Contemporary Garden Concepts

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Gardens for a Sustainable Environment: Contemporary Concepts

This is part two of a two-part series on garden design. Be sure to check out Susan’s part one from our March/April issue, “Garden Design: Making It Your Own”.

Environmental sustainability matters to millennials. It ranks among their top three most important issues, along with college affordability and health care, according to a recent survey by Virginia21, a millennial advocacy organization. Millennials’ passion for environmental quality is fueling the flames of political advocacy and informing thoughtful personal choices.

This news sparks flashbacks of my own fervor for environmental advocacy at their age when I was employed as Virginia’s first Environmental Impact Statement Coordinator in the early 1970s. Passing the torch to millennials makes my heart sing and gives us all hope for the future of this earth.

Contemporary approaches to gardening reflect the values of environmental champions of all generations. And enhanced awareness and commitment to sustainability translates into garden design and plant material selection that favor sustainability over adherence to historical design norms.

At Home with Nature
What gives us greater joy in spring than a flowering dogwood announcing the end of winter? What better shades us from intense summer sun than a majestic white oak tree? These and a multitude of other native plants are a large part of what we love about living in Central Virginia. And they are the environmentally sustainable choice for our gardens.

I’ve touted native plant guru Dr. Douglas Tallamy and his book, Bringing Nature Home, in several previous issues of Lynchburg Living. Another valuable resource is a new book by Repp Glaettli, Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens, reminding us of the aesthetic beauty of local native plants, supporting nurseries in stocking the best varieties, and cultivating deeper understanding of the cultural and natural heritage of native plants in nearby counties of our shared Piedmont region. It also offers practical tips for best growing practices and catalogues native trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and perennial wildflowers.

First and foremost, contemporary sustainable garden design relies on the right plants for the right locations, accounting for site conditions: size, climate, soil, water, nutrition, and other plant needs. Native plants in the right place require little soil amendment, watering (once established), nutritional supplements, and human pampering. After all, since they’re in their native habitat, they demand no extra fuss.

I fell in love with one native plant at a time and added it to my yard. Then when rose rosette disease claimed dozens of my antique roses and I knew that I could not replant with roses, I chose natives to replace them and never looked back. I was committed to bringing nature home.

Pollinator Power
When I climbed the pasture fence at our farm to retrieve what I’d assumed was a piece of trash that looked suspiciously like a plastic Cheetos bag, I was immediately infatuated with an amazing orange blooming plant covered with monarchs and great spangled frittilaries. Googling it, I discovered it was aptly named butterfly weed, and I couldn’t resist digging it up for my yard. And… voila! I launched my commitment to creating a pollinator garden.

Most of my “starter” native/pollinator plants for my yard and garden came from our farm pastures, woods, and (I confess) even roadside ditches before natives started catching on with local nurseries in response to popular demand. For city folks, stock from country cousins, friends, or nurseries is a better choice than digging from property you don’t own. However, harvesting and transplanting roadside milkweed into a pollinator garden for monarch caterpillar sustenance seems a more noble act than leaving it for inevitable VDOT spraying or mowing.

Natives that attract pollinators, such as Joe Pye weed, coneflower, mountain mint, monarda, and summer phlox, can vigorously populate or happily co-exist with exotic cultivars in lush English-style borders and can vibrantly complete the formal design of a classical Italian garden or a French-style parterre, if that’s your preference and you’re not about to start over with your garden design. They also work well in modern, minimalist gardens; and hybrid designs are just fine.

They’re actually more interesting and contemporary.

Fun garden ideas that have been enjoyed for decades and are gaining increasing popularity are wildflower meadows sporting a mixture of pollinator-attracting flowers and native grasses, as well as woodlands gardens. They typically require a fairly expansive open or wooded area, although “mini-meadows” or tiny wooded areas in city backyards for wildflowers such as native large-flowered trillium can work well too.

The point of pollinator gardens is, of course, to attract and support a wide variety of birds, bees, butterflies, and insects, many of which require specific native plants for nourishment at various stages of their life cycle, with the classic example of milkweed for monarch caterpillars. It’s important for all of us, millennials and older folks, to understand that these host plants and the pollinators they support are critical to the biodiversity necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

Managing Water
A concept that’s turned into a viable alternative garden design and has gained traction in recent years is rain gardens. Rain gardens are basically an effectively engineered way to deal with areas where rain collects or that flood periodically from run-off from impervious surfaces such as buildings, roads and walkways. They are depressions in the landscape that gather water but eventually drain. What they’re NOT is swamp land, ponds, water gardens, or other land that remains wet or under water as a usual thing.

Plants that work in rain gardens can survive periodically standing in water, followed by dry spells. We have a prime example of a well-designed rain garden here in Lynchburg’s downtown Riverfront park. The area is subject to runoff from our city that rises on the bluffs above it. You’ll notice the garden is designed with trenching, sunken beds, and bridges leading to the adjacent performance area.

The garden’s been scientifically engineered with layers of rocks and other devices so water can drain slowly, removing pollutants, and be absorbed back into the earth rather than running directly into the James River. Rain gardens are an environmentally sound method of dealing with city storm water run-off, water conservation, and river water quality. Planted with site-appropriate plants, they are a beautiful, as well as functional, solution to environmental degradation from soil erosion and river pollution.

If the idea of hiring professionals to design a backyard rain garden seems too grand or expensive, but you have issues with rainwater runoff from your roof, driveway, or other impermeable surfaces, you can simplify matters with a Do-It-Yourself version, as I did. My roof drainage problem resulted in a mud hole at my basement door after every heavy or prolonged rain. With steep slopes rising from this door on both sides to downspouts at the corners of the first floor of the house, water inevitably cascaded downhill, taking soil with it, to… guess where! What to do?

