Wintry mix: plans, Roy Diblik, and hornbeams

Happy new year! 2021 is here at last, and like many of you, I’m full of plans and resolutions—or rather, full of dreams and desires I hope to transform into plans and resolutions. One day soon they’ll emerge like the ground from beneath the melting snow.

Planning the Wild Garden…

I started out years ago wanting to recreate The High Line in our backyard. Of course this is impossible, but after looking at millions of pictures and reading many books, I’ve come to understand some basic principles I want to apply.  I just don’t know how to put them into action in a pleasing way—and I don’t know much about plants. Sometimes I feel like if I could just get a plan, I’d follow it.

I picked up this pamphlet, Native Plants for Your Landscape, at a presentation at the Anita B. Gorman Nature Center. It contains four design ideas. I had my eye on the Hummingbird haven. I don’t know what happened to that idea. I may have substituted milkweed for all the suggested plants. This is what made the garden wild.

This stuff (Asclepias incarnata, I think) is aggressive.  The Missouri Botanical Garden calls it rough and weedy, and they are right. It grew into a thicket six feet high. The second year it sprouted all over the yard.

Monarch Watch says: “Fun Fact: In the past, the roots of swamp milkweed were simmered to make a tea taken in small quantities both as a general purge and to destroy and expel parasitic worms.” We haven’t tried that, but we love watching the butterflies.

Eventually my research led me to Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden: “a simplified approach to making a design magazine-worthy garden achievable at home.”

Diblik worked with Piet Oudolf on the Lurie Garden in Chicago, and some of his work at the Art Institute can be seen by the public. I adapted two of the book’s plans for areas in my yard. One is a plan for shade, “Moments of Color,” and the other, for sun, is inspired by Pierre Bonnard’s painting Earthly Paradise.

© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Diblik says, “I designed this garden for the Art institute of the Chicago,” but I could not find images of gardens that follow either of these plans. I planted anyway.

Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo,’ part of Diblik’s plan, and Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost,’ not part of the plan

The first thing that grabbed me about the Know Maintenance book is that Diblik despises wood-chip mulch. He describes surrounding plants with wood-chip mulch as wistful, sad, a wasteland. I always kind of liked seeing neat, brown beds dressed with dark brown mulch, so that was new and surprising. Now the sight of crews out spreading this stuff in the fall makes Diblik’s line chime in my head: “American the beautiful is now just the land of neat and tidy.”

He recommends mulching with ground-up leaves instead. “Your goal, remember, is to let the plants live in and with their own decaying leaves and stems, never again removing them from the garden.” Yes! The arrival of the leaf-sucking truck in our neighborhood has always been exciting for us, but not anymore. In fact, I wanted more leaves than I had, so I brought home some of my neighbors’ and mulched them up.

I love Diblik’s ideas, but must admit, my own results with these plans have been mixed. Some plants are doing great, but others aren’t. I misjudged how shady the strip along the south side of our yard is, and I substituted natives for some of the plants so I could buy them from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. I also only planted small portions of each plan. 

You have to know the plant! Without plant knowledge, nothing can happen.

You have to know your site conditions.

You have to own your commitment to care and maintenance.

You have to be sure you’re telling yourself the truth.

Roy Diblik, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden

I disregarded all his advice, in other words. Also, my taste is evolving. Lately what I desire is a herbaceous border like the one at Arley Hall.


All the garden blogs, books, TV shows, podcasts, and experts give the same advice.  Begin with structural layer, then add seasonal layers, and fill in with a ground layer of ephemerals, or bulbs.

I’m missing the structural layer.

Last week we got rid of some trees, a Japanese maple by our front door and two eastern red cedars in back yard.  The maple had died. We don’t know why. The cedars were bent, twisted, and unattractive. When we moved in ten years ago, ivy covered two-thirds of the then-shady backyard, and although I dug it up and pulled it off the cedars, they never thrived. House-eating squirrels used them as an onramp to the roof. The constant thump of their galloping overhead finally convinced us to cut down the trees.  Now this expanse of our rectangle of a yard is empty, leaving the entire east side completely without a structural layer.

Potential! We will replace the trees in the spring, but with what? We are considering hornbeams.

Hornbeams not native, although that doesn’t necessarily disqualify them. In much of my reading the authors recommend creating plant communities: groups of plants that thrive under the same conditions. These may be natives, but they don’t necessarily have to be. The Missouri Botanical garden lists the European hornbeam as a Plant of Merit. And while there is an American hornbeam, I’m not sure it has the distinctive almond shape we admire.

What should we do? I’m open to suggestions. (But no snarky ones, you Moldovans.) I’ll be making plans over the next few months.

Thank you!

I’d like to close by thanking the gardeners who visited with me in 2020: Jacques Bredius, Dana Posten, Marissa Adams, Deb Guardia, and Brent Tucker. Thank you for sharing your wonderful gardens and deep knowledge of plants. I’m also grateful for the help and encouragement I received from my friends Susi Cohen and Grace Suh.

I already have some garden visits lined up for spring and can’t wait to write about them. If you have a garden you’d like me to visit and write about, please let me know how to get in touch with you. I’d love to see it.

