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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: