Saturday, February 13, 2016

Here Comes Everything

Wow, what a week! I'm so glad I stopped being a part time college teacher (dead end job, but always wonderful students) and decided to go full time into garden design and speaking! Terrifying, liberating, hopeful, purpose-driven faith. This week:

1) Confirmed a talk in Indianapolis for October.

2) Spoke with a local organization about doing native plant pollinator talks and short videos for them.

3) A Houzz article on small garden design hit 46,000 reads.

4) Fielding several garden design clients and started a project.

5) Invited to contribute to an anthology.

6) Helping start a local ecotype advocacy group in Nebraska for seeds and plants.

7) At Monarch Gardens I made live pre-planned garden designs to help folks get started with a native plant bed for any of 6 site conditions. If you get my newsletter you also got a discount code for those (as well as for the online classes).

8) Excited to see the Heartland Native Plant Summit happening at Lauritzen Gardens this fall.

Prairie up, people!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Into the Prairie Echo

Spending a small amount of time with my 85,000 word Oklahoma memoir, a draft that's been silent on my computer for three years now. I come across two excerpts that resonate today:

A bison bull is standing 30 feet from the car. Straight on, it looks narrow though quite tall. The perspective changes when he slides to his right and gives us the long, full angle of his body shedding the winter coat. A massive hump of muscle on his back supports his equally massive head as it sways back and forth over grass, dipping into the sinew of blades and blooms like a wobbly pumpjack. I’ve never been this close to a bison. I’ve read enough stories to know to stay in the car – a mature bull can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, more than half this sedan.

I’m snapping a photo every five seconds in a gap between the A-pillar and my wife, who is leaning all the way back in the passenger seat while she balances her camera out the window. I’d seen a herd in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, but that was at a distance of a half mile. I want to reach out and touch this bull’s crown, which is like a mane right behind his horns – it’s as fluffy looking as a shag rug. Occasionally I can see his eyes, big and dark, but dwarfed by his forehead. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me, or just coming up for visual air. I can hear him eating. I can hear him eating.


There’s an emptiness in the Plains. It’s not a literal emptiness because it is our absence which is most present. And yet our existence has redefined the absence: you can get lost in a corn field, lay down in the wheat and just vanish—no one will ever find you.

It’s a dangerous thing being lost to the horizon. Walking any open field we are both compass point and sun dial, searching for home in the time allotted us on this earth. At most we will discover that while alive we’re as ethereal as a memory. Cross paths with a mountain lion or sandhill crane or butterfly or prairie dog and we will know the silence we carry inside, the silence we insist upon field after field. There’s nothing here because we made it so. Our absence is present in the rows stretching to infinity off the highways and county roads.

But stop. A dung beetle is moving from shadow to shadow underneath the sunflowers, pushing its brown marble over pebbles, past cracks, and through thick brush. When I was a kid I’d sit near an ant hill—the inverse funnel pushing out ants like a great heart pumping blood. Each body scatters in every direction, following the marked trails out beyond the center of their lives. Can you imagine being an ant or a dung beetle? Can you imagine? You have never been anything else, following the narrow path laid out for you, but pushing your burdens before you like they were the only treasure you’d ever had. When we enter the earth from another perspective we become our truest selves—we give up the right to take away other lives and enter into an unwritten contract that we signed at our births. We are here, made of the same stuff as everything else. We are here for only a moment, too, already absent in our presence until we go mad with the terror of our short lives and break the contract. The only way to rewrite ourselves is to walk the horizon, with seed in hand, until the prairie comes back.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Natural Mainipulation and Garden Design

The below is taken from a ruminative essay on the term "natural resources," which has so many sinister and unhealthy connotations full of exploitation and navel gazing. But in this snippet I see how we should approach garden design:

"It is how we represent, and thus come to know, the things we manipulate, that influences the nature of our acts. Do we take from nature with respect and with love in our hearts? Or do we do it with a self-interested utility, that is over-intellectualized by economics, resulting in the bastardization of our evolutionarily functional greed? I believe that if we come to understand these subjects as treasures, our processes are more apt to be respectful and loving, leading us on a decision-making path toward understanding the other subject on its terms, rather than only on our terms, or exclusively in human terms."