Most of all, thanks to all of you for reading. Happy gardening and dreams of summer!

A visit to Powell Gardens’ winter wonderlands

The week after Christmas is always one of my favorites of the year. Deadlines have been met. Work doesn’t start up again for another few weeks. The pace of life slows. Usually we visit family in Texas, but not this year. Instead we’re looking at outings and excursions we can take from home.

We may put on coats and hats and drive out to visit the Festival of Lights at Powell Gardens, which runs through January 3, 2021. (They’re taking a break on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day). Now in its fourth year, the festival’s fanciful displays transform 25 acres of the gardens into a kaleidoscope of lights.  

The Festival of Lights at Powell Gardens runs through January 3, 2021..

We went earlier in the season. We’re always looking for fun, safe things to do outdoors with our friends, and this was a perfect fit.

If the weather outside is frightful, a step into the conservatory’s holiday exhibit transports visitors to the tropics.

2020 holiday display in the Powell Gardens conservatory

A holiday tradition since 1997, the 2020 display is one of the few of its type open to the public this year—perhaps the only one, as the orangery at the Kauffman Gardens remains closed because of COVID. 

The conservatory is part of the Fay Jones-designed visitor’s center. Its pyramid-shaped glass roof is a prairie interpretation of a Victorian glass house, with a rectangular pool centered beneath the apex.  The cheerful sound of the moving water stimulates all the senses.

The sight of so much color is bracing. According to horticulturist and designer Brent Tucker, this year’s exhibit contains almost 500 plants.  Poinsettias of many colors and varieties crowd the beds, accompanied by snapdragons, Cuban oregano (coleus amboinicus), Dusty miller, eucalyptus, Pink anthuriums, soft ferns, and hundreds of others.   

Conservatories are often living plant museums, showcasing plants from different environments. For example, the conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden has areas dedicated to rainforest, desert, aquatic, and carnivorous plants. In contrast, Powell Gardens’ holiday exhibit includes plants from all over the world that thrive under similar conditions.  Tucker says that in a true conservatory, the plants would be in soil, but these are all in pots. This gives him flexibility to move things around, but he has to hide the pots and water each plant individually.

This is a lot of work. An enormous amount of care goes into keeping the display fresh and alive. Tucker keeps the humidity at fifty percent.  Earlier in the season, warm temperatures outside heated the air inside, requiring constant adjustment. Like most houseplants, many of the tropicals in the display are sensitive to being moved, and react to the stress by dropping leaves or turning brown as they acclimate to the lower light and humidity levels.  Tucker monitors their health to maintain the display’s lush, tropical feel.

Anchoring the display are four trees growing in enormous pots: a striking fiddle leaf fig (ficus lyrata); two large ficus, one green, the other variegated; and one of Powell Gardens’ most unusual plants, a rare Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as titan arum, or corpse flower. Despite its appearance, this isn’t a tree at all. 

Only a few specimens of this unusual plant are in cultivation. Titan arum blooms rarely, at a frequency that’s hard to predict. Its striking flower, called inflorescence, emits a foul odor Tucker describes as “wretched, like rotting flesh.”

New York Botanical Garden corpse flower in bloom June 27, 2018
© wikimedia commons

“The plant hasn’t flowered for us yet,” Tucker says. “I hope within the next few years it will!”

I do too. As part of the holiday exhibit, it is on display in the conservatory during the Festival of Lights, which closes on January 3, 2021.

Seeing red—and pink, and other colors: poinsettias

If you wanted a real Christmas tree this year but haven’t bought one yet, you may be out of luck. As The Wall Street Journal reports, we have a nation-wide shortage of trees, caused by more people staying home for holidays and retailers underestimating demand. Last week while I was up buying one of the last remaining trees at a garden store, workers were taking down the poles in the lot. Greenery is hard to find, too. Stores had heaps of it before Thanksgiving, but the next week most of it was gone. Now seeing pretty houses with green-framed doorways makes me feel slightly envious. However, plenty of the most-holiday-of-holiday-flowers are still available:  Ponsiettias.


Poinsettias bloom as the days get shorter, which makes them popular around the holidays. In addition to traditional red, nurseries have many different colors to choose from, including pink, ivory, and variegated.


Each year my father would give one to my aunts. Now he gives one to me. When I received it, the planting medium was very moist. I planned to keep it that way, but forgot. That was the right thing to do, it turns out. According to my friends at Family Tree, a poinsettia should be allowed to dry out between watering, about half way down the pot. Then soak it.

Speaking of variety, the holiday exhibit currently on display in the conservatory at Powell Gardens offers plenty of inspiration. Horticulturist and designer Brent Tucker has grouped poinsettias with other plants that thrive under similar conditions. The lively mix of colors and textures is a visual feast.

The 2020 Powell Gardens Holiday Exhibit mixes red and ivory poinsettias and begonia, Cuban oregano, peperomia, and snapdragon.

Tucker begins ordering poinsettias in January for the following year’s display.  Small, rooted cuttings arrive at the greenhouse in summer, where gardeners coax them into bloom by November.

