Designing the 21st century garden

Ecologically informed, authentic, and local.

Photo by Susan Safford

In a community such as Martha’s Vineyard, where gardening and natural preservation standards are high, each gardener and every garden benefits from natural plantings unique to the location.

The town of West Tisbury, known as the Athens of Martha’s Vineyard, has expended a great deal of care on its library project. The naturalistic plantings there exemplify that care, and are a beautiful public asset, thanks to all involved in the project. Laura Coit, wearing two hats as the library’s head of circulation and the plantings’ designer, chose plants to match the site: open, sunny, low maintenance, and heat tolerant.

Billowy switchgrass, mountain mint, echinacea, heliopsis, aster, amsonia, beetlebung, bayberry, and physocarpus form the backbone of this garden. It could be called “prairie in a parking lot,” as the movement and airiness of the plants is indeed what an Easterner thinks of as prairie. Additional plants include lavender, baptisia, liatris, beach plum, and butterfly weed. They demand little while performing to the colorful utmost in this highly visible location.

Almost every bit of the Vineyard’s 100 or so square miles is prized and valuable, too valuable to misuse or abuse with out-of-the box, bad landscaping practices. Enabled by drop-in landscaping, constant irrigation, and chemical fertilization, the could-be-anywhere garden designs that look as if they are straight out of a catalog are very 20th century and outdated.

Much of the current paradigm we live within cannot endure, or we ourselves will cease to endure. We must, in gardens, create an era with a new set of design touchstones: strong desires for the ecologically informed, authentic, and local. Although every garden is to an extent artificial, having been planted, not found, authenticity is a sought-after quality. It implies that the garden has been achieved by paying attention to where it has been placed and what generated it. It is creating, by human hands, what is suited to live and grow successfully in that exact place with a minimum of inputs and aftercare.

Which is neither to despise traditional gardens, nor to make their owners feel bad. Nor is it to impose a “plant Nazi” attitude regarding non-native versus native plant material. It is about each one of us opening our eyes and appreciating where we are, rather than pining for an “Italianate,” “Californian,” or “English” garden, for example, when we are coastal southeastern Massachusetts, one of the best, most beautiful places on Earth.

Although “permaculture” does not mean “native,” the two ideas easily complement each other. Implementing the 12 permaculture principles (generally credited to Dave Holmgren; see Wikipedia: has helped many designers of “native” landscapes and, although phrased in somewhat abstract terms, these are actually ways to guide the gardener and designer to achieve something practical and easy to maintain on the ground.

A simplified permaculture overview might consist of the following concepts:

  • Copy the forest, tree canopy descending to smaller trees, then to shrubs and bushes, with smaller shade plants and groundcover beneath the canopy.
  • Use groupings and associations, such as soil and pH preferences, shade or sun conditions, or drought resistance.
  • Notice micro-areas (microclimates and niches) in your garden, and use to advantage: full sun, shady spots, stony areas, moist areas where rainwater drains.
  • Use the widest possible variety of plants to enhance diversity; for example, allowing a portion of lawn to revert to pollinator-friendly meadow, simply by mowing only once or twice annually.
  • Plan your area in zones based on use and accessibility; for example, plant your herb garden and greens in the areas easiest to access, such as along a walk near your kitchen.
  • Access: design features, such as changes in level or gateways, should allow accessibility for young and old people, wheelbarrows, lawn furniture, etc.

Inspiration for creating naturalistic Island gardens may be found in source books such as “The Living Landscape,” Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy; “The American Woodland Garden,” Rick Darke; “Bringing Nature Home,” Doug Tallamy; “Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants,” W. Colston Burrell.

Varied habitats

The Vineyard encompasses many different habitats, to be left intact, it is hoped (albeit enhanced), when previously undeveloped land is built upon. The Vineyard has hardwood and coniferous woodland, scrub oak ecosystem, exposed sites and sheltered sites, seashore, inland, sandplain, moraine, outwash plain, old pasture, wetland, in-town — this is not Nantucket, which we think of as all moors! — and each of these may be treated in ways to reinforce its innate charm and uniqueness.

There are many lists and compendiums of native plants for reference. The Polly Hill Arboretum’s Plant Selection Guide’s ( filters help users select for Island site and landscape qualities. However, it is preferable to census, augment, and edit what is already on your land, than to expend the time and money establishing bought-in nursery stock after a clear-cut.

“Form ever follows function” is a motivating, inspirational quote from Louis Sullivan, the early 20th century American architect. This eliminates the fussiness that is often the hallmark of poorly designed projects. A further guidance for our homes, gardens, and landscapes today is that they should be created and maintained using natural and local materials as much as possible, and that practical functionality and pleasing aesthetics are inseparable.

In the garden

Deadhead lavender and cut back nepeta, which have grayed out despite the lack of rain. In the case of lavender, care may be exercised and each stem cut back to a node, or whole handfuls may be grabbed and heartlessly cut in one fell swoop. Either way, the plants should begin to look better within a day or two.

Same applies to nepeta — many forms of this indispensable perennial have billowing growth that overwhelms neighboring plants and looks like an undifferentiated mass. Cut the plants back, and soon they flush with new growth and lavender-blue flowers.