Read the full piece "Pro-Aesthetic Language" here. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Stop Trying to Change Your Soil

Tell me when to stop -- in order to have a successful garden we must have highly-amended soil. That soil should be a rich, puffy loam that smells like a damp woodland. Such soil will need regular amounts of fertilizer, and it wouldn't hurt to water it every two days. Additionally, a constant layer of wood mulch will not only add more organic matter and help plants grow, but it will help the garden be more aesthetically pleasing.

Mulch for landscapes was created as a byproduct of the timber industry, a way for them to make more money selling the scraps they had no consumer for. We go to nurseries and big box stores buying bags of mulch, and then bags of topsoil; who knows where that topsoil is from, how it was gathered (destructively is my bet), or how it's going to help / hinder the soil life you have now in your landscape. The best mulch I know of is living, breathing, pollinator-producing green plants structured in such a way as to mimic natural ecosystems in nearby wilder areas.

If you have clay soil I want you to fall in love with it. I want you to stop working against it, seeing the stuff as imperfect. We already have enough problems perceiving the natural world as imperfect, needing to be "improved" upon; what happens when you work with what you have? What joy, peace, and centering purpose arises when you celebrate the miracle of clay soil and thickly-planted landscapes? What happens when you realize that large chunks of the planet have clay soil and, wouldn't you know, thriving ecosystems (including tons of plants) growing very well?

Clay soil is high in organic matter. Its structure helps it hold on to more nutrients and for longer periods, reducing the need for fertilizer and amendments. It's also great at sequestering carbon. Link here to read more on this miracle soil, and strategies to work harmoniously with it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Nature is Not a Garden. Or is it.

Why don't you read my latest Houzz piece:

"Nature is not a garden, but it’s too easy to see nature as something imperfect. When we can take a step back and see a fallen tree as beautiful and purposeful or appreciate an assassin bug enjoying its moth dinner, we can see that the world doesn’t seem to need us in it, and we can start to become a more humble and rewarding part of it. A garden can teach us how to interact with life and guide us into deeper self-discovery if we design with purpose, then let that design evolve with the species that come to call it home."

Link to the full article here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Our Century's Garden Legacy

It's been argued that we live in an age of novel ecosystems -- wild landscapes now so altered by humans that they no longer function as they once did. Climate change influences species life cycles, migrations, and food supplies. Plants escape cultivation and become invasive. Urban areas can’t support native plants and ecosystem function. Wildness now is something very different -- something we have created.

It's also been said our managed landscapes -- parks, roadsides, and gardens -- are wildlife refuges; places where a little could help a lot. But in reality, these spaces make up only a small percentage of what can help wildness thrive, and yet they are also the key places that can wake us to the larger changes we can make (agriculture, consumerism), helping us become intimate again with a faltering  natural world defined by human estrangement. 

Our gardens matter not because they can literally save species, but because they are a call to action. They are living testaments to our wonder and joy, our part of the larger world and the web of life. Gardens matter because they bring birds and butterflies closer to us, they help release endorphins that make us feel happy, maybe even spur empathy as we learn again to care selflessly for other species simply because it's the right or ethical thing to do. 

When we learn what our landscapes can do, how they can help directly for wildlife and as symbols for people -- when we learn how essential native plants are, how gardens can sequester carbon and filter water and serve as larval hosts -- then the choices we make after these revelations carry even more weight. Do we choose to garden for ourselves only, for our idea of beauty alone, or do we more fully -- more equally -- integrate a selfless gardening that creates mini ecosystems composed of essential native plants and designs that mimic the natural, wilder areas just beyond the garden fence? Or do we embrace our role as an indifferent species, bent on emotional and physical conquest that will undermine our health, happiness, and peace in the years to come. 

Does a large home need all that grass and boxwood parterres? Does that fit the local environment aesthetically and ecologically? What happens when we go against the grain of our home places, when we can't or won't accept the natural beauty and purpose of our immediate world? What happens to a species that sees landscapes as never quite right, never perfect enough, not entirely what we want? Does that species lose any right to be part of the larger world, does it lose its identity and potential to be something better?

Our gardens matter, and the way in which we create them, grow them, and rethink them matters on a level far more important than whether they simply function aesthetically. While we must always find a garden beautiful, and while it will always be a kind of artifice, the truth is the entire world is now a garden we have made. How we tend it, how we honor those species we've ignored, dishonored, and betrayed, will say much about who we are and who we will become. Our legacy won't be how pretty our gardens looked; our legacy will be how gardens and other managed spaces woke us to a revolution of belonging in this world, and a renaissance of ethical thinking that helped us evolve into our fullest potential as stewards of life and as gardeners of our own hearts.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Winter Beauty, Silence, & Purpose

I know lots of folks find winter unbearable -- a season of darkness and imprisonment. I find winter liberating, though. The garden is so tranquil, the smallest sound an echo piercing into the heart with more genuine resonance. The shadows and light take on greater profundity, too, and the way plants bend in the ice and snow, the sheltering birds, the sunrise moving up, over, and through the bare branches and stems still holding their autumn leaves defiantly.

