Welcome to Rooting for Ideas

My Name is Don Statham and this is my garden blog. (Seasonal Photos of Don’s Garden)

I am mad about plants, some might say obsessive! One of the points of this blog is to connect with other passionate gardeners who also like to talk about plants, garden design, garden writing and all things horticultural.

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Conversation among the Plants

When plant combinations work it is because they enhance one another. I like to think of these sometimes planned, sometimes serendipitous events as conversations between the plants involved. Repeating the same plant like Malus ‘Donald Wyman’ in my Moon garden with a second tree 70 feet away on the bank of the pond, means that after a long winter the two trees speak across the cold air one beautiful white and pink blossomed canopy to another. Then in fall when the crabapples turn bright red they bond again and your eye is naturally pulled back and forth by the dramatic fruit display.

Other combinations of plants that are dialoguing right now are the shrub Potentilla ‘Primrose beauty’ its soft yellow blooms whisper tenderly to the perennial Kirgengeshoma ‘palmate’ who’s beautiful pale yellow flowers nods in appreciation. A fluke planting, I love seeing these plants making the most of each other. The third shrub Sumac ‘Tiger eyes’ joins in on the conversation with its bright glowing chartreuse leaves.
When combinations of plants work well I make a note of it for future design projects so my clients and I can enjoy similarly harmonious discussions.

Potentilla 'Primrose beauty' with Kirgengeshoma palmate

Potentilla ‘Primrose beauty’ with Kirgengeshoma palmate

Kirgengeshoma palmate in the big leaf garden with Potentilla 'Primrose Beauty'

Kirgengeshoma palmate in the big leaf garden with
Potentilla ‘Primrose Beauty’

Sumac 'Tiger Eyes" joins in on the conversation.

Sumac ‘Tiger Eyes” joins in on the conversation.

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New Parking area- ‘before and after’

For years the too small parking area next to the house has been problematic. Regardless of age our friends, you know who you are, crushed my flowering plants along the edge and had to make ten point turns in order to leave. Enough! This year I decided to make the area bigger.
An excavator cut the bank back and removing two dump trucks of soil. After the area was enlarged and regraded it needed a dry stone wall to retain the bank and two large silver maples that had been providing shade to the house for over a hundred years. I got my favorite team of local wall builders Frazier’s of Oneonta to build the wall that now goes either side of the staircase about 55’ feet long x 32” high. I am so happy with the results and look forward to planting the top next spring and watching my friends arrive and park and then drive smoothly away from the house all year round.

Parking area- before shot

Parking area- before shot

Parking area before shot seen from above

Parking area before shot seen from above

new wall form above

new wall form above

new dry stone wall  being built

Dry stone retaining wall being built.

Staircase tied into new wall.

Staircase tied into new wall.

Extended parking area with dry stone retaining wall.

Extended parking area with dry stone retaining wall.

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The New Perennial Movement

photography by Iwan Baan and James Golden

1.Chelsea Grasslands, between West 19th Street and West 20th Street, looking North - photo must be credited to Iwan Baan © 2009

1. Chelsea Grasslands, between West 19th Street and West 20th Street, looking North – photo must be credited to Iwan Baan © 2009

I began working as a garden designer in New York City in the 1990s when there was a craze for ornamental grasses that I soon discovered was a valuable plant for difficult sites. Grasses look beautiful moving in the breeze and they are tough, doing remarkably well in pots on rooftop terraces that sometimes have over 100-mile hour winds and soaring high temperatures. I didn’t realize then that there was an international garden design movement under way that was incorporating grasses into the mix with hardy resilient perennials. Some 20-plus years later we have the High Line in Manhattan with a North American native prairie-inspired planting by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf who is the main figure of this movement. And I thought the craze for grasses was a fad!

