I have lately been finding that some of my clients are reluctant to commit to the cost of a design plan without knowing the landscape costs associated with their design. It’s an understandable reluctance, I think. I am not, after all, in the business of selling people pipe dreams. Dreams, yes. Pipe dreams, no. It seems, therefore, prudent to me to be concerned about what you’re getting into and why (why, by the way, is the real important question, which I think we should all ask a bit more). I think it’s essentially a matter of trust and this is a difficult thing for some people to commit to, understandably.
The real problem, however, is that landscape designers do not generally have any idea what they’re going to discover during the design process, what features might look best in your landscape (and their associated costs), until they actually begin creating your particular design. I certainly don’t. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Though sometimes I can visually imagine certain elements as early as the initial site consultation, or on a subsequent visit, those ideas often change or even become discarded in favor of more enlightened ideas during the design phase, as I believe they should. Ideas evolve. Landscape costs come after the ideas are formed, in other words, and there are many ways to adjust landscape costs to fit a particular budget (more on that below).
The other thing that I think many folks miss is the true purpose and advantage of hiring a landscape designer. Essentially, I believe, it’s to get ideas. This is important. The purpose is not to get a quote for a new landscape (though you will likely get one), or even an exact plan for your new landscape (you will get that, too)—it’s first and foremost to get ideas about what is possible, what you might do, what a particular and knowledgeable landscape design professional would do, for example, if it was his or her yard that needed work and they had a certain budget to do it with.
The reason I mention this is because no one is telling anyone that they have to do everything that is on a particular landscape design. It’s your yard and your budget. Landscape plans are ideas on paper, suggestions. You can do some of it now, some later. You can have a professional install retaining walls and a patio and you can plant the trees and shrubs, if you desire. You can decide to do none of it (unless you signed a design/build contract) or all of it. What’s crucial, though, is that a design plan allows you to visualize these landscape ideas and makes you ask yourself important questions about the way you live and what kind of life you’d like to create for yourself and your family. People change and landscape designs can change, too, or should.
One thing that I recommend for folks who are new to hiring a landscape designer is to be honest and straightforward about your budget, or actually budgets (both your immediate and long-term budgets). These are two separate things, mind you—what you are willing to spend now (why you called a landscape designer in the first place) and what you believe you are able to commit to over a longer period of time (the next 3-5 years, say, or longer). A realistic, estimated budget range for your landscaping needs can save you and your landscape designer a lot of wasted time and energy. Your unique landscape design, then, can be tailored to match your budget and long-term goals. In the landscape design field, I’ve heard this approach called a number of things (“design to budget”, “design to fit”, etc.) and it’s a practical way to approach the landscape design and eventual implementation without giving you something that is unrealistic and unaffordable, i.e. a pipe dream. It’s hard to imagine folks who have an unlimited budget, but of course, there are those, too.
I found this from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) website and am reprinting it here:
There is extensive documentation of the value that intelligent, thoughtful landscape design can add to your home. Well designed, installed and maintained landscaping can substantially increase the overall value of your home. A budgeting rule of thumb for a complete landscape installation or renovation is five to ten percent of the total value of your home, including the land. Therefore, if you own a $550,000 home, plan to spend between $27,500-$55,500 for a basic, functional landscape that will return up to 200 percent in value. Unusual materials, mature specimen plantings, or elaborate hardscape will add to this figure.
The most successful landscape projects start with a realistic budget. Don’t hesitate to share your budget with the landscape designer. A professional landscape designer can help strike a balance between special materials and cost-conscious choices to create a beautiful space that meets your functional, aesthetic, and budget preferences before you ask contractors for bids.
I am notoriously bad at “guessing” landscape costs and, of course, folks ask me to do this all the time prior to signing a design contract. Truthfully, from experience, I tend to agree with the quote above—I think it’s reasonable to expect (if you have a landscape company install the landscape) you should spend at least 10% of the value of your home and land value on landscaping in order to recoup your investment and have a well-designed and aesthetically-beautiful landscape. With that said, landscapes that truly stand out usually spend 15-20% of this value. What materials you choose to landscape with (there are many material options for walls, patios, decks, etc., and the cost differences can be staggering) and what size plants you install (immediate screen?) will create a wide range of landscape costs.
As the APLD quote above mentions, if you are willing to spend a little more, you can often add features or elements that are truly unique and will help transform your garden into a unique and beautiful space. I always include several unique elements in every design (whether it’s in the budget or not)—things that the homeowners might not have otherwise thought about and which could be a possibility some day. They are only ideas, after all, they don’t actually hurt you. This might be something like a small pond or a water feature, the use of an unusual material choice, or a garden object, but also might be an arresting arrangement of container plants, a vertical garden, or the integration of a recycled material that is currently available locally. Very often, it’s these unique elements that define the garden space and they are worth the extra cost, in my opinion. You will appreciate the unique elements every day as well as add to the value of your home.
Recently, I stumbled across the beautiful and timely book, Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens, by photographer Vaughn Sills. The hardcover book was published by San Antonio’s Trinity University Press in 2010 and features excellent black-and-white photographs of African American gardens in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. I was hoping for Texas gardens, too, but oh well. Still, these are striking and inspirational portraits of the American vernacular garden, a subject I’ve written about in previous posts and which, I fear, is rapidly disappearing from our history.
One of the things I like best about Places for the Spirit is how, after the wonderful Foreword, Preface, and Introduction (which are not over-lengthy by the way), we are presented with large image after image of the featured gardens with very little commentary. I appreciate this immensely and think it complements the subject well. It’s immediate, practical, and, well, no bull. The photographs, after all, speak for themselves and the occasional brief objective commentary by Sills is just enough to add insight to our viewing of these intimate gardens without making our mind up for us. Many, perhaps, will be surprised by the notion of calling many of these places “gardens” in the traditional, formal sense of that term. Yet, if you look, you can see quite a bit of form and structure to each of the garden’s organization and layout. Above all, they are moving, intimate portraits of the garden’s owners and the histories of a particular place, which is what attracted me to this book instantly. So often, nowadays, gardens are transient and lack history, not to mention personality and character.