Freezing fog a week ago

My American Elm died, but is still alive

There's so much to learn from winter in the landscape. Not just about biological processes and a celebration of aesthetic simplicity, but about ourselves, too. For me, winter is a great time of repose and purposeful thought, a regathering. I get some good writing done, interruptions are less. I don't feel like I'm missing so much outside that I can't concentrate on the inside -- my spirit, my soul, my restoration. This is what the winter garden teaches us -- that while there is apparent stillness and quiet, a whole world is gathering like a coiled spring, strengthening and learning from the past seasons. Coldness is a lesson not in endurance but understanding. Snow is as warm a blanket as hand-spun wool. A different kind of beauty wakes us to a deeper understanding of other types of beauty we associate with joy, happiness, and freedom. Give me my full measure of each season so that I might live more purposeful, understanding life from every angle, a seeker of a finite moment that if lived openly will humble and open me to the world.

Red chokeberry after a dusting of snow

Switchgrass and freezing fog

Sideoats grama and little bluestem in wet snow

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Closest I've Come to Prairie

Maybe the closest I’ve come to prairie is flying over the Plains, a field of clouds beneath, dark blue above, or on the mossy Irish coast looking west toward Iceland. I feel a gunshot hole in my chest, see its shadow on the ground in front of me, feel the air chill my insides, know I’m not just incomplete but desperate—absolutely desperate—to plug the absence. I think about tearing up my small front lawn, seeding with buffalo grass, placing clumps of little bluestem here and there like hiccups. But I don’t have the guts or the faith. 

There is something about dining on ashes that comforts me. Is it nostalgia for something I never knew? Is it solipsism or self pity? Is it just easier to romanticize what we don’t know and never experienced and create an image only, an interpretation whose personal experience makes the unknown seem more real? This is what impressionistic painters must feel—caught between an inner and outer world and unable to completely express the place in between where we live in fear and hope. I remember walking railroad tracks as a boy, balancing on one rail, the sharp rock between timbers, the faint sound of an invisible train coming fast from behind; this is what it’s like walking a corn field where prairie once was, and where it could be again.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Photos

I usually do a year-end retrospective of my favorite garden / travel photos -- something like 30 images. Well, I'm in the process of creating a new website for Monarch Gardens, complete with online classes and downloadable garden designs, so I don't have time. Instead, let's cheat -- here are my top 9 images from Instagram.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Native Plants & Equality

I read a lot these days how it's important to include native plants in gardens; especially how mixing them in with plants from around the world will help wildlife. Well, if that's the case, why wouldn't an 80% or 100% native plant composition be even better? But such a proposition seems threatening to lots of folks, and the reason may be this: gardens are often, maybe always at their core, spaces just for us. The most important aspect is that we find them beautiful. And while it is certainly important we find gardens pretty, there is no reason at all natives can't perform that task of prettification. 

It can be threatening (and overwhelming) to have to think beyond ourselves in making gardens, to include the larger consciousness of a place and all of the other lives that inhabit it -- especially because such an awareness opens us up to the realities of our destructiveness on oceans, prairie, wetlands, etc (though I will always argue that this awareness ultimately empowers us to do so much more good because we've tapped into our full compassion). While we champion equal rights and opportunity among ourselves, cry foul and get angry and ask each other to see through another's eyes, we deny the same rights to other organisms -- which diminishes our capacity to love, honor, and cherish one another. Plants are not human culture -- denying a hosta, daylilly, or feather reed grass in your garden does not make you extremist, racist, or anti equality. No, I'd argue the opposite, that including them, plants with minimal wildlife support and not evolved with wildlife or the region, are themselves exclusionary -- evidence that we value ourselves above all else as we erode the world around us... often in a quest to make the world prettier without truly understanding what pretty is beyond an immediate bloom, shape, or leaf color.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Prairie or Meadow?