To prepare for an upcoming garden talk I began to look into the origins and ideas behind the New Perennial Landscape Movement (TNPM). I discovered that it has been developing for 140 years and is international in scope. In this article I will focus on a few of the movement’s main figures, beginning with the Irish-born botanist and garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) who wrote The Wild Garden (1870). Robinson favored mixing in tough ornamentals into more natural looking plantings. He worked as a botanist and studied English wildflowers. Working with native plants led him to develop a more natural style of planting based on aesthetics. He was one of the first to speak about picking the right plant for the right location and he recommended the use of grouping native shrubs and trees in the woodland. Robinson was reacting against the formal bedding out of hot house-grown annuals planted in ridged geometric-shaped beds preferred by the Victorians. His ideas were radical. He was a proponent of planting ‘crocus,’ ‘scilla,’ ‘narcissi’ and other spring bulbs in natural looking drifts. He planted cowslip and other wild flowers directly into borders. He proposed the use of hardy plants that would naturalize themselves. Frederick Law Olmsted and the English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, along with many other designers, read The Wild Garden and were profoundly influenced by his planting philosophy.

The English Arts and Crafts Movement (1860-1910) embraced Robinson’s ideas and also looked to its own historical past, including the “cottage garden,” for inspiration. Cottage gardens are English in origin and go back 200 years. They are natural looking gardens connected to working class cottages. The plants found in these gardens were common ones such as lupines, columbines and foxgloves, often mixed with edibles such as herbs and salad. Gertrude Jekyll (1843- 1932) embodied the movement most with her bold and colorful English garden borders. In her garden, Munstead Wood, she combined a loose natural arrangement of plants that were placed in a strong garden structure of hedged rooms, pergolas, handcrafted stone terraces and walkways. The flow between house and garden was one of the most important ideas developed in arts and crafts gardens with the continuation of rooms outside into the garden. Inspired by Robinson’s focus on natural looking plantings, she created garden walks beyond garden rooms, with names such as the Fern Walk and the Woodland Walk. The arts and crafts design ideas for gardens made its way over to America and were embraced by the American Arts and Crafts Movement. To this day many landscape architect and designers are still laying out gardens using the design principals founded by this movement.

German-born Karl Foerster (1874-1970) was the next figure to add his ideas to the conversation. After training in an academy for professional gardeners and a stint on the Italian Riviera studying perennial plants under the landscape architect and plant breeder Ludwig Winter, he returned to Berlin in 1905 and took over his parent’s nursery. He retained only those plants that met his benchmark of beauty, resilience and endurance and he did away with the rest. He developed a breeding program and came up with a number of new clumping grasses, including Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster,’ as well as delphiniums and ferns. Foerster’s contribution to the movement is that he included many more grasses and much hardier perennials into the flowering borders. He was one of the key figures who influenced the New German Garden Style which rejected the stilted bedding style of the period and helped to create more ecologically made gardens. Many public and private gardens in Germany embraced his style of gardening.

Mien Ruys (1904-1999) grew up in Holland at her father’s world-class nursery and, having studied landscape architecture, she transformed her father’s land into a series of garden rooms. She accompanied her father on trips to Gertrude Jekyll’s garden in England and credits Jekyll for inspiring her own pallet of colorful perennials. Ruys would have seen many arts and crafts gardens and what emerged from this education was her own original way of laying out garden rooms that incorporated grasses and loose plantings. She described her garden philosophy as a “wild planting in a strong design.” Her main contribution to the movement is that she shows us how to move through a garden by using plants and defining spaces with bold sculptural plantings. She was very playful in her design, using positive and negative shapes. With tall hedges she would leave a narrow gap to see beyond the enclosed garden room; brick paths (positive shape) feathered out into the lawn, creating stripes of green grass (negative shapes). Although her gardens were made over 40 years ago they still look strikingly modern. View a virtual tour of her gardens at this link.

Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden created the New American Garden style from their landscape design firm in Washington DC. The architecturally trained van Sweden and the German plantsman Oehme began their landscape design firm in 1977 and for the next 40 years created gardens layered in perennials and grasses. Theirs was an expansive landscape inspired by the prairies of the Midwest. They paid attention to the ground plane and created a tapestry of plant communities that weave and are repeated over a large area. They were innovative designers offering an alternative to the American lawn.

The Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, with his public work here in America including the High Line and Battery Park in New York City and the Lurie Garden in the Millennial Gardens in Chicago, creates a painterly landscape with a variety of texture and colorful perennials by combining plants naturalistically. To achieve this he started a perennial nursery in 1981 with his wife Anja and spent the next decade exploring and working with perennials to figure out which ones were “good clump forming” perennials that do not move around by aggressive root systems or self-seed. In his garden book Designing with Plants, Oudolf explains how he creates his dream landscape by breaking down perennials into shapes: spires, buttons and globes, umbels, plumes and screens. His understanding of the subtle shifts of flower shapes helped me create more variety in my own garden planting.

Plants have an afterlife : photo by James Golden

2.Plants have an afterlife : photo by James Golden

Self-seeding plants are downplayed and perennials are chosen for their ability to endure without regular division. One of the main contributions to the movement has been using plants that have an “afterlife” and look good in the winter landscape.
TNPM has many more important figures, including Henk Gerritsen, the Dutch designer and plantman, garden writer Noel Kingsbury, and Beth Chatto, Tom Stuart Smith, Dan Pearson, and Sara Price. All are designers who have embraced the ideas.

TNPM and The Native Landscape Movement here in America share many of the same ideas over the same 140-year period. The difference between the two movements is that TNPM origins began in Europe and come out of a tradition of creating gardens based on aesthetics. TNPM incorporates hardy perennials from many countries, whereas The Native Landscape Movement is more pure in its objective focusing on “native plants communities” to each specific region. Ecology, low maintenance, and eliminating lawn come into play in both movements. I suspect most gardeners will want to draw ideas from both.
If I was to make a new garden today I would definitely lean more towards The Native Landscape Movement for inspiration. But because I have an established garden laid out in rooms I am not about to rip out my favorite ornamentals just because they’re not native. Imagine giving up tomatoes, potatoes, hollyhocks, apple trees, lilacs because they are not native. Although Jens Jensen, one of the founders of the native movement in Chicago, said you can’t really copy nature, but you can get a theme, a dominant idea, key species and key feeling. Taking a cue from him in the future I plan to choose natives over hybridized plants and to think more about plants in terms of communities. Here in the Catskills we have two wonderful garden movements to be inspired by. I will be devoting another article on The American Native Landscape Movement and its important figures.

Author’s note: Thanks to the “Friends of the High Line for the use of photos by Iwan Baan and to James Golden from Golden’s blog “View from Federal Twist” for the detail images of the High Line plantings in New York City.

Plants have an afterlife : photo by James Golden

3.Plants have an afterlife : photo by James Golden

5.Radial Bench,a long wooden bench curves with the pathway for an entire city block, between West 28th and West 29th Streets, looking South.  Photo credit: ©Iwan Baan, 2011

4. Radial Bench,a long wooden bench curves with the pathway for an entire city block, between West 28th and West 29th Streets, looking South. Photo credit: ©Iwan Baan, 2011

4.Washington Grasslands, aerial view of the High Line over Little West 12th Street photo credit: Iwan Baan © 2009

5. Washington Grasslands, aerial view of the High Line over Little West 12th Street photo credit: Iwan Baan © 2009


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Alpine Plants and Hypertufa Pots.

I recently made a trip to NYC to meet with a client and along the way visited several gardens: Stonecrop in Cold Spring, NY belonged to Frank Cabot, the founder of the Garden Conservancy and his first garden,) Wave Hill in the Bronx and the Brooklyn Botanic gardens. I had forgotten how inspiring it is to visit mature gardens. The chance to see some mature plantings really woke me up and gave me perspective and lots of new ideas. A majestic 50’ feet Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ gave me pause, mine is 5ft high. The mature specimen at Stonecrop will profoundly influence what I do in the area my tree is planted.
Last autumn, with the Franklin Garden Club I made a couple of hypertufa pots. You probably know that a hypertufa (I didn’t) is a lightweight pot made from Portland cement, sphagnum moss, and perlite and this spring planted my first alpine plants in those pots. Hypertufa pots with alpines are like miniature versions of those large Japanese gardens (see photo of the Japanese Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.)