Many present-day gardens also lack story. I’m not sure why folks are afraid of revealing themselves in their yards, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about what should and what should not be allowed into a garden, especially a front yard, as if there were rules for this sort of thing (though I’m afraid there are in some neighborhoods, sigh). We could benefit from a few more garden rebels, in my opinion. Of course, this doesn’t mean things shouldn’t adhere to their own rules, so to speak, listen to their own form and structure. They should, though perhaps more instinctually than intellectually. It’s just that the form of gardens–in this case, historic African American gardens–are built from their content, i.e. the stuff in their yards. What is available and has been co-opted as a garden element, for example, is essential to the garden’s form.
Perhaps the great eye-opener, for me, of Sills’ photographs in Places for the Spirit is that much that is discarded can be transformed into art and has been, by some folks, for quite some time. That fact alone makes this book timely and relevant, as more and more modern gardeners appear to be looking for regenerative solutions to the modern world’s emphasis on producing new materials with an ever-shortening lifespan. Here’s a rich history of people who have been regenerating the throwaways of the world and making do in endlessly creative and inspiring ways. It’s moving and funny and instructive, all at once.
Of course, I don’t want to overlook the title of this book: Places for the Spirit. The book is, after all, a document of spiritual gardens of the South. Somewhere in the book, we are asked to notice the references to wind in the placement of garden objects (windmills, clotheslines, etc.) that appear frequently in the gardens represented. This was a revelation to me and I am now noticing the rich legacy of this tradition in gardens throughout Austin, where I live. I have also noted the appearance of many household appliances and building materials in these gardens (tubs, sinks, doors, etc.) that I am pleased to see popping up in landscapes in my neighborhood and new books on the bookshelves. For those who saw the excellent 2006 documentary film, A Man Named Pearl, you’ll be pleased to see Pearl Fryar’s garden featured in here as well, side-by-side dozens of others each as inspiring as the last. A highly recommended book.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the National Butterfly Center in Mission, TX. What a treat. Not only was I impressed with the center’s modern architecture and grounds (they even have a small nursery–I bought several 1g plants to take back to Austin!), I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the knowledgeable and spirited staff and browsing the visitor center’s tasteful gift store. I was tempted to buy a copy of the beautifully put together A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Mexico and South America, written by Jeffrey Glassberg. Maybe next time. Oh, and did I mention the butterflies? Though I was told that September and October are probably the best time to visit the center, as the butterflies are migrating back to Mexico, I was able to see over a dozen species of butterflies flitting about throughout the grounds, some of which I had never seen before.
Though I am very familiar with the butterfly-attracting powers of certain perennials such as Butterfly Weed, Blue Mistflower, and Blue Mealy Sage, which are like magnets for certain butterflies, I was made aware of the importance of woody shrubs and vines in attracting our migrating friends as well. The Center has chosen, I’d say, a wide and tasteful collection of native plants of the Lower Rio Grande Valley throughout their grounds which seems to improve the overall number of butterfly species in ways I would not have been able to predict. Butterflies, it turns out, like to perch on woody stems and old tree trunks, for instance, and the grounds were populated with man-made wooden perches for the butterflies (and those of us taking photos, I might add). Of course, the staff at the center informed me it doesn’t hurt to carve a small grove in these perches and fill them with “Banana Brew“, a mixture of 8-10 liquified ripe bananas, 1 lb. brown sugar, and 16 oz. of dark beer (yum).
Still, I wouldn’t have thought about the butterflies’ need for woody stems where many butterflies like to lay their eggs and rest, especially ones in shady areas. In many ways, this reminds me of the way many birds need the protection of thickets or dense, woody shrubs to nest and take cover from predators. We think about the need for food (birdfeeders, a source of water, etc.), but often forget about providing important cover and shade. Butterflies, it seems, share this in common. It was nice to be reminded.
In any case, the National Butterfly Center is a half-day’s journey from Austin (it’s about a 5 hour one-way trip), but one that I hope more of us in the area do sometime soon. Their website, unfortunately, doesn’t yet recommend nearby places to stay in the area but instead lists local cities and each city’s Chamber of Commerce for more information on lodging and other events in the area. With future funding, too, the Center has exciting plans to expand into a world-class education and research facility, complete with a larger retail nursery of affordable native plants, and an impressively designed network of walking paths and rest areas amid the open-air butterflies of the U.S. and Mexico. I fully support their cause and hope you will, too!
Around every home, one comes across challenging garden spaces. It may be due to poor soil, light, or a sloped yard. It may be created by a large elm or oak tree that has pushed up its roots and made it difficult to plant anything in its general vicinity. It could be an awkward corner created by the addition of a deck or a house remodel. In Texas, of course, it may also be due to what’s underground: a limestone or granite shelf, a concrete foundation, or even a buried, underground utility. It’s these spaces that can be the most trying for gardeners and homeowners to find answers to, but, in my experience, can often prove to be the most rewarding garden spaces after the right solution is found.
I believe it has to do with being creative. When there is no problem to solve, we often, for good reason, take the easy way out. Problems, in other words, demand our creativity, especially when we want to find unique solutions to those problems, as we often do. I’m sure this is true in many walks of life, but it is especially true in garden design and garden building. I just passed a house today, for example, where I noticed a problem front yard (it sloped two different ways–from back to front and from left to right) was solved creatively by constructing a series of pleasing, steel planter boxes that built off one another. The boxes rise and descend in a fun, geometrical way and are further planted with different types of large agaves, grasses, and other perennials in a way that never would have been dreamed up had there not been a problem slope to deal with in the first place. It’s the kind of design I like and I’m sure the owners love coming home to it. It’s cheery.
Thankfully, not all challenging garden spaces are this large or expensive to address. Because I enjoy surprises in the garden, I often plant bulbs or other striking perennials in out-of-the-way areas that would often get overlooked. It seems to work. It’s hard not to notice Salvia ‘Limelight’, for example, when it’s in its full fall glory. Also, because it thrives in shade, it fills in nicely the corners near sheds and garages. I use the more alkaline-tolerant Oakleaf Hydrangea and many of its named varieties, such as ‘Snow Queen’, in much the same areas, as well as beneath large oaks. They get large and spreading when mature so one doesn’t have to plant many to create a desired effect. They also seem to be somewhat resilient to Texas drought, in my experience, despite the fact that many are grown and shipped in from the moisture-rich Northwestern states.