On Facebook I asked what differentiates the two and got a ton of responses. I've always wondered -- just like what the difference is between the Midwest and the Great Plains (that's a whole separate can of worms, isn't it?). I give you the opinions of gardeners, land managers, prairie restoration folks, and horticulturalists from around the country -- what is the difference between prairie and meadow? Here are a few of the dozens of replies I received, although I'm not sure how much it clears up:

"I guess the way I think of it (not based on anything other than my interpretation) is that a meadow is a grassy area as an interruption of something else--a grassy area that is substantially different than what surrounds it. And a prairie... well that's just prairie all day long. A meadow is an anomaly; a prairie is dominant."

"Meadows seem like such peaceful places; bees hum while butterflies dance above delicate wildflowers and swaying grasses. So it’s surprising to learn meadows are created by natural calamities when droughts or floods wipe out trees and vegetation. Prairies differ from meadows in that they arise in areas that don’t favor the growth of trees; they’re created and in many cases still maintained by fire. Ancient meadows were originally formed by volcanic eruptions and glacial activity. In the wild, meadows eventually give way to the surrounding forests. Nowadays, modern meadows are more likely to develop on unused agricultural grounds."

"The difference between a prairie and a meadow? There is none."

Longwood's meadow garden (pre-opening 2014)
"I think of meadows as often having some link to agricultural use (especially haying) but they don't have to. I would put meadow between pasture and prairie on the continuum of cultivated to wild grasslands."

"I'd say you can cultivate a meadow just as you could cultivate a prairie. On the east coast, a meadow is generally regarded as any grass-dominated plant community that is created or perpetuated by disturbance. Meadows open up in forests on their own all the time."

"I'm not saying you can't cultivate either one. But typically (at least in the Great Plains (!) if a grassland has cattle or hay bales on it, it is not called a prairie (by most people). I don't know from mountains and forests. I imagine their experience with grasslands is so limited as to also limit their credibility in grassland nomenclature."

Spring Creek Prairie -- Denton, NE
"Well, the PNW has some native grassy meadows in various parts of our states but I don't think that we have what could be termed a Midwestern prairie. We can approximate such a thing but our climate is Mediterranean w/little to no summer water so our designed meadows or prairies will definitely not look like the Dutch wave ones, or like the Midwest."     

"I'd use "meadow" for a relatively moist, fairly restricted, or bounded area, perhaps with a different grass species mix than in a "prairie." I'd use "prairie" to refer to a drier area, more extensive, and with a somewhat different mix of grass species than a 'meadow.'" 

"Yes. Meadows do have a more restricted scale than prairies. Good clarifications. Alpine meadows, for example, or wet meadows in the Sandhills."

" A prairie is always semi-arid and usually denotes a natural landform. Meadow has a more general meaning; it can be a grassy opening in a woodland, for example."

"Meadows are cultivated farmland. In the UK anyway."   

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Winter Gardens Are in the Details

Wouldn't you say? Winter is when the design comes forth in its raw, naked beauty. Purpose is the echo, the shadow, the negative space. Birds are among the seeds, diving in and out of cover. Everything is more alive, to my eye, than it ever was in summer.

Tall boneset
Rudbeckia, sideoats grama, buffalo grass
Baptisia australis
Coreopsis and Amsonia

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Objectifying Nature in Gardens

Objectifying nature, say with plants, limits our ability to respond ethically to environmental issues. When we choose a plant for our gardens just because its pretty or visually interesting, we are minimizing the role of nature to heal and adapt... we are minimizing our understanding of life, eroding ability for empathy, and privileging want over need, self over ecosystem. A garden ethic would imply we take into consideration something in addition to aesthetics -- beauty of purpose, fit, and function among other lives and concerns. Carbon sequestering, water filtering, soil building, pollinator feeding, habitat-giving beauty will make gardens gorgeous deep down to the roots; and it just might help us transcend our petty selves in landscapes otherwise made to alienate nature and make us feel superior to what we fear, and to what we don't understand. Can we be humble in our gardens, and understand or feel how uplifting, how empowering that is?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why I Design Native Plant Gardens

