ecological landscapes

Building a BETTER Grass Garden

Ornamental grasses can be an important addition to your landscape, since they are deer-resistant (as well as groundhog, bunny etc resistant), not too hard to locate in the nursery trade and provide multi-season interest. You can find grass species that are tall, spiky, soft, clump-formers, spreaders, some with colored foliage, some with variegated foliage, and so on. They are fairly easy to take care of, as long as you have a good set of loppers to cut some of the larger ones back as they grow bigger.

Ornamental grass can function as an exclamation point in the design.

Hermannshof Planting Beds with autumn grasses

Ornamental grasses are the matrix in a matrix planting.

Roy Diblik planting design

Ornamental grasses can even add an almost formal element; a very modern look as seen in these views of Piet Oudolf’s design for the Scampston Hall Walled Garden

Ornamental grass for winter interest.

Ornamental grasses have deep roots, which promote healthy soil.

To be more successful, your grass garden should have a mixture of cool-season and warm-season ornamental grasses. Cool season grasses thrive when temperatures are between 60 - 75 degrees F. They start to grow in early spring and may remain semi-evergreen over the winter. They’re happy again in late fall, but in the heat of the summer they tend to go dormant and may even brown-out - something to consider as far as placement within the planted border. Warm-season grasses don’t even break dormancy until the ground temperature is above 65, and thrive when temperatures are between 80 - 95 degrees F. So warm season grasses are late starters - especially in some of the cool springs we’ve had recently. If the warm-season grasses are just sitting there doing nothing, your matrix planting may look empty and not make much sense until summer.

If you include both types of ornamental grasses, you’ll have fresh new grasses in the spring as well as mature grasses and grass flowers in the summer and fall.

WHO’s WHO of Ornamental Grasses:

Cool Season Grasses:

Briza media, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Calamagrostis canadensis, Chasmanthium latifolium, Deschampsia caespitosa, Deschampsia flexuosa, Elymus spp., All Fescues, Helictotrichon sempervirens, Molinia, Nasella tenuissima, Sesleria spp., Stipa spp.

Warm Season Grasses:

Andropogon spp, Bouteloua spp, Calamagrostis brachytricha, Eragrostis spp, Hakonechloa spp, Miscanthus spp, Muhlenbergia spp, Panicum spp, Pennisetum spp. Sporobolus heterolepsis, Schizachyrium spp, Sorghastrum nutans

Darrel Morrison's Article for the Ecological Landscape Alliance Newsletter: Musings on Ecology, Art and Music in the Landscape

The Ecological Landscape Alliance has the following Mission Statement:

"Advocating for responsible stewardship of land and natural resources in landscaping and horticultural practices."

From the Feb 15, 2018 ELA Newsletter: Darrel Morrison starts his article by saying:

"Increasingly, I am intrigued by the value of linking ecology and ecological processes with art and music in the design of landscapes that might be considered "ecological art."  The products of ecological art have the potential to be, simultaneously:

Ecologically sound 

Experientially rich 

"Of the Place," reflecting a sense of place 

Dynamic, i.e., changing over time"

Similar thoughts have been voiced by a number of other "ecological" landscape designers recently in books and interviews that I've read and in lectures at NYBG, including Claudia West, Thomas Rainer, Roy Diblik, Cassian Schmidt and Patrick Cullina.

This is the challenge we face as garden makers in 2018 - to capture all of these qualities in our plantings and to do it "well".  Everyone agrees that part of "doing it well" means having a real understanding of the plants you're using - to quote/paraphrase Roy Diblik from his lecture at NYBG earlier this winter, you have to use "plant-driven thought"- understand what a plant wants to do and where it wants to be so it can thrive and how fast it grows and how it spreads and so forth.  I feel its important to keep your plant palette broad - not that you have to jam tons of different plants into every design, but that you have to understand a reasonably broad range of plants so that each garden is fresh and each new idea is fresh, even though the general "ecological approach" is the same.  