Ivory and red poinsettias with Cuban oregano, peperomia

Native to Mexico, Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbia, or spurge, family. What we think of as their colorful flowers are actually bracts, or leaves. The tiny yellow flowers in the center are called cyathia. Poinsettias change color in response to lower light levels, and getting them to re-bloom can be tricky.  Plants must be kept out of the light and stay healthy, and they won’t be as bushy and compact as ones from a greenhouse. Family Tree Nursery provides detailed instructions for the determined. In warmer climates poinsettias can survive year-round as green plants. When I lived in Houston I planted one in the yard that grew to be five feet tall and was as gangly as a young chicken.

Poinsettias’ popularity as holiday plants can be traced to the efforts of horticulturist and nursery owner Paul Ecke of the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California. He was first to develop their commercial potential. His promotional efforts included giving free poinsettias to television studios during the 1960s. Ecke also perfected important propagation techniques, which he kept secret.

Vintage postcard: Field of poinsettias grown by Paul Ecke

A 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times compares the Eckes’ dominance in the poinsettia market to the DeBeers in diamonds. “The Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on the world’s poinsettia market largely because no one could figure out how they produced uniformly perfect plants with multiple branches emanating from a single stem—the so called Ecke style.”

Eventually somebody leaked the nursery’s secrets, which ended their monopoly but led to the creation of many new varieties. Apparently customers’ interest in new poinsettias is insatiable.

Poinsettia prices vary widely, ranging from $40-50 for a tall plant to just a few dollars for a three-inch one. I saw some for sale at Lowes for one dollar.  As the folks at Family Tree point out, these are loss leaders, priced below cost to get people into the store. “Nobody is going to make a profit on a $3.99 poinsettia plant.” We’ve all have seen neglected plants languishing on the carts at big box stores, although sometimes they can be saved. The poinsettias from a nursery like Family Tree are all home grown, cultivated in their own greenhouses and carefully tended to provide best experience possible for customers.

And despite what you may have heard, poinsettias are not dangerous. Poinsettias are harmless to people. According to the American Kennel Club, they can be irritating to dogs and cats if consumed, but not serious or fatal

The Powell Gardens holiday exhibit will be on display during the Festival of Lights, which runs until January 3, 2021.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you all love, joy and, a wonderful holiday!

Glass Houses: fantasies you can enter

Last week I visited the conservatory at Powell Gardens and spoke with Brent Tucker, the horticulturist who designed the holiday display. I’ll talk about their colorful mix of poinsettias and other tropical plants in another post. In the meantime, our visit got me thinking about conservatories and their purpose—and about orangeries, glass houses, hot houses, and greenhouses.

The Conservatory at Powell Gardens

At one time these words may have denoted different things:  an orangery was a free-standing structure for growing fruit; a heated conservatory conserved tender plants. However, over the years these distinctions have been lost, and now we use these terms pretty much interchangeably. Whether practical or decorative, free-standing buildings or sunrooms, these structures exist to alter the normal range of seasons and protect tender plants during winter.

For me, the term conservatories conjures pictures of wealthy Europeans cultivating tropical exotics from the colonies—Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy walking down a gallery at Pemberley lined with glittering panes. Turns out, I’m not far off the mark.

The history of conservatories parallels the history of window glass, and also of wealth and fashion. Greenhouses have been around forever—the Romans had greenhouses—but early ones weren’t glass.  Roman greenhouses were basically frames built over the plants and covered with cloth or selenite. In the medieval times, ordinary people covered their windows with wood shutters or animal skins.  By Shakespeare’s day, glass windows were becoming more available, but they didn’t look like contemporary windows. Often opaque, they were made of something called crown glass, which looked like the flattened bottoms of bottles.

Innovations in glass-making technology in the mid-1600’s allowed for the production of panes.  Around the same time, growing orange trees became fashionable in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the UK, one of the earliest surviving orangeries dates from the 1670’s. Ham House in Surrey is a solid-looking brick building with long line of large, south-facing windows. Before it was built, gardeners planted the orange trees in tubs, which they covered in winter. After the orangery was built, they moved the orange trees inside and out depending on the seasons.

The orangery at Ham House, Surrey, is one of the earliest ones surviving in the UK. The large openings were once filled with glass.

Some orangeries, like the greenhouse designed by George Washington at Mt. Vernon, had in-floor heating systems warmed by fire. This is a good video.

Monticello also had a garden room attached to the house, which Jefferson called the South Piazza. Apparently, he had difficulty heating it and his plants often died. (Thanks to my friend Michael Ray for this photo.)

Monticello’s garden room © Michael Ray

The enthusiasm for oranges that swept Europe in the 17th century is hard to imagine now that every grocery store in the country stocks them year-round. When my brother and I would find them in our Christmas stockings, we scorned them for taking up valuable space. But our grandmother, who grew up on an Iowa farm in the early 1900’s, described how exciting it was to get oranges from Florida at Christmas. They must have seemed miraculous.

Built in the early 1700’s, the ornate Orangery at Kensington Palace was used for ceremonies and entertaining, as well as growing plants. Considered a significant and influential building, it has a slate roof, which limits the amount of light and makes it impossible for some tropical specimens to thrive. Technological advances in glass and cast iron during the Victorian era allowed for the construction of glass roofs, like this one on the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden.

