On landscape composition

Observing the Joppa Avenue Landscape in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for bees, butterflies, and bunnies
Lounging and observing the laboratory

The occasional sad reality of doing landscape design is that not all landscapes you create will survive long-term. Ownership can change, and maintenance can be spotty. At the very least, you can expect that some plants will die or be less successful than planned due to circumstances outside of your control, and the result will be a landscape different than what you had envisioned. In our case we never could have anticipated the bumper crop of rabbits that seemed to emerge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2009, or how that bumper crop would subside by 2014. Nor could we have anticipated how much the monarch and honeybee populations would dwindle during that same period. Fortunately, we’ve had a living laboratory of sorts in which to observe all of these phenomena long-term and to see what plants are bunny magnets, and which are monarch and bee magnets.

Here is our run-down:

Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ / Walker’s Low catmint: Blooms for at least a month (reblooms after a mid-summer haircut), with the bees (bumble, honey, and solitary, not to mention hoverflies, hummingbird moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds) on it from sunrise to sunset
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Very good late-summer nectar/pollen source
Solidago speciosa / showy goldenrod: Also an ideal late-summer nectar/pollen source
Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’ / Butterfly bush honeysuckle: Bumblebees love the little yellow flowers; lightly cut back after blooming for a second bloom
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Longin’ / ‘Longin’ Russian sage: Bees of all varieties love this plant, and it blooms from July virtually til the end of summer
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ / Autumn Joy stonecrop: Amazing late-summer nectar/pollen source

Liatris ligulistylis / meadow blazing star: They bloom, and the monarchs come. . . in droves; it’s as simple as that
Eutrochium purpurea / Joe Pye weed: Huge, tall, and full of monarchs once they bloom in July
Verbena bonariensis / Brazilian verbena: An annual that blooms from June (depending on when you plant it) until the end of summer and thus provides a very consistent nectar source for monarchs, which flock to it

Echinacea purpurea / purple coneflower: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2013, have replanted new ones and caged them
Panicum virgatum / switchgrass: Ultimately disappeared after two years and space taken over by other plants
Sporobolus heterolepis / prairie dropseed: Initially took a huge hit from the rabbits but now seems to be doing better now that it’s been in the ground longer (maybe rabbits don’t like crusty old grasses?)
Koeleria macrantha / June grass: Suffers some damage by rabbits each year in the spring, becomes less attractive to them by July
Rudbeckia hirta / gloriosa daisy: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2012; some that had self-sown in cages around other plants managed to survive, and now the landscape is full of them again (but there are also fewer rabbits now)
Liatris spicata / dense blazing star: Caged them and the rabbits have since kept away; landscape now dense enough that the plant has self-sown here and there, and the seedlings seem to be protected by other plants (that is a very loose hypothesis based on casual observation)
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Some were gnawed down to the ground and died; remaining ones caged and are now thriving and self-sowing with a bit too much aplomb
Liatris ligulistylis / prairie blazing star: A choice meal of rabbits of all shapes and sizes; the plants need cages around them if they are to survive a rabbit’s dinnertime whims

Just to be clear and in layman’s terms: bee and monarch magnets will bring you happiness; rabbit magnets, without the proper protection, will bring you sadness.

John Kamp

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No need to speak French to capture the gist of this particular landscape featured at this year’s garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. The designer sought to create a living and evolving painting contained within what appears to be a traditional frame. As such, the visitor approaches a wall as if they (yes, we know this should be she/he here, but isn’t that just oh-so clumsy) were in a museum, only to find within it a three-dimensional landscape that will grow, evolve, and change over time, so that viewing the painting one day will not produce the same results if one were to visit on another day. Viewed from afar, the landscape appears two-dimensional; viewed from up close and you can perceive depth, height, and width. According to the designer, the color palette consists of a range of blues in order to ideally inspire daydreaming and to evoke feelings of escape, discovery, and travel within whoever is viewing the garden. A novel idea indeed.

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bug wall, bug hotel, landscape design, habitat, pollinators, bees, colony collapse

One of the biggest shifts in landscape design and creation in the past decade has been a move away from creating spaces that are exclusively for humans or exclusively for wildlife and towards making spaces that accommodate for both. Enter the bug hotel, or bug wall (shown above). These structures not only serve as sculpture and structure within the landscape but double as habitat for all manner of bugs, amphibians, and other little critters. They also give the effect of a new kind of human artifact that says much about the turbulent but hopeful times we are living in. For an exhaustive look at bug hotels around the world, click here. For information on construction, click here.

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prairieform, landscape design, minneapolis, los angeles, san francisco, irrigation-free, wildlife, prairie, natural, wild, design

We’ve written so little of late. Moving to a new city is energy- and time-consuming. We are on the cusp of new work, focusing mainly on weeds. In the meantime, here is a little landscape postcard that arrived for us last week. This is the Joppa Avenue Landscape in full midsummer splendor. This is its seventh year in the ground. If you would like to see before/after photos that go way back, click here. This little landscape started off as little more than a patch of bare earth.

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prairieform, self-sowing plants, prairies, landscapes, landscape design, minneapolis, Los Angeles, irrigation-free, xeriscape, drought-tolerant
Some plants that have self-sown profusely in the Irrigation-Free Landscape

We have always been drawn to the element of evolution in the landscape – how a landscape grows and evolves across the seasons, and over the years. It is what separates a landscape from a painting or another creative work whose ultimate form is intended to remain static over time. To these ends, we have increasingly sought out self-sowing plants that can be interspersed within a structure of more so-called placeholder plants (i.e. clump-forming grasses, perennials, and shrubs), so as to infuse a wildcard element into the landscape, which is then subject to the everchanging whims of nature. This all being said, is there a limit to how many self-sowing plants we should include in a landscape? It is a question that has been on our minds all summer, as we have observed many a plant in the Irrigation-Free Landscape self-sow with aplomb, to the point where even we’ve been surprised by their botanical fertility and vigor (this includes both native plants of the prairie and plants from other regions of the world).

The biggest problem that arises when plants self-sow so profusely is the difficulty in knowing which seedlings are weeds and which aren’t. A serious maintenance issue then rears its ugly head when the wrong seedlings are pulled or weeds are left to grow and take over the landscape due to lack of familiarity with the good vs. the bad. While we as landscape designers can most often easily tell the good from the bad, the task is more complicated for those who are less familiar with plants and who don’t stare at and ponder them for a living. Additionally, in a year such as this one, when spring was late, and early and mid-summer were very wet and relatively mild, you will find yourself with so many seedlings the landscape may start to look more like a weeding nightmare than a source of joy.

How then do you infuse that wildcard element into the landscape without letting it become a maintenance nightmare? The first strategy is to minimize the optimal growing conditions for self-sowing plants, or at least reduce their optimal growing conditions in quantity or quality. In our case, many of the drought-tolerant plants we use prefer extremely well-draining soil, including preferring virtually pure gravel. As such, one could reduce the total amount of area that contains this soil type and confine it only to areas where plants like lavender (which need perfectly drained, crummy soil to thrive) will go. The other strategy is to pick a bare minimum of a few self-sowing plants, and choose those whose seedlings are easily discernible from the ever-bothersome weeds that will always self-sow regardless of soil type (re: dandelions, crab grass, etc.). So, for example, Rudbeckia hirta seedlings are grey, rounded, fuzzy, and easy to identify, whereas Carex bicknelli can be hard to distinguish from turf grass if just given a glance-over. A combination of these two strategies could potentially yield promising results and the balance between rigidity and free-form evolution that we are looking for.

We will be infusing this new strategy into our latest landscapes and then shall report back with further observations.

John Kamp

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