Let Go of the Nonsense and Garden Smarter

Loosen up and add Layers

Loosen up and add Layers

So, you have a front yard that you think looks like hell right now.  It’s April, it’s muddy, and brown, and gross.  What do you do?  Get out the hedge shears, edger and the mulch fork, right?  Stop.  I’m here to tell you that the times they are a changin’.  The landscapes of the near future won’t include manicured lawns and prim hedges, and for good reason.  (Yep, you have my permission to let all that nonsense go – read my previous post Is your Garden a Victorian Dinosaur?) Instead we are going to opt for a smarter plan – we can be better stewards, better gardeners, better humans if we just follow these Top 10 Guiding Principles:

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Is your Yard a Victorian Dinosaur?

So much of the American suburban garden aesthetic is a stubborn relic of British Imperialism of the 18th century and the resulting Victorian Era. (Check out Noel Kingsbury‘s book Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden.)  These early gardeners were industrious, curious and well-meaning, but also privileged, clueless and terrible listeners.  The practice of extending power and dominion, and controlling the “aboriginal beast” of nature, resulted in both trophy hunting and impeccable lawns, colorful geraniums and neatly trimmed hedges, while completely destroying countless complex and highly functional indigenous populations.

Imperialist Trophy Hunters

Imperialist Trophy Hunters

Victorian Gardens

The Landscapes of the same Era

In the last 250 years I would like to believe that we have evolved, and in some ways we have, but so many of our landscapes remain modeled on this antiquated concept.  In spring homeowners dutifully go outside and vigorously rake up decay, tidying fallen branches and spreading thick layers of freshly ground bark mulch.  It’s not their fault – a huge industry was developed around the practice and billions are spent to keep it going.  Yet, believe me, the “green desert” and dyed mulch of the conventional suburban yard is starting to look as absurd and tragic as the images of elephant and lion hunting parties from the early 1900s.

Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Good Intentions Gone Wrong

At some point we realize that we aren’t the only living creatures on the planet – some are as big as elephants and some are as microscopic as the soil organisms under our feet – both are equally important.  There’s a reason why it’s so difficult to maintain that perfectly tidy yard – it goes against all the basic laws of physics and ecology.  More diplomacy is required for us to establish a long-term stable relationship with our landscape and our planet as a whole.  Now more than ever, I counsel patience – it’s not that different from learning to live with people from other cultures.  Building a wall or planting a hedge will not save any of us.  Recognize fear for what it is and resist the temptation to oversimplify and dominate – just because something looks different, wild, seemingly random or unbalanced, doesn’t mean it’s bad – maybe we just can’t see the purpose yet.  Be brave in the face of difference, admit we have everything to learn, observe, listen, ask questions, communicate, respect the needs of others, and think about ways to work within our universal system instead of against it.  Think of your garden as an observatory, take a moment to open the door, walk outside and watch it each day – you might be surprised by what you find.
young meadow with complex layers

young meadow with complex layers

And Then There Were 3 – Embracing the Collaborative Design Office


Linden Sign

Collaborative Design Studio

Collaborative Design Studio


I was tired of working alone at home, being distracted by laundry and the million other odd tasks that creep into a typical workday, not having anybody to chat with other than my cat, and forgetting that closing a door at the end of a day is really healthy.  Last fall Tim and I agreed it was time to get serious about building a separate office building that would not only get me out of the house but provide an opportunity to share with like-minded creative professionals.  So we renovated/finished a cabin that would accommodate three people whose work is similar but different enough to compliment each other and be a source of hours of coffee break conversation.  Then we invited a landscape architect and an architect to come check it out.   The proposal was not to work for us, but next to us – to be there to bounce ideas off of each other, to embrace the essence of collaboration in a world gone crazy with competition.

Without further ado I’m super excited to introduce my new, talented, independent, and fun office mates, Annie and Adam.  They split their time between the collaborative studio and home offices. I hope you can drop by sometime and meet them.