Cast-iron frames supported curved glass roofs like the one at the Crystal Palace, perhaps the world’s most famous conservatory, designed by Joseph Paxton in 1851.  

The Crystal Palace was constructed from millions of standard-sized panes, a decision which lowered costs and sped up the pace of construction. Unlike anything people had ever seen before, the structure had “the greatest area of glass ever seen in a building. It astonished visitors with its clear walls and ceilings that did not require interior lights.”

When fire destroyed the Crystal Palace in 1936, 100,000 people turned out to watch it burn.

If this subject interests you, you’ll love this article, A history of glasshouses, orangeries and potting sheds, from the UK National Trust.

The conservatory at Powell Gardens is one of the few currently open to the public in Kansas City, perhaps the only one as the orangery at Kauffman Gardens remains closed because of COVID. (The rainforest exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo could be considered a conservatory.) Unlike historic orangeries, which are oriented to the south, the Powell Gardens conservatory depends on pyramid-shaped roof to let in light.

Conservatories and greenhouses create a world within a world, a tropical rainforest under glass.  Visiting them can be magical. I love going swimming on a snow day, enjoying the damp, humid air while white snow piles up against the windows. It’s fun, like wearing rain boots and stomping in a puddle. Even though I’m drawn to gardens that express authenticity and a sense of place, I love the way conservatories bring the outside in, all year round. Like an aquarium or the zoo, they nurture living treasures, educate us, and stimulate our curiosity.  They transport us to another world.

Native, natural, neither: Westwood Park’s “rat house”

Instead of posting regularly as I planned, I now seem to be posting when inspiration strikes—as it did last week when I read a discussion of this article from last Sunday’s Kansas City Star:

Owner of Kansas City ‘rat house’ plaguing Plaza area neighbors sentenced to prison

I’ve lived near this house for years and have followed this story with interest. On Facebook someone commented that they liked seeing the yard go “natural.” This got me thinking. Despite what one photo caption says, few would consider this landscape “native” or label this “naturalistic gardening.” 

I’m all for bucking convention and rethinking lawns.  But neglecting a yard does not fulfill conservation goals in any meaningful way. Instead of supporting necessary bugs and birds, not-mowing provides an opportunity for invasive species to move in—like dandelions, clover, and creeping Charlie (not to mention rats). These may be succeeded by brushy shrubs, especially Asian bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii, L. tatarica, L. morrowii, and L. x bella). In front of this house, Asian honeysuckle is growing in the gutter.

In fact, this shrub can grow almost anywhere, including shade. Its white or pink flowers are fragrant for a few days in May, and birds like its pretty red berries. (Everything I read says the berries have low nutritional content, like they’re Doritos for birds.) Asian honeysuckle is among first shrubs to green up in spring and last to lose leaves in fall. This makes it easy to spot in our landscapes, as in this photo.

This time of year, Asian bush honeysuckle is one of the last shrubs that’s still green.

In this case, easy-to-grow means easy-to-spread. According to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Asian bush honeysuckle was first imported to the U.S. from Europe in 1897 through seed exchanges among botanical gardens. The USDA promoted its use from 1960-1984, although the plant began escaping from cultivation in the 1950’s. In Missouri, the first documented escape was in in 1983. Now it’s so widespread I can’t imagine walking in a forest without seeing it. It’s not just a problem in our area: it ranges from the east coast to the Midwest and has appeared in Oregon. The plants take over entire forests and crowd out other, native species, reducing habitat for wildlife—including butterflies—that depend on native plants to survive. It’s been linked to an increase in ticks and is apparently a preferred egg-laying host for mosquitoes.  It can be challenging to eradicate.

American forests have been irrevocably changed by this plant.  It is insidious. This is what will be growing in our yards if we stop taking care of them.

Sometimes you must name a thing to see it. This morning I passed beneath a red tail hawk flying in relaxed, seemingly aimless circles over the road—making lazy circles in the sky.  I might not have understood that the banks of Brush Creek had become a monotonous monoculture before I learned to spot Asian honeysuckle. It’s as ubiquitous as trash.

Being more mindful about what we plant can yield amazing results.  The “rat house” is next door to fabulous example of what a natural or native garden can be. Dana Posten’s pollinator garden is full of rich, diverse plantings, with very little turf grass. Its beauty delights many passers-by.  It’s a planned environment, meticulously maintained—because everything we care about must be cared for.

But preserving biodiversity doesn’t have to be a huge production. We don’t have to eliminate our lawns entirely, either. As people like Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke point out, even simple steps and slight adjustments can help us rewild our yards.  Here is a list of Tallamy’s recommendations (from the Smithsonian Magazine‘s “Meet the Ecologist Who Wants You to Unleash the Wild on Your Backyard,” by Jerry Adler).

8 Steps to Rewild America

To Tallamy, the nation’s backyards are more than ripe for a makeover. Here are some of his suggestions to help rejuvenators hit the ground running.

