Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Entropy

“Just as the constant increase in entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy. “ – Vaclav Havel

I think this photo of my side yard illustrates Havel’s point pretty well:


After I smothered the turf from my side yard (on the right) and began planting a slightly messy mix of shrubs, perennials and groundcovers, my neighbor promptly planted a soldier-straight row of crape myrtles and Japanese holly, butted right up against my plantings. Between the hollies there is a layer of mulch about ten inches thick, which he refreshes and fluffs regularly.

Clearly, my neighbor is trying to impose a bit of order where he perceives chaos.  In my opinion, he is merely uptight and unimaginative, but Havel might claim that he is only being human in his “struggle against entropy.”

I guess this is what living in the suburbs is all about, right?

After all, the suburbs are populated with people engaged in an epic struggle to create and maintain order in their lives and landscapes.  We fled the dirt, crime, and general mayhem of the cities, and now here we are out in the idyllic ‘burbs, with our very own green space!  But alas, the earth –  even when it’s carved into plots, fenced, and gated — has its own agenda.  Left to their own devices, the weeds seed, the saplings establish, the vines crawl.

So for years we have mown and clipped our way back to a sense of order and well-being.

Except maybe not so much anymore.

Not everyone.

I think there is a small but growing minority whose preferred landscape aesthetic has shifted a little away from “order” and nudged toward “chaos.”

I think some people have realized that inviting a little chaos into their yards is not only good for the critters, but pleasing to the eye and nourishing for the soul.  Perhaps, now that we are a couple of generations removed from those ancestors who struggled against nature to survive, we now feel an emptiness where that struggle once existed.  And now, from a place of safety, we yearn to invite some of the wildness back in.

The question is, how much wildness to invite in, and how to manage it?  We are only human after all; we will not thrive if we have kudzu clogging up our dryer vents. But surely we can we can embrace a bit more looseness, a bit more variety, and yes, even entropy out here in Suburbia without everyone freaking out all over the place.

“Designing for Entropy” may sound a bit paradoxical but I am hoping that is the wave of the future for landscape designers.  How to design a landscape that allows for a little neglect without looking like the Clampetts?

We are still in the early phases of this transformation, but I do believe that more and more people are realizing how beautiful a little “chaos” can look.

I am sure that everyone who passes these two houses is struck by the difference:


I took a walk past these two houses yesterday.  The neighbor on the left was outside with his leafblower.  I could see the neighbor on the right through her big bay window.  She was eating a sandwich and looking outside, probably admiring the seedheads of her Miscanthus glowing in the afternoon sun.


For more on Design Principles, check out the following links from my fellow Roundtablers:

Garden Designers’ Roundtable

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

David Cristiani : It’s A Dry Heat : Albuquerque, NM

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

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Two Maintenance Ideas

"That a-hole designer said these would be low-maintenance."  (Nick Daley/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

“That a-hole designer said these would be low-maintenance.” (Nick Daley/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

True story: last week, while waiting to get a haircut, I flipped through a local home and garden magazine and stumbled upon an article about garden maintenance. Mostly I skimmed it, but then my eye caught a quote from a landscape designer based at a local nursery. He said, “If a landscape is designed right, there should be NO maintenance. None at all. That’s what a designer is for.”My jaw dropped. No maintenance at all! See, if you hire the right designer, you’ll never have to so much as pluck a leaf off of your zero-input lawn! Apparently this guy can even design it so all the leaves from your trees blow into your neighbor’s yard, too!

I almost wanted to stand up right there in the hair salon and be, “ya’ll won’t BELIEVE what I just read here in this magazine, ladies!” but they probably would’ve thought it was some juicy sex tip from Cosmo and been disappointed when it turned out to be faulty landscaping advice — shocking though it was!

I think most people who have laid eyes on plant life realize that a “no maintenance” landscape is fantasy, regardless of what some shifty designer tries to make them believe. But most ordinary people do want to believe in “low-maintenance.”

“Low-maintenance” is a slippery term, though. One person’s idea of “low” might be completely different from his neighbor’s. The type of maintenance matters, too. Landscapes that require such things as getting up on tall ladders (high hedges) or setting fires (meadows) might be considered problematic by some folks, even if the overall time requirement is lower.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that if you graphed all this out, with “Garden Maintenance Level” on the Y-axis and “Garden Awesomeness Level” on the X-axis, you would probably get a slope of m=3/1 or something like that, whatever, it would be steep.

I want my garden to have the maximum “awesomeness” factor but unfortunately I am at a point in my life where I don’t have as much time for maintenance/management as I would like. I have a half acre, many different garden beds, lots of experiments going on, lots of ideas, loads of different soil and light conditions, plus I’m always wanting to try out new plants and I’m always changing my mind and moving things around.

