Garden Designer’s Bloglink: 5 Regional Ideas

Grab a snack…this might take a while…

In December, as a guest on Garden Gossip, I extolled listeners to ‘celebrate their regions’  instead of trying to emulate a garden design style that is at odds with their specific location. That idea gave birth to this group of topic specific blog posts–Garden Designer’s Bloglink—links to the rest of the participating landscape designers/bloggers at the end of this post.

How do you define a region?

So what exactly is regional to an area? How local is the vernacular? It’s not the same 20, 40 or 50 miles away. How can we interpret what is regionally sustainable and socially appropriate in our gardens?  How can our landscapes be more in tune with the land they’re on?  How can we make the seemingly unsustainable–both in attitude and practice–more so?

What’s my region?

I design landscapes and gardens at the eastern most edge of what is known as the Skylands, in Morris County, New Jersey.   My little town is 28.5 miles west of New York City where the land begins to rise away from the sea and towards the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The annual rainfall is about 50″ and the annual snowfall about 3′.   It is sticky, hot and humid in the summer and the winters can be frigid.  What is fitting and local here is evidenced by the area’s natural and man made (the European kind, not the native American kind) history.  The immediate area has been transformed by transplanted gardeners since the 17th century.

Vintage postcard from the Skylands--there are still views like this
Vintage postcard from the Skylands--there are still views like this

Although significantly less than when I moved here 20 years ago, there are still rural farms as well as urban centers that have been there since before the American Revolution.  Old growth hardwood forests were mostly cut down to use as  building materials and to create farmland.  Local rounded stone was loosely stacked as field boundaries—I grew up exploring  one of these walls in my own backyard. These stone walls do not display the master craftsmanship of the granite walls found farther north in New England–they are more piles than walls.

5 Simple Ideas for Regional and Sustainable Style

So how to use more than 3 centuries of gardening precedent and make it appropriate to a region still mired in tradition while addressing the needs of the 21st century lifestyle?  Below  are 5 easy ideas with local examples, that can have a big impact both visually and sustainably–with some local tweaking these ideas could form the basis for a regional style anywhere.

Idea No. 1–Recycle It
Use remnants from the  300+ years of Dutch and English European gardening influence and plants colonists brought  from ‘home’ as well as the pleasure gardens created as summer playgrounds by rich New Yorkers in the 19th century.  Many of the latter reached their zenith just prior to the institution of income taxes in the 1920s when many were actually razed to avoid escalating costs.    In the photo below, the house is from that era  but the garden is contemporary–a 5 acre pleasure garden maintained by several full-time gardeners.  This level of commitment is unattainable by almost all homeowners, so how can they emulate the region’s rich gardening and architectural history in their own much more modest suburban back yards?

Local Estate Garden -- European Traditions in House and Garden
Local Estate Garden -- European Traditions in House and Garden

Reuse local stone, reclaimed brick  and architectural objects rather than buying new.  Mining and trucking stone leaves a huge carbon footprint, searching for vintage anything  is fun for the entire family and is the ultimate act of recycling.  Materials can be used as they were or interpreted in new ways–adding a mix of the old to the new and even contemporary can give a garden instant context.

Completed last fall, a recycled 19th century iron fence w/local stone patio
Completed last fall, a recycled 19th century iron fence w/local stone patio

Idea No. 2–Super Size It

Plan for natural plant size instead of relying on gas powered ‘pruning’.  Increase the size of foundation planting beds to allow for interesting plantings at their mature sizes.  I can’t tell you how many 4′ foundation beds I’ve seen–there are very few shrubs that will thrive in a space that small without a lot of pruning to keep them in check.  In the planting plan shown below, a LEED certified project I worked on,  foundation beds were made wide enough to accommodate large native flowering shrubs and small trees…with plenty of room for growth.  These beds will only require minimal upkeep despite the density and size of the of the plants.

Foundation Planting Design
Foundation Planting Design

Idea No 3–Go Native

Seek out native plants–even  for lawns.  Lawns are not the enemy for this region–too much maintenance, over watering and over fertilization is.  Rethink lawns using native fescues and organic maintenance and management.  There are alternatives out there that satisfy our regional love affair with turf.  No Mow and Eco Lawn yield lawns that require little water and no fertilizer–better yet these lawns only need infrequent mowing.

Many of the most desirable flowering trees and shrubs  in European gardens are indigenous to NJ–among them– Amelancheir canadensis (Serviceberry), Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud)  and Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood)–so why so many non-native Japanese Maples and cherries?  Find native plants for New Jersey and Morris County here , find native plants for other regions here.

Cornus florida (up the street from my house)
Cornus florida (up the street from my house)

Idea No. 4–Create Habitat

Our natural woodland was a resource for the original native inhabitants as well as the colonists–it became real estate to be developed in the New York metropolitan sprawl that is still gobbling up unprotected acreage.  Celebrate the American wilderness and designate an area where nature is invited in instead of being held at a distance or watched on television.  Create a ‘wild’ area with a meandering path through the woodland to a destination–a hammock, a bench, a shade house.  Add safe havens for wildlife–put up a birdhouse, bat house or butterfly house.  Children will spend more time exploring these areas than they will using an expensive swing set and the woodland will last and give back long after the swings are added to the landfill.