1. Shrink your lawn. Tallamy recommends halving the area devoted to lawns in the continental United States—reducing water, pesticide and fertilizer use. Replace grass with plants that sustain more animal life, he says: “Every little bit of habitat helps.”

2. Remove invasive plants. Introduced plants sustain less animal diversity than natives do. Worse, some exotics crowd out indigenous flora. Notable offenders: Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose and kudzu.

3. Create no-mow zones. Native caterpillars drop from a tree’s canopy to the ground to complete their life cycle. Put mulch or a native ground cover such as Virginia creeper (not English ivy) around the base of a tree to accommodate the insects. Birds will benefit, as well as moths and butterflies.

4. Equip outdoor lights with motion sensors. White lights blazing all night can disturb animal behavior. LED devices use less energy, and yellow light attracts fewer flying insects.

5. Plant keystone species. Among native plants, some contribute more to the food web than others. Native oak, cherry, cottonwood, willow and birch are several of the best tree choices.

6. Welcome pollinators. Goldenrod, native willows, asters, sunflowers, evening primrose and violets are among the plants that support beleaguered native bees.

7. Fight mosquitoes with bacteria. Inexpensive packets containing Bacillus thuringiensis can be placed in drains and other wet sites where mosquitoes hatch. Unlike pesticide sprays, the bacteria inhibit mosquitoes but not other insects.

8. Avoid harsh chemicals. Dig up or torch weeds on hardscaping, or douse with vinegar. Discourage crabgrass by mowing lawn 3 inches high.

These plantings outside the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center show how attractive landscaping with native plants can be.

Adding winter interest: a visit to the Conifer Garden at Powell Gardens

This week’s snow reminds us that winter is coming, and soon we’ll be extra-grateful for plants that retain traces of green during the months when all the color has leached out of our landscape. That makes this a perfect time to visit Powell Gardens’ Conifer Garden.  What other options do we have besides junipers and yews? I have some of these growing in my own yard, as well as boxwood and holly—and I expect you do too.  But we don’t need to limit ourselves to just a few familiar choices. The collection at Powell Gardens represents almost every type of conifer hardy in our area, including pines, spruce, firs, cypress, arborvitae, hemlock, and even ginkgo. The collection now contains over 100 varieties and has been certified as a Reference Garden by the American Conifer Society.

Before I continue, I should point out the distinction between evergreens and conifers. Plants that don’t lose their leaves (or needles) are considered “evergreen.”  Conifers reproduce by forming cones.  While not all evergreens are conifers (like holly, southern magnolia, and boxwoods), most conifers are evergreen—think pine, spruce, and juniper. To complicate things more, some conifers aren’t evergreen at all.  The collection at Powell Gardens contains a bald cypress, which is deciduous and loses its needles each winter; a rare ‘Chief Joseph’ Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta), whose needles turn yellow in the fall and green up in spring; and ginkgo.  Most conifers do have needles instead of leaves, an adaptation that helps them survive challenging growing conditions

Located just north of the Visitor Center, the Conifer Garden is shady and intimate, on the scale of a suburban yard—which may help gardeners imagine how conifers can be used in their home landscapes, as well as give them a sense of scale. Apparently, a number-one problem people have with conifers is underestimating how large they can grow.  While the rest of Powell Gardens’ many areas are wan and faded at this time of year, the conifer area is bright with vibrant color: chartreuse, yellow, silver, and dark greens.  

The diversity of shapes and contrasting textures is invigorating.  Some of the conifers are tall trees, while others are low mounds, offering welcome variety and relief from monotony. (Most of the things in my yard are four feet high.) Some have interesting, sculptural shapes.

The area has recently been renovated. Marissa Adams, the lead for the conifer garden, and volunteer Deb Guardia began working in May, doing a plant-by-plant evaluation. They removed poorer specimens, weeded, and topped off the pea gravel mulch, which Marissa says does a great job keeping down weeds. The color and texture of the foliage stands out against the pale gravel. “Renovated means thinned,” Deb points out. The extra breathing room helps showcase the specimens and contributes to their health and vigor.

The garden originated in 2001 when gardener Marvin Snyder, a past president of the American Conifer Society, donated a collection of dwarf conifers that had been used in a temporary model railroad exhibit in the conservatory. In 2006, berms were created from sandy soil excavated during the construction of the nearby Fountain Garden. Described as “sandstone rubble subsoil,” this proved to be ideal for the conifers, most of which require well-drained soil. Our area’s heavy clay soil can be problematic for this reason. “They don’t like being to put to bed wet,” Deb says. Conifers do need moisture to get established, and they may need watering during the winter. Pruning is best done when the tree is dormant, and dressing wounds is unnecessary. 

Some conifers seem to struggle here, like Scots Pines, which have been dying off because of pine wilt.  Each species has its own potential problems and vulnerabilities. Some species of juniper are native, such as eastern red cedar, but as horticulturist Dennis Patton points out, Kansas is the only state without a native pine: “Missouri does but not locally in KC.” Conifers evolved under different, mostly colder conditions, and that makes it tough for some to do well here. Patton says, “Evergreens that are non-native struggle with our too syndrome:  Too wet, too dry, too cold, too hot, too windy and all the combinations.”

