For much of the last year, my writerly attentions have been laser focused on a manuscript that I’ve teased in social media with the hashtag #newnaturalism. The book of the same name, officially, New Naturalism: Designing and Planting A Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden is now making its way through editing and production for a winter 2021 release from Cool Springs Press. Click on the cover or link above to pre-order!

Writing books is a strange profession. Novelist Margaret Mitchell is said to have pronounced upon completion of Gone With the Wind (a work that took her almost 10 years to produce): “In a weak moment, I have written a book.” It’s easy to arrive at the finish line beleaguered and baffled. Books require patience, if not also motivation; deadlines loom. The work is quiet and lonely, something seasoned writers can seemingly love and hate on the same day. Often there is more to say than your fingers can swiftly convey. On other days, giving up in favor of doing laundry is cheap therapy. A book becomes a medium through which to convey new ideas and present them for a wider audience. It’s a privilege and a responsibility.

New Naturalism is my fourth project in 12 years. I guess I’m often writing a book, even if it germinates in my head and makes its way into the world first as a lecture before sorting itself into something as coherent as a manuscript. Perhaps unlike many writers, I enjoy opportunities to verbally process new ideas with live audiences and convey them as much in visual media as words. In that sense, this latest work has evolved for many years from an adolescent interest in plants in wild spaces and an adult profession in interpreting those insights into gardens. These inquiries continue from here, but this book is a good milestone for rallying more gardeners to a verdant cause.

The central premise of New Naturalism grows out of our increasingly urbanized world and its Third Nature, a stylized interpretation of the experience of wildness seen in famous public landscapes like The High Line and others. In gardens, opportunities abound for creation and expression that serves more than our own aesthetic interests. Gardens can be up to something increasingly ecological, celebrating and translating the intrinsic chaos that exists in ecological systems into plant communities that support all sorts of life.

But for all their power to inspire, these public landscapes often seem lofty and unapproachable to home gardeners, even as they support an important call to action: to plant the world a more beautiful, functional place. Surprisingly the scale required to successfully interpret nature is remarkably small; the nature of gardens thrives right under our nose if only we’d lean in for a closer look. Fostering it only requires a different approach to planting. Further, this embrace of nature doesn’t require giving up the pleasure of gardening as we know it. The horticultural-ecological conversation should appeal to and engage the human experience, while articulating sound horticultural practices for success based less on how pretty a plant looks and instead on what good it can do. The goal of New Naturalism is to hasten the horticultural average towards something beyond mere human ambition towards truly resilient landscapes for an uncertain, but opportune future.

I look forward to sharing more about the book, my experiments here at Three Oaks Garden and my experiences of plants in the wild in the lead up to the book’s formal launch. I’ve attempted regularly blogs at many points in my career with mixed success. But given the current pandemic and a suspension of most travel for the near future, I’m hoping for more time to share my thoughts as they emerge, often as I kneel to weed or plant.

Reading time: 3 min
Photo by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash.

I saw my first wood duck when I was about 10 years old. A tartan-colored drake led a hen on the water before flying off into the woods with a startled whistle that pierced the morning air. In my youth, I spent a lot of time at Sand’s Timber, a county recreation area and lake near my grandmother’s farm, birding and botanizing, sleuthing out nature’s next mystery. At 10 years old, everything about nature is a mystery, though nothing a magnifying glass, a field guide and a good set of binoculars can’t solve.

This memory rushed back to me last weekend when I heard a pair of wood ducks flying over the backyard into a stand of trees south of my house. They landed in a dead oak just down the hill. The female darted into a hollowed limb. Apparently aware of my gawking, the scouting lasted only a minute before they dashed off deeper into the trees. I live a quarter of a mile from the Des Moines River, a local flyway for birds migrating inland from the Mississippi River. The floodplain woods are home to herons and bald eagles. Soon, in my hilltop garden, the warblers will arrive, leading the songbird parade. I eagerly anticipate their antics as they alight the canopies of the hackberries and oaks. I could watch them for hours. As prone as I am to ornithological day dreaming, I wonder if I would’ve missed the coming of the wood ducks had life been normal. Would I have had those unscheduled few hours to roam around the yard and pick up sticks last Sunday afternoon? Would I have made time to do it?

“As prone as I am to ornithological day dreaming, I wonder if I would’ve missed the coming of the wood ducks had life been normal.”

Like all of you, I’ve spent the last month adapting to new routines in light of coronavirus. My work travel schedule is nonexistent, nothing like the weekly itineraries of January and February, which seem faraway and distant memories. I’m cooking more again, a pleasant intervention with the transactional relationship I’ve developed with UberEats and GrubHub even as I still try to support my restaurant friends who need the cash. All of this coincides with the return of the growing season, the green glimmers of which bubble up with each passing day. Snowdrops and witchhazels came early at Three Oaks this year, the lambs of spring’s early arrival, but no bellwethers for the lion of March: the arrival of a global pandemic.

Sticks from my left hand last Sunday afternoon.

In the last year, I have added “ecological artist” to my identity, a markedly different self assessment than I would have made only a few years ago. It helps me explain my approach to making gardens, honoring the early influence of Aldo Leopold and A Sand County Almanac on my education, and my curious examinations of plants in photography (and occasionally paint). As my professional life powers ahead at full speed, I’m grateful for the lenses of ecology and art to refocus my practice on its roots. And its sticks.

Hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) are notoriously soft-wooded. Each winter they scatter small branches in a fleeting act of arboricultural dishevelment. Last year, I strung them together into loose, curving lines to form the path I use between the Long Look Prairie and hedgerow. The gist of that sinuous pattern still exists, so I decided to add to it, expanding the outline of the hedgerow for a future planting project into a sixty foot long, double file line of fallen limbs. As I drug hackberry sticks and limbs with my right hand, I sorted smaller stems and seed heads into my left almost unconsciously (shown above). For a short hour which seemed like a few long minutes, my attention was absorbed by the task of collecting and making. I observed the fallen by giving shape to life. Then there were wood ducks.

Against the seeming enormity and uncertainty of it all, a garden, if you’re lucky to have one, is a timepiece of the seasons and a refuge for the spirit. I’ve been absent from this blog for some time, like most blogs I’ve struggled to keep in my life. I write almost daily, but not usually for public consumption. I’m in the final throes of another book that I’m so excited to share with you in the coming months, along with longer form essays like this one. I’ve fallen into the convenience of quick and quippy posts on Instagram in the last few years, but amid this slowing down, I’ll commit to sharing more of the view from Three Oaks. Even when that itinerant lifestyle returns, I hope the memories of now will underscore the sanctuary of home and the joys of keeping it.

Reading time: 4 min

I haven’t written, really written in months. Summer seems a distant memory. The first growing season at Three Oaks Garden was a pleasureful chore, about which I intend to share many thoughts. I’ve never been a particularly good blogger (the term is practically foreign to me), even as I do a reasonably good job of sharing quick little posts on Instagram or Facebook. My writing lately has been perfunctory at best as deadlines come and go for projects small and smaller. The most productive writing cycles in my life are iterative—a compositional feat like a book, for instance. I have an itch to really write more often than I actually have time—my creative self has more outlets than it wants most days. This self-awareness is my creative vulnerability, although I don’t know if I want to spend much time unpacking it. I really write when I have something to say.

Photo by Ryk Naves

Last night, while planting a last-minute assortment of Epimedium, a lone male Carolina wren interrupted my thoughts with a series of alarmist vocalizations as he glided from the branches of a hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) to the railing of my deck. I stood up and found him perched within 10 feet of where I stood, muddy shovel in one hand and a tray of two unplanted plugs dangling from the other. If it wouldn’t have disturbed him, I’d have let it all fall to the ground as I focused with rapt attention on his performance, an innocent spectacle. His raspy, guttural call emanated from him with the full force of his body. He had something to say.

For starters, he was the first of his kind I had observed since moving here to Three Oaks. I owe the sighting to my neighbor who keeps a row of bird feeders in front of his living room window. On a quiet and contemplative autumn night, amid the senescence of the landscape, his call gave me great joy, another moment for the tally of reasons why I’m so in love with this place. With so many leaves now fallen and only the final crackling ember from oaks and hickories in my viewshed, I finally took stock of my first full growing season here. November 2 yielded this Dylan Thomas moment amid the landscape’s final flourish against the dying light, a biological act of defiance before a requisite season of dormancy. This Carolina wren, a new year-round resident of central Iowa only in the last decade, offered a salvo.

His earnest and repetitive calling soon stirred his mate, whose appearance softened his demeanor. His shrillness gave way to something more songful, doting. They flitted as a pair, dancing first through the seedheads of my Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and then chased across the Long Look Prairie to the burning hot cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) at the corner of the property. I lost sight of them for a few minutes, only to hear them scratching and foraging in the leaves accumulating beneath the viburnum’s twiggy infrastructure. They were good company, chattering in the background as I traced my own path back and forth across the prairie, hastily determining where I might plug in these last few plants. I was their benign audience.

Here on this late date, I found myself still planting (let’s not even start on the list of bulbs still to go in the ground). Planting is my purest and most earnest gardening act. It’s what I do best. I don’t mind weeding, in fact it can be quite therapeutic. But I don’t do it well, at least not thoroughly. I give too much license to natural growth and am too lenient with pruning. I regard it as an art in which I’m personally unpracticed, even as I study and admire those who have more training and intuition. Planting, however, I excel at. It’s commitment in horticultural form and my preferred form of engagement with the world. Against all sensibility, I planted perennials on November 2, although I think that Epimedium are relatively safe bets given their nearly evergreen nature. It’s all conditional, but I’ll take the risk. Anyway, the weather looks uncharacteristically wet and milder than average for the next week and the leaf cover is heavy.

I’ve always been inclined to stop and stare at land, to take in its contours and subtleties, its trees and weeds. I noticed absent the distraction of leaves on the box elder (Acer negundo) that a wild grape (Vitis riparia) has jumped the road and abounded the leader, apparently almost 18 feet tall now. Golden strands of this native, aggressive vine entwine the full height of the street light across the way—it’s perhaps the only ornamental moment the plant has all season. I suppose it was only a matter of time before it joined me south of Riverview Drive. I wonder if Carolina wrens forage those withering berries and how they compare to the sparsely clustered drupes on the viburnum they’ve taken shelter in. What’s palatable to a wren?

I don’t yet have any birdfeeders on my side of the hedgerow, something I probably should fix soon. I’ve had a long relationship with birds in my life, and I intend to plant a biologically productive landscape in which they can thrive in accordance with their own ecological instincts. Feeding birds feels a bit selfish, otherwise. But I’m not an ornithological purist. I’ll put out a feeder in hopes of stealing a view onto the courtship of my newfound winged friends, cohabitants of this place I’ve come to love so much in the last 15 months. I’ll also keep planting for their benefit in hopes I’ll have an ear again to whatever they have to say.

