A Botanical Garden? In Maine?

A view from the Meditation Garden.

It’s official. I am a certified plant geek. The number one destination on my list of places to visit on a recent vacation? The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Rapidly becoming one of my favorite places, right up there with the Chicago Botanic Garden. The executive director, William Cullina, is doing some really exciting things, from the design of the gardens themselves, to the plant collections, to public education and outreach.

A small slice of the imaginative Children’s Garden. You can’t see the fire breathing dragons from here. But you can throw a lobster trap off the end of that dock.

So what’s the attraction? Attractions? The Children’s garden is cutting edge, they have a test plot of woodland ferns from the Hardy Fern Foundation that I could study for years, they host an annual Fairy Garden Festival, and they have constantly rotating sculpture exhibits that would make a gallery owner drool. Just to name a few.

Visitors can build their own fairy houses of native materials along one of the woodland trails.

As with museums and zoos, I think Botanic Gardens are key places to create public awareness, educate, engage, and fire the imagination. From kids to adults to seniors, a public garden gives everyone a place to go to reconnect and learn about the other living things we share the planet with, and can show us how we can shape this interaction in a positive way. And it’s a better way to spend a rainy afternoon than zapping zombies in the latest game on my computer. Really. Told you I was a plant geek.

The Sphagnum Bog garden.


More fun than a barrel of…!


A ceramic rain barrel in the gardens of the Ohio Governor’s mansion.

Okay, I’m thinking about water again. After a series of droughty summers, perhaps you are tired of seeing your water bill creep up as the weather warms. Or maybe you’ve heard that city water has all sorts of additives that keep the water clean, but that aren’t so good for garden plants. Maybe you are tired of piping all that perfectly good rain water from your roof directly to the street gutter and down the storm sewer while your plants sit thirsty. I think it’s time to get a rain barrel.

And the Cincinnati Zoo gets it right again! A rain barrel in one of the visitor education areas, that helps water nearby landscape beds.

Rain barrels are just what they sound like: large barrels (often 50-60 gallons), usually made of plastic, but sometimes wood or metal, that collect rainwater for future use. A barrel could be set out with an open top to just catch rain as it falls, but it is more efficient to hook it to a system that collects water over a large surface (like a roof), and then pipes it (usually through gutters and downspouts) to the barrel for collection.

There are a few parts that every good rain barrel should have: a screened opening for the water to flow into, that keeps leaves and debris out (not to mention children and mosquitoes), an overflow spout (to direct water away from the house if it rains hard enough), and a faucet near the bottom to which you can hook a hose to water the garden (though you might want to avoid using water collected from your roof on edible plants if you are worried about contaminants).

Make it pretty, as well as practical!

You can also build a daisy-chain of multiple barrels to collect even more water (a light rainfall off a medium sized roof will fill 3 to 4 barrels; a heavy rainfall can overflow 6 to 8 barrels or more). Try painting your barrels, or planting around them to make them more settled in their surroundings.

Or just go BIG! This tank collects rainwater from the roof of a rural garage that houses a boat and several trucks. Gravity feeds this water through hoses to most of the gardens on the property, but an auxiliary pump helps when needed.

A Growing Community

The community garden at the Mid Ohio Food Bank. Fresh produce is grown here and then distributed seasonally through the bank. Crops can be custom grown to satisfy what clients want or need.

Whether by need or desire, any group of people that gets together to garden a piece of land creates a community garden. So says the American Community Garden Association, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Reasons to start a garden may be as diverse as starting a school garden, getting together to reclaim a vacant or trash-strewn lot and make it beautiful again, or to create a source of affordable fresh produce.

Benefits of community gardens include encouraging social interaction, beautifying neighborhoods, reducing food costs, making food more readily available, strengthening community ties, encouraging interaction between generations, conserving resources, creating opportunities for recreation and exercise, reducing crime, increasing green space and creating new sources of local income.

Gardens are a great opportunity for the community to work together side by side, whether toward a common goal, or just in a common space. Techniques and tools can be shared, and work is often done by multiple generations.

Historically, community gardens are rooted in the idea of the “commons,” typically areas of unused open space, often near town centers, shared by those in the community who did not have their own lots to farm. These spaces were often used by individuals or families to grow food for their own use. This idea regained popularity in WWII, with the rise of the Victory Garden, where civic duty reinforced the need for family gardens, so larger stocks of commercially grown produce could be saved for the troops.

The modern community garden movement often focuses on local efforts to create civic involvement, maintain plant diversity, and to secure local sources of fresh produce for residents. Gardening techniques are often organic, to reduce the burden on resources, and local gardening organizations teach skills to young people and other interested residents. Community gardens can even earn money, selling crops through local farmer’s markets.