Of course, no garden ever stays the same.  The key to having a "design without an expiration date"- again paraphrasing Roy Diblik - is to keep "gardening" - keep constantly enhancing and fine-tuning.  You may have to switch out some plant choices here and there, do some dividing, plant bulb layers - but in the end of the day if you've done the job well, you have a sustainable plant community.  (Until a tree falls, or there's a flood, or a new disease comes along or there's an early frost, or no frost ….Then you have to rebalance it)

So that's where we get back to Darrel Morrison's article:

He writes:

Darrel Morrison's Old Stone Mill plant community

Darrel Morrison's Old Stone Mill plant community

Part of Darrel Morrison's Gardens at the BBG - North Entrance "Pine Barrens"

Part of Darrel Morrison's Gardens at the BBG - North Entrance "Pine Barrens"

  • Ecological Soundness grows out of the selection of appropriate plant species and placing them in the micro-environment where they will thrive without the importation of resources such as irrigation water and chemical fertilizers. …They in turn serve a variety of functions, ranging from controlling erosion to providing habitat for birds, butterflies, bumblebees and other pollinators …"

  • Experiential Richness emerges from the presence of a diversity of plant species and associated fauna, in compositions that are rich in color, texture and movement. "

He goes on to say later in the essay:

  • Two other characteristics of the environment that provide a dynamic quality are LIGHT and MOVEMENT. The color of natural light changes as a day progresses, and the physical movement of the plants (and the fauna that are attracted to them bring life to them.) I never tire of seeing the wave-like motion of tall grasses in the landscape, or of seeing (and sometimes hearing) birds, butterflies, and bumblebees moving through a landscape. The direction of light changes throughout a day and a year as well. We can place plants in a designed landscape where they will, during some part of the day, be backlit, literally making them "glow," or as landscape architect A. E. Bye expressed it in a 1967 essay in Landscape Architecture Magazine, they exhibit "luminosity.""

A Darrel Morrison "created" landscape in Wisconsin

A Darrel Morrison "created" landscape in Wisconsin

He alludes to the four "characteristics of landscapes that people find engaging and attractive. These are (1) mystery, (2) complexity, (3) coherence, and (4) legibility." 

Mystery is derived from spatial form which unfolds sequentially as one moves through the landscape, revealing landscape spaces. Mystery implies that part of the scene is hidden, thus motivating people to want to see what is "around the bend."

Complexity relates to the biotic diversity in a landscape and the aesthetic characteristics which come with this diversity - e.g., colors, textures, and movement.

Coherence results from the fact that the distribution of species exhibits perceptible pattern. The tendency of many species being aggregated to a degree, leads to the occurrence of directional "drifts" of color and texture.

Legibility … relates to people's ability to "read" how they will move through the landscape, not feeling claustrophobic or disoriented. 

A Jens Jensen-inspired "signature" for Darrel Morrison is the Council Ring

A Jens Jensen-inspired "signature" for Darrel Morrison is the Council Ring

  • For "sense of place": "We are increasingly surrounded by generic landscapes, whether it is the sprawling big box stores repeated over and over in suburban environments, or landscapes that are increasingly alike, with the same, limited number of species replacing the natural diversity that may have once occurred there. … We can reverse the trend toward "placelessness" by incorporating an array of locally native species which provide cues and clues as to where we are."

  • Dynamic - the created landscape changes over time: "…Landscapes have the potential to be four-dimensional art, with time being the fourth dimension. This is because ecology-based designs are not frozen in time, but are always are evolving, with seasonal changes, growth of individual plants, and in some cases migration of species within the composition. The landscape we see in May is different from the one we see in July, or October, or December. And the landscape we see in 2018 is not the landscape we will see in 2028 or 2048. Hence, there is always something new to discover."

Words to live by - "there is always something new to discover"

2017 Trial Garden Results - from Walters Gardens in Michigan Jeremy Windemuller Trial Garden Manager

Best drought tolerant perennial: Echinacea Lakota 'Santa Fe' (its grown from seed, so it has slight color variations) flowers profusely in shades of red and orange.  Its a good performer in both containers and landscape. Grows 12 - 16" tall.

