful people though.  And true to form, Forrest outlined solutions that have proven effective in managing the forest, including identifying and removing the invasives: knotweed, ranunculus, Japanese honeysuckle, and cork trees, for example. Beat the squirrels to the hickory and oak nuts, and nurture good herbaceous plants like ferns.  This tedious, dedicated work has yielded results and made a difference, according to Forrest.

Forrest soon introduced Larry Weaner with a funny anecdote, before noting what an innovative landscape designer Larry is -- how blown away he is his by Larry’s sophisticated sense of horticultural style and his respect for the processes.

Breaking The Rules – Featured Speaker
Larry thanked Todd for laying the foundation for his own talk about ecological design and succession: both natural and man-made.
Plus Larry noted how much of Todd’s presentation was in fact, a primer for his message. And he was right.

Larry launched his presentation showing the once fashionable “Meadow in a Can” marketing ploy, asking for a show of hands of those who tried this garden slight-of-hand. 
His point was that this attempt took advantage of our collective conceit to make a happy, carefree meadow. 
What were we thinking? 
Well, for starters, we were romantic and loved those billowy blossoms swaying in that random, dreamy dance.  What did we know of habitat?
Like a born-again preacher administering to a receptive, converted flock, Larry seemed to give us group absolution, saying, “It was purely cheap seed.” Adding, “Invariably it was going to fail. There was no connection to the real world.”
And just like that, the dream evaporated. Pouf.
Turns out, producing a meadow is just as intense as a making a successful perennial border. 

But this little cautionary tale established the foundation for Larry’s message and brought us to understand how his ability to break the rules made him a leader of ecological horticulture.
And how we can all follow his example to the promised land of less invasives, less lawn, if we can just think about understanding the ecological processes and habitat.
In the handout, he asks, “Why break the rules?” The answer: Because considering ecological science changes everything.

A key element we learned is that of a competitive environment.  Here the idea is matching habitat to conditions that will sustain the plant species. 

Larry urged us to think about plant communities -- where plants associate with their preferred evolutionary buddies.  Think diversity here.  Monocultures cannot sustain themselves.
Instead, stability is found in companion planting.  
Plus, different plants need different pollinators who recognize their native species.

Disturbance is huge he tells us.  There is disturbance to avoid and disturbance to apply. Who knew?
Disturbance occurs naturally or by man and it highlights the life chapters of a plant.  
For example, if a tree falls in the woods there opens up more light there so that the cardinalis plant, for example, that has been “slumbering” will now germinate and grow where heretofore it had been kept like a Sleeping Beauty, awaiting its prince charming.   
Plants adapt.  
Using a Mike Tyson analogy to describe a fair fight he urged us to prepare for the planting conditions we face.  Gardeners tend to be too hopeful at times…
Within plant communities, change is a desired aesthetic. Work with it. He recommends four plants per square foot will be overgrown except for natives where this metric will inhibit weeds.

Natural succession is management vs. maintenance to allow for change.  We don’t want death. Gardeners are about beauty and life. But Larry reminds us that plants do die.  Plan for it.   
Also plan for plant compositions that change over time such as rudbeckia – or Black-Eyed Susan - that is a bi-annual.  It’s a process of succession of layers and tie in seed mix waiting to unfold. Plants grow at different rates, even in those meadows.  

Traditional Practices might be advantageous.  Choose plants that match plants to habitat and community when designing a garden.  The competitive level is big so be mindful when selecting cultivars.    Larry used a coreopsis as an example.  A recent coreopsis introduction is rosea pink that is not a native species – it’s a wetland plant and would not do well in a traditional dry planting bed we are accustomed to for a coreopsis.  

He also showed examples where no irrigation was needed when the soil Ph is correct; no staking needed for plants that were densely planted or vertically layered.  