Annie's DeskAnnie White, is owner and principal designer of Nectar Landscape Design Studio, LLC.   A native of rural Vermont, Annie is academically trained in landscape architecture and seasoned with many years of experience in the horticulture and design industries. Annie founded Nectar in 2016 after completing her PhD in Plant & Soil Science at UVM. She is well known for her work researching and promoting pollinator-friendly landscapes. Inspired by nature, natural materials, and ecological processes, Annie offers a wide range of ecological landscape design services, with a special focus on natural landscaping for lakeshores and the creation and restoration of habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Annie has open studio hours on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9-4. You can reach her at annie@nectarvt.com or (802) 777-1350.

Ginsburg logo

Adam Ginsburg of A. Ginsburg Architects, will be splitting his time between Shelburne and his office in Bristol, VT.  Adam’s affection for the landscape and communities of Vermont and his concern for the future of our environment have merged in a commitment to sustainable design and construction practices.  He brings to the table more than a decade of architectural experience – a combo of hammer-and-nail and creative design practice in both residential and commercial building.  He believes that true success in any design process depends on the quality of the collaboration between an architect and a client.  He is committed to listening, and to applying his rich, diverse training and experience to translating the client’s wishes and dreams into attractive, comfortable places for living.

Adam holds a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Lacoste, France, where he was selected for the deKooning Award and scholarship.  He is licensed in the state of Vermont and certified to practice architecture throughout the United States and Canada.  He is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Builders for Social Responsibility (BSR), and Renewable Energy Vermont (REV) among others.

Adam has open studio hours on Thursdays from 11-4 and by appointment. You can reach him at adam@aginsburgarchitects.com or (802) 989-5436.

Adding Biophilic Interior Design to our Mix


If our latest venture, Biophilic Interior Design, raises an eyebrow or two, I get it.  Don’t worry, I haven’t lost my marbles.  Even my mother-in-law has graciously asked for clarification more than once in the last month, “So, explain what this bio-thing is that you’re doing again?”  Here’s the scoop.

Anybody who knows me is aware that I never do anything half-way, (I don’t know how, which isn’t always a good thing), so I’ve learned to consider a new venture carefully before commencing the deep dive.  Recently I’ve had architects that we work with on landscape projects say they love our aesthetic and ask if we would be interested in consulting on interior designs.  I said maybe, but I need to do some research first, talk to some other people in the business, then get some training if it seems like a good fit, and I’ll get back to you.

So that’s what I did – I joined the Sustainable Furnishings Council, the Interior Design Society and took several trainings from them and ASID on Biophilic design as well as sustainable interiors.  I also looked into how we are using our interior spaces and the current thoughts about how design and materials can impact our health and wellness.  What I learned tied into my previous occupation as an environmental scientist/assessor so I researched common household sources of toxins, and their health effects and ways to help people reduce their exposure.  I then decided to study and take the WELL AP exam in December, and if I pass I’ll be the first certified professional in VT, NH, and Maine available to help certify Northern New England buildings under the new WELL Building Standards, a LEED-compatible certification for green buildings that focuses on the health of the occupants.

world green building council healthy offices

While considering interior design as an adjunct service for our clients I didn’t have your usual interior decoration in mind.  Honestly, I’m not that interested in the stylistic differences between French Country and Shabby Chic.  Don’t get me wrong – I respect interior designers for their artform, and I recognize that there’s a lot more to it than color matching and choosing suede over tweed.  I am just looking at the process from a different angle.  For the last 14 years I have designed outdoor living spaces, increasing biodiversity in clients’ yards, reducing stormwater runoff, filtering air and water, and improving soil health.  The resulting landscapes are good for both the planet and us – there has even been extensive research over the last 20 years on the positive physiological responses we have when we are in contact with nature.  The benefits include being 54% more relaxed and up to 20% more productive.  Unfortunately, now we spend 90% of our time inside, and we are so busy and distracted we don’t go out to seek nature as often as we should to reap these positive health effects.  So, what happens when you bring nature to the people, inside?  You enter the world of Biophilic Interior Design, and things get really interesting.

collage- Biophilic-interior-design

I want to design interiors that make people healthier and happier while making the world a better place.  Pie in the sky daydream?  Not really – you can read more about the future of Biophilic Interior Design in an article I wrote for the Green Living Journal that will be published December 1st.  I will post a link once it is available.