Reading time: 4 min

Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. pilosum seedlings emerging

A gardener runs the risk in long winters that the anxious sowings of January, February and March yield far more plants than s/he knows what to do with come April and May. I’m not far from these circumstances, and I still seem to be sowing. Against all advisable best practices, I’ve sowed seeds of things I don’t even intend to plant should they emerge, at least this year. What nursery will they grow in until they have a garden home? I haven’t figured that out yet. Against any wisdom I probably should have by now, I’ve sowed more seeds of certain things I intend to plant than I have room, space or energy to deal with. Every seed of Salvia azurea ‘Nekan’ appears to have germinated. Why did I sow three cells of it? The same is true of Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. pilosum, which is vigorous enough to account for any deficit of seedlings I might have had. No worry now.

I suppose I can’t entirely blame the long winter. With this new house came a finished basement, which I’ve appointed with all the trappings of an indoor seed-starting operation. I last did this when I was all of 11 or 12 years old, retrofitting basement beams and rickety tables in my parents’ rather primitive, farmhouse basement. I sowed heirloom sweet peas and morning glories, tomatoes, peppers and even tried my hand with Phlox drummondii and daylilies (from a cross I’d made the summer before). There were probably more, but these were the few sun-faded, stained packets I found tucked tucked away into a journal while unpacking boxes last week. I don’t recall much from the daylilies and phlox, but do remember some pretty spectacular showings of sweet peas and morning glories (see Ipomoea ‘Mt. Fuji Mix’). The memories of plants grown from seed linger longer for some reason.

There’s something about sowing seeds and raising plants that cultivates a deeper understanding of the subject than simply digging holes. It may not be much, admittedly, but it’s just a little more time and insight into their growth and tendencies that’s all old news by the time you find it on a bench at the garden center. It also feeds the ego of the human experience to cosset small living things which we feel emotionally invested in and watch them grow. Plus, it’s a good way to garden on the cheap or to grow exactly what you want–so often the treasures aren’t on nursery benches or in mail-order catalogs anywhere.

What else am I growing from seed? Here’s a list of highlights, most of which will end up in the Long Look Prairie or Meadow Nord:

Helianthus helianthoides var. scabra ‘Bleeding Hearts’, a new selection from Jelitto dangerously similar in name to ‘Burning Hearts’, which seems to be earning most of the commercial attention. ‘Bleeding Hearts’ offers semi-double orange flowers against purple foliage. I’m fascinated.

Stipa extremiorientalis from seed given to me by Panayoti Kelaidis. A new Stipa to me! I think it will be interesting to see how well this central Asian species fares on my clay soil with its handsome flowering display somewhere between wispy and spiky.

Asparagus verticillatus, also from Panayoti, is a hardy stalwart and climber (every family has one). The late great plantsman Harlan Hamernick popularized this plant through Bluebird Nursery for its beautiful foliage and ample autumn fruiting; totally head-turning when appropriately draped over an arbor.

Silphium albiflorum  is something I grew and flowered at the farm for awhile until it bloomed and died. I’m eager to get plants going here at Three Oaks and at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. It’s alluring and almost hauntingly white flowers are etched in my memory.

Sanguisorba canadensis is our native North American member of the highly popular genus.  It loves wet feet, as so many do, so I’m hoping to incorporate it at the transitional edge of the prairie and the bioswale to the west.

I often get asked where I procure seeds. While I often trade seeds with other plantsmen or swap through plant society seed exchanges, here are four seedhouses I frequently patronize:

Gardens North (although 2018 will be Kristl Walek’s last year in business, unless it sells to a new owner)


J.L. Hudson

Prairie Moon Nursery

Reading time: 3 min

Tracks in the snow this winter in the future Long Look Prairie.

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 salicifoliusEupatorium dubiumLobelia 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.

Reading time: 4 min

Snow brings out the birds. Cardinals and woodpeckers trace arcs from branch to ground. Sparrows dust up white powder in search of something beneath. A chickadee perches atop dogwood twigs in Meadow Nord. It’s cold and soon to be colder. This December has been a case study in the vagaries of Iowa weather. On December 3 it was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Yesterday, it snowed with temperatures hovering in the teens. Tomorrow night temperatures are expected to drop below our winter minimum for Zone 5b to somewhere around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, just in time for New Year’s Day. What I would have given for this meteorological energy three weeks ago. The land could’ve used the rain more than this snow. But praise be the snow. My new plantings need the insulation.

Despite political proclamations, climate change isn’t just about temperature today. The conversation about climate change is a long-tail study in the disruption of norms and patterns, even as the human scale to this argument is inarguably brief. This wobbly reality is the new norm. It seems the winter of 2017-2018 will earn a place in recent history as having begun bitterly. Just please make it brief.

In the meantime, my thoughts drift to the biological minutia of the underground world. The sugars and native anti-freeze properties accumulated in plant cells to help them survive the winter. The overwintering insects burrowed into the remnant stems of grasses, making for proverbial cryogenic condos. The roots emanating from the bulb plates of the few alliums I tucked into the ground, the support system to the inherent flowering display tucked away beneath its scales. Winter is the ultimate conditioner, a vernalizing and stratifying force.

Reading time: 1 min

In an earlier post, I discussed the foundations of my Meadow Nord planting schemes and the inherent complexity of gardens wilder with intention, modeling the behaviors and patterns of natural systems. The history of art and architecture has often vacillated between simple and and complex movements, each with their own intellectual arguments.The history of horticultural plantings is remarkably simplistic, born of an almost purely aesthetic vision (which isn’t bad, if only it weren’t so one-dimensional or boring). I disagree with simplicity for simplicity’s sake and am planting my own argument in favor of a legible exuberance at the overlap of form and function. I’ll have it wilder, please.