Of course, there are some plants that were born to solve challenging garden spaces. Plants that handle a wide variety of poor soils, such as Pavonia lasiopetala, many Viburnums, and even certain Daylilies, I’ve found, make good choices for semi-shade areas with either clay or rocky soils. Local Austin garden designer and author, Scott Ogden, wrote a whole book devoted to the subject, Gardening Success With Difficult Soils: Limestone, Alkaline Clay, and Caliche Soils, which should be a garden classic, in my opinion. Scott also wrote a wonderful book on bulbs, Garden Bulbs for the South, that I would be less of a gardener without.
However you solve your own challenging garden spaces, it is sure to be a rewarding experience. The trick, I think, is to apply the same level of creativity and imagination to areas of the garden that do not present problems or suggest ideas by what has already been done. That, in my experience, is the harder accomplishment. It’s like being handed a gift of a blank sheet of paper. There is nothing scarier.
As Joe Eck points out in his classic handbook of garden design, Elements of Garden Design, “The growing of plants and the making of a garden are not necessarily the same thing.” So, what then is garden style? And how do we know when to adopt, say, a Japanese or woodland garden look instead of an English garden, or even a native drought-resistant Southwestern garden? And, more importantly, how much can we borrow from a particular garden style without losing its innate character or charm? Of course, these are not easy questions or easy answers, but I believe they are worth exploring further.
The truth is, of course, your choice of garden style is entirely up to you and your individual (or group) tastes, though I must admit certain garden styles can be used rather effectively where the architecture of your home has a regional character. The French colonial homes of New Orleans, for example, beg for lush greens and formal hedges. A log cabin would suggest something quite different, perhaps a large vegetable garden plot and some apple trees. You see what I mean. But for most of us, we land somewhere in the middle of all this and the choices we make dictate the garden style we form in the process of building a garden.
Another insight Eck points out in his short chapter on style is that “Everything is to be gained by knowing precisely why one likes this or that element of a garden, why one chooses this or that line or shape of bed or backdrop.” I believe Eck is saying that in order to create a real garden style that is right for you, we must know ourselves, and I think he’s right. We need to know not only what we like (which plants, what colors, etc.) but who we are as people. Are we gardeners, really, or do we just like to have a beautiful garden to come home to? Do we spend a great deal of time outdoors and, if so, what do we do there–relax, entertain, grill, play games with the kids? These are all simple questions that we should know the answers to and answer honestly. It’s often easy to think about the person we would like to be or the garden we would like to have, but do those images really match who we are?
Creating the garden style that is right for you, then, will be much easier because you will know yourself, how you spend your free time, and what you like and dislike. Seems simple right? Well, not always. There are also a lot of other elements and choices that go into making a garden and each of them affects the style of your garden, i.e., the look and impression that is created when you are in that garden, experiencing the space that it creates. One of the key elements, I think, is the simple choice of materials: wood, metal, rock, fiberglass, cloth, ceramics, rubber, plastic, and glass all create a certain feel to the garden and using more of one material as opposed to another can lend a lot to garden style. Japanese gardens, for example, tend to feature a lot of wood and rock and very little else.
Modern, minimalist gardens tend to favor clean, uniform materials such as steel and gravel (and bamboo, interestingly), which are not only smaller or thinner materials that work well in small spaces, but are also somewhat masculine by nature. In my experience, it’s not uncommon to find homeowners wanting to soften the hard edges of a minimalist garden style by using the arching forms and textures of grasses or other cascading trees or shrubs in the garden to bring a feminine quality to the overall garden style. I tend to agree, often feeling somewhat rigid and intellectual in minimalist gardens, though I suppose that is what some people prefer. Again, it’s completely up to you. Some gardens, like some books or films, are meant for meditation and thought, others for relaxation or sport, and some, I suppose, are meant to intimidate. I know which one I want in my backyard. Do you?
This weekend, a friend introduced me to a new and exciting word, biomimicry. Biomimicry, according to Wikipedia, is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from [nature], in order to solve human problems. The Wright Brothers, to use an example, employed biomimicry when they studied the flight patterns of pigeons and used what they learned about them in the design and construction of their first airplane at Kitty Hawk. As someone who has long taken cues from nature in the design and building of gardens, I was of course elated to hear the term, which I was not familiar with. What’s more, my friend directed me to an online site, The Biomimicry Institute, which among other things aims to make ongoing research and findings of biomimicry studies around the world available to the public. In fact, they make a strong case for these studies to be perforned and recorded by not just scientists and researchers, but people of all walks of life.
Due largely to climate change, garden and landscape design is in the midst of great upheaval. Looking to nature for a solution to wasteful modern practices of living makes a lot of sense. There seems to be a growing interest in creating the closed-loop, sustainable systems we find (and work) in nature, where things are not wasted. Composting is just one example, though an important one, of biomimicry. The microbes that break down organic matter in forests, for example, can be super beneficial in your yard, perhaps in ways that we may not yet fully understand. We know that microbes are unique organisms that turn organic matter in the soil into humus and that humus has the capacity to store an enormous amount of water in the soil, but yet many of us still throw our food in the trash and bag our leaves and leave them out on the curb to be hauled away. Though patterns are indeed changing, it’s nice to see organizations like the Biomimicry Institute and the Land Institute taking initatives and making a difference. They need our support.
What intrigues me the most is the ways in which biomimicry can affect landscape design as a whole, whether it be on a large scale (a park or commercial site) or the comparably small courtyard garden of a residential homeowner. In a previous post, I wrote about my interest in creating bio-diverse gardens, or polycultures, but I have also found myself (among a growing number of landscape architects and designers) more and more attracted to blurring the hard lines between traditionally “separated” garden areas. Where I used to think vegetable gardens, for example, worked best in raised beds quarantined off from the rest of the garden, I have adapted my designs and thinking over time to incorporate vegetables and herbs among perennials, grasses, and evergreens in ways that I have seen, or imagine they might be seen, in nature. And the results are highly rewarding, if not at times spectacular. In my own garden, I let my broccoli plants flower every year before removing them and it’s proven to be a haven for early bees who go crazy for them (the bees also stay to pollinate other emerging spring plants). The blooms, by the way, are also a very beautiful butter yellow color and attractive in groups. I also let the broccoli roots decompose in the soil instead of removing them entirely, which adds needed organic material several feet down. As another example, the patios and stairs I design are now literally exploding with the upward force of plants, as if they had shot through fissures in the foundation cracks. Bulbs and grasses planted together beneath small ornamental trees grow and die back in the same square foot of garden space, each taking their turn in the garden and benefiting from the other when dormant.