Nevertheless, as the Conifer Garden shows, Kansas City homeowners have literally hundreds of options besides dependable yews and junipers. All provide winter interest, sustained color, structural variety, and contrasting textures. With the right care, conifers of all shapes, sizes, and colors can provide beauty and interest in the garden year-round. 

Sticky, weird Osage oranges explained

I have another garden visit in the works so I thought I’d delay posting this week, but the sight of one of these lying in a gutter inspired me.  It’s an Osage orange, a hedge apple, also known as bow wood or bois d’arc, a softball-sized fruit that looks like a mash of chartreuse brains.

This osage orange is larger than a softball.

Everyone has an opinion about Osage oranges (Maclura pomifera). Like squirrels, people either love or hate them. The plants have thorns. Out in the country, they grow along fences, mixing with scrubby, brambly things, although as trees they grow around forty feet high. There’s a lot of folklore associated with them. The wood is supple and repels rot, so Native Americans used it to make bows. It’s also extremely long-burning, an asset on the treeless plains.

People claim the fruit repels insects like spiders, although according to the Burke Museum in Seattle, this is a myth. Spiders can’t smell airborne odors and have been known to live and spin webs on Osage orange trees, which my friend Susi describes as “very, very messy if you have one growing in your yard.” The apples are striking and unusual, the kind of thing people might display in a bowl or basket until they shrivel and attract fruit flies.

Osage oranges litter the ground beneath this tree.

Osage orange is not citrus at all but a member of the fig family. They’re inedible, but they’re not toxic, either. They’re simply too big for most animals to eat, and supposedly some cattle have died trying when the fruit lodged in their throats and suffocated them.  Similar to opossums and armadillos, Osage oranges are remnants of an earlier age. According to an excellent and informative piece from Resilience, by blogger Adrian Ayres Fisher, Osage oranges are an ecological anachronism:  “a plant or animal having characteristics that don’t make sense for the place where it is found.” Although Osage oranges sprout easily, their spiky thorns and enormous fruit would prevent the birds and bison that inhabited the plains from eating the seeds. So how did they spread? Their original territory was limited to the Red River Valley in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, but now they thrive throughout the US zones in 5-9.

Fisher hypothesizes that mastodons and mammoths browsed on the fruit, dispersing it throughout North America as far north as Ontario. When those creatures died out, the Osage orange’s range shrank. Then Native Americans recognized its usefulness and began trading its seeds, helping it spread once again.

This raises questions about what makes a native plant native.  Typically we think of a native as a plant that lived here before European settlement. As the case of the Osage orange reminds us, that time consisted of many eras. Trying to return a landscape to a pre-settlement condition requires making a value judgment about which time to return to. Valuing one moment in 1803 as the way things should be above all others is arbitrary, and has more to do with our perspective and values than the qualities of that moment itself. The Osage Nation, after whom the plant is named, originated in present-day Ohio and Mississippi river valleys before moving west in the 1600’s.  The U.S. government forced them to move to Oklahoma in the 1870’s.

Whether we consider them native or not, Osage oranges offer many qualities we now consider desirable.  They provide shelter to birds and wildlife. They thrive alongside compatible natives, encouraging diversity. They resist “herbicide drift,” and thrive in tough conditions. In the fall, the leaves turn a wonderful yellow, and in winter, the sculptural trunks look cool.  But if you plant one, watch out for falling fruit. A reviewer on one message board gives Osage orange a single star:

“Dented my car. Complete waste of space.”

Gardening as metaphor

Just like that, fall arrived. The leaves of the river birch turned yellow and fell to the ground, and I’ve been busy raking and sweeping.  I’ve spent more time in the garden this year than ever before. It’s been a refuge from the endless stream of bad news that has me waking up at night with my jaw clenched. I’m drawn to gardens because I find them beautiful, but I suspect their power is more than aesthetic. Gardening is good for us, experts say, but can the benefits be explained? How does gardening work to restore and heal?

This is the subject of a recent essay from the New Yorker about gardening, “Nature and Nurture,” by British writer Rebecca Mead. Online its title is The Therapeutic Power of Gardening. It’s one of those expansive pieces the New Yorker does so well, part book review, part profile/garden visit, part personal story that add up to much more than an ordinary gardening article—after all, the New Yorker isn’t the place to turn for advice about how to stake your delphiniums. The piece’s real subject is grief and loss, and how gardening creates space for death in our lives.

Mead begins by noting how popular gardening is in Britain generally—half of all adults in the UK engage in some sort of gardening—and how interest has increased this year.  Seeds sold out. Internet searches for garden topics spiked.  She isn’t a gardener—she confides that she killed some arugula and spinach at the start of the lockdown—but her parents raised fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers around her childhood home. (What are marrows?) She describes “fragrant roses,” “clouds of lavender,” and playing with her brother on the lawn.  Her mother, who is 89, still lives and gardens in this paradise. Mead has been prevented from seeing her since March.