It’s too much! I can’t keep up with it all, and too many areas wind up looking like sh-t.

I envision that in five or ten years I will have more time to garden, but I also recognize that my body is getting older and that I will probably be gardening slower in the future. I will have to sit down more often and take more Diet Coke breaks.

With all this in mind, here are two things that I have started doing that I think will make future gardening a bit easier/lower-maintenance, at least for me:

1. Planting more shrubs and fewer perennials.

I have an area in my backyard that I am struggling to landscape at the moment. It is a pretty big space, several plants have failed there, and there is a lot of empty ground there right now. At first I wanted to plant a small ornamental tree there, something like a ‘Hearts of Gold’ Redbud, but then I realized that I would still have to plant a bunch of stuff underneath the tree. Even though a tree is a large landscape feature it really doesn’t cover much soil, does it? Planting loads of perennials there just does not appeal to me, and since the area is far away from the house, I don’t think they’d be appreciated anyway. Plus, large quantities of perennials are expensive and tending them is usually a lot of work.

So now I’m thinking something like a Doublefile Viburnum would be just the ticket in that spot. It would spread itself out and cover lots of ground, and would still make a nice specimen plant visible from the house.

There are so many interesting shrubs out there that a full-blown “shrubbery” even carries a certain appeal.

Last year I planted this Bottlebrush Buckeye waaaay in the back of my yard and I am totally smitten by it.


These things are supposed to get HUGE, and I hope mine does, because as you can see I need it to block the god-awful mess behind it. Supposedly this shrub is a slow grower but mine has tripled in size in less than a year. Those skinny little pipe-cleaner flower buds should be big ol’ bottlebrushes very soon!

This Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ has spread quickly but hasn’t gotten too tall. And it has wonderful bright yellow stems in winter:


Below, this Variegated Five-Leaf Aralia (Acanthopanax siebolianus ‘Variagatus’) is spreading quickly and I am going to let it, even if I have to get some perennials out of its way. This thing brings an amazing lightness to a very shady spot and it’s growing right under my BW:


Other shrubs that have been handsome and reliable for me (and have covered ground) are boxwood, clumping bamboo, and Viburnum ‘Conoy’.

2. Looking at what grows well in my yard and planting more of those. Yes, part of the joy of gardening is trying new things, but when you’ve got limited time and energy it is probably prudent to keep your experimental planting areas small and manageable.

In my yard, toad lilies, Japanese painted ferns, geraniums, and phlox are always healthy and lush. Astilbes, butterfly weed, and heucheras always look pathetic.

In my yard, Marshallia, geraniums, and painted ferns grow well and look good together.  Why not plant more?  (Winterberry Holly on the left)

Marshallia, geraniums, and painted ferns grow well and look good together. Why not plant more? (Winterberry Holly on the left)

Instead of trying to fight with my yard and make the latter plants work, instead of poking around the perennials area at the GC for something new (exhilarating as that it is!), I’m gonna stick to my shortlist of proven perennials for now. For now, I said.

With a lower-maintenance garden, you have time to read more garden blogs!  Let’s see what some professional designers have to say about maintenance:

Follow the links below and see what our designers have to say!

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

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

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

The Optimism of Tiny Trees


I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core.

I asked my dad if I planted one of the seeds would we get apples on our own tree next year?  No, he said.  Not next year.

Then when?  

Dad guessed it would take about seven years. 

I would love the next part of the story to be that I planted a seed that very afternoon, that I grew up with the sapling that emerged, that I was married under that tree twenty years later and that I make pies from the fruit every fall.

But what I actually thought when my dad told me that was: seven years — that’s forever!  I would be fourteen before the tree got big enough to produce apples (never mind that its apples would probably be more like sour golf balls since it wouldn’t come true from seed).  The idea of waiting so long for the payoff of planting an apple seed was inconceivable.  I couldn’t even conceive of myself seven years into the future.

To plant a tree from seed, even a modest one like an apple, is no small thing.  To plant the seed of a grand shade tree, like a white oak, now that is a real leap of faith. Knowing you’ll never see its ultimate grandeur, knowing that it will outlive you, your children, maybe even your grandchildren – to plant that seed is a gift, an act of sheer optimism.

To this day, I’ve never planted a tree from seed, though I’ve planted many small saplings, and I’ve found that even the saplings require an abundance of patience, an ability to delay gratification that I’ve only acquired in mid-life. 

I’ve had a tiny paw-paw, a volunteer transplanted from a client’s garden, growing in my backyard for the last three years. I’ve got it planted in the shade and it’s taking its time. Each year it puts out about five pretty green leaves. This year there might be six. I’m losing patience, but I really want those Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, whose larva feast on paw-paw leaves. For now it stays.