Schools are communities too! The classroom gardens at the Columbus Montessori Education Center were a joint effort of staff, parents and volunteers. The gardens support the teaching mission in the classrooms.

For more information on how to start your own community garden, visit the American Community Garden Association’s website at www.communitygarden.org.


Keep It Simple…

Vines can grow in very narrow beds, making trellises, whether on a fence or not, great structures for softening small garden spaces.

Designing for a small space can be one of the most interesting challenges in the landscape. As those who live in older sections of most cities know, small garden spaces can be rich. A few simple design techniques can help achieve layered garden spaces even in limited circumstances.

First, keep it simple. Straight lines and rectangular schemes can keep small spaces organized and easily understood. Use these lines to carry energy that flows out from the house into the garden, and then shape it to create distinctive subspaces outdoors.

Strong lines, repeated elements and straight edges organize space without making it static. Use softening elements of varying heights to add interest.

Scale these spaces to people. Narrow and cramped areas simply reinforce a sense of claustrophobia. If you want a gathering space, scale it to the size group who will use it. Then soften the edges to make the space more inviting.

Use structure to organize and separate spaces. Trellises, screens, planters and even fences can help create distinct areas within the garden. Try placing an arbor or overhead shade canopy over only part of the space. This will create separate areas even without vertical dividers.

Moveable seating adds options. When paired with a bench that takes advantage of surrounding planting space, the result is a very pleasant conversation nook.

Repeat materials and colors, including interior to exterior. This will help create continuous flow and tie spaces together, both interior and exterior, and also from subspace to subspace within the garden.

Contrasting materials that echo color can signal smaller areas with different functions, while visually unifying the space.

Creating a focus will also help organize a small garden. Whether that focal point is a fountain, fireplace, seating area or prized potted palm, it helps direct attention and motion around it.

And don’t forget the third dimension. Changes in level can make a space seem deeper or more open, and help define subspaces for different uses.

A Frosty Reception

In the midst of one of the hottest, driest summers in recent memory, I find myself dreaming about cool things. No, downright chilly things. Since autumn is right around the corner, I am imagining bright mornings with plants rimed in frost.

Every leaf is crisply outlined on this Waterperry Veronica.

And since my garden has already largely shut down due to drought, it is not so much of a stretch to start thinking about the time fast approaching when I will be putting everything to bed for the winter season. In the waning days of autumn, everyone expects the garden to be shutting down, with the natural process of plants “going to sleep” as freezing temperatures become the norm. But just how hard does it have freeze to really shut down the growing season? Why do some plants seem to rebound from a frost and reward us with late season rebloom? And what exactly is a frost date anyway?

Sugar maple and river birch leaves resting on Sedum ‘Angelina’

The answer is that not all frosts are equal. Frosting may actually occur when the temperature is at or slightly above freezing, when the air is clear and calm, due to evaporative cooling. These frosts make beautiful effects at sunrise, with leaves and petals sparkling in the early morning light.

Light frosts, in which the temperature dips to maybe 29 F for a few hours or overnight, may actually be enough to cause the water in the outer layer of plant cells to freeze, but when the temperature rebounds during daylight the next day, leaves will thaw and recover. This is enough to signal brilliant fall color in maples, kill tender tropicals (and tomatoes), and warn tougher perennials that the end is near (which may trigger a last bloom cycle).

Echinacea purpurea ‘Ruby Star’

Moderate frosts, from 25 to 29 F overnight, result in flower death, spoiled fruit, and the end of semi-hardy container plants that were not brought indoors in time. A hard, or killing frost, is one below 24 F, or continuous below freezing temperatures for more than a few days in a row. This is the one that shuts the garden down completely.

In our area, the first light frosts usually occur in mid-October, with killing frosts following about a month later, on average. So I have some time to expect that some late season rain (and, dare I hope, a break in the heat?) will revive my garden for at least a bit before the sparkling begins again.


Green Roofs


A colorful green roof at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

The idea of green living is popular right now, and what better place to start than in the garden? Saving energy, reducing impact, and reusing materials are all part of going green. Ironically, one of the most intriguing places to put your new environmental awareness into practice may not be in the garden, but above it.

The idea of a living roof is not new. In Scandinavia, people have been building roofs with sod since the Middle Ages. And you’ve probably heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Of course, modern life and building practices bring new needs, and planted roofs continue to offer many benefits. Making a roof “green” extends the life of the roof, reduces water runoff and reduces energy costs (especially for cooling) up to 40%.

Plants absorb sunlight, whose energy would otherwise go into heating a roof’s surface. The evapo-transpiration of plant leaves also helps absorb and dissipate heat. Succulents are often used because roof environments are similar to high desert plateaus: intense rain events that drain quickly, alternating with dry reflective heat.