Design a garden by editing during the management phase.
When planting think about these priorities:
Soil preparation,
No tilling – avoid disturbing the layers
Imported topsoil vs. native soil
Be mindful of the soil amendments and organic material

Alter planting times.  Allow time between distribution of seed and pollination, waiting for weeds to germinate. During that time, he advises, the plant will have exhausted the weeds.
He also preached the common sense wisdom to select the season best for the plants over the weeds.  This methodology will also decrease watering needs.  Larry used the example of planting Mediterranean plants that require little water that were planted in late June/July thereby recreating or mimicking their native habitat and better insuring a healthy start.  This is in contrast to conventional wisdom, which is to plant in the spring – or autumn – and give the plants lots of water.  Something to think about…  

Research your regional Ecotypes and plan accordingly.

And look to what he terms Restoration Nurseries.  Most every other type of nursery has a single goal:  get the plant material out the door. Too often the plants don’t have a strong root system.  They promote leaves at the top of the plant.  But those scrawny, spindly plants are in fact, destined to be healthier in the long run, he told us.

Larry employs a curious way to tamp out weeds:  Timed mowing.  
Mowing seasonally cuts off invasives, forms dense cover and weeds fade out, Larry says.  It takes about five years to see results for this more human landscape.  “It’s sophisticated but not difficult to do,” he adds.  He showed how he did this with his own birch line with native spirea manipulating the tree-shrub composition and Migrating the Mow Line so that he can modify the sinewy path out to where he would prefer it – closer to a meadow.

He recommends cutting perennials in the spring not the fall.
Don’t use raw wood chips because they will alter late stage succession plants.  Pea gravel often allows birdseed “deposits.”  Instead, replace traditional mulches with highly competitive ground layer vegetation.   

It was a lot of information – all terrific and in many ways it was learning to break some long held rules or assumptions.  Larry Weaner needs to produce a book about his out of the garden bed theories and evolved landscape design practices.  He says his goal is native plant dominance in the seed bank. 
Hip, hip, hooray!  I, for one, plan to be a loyal follower and card-carrying member of the Larry Weaner Ecological Design fan club.  

Larry concluded his talk with a beautiful piece of music that he said inspired him and that he hoped would help convey the experience of being in the landscapes.   
It was a “Partnership of Nature.”  As a Hayden string quartet played, and breathtaking images lit up the screen, it was a few moments that underscored his sense of awe with nature. I cried…

Next up is Doug Tallamy, Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 10:00 am to discuss the use of native plants and the importance of insects in the garden, local food web and ecosystems. For more information and to register:


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wave Hill Garden Kicks Off Horticultural Lecture Series with Larry J. Wente & Country Life: Integrating Architecture & Landscape Design

This was the inaugural horticulture lecture of the new year/new season: (Beat out NYBG by about half a day…)

It was a fitting kick-off, too. 
Wave Hill bills the much anticipated Horticultural Lectures as “Architectural and Garden Design: Three Perspectives.”

The first guest speaker, Larry J. Wente, is a quiet, persistent gardener and architect.   
The expansive gardens for his country home, which is essentially an estate in my humble opinion, embraced years of dedicated planning and artful landscape design.
The property is 41 acres, and while he clearly is passionate about his gardens and the intimate, detailed planning he poured his life into for every garden room, he said, “It had to end sometime!”

From a lecture review standpoint, Wente’s presentation was a good mix of “before” and “after” gardening magic. 
He took the audience on a garden tour that spanned a decades-long timeline and virtual tour around the estate -- and from blueprint layout to finished garden room – in a mix of seasons.  
The preview was almost better than an on-site tour, allowing the audience to see the expanse of the garden rooms, vistas and maturation of plant material over time and place. 
OK, we didn’t get to experience heady fragrance or feel the brush of the grasses or see the sun set across the fields.  No. We weren’t seduced by any of those garden art come-hither flirtations. But then again, we did didn’t linger. And we learned a lot.

Wave Hill wrote “His Dutchess County property, where the integration of a barn-like home with the surrounding farmland and meadows intentionally blurs the line between house and garden, is a favorite on Garden Conservancy Open Days.” 
We could readily see why.
This garden is a jewel – it’s been lovingly crafted and tended over time, with the plants and the design leading Wente’s aesthetics to integrate a garden for all seasons with the architecture. Like two peas in a pod or two sides of the same coin or…
Well, some garden lovers don’t get this integration concept. 
Sometimes it seems everyone wants an English garden.  As if nothing else existed or was possible. So it was satisfying to learn how a master accomplished this feat of fusion.

Also, Wente seems so special because unlike many architects I’ve encountered, he clearly Loves plants!
You can see it in his exuberant display gardens and the great variety of plants and plant textures and structures. 
He quoted the beloved New York City public garden designer, Lynden Miller, from her book, “Parks, Plants & People: ”Beautifying the Urban Landscape”, saying he too believes good garden design is “painting with plants.” Lynden smiled from the audience. 

He showed inspiring use of color.  
Besides the color combinations of the blooms in full blossom and the mix in the perennial borders, he showed a lovely end of season garden palette when the colors transition from blue to purple to grey.  He mixes with yellow for contrast. 

He says he abandoned his original color scheme for the pool garden and instead followed his color aesthetic. The use of Japanese red blood grass punctuates the garden and acts as an accent in the gold and bronze-colored plant garden there.   

Most outstanding is how he made the blue solar panels integrate into a garden design with the use of contrasting red poppies. Brilliant!  

Wente noted many of his garden “rooms” have been featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine. He pointed out a few times that he and his partner’s curious tuteurs –  rather large-sized, bold silver creations that were paced among the giant alliums -- were omitted by the MSL photography team. “They seemed to think they were a bit tacky,” he grinned.    

He went on to point out his influences, including the Spanish landscape designer, Fernando Caruncho, best known for his minimalist and classic garden design and use of light and shadow.
Here is a recent article written by my amazing garden friend, Donna Dorian.  I think she is something of a Caruncho expert, having lectured and written about this masterful designer on more than a few occasions:

Wente introduced a vertical design element in his gardens to create mystery -- taking inspiration from the Italian gardens he visited.   

He also substitutes natives to achieve a look. For example, Wente can’t do olive and cypress trees, but he can do apple and spirea. “It’s a different feel but essentially the same style and look,” he added.

He also showed a great use of bamboo in pots.  

He uses a fair amount of grasses, especially the Karl Foerster grasses because of the all-season color and texture and contribution to pollinators in the winter months.  
The textured view of apple trees is ethereal.
The images elicited a soft wave of “Ohhhs.”
The gardens boast a great variety of plant material, including perennials and grasses  - -Wente says he loves to see them blowing in the wind.  (Don’t even think about Dylan here.)

He employs turf grass walkways frequently throughout the garden because it’s cool on the feet.  Nice. One doesn’t always need pavers or gravel or stones.

As a successful architect in the design firm, Gertler & Wente Architects, LLP, it’s not a surprise to see how Wente made excellent use of designing gardens on the axis.
The pool garden, for example, has an axis point to the pool house so that the view slows the walking there.  
In another place, the use of a large blue pot at the end of an arbor walkway acts as a designed focal point. 
Wente knows how to draw the eye.
And the heart.

Wente concluded his garden tour and lecture by including images of family and friends IN the garden.  Silly how this is rarely if ever done at presentations, now that I think about it.   
Wente narrated the portfolio of family members delighted to be in the garden.  “The best thing about having a garden is to have people in the garden.  Look at my granddaughter – she looks like something out of a Sargent painting,” he beamed.   His partner Jack and their families could be seen enjoying and embracing the beauty of the gardens.  


Wente quickly showed two of his clients’ design projects.  There was an intriguing Hudson River green roof cover that screened the home for the neighbor’s house up above.  The green roof allowed an un-interrupted view for the neighbor and an energy-efficient, beautiful roof alternative for his client.  Nice neighbor to have…  
He also showed a modern, mid-century take on a courtyard garden that opened up the space to draw the eye to a reverse side valley view.  