I don't design 100% native plant gardens because I'm trying to return Lincoln to tallgrass prairie (though that'd be fine); I understand we've murdered that ecosystem. I design 100% native plant gardens because the insects, and more, that evolved with the tallgrass prairie still exist and play a critical role in the current and future ecosystems that are developing in the wake of our ecocide. I design with native plants because it creates awareness for the prairies that are left (mixed and shortgrass), their benefit in carbon sequestration, topsoil retention, and water filtration. I design with native plants because it helps us look at ourselves, our place as gardeners that remake the world for our idea of beauty and utility, and how just relying on our sense of what pretty is can be short-sighted and unethical. I design with native plants because so many of them can help urban soil remediation. I design with native plants because they already, in part, work together from an aesthetic point of view (though we can and should push the artistic limits of that built in natural aesthetic). I design with native plants because without them I would not care for Nebraska one bit. I design with native plants because my heart has broken, and I know no other way to mend it. I sing the grassland. I shout the prairie dog and fringed orchid.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Difficult Eco Realities are Empowering & Liberating

If talking about climate change and extinction depresses you, it's partly the realization that you feel powerless and also realize you might be complicit. But facing that reality is empowering; because we are the cause we are also the solution. If the actions I take every day cause so much harm, then my actions can also cause so much benefit. That's awesome! That's liberating for me and the species around me who I influence. While we all struggle with the pain, sorrow, and fear associated with seemingly insurmountable problems like climate change and extinction, it is the touch, sound, and call of wildness that binds us -- it is a love for health and caring and selflessness that reaches out beyond our inward reflections. Be free. Be empowered. Face the world in every moment and fall into life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

First Snow

For as far back as I can remember an impending snowstorm has excited me to no end. I'd watch (and still do) the weather forecasts every hour, counting down the minutes to the squall line as if it was Christmas morning. Although we only had 1" or so, it's still gorgeous, and makes me feel warm; snow is a great insulator, after all, and just look at what magic it does in the garden:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Winter Gardening is Sublime

A few images to wet your whistle. I tell you what, summer gardens don't hold a candle to the magic of winter -- 5 months of shadow and light, profound silence and absence, negative space, rest and rejuvenation, gathering purpose, habitat for wildlife. And since prairie plants lose up to 1/3 of their roots each year, lots of soil amending is going on. Wow.

The main garden

Smooth aster still showing off

Accidental designing is the best

Joe pye weed dressed to the nines

Birds deserve some art, too, with this feeder

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Refugees Aplenty on Earth

The lesser prairie chicken is a refugee. Black-footed ferrets. Salt Creek tiger beetles. Prairie fringed orchids. Literally hundreds of species, flora and fauna, from the former prairies are homeless and vanishing. The tallgrass prairie is the most endangered ecosystem on the planet, once filled with great diversity that made central North America rich in abundance, health, and resilience -- a culture of uniqueness that thrived on interactions of give and take, niches of refuge and hope. There is a world of refugees out there, the vast majority not human, and yet all connected to the same root violence, fear, and distrust we force upon them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Looking for Land

This 80 acres of soybean / corn rotation is looking to be a prairie, nursery, and arts residency. Wouldn't it look fabulous in bluestem and monarda?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Talking in North Chicago 11/14

If you've been dying to hear my ideas about garden ethics, then November 14 in Grayslake, IL is your chance. The same topic will also be shared come March in Pueblo, CO. Only at my talks will you have the opportunity to buy the below 40 page booklet -- a collection of blog posts, articles, and short essays.

You'll need to register for the 11/14 talk, where many others will be speaking on such topics as Leopold's land ethic, native plants and pollinator relationships, prairie restoration, identifying invasives, and a ton more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Front, Back, Old, New Gardens

 I sure love fall -- it's gorgeous and I get most of my gardening done in October.

The front yard, de-lawned garden coming in. Should be ready next year.
The 2007 garden evolving and morphing.

Working in a presentation, remembering my first "garden."

Tripling the back prairie garden with seeds, divisions, & seedlings.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Consciousness & Empathy

Humans are not the only form of consciousness on this planet. There are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands that have some level of scientifically documented self awareness and empathy for others -- from elephants to birds to plants. What happens when we join these species in awareness and empathy? I suspect our corn fields and business parks would look much different, our feed lots, our shelters for the abused and neglected, our systems of welfare, our gardens and our roadways.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Here Come the Leaves, and the Light

Every day brings different color, texture, and light. This is the most exciting time in the garden! I wish every day was an autumn day.


Joe pye weed

Our American elm died this year. Gorgeous.
Agastache foeniculum
Senna hebecarpa
Looking up through joe pye and ironweed
Verbena hastata
Wild senna and indian grass
Wild senna, Senna hebecarpa

Smooth aster

Sumac all fuzzy
Sumac and tall coreopsis
New England aster