From a design standpoint, you might think a nature-mimicked garden can be a tricky thing to pull off successfully, and you might be right. It’s easy to have a wild, uncared-for look that is uninspiring and unsightly. However, when done with the right attention to form and detail, these nature-cued gardens can have a rare strength and composed beauty that I think rivals the great, formal gardens of the past and maybe even surpasses them. Much of it, I suppose, has to do with ethics. Ethical biomimicry. Now there’s a mouthful. However awe-inspiring and rewarding it might be for some to plant, say, a boxwood labyrinth in your backyard, or a hybrid tea garden, I’m not sure these gardens pass the ethical test these days, especially if you live in an area where water is a vanishing resource. They certainly don’t pass the biomimicry test. Of course, I’m old and wise enough to know you can’t tell anybody what to do, but having a deeper understanding of the complexity of nature’s design processes I find is greatly influencing the layout and construction of gardens I see and want to see in the future. I, for one, am excited to see where nature will lead us next.
I‘ve had a renewed interest in attracting wildlife to my yard and the yards I design. I live in an urban area, so am mainly talking about butterflies and birds. Many of the gardens I design, however, are in areas home to deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits, feral hogs, bats, snakes, lizards, and frogs, so I have been reading up on the native plants that might coax these animals into, or near the edge (if fenced), of these gardens. Water is essential for many of these animals, of course, so providing a constant water source will go a long way in inviting wildlife onto your property. A simple birdbath can do wonders.
Deer, of course, are widely considered a nuisance in many gardens in Austin and the Hill Country. They can damage the bark of young, unprotected trees and agaves, strip shrubs and flowers beds down to their woody stems, and even trample plants they don’t eat by walking through them or nesting among them. Still, I remember the joy of seeing deer on our property in Wisconsin (where I grew up) and, despite the problems they would inevitably create, we wanted them around and looked forward to their sightings. I still do. Attracting wildlife makes nature and joy present in our lives and, during the long food-scarce winters we used to have in Wisconsin, I learned that deer and other animals have as much right to life and land as we think we do.
In Austin, for some reason, I seem to have an overabundance of squirrels in my yard at all times. They are also considered a nuisance, particularly to bird lovers, but I enjoy them all the same. I have often marveled at how they scurry and leap from the vast network of live oaks that have been planted a bit over-thickly, I think, in my South Austin neighborhood. It’s as if they could travel through whole neighborhoods without ever having to touch the ground, leaping from tree branch to tree branch. In my yard, they are mostly busy gathering and burying acorns and the fallen pecans from my neighbor’s tree. I find the various nuts regularly in my potted plants and vegetable garden beds. One time, I even found a dozen pecans buried in a half bag of potting soil I had left out in the carport.
My real intention of attracting wildlife, though, is to see and enjoy more birds in the garden. Luckily, the house we recently rented has been visited this winter by a pair of bluejays, several pairs of cardinals, grackles, doves, and various other songbirds. I will probably never see a Golden-cheeked Warbler here, but last week a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in the grass outside our kitchen window and stayed for a good 10 minutes or so. I thought, at first, they were after the seeds from last summer’s basil plants, but it’s more likely they were feeding on small insects in the grass. My backyard has one medium-sized oak, a small redbud tree and several ornamental trees and shrubs, which offer nesting habitats and protection from predators. This is important, I’ve learned, as my previous home offered very little protection and was largely devoid of songbirds (I hung up a birdfeeder and not one bird came to it). I would like to plant several small, fruit-bearing shrubs (agarita, fig), a few additional ornamental trees (viburnum, sumac, magnolia, hawthorne) and perhaps some vines (grape, blackberry) along the fence in the future, my gift to the future residents.
One of the books I ordered on the subject, “Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife” by Kelly Conrad Bender, is an invaluable resource. Not only does Bender include a comprehensive list of Texas native and adapted plants favored by hummingbirds (which I found to be among the best of its kind), she also has a chapter on Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians. Also, she has put together a wonderful chart on the Nest Box Requirements (dimensions, height above ground, etc.) for many birds that visit or stay year-round in our area. I also found an older book called simply “The Bird Garden” (by The National Audobon Society) to be very helpful. It covers much of the same topics and also includes some nice blueprints for several home-made birdhouses, including a purple martin house.
A few years back, I attended a garden conference in Ohio where I sat in on a lecture about biodiverse gardens. I had always designed gardens using a broad palette of plants because, well, I like plants. I like both the individual characteristics of specific plants–the arching effect of ornamental grasses, for example–but I also enjoy the way grasses interact and combine with other plants–large leafed plants, for example, to form groupings. Indeed, there are a number of good books published on the art of grouping plants together, books that talk pointedly about “companion plantings” and so forth, which should be of great interest to designers and gardeners alike. It’s a pleasure, or should be, to think about the way plants set one another off in the landscape, or contrast with one another for a desired effect.
Okay, back to the lecture. One of the surprising things I learned during that talk was that, in biodiverse gardens or in nature, plants don’t compete as directly for the same water and minerals in the soil. The reason for this is that when a diverse set of plants live side-by-side, their corresponding root zones have varied depths and spread out in different directions in the subsoil. In this way, many more diverse plants are able to live in the same square-foot area, as opposed to monoculture plantings. Plants are smart, in other words, and survive by forming their own root-spaces in and around neighboring root-spaces. This is one of the reasons why, in a string of shrubs planted in a hedge, like Japanese boxwood or Indian hawthorne, often a few of the shrubs die randomly in the hedge and need to be replaced. Essentially, the monocultural hedge is competing on the same horizontal root-zone with every other plant in the hedge. Eventually, a stronger shrub dominates and thereby weakens its neighbor, especially if they have been planted too close, which is often the case.
Biodiversity is, of course, one of the keys to survival in nature. Plants, like animals, survive in many ways by their intricate relationships and dependencies, in some cases, with other species and their environments. Many more plants are allowed to live in a smaller area in real biodiverse gardens and landscapes, a fact that has been directly linked to reducing harmful plant pathogens in the soil and curbing soil erosion, as well as supporting microbial life and the development of water-storing humus. In the end, biodiversity gardens are healthier and less subject to destruction from diseases and insect infestations. They also become habitats for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. A visit to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center’s demonstration gardens will drive this point home. In one section, they’ve installed two gardens side-by-side: a biodiverse garden and a monoculture garden. The biodiverse garden is swarming with life: butterflies and bees spring through fall, birds chirping. There’s things in bloom, fragrant plants, etc. The other garden is largely absent of the same life, except for the occasional squirrel passing though it on the way to its next nut.