First, I hauled in rocks and pavers and hand-built dry stack stone walls and a stepping stone path over permeable garden fabric to the door. (When my husband Tim calls me his “Rockette,” it’s definitely not because I’m a long-legged NYC dancer!) I then angled out terraced slopes behind the walls and added large rocks for soil retention. Next, I affixed one end of 15-20 ft. PVC pipes to each downspout to run the water out from the house, and planted small trees, shrubs, and perennials that could handle periodic flooding. I camouflaged the pipes with rocks and polished the terraces off with mulch. And, miraculously, it worked! I didn’t even know my home-grown concoction was a variation on a garden design with the official name of “rain garden.”

Water gardens, on the other hand, are just that: pools, streams, waterfalls, fountains, and other water features. As we’ve seen from looking at the history of gardens through time, water features with wonderful water plants have been integral to gardens for centuries, and they can be incorporated into indoor or outdoor spaces. They have never faded in popularity, and likely never will.

While sunken gardens offer the option of flooding and deep watering through slow absorption (and are typically more necessary and likely in arid climates), our area is more likely to embrace raised gardens that promote speedy drainage. They also serve the function of providing elderly or mobility-challenged gardeners the ability to enjoy gardening at a comfortable height, thereby meeting physical, medical, psychological, and spiritual needs.

Designs Turn Sideways, Up, and Down
When space is limited, or even if not, sometimes a small, simplified pocket, porch, patio, courtyard, or even alleyway garden is preferred. These tiny gardens can be exquisite, lovely, inviting, and a pleasure to their creators and guests.

Vertical gardens are enjoying a resurgence with a return to inner-city living, smaller home lots, condos, and other close living quarters where garden space is likely to be curtailed or non-existent, as well as in hotels, commercial offices and restaurants. Whenever I see a successful one, I find myself searching for the source of water and soil or other medium for nutrient delivery necessary for plant life. And I typically find a well-engineered structure that serves as a framework to hold individual plants and an irrigation system. I’m intrigued, but this isn’t something I plan to do at home. My engineering skills were pretty much tapped out with my “rain garden” project.

Espaliered (mid-17th century French from Latin) plants are trained to grow flat against a wall. While this age-old method historically was used for fruit trees and ornamental shrubs, its popularity has expanded in modern times to include any plant material, native or exotic, that can be trained in this fashion, such as magnolia, Lady Banks roses, and pyracantha. Lattice and similar framework are traditional supports for espaliered fruit and other types of trees, but permanently installed hooks with wires and other modern engineering options are available to carry higher and heavier loads.

Tower Gardens, made possible by modern technology, are a contemporary idea. One example is the hands-on tower garden project of the Princess Anne Garden Club in Virginia Beach that’s instilling a love of gardening while teaching environmental sustainability to the generation following Millennials (pre-K – 12th grade) in three public schools. The towers are 6’ x 4’ with slots for 28 plants, with herbs, vegetables and flowers grown in each cell, without soil; and each tower sits on a 20-gallon basin of nutrient rich water that supports the plant material. And they’re on wheels for easy movement.

This 21st century growing method is called aeroponic, with the root system aerated through misting with a nutrient-rich spray. It’s a first cousin to hydroponic growing methods that have been around a long time and which use a liquid nutrient solution for root immersion. I got my first glimpse of how efficient and effective this process can be on a behind-the-scenes tour at Disney World about 15 years ago. Thousands upon thousands of plants on high conveyer belts were producing abundantly to feed throngs of visitors. Will aeroponics and hydroponics, already used extensively in China, be the next “big thing” in the U.S. to address both environmental and economic issues in food production and home gardening?

Understated Elegance
In addition to prioritizing environmental concerns, contemporary garden design also reflects artistic and aesthetic values, which currently lean toward asymmetrical, angular, and pared down to essential elements tied together by hardscaping in a unified architectural sensibility. Current U.S. taste tends to draw more heavily on the Japanese Zen tradition than more elaborate and symmetrical layouts.

A “less is more” philosophy guides today’s design.

Hardscaping often creates the “garden bones” in contemporary designs that yews, boxwoods, and other workhorse plants provide in traditional gardens. Natural materials such as stone and slate continue in popularity, and manmade materials, including pavers that offer permeability, have come a long way aesthetically as well as functionally. With low maintenance as a goal, these gardens may have self-watering planters, be all green, or feature repeat patterns of only one plant, such as an interesting native grass. Or they may include several varieties planted in repetition for contrast.

Visual interest is on many different levels even in these sleek designs and may include vertical plantings on privacy or partition walls. A focal point is always necessary, and several focal points can be effective if judiciously placed. Good lighting is essential for a dramatic spotlight on prized features, as well as for safety on pathways and near potential hazards, such as pools and ponds.

As my millennial grandchildren would say about contemporary gardens, “This is not our grandmother’s garden!” This grandmother freely admits sentimental attachment to the design of her old-fashioned country cottage garden with organically shaped English borders overflowing with a lush jumble of hundreds of exotic and native plant species.

Yet, I also respect and am strongly drawn to the elegant, serene beauty of refined minimalist and other Zen-like contemporary concepts. These fit the millennials’ mindset to shed the shackles of traditional concepts of political partisan tribalism or strict precepts of traditional garden design they perceive as inconsistent with their values and priorities.

I get it. After all, I’m already a kindred spirit with millennials in their desire to sustain our environment.

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