To that end, I planted 80 taxa in phase 1. A dozen or so taxa weren’t available or were backordered until spring, bringing the unofficial count to somewhere north of 90. In my previous post, I described the process of planting the meadow and explained a little bit about how dense planting schemes don’t always make sense mathematically (after the remaining plants are installed this coming spring, Meadow Nord will have 116% of its square footage covered in green matter, assuming a theoretical survival rate of 100%, of course). I’m most excited to see how this assorted assemblage forms its own patterns over time. A planting scheme like this is never really “stable,” as the composition of the community will shift interminably. But it can be durable, an idea I wish we would talk more about in landscape design. I have no illusion that every planting choice I’ve made will work out or that every placement is permanent. But I hope for durability of my assumptions over time as each planting decision occurs within a range of tolerances.

Plant List and Sources

A word about the column heads. Phase, Taxa and Cultivar are fairly obvious. I separate cultivar names into separate fields so I can sort by cultivar within diverse genera like asters, for example.

Component contains labels I often use throughout my design process and in Plants With Style: matrix, structure, emblems, vignettes, kitsch.

I liberally defined the bands for Seasonal Interest. I used approximate dates based on previous experience in Iowa when applicable. For others that I haven’t experienced, I used a guesstimate. For groundcovers like Tiarella, I counted the period from flowering through the time when their leaves start to sag a little in the summer heat. This isn’t to say they wouldn’t contribute ornamentally outside of this period, but the design isn’t relying on it exactly. Here is an example of how I used this data to create a phenologic chart using a Gannt chart template in Excel.

A sample Gantt chart generated from a free Microsoft Excel template.

A sample Gantt chart generated from a free Microsoft Excel template.

% of planting signifies the percentage of the entire planting occupied by that taxa. 0% entries result when a species falls below 1%.

Order Qty. indicates the number of units ordered for that taxa. Taxa grown from seed only have 1 unit indicated because I purchased 1 seed packet. I track it this way for costing purposes so I don’t have to break out costs per seed (the rest of the spreadsheet calculates individual costs per plant).

I relied on several Sources to procure this beautiful chaos. Most companies are recognizable. GDMBG stands for Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden indicating plants I purchased through our Spring Garden Festival or propagated from collections I’ve made on behalf of the Garden. My own initials (KDN) or Rainbow Iris Farm (RIF) indicate plants procured from my nursery and garden at my family’s farm.

