Garden Notes : Attempting habitat-based design
Gardens built on habitat-based design are different sorts of places from those based on the concept of highly maintained, cultivated flower beds fronted by neatly edged, highly maintained green turf. Gardens that attempt, or exemplify, the principles set forth in "Plant Driven Design," (the book by Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden that I mentioned favorably a couple of columns ago) are likely to depart from the "gardenesque" stereotype. They head for a different destination, the plant guild of naturalized planting.
It might be assumed that a large area is required. Not so, even if most gardeners in their wilder dreams would like all garden spaces to be more generous than what they have. It includes developing a sense of inquiry that can be likened to a matching service: What would like to grow here, and what would like to grow with it? Assessing "what is" rather than "what can be made" by heroic measures (the classic clean-slate, earth-moving repertoire of the landscape designer) is a central element.
The photograph illustrates a hybrid xeriscape/ sandplain/rock garden planting, an artificial, created plant guild. It is on a hummocky area of old dune within the garden of an Island shore property. It is no more than perhaps 15 feet from side to side and seven feet from top to bottom. Pure sand, steep, not very stable, and in constant danger of mini-landslides, it could never support ordinary turf. It formerly contained a scruffy covering of sorrel with a few straggly little bluestem grasses and seaside goldenrod.
We first planted mugho pine, Pinus mugo, which seemed quite happy, and followed that with prostrate junipers, J. horizontalis 'Wiltonii' and 'Bar Harbor,' and J. squamata 'Blue Star.' It was a struggle to establish them. However, surplus nepeta plants needing a home easily established themselves in the perfect drainage, with a minimum of fuss. Persistent editing of the sorrel, difficult to do without disastrously disturbing the sand, allowed the seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) to expand and flourish. Four seasons back, we planted a 'Thunderhead' Japanese black pine (not visible) at the low edge of the dune as a focal specimen.
More recently, other colorful perennials have been added: Siberian iris, Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire,' Asclepias tuberosa (butterflyweed), and Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam.' The orange butterfly weed has been allowed to self-sow and last year we added a self-sowing annual, the electric pink Silene armeria, for a little garish fun.
Variegated acorus, M.V. Wildtype switch grass and little bluestem grass from Polly Hill Arboretum, and surplus lambs' ears (Stachys byzantina) from elsewhere in the garden have joined the mix, until now there is very little bare surface and it seems stabilized. It has been quite challenging at times, and was done over a period of a decade or more. It now takes care of itself quite well (not counting that bratty sorrel) and contains colorful contrasts throughout the year.