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"

Proven Winners Shrubs to keep an eye out for

I saw a couple of these varieties this season, and hope to see more and try some of them next season.   (Note that pictures appear beneath each plant description)

Weigela 'Spilled Wine' - I'm not a big fan of weigela because I think it gets to look ratty later in the season and the older varieties needed to be pruned constantly in order to look like anything in the landscape.  But this variety was named 2018 Landscape Plant of the Year "selected by landscapers and growers who understand the needs of the market and the range of challenging climatic conditions acrosss North America".  Is it the Big Mac of weigelas?  Available anywhere and always tastes the same?  Well, here's the description in the Spring Valley Nursery catalog:

"Weigela florida 'Bokraspiwi' Spilled Wine  has dark red, waxy leaves and a spreadinbg habit.  Its hot-pink-magenta flowers are similer to Wine & Roses  weigela, but this is a smaller plant that is wider than it is tall,  Perfect for edging or filling in spaces in a sunny border"

Zone 4, 2-3' tall and 3' wide, spring bloom, deer resistant - could it be a sub for 'Concorde' barberry?

Buddleia 'Miss Molly' - The reddest buddleia - a really beautiful jewel-tone color for when you get sick and tired of purple - stands out in the garden.  It's a "compact form" (4-5 ft) and is an interspecific hybrid that is non-invasive.  Now that buddleias are better-behaved (not so gigantic and weedy-looking) and non-invasive, I'm using them a lot again.

Buddleia  X 'Miss Molly'

Buddleia X 'Miss Molly'

Callicarpa 'Purple Pearls': saw it, loved it, instantly bought it, installed it.  Deer walked by and didn't eat it.  That's the first good sign.  Its another inter-specific hybrid, with the nice dark eggplant-ish foliage of one parent and the pink flowers of the other.  Lots of big berries in fall.  Also and upright habit.  For my money, you can't go wrong!

Callicarpa  'Purple Pearls'

Callicarpa 'Purple Pearls'

Chaenomeles 'Double Take Orange' - same thing - saw it just at the end of its flowering, instantly bought it, installed it, deer walk right on by.  Flowers are quite a bit more noticeable than the non-double-flowered forms, but the shrub still has a quirky yet interesting habit.  Plant along the top of a wall where the flowers can be at or above eye level.  You will eventually have to prune it  (grows 4-5 ft tall)- try to wait until late winter so that you can bring the trimmings inside and force them.  No thorns; no fruit.  Don't move away from the non-double chaenomeles completely, though, because the fruit is unexpected, pretty, and you can bring them inside to act as natural air fresheners instead of buying expensive quince candles!

Chaenomeles  'Double Take Orange'

Chaenomeles 'Double Take Orange'

Clematis - PLANT MORE of them!  What can I say, but that they give you bang for buck.  They're really not hard to grow after all, at least not some of the newer varieties (as well as some of the good old tried-and-true ones).  These Proven Winner ones have been selected for vigor, disease-resistance and flower power.  Try 'Sweet Summer Love' and 'Brother Stefan'.  'Brother Stefan' is one of the of the ones developed in Poland - it is a late spring bloomer (old wood) with sporadic rebloom later on new wood.  The flowers are "true blue" - unusual, as we know, in the plant kingdom and therefore eye-catching.  'Sweet Summer Love' is another cultivar from Poland that flowers late in the season on new wood - meaning that it can be cut back hard evey spring.  The small but prolific flowers are cranberry-violet colored and fragrant.  Plant and go.  Not particularly deer-resistant but not one of their favorite foods either.

Cornus obliqua 'Powell Gardens'  Red Rover   (Silky dogwood) - I haven't seen this one around anywhere yet, but if I do I will definitely try it.  Its native, and is proported to have a compact habit, purple-to-red fall foliage color and showy blue fruit. Also red stems in winter.  What's not to look - it's a great selection for moist sites and a pollinator resource and sounds far less blah than "regular" silky dogwood.


Heptacodium miconoides 'Temple of Bloom'.  I am a HUGE fan of Heptacodium and would like to plant one at each job just like Lagerstromia.  Unfortunately, they're not so easy to find as young trees, also because they are very gangly and some would say almost ugly as young trees.  I think they have personality and don't mind some asymmetry.  But they do have to be pruned as they grow to have a nice shae (or you can buy them bigger of course, so that they've already been trained).  This new variety from Proven Winners is described as being a compact cultivar with extra-large flowers and extra-red bracts - an improvement over the species that begins to flower earlier as well, for a longer blooming season.  If nothing else, it will be containerized and have some sort of decent-looking habit if its going to be sold in that coveted white pot.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Bobo' - buy it immediately if you see it!  Its a dwarf PG hydrangea with white flowers that are more round than conical and held upright, giving the overall visual of the shrub being totally engulfed in flowers.  No flopping, starts blooming earlier than some PGs and is "plain" - i.e. no half-pink-half-white, just a calm fade to pink, surprisingly quite a different "look" than 'Limelight' or 'Little Lime'.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Quick Fire' - same bloom time as 'Quick Fire' but only about a third the size.  The flowers transition from white to burgundy-red fairly quickly, which I like, and the plant has a beautiful and somewhat unusual orange fall foliage color.  Several of my clients have thought that 'Quick Fire' is the "best" PG hydrangea, so though I haven't seen 'Little Quick Fire' in bloom yet, I'm looking forward to installing it.