I just finished reading David Kline’s wonderful book, Great Possessions. It’s an Amish farmer’s journal/essays on simple living, farming and paying attention to the small things. In one essay, “In Praise of Fencerows”, he mourns the loss of the old fences between neighboring fields (Kline lives in Ohio) where birds and animals congregate, nest and burrow, and create whole ecosystems from their daily efforts. Fruit and nut trees, including blackberries, raspberries, wild cherries, hickories, elderberry, sassafras, and mulberry are allowed to grow and cover the fences over time. The birds and animals do all of the “planting” of these gardens on their own, i.e. nothing is “planted” and they provide food for the community as well as enjoyment (Kline is a big birdwatcher, as I am). As farming becomes more and more industrialized, many of these fencerows are being removed and it’s a loss. According to Kline, one of our greatest “possessions” is our duty to preserve nature and its biodiversity, our ability to live together and sustain life. I agree.
In the last blog post, I mentioned the term vernacular gardens, which is something that I think demands further exploration. What are vernacular gardens, exactly? To quote Samantha Gibson, who wrote a wonderful essay I found online (she lives somewhere in northern England) called Local Distinctiveness and the Vernacular Garden, vernacular gardens include “not only the older rural gardens, but also the suburban gardens of the middle classes. For a welcome change, the large and gran-national and international influences will take a back seat. It is the turn of the more prosaic garden to come under the spotlight.” Well, that sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? And rather timely, I think. I especially like the phrase “the more prosaic garden.”
Well, isn’t it time we began re-thinking our garden influences anyway? The American lawn, as many of us know, gained popularity in the early twentieth century as primarily a status symbol, a way for regular, middle-class folks to feel as if they were wealthy land barons or something like that. With the help of the U.S. Golf Association, we now have a billion-dollar-a-year industry, the lawn-care industry, which also has proven to be a very large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (it is estimated that lawn care equipment alone consumes nearly 600 million gallons of gasoline a year). The large, manicured lawns of English estates and royal French palaces (i.e., the Gardens of Versailles, etc.), which had long been sold to the eager public through film and magazine exposure, finally made their way into most of middle-class life by the 1950′s. Suburban housing associations all but required their owners to plant lawns by adopting strict laws on weeds and proper turf height–one of the principle reasons why the grass lawn is so dominant a feature in American landscapes today.
But times are changing. American lawns are under attack and, indeed, have also been recognized as one of the largest usurpers of water resources in the American Southwest where drought conditions are a serious concern for local resources (estimated around 60% of total water usage in summer months). Lawn equipment and lawn maintenance in general also contributes to no small extent towards urban noise, pollution, fertilizer runoff, and poor soil conditions if mowed grass is bagged and carted off the property. It’s time for vernacular gardens to take center stage.
Not only are the English lawns and French tapis vert out of style and place in areas like Texas and the Southwestern U.S., but they are also out of touch with pioneering ideas of modern, sustainable garden design and practices. Plant biodiversity, increased interest in native and well-adapted specimens for the garden’s region and locality, permaculture, food webs and food forests, even conversion of on site resources (food, leaves, rainwater, etc.) into the landscape are all at odds with the garish, man-over-nature, private estate-gardens of the past. We are entering a new age and gardens–largely because of interest in local food production and recycling efforts–are at the frontier of how we will need to live our lives in the coming decades.
If we want to preserve life and resources for future generations, I think it’s high time we question everything we’ve come to take for granted in the American residential landscape and start looking for new sources of inspiration. No more beds and plants plastered up against the house. No more playscapes in every backyard. No more stark, lifeless front yards landscaped for show. Gibson’s article points out that there is a rich, simultaneous history of vernacular gardens, too (it might help to think of Howard Zinn’s The Real History of The Unites States as a comparison here). Her call to document these rural and middle-class gardens before they vanish is, I agree, an important and vital step towards change. And what makes the term vernacular garden so appealing right now is that it preserves a notion of locality and aesthetic in all of the politics of gardening, an element which is not talked about enough. If we want gardens to remain beautiful and character-driven–and I, for one, want them to–they will retain a sense of uniqueness and interest only if they adhere to the particular garden owner’s tastes and eccentricities, no matter their social or economic class. As Mark Twain said, “You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.”
Recently, I was asked what makes a landscape design unique? An honest question. After thinking about it for a few days, I realized it’s simple: a passionate story. Passion for the outdoors. Passion for plants. Passion for, well, gardening. While this may seem redundant (a landscape designer with a passion for plants?), it’s somewhat alarming to me how often landscape designers, architects, and landscape professionals I meet have little more than a casual and rudimentary interest in plants and botany in general, and specifically gardening. I’m talking about gardening as a hobby, an activity, a passion in their own lives. And it shows in the finished product, “spaces” (not gardens, notice) which often recycle the same dozen or so plants in the same, admittedly effective at times, groupings and combinations. Personally, I think that’s a cop out. It’s like going to a restaurant where the people aren’t into food. Way too easy and largely uninspiring results in the end. Great garden design, for me, begins with a love of plants, tailored to fit the interests and character of the garden’s keepers, as well as the history of the surrounding architecture and land. Landscape design that doesn’t reveal a passion for the plants they contain or bear the weight of the area’s rich botanical history (notice the story in history), whether personal or otherwise, are largely bankrupt. At the best, boring.
Of course, there is also a lot to like when you look around Austin. In Central Texas (and Austin, in particular), we are blessed with a rather large number of talented and highly-educated landscape designers and professionals. So I am not alone in my love for plants. I admit it. No, what truly makes my landscape designs unique, after thinking about it, I hope, has to do with my other passion: literature, especially poetry (I have an M.F.A. in Poetry from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop). I am enamored with the idea, for instance, that a garden possesses an inherent narrative, telling a story of the people who live there (or lived there) or the history of that particular place. A garden vernacular, I suppose. I also aim to create gardens that possess true character, illicit an emotional response to those who would sit still in them, even for a short period of time, and I want gardens to open up a new way of seeing the world we live in. Why shouldn’t gardens surprise, delight, and entertain us? Or allow us space to think, relax, or discover ourselves? Great gardens should burrow their way into the routine of our daily lives and, hopefully, shape those lives for the better.