Meadow Nord Plant List

PhaseTaxaCultivarComponentSeasonal Interest STARTSeasonal Interest END% of plantingOrder QtySource
phase 1Agalinis auriculataKitsch20-Aug10-Sep0.001Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 1Agalinis tenuifoliaKitsch20-Aug10-Sep0.001Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 1AgastacheVelvet CrushVignettes17-Jul11-Sep0.0130Intrinsic Perennial Gardens
phase 1Allium stellatumVignettes7-Aug4-Sep0.0350Bluebird Nursery
phase 1Amorpha nanaStructure1-Jul30-Jul0.0232Bluebird Nursery
phase 1Amsonia tabernaemontanaStorm CloudVignettes8-May5-Jun0.013GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Amsonia tabernaemontanaShort StopVignettes8-May5-Jun0.0112Intrinsic Perennial Gardens
phase 1Anemonopsis macrophyllaEmblems1-Jul15-Jul3Opus Plants
phase 1Antennaria neglectaMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1Antennaria plantaginifoliaMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.01100Pizzo Native Plant Nursery
phase 1Aquilegia canadensisCorbettEmblems24-Apr15-May0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1Aronia melanocarpaIroquois BeautyStructure15-May30-Oct0.015GDMBG (plants)
phase 1Aster x frikartiiMonchVignettes15-Aug15-Sep3GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Boltonia asteroidesJim CrockettEmblems15-Aug15-Sep5GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Calamagrostis brachytrichaVignettes21-Aug30-Oct0.0132Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Calamintha nepetaBlue CloudVignettes5-Jun31-Jul0.0132Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Callirhoe digitataKitsch15-Jun1-Aug0.001Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 1Camassia scilloidesEmblems1-May15-May32Pizzo Native Plant Nursery
phase 1Carex albicansMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.05150New Moon Nursery
phase 1Carex blandaMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.05150New Moon Nursery
phase 1Carex pensylvanicaMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.06200Greenwood Propagation
phase 1Carex sprengeliiMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.04100New Moon Nursery
phase 1Carex woodiiMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1CaryopterisSapphire SurfStructure1-Aug15-Sep0.018Bailey Nurseries
phase 1CaryopterisBeyond MidnightStructure1-Aug15-Sep0.016GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Cleome serrulataKitsch15-Jul10-Sep0.001GDMBG (seed)
phase 1Dalea purpureaVignettes3-Jul31-Jul0.0132GDMBG (plants)
phase 1Delphinium tricorneEmblems1-May15-May0Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 1Deschampsia caespitosaPixie FountainsMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.04128Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Desmanthus illinoensisKitsch20-Jun1-Oct0.001KDN/RIF
phase 1Diarrhena americanaMatrix1-Apr15-Sep0.0276Midwest Groundcovers
phase 1DiervillaKodiak BlackStructure1-May30-Oct0.018GDMBG (plants)
phase 1Dodecatheon mediaVignettes23-Apr21-May0.0176Pizzo Native Plant Nursery
phase 1Eragrostis spectabilisMatrix7-Aug4-Sep0.0370Intrinsic Perennial Gardens
phase 1Eragrostis spectabilisMatrix7-Aug4-Sep0.0250North Creek Nurseries
phase 1Euphorbia corollataVignettes7-Aug28-Aug0.011Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 1Galium odoratumMatrix1-Apr30-May0.0264Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Geranium maculatumEspressoVignettes24-Apr26-Jun0.0132North Creek Nurseries
phase 1Geum triflorumMatrix1-Apr1-Jul0.0250GDMBG (plants)
phase 1Gillenia trifoliataPink ProfusionVignettes1-May21-Aug0.0232North Creek Nurseries
phase 1Glaucium hybridsKitsch15-Jun15-Sep0.001Panayoti Kelaidis
phase 1Helianthus salicifoliusFirst LightVignettes1-Sep30-Sep0.0150North Creek Nurseries
phase 1Hypericum kalmianumCobalt-N-Gold™Structure1-May30-Oct0.0116Bailey Nurseries
phase 1Iris (miniature tall bearded)variousEmblems1-May15-May0.01KDN/RIF
phase 1Iris cristataEmblems1-May15-May50New Moon Nursery
phase 1Iris kochiiEmblems1-May15-MayKDN/RIF
phase 1Mentha longifloraVignettes1-Aug30-Sep0.015Arrowhead Alpines
phase 1Molinia caeruleaMoorflammeMatrix1-Jul15-Sep0.0276Midwest Groundcovers
phase 1Monarda bradburianaVignettes8-May5-Jun0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1OenotheraLemon DropVignettes19-Jun17-Jul0.015GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Packera plattensisVignettes17-Apr15-May0.021Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 1Patrinia punctifloraVignettes7-Aug28-Aug0.015Opus Plants
phase 1PenstemonPocahontasVignettes22-May19-Jun0.0250Intrinsic Perennial Gardens
phase 1Penstemon digitalisPrairie SplendorVignettes22-May19-Jun0.0232Bluebird Nursery
phase 1PhloxOpening Act BlushVignettes15-May15-Jun5GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1PhloxForever PinkVignettes22-May19-Jun0.0132Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Phlox divaricataBlue MoonVignettes24-Apr15-May0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1Physocarpus opulifoliusFestivus GoldStructure1-May30-Oct0.018GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1PolemoniumHeaven ScentVignettes1-May22-May0.0272Intrinsic Perennial Gardens
phase 1Prunella grandifloraVignettes29-May12-Jun0.0132Bluebird Nursery
phase 1PulmonariaShrimps on the BarbieVignettes15-Apr15-Jul5GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Ruellia humilisMatrix10-Jul14-Aug0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1Salix repensBridal RiceStructure1-Apr30-Oct0.018GDMBG (plants)
phase 1Salvia moorcroftiana x indicaVignettes1-May5-Jun0.0132Bluebird Nursery
phase 1Salvia verbenacaVignettes1-Jun1-Aug3Flowers by the Sea
phase 1SanguisorbaBlackthornVignettes17-Jul7-Aug0.013Opus Plants
phase 1Scutellaria incanaVignettes17-Jul14-Aug0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1Sedum takesimenseVignettes26-Jun31-Jul0.0120KDN/RIF
phase 1Silene stellataVignettes26-Jun10-Jul0.020Pizzo Native Plant Nursery
phase 1Sisyrinchium angustifoliumLucerneVignettes10-May12-Jun0.0132Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Solidago drummondiiVignettes4-Sep16-Oct0.0120KDN/RIF
phase 1Solidago odoraVignettes4-Sep16-Oct0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 1Sporobolus heterolepisTaraMatrix1-Jul15-Sep0.0136Midwest Groundcovers
phase 1Symphyotrichum cordifoliumSnowstormVignettes21-Aug11-Sep0.018KDN/RIF (transplant)
phase 1Symphyotrichum ericoidesBridal VeilVignettes21-Aug11-Sep0.0132Stonehouse Nursery
phase 1Symphyotrichum lateriflorumPrinceVignettes11-Sep1-Oct0.015Opus Plants
phase 1ThalictrumNimbus PinkVignettes15-May1-Jun5GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1TiarellaNew Moon MotleyMatrix15-Apr30-Jun0.03100New Moon Nursery
phase 1TiarellaSylvan LaceVignettes15-Apr30-Jun0.015GDMBG (SGF)
phase 1Zizia aureaVignettes22-May12-Jun0.031Prairie Moon Nursery
phase 2Asarum canadensisEmblems0.0130Greenwood Propagation
phase 2Asclepias exaltataVignettes0.0138Pizzo Native Plant Nursery
phase 2Asclepias tuberosaBlonde BombshellVignettes0.01Walter's Gardens
phase 2Ceanothus americanusmy collectedVignettes0.013GDMBG (plants)
phase 2Dianthus knappiiVignettes0.0132KDN
phase 2EchinaceaKismet RedVignettes0.0150Terra Nova Nurseries
phase 2Erigeron pulchellusLynnhaven CarpetVignettes0.01North Creek Nursery
phase 2EurybiaTwilightVignettes0.0150New Moon Nursery
phase 2Lamium orvalaVignettes24-Apr15-May0.0132Stonehouse Nursery
phase 2Liatris ligulistylisVignettes0.0250New Moon Nursery
phase 2Millium effusumYaffleVignettes27-Apr5-Sep0.015Opus Plants
phase 2Oligoneuron albumVignettes19-Jun17-Jul0.0132Taylor Creek Nursery
phase 2Tradescantia bracteataKrystalVignettes22-May26-Jun0.01KDN/RIF (transplant)

Reading time: 2 min

[The balance of this post was drafted in October after most of the meadow was planted. The last two months seem to have escaped in a blur of travel and other obligations, but rather than rewrite the post into a more current tense, I have preserved its original context.]