New woodland-- existing trees underplanted with native trees and shrubs
We underplanted existing trees with native trees and shrubs to create a new woodland in a suburban front yard

Idea No. 5–Percolate It

For both formal and informal areas choose natural permeable paving.  Stepping stones or recycled brick can be augmented with pea gravel or filled with low growing plants.  In the examples below gravel suppresses weeds, adds texture, a wonderful crunching sound when walked on and allows water to percolate.  The third example shows a courtyard project where the stone is planted up rather than mortared up.

Formal path of recycled brick and pea gravel with a repurposed millstone detail
Formal path of recycled brick and pea gravel with a repurposed millstone detail
An area woodland garden of native and non-native plants
An informal path through a woodland garden of native and non-native plants
Recycled bluestone interplanted with dwarf modo grasses (not native but effective)
Recycled bluestone interplanted with dwarf modo grasses (not native but effective)

Implementing these ideas will make a garden that is socially acceptable to the next door neighbors and indeed the entire neighborhood and region.

A special shout out to Scott Hokunson who invited the participants and coordinated this series..Thank You, Scott!  If you’d like to see ideas from other landscape and garden designers from other regions…here are links (in no particular order) to their regional posts:

Rebecca Sweet–Palo Alto CA– Gossip in the Garden Dan Eskelson–Priest River ID– Clearwater Landscapes Laura Schaub–San Jose CA– Interleafings

Pam Penick–Austin TX– Digging Michelle Derviss– Novato CA– Garden Porn Ivette Soler–Los Angeles CA–The Germinatrix

Susan Morrison–East Bay CA– Blue Planet Garden Blog Susan Schlenger–Charlottesville VA-Landscape Design Viewpoint Scott Hokunson–Gramby CT–Blue Heron Landscapes

Tara Dillard–Stone Mountain GA-Landscape Design Decorating Styling Jocelyn Chilvers–Wheat Ridge CO- The Art Garden Genevieve Schmidt–Arcata CA– North Coast Gardening

Related posts:

23 thoughts on “Garden Designer’s Bloglink: 5 Regional Ideas

  1. You’re up a little early, Susan, but I enjoyed your post. Your region is so lush compared to mine. It’s wonderful to see the woodland underplanted with flowering ornamental trees. Repurposing materials is fun no matter where you garden, and I’m glad you touched on that.

    I had the post set to go up at 1:01 and don’t know what happened unless WP’s clock isn’t set the same as mine. I hadn’t even planned on being here…oh well! Thanks for reading Pam, can’t wait to see yours in a few mins.

  2. Ahhh…your photos are the ones that a lot of my clients rip out of magazines to show me, saying “Give me THIS’!! Lucky you – to have so much history, so much RAIN…

    I love that you celebrate your history, and in particular the photo showing the re-purposed millstone.

    Your clients are so fortunate to have a designer who is as sensitive to the environment as you are – which is why your gardens are so stunning. Great post, Susan!

    Isn’t it funny…your clients want what we have and I want what you have. The grass is always greener–or not depending on your region I guess…

  3. Wow – after writing about conquering my zone envy, I now have a big case of it! I want to live where YOU live!!!
    Your I love your emphasis on history – bringing in recycling/repurposing through a respect of the history of your region is a wonderful point, it grounds a landscape and opens it up in such a meaningful way! You’ve opened my eyes here … I will be thinking more about the specific cultural history of my area as I design – yet another lovely layer to add to the process!
    You are the best…
    Fab post!

    You have an incredible history in Southern California–much if it stems from the geographic influences you cited in your post. I would love to hear how you explore that in your work.

  4. Incorporating recycled materials is such a wonderful idea Susan, and overlooked when tying a landscape to its roots. I must remember to incorporate more recycled materials into my designs. Loved the pictures, I think we need to have a Tweetup in NJ, so we can tour some of your projects! Well done, and I didn’t even need a snack!


    A tweet up in NJ is possible. We are the Garden State are we not! I have a deep and abiding love for old things finding that we cast too many aside too quickly–that’s why I reuse as many as I can.

  5. Susan,
    A brilliant essay filled with thoughtful advice and meaningful history.
    The images that you chose to represent each ‘idea’ was spot on.
    I’ve enjoyed visiting your part of the world.


    Thank you Michelle. My part of the world doesn’t seem half as exotic as yours…I lust after Zone 8 plants for more than pots and would love nothing better than a collection of succulents more than just Sedums. With that said, the rolling hills and what’s left of the countryside keep me here. Come back again and visit any time!

  6. Whenever I visit the east coast I am always impressed by the HISTORY! You actually have OLD buildings, houses and neighborhoods, ancient trees, the patina of time. It’s pretty hard to find that around here, where our most venerable suburban neighborhoods go back to the 1920’s at best; my own neighborhood was orchards up until 1960!

    What a terrific essay, such good points that speak so well for your region, yet give us tools to apply to ours. Thank you for sharing, on so many levels.