The last garden design example was another one near the Hudson River. The house and garden was appointed with waterfalls, and water features to create a fairyland of a “natural” garden.

There was a two question Q&A, the most salient one asked:   
How do you manage the maintenance? Larry smiled.  “We have a woman - with help. Otherwise, Jack and I used to do it all.” Wow.  That’s garden love and commitment. 

Audience guests were keen to say hello to each other after the Holidays so there was the post-lecture hugs and kisses and catching up.  Our little group went across the street for some delicious seafood dinners, wine and some garden catching up of our own. 
A perfect evening for garden lovers.

From a Duchess to a Queen! 
I am very much looking forward to the next Wave Hill lecture: February 22 with Rosemary Verey: Queen Of Horticulture.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Exploring the Passion for Ornamental Grasses at MetroHort

The first meeting of the New York MetroHort professional group featured Bill Kolvek, nursery owner, member of the Perennial Plant Association, frequent lecturer and New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and Bergen Community College, teacher about perennials and ornamental grasses. 

Kolvek offered a fast-paced presentation because it was clear he has a lot to say and share.  The audience warms to a speaker who had lots and lots of images to share, and Kolvek didn’t disappoint.  Full-color images of regal, fashionable, architectural, pretty grasses flowed like models on the runway.  And not so coincidently, elicited a few oohs and ahh’s along the way. Take that Victoria Secret!

Kolvek’s insight and knowledge of the grasses and grass-like plants was evident.  He made the lecture fun – with lots of anecdotes and background and real-life experience with growing and maintenance, that is all so important to the hort professionals in attendance.  After all, we have to live with more than the pretty catalog picture… Our clients’ gardens are living art that we manage over seasons.

The variety of ornamental grasses, sedges and rushes is astounding.  And the recent introductions make these plants a must-have addition in the garden and as part of any container garden composition.  Grasses provide a lucky extra in the garden: they offer four-season interest, color, winter beauty and food for pollinators.  Kolvek pointed out that many grasses now thrive in shade.  We also learned about many native grasses including the Carex pennsylvanica.  Nice flowering too. 

I liked the looks of ‘Goldband’ and while I couldn’t quite see it, Kolvek enthused about the plant’s olive green color.  That shade of green is a welcome addition to a garden designer’s palette. Overall, the plant was described as showing with lots of winter interest. The Carex elate 'Aurea' is a startlingly beautiful accessory to the blues and green grasses in the garden.

Love the Aurea with daisies

The Muhlenbergia capillaris grass was hands-down glamorous. Its showy pink plumes are pretty pink tutus that leave one swooning.  

There was mention of its inability to sustain our northeastern US zone 5, 6, 7 and thanks to global warming, 8.  I thought I heard mention this ballerina like grass is good to zone 5.  It’s a tender perennial…
However, I will tell you that I tried twice to include these beauties in Garden State gardens back in ’05 and ’06 and met with little success, even given a southwestern microclimate situation where the grasses were planted next to the house – giving added heat/warmth.   
I would so love to use this beauty (I still have the grower’s postcard in my home garden design office simply because it’s so pretty….
If anyone has other experiences or advice on this, please share.

Kolvek went on to say the Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ are the “coolest grass” he’s worked with. 
I love them too and have used them in several clients’ garden designs. 
Especially one in Spring Lake (aka “the Irish Riviera”) in the Garden State. 
Six years ago, I chose to include this grass as an elongated “S” border on one side of the small yard because of its beauty, no doubt – the color complemented the blue house color – but also because of its size and structure and flowering charm.

Panicum amarum ‘Dewey Blue’ was a new one to me and I very much liked the look.  I will surely use these in future garden designs.

