Garden Designers Roundtable: 5 Ways to Spice Up Your Garden with DANGER (just a little)

Is the scariest thing in your garden the risk of stepping in a pile of fresh dog doo? While real danger isn’t good—rotting deck boards, a spiny agave leaning out over the front walk, or a heavy piece of statuary that isn’t secured in place, especially if you have kids or pets—the thrill of a little perceived danger can be invigorating to a bland garden. Children instinctively know this, which is why they love climbing up into a tree house, leaping across a creek on slippery stepping stones, and picking up creepy-crawly bugs and toads to surprise Mom.

As garden makers, we can add small thrills in order to elicit a few more oohs and aahs from visitors exploring our gardens. Here are 5 ways to spice up your garden with a pinch of danger.

1. Plant a few “scary” plants, and place them where they can easily be admired without any real danger of injury. Examining and gently touching a thorny or dagger-like plant is thrilling; falling into one, not so much. Agave or cactus spines will draw the curious like Sleeping Beauty to Maleficent’s spinning wheel (“Touch it! Touch it, I say!”). Wingthorn rose (Rosa sericea ptericantha), bed of nails (Solanum quitoense), or Poncirus trifoliata ‘Flying Dragon’ are other good choices.

2. Make paths that require you to pay attention to footing or that feel a little claustrophobic. Your main walk should be securely constructed, so that even the most rickety grandpa or toddling child can traverse it to the front door without harm. But lesser paths can be a little more “dangerous.” Think stepping stones across a water feature; Japanese gardens are especially good at this. Or narrow a path around a large boulder or dense shrub so that you can’t quite see what’s coming around the bend. Add a surprising piece of art around the turn to heighten the thrill.

3. Add height to your garden and play with a feeling of vertigo. If you’re lucky enough to garden on a slope, this is easy to accomplish. Terrace your slope with patios or resting places, creating overlooks and the thrill of looking down from a steep height. Even a flat garden, however, can contain an exciting elevation change:

Add a raised platform—a deck, a yoga platform, or even a tree perch—to capture a view of the surrounding area or just a new perspective on your own garden.

Or try adding a large boulder or three as accents. You’ll see that kids love climbing on it, and you may want to too!

4. Let living creatures, even scary ones, inhabit your garden. We all want butterflies and birds in our gardens. But what about spiders, snakes, bees, and wasps? Can you have one without the other? Not really. Insecticides (including mosquito misting systems) kill beneficial bugs as well as harmful ones, and they may poison birds who eat contaminated insects. Go natural instead, allowing birds and beneficial insects to gobble up harmful ones. Remember that spiders are important predators of bad bugs, and bees and wasps are beneficial pollinators who generally won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. And most snakes that you’ll encounter in a garden are non-venomous and merely hunting pests like rodents. Be glad! For the most part, just let them be unless they’re really a danger.

I nearly walked face-first into a web occupied by a large spider in my garden one evening, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. But now that I know it’s there, I just walk around it, and I check the web each day to see what the spider has caught. She adds a little thrill of danger to my garden, and I like that she’s reducing the mosquito and fly population. Plus she makes a good Halloween decoration.

5. Be daring, try new things, live dangerously! Think about the gardens you’ve most enjoyed. Did the owners play it safe, content for their yard to look like everyone else’s up and down the street? Or did they surprise or wow you with unusual plant combinations, creative hardscaping, handmade garden decor, a playfulness, the zing of personality that you just can’t get unless you’re willing to risk looking silly or being thought tacky by the “safe” neighbor. Maybe your ideas will succeed, and maybe they won’t. But at least you’ll have tried, and that’s more than many people ever do in their gardens.

Boring gardens just slay me.

So the lesson here is, don’t play it too safe in your garden. Let a little danger in—perceived danger, that is. Be willing to make your visitor (and yourself) a little uncomfortable on occasion. After all, you don’t want anyone dying of boredom out there.

Now that would be really scary.

This is my contribution to today’s posting on Dangerous Gardens by Garden Designers Roundtable. Click for links to other designers’ posts from around the U.S. and the U.K. Also, be sure to read the guest post by Loree Bohl, of the appropriately named blog Danger Garden.