To explain why people are turning to gardening during the pandemic, Mead turns to Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist whose book The Well-Gardened Mind is “a surprise best seller.” (One review begins, “This must be the most original gardening book ever.”) Stuart-Smith sees gardening as an experiential metaphor. Gardening gives people new experiences that counteract painful ones from their pasts, through which they unlearn painful lessons and replace damaged notions about themselves. This is one of the ways gardening restores and heals.  I haven’t read the book, but in an excerpt published online, a repeat offender who participated in a prison garden project gained a restored sense of pride and agency when the vegetables he planted matured.  Lifelong feelings of shame gave way to a belief that he was capable of success.  He plans to pursue horticultural training following his release.

Sue Stuart-Smith’s husband Tom is a world-renowned landscape architect, and when she is able, Mead visits The Barn Garden, the property where the Stuart-Smiths live.  Since this is a New Yorker article, there are no photos, but here is a video tour of this remarkable garden, created for a U.K. charity called the National Garden Scheme.

The garden’s several areas look wild—he even calls one the prairie—but clipped hedges define them and delight us with the juxtaposition of structure and disorder.  As one commenter says, the garden “hovers on the edge of chaos and yet every plant is still distinguishable.”

Stuart-Smith is widely published and luscious photos of his work are all over the internet, including his own Instagram account.

This couple is at the height of their mastery, sharing what they’ve learned through their books, lectures, and teaching.

We feel how gardening tugs at Mead as she mourns being separated from her mother—now by COVID, and soon by death. She also casts a melancholy backward glance at the lost continent of her childhood, threading references to games like peekaboo and hide-and-seek through the essay.  Parents will recognize her description of the theory that peekaboo reassures babies about object permanence. The parent disappears, but then makes a reassuring return, just as spring goes away, but then comes back.

Sue Stuart-Smith compares gardens to this stage in life when child begins to differentiate herself from the mother, a “transitional” space. When Tom Stuart-Smith describes the garden as “didactic” but also a “territory of discovery and self-expression,” he could be talking about childhood.

Interestingly, Tom grew up on the site of the Barn Garden. His father gave him the property, and he describes tension between them as they built a house together.  This tension abated when Tom broke away from his father and asserted himself in the garden’s design.  They still live within view of each other.

As the year winds down, we all have a sense of things ending. In the midst of so much grief, planning for spring can be a hopeful act—because there will be a spring. As Sue Stuart-Smith suggests, gardening “invokes the prospect of some kind of future.”  However, we might not be here to see it. “The future promised by a garden may not always be ours to enjoy.”

My own parents are in their eighties, and each day brings me a deeper understanding of what lies ahead.  As I clean up the garden and look up at the skeletal branches of the trees, I wonder how many more summers we’ll have together. What will this winter bring? Like old oaks, they’ve lasted so long and I’m so used to relying on their strength, I cannot imagine the world without their shade.  We know it’s coming, but no amount of anticipation can prepare us for that day.  The garden is one of the few places in our lives where we watch things die, where we see truths we can’t describe in words, but which also carries, as Mead says, the “power to console through its cyclical replenishment.”

Why start a blog about gardening? Plus, a visit to Loose Park’s Native Shade Garden

Why start a blog about gardening? It’s 2020. Is blogging still a thing?

As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to connect with readers—and over the past few years, as my interest in gardening has deepened this is what I want to write about. I keep hearing that during this crazy year the number of people who are gardening has surged, so I’m optimistic that some will be interested in reading what I have to say as I go deeper into this fascinating body of knowledge.  We can learn together.

In my garden I was going for the feel of this painting by Pierre Bonnard

Kansas City is full of beautiful gardens. Geniuses live here. I’ve already been lucky to talk to a couple for this blog. I love the varied topography here, the hills and bluffs, the tall trees, and the enormous variety of plants. Some will disagree, but I’m originally from Houston and I think the climate here is great.

Does it make your heart hurt to think of how this place looks today? Postmarked December 8, 1928. From Missouri Valley Special Collections

Kansas City also has a robust gardening community, with wonderful public and private gardens, and organizations that support almost every gardening interest, from growing food to gardening with native plants. We have a helpful publication, Kansas City Gardener, that provides practical advice written by subject experts, conseils et astuces, as the French say. 

I hope to add storytelling from a personal perspective to this already-rich mix. 

I’ve been posting for about a month, and have clarified to myself what I’m doing and what I hope to accomplish. My plan is to post weekly on Friday mornings, and send a newsletter digest once a month.  To subscribe, just use the “stay in touch” form below. What are you most interested in hearing about?  Reply in the comments and let me know!

A visit to Loose Park’s Native Shade Garden

This time of year, most of us are in the middle of our fall cleanup and harvesting our vegetables for the last time. We’re looking in to strategies for getting those green tomatoes to ripen.  I’m in the process of moving a hydrangea, but other than that, I didn’t plant anything this fall.  I’m already thinking about spring.

I have my eye on rehabbing some shady areas now covered in vinca and English Ivy. To help me visualize what could go there, I thought I’d photograph the Native Plant Shade Garden in Loose Park before the plants disappear and leave just the little signs.

My shortcomings as a photographer are becoming evident. Nice wall!

The photo doesn’t do it justice, but the shrub on the left is leatherwood (Dirca palustris). A wan-looking milkweed is growing amid some James’s sedges, next to some blooming phlox, Bush’s poppy mallow, and a grass called Beakgrain. Interspersed are ground covers ajuga and wild ginger.  

A sign explains.

Another bed on the east side of the door, which must get more sun, has goldenrod and Joe Pye weed (eutrochium purpurem). Both are almost six feet tall.

While this planting looks like a tangle of green in my picture, up close the variety of plants and textures is intriguing.  The low profile works with the contemporary style of the Loose Park Garden Center.

The Loose Park Garden Center before the native plantings.

September has been fantastic time to visit the nearby Laura Conyers Smith Rose Garden, which has been spectacular this year.

See you in the garden!

Creating a paradise for pollinators and people, with Dana Posten

Today I spoke with Dana Posten about the wonderful pollinator garden she has developed with her husband Mike. Our conversation was as wide-ranging as their gardens, which include a cutting garden, fruit trees, and private potager. We talked about far too much to cover in one post, so today I’m going to focus on the pollinator garden, which is visible to passers-by.

The Postens began working on the gardens six years ago when they bought their house on its distinctive wedge-shaped lot. After removing some foundation plantings and ailing trees, they turned their attention to creating what Posten calls a “formal pollinator garden.” This eye-catching triangular bed looks wild in some ways, but on closer inspection reveals its symmetry and organization.

Formal pollinator garden in September 2020. © My Wild Garden

About the bee house, Posten says, “That’s coming down.” Bee houses look charming, but as she points out, pre-fab ones can be associated with problems and may harm bees more than help them.

Three redbuds define the area, each surrounded by evergreen boxwoods. Two large masses of amsonia (bluestar), an early blooming perennial, grow on each side.  Between these grow silvery munstead lavender and germander, which Posten describes as “bee crack. They shiver with activity.”

This early image of the bed shows its distinctive shape, as well as how the garden has evolved.

Photo by Dana Posten

The bed contains many other plants, including monarda, rue, solidago, milkweed, and others. All are nectar sources for bees and butterflies.

It’s striking how many different varieties of plants are growing in this small area. (Posten is impressively knowledgeable about plants—she loves researching them). Many are native, but not all. Some are less-commonly seen varieties of familiar species, like this gymnocarpus physocarpa (hairy balls milkweed).

Gymnocarpus physocarpa (hairy balls milkweed) © My Wild Garden

The diversity is dazzling, but the effect is still harmonious, thanks to rhythm and repetition of color and shape, and the consistent theme of supporting pollinators. Defined paths delineate the beds and prevent them from looking chaotic.

A sign in the corner identifies this pollinator garden as a certified Monarch Waystation. Monarch Watch, a program based at KU, helps raise awareness about the dwindling numbers of monarchs caused by loss of habitat and pesticides.

Certifying your garden can help save the monarchs. All you have to do is verify that you have host and nectar plants and follow sustainable management practices.  Gardeners also help by tagging butterflies to provide scientists data about how populations are faring. The monarch’s annual migration is in full swing right now, and several fluttered by as we talked.

Programs like Monarch Watch have helped make a difference: monarch numbers in 2019 increased by 144 percent over the previous year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. So thank you, everyone who grew milkweed, myself included!

Sadly, monarchs on the west coast haven’t fared as well, with numbers dropping from 1.2 million in 2000 to fewer than 30,000 last year.

A more recently planted area on the west side of the property features several different types of native grasses and wildflowers. After seeing the plantings on the High Line in New York and the film Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, the Postens were excited by the potential of using native grasses in a new way. They used soil solarization to prepare the beds, covering them with plastic last summer through the winter to smother germinating weeds and kill off Bermuda grass. This strategy is an alternative to using glyphosate, or Roundup, which they strenuously dislike, believing it serves no purpose. Many of these plants, planted as bare roots in April, are now flourishing. Some are even blooming now, such as kniphofia uvaria (red-hot poker or torch lily), and liatris (blazing star).

Kiphofia uvaria (red-hot poker or torch lily)
Kiphofia uvaria (red-hot poker or torch lily)

As Posten points out, in reality grasses grow differently here than in Oudolf’s gardens: “Some may grow to be much larger, while others may not grow at all. Conditions here are just so different.” Lush meadow plantings are difficult to reproduce in small suburban yards. However, grasses can still evoke an atmosphere inspired by Oudolf’s gardens and principles. Seeing this planting in its first year is of particular interest to a novice like me, and helps me visualize what the plants look like in the ground and how far apart to space them.

The planting in its first year

I’ve never seen a private garden quite like this. Bees and butterflies must be thrilled to discover it, and people get excited about it, too. Posten says, “Everyone can find something to like.” This is great to hear, because intermingled plantings are complex and can be difficult to “read.” Our notions of what’s beautiful are mostly learned, and the unfamiliar can feel strange. The delight we feel seeing this garden—its very existence—may signal ways our priorities are evolving. Perhaps we’re becoming more willing to take our ecological concerns seriously, and open to considering new ideas of beauty.

More beauty. Everyone deserves that!