October rumbles and autumn warbles–the organic music of a Saturday at home at Three Oaks. After months of parching weather, rains came earlier this month, a glad tiding for a gardener weary from watering. The yellow-rumped warblers passed through the hedgerow as the weather changed, playfully alighting the branches of the hackberries behind the house. Their ornithological acrobatics seemed ritualistic, a brief stopover for sustenance and rest on an only-just-commenced, neotropical journey. I’m delighted by these natural cadences and rhythms in my new landscape home.

Now that cold weather has settled in, I seem to have found a little more time for reflecting on “the project” this fall. A pair of shoes by the back door is encrusted with brown clay, the rich if not tacky substrate I’ve made a garden in. My notes are hasty inscriptions on the reverse of invoices and box lids. I typed a few into Evernote for each of the posts I imagined while hunched over planting. I have a pile of seed packets to frost sow, the timing for which might come soon enough. October 27 marked our first frost, a few weeks ahead of the last couple of years, but still later than the 20-year average in Des Moines, Iowa.

The next chapter of the Meadow Nord story–actually planting it–will require two posts. Here I have documented the approach, the layout and planting. In the following post, I’ll publish the plant list and my remarks about particular planting choices.

Planting Approach

Only the beginning of the pile of pots in the driveway! Photo by Deb Wiley.

The scale of this project (3,200 square feet) led me to install most plants (78%) as landscape plugs (from 32, 38 or 50-cell trays). For starters, it’s cheaper, but it’s also vastly more practical. For years, research has demonstrated that plants established from landscape plugs reach the same size within a year as plants established from one gallon pots, an insight that would seem to have disruptive potential for the horticulture and landscape industries, if consumer’s value perception followed suite (this study underscores what we might assume: people perceive larger plants to have more value. This pattern is also documented in trees, as well.) Plus, who likes digging big holes? I elected to install some plants at larger sizes (1-gallon or more), particularly slow-growing species like Amsonia and Baptisia that would scarcely have a chance of establishing if installed as plugs. A few slow-growing grasses like Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’ were only available in 1-gallon pots, too. Species that I propagated myself, like my beloved Solidago drummondii (cliff goldenrod), were planted as quarts or 4.5″ diameter pots.

One of the overriding principles of New Naturalism is considering the landscape in ecologically dynamic layers and dimensions, so much so that when composing planting palettes, you have to plant more than 100% of the square footage. At first blush, this might sound confusing or impossible. Square footage is only a two-dimensional consideration of the landscape, which doesn’t account for the inherent complexity or interactions between the matrix, structure and the seasonally charged vignettes that come to make the garden functional and interesting. Traditional design simply chalks up the space between plants as something that “fills in over time,” which isn’t inaccurate but doesn’t define what fills in or how. Weeds or opportunists will happily do the job, while the balance of your intentions struggle to gain a foothold. In reality, a single unit of square footage is the frame for a three-dimensional column of plantable layers–vertical and horizontal–that plants can occupy many times over. These competitive relationships–roots fighting for water and nutrients and leaves shading each other–are the building blocks of sustainable plant communities.

Plugging Away

A man, a spray can and a mission. Photo by Deb Wiley.

Furthermore, embracing plant schemes as matrices as opposed to discrete groupings complicates not only rendering the design but the logistics for installing it. Some designers use map-like grids and organize plant material accordingly. Admittedly, I wish I had, although no strategy is perfect. Most of my plants were on-site when the planting process began, but several key ingredients were backordered for a few weeks, which added additional headaches (nothing unusual, frankly). In the end, my installation process followed my design process, which begins with matrix and structure and concludes with crafting artful vignettes; work first, play later. I walked over ground more times than ideally efficient, but with each pass, the vision for the design became clearer. I edited along the way and shifted course when the circumstances warranted. I couldn’t stop. I wanted to bum a head lamp and plug away, water, pull hose, putz. I’d waited all year for this moment to create something for myself. I selfishly cursed the sunset, even as it cast a strange silver glow over the meadow. I’m grateful for a “village” approach to planting with invaluable assistance from family and friends over the course of two weeks of intense planting.

Friends joined in the planting effort on Labor Day weekend. Photo by Deb Wiley.

Watering in the dark became the ritual to end my day even as the mosquitoes attempted to make dinner of my legs and arms. I purchased a small-scale Rain Bird automatic irrigation system as a means of temporary irrigation during the establishment period, though I continued to hand water areas it didn’t cover. The first few weeks were critical given that we received very little rainfall. This may have been the best $120 I’ve ever spent. The system could be permanent, but rather than trench and deal with water source issues, I rigged up a garden hose from a spigot on the side of the house as the feeder line and set the programming to run twice a day for about an hour. With all that clay soil, I calibrated that regimen to just once per day after a week to avoid inundating and drowning plants.

Within a few weeks, new growth showed on most of the grasses, sedges and forbs. Robins and cedar waxwings played in the soft spray of the irrigation heads each morning, dabbling their wings in the shallow puddles that accumulated on the cardboard scraps that traced the paths during the planting process.


Reading time: 5 min

Sporobolus heterolepis 'Tara'

Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’, a dwarf form of the species, is one of the showier plants of the matrix layer.