Loree Bohl : Danger Garden : Portland, OR

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Garden writers convene in the desert for Tucson GWA Symposium

A few short years ago I didn’t think of myself as a garden writer. I was a garden blogger, plain and simple. But then I started getting offered, and learned to pursue, paid writing assignments, and now I have a book coming out, a fact that still amazes me. And yet I still most strongly self-identify as a blogger—a realization brought home to me last week at my first Garden Writers Association (GWA) conference, where I was asked again and again by fellow attendees what it is I do. Invariably, I gave a meandering version of this reply: “Well, I write a garden blog called Digging. And I’ve written for print here and there. I’m a garden designer. I publish photos from time to time too. Oh! And I’m about to have my first book published.” Um, yeah. I need to work on my elevator introduction.

Saguaro-shaped cookie in my Tucson hotel room

I feel a fierce loyalty to my blog. Maybe it’s because everything that I’m privileged to do now, and get paid for—writing, design, photography—has sprung from this well. Or maybe it’s because Digging is my home place, where I can kick off my shoes and be as comfortable as I want, without the demands of editor or client, as much as I enjoy those creative challenges.

Nevertheless, I decided to explore the larger garden-writing world this year by attending the annual GWA symposium, which was held at a beautiful resort hotel in Tucson, Arizona. I experienced several firsts: networking with hundreds of garden writers, editors, publishers, publicists, and vendors; listening and learning in talks about everything from making videos to becoming a better speaker to successfully pitching a story idea to the love of place felt by a skinny, singing, storytelling desert rat named Petey Mesquitey; and visiting the Sonoran Desert for the first time.

Did you know it takes 75 years before a saguaro cactus starts to grow an “arm”? These big guys are old-timers, and they are so easy to anthropomorphize. This is the view from my hotel room. You may be wondering about all that green grass. My room overlooked the golf course.

The rosy Catalina Mountains greeted me every morning at breakfast and every cool, desert evening on the hotel terrace.

The hotel, the Westin La Paloma, was lovely, but I didn’t find much time to lounge around the pool.

Instead we were constantly on the go, meeting people, attending presentations, and visiting gardens. Here’s my traveling companion and good friend Diana Kirby at the Tucson Botanical Garden, camera at the ready, trying to stay warm in the chill of morning. (I loved those cool mornings.)

Oh, don’t worry, we had plenty of fun too. Here’s Diana working her magic with the aid of a crystal ball. You have to use your imagination.

Garden Designers Roundtable members Andrew Keys, Laura Schaub, David Cristiani, Rebecca Sweet, Jenny Peterson, Susan Morrison, and me

Like most things, GWA is really all about the people you meet. I tried to meet as many new people as I could but know there were many I missed. I was thrilled, however, to finally meet Tucson author and designer Scott Calhoun, whose books I’ve long enjoyed, and Facebook friends and GDRT colleagues Susan Morrison, Rebecca Sweet, Andrew Keys, and Laura Schaub. Once I realized how many Garden Designers Roundtable members were at the conference, I knew we needed a group photo. After garden tours one afternoon, I herded our group together for a quick photo op. A passing GWA attendee graciously took our picture, getting a great shot in just one take. Whoever you are, thanks! And thanks also to the organizers of the Tucson symposium. I learned a lot and am still awed by the majesty and forbidding beauty of the desert.

More posts about garden tours at GWA Tucson coming soon, starting with the art-filled garden of Alan Richards.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants

Not that long ago, native plants got little respect. They were considered weeds, inelegant scrub, and surely harbored ticks, chiggers, and rodents. Ahead-of-their-time native-plant enthusiasts faced resistance from neighbors concerned about an unkempt look. And even if you did want to grow these plants, you couldn’t find them at your local nursery.

Michael McDowell’s Plano Prairie Garden
We’ve come a long way, baby! Over the past couple of decades, gardening with native plants has achieved not just acceptance but mainstream popularity, driven in some regions by watering restrictions that make gardens full of thirsty exotics unsustainable, as well as a desire to garden with a sense of place. Native plants are now readily available in independent nurseries or online, and shelves of books have been written about gardening with them. Most botanical gardens, it seems, now devote at least some space to native plants, and here in Austin we’re fortunate to have an entire botanical garden, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, dedicated to education about and the display of native plants.

Tait Moring’s Austin garden
One aspect of growing native plants, however, continues to lag behind: design. Natives are often used in naturalistic or wildscaped gardens but less commonly, it seems, in more-structured designs, whether formal, clean-lined contemporary, or simply HOA-friendly. Can natives, in fact, be used effectively in non-naturalistic gardens?