All of this is what happens in the greatest gardens, just as it does when you are standing in front of a great painting or reading a great novel. And while this may all seem rather lofty to some, I wonder whether those in the business of garden-making wouldn’t benefit from having, at times, loftier and more far-reaching goals. Personally, I think we need more loftiness and, for my part, I plan to make a few people’s lives (maybe not everyone’s, but a few) all the richer.
A few months ago, we moved into a new Austin neighborhood called Southwood. As we got settled in and the summer heat began to die down, we started to get out and take occasional walks in the neighborhood in the evenings. We’ve met all kinds of nice people and their dogs and I’ve been noticing that many people are not replacing their lawns with more turf grass, but installing hardscapes in their front yards, mainly gravel or decomposed granite pads where the grass has died out. In some cases, it’s a perfectly divided strip separating the old lawn and the new landscaping, as if designating a state line or something. My interpretation is that there a growing number of people out there who have just given up on the American lawn and don’t see the point of spending any more money on grass that will likely die again next summer. Future gardens are on the way!
Somehow, I find this encouraging, even though not all of the attempts at landscaping are aesthetically pleasing. What’s encouraging is that people are obviously changing their attitude about the heat and drought of Texas, not to mention the rising costs of water bills and the labor involved in maintaining a manicured lawn. Still, there’s a lot of grass out there yet. I read recently that 30 million acres of American lawn exists in the United States, an area roughly the size of the state of Virginia. That’s incredible, especially considering the “traditional” lawn is basically a twentieth century invention. I won’t go into the details here, but there are a number of great books published on the subject, including “The Lawn: A History of An American Obsession”, “Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony”, “The American Lawn” (a nice collection of essays), and the more recent “American Green”, to name just a few.
I am also particularly fond of John Greenlee’s “The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn” and, most recently, Stephen Orr’s “Tomorrow’s Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening.” I recently had a chance to attend a lecture given by Stephen Orr and was impressed not only with his progressive ideas and photographic talents, but also with his casual style of communicating his ideas to the public, as if he were talking to a group of friends or acquaintances and not a roomful of strangers. I also greatly appreciated his humor and lightheartedness, even when talking about somewhat pressing and polemic matters, which is something noticeably lacking in the literary garden world in general, or so it seems to me. Whether we call it future gardens or tomorrow’s garden, it’s all the same.
Anyway, I am rambling. The neighborhood. Lawns. I guess I am just excited today about the possibilities of future gardens, and future communities, to come. The next few years, I think, will likely bring about great change in gardens in Texas and the Southwest. Much is happening. It’s a new way of seeing the spaces we inhabit, both shared and private spaces. I, for one, am glad to be involved…
The Texas lawn, my friends, is dead. Literally and figuratively. Just take a look around and witness the devastation. And unless you’re one of those who can spend thousands of dollars watering your lawn to keep it green and living (and there’s plenty who have, sigh), I think it’s high time the lot of us admit we must now take a different approach to sustainable landscape design in Texas. With water utility bills expected to rise 25% over the next five years, there’s no better time to think about removing your grass once and for all and embrace drought-tolerant Texas plants. Not only does Texas landscape design need to change, we need to change. So, before you gear up to replace your dead or half-dead lawn with east-coast St. Augustine or golf-course Zoysia this fall or spring, think about investing your money in a long-term solution that will last and really make an impact on our future.
Of course, eliminating turfgrass and other water-dependent, non-native plants in Texas landscape design is not new. The City of Austin has been offering landscape rebates to Austin residents for many years to do just this–remove grass and switch to drought-tolerant trees and shrubs. Not only will this type of landscape, called xeriscape or xeriscaping by some, save you money, resources, and time, you will be on your way to updating your landscaping into the twenty-first century. Having a traditional “lawn”, at least in the hot South, is no longer in style. Frankly, it depresses me, like the time I saw an Arctic Wolf panting and pacing back and forth at a small private zoo on the way to San Antonio. Let’s get with the program. Grass is for English gardens, or Yankee gardens. We live in a desert.
If you don’t believe me, read on. This summer has been a summer of record temperatures in Austin, TX. As of the writing of this blog post, Austin has had 74 consecutive days (and counting) of 100+ degree temperatures, surpassing the previous records of 69 (1925), 68 (2009), 66 (1923), and 50 (2008) sometime last week. Also, please note that three of the last four years (2008, 2009, and 2011) have been record-breaking years in this 100+ degree category. To add insult to injury, yesterday Austin set another record, reaching a whopping 112 degrees at Camp Mabry and 110 degrees at the Austin Bergstrom Airport. That is not only a record high for yesterday, August 28, but also (2) a new Austin high for any day ever in the month of August and (3) a tie for the all-time highest temperature ever at Austin’s Camp Mabry. At the Airport, it is the second all-time highest temperature on record.
And whether you believe that climate change is a product of man-made greenhouse gas emissions or, like our anti-scientific governor, you think it has all been manipulated by greedy scientists to put money in the pockets of green industries, the facts are here to stay. We are getting hotter. And the resources needed to keep traditional landscapes in Austin are either diminishing or becoming more costly to sustain. Next week (September 6), Austin will go into Stage 2 Water Restrictions, which is a mandatory set of water restriction for the private and commercial use of sprinkler systems (only on certain days) and outdoor fountains (must be turned off), among other things. The restrictions even prohibit restaurants from plopping down glasses of water in front of their customers unless they specifically ask for it. Glass of water, er, anyone?
The first thing all of us should do is change our viewpoint. No more yards. Or much smaller ones. For those who are new or hesitant to the idea of hiring a garden designer to plan out your landscape, you might want to reconsider. It might just be the smartest thing you ever did. A good Texas landscape design should reflect the area in which we live and bear in mind Texas resources. Good landscape design, in Texas or anywhere else, should also think about your unique needs and tastes, as well as your level of involvement in maintaining the gardens they create–i.e., they make you home a home, a place you want to come home to. Almost always, good garden design improves the value of your home, even during a recession. Imagine how much you could save on your monthly utility bill alone. Detailed plans can always be implemented in stages that align with your budget (everyone’s budget varies) and can help you avoid making costly mistakes that may have to be undone in the future. Removing an established tree in a location where you now want a patio or deck to be installed, for example, can easily cost 2-3 times what a complete design can cost.
