Oct 15, 2011


Great DixterCopyright Peter Mauss.  Permission is required for any usage.

October 14, 2011
Swarthmore College

Nan Swinton
Beg, Borrow or Steal

Gregg Tepper
Shade Perennials :
Gems of the Forest Floor

Sydney Eddison
The Passage of Time
in the Garden

Roy Diblik
Perennials Plant Communities

Fergus Garrett
Good Plantiing
in the Dixter Style

"The great wonder in gardening
is that so many plants live."
Christopher Lloyd

I am beginning to feel like I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Schizophrenia can set in late in life and this is more than a mid-life crisis.  My love of control... gardening with perennials, grasses and shrubs (some native and many non-natives) is pitted against my growing eco-conscious.  Meadow plantings are beginning to win out over my obsessive compulsive instinct to manipulate the landscape.

Manipulating the garden to conform to personal taste is what gardening conferences are all about.  The  conference at Swarthmore was for the plant geek.  One hour devoted to experts talking about a single genera and hand-outs listing 400 perennials.  Yes, I knew I was in the right place.

"Plants have lived in intimate communities for thousands of years.  Why in America do we plant everything on 4 ft. centers, surround them with woodchips and never let them touch?"
This was the opening salvo from Roy Diblik, owner of Northwind Perennnial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin.  Diblik has grown over 3 million perennials.

I do use woodchips.  I thought I knew what I was doing, but I have been convinced that woodchips are not good for plants.  They have no nutritional value, add nothing to the soil and inhibit the root system of the plant. As Diblik said, "a plant lives and dies by its roots." 

Re-thinking how plants live was the focus of Diblik's talk.  "Weeds" he said "are healing plants.  They heal the scared earth.  They help the sun from solarizing the soil."  This is a special way of relating to the chief nemesis of gardeners.   How should a garden be planted?  Diblik is a proponent of inter-planting, but in a controlled way.  Looking at combinations for structure, texture and growth habit.  Allowing a certain amount of self-seeding, but also controlling it.  The prairie is his inspiration. 

This kind of talk always leads to the inevitable questions about maintenance.  If you don't use mulch, your committing yourself to endless weeding.   Is this true?  Not according to Diblik.  Planting the "right" plants next to each other and planting them closely is the key.  As a result only "observational" weeding is required.

Cutting the garden back in late Winter and leaving debris on the ground, provides all the nutrition any plant needs. There is nothing better than leaf compost.  To see an example of this type of gardening, head straight to Battery Park, designed by Piet Oudolf and maintained by Sigrid Gray, Director of Horticulture.  It takes changing your aesthetic to accept this.  It's not neat and it's not what we expect.  

In 2012, I have committed myself to no mulch, and keeping what I cutback on the ground until it decomposes.  I hope I can stand it.  The key Diblik says is to keep a clean edge.  I know I can do that. 

Here are some general questions from Diblik:
1.  What are the soil and environmental conditions we are asking the plants to live?
2.  What is the growth and developmental characteristics of plants?
3.  Are you relating the conditions the plant does well in to the garden conditions?
4.  Have you learned each individual's unique characteristics, flowering time, structure, growth rate, growth habit and form?  Once you've learned general characteristics of plants you can begin creating unique combinations.
5.  What changes can be expected in the garden from year to year?  Then what type of maintenance will be needed to keep the gardens integrity?


Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Interesting. I don't use bark mulch, but I do use leaf litter and pine needles to keep things down. I do agree about the close planting. Hiking in the mountains and observing plant communities there reinforces that plants are growing right on top of each other. As Keith Wiley of Garden House put it, we're not growing prize specimens. Well, at least most of us. There's something to be said about close planting and letting reseeders fill things in closely, which is the approach I'm beginning to take.

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