    When I lived for 3 years in California that’s ultimately what pulled me back here…the History. I love my old buildings, tumbled down barns and stone walls. I grew up with them and they influenced me greatly as you can see. Thanks for the fine words.

  7. You have posted an evening seminar. Delightful. Wish I had you to go along with it!!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    You know, this was one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever written. There was so much I wanted to say and it was hard to find a framework for it all. I’ve enjoyed the day immensely and have felt like I just attended a post graduate workshop in landscape design. So inspiring for everyone.

  8. Wonderful points, all well made. Your concepts are adaptable by everyone, regardless of region!

    So glad you enjoyed it. I loved visiting your blog today–am ashamed to say I hadn’t before and you have beautiful pictures and great ideas there. Thank you for participating–I hope you do again!

  9. What a great article. I love your idea of making the beds extra wide to allow for various shrubs, not just the narrower perennials. Wild areas for birds, etc. are also nice for families. Very nice pics too!

    Thanks Susan. I particularly like to play against type and combine formality with wildness.

  10. Great post as always Susan (although it took me a moment to get over the culture shock of 50″ of rainfall a year). All your points are well taken, but I particularly like the first suggestion to recycle. It isn’t just the same limited plant palette and building styles that are creating a homogenized America, it’s the odd notion many have that the farther away something comes from, the more valuable it must be.

    I’ve been a dumpster diver since early childhood and seldom purchase anything brand spanking new! There’s tons of great salvage out there and I for one am thrilled that it’s becoming more and more fashionable to use it. Our 50″ can water our lawns, but even with that many still irrigate…a lawn is not a putting green.

  11. Well, Susan…I am not surprised that you have led the charge to this endeavor and have produced one of the (if the *the*) most well thought out and insightful posts.

    Thanks for the bed width comment…I thought my specs were OK, but will have to rethink now…depending on specific project.

    Look forward to exchanging more ideas with you!


    Wow Dan. That is high praise indeed. I really just try to call ’em as I see ’em.

  12. Hi Susan,
    I made it through the whole post without a snack! Your information was my “food for thought” today.

    Since you garden and practice landscape design in the East Coast, you do have an architectural history that is more developed than here in Los Angeles.

    I love your design points which are relevant no matter where you live!

    Enjoyed your presentation.
    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report

  13. I envy the stone you have up there. Here it’s brick, brick, brick!

    I give thanks to the great glaciers that left them here dragging them across the landscape even as I despair every time I put a shovel in the ground

  14. Well done, Susan. I loved the confident way you discussed design ideas on the garden gossip show, and this post is such a fantastic reflection of the regional and sustainable outlook. I love the practical how-to tips – particularly recycling and super-sizing!! I’ve never heard anyone put such a cool spin on the decidedly unsexy need to give plants enough room to lower maintenance needs.

    Thank you Genevieve. I never thought about my ideas as sexy but thanks for giving me that image! Loved your take on natives also.

  15. Great post Susan…In fact, I love the whole series…I have been working on a video project and was just speaking about the need for people to recognize their location as a big part of design inspiration – obviously in the garden but also throughout, with architecture, interiors, etc… (no more theme crap!). If I watch one more HGTV show where the homeowner in Chicago asks for a Tuscan anything….Blech!! Once again — like minded thinking….;)

    Thanks, Rochelle. The idea that we don’t need to all be the same is one that scares so many yet is such a big part of our independent psyche — that is until we started to expect the golden arches everywhere we went as a symbol of comfort…it really does make me crazy…but that’s a whole other can of worms to add to the compost!

  16. Susan,
    I also enjoyed your crafted essay! Saving and reusing the old stone is a noble venture. What a tragic shame that so much wonderful crafted stone has been buried as buildings have been bulldozed to make way for the new. It took so much sweat to create each one.

    Would that America cry more often for a supersized planting bed than a fast food lunch. Greater bed depth creates a stage for a much more dynamic show.

  17. Terrific post, Susan. You absolutely nailed the topic. I also think re-using older materials is a wonderful idea, as well as the idea of permeability – maybe especially that. The “habitat creation” is quite useful for larger homes and developments, although the modern home is configured smaller in most cases. I really have trouble with McMansions, personally. Great post.

    Thank you Steve. I thought long and hard about this one. There are opportunities to do great things at all levels of the market.

  18. I love the idea of “celebrating your region”. You are correct in pointing out that often times home owners do try to emulate a landscape design that is just not prudent for their region. You offered a great article here that anyone could use to help them with a region specific, yet beautiful garden. thanks for sharing.

  19. There’s tons of resources on gardening, etc. on the web. This is the first article I’ve read that really makes gardening sense though. Staying with local, native plans, flowers, etc. is probably one of the best things to do.

  20. I loved this article and especially loved your LEED foundation design. Would you be wiling to share the names of the plants used in the plan? I’d love to adapt some of it for my own (tiny) house.

  21. Living in a region where the outdoors is always celebrated, we are always looking to improve and beautify our lawn and landscaping. the part about using native plants is interesting. that is something that we have debated on for a long time.

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