Weed or native plant?

In a landscape of native plants and young seedlings, it can be a true chore to tell the difference between the ones you want and the weeds you don't
In a landscape of native plants and young seedlings, it can be a true chore to tell the difference between the ones you want and the weeds you don’t. This is what the #ButterflyRedux landscape looked like pre-weeding.

There is many a native plant that when young (or even when not in bloom) looks like a weed – or could be confused for one. Even though I’ve been a landscape designer doing design/build for 10 years, there are times where even I’m not sure if the young plant I’m looking at is supposed to be there or is a volunteer of the weedy variety. This reality poses real challenges not simply for burgeoning gardeners who are looking to invite in a bit more of the wild but also for larger landscapes that require maintenance crews to keep the landscapes relatively weed-free. A certain level of skill and experience is required to discern the difference between emerging plants you want and the weeds you don’t, and a certain level of care is required as well, as these young plants are oftentimes relatively fragile and simply won’t take well to the traditional mow-and-blow treatment. Thus it is little wonder that default for so many landscapes great and small are cultivars, as their intentionality is readily apparent, and thus they are unlikely to be accidentally ripped out by a maintenance crew or an everyday gardener.

You wouldn't be scolded for confusing this hyssop seedling for stinging nettle or another such weed. They look extremely similar.
You wouldn’t be scolded for confusing this hyssop seedling for stinging nettle or another such weed. They look extremely similar.

In native-plant catalogues and in photos accompanying purchased, potted native plants, we most often are only presented with a pretty photo of the plant in bloom and close up. As such, we can be left in the dark when it comes to seedlings of the plants and what they look like when emerging. Additionally, we are left in the dark as to the overall form of the plant when it isn’t in bloom, thereby complicating the design of a landscape, as that form will be what people perceive most of the year, with the bloom merely lasting a couple of weeks.

A photo like this should accompany either a maintenance guide or the photo of the mature version of the plant. In this way, it can be clear that this is to be left and not pulled come spring or when the plant emerges.

Whether it be for the training of maintenance crews for a larger landscape, or for just your everyday gardener or designer of smaller landscapes, it is really high time that the photo of a plant – in particular those that could be confused for weeds – be accompanied by another photo of the plant when just emerging and young. As such, those maintaining or managing the landscape can know what to pull and what not to pull, and we’ll end up with fuller, more thriving landscapes in the process.

John Kamp

Project #ButterflyRedux

Some of the plants that will form the backbone of the Prairieform #ButterflyRedux landscape
Some of the plants that will be forming the backbone of the #ButterflyRedux landscape

In the realm of authentically exciting news, we’ve begun work on our newest landscape project, dubbed the #ButterflyRedux and which involves retooling and reworking what has amounted to a well-intentioned but hot-mess-looking butterfly garden. Of course, never ones to just plant something pretty and call it a day, the #ButterflyRedux project is a thoroughly two-layered endeavor:

Layer 1: Explore how self-sowing native plants and more tried-but-true garden stalwarts and cultivars can be combined within one – ideally harmonious – landscape.

Layer 2: Serve as a US- and Minnesota-based research site as part of English writer and plantsman Noel Kingsbury’s ongoing and extremely important work on how such landscapes of self-sowing plants and what I will call “stay-in-place” cultivars evolve over time.

Over the next week, we will be retooling the existing landscape and giving it some good bones (see some of those bones in the photo above), and then we will be laying a grid atop the finished product to then document the species and location of every plant within the space. This grid we will then be laying over the landscape every spring to see how the composition of the landscape evolves over time. Kingsbury’s (and by extension our) intention is to really explore and observe how horticulture and ecology intermingle in such a landscape, and then to generate a set of data and observations on how dense plantings can reach a sort of natural equilibrium that maximizes visual heft and impact, creates a carbon-capturing ground cover, and minimizes maintenance.

Notes from the planning stages of the Prairieform #ButterflyRedux Project
Notes from the planning stages of the #ButterflyRedux Project

Pertaining to Layer 1: Heretofore, many a wildlife garden has been treated as seeming sacrifice for a cause: who cares if it looks weedy, as it’s doing so much good for the world? Additionally, mixing cultivars into a native-plant landscape has been seen as somehow “weakening” the value of the space. We are thoroughly of the opinion that wildlife appeal and aesthetics shouldn’t and don’t need to be mutually exclusive but that achieving this two-pronged landscape requires mixing cultivars with native plants. As such, we will be exploring what techniques can be employed with varying shapes, colors, textures, and forms to create a landscape that can read as an intentional garden space on the one hand, and as an actual attractor of wildlife on the other. Our ultimate aim of this endeavor is to generate a series of key principles and how-tos for creating a new kind of wildlife-friendly garden that is rooted as much in human psychology and how we perceive landscapes and space and their intentionality and beauty as it is in attracting the beneficial insects and critters that we are increasingly realizing are integral to the overall health of our world.

You may also follow the work on Twitter and/or Instagram.

Noel Kingsbury’s blog site can be found HERE.

John Kamp

What does irrigation-free look like six years later?

The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012
The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012

It’s hard to say what you first notice when you see the irrigation-free landscape now after six years of being in the ground. Perhaps that everything looks huge and full and not at all tired or half-dead or all the things people were worried might happen when we proposed the idea seven years ago. The little bluestems (Schizachyrium scoparium) have self-sown with abandon, as have the pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Golden Spirit smokebush (Continus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’) looks almost otherworldly in its stature and form – no doubt loving the gravelly, crummy soil we planted it in. Some extremely tall perennials have also appeared in the landscape, and, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what they are, but once they’ve bloomed the mystery should be solved. The pathways are less perceptible than they were before – in part because of how big the grasses have gotten, but also because they need a good weeding (we learned early on how much certain self-sowing plants loved the gravel as a growing medium). But all in all, we think most would call the landscape a success if they saw it – and the bees and butterflies think so too, as they have very much found an ideal foraging spot within it. And how exciting it’s been to see the landscape take on a life of its own since it isn’t tethered to an irrigation system. So maybe that’s what you sense most when you see it now: a freedom and exuberance that can only be found within a landscape that is given a little license to do what it wants.

John Kamp

First landscape of 2019

Photo of Prairieform's work on its first landscape of 2019, for a front yard in Glendale, CA
Working on our first landscape of 2019, for a front yard in Glendale, CA

We are excited to announce our first new landscape of 2019, in Glendale, CA. It will be a front-yard lawn-to-landscape conversion involving drought-tolerant deliciousness, eye candy in spades, and habitat for a whole host of fantastic winged and four-legged friends (and humans too). While the landscape will have an irrigation system, we will be reducing the amount of water used over time, so that ultimately much of the landscape can thrive on its own, whatever may come its way. Stay tuned for more updates.

John Kamp

Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.