Echinacea  Lakota 'Santa Fe'

Echinacea Lakota 'Santa Fe'

Echinacea Lakota2.jpg

Best heat-tolerant perennial: Sedum Rock 'N Grow 'Popstar' - a low-profile sedum that doesn't open up as it grows.  It has blue-green foliage and salmon-pink flowers.  The trial gardens manager says it is "a definite improvement over S. cauticola".  It was un-phased in their trial gardens during an extra-hot and dry summer.

Sedum  'Popstar'

Sedum 'Popstar'

Best pollinator-friendly perennial:  Salvia nemorosa 'Bumbleberry'.  Its easy to maintain since it has a naturally compact habit, but its still a vigorous grower.  About 12" tall and will re-bloom if dead-headed. 

Salvia 'Bumbleberry'

Salvia 'Bumbleberry'

Best overall performance: Heuchera PRIMO 'Black Pearl'  

"We were wowed right away by the visuals of this plant, and once we got it into production, we continued to be impressed….It truly lives up to the PRIMO name of larger, vigorous plants."  Glossy black foliage can make a container planting pop!  

Heuchera 'Black Pearl'

Heuchera 'Black Pearl'

Roy Diblik - "They share the space unselfishly"


He had already inspired me with his book "Know Maintenance Perennials" but I had no idea how wise, cool, down-to-earth, innovative, knowledgeable, hilariously funny - shall I go on? - he is until he spoke at our NYBG LDSA meeting in December.  All thanks to Hanna Packer - shout-out to her expertise; visit her website

Migratory Bird Garden 480P4966.jpg

He talked to us about Plant Communities, and somehow it ended up being about human communities as well.  A plant community will thrive only if it has all the building blocks, including good soil and a diversity of plants to support a wide variety of insects.  Living and dying roots are what regenerates the soil.  "Remnant prairies" (untouched soil) have 18 - 24 species of plants per sq meter - all thriving and occupying their niches happily and benefitting each other.  They share the space unselfishly.  So it should be with human communities as well.

But lets move on to some of Roy Diblik's wisdom that I managed to capture:

You have to get to know the plants. It's not "fair" to the plant to ask it to do what you want it to do - you should find out what it wants to do and where it wants to be to thrive."

P.S. this is how we should treat people as well!

Pachysandra, vinca, euonymus etc are the "default landscape -

he grows 32,000 sedges in his nursery and uses a mixture of sedges as ground cover

Turf and boxwood" landscapes have no pollinators, no birds.

You don't need mulch, organic amendments, fish emulsion etc - Everything you need falls from the trees in autumn and all the soil needs is roots living and dying.

Thugs" are opportunistic - if you disturb an area they will take over - that's simply their nature

You have to put a plant community together in a way that eliminates agricultural weeds. If you can reduce the light reaching the soil to below 1000 ft-candles (or better, below 200 ft-candles) then weed seeds won't germinate.

Contractors are being paid to keep bad from getting worse

A plug will equal a 1G container in 5 weeks

Ornamental grasses sporobulus, seslaria, schizachyrium as the "grout" between the plants.  For example, Allium 'Summer Beauty' and seslaria live together fruitfully (not competitively)

He usually uses a balance of 60:40 grasses:flowering plants

Seen below: pictures of Roy Diblik's matrix plantings at the Chicago Art Institute, Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and the Lurie Garden

Lurie Garden Chicago - the interplay of sun and shadow and the colors of the grasses, with the amsonia just beginning to turn its bright yellow autumn color, is mesmerizingly beautiful to me.

Lurie Garden Chicago - the interplay of sun and shadow and the colors of the grasses, with the amsonia just beginning to turn its bright yellow autumn color, is mesmerizingly beautiful to me.