Last summer I planted another baby tree, a wee ‘Cherokee Brave’ dogwood that’s now about thigh-high.  It leans a little, and its broad leaves are way out of proportion to its spindly trunk.  It has the same comical look as those skinny teenage boys you see who have huge feet and hands.  It hasn’t grown into itself yet.

One day it will reach fifteen, maybe twenty feet, with rosy blooms arrayed along its stretching limbs. I can see it.  One day I will look up at it instead of down.  Will that take longer than seven years? 

In seven years I will be forty-nine. 

No sweat.

*I meant to have this post written in time for this month’s Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Trees, but alas, I was tardy.  But please take some time to read more about Trees from my fellow garden writers:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

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

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN


Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Transitions

One of Beatrix Ferrand’s most famous projects is the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, which is known for its lavish garden rooms and magnificent attention to detail.   As you can see in the map below, each garden “room” has its own name — Rose Garden, Urn Terrace, Pebble Garden, etc. — and each room is masterfully designed and delightful to experience.


What I have highlighted in yellow on the map, though, are actually my favorite parts of Dumbarton Oaks.  You will notice they are not the individual gardens at all, but rather the spaces between the gardens, the transitions.  To me, these spaces have always been the most compelling aspect of Dumbarton Oaks, and they are evidence that Beatrix Farrand was a freakin’ genius.

Farrand seemed to put as much thoughtful design into the garden’s transitional spaces as she did into the rooms themselves.  For instance, look how this narrow stone stairway beckons you up the hill….ArborTerraceStairs

At the top of the steps you find yourself in the Arbor Terrace, a shady and restful spot with a grotto-like fountain:


Farrand was completely masterful in her use of sound and smell in these transition areas.  As you travel the paths between gardens, you can often hear the sound of water trickling or gurgling from an area that you can’t yet see. For example, as you walk up this path, you can hear the sound of a fountain in the distance….


Turn left at the end of the wall and you enter the famous Ellipse Garden and ah-ha! there’s the fountain:


Farrand also lined these transitional paths with fragrant shrubs like lilac and honeysuckle, and she paid just as much attention to the walls, paving, and plantings in these “in-between” areas as she did to the major garden areas.  For example, here is the stairway leading to the pool — a feature more interesting than the pool itself:


Below is a picture of the path on the way to Lover’s Lane (a shallow pool hidden in the woods).  At the end of the path, a statue of Pan points the way to…


the pool, where undoubtedly you will be getting up to no good with your sweetheart:


You have to love a garden that encourages mischievous behavior (although in early April when I visited this area doesn’t have a very secluded feel — gotta wait for the leaves to fill in.)

Here is a little path that jigs off to the side behind some large evergreens.  The beautiful tiled roof pokes up and entices you over:cuttinggardenpath

Turn left at the end of the path and you get a nice view of the cutting garden (just getting going) with the Prunus Walk in the distance:


And scattered throughout the entire garden are curving brick paths lined with boxwood, or rustic stairways that lead to hidden terraces, or peek-a-boos of secret spaces glimpsed between evergreens:




Please check out other perspectives on “Transitions” from my fellow Roundtablers:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Memory and Plants

I’ll I’ll be honest.  I had a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic.  As I have mentioned before, I am New Dirt and not Old Dirt, meaning I do not come from a long line of gardeners, but rather picked up this obsession at age 36 with no influence from parents or grandparents.  Like Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, my conversion to a life of gardening was sudden and complete.  (Whether or not Constantine was pruning Euonymus at the time of his revelation, as I was, is not clear.)

[Read more...]

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: How to Terrify Young Children With Your Landscape

Folks, it’s not too late to completely re-do your landscape for Halloween!

Whether your goal is just to have a little spooky fun, or to actually terrorize the children so they will not set foot in your yard, here are some “go-to” plants!

1. Poncirus trifoliata

[Read more...]

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Art and the Garden

Take a look at the pair of images below.  What would you say they have in common?

Left: “The Arch of Nero” by Thomas Cole Right: Photo by John Glover.

Now, I’m pretty sure the garden vignette on the right was not modelled directly after Thomas Cole’s painting (on the left), but the two certainly do seem to share some genetic material, don’t they?  The arches, the vines, the muted colors, the effort to capture antiquity — all are present in both painting and garden.  

[Read more...]

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: By the Sweat of Your Brow Will You Weed Your Bed.

My husband and I moved into our house in Burke, VA (Zone 7a) early in 2003 and immediately got to work on “letting the yard go” for about, oh, 4 years or so.  I’m sure the neighborhood was horrified by our neglect, as I know you will be when you see the “before” pictures.  [Read more...]


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