Sunday, May 18, 2014

Land of the balsam-root, blue camas, and housing sprawl

Balsamorhiza sagittata and an Eriophorum sp. on Rowena Bluffs, OR.
 Spending two weeks in the USA. Mostly in the Pacific North West. Between doing lectures and workshops I have been out and about seeing as much of the wild plant life in this most beautiful of regions. At the moment, I can't bear the thought of going back to England, which seems so tame, limited and ecologically damaged by comparison. For those who have never been, the PNW offers a truly amazing range of epic landscapes and incredible biodiversity.

For all sorts of geological reasons connected with ice ages, the flora here is richer than in Europe, and far more than in Britain. There is also that extraordinary change as you go east – west, which is what you find all the way down the western spine of mountains and intermontane basins from British Columbia to Chile. Quite unlike anything in the Old World, a few hours west-east driving takes you from lush temperate to semi-desert (or even real desert) and then to cooler montane temperate, and so on. So, different floras mix and match and interweave in relation to different climates but also of course geology.
Lupinus sp. possibly L. sericeus in Ponderosa Pine woodland

The Rowena Bluffs area of the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, is Quercus garryana (Garry Oak) savannah, with castilleja, lupin and Balsamorhiza sagitata (Balsam Root). Castilleja is a semi-parasite, related to the yellow rattle beloved of by British wildflower meadow restorationists. And famously difficult to grow in garden conditions. Pictures here.

Turnbull Wildlife Refuge is in eastern Washington. It is a truly epic landscape. You can get the feeling that this is what this country looked like before white settlers - as far as you can see there is no trace of human habitation or obvious impact. It is also a very attractive landscape – parkland, a kind of Ponderosa Pine savannah, which alternates grassland with a very loose open forest. I think (as indeed do many others) that we respond to this kind of landscape because we came from the African savannah and it is somehow hard-wired into our brains. The wildflowers were sensational, a result of a dramatic geological history which has left shallow, even minimal soils over basalt, with closely intertwined wet and dry places. The blue Camassia quamash grows on the wet while yellow umbellifer Lomatium triternatum on the drier. You can see pictures here.

Balsamohrhiza again, unlike the lupins, a long-lived perennial which apparently takes 5 years to reach flowering size, with a deep taproot, hence not seen much in gardens.

Being here is also an opportunity to look at a characteristically American way of living, which is kind of worrying for the future – low density living. Travel outside any US city and its aureole of suburbia and you hit huge areas of housing more or less hidden in the woods. Lots of houses on big lots - often over an acre. I think of it as 'exurbia'. Rarely do folk 'garden' most of this area, which stays wild, but only sort-of. Ok, but not great for shy wildlife (although increasingly US wildlife is anything but shy). However over time, the whole process of woodland regeneration will inevitably suffer. The inevitable suppression of fire means that the species mix will change, and all too often when there is a fire, it will burn out of control because of the fuel build-up of years worth of dead leaves, branches etc. How many homeowners know anything about forest management anyway?

The idea that houses in large lots keeps the rural character is an odd one. You can't escape the houses, their drives, the aggressive 'keep out' signs. By building at such low density, vast areas of real rural areas, in the form of unmanaged or natural forest land is being effectively lost. I can't help feeling that the big lot sizes are part of an unsustainable 1950s 'American Dream' way of life along with enormous houses ('MacMansions') and the widely criticised 'trucks' (enormous gas-guzzling cars, which seem so essential to the expression of masculinity here). It also feels that, amongst some people, there is a deep aversion to living in any kind of community; a landscaping style which also mean a long-term loss of natural communities as well.

Link here to a fascinating piece on the vanishing White Oak in eastern forests, which relates to these issues:

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

A flying visit to Chicago and the Lurie Garden

Interesting being at the Lurie Garden in Chicago after such a viciously cold winter and seeing it all coming back to life, garden director Jennifer Davit tells me that “everything” of Piet Oudolf's planting has survived. All down to snow cover – with a decent depths of snow you can get away with a lot. Its great to see everything coming back to life and the first bulbs, which are almost over at home in England, so I feel like I'm getting a second crack at spring.
Muscari do well here, this is the support act for the Salvia River later on but they do not spread like they do at home.

What's so great about the Lurie Garden is the intensity and diversity of the planting, you can look at a bit a few square metres across and say “there's so much going on here, I could imagine having this at home” which you couldn't with a classic Oehme van Sweden planting. It's what convinced me to work with them on doing the little book, a sort of primer for gardeners: Gardening with Perennials: Lessons from Chicago's Lurie Garden.

One colleague I had breakfast with, said he thought the Lurie was too much an “intensive care unit for plants” which isn't really fair, as although it takes a lot of work, some of it done with volunteers, the comparison you have to make is with the convention of summer bedding, which takes vastly more work, an annual expenditure, offers only the most temporary home for biodiversity and raises so many sustainability issues. The fact that it does take effort to maintain is actually a way of getting public engagement with gardening.
Lovely pale form of Mertensia virginica, which seeds itself around here, is summer dormant to fits well with other later perennials and grasses. At home in Hummelo Piet finds it even grows in with big clumps of grasses.

It's such a great place, this time I felt, not its scale, but actually its intimacy, it is quite a small area compared to the vastness of the whole lakeside park area. Which helps, I think, get the message across that this is something relevant to home gardeners. And if you are here, make sure you check out the plantings on lake side of the Art Institute of Chicago too, designed by Roy Diblik. Who, by the way has got a very good new book out.

Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' in Roy's planting at the Art Institute.