I couldn’t wait. My meadow was barely rooted before my thoughts shifted to the west side of my property. Maybe it was a sugar high from pride of ownership. Maybe I’m just an antsy gardener keen to make. Just keeping planting is my unambiguous motto. But even as I counseled myself to take pause and not rush into any decisions with the rest of my half-acre lot, I knew that 2018 would involve another phase of the naturalistic effort I began with Meadow Nord back in September.
So I doodled and sketched, the natural things to do. I had seven such scribbled efforts in my Moleskine before I’d even felt satisfied that I’d read what the land had to offer: a gentle slope to a slowly eroding ditch, tall oak frames on the sides and an extensional view through the trees to the riverine green space that only got better as the winter set in. By midwinter’s waking, I could look out the tall windows in my bedroom and studio and feel as if my eyes swept over acres, a view disguised in foliage through the growing season, but latent in memory.
I wanted a space to explore something taller and immersive than the meadow provided. As a front yard garden, the meadow was subject to certain reasonable restrictions I placed on the aesthetic so as not to overwhelm the house: few plants over three feet tall, no hardscape elements and a modest use of shrubby material only to tie together the foundation plantings and give the visual allusion of a savanna clearing. This new space, which I’ve dubbed Long Look Prairie, has none of those restrictions. Framed by Big Bur to the north, the approximately 2,500 square feet parcel lays at the feet of Little Bur, the youngest of the bur oaks on the property. As you approach the future prairie, its sentinel stature is undeniable. The garden is about to be its royal court.
Earlier this month, I set the table for the project. I embraced the ditch as an opportunity for a bioswale. With a little help from my contractor dad, we’ll level out the grade at the ditch and fill the run with a matrix of sedges and wet-loving forbs like Helianthus salicifolius, Eupatorium dubium, Lobelia cardinalis ‘Black Truffle’ and Verbena hastata. Most of the swale will face the street with elements of the planting palette extending into the prairie as suggestions of what’s just beyond the informal hedge of Cornus cultivars.
I also gamed out a matrix idea I’ve tossed around in my head for some time. I’ve often wondered what would it look like to create the allusion of genetic diversity through the interplay of several cultivars, for instance three varieties of Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem). I opted for recent selections (‘Blackhawks’, ‘Rain Dance’ and ‘Dancing Wind’) from Brent Horvath for color and architecture for some degree of predictability. However, assorting them in space has the potential to yield a rich weft through which to weave other seasonally dynamic perennials like Heuchera ‘Northern Exposure Lime’ (a hybrid of our Midwest native H. richardsonii) in spring, Monarda ‘Judith’s Fancy Fuchsia’ in summer, and Symphyotrichum turbinellum (smooth violet prairie aster) in fall.
I’m exploring even more herbaceous structure than I normally do, favoring the right balance of coarse textured perennials and a modicum of woody plant material to yield something authentic to place as well as visually enduring. I’m giving Triosteum perfoliatum another shot after failing miserably to establish it at the farm (actually I’m trying a cultivar of said plant called ‘Chocolate River’ with beautiful emergent purple leaves from Brent Horvath at Intrinsic Perennial Gardens). I’m hosting a trio of Amsonia across the textural spectrum–A. hubrichtii ‘Green Mist’, A. tabernaemontana ‘Halfway to Arkansas’ and A. illustris ‘Seventh Inning Stretch’ (yet again Brent selections). Amsonia illustris is probably my favorite bluestar species, if only because it’s the one I’ve grown the longest. I’m partial to its understated fall color, a blend of ochre and chartreuse, although I make no qualms about the heavenly gold threads of A. hubrichtii. I’m giddy about growing Senna hebecarpa (American senna), one of only two species of an otherwise tropical tribe of popcorn yellow-flowered legumes. I love it as much for those flowers as its devilishly handsome bean pods, ranked and protruding from atop five foot tall stems.
I’ve also not drafted nearly to the same level of detail as I did the meadow. Instead, I’ve listed planting combinations as modules of repeatable units based on the particular ratios built in my planting model. I’ve done this like calisthenics, honing community arrangements as I refine the visual product along the way with exercises in floral geometry, textures and seasonality. The only calisthenics I’m ready for now involve a trowel and a good pair of shoes.