Plants are the very essence of a garden’s style, the ingredients with which we plant indelible memories and emotional experiences. I’m unabashedly obsessed with these components, the materials for making beautiful and functional landscapes, so much so that my process for making gardens begins with a consideration of the details. Many professional designers might scoff at that approach, favoring something more conceptual layered with successive amounts of detail (of which plants are often last). But the design process, or dare I say the process of expressing and fusing nature and humanity in a common landscape, isn’t linear. It’s spasmodic and at times perambulating, a journey through understanding place.

The concept for Meadow Nord evolved early and fast, something I felt sure about given the context of the land. The savanna archetype–the interstitial ecological zone between forest and grassland–felt especially right given the species composition of nearby parkland (which effectively envelopes my neighborhood to the west, south and east). Oak trees hold forth in canopy and sedges reign below; the sunnier edges give rise to Elymus spp. (wild rye) and Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem). For the last few weeks, Gentiana alba (cream gentian) and Symphyotrichum cordifolium (blue wood aster) have flowered in succession, following on the heels of a monthlong profusion of Rudbeckia triloba (brown-eyed susan), which seems to grow in all the neighborhood gardens. Though the product of disturbance in an urban-influenced environment, the local diversity is seasonally rhythmic and inspiring.

(I even found small outcroppings of Diarrhena obovata, our local beakgrass much beloved by wild turkeys. My friend and fellow plantsman Allen Bush just wrote about the more eastern species of Diarrhena on Garden Rant. These aren’t the showiest of grasses (nor do they have the best name), but they are remarkably functional and serviceable.)

This isn’t to say that ecology drove the decision entirely. I wanted something to connect my house, a two-story 1941 Colonial Revival, to the extensional parkland landscape. I was already blessed with the noble canopy of oaks to frame the view from the street, so this planting could afford looseness so long as it abided by the boundaries. The planting scheme in most places won’t grow over 3-feet tall and with more than 125 linear feet of curb, even if a few plants tower to greater heights, they won’t disrupt the composition as it sweeps over the front yard. I’ve planted the beginnings of a minimal and informal hedge at the foundation of the house featuring, among other things, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Haas’ Halo’ and Aronia melanocarpa ‘Iroquois Beauty’. Additionally, most of the structural plant groupings in the meadow contribute to the effect while not overwhelming the house.

Understanding Soil

On a hill above the river set in a neighborhood called Oak Park, I wasn’t surprised to find “loamy upland forest” soil, as described by the USDA’s Web Soil Survey. Those soil surveys build on historical data recalibrated every so often by contemporary usage, climate, etc. In cities, soils often fall into “complexes” variously described by their parent historical soil type (in my case the Hayden series) appended with the reminder that in urban environments, the soil underfoot might be as far removed from its natural history as you could imagine. The Hayden series is a calcareous, glacial loam with moderate to high alkalinity; the standard stuff of central and northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

Durable Assumptions

My goal with planting Meadow Nord wasn’t to create perfection within a frame, but instead operate within a realm of durable assumptions. Every gardener makes assumptions about plants. Occasionally, we plant something with a hope and a prayer, but more often than not, we intend for a plant to do something on account of its size, ornamental traits or the position we’ve given it in the garden. Plants aren’t always so compliant. In a 3,200 square foot meadow, you can measure assumptions by the yard.  My spreadsheet notes about the matrix layer reveal a combination of insights, intentions and hopes that this novel assortment of players works together in concert.

Antennaria neglecta Matrix Full sun; driveway edge
Antennaria plantaginifolia Matrix Part sun, dry shade; path edges
Carex albicans Matrix Clumper, sun + part shade
Carex blanda Matrix Rhizomatous, savanna edge; groundcover for taller grasses
Carex pensylvanica Matrix Rhizomatous, shade
Carex sprengelii Matrix Rhizomatous, shade; likes moisture
Carex woodii Matrix Rhizomatous, dry shade; under oak
Deschampsia caespitosa Pixie Fountains Matrix Clumper, sun + part shade
Diarrhena americana Matrix Full shade; oak tree
Eragrostis spectabilis Matrix Full sun; driveway edge
Eragrostis spectabilis Matrix Full sun; driveway edge
Galium odoratum Matrix Full shade
Geum triflorum Matrix Full sun; open areas
Molinia caerulea Moorflamme Matrix Full sun; open areas
Ruellia humilis Matrix Full sun; open areas
Sporobolus heterolepis Tara Matrix Full sun; open areas
Tiarella New Moon Motley Matrix Full shade; oak tree

My personal challenge was to experiment with plants beyond the realm of my hands-on experience. I gambled lightly on the matrix (as critical of a layer as this, I felt more comfortable planting known quantities); only six taxa above are new to my gardening experience:

  • I have admired Antennaria plantaginifolia since I encountered it in the Ozarks in 2009. It’s a remarkable, durable plant of the savanna understory with dashing silver foliage.
  • Carex albicans, C. blanda and C. woodii are new sedges to me, though in the case of C. blanda, I’m sure I’ve weeded it out of my woodland garden at the farm over the years, unknowing and indignant of its value.
  • I mentioned Diarrhena americana and the more Midwestern native D. obovata already in this post. I have my own seed collections of the latter, which I would have rather experimented with, but not in the quantity I ultimately needed. D. americana was available from Midwest Groundcovers and suffices ornamentally and functionally for the same purpose (and from what I can tell already, the turkeys that trek through my garden happily consume its seeds).
  • For as many heuchera and tiarella as I’ve killed over the years (and for as many as I love and adore), Tiarella ‘New Moon Motley’ was a strain from New Moon Nursery with red-marked leaves and a robust running habit that I hadn’t encountered before. It features prominently in a groundcovering role underneath the canopy of Big Bur.

