Mostly Shrubs for a Low-Maintenance Superstar Garden by Susan Harris

There’s nothing like working to improve city landscaping to turn you into a realist, having abandoned what you really want for what’s most likely to happen, given the usual constraints of manpower and budget.

In my last post I showed readers the sad, unweeded state of one of my town’s most prominent perennial beds and suggested it needed to be returned to turfgrass. (Please read about the constraints of the site before freaking out.)

But this post is a happy story already because just across the parking lot is our equally historic Roosevelt Center (named because the town was created as a project of the New Deal) and here the beds look great with almost no maintenance – thanks to full-grown shrubs. Yes they’re the common ‘Anthony Waterer’ and even commoner Nandina domestica, which probably wouldn’t be chosen today, but it’s thriving and a popular place for birds nests.

Above is a panorama shot of the most common pedestrian approach into Roosevelt Center on the right. You can see there’s still room for clumps of perennials here and there, though not all of them like it. The worst are the hostas in this sunny spot; they’ll look burned-up from late June until frost.

Misplaced hostas don’t seem to stop people from loving this spot and occasionally using it as a backdrop for portraits.

Here we see the cut-flower farmers I profiled in this post, with the farm. They were in town this week and posted this photo to Facebook, clearly enjoying the chance to dress up a bit and show off some fancy red shoes not suitable for the farm.

In this view I’d love to see some low shrubs here instead of these common daylilies, which look fine to me when they’re blooming and like crap the rest of the year. People see this small garden at such close range, there’s no room in it for mostly-crappy-looking plants.

On the right in this photo is the sunny little ex-weed patch in its second season after I rescued it. And here too I think it needs fewer perennials and a couple more shrubs.

The Sedum groundcover (S. takesimense) is a big hit and I plan to let it spread, though last summer I worried for its survival in this spot. Passersby were letting their dogs dig and uproot whole chunks of it, so I’ve moved it away from the sidewalk a bit and now I’m feeling optimistic about its survival, dogs be damned.

Mostly Shrubs for a Low-Maintenance Superstar Garden originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 15, 2018.

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Time to “Rethink Pretty” in the Garden by Allen Bush

Benjamin Vogt and I began an email exchange last March after I read his very interesting A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.

A few weeks ago, Benjamin had a sign posted on his property in Lincoln, Nebraska that warned him about the public nuisance he had created. He won the fight to keep his front and back yard prairie, but this got me thinking.

It seemed like a good time to share our exchange. Portions have been edited and expanded.

Onward Benjamin.

I wrote my book to make folks as uncomfortable as I felt. I wrote it to question horticulture, landscape design, and all environmental movements. I wrote it to invigorate the discussion and get us to grapple with humanity in ways we avoid in order to protect ourselves from the reality of our lost love. I wrote it in order to unearth aspects of environmentalism I thought weren’t explored enough. I wrote my book out of depression, fear, and anger in order to discover a strength we all possess — the ability to go against the force of history and culture and risk some aspect of ourselves we assumed was better for us. Gardens are places of activism in a time of mass extinction and we need to start using them as such. And if gardens are art, if that’s the primary viewpoint about them that we’re stuck with, then remember the long tradition of art based in activism and making folks uncomfortable for a purpose.


March 2018

Hi Benjamin,

I apologize for being slow to read your book, but I’m glad I brought it to the top of my book pile.

I thoroughly enjoyed A New Garden Ethic.

I worried at the outset that it might be full of redundancies, but when there were similar claims, “We proclaim ourselves right in a wrong world…” (p.56), each new argument augmented your case. Rarely did I feel like you were talking down to me. On occasion, there were annoying passages, such as, “Native plants are a threat to an entire Western culture…(p 59).

But here’s what I got out of your book.

  1. A garden isn’t nature
  2. Our values screw us up
  3. A new garden ethic is needed

Surprisingly, I enjoyed your bits about “pretty” and “beauty.” It reminded me of an undergraduate course in Philosophy of the Mind. Your subject is complex but well written. However, I still like “pretty” and don’t agree that “pretty,” as a premise, need be “arrogant.”  I don’t think I’ve ever gardened for “human supremacy.” I was heartened, when you briefly backed off and said, “Of course a garden must be pretty.”

“Pretty” concerns me because that’s how we primarily judge the worth of a garden or landscape — I just want us to redefine gardens, especially in the context of mass extinction. What is pretty to the silent majority on this planet, to wildlife? I don’t think many of us garden for human supremacy in a conscious way, but when we go outside and say “I want this maple tree right here” we are practicing a form of supremacy since we are placing our desires over or onto the landscape, whether we’ve researched the tree and ecosystem or not. Now, I’m not explicitly saying such actions are good or bad, per se. I’m saying we must think more critically about our actions, and that if we don’t we are propagating an arrogance that has led us to the assumption we are at the top of the pecking order and can do no harm. This is what’s created a 6thmass extinction — privileging ourselves over other species and landscapes. We do it every day in small, subtle ways and in massively overt ways.

I was glad to read the chapter: More than Native Plants. Your sentence on p. 52 is magnificent: “Every place we touch is a garden, no matter its size, and the economic, aesthetic, and emotional lessons we learn in one landscape are practiced in others.”

Good stuff on feelings: denial, grief and loss.

And, more good stuff: wisdom is evolutionary (p.66); “ethical amnesia” (p. 78) and “compassion fade” and “psychological numbing” (p.81)

This was my favorite chapter to write and research, chapter three; it’s the heart of the book, and I think out environmental crisis (and other crises, like race, gender, guns, etc). There’s a lot of psychology at play in how we view ourselves, one another, and the world around us. There’s a lot of guilt and shame. There’s a lot of self-defense that’s totally genetic and human and natural that we have to understand, identify, and process more thoughtfully. For example, when someone proposes native plants instead of hosta, it’s easy to feel defensive because we’re being exposed to new concepts that both feel constrictive and carry greater ramifications for the environment, and those ramifications influence how we perceive ourselves as acting or thinking ethically. Change is hard — learning new ideas is hard (especially when they go against the cultural / social default). Emotionally and psychologically evolving as fast or faster than the changes we are forcing on the plant is really hard, if not nearly impossible.

I wish you’d go easy on red cedars (p.79). I love red cedars!

But your red cedars aren’t aggressive thugs, right? I like them, too, but boy do they destroy our prairies. It’s all about regional context, and in the U.S. there’s lots of nuance. We burn trees in Nebraska, we don’t hug them.

And there are the useless plants… I don’t agree with your statement: “Gardens composed of both native and exotic plants constitute a precarious balance.” (p. 83) I am NOT grief stricken, although you might argue I’m in denial.

Yes, I would argue that. Denial is one of the five stages of grief, and processing grief is both an exercise in preserving the self and accepting the new self that is forming. It’s a conundrum we carry into our landscapes — our emotions dictate a lot of what we do behind our fences.

I love daffodils and peonies, among many other non-beneficial plants. I get your point and respect your radical approach. I know you don’t think there’s a perfect world as long as humankind is here on earth.

Oh I wouldn’t go that far. I firmly believe humans can be part of a thriving, balanced, biodiverse global ecosystem. But as is — given our extraction-based cultures that privilege humans — it’s not working. And the argument that nature will find a way is sort of bogus — I don’t want to live, and I don’t want my kids to live — in a world where nature is in the process of finding its way. Drought, famine, disease,  dirty water, no fish, plastic in every bite we take… We could still be in a relative Goldilocks era if we woke to the world right now.  

I’m glad you threw a bone to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)for promoting a planting spectrum that includes a large % of native plants.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to plant challenging exotics and natives that I am curious to grow. I will endeavor to try and be more attentive to what’s under foot and around me.

You’ve inspired me.

I’ve got tons of natives, even a faux prairie, but I’m a one-trick pony. I’m a plantsman, far from a naturalist. You’ve encouraged me to dig deeper. Microbes are in my future.

Go go go Allen! We’re all taking steps even if I wish (and other species wish) they were much larger and were at more of a brisk jog’s space, if not a hard sprint.

My favorite chapter was Urban Wildness and Social Justice.  You made me think of Thoreau leaving Walden Pond to take his laundry to his mom.

“(If we expect to be selfless”… p.120). Louisville needs to work harder (p. 125). My friend, Louisville tree activist, Mike Hayman is planting trees as fast as he can. Mike is the role model I suggested for you. Talk about selfless!

I hope you’ll keep pushing harder, even when you hit headwinds.

It is very hard because it seems that all I hit are headwinds; such is the role I’ve apparently chosen for myself.

I know you’re working your way toward your dream of your own prairie compound.


But don’t turn your back on the people, and the soulless suburban gardens, you might leave behind.

On the other hand, an ascetic life has some appeal.

 I still design urban and suburban meadow gardens for clients, some of whom are removing their front lawns. I am desperate to live on a prairie away from mowers, to create an oasis among the corn and soybeans. I don’t think I’d live ascetically, only as a way to restore and revive my soul so I could have the energy and focus to ramp up to get back into the fray. I am a massive, massive, massive introvert, and it’s still going take me a lifetime to discover how that’s a strength and not a liability.