You bet. After all, plants are plants, as far as design goes. But here are some tips to keep in mind when using natives to achieve strong design in a central Texas garden.

1. Use broad-leaved plants for structure and contrast. So many of our native perennials here in central Texas, especially sun-lovers, are fine-textured. The tiny leaves that help a plant retain moisture become a blur of undifferentiated foliage very easily. Break up that sea of fine texture with broad-leaved and structural plants like agave, yucca, and spineless prickly pear. Don’t worry—it won’t make your garden look like a desert to have a few of these spiny plants in it. Provided they have good drainage and are grown with other drought-tolerant, sun-loving plants, they mingle quite nicely with flowering perennials and ornamental trees, as in this grouping of Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) and rock penstemon (Penstemon baccharifolius) with nonnative artichoke agave (Agave parryi var. truncata) in Curt Arnette’s southwest Austin garden.

2. Include strong lines in your garden through the use of defined paths, low walls, seating areas, and other hardscape.
A wildscape garden can get by with a stepping-stone path or mulched trail. But if you want a more structured native-plant garden, give it plenty of definition, as in this Glee Ingram-designed garden in west Austin. I don’t mean that you have to spend big bucks on fancy stone terraces or high walls (although those are lovely if you have the means). Defined gravel paths and patios work very well too and have the advantage of being less expensive and easy to install yourself.

And anyone can build a low retaining wall to create an elevation change that adds interest and definition to the garden, as in the Poth-Gill garden in central Austin.

If you need more inspiration, visit the Wildflower Center to see firsthand how to add beautiful structure to native-plant gardens through the use of hardscape.

3. Choose native plants with a long season of interest.
The traditional-garden exotics so often used in gardens across the country are popular for a reason: they are sturdy, long-lasting performers. Of course they may also be water guzzlers and intolerant of our Texas summers, so when you turn to native substitutes, look for those that put on a good show for more than just a few glorious weeks. In Roxanne and Ira Yates’s garden, pictured above, Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), Wheeler sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), and damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) combine to form a multi-layered, mostly evergreen garden with seasonal flowering.

4. Add focal points to your garden along sight lines.
This is a traditional design technique, and it works just as well in a native garden—maybe better because it adds essential structure—to direct the eye to certain features or indicate where one should walk. Plant an allee of native trees, as Austinite Tom Spencer did with bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)—use an ornamental tree like Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) if your property is small—drawing the eye inevitably toward a focal-point garden ornament.

Or plant a large pot with a native plant and place it midway along a path so as to stop the eye and encourage visitors to stop and look, as I did with a Texas nolina (Nolina texana) in my former garden.

Cathy Nordstrom-designed garden in northwest Austin
5. Remember that native plants require maintenance, just as traditional exotics do, to look their best.
Natives have been sold so well to the public as bulletproof drought survivors that people often think you can just plant them and walk away. Uh-uh. Not only do native plants require some TLC to get established, just as nonnatives do, they also look better in a garden setting with regular grooming. Have you ever gone hiking on the greenbelt and really looked at the landscape? Is that what you want your garden to look like? I’m not saying a wildscape is bad. I’m just saying that’s not what most people want in front of their houses, especially in traditional neighborhoods.

Rather than let your natives grow “wild” in your garden, take time to prune them as necessary. I don’t mean shearing them into meatballs, mind you, just cutting back dead stems and branches, pruning for shape, pulling up or moving seedlings that are taking over your gravel paths, and giving your garden a cared-for look. Such maintenance is made easier from the start by choosing plants based on their mature sizes, so that you aren’t having to continually clip overgrown foundation shrubs or butcher trees that outgrew their placement.

Take Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) for example. This is a beautiful shrub when in bloom, but it has a tendency to get woody and bloom less if you don’t take the clippers to it. Whack it back by half in late winter (mid-February), and again by one-third in early summer (after the spring bloom) and in late summer (in preparation for fall bloom). It’ll reward you with a tidy shape and a burst of colorful flowers—an asset to your garden.

There you have it—my tricks of the trade for designing with central Texas native plants in a more-structured style of garden. Let me know if you have any other tips that work well too!

This is my contribution to today’s posting on Designing with Native Plants by Garden Designers Roundtable. Click for links to other designers’ posts from around the U.S. and England.

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.