Mulch – Is it Time to Abandon the Spring Tradition?

spruce mulch

April usually starts out yucky in our neck of the woods.  It’s brown and messy and we’re impatient to cover up the wet decay with something fresh, and nothing beats the smell and tidy look of a new layer of bark mulch, right?  Well, I’ve been reading about that and talking with other pros in the industry and if you’re a traditional gardener attached to the tidy mulch aesthetic you may not like what I have to say.  The advances of ecological research are making it quite clear that plant-community based design is the way of the future resulting in healthier plants, and a drastic reduction in resources – less time weeding, less money spent on mulch.  The writing on the wall says we will be abandoning our mulching practice as we know it and replacing it with living green mulch – lots of vertical plant layers including a dense ground cover layer.

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Curbside Gardens in Hellstrips

Last season we designed and installed curbside gardens in downtown Burlington that would replace the lawn hell-strip that runs along King St. and is owned by the Hinds Lofts apartments.  The owners wanted a curbside planting along both the side of the building and the hell-strip that would allow stormwater to infiltrate but also be resistant to salt and allow for daily dog use.  It had to remain fairly open for people parking on the street to navigate, and it had to be drought tolerant since no additional irrigation would be added.  Here’s the design we came up with that we hoped would align with the tenants modern aesthetic – the grasses are Schizachyrium ‘Carousel’ a dwarf Little Bluestem.  In this photo they are newly planted and more are scheduled to go in this year so eventually the space will get covered.

Curbside garden hellstrip Burlington VT

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The Challenge of Adding Pollinator Hedgerows to Residential Landscapes

Border of Panicum 'Shenandoah' and Aster 'Raydon's Favorite'

Border of Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

I was recently asked by a writer “Do you feel that pollinator hedgerows are becoming more popular/acceptable in residential landscapes? How do you work with those who feel a hedgerow looks “messy”?

When it comes to residential landscapes I see my clients struggling with a desire to do good, and still maintain order in their private corner of an increasingly chaotic world.  With so many demands on our time, it’s natural to surround ourselves with things that are quick, easy, and predictable.  So it’s challenging to explain to clients that the new landscape they are buying is not a pretty piece of furniture, but more like the adoption of a beautiful but wild creature.  I don’t see a design as a success until a homeowner is an active participant in its evolution, and my job is to provide the counseling necessary along their journey to reach that goal.
To be acceptable in residential landscapes pollinator and habitat hedgerows need to strike a balance between science and good design, between our desire to be good stewards and still maintain a sense of order.  I do think that public awareness of the plight of pollinators is helping to drive an acceptance of wildness in our landscapes, and we can make it more acceptable by edging the wildness with “Ribbons of Order”, simplified plantings, and bold brushstrokes of color. Yet I find that acceptance is an ongoing process, and I need to remind both myself and clients frequently that only by embracing the unknown do we learn new things.

Invasive Plants or Nature’s Bandaid – an Evolving Perspective

I recently ran across a comment on a blog post about invasive plants and found myself nodding in agreement, especially after attending Noel Kingsbury‘s talk on primary colonizers at Longwood Gardens, and working with Claudia West (co-author of the fabulous book Planting in a Post-Wild World with Thomas Rainer) and preparing a presentation about multi-layered landscape designs.

Centauria cyanus colonizing in VT farm fields

Centauria cyanus colonizing in VT farm fields

A woman named Wendy Howard, whom I don’t know, but seems to understand ecological processes at least from a permaculture standpoint, objected to the notion of invasive plants.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this argument, and I don’t fully agree with all of it, but it was eloquently said:

“Nature is constantly trying to repair the damage man does through his lack of understanding of natural systems. Don’t stop using the plants: stop creating the circumstances that call for these plants to act like they’re doing!