Roy Diblik at the birth of the Lurie Garden

Roy Diblik at the birth of the Lurie Garden

Roy Diblik says: "Learn about 20 plants in depth, then gradually learn another 10 or 20 - that's all you'll need" 

He creates "quilt patterns" - each module is interchangeable and they can be mixed and matched


Tulip 'Golden Artist'

Tulip 'Golden Artist'

Salvia 'Wesuwe'

Salvia 'Wesuwe'

Euphorbia polychroma dark form

Euphorbia polychroma dark form

Geranium 'Magnificum' from Roy Diblik's Nursery

Geranium 'Magnificum' from Roy Diblik's Nursery

Monarda bradburiana

Monarda bradburiana

The composition of your design sets up the plant community but also creates spirit and emotion

Allium, Calamintha, Stachys and Echinacea

Allium, Calamintha, Stachys and Echinacea

He gave us info about some of the plants he uses: (I mostly tried to capture his own words)

  • Carex flacca ('Blue Zinger') is an example of a carex that quickly covers ground and can take some foot traffic, but when its crown touches another crown it stops spreading

  • Monarda bradburiana prefers avg to dry soil (unlike some other monardas)

  • Salvias love to mix with one another but they can't survisie getting watered 3 times per week

  • Don't use Salvia 'May Night' because it doesn't rebloom. Instead use Salvia wesuwe that reblooms constantly

  • A combo he likes: Geranium sanguineum, allium cernuum and ornamental oregano

  • Covering the growing points of perennials with wood mulch kills them

  • Northwind has an Echinacea tenneseensis hybrid that tolerates clay soil

  • Sporobulus and sedges are very natural-looking in a woodland garden; also mixtures of sedge and Geranium macrorrhizum in shade

  • Commercial prairies that are started from seed usually end up being 5 native plants living together. It will take 15 years to get a diverse/"real" prairie with 18-24 species per sq meter


Words of wisdom: "Sedges give you the opportunity to outsmart weeds"

One plant he mentioned that I hadn't known was Gillenia trifoliata (also Porteranthus trifoliatus).  Common name: Bowman's Root (Also known as Indian Physic or American Ipecac; sounds lovely!).  Bowman's Root is an easy-to-grow native for bright shade or partial sun and it tolerates tree root competition well as long at it has a nice layer of organic mulch.  Bowman's Root is lovely in a mass planting where its lacy white flowers can shimmer in a light breeze.  It makes a nice filler - think Gaura for shade!  A compact, rounded plant, it is topped in late spring with ethereal white flowers growing in a few loose terminal panicles, with red petioles and mahogany stems.  Clean, disease-free foliage often turns deep bronzy red in fall and contrasts beautifully with the more typical oranges and yellows in the perennial border.  Interesting form and unique seed heads persist into winter.  Great for cut flowers!

The Legacy of Pierre Bennerup The American Gardener Nov/Dec 2013

Sunny Border Nurseries

Sunny Border Nurseries

Pierre Benerup, CEO of Sunny Border Nurseries is the person who came up with the idea of selling perennials in containers!  Up till then perennials were sold mostly as bare root plants.   Like other perennial garden "greats" we know, like Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik, Bennerup has a passion for plants and a wealth of hands-on learning.  He also had a solid background in sales and marketing, which is how he decided to plant in containers - it was sheer practicality.

In the early 1970s, perennial plants were primarily sold bareroot. Wholesale growers such as Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Michigan, and Springbrook Gardens in Mentor, Ohio, grew hundreds of acres of perennials in sandy soils and shipped nationwide to mail-order firms. In turn, the firms put their inventory into coolers until it was time to ship in spring and fall. Perennials such as moss phlox (Phlox subulata) and evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) were field-dug, thrown into two-quart wooden baskets, and placed on sale in retail nurseries, but few other perennials had the durability to withstand that kind of rough handling.

In the '50s and '60s, Sunny Border had converted a large part of its operation to field-grown production of yews (Taxus media) in order to meet the huge demand for foundation plantings created by the boom in home construction following World War II. The soil in that area of Connecticut is a clay loam, ideal for producing balled-and-burlapped yews, but not for perennials, which couldn't be dug after rains as quickly and easily as they could in the sandy soils of Bennerup's bigger competitors.

With the market for perennials expanding in the 1970s, Bennerup needed to come up with a solution. It was at this point that he decided to take the digging out of the equation and grow plants in pots.