While I was reading your book, I was also reading a book of essays by Wes Jackson, whom I admire tremendously. Your earnestness reminds me of Jackson.

As I have argued, I think your most convenient prey (prairie novitiates?) might be your neighbors. They can’t be more intransigent than the rest of built America. You could do prairie grass roots door-to-door?

Have you seen my yard? 

I know you’re working your way, eventually, toward your own prairie farm. If you do, I worry you will be turning your back on the people and the wretched suburban gardens you leave behind. However, I understand. Life as an ascetic has always had some appeal for me.

Can you become both a missionary—hunker down and save souls in the suburbs—and escape, as Thomas Merton did, to a cloistered outpost and write down, as it was said about Merton, every thought you have. (You’re a very good writer!)

Merton could be as petulant as he was gifted. He remained a constant pain in the ass to his abbot at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Maybe you will become the artist, activist, pain in the ass and save souls.

I hope so! 🙂 We all need to be bigger pains in the ass. Especially if those asses are the right ones (you know who I’m talking about).

You’ve got options and a bright future.

You’ve written an absorbing and provocative book that reminded me of the cultural unraveling that Wendell Berry described in Unsettling of America.

That’s high praise indeed! You know I’m a Berry Fan. Thank you, Allen, for an insightful and warm conversation. Let’s have more of these in the garden world.


Photos courtesy of Benjamin Vogt and Monarch Gardens. A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Futuremay be purchased at Monarch Gardens.



Time to “Rethink Pretty” in the Garden originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 13, 2018.

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Senate Farm Bill Committee Draft Reflects Young Farmer Needs

On Friday afternoon, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its long-awaited draft of the 2018 Farm Bill. In stark contrast to the hyper-partisan approach of their House counterparts, Senate Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) offered a bipartisan alternative, the product of months of negotiations and consensus-building. The result is a bill that, despite a challenging fiscal and political climate, contains significant wins for young farmers and ranchers.

The Senate bill includes many proposals outlined in NYFC’s Young Farmer Agenda. And it’s clear that the tireless work of young farmer leaders throughout NYFC’s farm bill campaign has paid off, and those voices have been heard.  No bipartisan bill is perfect, however, and we’ll highlight some areas for improvement below.  

The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to amend and approve the bill on Wednesday, June 13th. Here’s a summary of what they got right and what NYFC members and supporters need to get changed:

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What’s your corpse flower’s name? Ours is Morty. by Elizabeth Licata

It’s that time of year again. Our local botanical gardens has joined the ranks of other such sites across the US to introduce a titan arum (“corpse flower”) event, based on the bloom cycle of the plant. I have never seen one of these in bloom and am not sure I’ll get there in time for this one. Indeed, I have heard that the stench of the plant is already fading. But I’m fine with anything that helps the gardens, and this does provide some botanical education as well. I am sure many of you have corpse flower events in your areas.

That’s all I have to say, but here are the thoughts of columnist Bruce Adams, who writes a weekly post for the Buffalo Spree website:

They actually cut it open this time. Interesting!

Ahh, smell the aroma
If you’re fond of the odor of dead bodies, you’re in for a treat at Buffalo’s and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

The details:
Corpse flowers typically bloom every seven to ten years. They are the second biggest flower in the world (think Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors). The Botanical Gardens has one of the rare plants, and by the time you read this it might have bloomed.

Lots of fun meme opportunities. Images courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens

About that name
The scientific Latin name for the plant is Amorphophallus titanium, and it’s indigenous to the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. It looks like a Hollywood prop from a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie (Jane would get trapped in it and Tarzan would have to save her again). The plant (or specifically the flower) has been named Morty by the staff at the gardens. (Fun fact: humans love to anthropomorphize plants and animals.)

But the plant’s common name is corpse flower, which comes from the fact that it smells like rotting flesh when it blooms. It even raises its “body” temperature to ninety-eight degrees to mimic a freshly dead corpse. It does this to attract dung beetles, flesh flies, and other carnivorous insects, which are the plant’s primary pollinators.

Morty is about to bloom again, this time after only four years! The bud stands about four and a half feet tall, but it’s closer to the ground this time, so visitors will have a better look at the plant (not to mention a better sniff).

The takeaway:

BREAKING NEWS: Morty started blooming at 10 p.m., Sunday, June 10. The bloom only lasts a few days, so don’t wait. If you want to visit it (him?), expect to stand in line. Marty is a very popular dead-smelling dude.

What’s your corpse flower’s name? Ours is Morty. originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 12, 2018.