There are two types of “green roof” building systems, each defined by the depth of the planting medium (soil is not used, due to its weight). “Extensive” systems are less than 6” deep, and use mainly succulents. These systems are lighter, less expensive, and easier to maintain (though “lighter” can still mean up to 25-30 lbs/sf). “Intensive” systems are more than 6” deep and can support larger and more water hungry plants such as grasses, meadow flowers and even vegetables. These systems are heavier, and may require reinforcing a roof to support their weight (they are more common on reinforced concrete roof decks). Some commercial or public roofs may be designed to hold shrubs or trees.

A residential green roof. This one is a modular extensive system, planted primarily with various Sedum species. The paver patio will be a nice place to have morning coffee (but not too close to the edge!).

Most residential green roof systems are modular extensive systems, meaning they are made up of identical individual units, and may be fit together to cover a large range of custom shapes. These are laid on top of a thick waterproof membrane. The system might also include structures for drainage or drip irrigation. Modular systems also have the benefit of being pre-planted, meaning plants are full grown and offer immediate effectiveness at installation (it also means you have to weed them less).

If you have a sloped roof, fixtures such as baffles and parapets are used to lock units in place. Slopes of up to 15 degrees are easily accommodated, though slopes of up to 35 degrees are possible. Sloped surfaces require more irrigation, or a more closely tailored plant selection, since the higher end of each unit will be drier than the lower end.

It is now easier than ever to surround yourself with planting space, letting you indulge your gardening obsession and greening your environment to boot!


And you thought plants weren’t controversial…

Penstemon ‘Pike’s Peak Purple’, a lovely Beardtongue. Does it add to the native plant population here? I think I’m a little to far east of the Rocky Mountains for that. Does it do well in a dry, gravelly area in my Ohio garden? Yes, and beautifully.

By now, most of us have heard of the problem of invasive plants, those exotic guests that have gone beyond wearing out their welcome. So, what characteristics make a plant invasive? According to the USDA, an “invasive species” is defined as a species that is: 1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration, and 2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health. An aggressive plant that is transported to another ecosystem often loses many of its natural limitations, and may wind up beating out the plants that were there first, minding their own business and actually contributing to the wider ecological “community.” Check out www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/invasives.html for a further discussion.

In response, the use of native plants has become a hot trend. However, like the term “organic,” the term “native” has been terribly abused in the green industry, clouding its meaning and usefulness. Even when applied correctly, the term “native” can be slippery and vague. Beardtongues (Penstemon spp.) are native to the continental United States, but they come from the dry, mountainous West, and do not naturally occur in the more wet, temperate East.

Often, native species are hybridized with species from elsewhere, blurring their origin. Serviceberries are a good example of this. Thus, even though cultivars are developed from native species, they may themselves be native to nowhere. Since our typical garden landscapes are so disturbed anyway, the idea of a “native ecosystem” becomes somewhat meaningless applied to the home landscape. If you are working in larger areas (think public open spaces like parks or road sides), then the idea of reestablishing a “native” ecosystem becomes more sensible, for lower maintenance, attracting wildlife, and a host of other reasons.


Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower. At this point, I don’t even know if it’s still one of the hybrids I planted originally, or if it’s reverted to species. Native to this area, sure. Invasive? Not technically, but it sure does self sow. A LOT! But I like it too much not to include it in my plantings. And the goldfinches don’t complain.

Many horticultural experts are moving toward using the terms “local” or “regional.” These terms imply plants that grow naturally in nearby wild places, with no help from people. For the average home gardener, this is probably the best approach for responsible plant selection. Since the plant grows naturally in the area, it is already adapted to the conditions in your garden. Your local Cooperative Extension office or Department of Natural Resources can help you with lists of these plants for your area. Often local nurseries will offer them for sale.

Buddleia davidii ‘Lochinch’, a butterfly bush. Mine is swarming with all sorts of lovely native (and local) butterflies, such as the tiger swallowtail. Is it a native plant? No. Is it invasive? In some locations, very much so, though not to my knowledge in Central Ohio. Does it deserve a place in my garden? For the butterflies, yes!

If you have fallen in love with a plant that simply won’t play nicely anywhere in your area, look for alternatives. What is it that you love about the plant? Color, form, leaf texture? Look for similar features in plants that prefer the same growing conditions. For example, if you love purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), instead try gayfeather (Liatris spicata), a native prairie plant that is also tall and spiky, with bright purple fucshia flowers in midsummer.


Gardens are for kids!


Tree climbing, a classic kid activity.