Post-planting, I have confidence in my approach and palette, but could use additional Carex albicans, which as a sun-tolerant and clump-forming sedge has a lot of value for my site given its exposure and the floral complexity of the above-ground layers (which I’ll break down and detail in future posts). It’s good for intermingling, a polite and unfussy socializer. I could say the same of Eragrostis spectabilis, but I know it will eventually move its way into the handful of spots where I wish there was more. While the matrix layer of plants doesn’t attract as much attention in horticulture as it should, it’s critical to success in these complex-by-design plantings.

Reading time: 5 min

Marking paints traces the central path through the meadow.

For a long time, “meadow” was a term that irritated me. Designers and horticulturists lob it around with careless literary application, describing everything from the colossal tallgrass prairie to a weedy patch of hayfield that looks poetically charming when the alfalfa comes into flower. The word meadow lacks an empirical definition–it’s more or less a colloquialism. But the idea of a meadow has had a profound impact on contemporary horticulture in the last two decades and continues to inspire eclectic, hybrid arrangements of plants that simulate the essence of wildness. For that alone, I adopt and accept its usage.

The notion of a front yard meadow has been variously characterized as brave and defiant in the course of garden literature in the last 100 years. It shakes the traditional, Jeffersonian norm of the front yard as a conformative tableau. Yet, I wasn’t striving for heroism as much as I was channeling the sentiments shared in a 2006 lecture by Liz Primeau, the author of Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass. Primeau, the founding editor of the recently shuttered Canadian Gardening magazine, spoke at the first Perennial Plant Association Symposium I attended and inspired an audience of growers, designers and students to think about the opportunities lying fallow in front yards around the world. Primeau advocated that front yards were doormats to our lives, a statement about who we are and how we welcome others into our home. Why settle for the sterility of turf and hedge when you could offer your neighborhood something beautiful? It’s a noble, but self-serving gesture. With only a little more than a half-acre to plant, I wanted to find creative ways to plant every square inch. If I inspired someone in the process, fantastic. But I needed to plant, to push the boundaries and say a little something about the ethics of my land.



When I made the offer on this house back in April, I had an immediate urge to set pencil to paper and draw. I had waited for this moment for nearly a year, looking at dozens of properties in search of the right canvas on which to plant: I mostly was searching for a garden and a place to sleep.

I doodled. I calculated. I actually drafted the first half of this plan in a few nights of insomnia by aid of scotch and Samuel Barber symphonies. But I didn’t touch it as the closing dragged longer into the summer. For a few nights at the end of August, I set out to complete it, even as the spreadsheets and the plant orders were long finished. I needed to. I’ve never had much talent in drafting or rendering, but I’m inspired by the pursuit even if my results look hieroglyphical at best. I convinced myself of the value in committing to a draft, even if it ultimately proved iterative.

A sketch of Meadow Nord. (c) 2017, Kelly D. Norris.


Pushing Boundaries

My friend and colleague Thomas Rainer of Phyto Studio raised a question in conversation recently that illustrates the possibilities of what a meadow can be. He asked if my garden would feature only native plants in attempt to authenticate a certain wild ecology or if it would blend horticultural varieties, hybrids and contemporary ideas into a matrix that merely functioned in a wild sense. The answer is that my Meadow Nord (an amalgamation of Swedish which simply means “meadow north,” referring to the fact that my front yard project is on the north side of the house) is a horticultural construction, but with great consideration and planning for the communities of plants that form the matrix of the overall design.

Throughout this process I gave myself one rule, which I vowed to break with impunity if they didn’t satisfy the project’s natural direction. There are no rules in gardening that can’t be broken, consequences be damned. The Golden Rule:  plant at least 75% of the meadow to things you haven’t planted before.


The Matrix by Design

I broke The Golden Rule quickly. The actual plant list (stay tuned) is about 50:50, in part the result of availability. Once settled on the concept and the flow for how I wanted to move through the space, I began considering the plants I needed to accomplish my goals. It probably goes without saying that I’m passionate about the ingredients, the essence of my last book Plants With StyleMuch as I outline in the chapters of that book, my route to constructing a successful garden recipe begins with a careful consideration of the environment and its native ecology (even if that ecology isn’t entirely relevant in a human-dominated space). My property resides squarely in the savanna archetype, that ecologically fleeting, temporal transition between grassland and woodland. A meadow in the clearing makes good sense. But building a garden from that foundation requires a consideration of structure, the seasonal change in a landscape, its experiential moments and the unique elements that personalize a garden. Each of these components is plant-driven.

I began with the matrix, the functional layer of plants, that will come to support the integrity and sustainability of the overall design. The matrix accounts for 45% of the total planting composition. This weft of sedges, short grasses, rhizomatous and rosette-forming perennials will help to establish a continuum of green mulch that will suppress weeds, capture rainfall and do the bulk of the ecological work of the system. The (woody) structural layer accounts for only 7% of the planting composition, consistent with a savanna archetype that’s largely dominated by herbaceous perennials. Most of these shrubs have low-growing, sprawling habits. I weighed not using them at all, but I think shrubs are a missing component in contemporary New Naturalism designs. This is less an experiment in aesthetics (we have several gardens at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden that utilize shrubs in these contexts), but more of how manage them in a dynamic, systematic planting in a home landscape. My vision (read: hopeful intent) is that they won’t too quickly outgrow their station or overwhelm their neighbors, but rather ultimately add a four-season framework to the planting scheme.

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