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Senate Farm Bill Committee Draft Reflects Young Farmer Needs

On Friday afternoon, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its long-awaited draft of the 2018 Farm Bill. In stark contrast to the hyper-partisan approach of their House counterparts, Senate Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) offered a bipartisan alternative, the product of months of negotiations and consensus-building. The result is a bill that, despite a challenging fiscal and political climate, contains significant wins for young farmers and ranchers.

The Senate bill includes many proposals outlined in NYFC’s Young Farmer Agenda. And it’s clear that the tireless work of young farmer leaders throughout NYFC’s farm bill campaign has paid off, and those voices have been heard.  No bipartisan bill is perfect, however, and we’ll highlight some areas for improvement below.  

The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to amend and approve the bill on Wednesday, June 13th. Here’s a summary of what they got right and what NYFC members and supporters need to get changed:

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Returning a Town’s Perennial Border to Lawn? by Susan Harris

Buttresses and bas-relief sculptures seen behind Knockout roses

Of all the historic buildings in my town, my favorite is what’s now the Community Center, so it’s full of artists, dancers, seniors and really everyone else, every day.

I love the Arc Deco buttresses on the front facade. And I wrote here about the bas-relief sculptures between them depicting the Preamble to the Constitution, with the excuse to write about it here that they illustrate “Promote the General Welfare” with someone gardening.

Speaking of gardening, a few years back the City Horticulturist was a real gardener, so of course he ripped up a prominent patch of turfgrass and installed in its place a large border of perennials and roses.

If you’ve started and maintained perennial beds yourself you won’t be surprised to learn that once the real gardener was gone and a regular maintenance crew took over, using power tools only, no hand-weeding or herbicides (after complaints), the garden changed for the worse. The photo above is how it looks after power-weeding and mulching.

More typically, it looks like this. In front of our most important and beautiful building, this drives me crazy.

So, a make-over is clearly needed to make this high-visibility spot look good without increasing the manpower allotted. What would that be?

Let’s start with previous landscaping there. Back in 1937 when the town and this building launched, an all-too-common mistake was made – using evergreens where they don’t have enough space, as they soon didn’t here on either side of the entrance.

Tulip magnolias, easily limbed up, are a much better choice, obvious in this current photo.

Across the front of the building below the fabulous artwork was a row of low (at least originally) junipers, a few flowering trees and lawn.  Someone must have recognized another mistaken plant choice – the trees would eventually block the building’s iconic features – because they were removed.

With that review of history in mind (and having consulted the experts at our museum), a group of us gardeners and city staff are meeting today to brainstorm design and plant ideas for this prominent spot to look good with less labor (including less use of power tools, if possible), and to complement architecture and the established plantings on the other sides of the building.

This shady side always looks good with just Abelias, Viburnums and Liriope, though the grounds crew chief tells me it’s a lot of work to keep the windows and sidewalks clear of branches.

The more public side is another story. More Liriope, but here the Abelias are sheared into gumballs and there’s a row of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ for late-season flowering. I wonder how often those gumballs need to be power-treated to stay looking good (if you like that style, which honestly I don’t).

Lawn-bashers should look away right now because one idea that’s been floated is to replace the original lawn panel there, leaving just enough room for a row of low-growing shrubs close to the building (but not too close; bas-reliefs need to be cleaned occasionally).

(Maintenance-wise, adding a bit more lawn to the large one between the building and the street would take just a minute or so longer to mow.)

A quick trip to my favorite independent garden center turned up several plants I could imagine along the front of the building and my favorite is the ‘Grey Owl’ Eastern Redcedar shown above. Known more commonly known as Juniper, it has these qualities going for it: maximum height 3 feet, blue foliage (it would be the blue in the whole landscape), no need to shear, and – drumroll, please –  it’s native! Meaning, everyone could be happy with it in this very public spot.

Also promising to me are two plants that would echo shrubs already growing elsewhere around the building: draft Abelia and draft Plum Yew.  I sure hope we can count on the mature size stated on these signs – just 2.5 feet – because at that height they wouldn’t need shearing. Yay!

Whatever’s decided, the city plans to have the make-over done in early September after our big Labor Day Festival. Report to follow.

Returning a Town’s Perennial Border to Lawn? originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 8, 2018.

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If snake killing is wrong, then my dog Opal doesn’t want to do right by Carol Reese

opal young

Opal in her glory days

When I lived near the Luray TN bottoms, the dogs and I often walked the field road to the back of a farm tract known locally as “the island”. This was several hundred acres surrounded by water – swamp, stream and man-made ditches and canals. More accurately, I walked, and the dogs trotted, tumbled, trailed or ran. From a bird’s eye view, I imagine a wildly moving circle of four legged beasts with one slow moving two-legged beast toward the rear.