When asked what plant was essential in a garden, a majority of children said “an apple tree.” What you need to create the perfect outdoor space for children includes some pretty simple elements. Open space for running, plants they can interact with, water to touch, taste and splash in, and lots of fun, kid-scale elements to engage all of their senses.

Gardening teaches kids independence, responsibility, good stewardship, and gives them experience working with grandparents, siblings and others in family and community. Studies have shown that kids’ minds learn best when they spend time outdoors in a natural environment. Involve your children in planning the garden, constructing its elements, and maintaining them throughout the seasons. Make sure tools are kid-sized.

Working in the garden always makes your vegetables taste better!

Fun activities in the garden might include catching fireflies, listening for crickets, or searching for slugs or butterfly eggs. It is important not to spray pesticides in a kid’s garden, since most are toxic, and children learn as much from the critters there as they do from the plants they grow.

If you do grow vegetables, consider giving the plantings a theme. For instance, plant a pizza garden with easy to grow basil, tomatoes and oregano. Or create a pumpkin patch, and plan to carve as many pumpkins as you grow, then research good recipes for toasting the seeds. Maybe plant a cut flower garden in a striped pattern, with blossoms in every color of the rainbow.

How cool is it to catch a butterfly?

Other elements to include that will capture the imagination include vine teepees (whether grapes, beans, peas or flowers), sunflower forts, strawberry pot towers (paint several different size pots each a different color, stack with the largest on the bottom, with enough room on each layer for strawberries to hang over the edges), and watering hoses painted like snakes.

Picking blackberries in August. Some go in the bucket, some go in the mouth, some get fed to the bunnies…




Stone path and steps in Acadia National Park. A visit to the park is a master class in the use of stone in the landscape.

When one thinks of a garden, what comes first to the mind’s eye are growing things: a riot of colorful blossoms floating above full green foliage, dense groundcovers in the shade of an ornamental tree, perhaps the rich harvest of a vegetable patch.

But don’t forget the elements that form the “bones” of a garden, helping to create its underlying structure, and imbuing the landscape with a sense of permanence. Stone is one of these elements, and it is easy to work into a garden design. Paths, water features, walls, and paving all provide opportunities to feature stone in the landscape. Stone may also represent itself, as monoliths, boulders, or outcroppings.

Stone can blend is use and form. Here, the rough cut limestone wall feels more naturally permanent, while the cut pieces of slate in the path imply a sense of ordered movement. The cool colors of the stones complement each other, and provide a further sense of grounded calm.

Since it is a natural element, but one that weathers for millennia, stone adds a sense of timeless weight to the garden. Its effect may be warm or cool, formal or informal, natural or finished, and it is a natural balance to wood.

If you don’t have the space for a boulder, or the need for a low wall, small objects are another good way to add stone into the garden. A stone bench, a Japanese lantern, a millstone fountain, or a carved sculpture would all make interesting focal points for a path, patio or foliage bed.

Stone provides a great opportunity for detail work, as well as the perfect setting for plantings.

Stone is available in a variety of colors and types. Try not to use more than three in any given garden setting, or the textures will become busy and compete with each other.


Beat the Heat

The weather. I don’t know about where you are, but here it is hot, dry and horrible. Easily a month and a half ahead of schedule, we are in the dog days of summer already. We all complain, worry, and in the end can do nothing but endure. Well, my garden is suffering along with the rest of us, but it is doing it more gracefully than I. There is solace in my plants.

Leucanthemum ‘Snowcap’, or Oxeye Daisy. Not a native, but might as well be. It’s parents are field flowers.

I don’t like to water. I plant things that will survive our edge-of-the-prairie climate. And occasionally they get to show their stuff.

Liatris spicata, or Blazing Stars. A native of our original tall grass prairies. Not aggressive but will self-seed, resulting in the plant “wandering” around the garden.

As a general rule of thumb, in our area (roughly American Midwest), plants should get about an 1″ of rain per week. We’ve had less than that in about the last month (barring brief storms, which do nothing to soak the ground, but everything to cause floods and power outages).

Prairie plants put down taproots. Some can follow the water up to 10′ down into the soil. Yep, ten FEET. Forget about turf, these plants are TOUGH.

Echincacea purpurea. Native coneflower, used in traditional medicine to fight colds. One of the deep tap rooters, does not like to be transplanted, but self-sows freely, so you shouldn’t have to.

Well, I’ve got to go convince myself that mulching is good for the plants. Which it is. And since I appreciate their efforts, I will be making some of my own. Gardens are a cooperative thing, after all, even in the heat.

One of the garden’s hardest workers, taking a much deserved rest at twilight. The flower is Gaillardia grandiflora, or Blanketflower. Evening in the summer garden can be the best time, after the heat of the day breaks leaving a lingering fragrance. I wish my bed were that soft!

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