Itea virginica 'Scentlandia' - I haven't seen this one yet either.  But its billed as a "game changer" because it is the most fragrant Itea ever, has superior bud hardiness, still has great fall color and has a compact habit like 'Little Henry'.  Definitely one of my favorite natives.  Itea is described as being deer-resistant, but I think sometimes they munch it a little bit.  In my experience with 'Little Henry' I've noticed that the flowering has been a little uneven - maybe this new cultivar will help solve that problem which I had previously thought was due to deer browse not lack of bud hardiness.  The fall color, though, is definitely worth the price of admission!

Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'Red Wall'.  I've seen the nightmare of having an ivy-covered stucco façade, where the only solution is to rip off the ivy and re-stucco the house.  But some houses just look so nice with vines growing on them!  Enter, Virginia creeper.  It is much less damaging to the house, and of course turns a beautiful fall color.  Its native, has berries and I think could be beautiful even on a chain-link fence if not a house.  But, beware, it is a strong grower and will jump over onto trees in a heartbeat!

Parthenocissus quinquefolia  'Red Wall'

Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'Red Wall'

Viburnum nudum 'Bulk' Brandywine  - has the most beautiful berry display in the world of viburnums - green to ivory to pink and blue.  'Brandywine' sets fruit without a pollinator, so in that sense a wiser choice then 'Winterthur' (which has been one of my all-time favorites).  It has the same symmetrical habit, those same glossy leaves and maroon-red fall color as 'Winterthur', though.  If you add 'Brandywine' to an existing planting with 'Winterthur' in it, you'll find them both setting lots of berries.  But V. nudum has "stinky flowers" - so put it in the second layer or in the hedgerow.

Conserving Wild Bees

You may not know that wild bees pollinate a variety of crops, especially summer vegetable crops like tomatoes, peppers, blueberries, squash, melon and apples.  They also supplement the activities of honey bees, which is increasing important when managed honey bee colonies are in a period of decline.

Who are these bees?  And what do we need to do to conserve them?

Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are considered to be the second-most important pollinators after honey bees.  They can "buzz-pollinate" (vibrate the pollen off the anthers) - now you know why they're buzzing so loud - and they visit many crops that are not frequented by honey bees.  Colonies are established each spring by a single queen.

Sweat bees (Halictus spp.) are small, short-tongued bees with metallic green-blue coloring.  They are solitary and visit cane berries and onions.

Leafcutter bees (Megachile spp) are also solitary bees that nest in rotted wood and line their nests with pieces of leaves. The pieces they cut out are smooth circles.  They pollinate melons.

Squash bees (Peponapis pruinosa) are solitary ground-nesting bees that are efficient pollinators of cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squash.

Mason bees (Osmia spp) are prized for their efficient pollination of fruit trees in spring.

You can conserve and attract wild bees to your landscapes by following these guidelines:

  • Conserve natural habitats, including both nesting sites and floral resources.  "Edge" habitats are especially valuable.
  • Plant flowers.  Bees need pollen and nectar (together termed "floral resources") to survive. They need food throughout the growing season, so plant a variety of flowering plants with overlapping bloom periods.  You can increase access to floral resources by wild bees by planting flowering herbs in your vegetable garden and allowing a portion of your leafy crops to bolt.
  • Include native plants in your landscape.  Native plants have co-evolved with the insect communities in our region and are best able to provide floral resources to the widest variety of pollinators.
  • Provide access to water.  Water resources may be scarce during the summer months, so consider maintaining birdbaths, water features or water gardens in your landscape.
  • Preserve or build nesting sites.  Most wild bees are solitary nesters - the females create individual nests in the ground, in wood or in abandoned nests of other animals.  You can conserve nesting sites by leaving some old logs in place and by leaving an undisturbed "edge" area along one or more of the margins of your landscapes.  Constructed bee boxes can also be used to encourage wood nesters.
  • Reduce wild bee exposure to pesticides.  Bees can be poisoned or killed by coming into contact with pesticides found on leaves and flowers on which they forage or the soil when they nest.  If chemical controls are necessary in your garden, consider these measures: use a formulation that is least harmful to pollinators; treat the plants when their flowers are not blooming; apply chemicals in the evening when bees are not active; prevent pesticide drift onto naturalized areas of your landscape.
  • Plant flowering groundcovers like clover in areas of your garden that you're not cultivating or in parts of your landscape that you're not quite ready to develop.  The groundcovers decrease erosion, increase soil fertility and supress weeds in addition to supporting bee populations.