Nature never leaves soils uncovered. When you till soils, all the soil life and soil carbon are progressively lost to oxidation, even before you start applying a barrage of chemicals. Soils lose their ability to hold water, communication pathways between plants working in collaboration are cut and the cycle that has built and regenerated the soil for millennia is broken. The soil starts to lose its structure and ability to support life. It becomes prone to erosion and flood-drought cycles. Groundwaters are not recharged because the rain can no longer infiltrate. One third of the planet’s soils are now classed as degraded. The UN estimates we may only have as little as 60 years’ worth of growing left. In less than 200 years, we will have completely destroyed what took thousands of years to build. Through our incredible stupidity we are destroying our life-support system. We need to get our heads round how this works and work with it. FAST!

Most of the invasive plants listed are primary colonisers. They’re nature’s Bandaids. If they’re growing and ‘invading’ spaces humans don’t want them to occupy, it’s because the soils and the health of the ecosystem are in a bad way. They’re generally short-lived species because they pave the way for the climax vegetation to establish or reestablish itself. They will very rarely colonise healthy ecosystems, even if non-native, because they’re not needed. Their job is to form a protective cover for disturbed or degraded soils as quickly as possible and generate a large amount of biomass to restore those soils to health and fertility as quickly as possible. Some of them are attractive to grazing animals so the animals will process some of that biomass into fertiliser and speed up the soil regeneration process even more. Some of them form impenetrable thorny thickets to keep everything well clear of the area while it undergoes repair. Many of them are nitrogen-fixers – ie. they can make their own fertiliser to support their growth when the soil is exhausted. Many of them have lots of uses to man as well.”

I’m not sure I would go so far as to promote the use of plants that are listed as invasive and included in our State’s Quarantine Rule, but I agree that focusing on the demonizing of a few species isn’t fixing the problem.  It’s much more complex, and the above argument helps point out the root of the problem, bare and depleted soil.  We need to be designing landscapes that restore soils, filter water, and provide food and cover for the entire food web, and it starts with plants, lots of them.  I agree with Claudia and Thomas – we need to incorporate a dense protective groundcover of primary colonizer plants, topped with a seasonal theme layer that simultaneously is attractive (legible and colorful) to both humans and wildlife, and framed with canopy structure that does the heavy lifting.  Designed plant communities get us one step closer to restored habitats in our Post-Wild World, and help the majority of homeowners re-establish a connection to the natural world, which is sorely missed in our suburbs, even here in Vermont.

plant layers in an ecological landscape

An excerpt from Post-Wild World showing dense layers


Pollinator Plants for Northeast Gardens – A New Source

Looking for Pollinator Plants for Northeast Gardens?  Let me introduce a new source called Northeast Pollinator Plants – http://www.northeastpollinator.com/.

pollinator plants for the Northeast

One of 5 Collections available from NEPP


A fellow Landscape Architect, farmer, and lecturer at UVM, Jane Sorensen, has launched an on-line store to promote pollinator plants in the northeast U.S., which has been frustratingly under-served for access to native perennials for pollinators.  She saw it as a means to get more pollinator plants into the hands of gardeners who are looking for them and provide a little education on what and how to create habitat in one’s landscape.

One of the questions we often hear is how many plants, how far apart?  Here’s the advice Jane is passing along:


An ideal pollinator garden should offer constant and overlapping flowering of native wildflowers from early spring to late fall.  To do this, Xerces Society suggests selecting:

At least 9 species of wildflowers with 3 early-flowering, 3 mid-flowering and 3 late-flowering, offering a variety of flower colors, shapes and sizes to appeal to a diversity of native pollinators AND,

Add at least 1 native grass for nesting sites and material, AND

Plant in swaths of 8 of each species for more efficient foraging.

Using these guidelines, Northeast Pollinator Plants has created several Pollinator Garden mixes for varying sun/shade and soil conditions.  Their “84 Plants” garden collection will get you closest to the guideline, giving you 8 plants each of 10 flowering species plus 4 plants of 1 native grass species.  You may also make your own collection or enhance your existing garden by selecting from the list of individual plant species.

The only significant change I would make is about spacing – a common recommendation is to plant approximately 2′ on center which allows each plant to reach its full size with nothing below it or above it.  Instead I would recommend planting in layers, spacing taller, larger plants about 2′ apart, but making sure there are plenty of smaller groundcovers under these plants, using a combination of seed and plugs – otherwise weeds will gobble up that empty space and all your free time to boot.