Japanese Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

Japanese Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

I don’t have the time to make a Japanese garden, but I can easily create a miniature version of one! Both Stonecrop and Wave Hill had plenty of examples of how to use alpine plants both in hypertufa pots and planted directly into stone walls. I was inspired to open my wallet and buy 10 alpine plants to plant in some of my stone walls. I had the good fortune of meeting the gardener at Stonecrop who takes care of the alpine plants and she helped me locate the little alpines that I wanted to buy. She also gave me a tip on how to get the wonderful texture that looks like stone in the hypertufa pots. She said to use the backside of the hammer on the second day of drying to make dents in the hypertufa pot before the pots have completely set would give the desired effect. If you are interested in learning how to make the pots they teach classes at Stonecrop and they also offer for sale many different shaped pots at reasonable prices. Alpines are a wonderful group of plants to add to your garden.

Minuartia Stellata is the green mounded alpine

Minuartia Stellata is the green mounded alpine

Alpines in hypertufa pot

Alpines in hypertufa pot


Alpines growing at Wave Hill

Alpine collection at Wave Hill

Alpine collection at Stonecrop

Capanula garganica 'W. H. Paine' growing in Stonecrop walls

Capanula garganica ‘W. H. Paine’ growing in Stonecrop walls

Alpine growing in wall

Alpine growing in wall at Stonecrop

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New Woodland Garden

It has been an intense spring. I put in four new gardens for clients, planting over eight hundred plants. In the middle of all this work my wife decided to tackle a long neglected area at the top of our driveway which up to now has always been choked with brambles, raspberry canes and bishop’s weed. After spending two days pulling out hundreds of canes and getting very scratched up we exposed a beautiful ancient fallen down apple tree. As luck would have it in the middle of this project a gardening friend sent me a link to a sale at Eastern Plant Specialists based in Maine where they had a special for one hundred Ostrich ferns. What could be better. I placed an order and two days later a large box appeared with 100 plants about 3” high and a root ball plugs about the same size. After planting the ferns all around the apple tree we received two good spring soakings and the bright green fronds leapt about 10” inches in three days. A few weeks later a friend wanted several beds of ostrich ferns removed from her courtyard garden. It was a good deal – If I dug them out I could have them. About 8 years ago I had taken this same friend to a fern nursery on Long Island and she bought maybe 25-30 of these ostrich ferns and there were now about 400 -500 ferns. After digging up over 100 ferns I planted them on the opposite side of the driveway among some Spanish Bluebells. Now I have the beginnings of a small woodland garden at the top of the drive and I plan to research other woodland plants to plant amongst the ferns. I will also add more Spanish bluebells in the fall. I welcome any suggestions for additional woodland plants to add to the new area and/or how to heal my aching bones!

Exposed apple tree after clearing hundreds of brambles

Exposed apple tree after clearing hundreds of brambles

Ostrich ferns from friend transplanted to left side of driveway with Spanish Bluebells

Ostrich ferns from friend transplanted to left side of driveway with Spanish Bluebells

New woodland planting in driveway.

New woodland planting in driveway.

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Symbolic Chinese Garden Design Concepts

This gallery contains 9 photos.

Last autumn I visited the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden in Staten Island, located within the large Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden complex with 27 buildings and beautiful grounds. The Scholar’s Garden, which is hidden within the complex, … Continue reading

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Pass the Ramps

This gallery contains 2 photos.

I am posting Marguerite Uhlmann-Bower wonderful article entitled: Pass the Ramps, Please. I would be interested to hear from any of you who have ramp recipes, experience in growing and or harvesting ramps. Though this writings focus is on Ramps, … Continue reading

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