As a wholesale nursery, Sunny Border sells to independent garden centers and directly to landscapers. Bennerup's guiding philosophy is that foliage-not flowers-is the key to successful gardens and landscapes. He elucidated this in the letter he wrote in his 2013 catalog, under the theme "Green is a color, too." Taking issue with what he terms "lipstick landscapes," Bennerup stated,

"I believe a good perennial garden is mostly foliage-various shades of green, bronze, silver, and gold. It's soothing. It's cooling." He adds, "Flower color in the garden should be savored in small portions like dessert. Too much color causes garden obesity." 
"Perennial gardening is about subtlety, form, fragrance, texture, calm, and sometimes even sound and motion; in fact, all the senses, not just sight," he says.
"I get so much enjoyment from gardening and plants," he says. "It's such a great gratification. We are connecting with the real world."


In addition to being a fan of perennials with interesting foliage, Pierre Bennerup says his favorite plant "tends to be whatever is blooming at the moment." He does admit to affinities to certain families or genera, such as the primrose family, the ranunculus family, the genus Epimedium, the genus Hakonechloa, the genus Saxifraga, and the genus Phlox. Here are some of his favorite individual perennials, including a few introductions by Sunny Border.

Coreopsis X 'Mercury Rising'

Coreopsis X 'Mercury Rising'

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' foliage

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' foliage

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' flowers

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' flowers

Tiarella X 'Timbuktu' foliage

Tiarella X 'Timbuktu' foliage

Tiarella fall and early winter foliage colors

Tiarella fall and early winter foliage colors

Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue'

Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue'

Sunny Border combination

Sunny Border combination

David Culp, Author of "The Layered Garden", is VP of Sunny Border Nurseries

David Culp, Author of "The Layered Garden", is VP of Sunny Border Nurseries




The best hour you can spend in your garden this fall .....

… is planting spring-flowering bulbs.  

There are lots of bulbs that are not dug up and eaten by critters, with flowers that are not eaten by critters once they bloom.  The tried-and-true are daffodils and alliums.  Both of these types of bulbs naturalize and give a welcome early and later spring show.  

Tips #1:

  • Plant daffodil bulbs in “bouquets”.
  • Don’t plant bulbs in areas of the garden where the soil is too wet – they can rot if they sit in wet soil.
  • Plant large alliums as punctuation marks in the garden, but make sure that they’re planted among other perennials that will hide the alliums’ yellowing foliage as it ages.  The big lollypop alliums lose their foliage almost as soon as they flower.

Allium 'Purple Sensation'

Allium thunbergii 'Alba'

Allium 'Graceful'

Allium cereuleum

Tips #2:

  • Don’t plant your bulbs too soon (or too late).  Here’s where you need to know about “biological zero” – the temperature at which biological activity (including microbial growth processes) are stopped.   In other words, the temperature of your refrigerator – cold enough to stop “things” from growing in your food – about 42 degrees F.  It turns out that when the ground temperature gets below about 50 degrees F, roots can still grow, but shoots can’t.  When the ground temperature gets below biological zero, nothing will grow, even though the ground isn’t frozen.  
  • The ideal for bulbs is that they grow roots after you plant them, but not shoots.  That way, they’ve gotten a good solid start before the ground temperature reaches biological zero, but they haven’t started shoots that sap their energy stores and are vulnerable to damage by the first frost.  So aim for planting your bulbs when the ground temperature at 6 – 10” below the surface (where the bulbs will be located) should be “just right”  - usually sometime in mid-to-late November.  
  • Planting them “too late” (i.e. after the ground temperature is below 42 degrees F) is not optimal – but much preferable to not planting them at all!  So go ahead and plant bulbs in December, as long as the ground is not frozen – you need to be able to plant them at the proper depth.

Tips #3:

  • Plant bulbs in the weatherproof containers that you allow to overwinter outside.  A small amount of work (since it’s a small space) can reward you with delightful flowers when spring comes – and tide the containers over until you’re ready to add your spring or summer flowers.