Probably the best thing that will come out of having your yard professionally redesigned with no (or little) grass, is a sense that you are not fighting the world, the heat, and your utility company. You will have more time and energy to do what it is you like to do, which is the whole point, right?
One of the interesting things I’ve learned working at the downtown Austin farmer’s market is just how far we have yet to go to change our planet. If I were to take random soil samples from people’s homes around Austin, as I have, and send them off to the Texas Soil Labs, as I have, the first thing they will tell you on the top of their lab report is: “Lacking in humus.” Microbes, of course, are the only answer to this. Compost. In my opinion, soil labs should be even more direct and say, “Lacking in microbes,” but that is another point. The two are one and the same. This post, I am going to review two modern compost systems that hope to not only convert your food scraps and yard waste into compost, but also help create humus in your soil and help you not waste valuable water this summer.
Earlier this year, I started volunteering on Saturdays at the downtown farmer’s market in Austin. I was helping out a friend of mine, Patrick Van Haren, who co-owns Microbial Earth Farms in Austin, TX with his partner, Allan Dyer. Microbial Earth started in 2008 as a non-profit organization, an environmental pioneer really, that uses living organisms (microbes, earthworms, mycorrhiza) to improve Texas soils. They sell a variety of high-end soil amendments (humified compost, compost tea extract, earthworm cocoons, mycorrhizal inoculant), but their runaway best seller is a small, indoor compost container, called a bokashi bin, that converts food scraps (including meat, dairy, and small bones!) into compost by fermenting the food safely indoors with no foul odors.
That’s right, no smell. The key is fermented rice hulls and added microbes (which prevent the food from rotting), both of which come packaged together in a small bag of dry bran, called bokashi bran ($10/bag), that you coat onto the food scraps as you put them in the bin. Patrick didn’t invent microbes, of course, or the bokashi bin (this method of composting originated in Japan about 200 years ago and the name bokashi simply means “fermented food” in Japanese), but he is passionate about microbes and their benefits. Indeed, one doesn’t have to look very far to understand the importance of microbes to heal the Earth. After all, it’s what is naturally helping break down 205.8 million gallons of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, and it does the same thing to your food scraps and yard trimmings in your compost pile, if you have one, which you should.
Microbes, you see, are the only organism that produces humus. Possibly the most misunderstood element of healthy soil composition, humus is the broken-down organic matter in soil that retains moisture, increases nutrient absorption to plants without the danger of leaching away nutrients by rain or irrigation, and is the basis of all soil structure. Indeed, humus can hold the equivalent of 80–90% of its weight in moisture, and therefore increases the soil’s capacity to withstand drought conditions. Humus is visibly different than compost in that humus has a dark, rich color and its particles are small and uniform in size. Real humus, or humified compost, does not have any of the larger “pieces” of organic material you see in many bagged composts on the market today, which is really raw material (bark, wood chips, etc.) that is still actively decomposing and hasn’t fully broken down yet. Humus, on the other hand, is stable and is defined by the fact that it cannot be broken down further. Humus will also remain much longer in your soil—in some cases, millennia—so you don’t need to apply it every year as people do with compost. If you want to apply humus to your yard or garden, try top-dressing your yard with Microbial Earth’s Humified Compost. Humus mixed with colloidal clay, each bag contains over 16 times the industry average of microbes. It will make an amazing difference.
I am not and will never be one of those people who get all up in people’s business when it comes to composting or recycling, but I do take the opportunity to speak to a lot of curious people who happen to wander into the Microbial Earth booth and give them advice and information about sustainability and doing one’s part, whether they ask for it or not. What I’ve learned is sometimes shocking. Over the course of one recent Saturday morning alone, I discovered three households in Austin who were collecting food scraps on their kitchen counter and then, when their scrap container was full, emptying their “collected” food into the trash. Incredulous, I asked them why they were collecting the food on the counter in the first place. It was a genuine question. Why didn’t they just throw the food out to begin with? One person looked at me as if I was crazy, as if I was some kind of enemy to children and good clean living.
So, just to make the point clear: after you collect your kitchen scraps on your counter, you have to compost them. You’re not doing anything beneficial for the planet (or your garden, for that matter) if you don’t follow through and actually compost them. Which brings me to another point: most of us don’t compost correctly. Why? Because composting correctly (traditional composting, that is) requires work, and many of us don’t like to admit it, but we don’t have the time or the energy to do this sort of work regularly, especially when temperatures are over 100 degrees daily, as they have been most of this past summer. A lot of compost piles I’ve seen—I’d say over 90% of them—are refuse piles. They attract unwanted bugs, rodents and animals because the food is allowed to rot slowly instead of composting with heat, which requires oxygen (turning), moisture (watering), and the proper ratio of green to brown matter (adding leaves, grass clippings, etc.). As you can see by my parantheses, all of this requires labor, which is why so often these compost systems fail and are soon discarded.
This is where the new, non-traditional composting systems are gaining ground. Microbial Earth’s bokashi bin (starter kit, $75), available at Austin farmer’s market and from their website (www.microbialearth.com) is one answer, especially for people living in apartments and small spaces. I am also impressed with the Aerobin 400 ($349.99), a larger self-contained composter developed in Australia (www.aerobin400.com) and available in Austin at—believe it or not—Costco. Both of these systems require very little work (no turning), can produce a beneficial nutrient tea for plants in the garden (a benefit of modern composters), and can produce high-quality spreadable compost in a short period of time. As a vegetable gardener, I am impressed with the results of the bokashi bin’s nutrient tea. Every 1-2 days, the bin produces a powerful, nutrient-rich tea (around 30-35% of the nutrient value of the food scraps in the bin) I dilute with water and use to fertilize my plants. And the best part: the tea is free, extracted directly from the high-quality food I am already buying or growing in my yard. It’s the best form of recycling.
I don’t have an Aerobin 400, but I keep hearing good things from people who have one. My guess is that the Aerobin is possibly, for some, easier to use (no bran needed). It also seems to require less work: in the bokashi system, you will eventually have to bury the fermented food into the ground (or put it in another compost system) to finish the composting process; in the Aerobin, finished compost eventually falls to the bottom and is shoveled out. Perhaps the deciding factor will be about cost and perhaps the quality of compost either system produces (as well as the tea). The Aerobin compost and tea will undoubtedly be less populated with microbes than the bokashi bin (bokashi bran, remember, introduces additional microbes); therefore, the Aerobin’s compost will be less beneficial to you garden. Still, it’s compost. And the ease makes it a nice option. Avid gardeners, however, may want to look into Microbial Earth’s bokashi bin, as I did, and marvel at the results. Either way, you will be happy you did something and your yard and the planet will be better off for your efforts.
I finally broke down and purchased two garden apps for my iPhone: Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder (Timber Press, Inc.) and Landscaper’s Companion – A Reference Guide for Gardeners (Stevenson Software, LLC). My purpose was twofold: to acquire a tool to send photos of plants quickly and to store a visual library of plants for future reference. Both garden apps advertised they were able to do this.
Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder is based on Michael A. Dirr’s classic work, The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. I have to admit I do not own this book (and there’s a new edition available soon!). If I did, I probably could have saved $14.99. It didn’t take me long to find out the vast majority of these plants are for climates other than Texas. For example, there are 17 entries for Willows (Salix), 18 Birches (Betula), and 12 Fir Trees (Abies). All of these (except for possibly the River Birch) are impossible to grow in Texas, and there are many, many more. Great if you live in the NW, I guess, but not here. Less than 2% of these plants can be grown in Austin. My loss.
Still, the app sports a user-friendly layout, which is nice. I like how it mimics the Contacts app that comes in your iPhone: you have the alphabet running down the right side for quick reference and a search bar at the top. I wish the “email” and “add to favorites” buttons were at the top of the screen. Instead, I have to scroll down to the bottom of each plant page to do this, which is frankly a pain.
The first two trees I tagged as favorites were Sophora secundiflora (apparently renamed Calia secundiflora) and Taxodium distichum, two common plants of Central Texas. It took me a bit of time to realize there is a “Photos” button on the top of the screen that displays additional photos of the plant in question (and very nice ones, too). I’m not sure why they didn’t just make a scroll button next to the initial plant photo on the first page (like they do in the Photo screen), but hey, that’s just me. I give two thumbs up to the way they have distinct photos for “habit” , “leaf”, “flower”, “bark”, “gall”, and “fall color”, among others. Informative and useful. Thanks. Let’s hope Timber Press make some garden apps for Texas…
The second of the garden apps on trial, Landscaper’s Companion – A Reference Guide for Gardeners, had a much broader selection of plants, including “Annuals”, “Perennials”, “Grasses”, “Herbs” and “Cacti Succulents”. In all, there are 16 categories, nicely laid out. The “Roses” and “Cacti Succulents” categories, however, are seriously underrepresented. I am a collector of Crassula, for example, and though there are over 200 species in the Genus, there is only one species, a hybrid (Crassula capitella ‘Campfire’), featured in the app.
Like Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder, you can also email photos and information separately here. The photos themselves are credited to the photographer, which makes me think that people can submit photos of plant specimens to be included in the app library, which I like (think Foodspotting). But I wonder where the limit is. One search yielded over 15 photos of the same plant!
I sort of like the scrollable “Pictures” feature, but don’t really see myself randomly browsing through all 7723 photographs anytime soon. I did four or five and got bored. Nice try. My real complaint is the “Save to Album” button, which I still haven’t figured out. Where are the albums? When I click on the “Favorites” tab, there is nothing. Nothing. Perhaps this will be remedied soon, or I’ll figure it out. In general, I’m a bit dissatisfied with both garden apps and hope they will make multiple apps that either focus on regions or specific plants instead of trying to do it all. This is also true, of course, for garden books. Maybe I’ll just have to create my own garden app, but don’t hold your breath.
Instead of sending a vase of cut flowers, I decided this year to buy my mom a gift certificate to a garden center for Mother’s Day. It seemed more sustainable, to use a buzz word, not to mention fun. This way, I reasoned, she would get to pick out the coleus she wants for her container garden, which is the fun part of it anyway, at least the way I see it. Not that I don’t enjoy being in the dirt and wrestling with large stones and grappling pernicious deep-rooted weeds, but designing and selecting plant specimens for the garden appeals to my creative and imaginative impulses. It’s why I’ve chosen the two careers (writing and garden design) that I have, after all. I also wanted to invent board games (and may still some day, but that’s another story), work in a French patisserie, and become a paludier, but I’ve learned to narrow my passions over the years, for good or bad.
Finding the best garden center proved to be tricky. I live in Austin, TX and my mom lives in Florida so I had to research online to find a good nursery near her home. In the end, I chose one called Yard Stop, which I liked for the simplicity of its name. They had no website, so I spent a good half hour checking various user review sites (Yelp, Yahoo) to find out a little more. There were a number of bad reviews posted, but this is Florida, folks, and you have to take these things with a grain of salt. People are cheap when it comes to plants and most of the “bad” reviews were people complaining, for instance, that Yard Stop did not guarantee their plants for a whole calendar year (like Home Depot or Lowe’s) and that they did not give free landscape design services. Really? Good for them, I think. Sounds like they know what their plants and services are worth.
Anyway, my mom loves coleus. All kinds. And there are many to choose from these days. Some are sun coleus and some are shade coleus and it’s important to know the difference. When I was a buyer for Gardens in Austin, I became intimately familiar with almost 100 coleus varieties. We even grew many of them ourselves, insuring we had a steady supply when local growers ran out. Though the website Coleus Finder lists a whopping 1433 varieties by name, we found only about 50-60 were available locally and many of those for only a week or two. You have to act fast. I liked the simple, solid-color large round-leaved varieties best (I feel the same way about caladiums) because of the way the simple blocks of color look when contrasted among other nearby plants (varieties with veins of two or three colors or fancy, frilled edges tended to clash and appear too busy for my eye, though there are a few I love, like ‘Henna’). I also tended not to mix different coleus in the same pot for the same reasons mentioned above. My favorites were: ‘Dark Chocolate’, ‘Limelight’, ‘Molten Orange’, ‘Red Head’ and ‘Chocolate Mint‘. New cultivars become available all the time and the names are increasingly imaginative, if not bizarre: ‘Dipped in Wine’, ‘Banchee Holiday’, ‘Batique Fetish’, ‘Massacre’ and my all-time favorite coleus name, ‘September Divorce’.
My mom, of course, can get whatever coleus she wants and plant them anyway she wants. It’s her garden, after all. Happy Mother’s Day.