Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Designing With Native Plants

Susan Abraham of Lush Life Landscapes

For this month’s GDRT, I had the the pleasure of interviewing Susan Abraham, instructor of Landscape Design at GWU, and founder of Lush Life Landscapes, a garden design firm based in Northern Virginia that is devoted to native plants and “ecological artistry.”  I love that term!  I also love her website, which does a better job of presenting a philosophy of sustainable garden design than any other other design site I’ve seen.  It’s eloquent, informative, positive, and totally avoids the kind of preachiness that is all too evident in the world of green design.  Enjoy getting to know Susan! 

MG: Where do you think your interest in ecological garden design originated?  Did you have a different career prior to becoming a landscape designer?

SA: My interest in ecological garden design originated in Southern California as I tended my garden.  Water shortages began in earnest in the region, and I noticed information available at local nurseries about xeriscaping using Mediterranean plants suitable to the local climate.  This piqued my interest in the variety of native plants thriving in open areas, and led to an interest in historic techniques used to capture, store and use rainfall in irrigation.

I spent a good part of my earlier life as a studio artist, creating conceptual works of art.  During a rather extended creative ‘block’, a friend remarked that my art had moved into the garden.  This was a revelation to me, and a relief.  I soon began studying Landscape Design.

Lush Life Project in Arlington, VA

MG: Your website does a wonderful job of explaining your design philosophy and your ecological approach to creating gardens.  Do you find that the clients who seek you out already desire a sustainable garden filled with natives, or do you often find yourself educating them about ecological design and changing their minds during the design process?

SA: We have been fortunate at Lush Life to work with ‘sustainably sensitive’ clientele.  On the occasion when we do have clients with little experience or knowledge about sustainable issues, we introduce concepts as we work through the design process.

Our team’s philosophy does not include changing anyone’s mind, but simply letting best practices and excellent design structure lead the solutions we propose to our clients.

 MG: What proportion of native plants do you try to include in your planting designs?  In what circumstances do you consider using non-native plants?

SA: It really depends on the site.  If we are working on a 3-acre parcel, we can approach a 90-95% goal of native plants.  However, a townhouse lot presents a very different challenge in the use of native plants; if we can reach 80% species with 20% cultivars, I would call that a fairly successful planting.

We consider non-native plants if a client has an attachment to a specific plant and the species does not have invasive qualities.  Otherwise, we are confident we can find native plants that will satisfy the design goals.  One caveat would be the use of edibles in the garden, which are generally non-native, but satisfy other sustainable goals.

I am nuts about this front garden design by Susan’s firm. Gracious and naturalistic, with a pinch of modern. I want it.

MG: According to your website, you are not only committed to using native plants, but also locally grown plants that are already adapted to our soil, climate, etc.  Do you find that there is wide variety of species/cultivars available from local growers and nurseries that specialize in natives?  

SA: No, we definitely do not find a wide variety of species from local growers and nurseries, although cultivars are becoming more available locally in mainstream nurseries.

The few nurseries we have identified that grow locally collected ecotypes are few indeed, supplying material from the mid-Atlantic region, specifically mid-Pennsylvania, VA piedmont and coastal plain areas.  If we have the right client/project/site, we do purchase restoration quality plants from a local native plant nursery (earthsangha.org).  These plants almost always (over time) out-perform trade plants.

I am working with a group of like-minded folks on an initiative to bring together stakeholders in the native plant community to find growers to use restoration quality plants as their early stock for landscape quality plants for designers.  Specifically, this would guarantee local eco-types for the designer, give local landowners/farmers/growers a cash crop, and a source where native nurseries can send their excess stock in the fall.

Designed woodland path. Lovettsville, VA

MG: You also mention using native plant communities as inspiration for your designs.  Can you give an example of a native plant community that has inspired you? 

SA: I just returned from hiking in West Virginia’s Spruce Knob forests.  A particular delight is when the forest opens onto valley meadows.  Billowing American Crab Apples give structure to the waves of forbs and grasses living in these highland areas.

Right now the Joe Pye Weed, Common Milkweed and Bee Balm (where small rivulets are present) are spending their last blooms.  Asters, Goldenrods, Meadowsweet and Mistflower are showing color.  In the forests, I love watching how plants assemble themselves and try to be mindful of that when designing.  This weekend I saw the following together:

Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricata)
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia)
Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve var. laeve)

MG: In Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy suggests that the jury is still out when it comes to using native cultivars for wildlife purposes.  He mentioned that leaf chemistry is the most important factor in attracting the beneficial insects….and that a Forest Pansy Redbud, for example, may not attract these insects to the extent that the species does.  What are your thoughts about using native cultivars?

SA: We are cautious about using cultivars for exactly the reason Dr. Tallamy notes, and will continue to do so, dependent on future information he presents from his research.  I believe we need to be careful that we do not sell the public on a false solution based on aesthetics only.  That being said, we do find it helpful on occasion to use well-placed cultivars to help transition specific projects from completely non-native (aka ‘inert’) species to lively native species.  This is a strategy we may employ with clients who have low or non-existent consciousness about sustainable practices.

Dry creekbed. McLean, VA

MG: Do you think that gardeners’ and designers’ interest in native plants will ebb and flow, or do you believe there is a true paradigm shift occuring and that interest in native plants is here to stay?

SA: One important population of our clientele has been young mothers who want their children to experience nature in their own yards as opposed to having to buckle-up and drive to a designated nature spot.  These families are committed to establishing and preserving nature at home, which of course educates our future generations about the delight and importance of providing our wildlife cohorts with habitat.

It is always nice to be paid for work we love, and doubly so when that payment includes a message about the first butterfly, native bee, bird, nest or toad that finds its way to the garden and astonishes the youngest members of the family.  These are experiences that the children will carry all their lives, and it is these experiences that will continue to grow the interest in native plants.

MG: What are some of your favorite native plants and/or plant combinations for our area?  (Greater DC/Northern VA)

SA: For a large, sunny forest edge, I find this grouping beautiful:

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
Little Bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium)
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

A combination I admire (full sun) that gives a long season of play includes:

Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis)
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus dubius)
Goldenrod cultivar: Fireworks (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’)

I am looking for a project where I can use this simple combination:

Fothergilla major surrounded by a ‘hedge’ of Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum).

For a summer container, consider Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) surrounded by Sedums (several species are native, cultivars are also a good choice in a container).

Hope you enjoyed Susan Abraham’s perspective on native plants and ecological design.  Read more about Designing with Natives by visiting Garden Designer’s Roundtable, or by clicking on the links of these designers extraordinaire!

.

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Photo sources:

smooth sumac, little bluestem, eastern redcedar, wild blue indigo, indian grass, Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, fothergilla, St. John’s Wort,

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed the plant assemblages highlighted in this post. Thanks for the combination of both written word and photographic images.

  2. What an informative interview. Thanks! And now that I’ve seen the photo, I want that front garden, too.

  3. Inspiring, thank you.

  4. I appreciate this post. It seems I see more backlash against than advocates for native plants on garden blogs, especially Garden Rant and The Garden Professors (I like those blogs anyway). The front yard design in the first photo is great, though it’s remarkable how “conventional” it looks.

    • I like both of those blogs, too. I think that non-natives provide some ecological benefits that are often overlooked. Plus, I think that any “movement” (like the native plants movement) goes through a phase where there is a backlash…perhaps in the near future we will move into some sort of equilibrium state where natives are embraced, but not worshipped, and we will all stop arguing about it.

  5. Nice to hear Susan’s perspective! Now I want to do more interviews.

    • Thomas, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I have to say, the interview format is kind of nice because basically the post gets written FOR you by your interviewee. :o) I was fortunate that Susan articulated such thoughtful and eloquent responses.

      • She did. It certainly made me want to know Susan better, particularly that she’s in our program. Plus, it got me thinking about other great voices I’d love to highlight as well.

  6. Great information, Mary. So glad to get to know a bit about this company. Thanks.

    • Carolyn,
      Susan was actually one of my first teachers at GW, for an Intro to Design class. She is as talented a teacher as she is a designer. A very knowledgable and encouraging mentor…the perfect person to usher newbies into the world of garden design.

  7. Thank you for introducing me to this talented and thoughtful designer. Her site is indeed inspirational, not only filled with very helpful information but gorgeous photos to illustrate her points. Just lovely.

  8. Thanks for this; it is really useful. I love her comment on not selling “the public on a false solution based on aesthetics only.” (Also the little photo of the partridgeberry plant, which I have not seen since Girl Scout hikes.)

  9. Great interview and a thoughtful way to approach this month’s topic. Although I do not specialize in natives, I do emphasize best practices in sustainable design, and find myself in agreement with much of what Susan says (including how hard it is to find locally grown natives although that IS changing). My favorite quote: “Our team’s philosophy does not include changing anyone’s mind, but simply letting best practices and excellent design structure lead the solutions we propose to our clients.” Hear, hear!

  10. How interesting to hear about native plants in a lusher region like yours, where perhaps gardeners have been less motivated than those in drier climates (like mine) to embrace natives. It is so easy to find locally grown native plants here in Austin, but that’s obviously not the case everywhere. However, with people like Susan advocating for them, they’re bound to be used more and more.

    • I hope so, Pam! I’ve been inspired by Susan to become more vocal when I visit the nurseries about the lack of natives available. Especially the lack of straight species. I went to try to find some Clethra alnifolia at the nursery the other day but they only had fancy cultivars — not that those aren’t great, but lately I’ve been inspired to try more straight species and see what happens. Anyway, thanks for reading!

  11. This is a re-read for me, which means “exceptionally good blog post”! The thought of local ecotypes for a given species made available, plus good design with good plants (natives in your case), are so relevant.

    I like the internet freeing us from the tired, old-guard eye-candy of garden tv and magazines; it will certainly force the media to start thinking, and them to raise the bar…well, maybe. But we are all independent of them. More later, but thanks for the inspiration, possibilities, and examples of design with your plants!

    • David, I love being part of the garden blogging community for the very reason you mention: total freedom from the “old guard” garden media. I love the way you put that. Plus, it makes me feel like a big rebel :o)

  12. Love this post Mary! So nice to be introduced to someone who holds to her principles, and designs so beautifully. Your questions were excellent, covering the topical issues of using native plants, and gave us a little insight into you on this subject also.

    I spent quite a bit of time on her website, and enjoyed and was inspired by the visit.

    Thanks again!

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