Some exciting new introductions that left the audience as breathless as international fashion buyers included the Panicums ‘Thundercloud’ and ‘Ruby Ribbons’  

along with the Pennisetums ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Sky Rocket’ and ‘Cherry Sparkler’  – all with incredible foliage.   
Not hardy in colder climates but I will use as spectacular tender perennials in garden design and container compositions.

There was a pointed inclusion about bamboo – it’s a true grass, after all.
I do feel bamboo is an overlooked design element because too many are afraid of its invasive qualities. However, if you or the garden designer chooses wisely, bamboo is an elegant, unmatched addition to a garden: in containers – if too invasive – or in the landscape. Homeowners too often don’t know the difference. There are those that are indeed invasive (oy are they! We are in a constant battle with one neighbor’s creeping bamboo) and those that are just elegant grasses. I have often frequented Little Acre Farm ( to secure such grasses as Fargesia nitidia (grows to about six or seven feet).  
The variegated leaves of the Pleioblastus variegatus is like garden magic – the leaves turn beige in the winter and back to green in the summer.  Just be sure to keep this morphing maven in a contained space – it is one of the bamboos that will take over the garden.   

Tried and true wonders that Kolvek (and me) love include Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and ‘Little Bunny’ – good to zone 6 but could be ok in zone 5 due to our climate change… These stalwarts of the garden provide consistent texture, color and drama especially for smaller spaces.   Same is true for the variety of Miscanthus.  New to me was the ‘Gold Bar.”  Brilliant color for all-season interest.

Kolvek did warn about the self-sowing of the popular Moudry grasses

A cute highlight was when Kolvek showed how his puppy equally loves grasses and snuggled in this beauty, the clumping ‘Ice Dance’ along with his bone. 

As an adult dog, he still loves his bone-hiding grass! 

Light shade and moisture was suggested for the Carex (more light requires more moisture is a good rule of thumb.)
I loved the Rushes Kolvek previewed, including the Juncus ‘Twisted Arrows’ and ‘Unicorn!’  What fun for a zoo garden. 

I can see an evening solar light illuminating these twisting architectural specimens.

I use Liriope often and don’t feel they are overused when incorporated into a design appropriately and not just plopped all over.  They are hardy, require minimal maintenance and provide color and foliage options that give the garden a four-season interest. 
The new ‘Peedee Ingot’ is adorable.  And the color of preppy green and purple is exciting – I can’t wait to use this beauty.

The Lazula ‘Ruby Stilleto’ gave me a jolt of garden design inspiration just looking at the image! 

I used the Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Arabicus’ in a garden design back in ’01.  Because of the high cost of the Mondo Grass at that time, we used very few to line a walkway in front of dwarf  Nandina.  Over the years, we have divided the clumps with much success.  The black color fronting the winter red nandina and the light to dark green in spring and summer is outstanding.  There are very few black plants for us to use and I adore this one.   

I also use the Hakonechloa macra “Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’ frequently.  All season color and the texture are key. I love the way it feathers and fluffs in the breeze, too.  These grasses looked particularly stunning fronting dwarf Joe Pye Weed. The pink and glowing bright greens made a hit in the garden and with the client.

There was a short, lively Q&A following the exciting lecture with questions included “What kind of grass would you suggest for a 40th floor rooftop garden in New York City?” Answer:  short ones!  

Kolvek provided the MetroHort attendees a full plant list.  My NYBG friend and all things Horticulture, Charles Yurgalevitch, Ph.D., Director School of Professional Horticulture The New York Botanical Garden, and MetroHort Secretary (and all things Italian) was a true gentleman and shared his plant list with me.  Thank you.

Readers can go directly to the Kolvek Perennial Plants website:

The native plant list (found on the home page) is a godsend.  Be sure to use this helpful list.  You will be adding not just natural beauty and sustainability to the garden but you will be aiding our native pollinators by using natives and not invasive ornamentals. 

I couldn’t help but notice the lovely botanical art on the Kolvek Perennial home page is an Illustration by Anne Kolvek.  What a talented family!  Thank you for sharing your love of plants and celebrating the art of the Garden!