My squatty brown dog Opal was a snake killer. She so enjoyed it, that if I yelled “SNAKE!” to warn any unsuspecting dogs, she leapt into action, surging forward and scanning eagerly for action. I learned instead to shout “RABBIT”! and point the safest direction.

One day I experimented with shouting “SNAKE!” as she napped on the porch. She peeled up from deep sleep at full roar, thrilled at the prospect of doing combat with her hated foe. Opal had a face that looked like a caricature of a benevolent snapping turtle, and she made me laugh every day.

The field road to the tract known as “the island”, a place where these rescued dogs could run freely.

I did not like her lust for snake killing, though I grudgingly admired her ability and dedication to the task. I hold the snake clan in high esteem. Imagine getting around in the world without legs or arms, as well as being mostly despised and feared. They deserve admiration.

I find many friends that agree with me on non-venomous snakes, but feel they can make a case for killing the venomous. I honor even the venomous snakes, and feel gratitude for the many times they have chosen to spare me in my barefooted or sandal-footed wanderings. Water moccasins in particular have had plenty of opportunities to bite me and did not.

Opal could have cared less what kind of snake it might be. Venomous snakes had bitten her several times on her legs or face as she charged in, snatching the snake in a violent blur of shaking that was over in seconds. It was terrible and terrifying, especially at the end of the thrashing, when she flung the snake aside with no clue as to direction. Flying venomous snakes with fangs still extended are bad news, dead or not.

When Opal was bitten, her limb, or face, or neck swelled to frightening proportions. My veterinarian had become so accustomed to her habits, that he equipped me with antihistamine, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic medicines so I could give them to her immediately. Usually within forty-eight hours, the swelling was gone.

Opal’s excitement was contagious, and some of the other dogs thought they’d like to have a go at snake killing. Jolene, the big coonhound, could handle it, but her shaking style was slower, more of a head slinging, causing the snake to whip her on one side and then the other. It might have been funny, except it wasn’t.

Whippoorwill Hill is an upland setting, and home to copperheads before it was home to us. I did my best to prevent anyone from grabbing the snake, racing into the confrontation screaming in an attempt to protect snake from dogs and dogs from snake. I imagine you could hear me from outer space, giving my all to convince the dogs that any disobedience at that moment might end in blood and guts.

My instinctive fury was inexcusably unfair to Opal on this particular walk. I was in shorts and sandals, looking at clouds, when Opal knocked me aside, lunging against the side of my knee, her big head just at the point where my foot should have descended. No doubt I would have stepped directly on the water moccasin she now shook ferociously just in front of my legs. Adrenalin made my screamed “NO’S” sound so full of rage, that once she’d flung the snake into the soybeans, she hung her head and crouched in submission, afraid she was to be punished.

She probably did save me from a painful bite this time. In relief, I fell to my knees and hugged her blocky body, apologizing and kissing her broad scarred head. She butted it against me, shoved close and wagged her ugly rear end, full of doggy clemency. Sweet, brave, good dog Opal.

Opal has since “crossed the bridge” or she might have saved me from the snake that was not aware of my pact with the clan of snakes. The painful encounter took place my first spring on Whippoorwill Hill, and cost me. It was not just the insurance deductibles, or the three days in the hospital watching my leg swell into something unrecognizable. It took my naivete. I have trekked woods and fields and creeks and swamps all my life with no thought of peril. Now I find myself looking before I put my hands or my feet into places a snake might be concealed. I refuse to call it fear, but it has replaced my heedlessness. I miss being oblivious.

Where I once tread fearlessly, I now cautiously probe.

Fear was not really the emotion present even when I looked down to see that the sting was not a wasp as I first thought. It was beautiful copperhead, gracefully poised to give me another pop of venom if I needed more encouragement to step aside. Some people exclaim they would have died from on the spot from sheer terror, but in that millisecond I had three sensations, and none were related to fear.

I was incredulous. I’d been bitten, and it was definitely a copperhead! I was immediately resigned to the truth of it. I’d been bitten by a copperhead and it could not be undone. Thirdly, I was curious, because now I would know what it was like to be bitten by a venomous snake. It did turn out to be a rougher experience than I expected overall, but obviously, I didn’t die, and it had unexpected rewards. I suddenly became the cool great aunt to my several great nieces and nephews.

…and no, I did not kill the copperhead that bit me, nor did I even consider it. That handsome snake deserved to be there as much or more than I. If there was one good thing about Opal not being with me on that walk, it is that I can imagine the fiesty snake still slips through the woods on Whippoorwill Hill, and you know what ? I hope it is oblivious to any fear.

If snake killing is wrong, then my dog Opal doesn’t want to do right originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 7, 2018.

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