Arboretum Paths: Learning to create low-care landscapes

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, July 26, 2017

By Patricia R. Drackett, Director and Assistant Extension Professor of Landscape Architecture
The Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University Extension Service

I’ve just returned from an inspiring native plant conference held at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. The event is in its 34th year, and usually attracts around three hundred native plant enthusiasts.
Attendees include students in plant fields, and green industry professionals such as professors, designers, botanists, Extension personnel, nurserymen, and authors, such as celebrated entomologist and writer Dr. Doug Tallamy, who spoke this year. Participants include members of native plant societies, garden clubs, and Master Gardener groups, and of course, home gardeners wanting to learn more about gardening with their native flora.
Cullowhee is near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest. As the Blue Ridge Parkway only twenty minutes away, there are many locations available for field trips to see native plants “in action”!
Field trips provide an enjoyable learning experience while hiking through the forests, and an opportunity to become acquainted with a dozen or so persons who become familiar faces during the intensive four-day conference.
The second day begins a head-spinning schedule of inspiring presentations. Between sessions, participants must pass through a huge arena with friendly and knowledgeable native plant vendors. At the conference’s end, everyone seems to be carrying away an armload of new plants, with some needing handcarts to haul collections to their vehicles.
A concept woven into many of the presentations is the low-care nature of native plant landscapes. Like any new plantings, native species require time and care to become established, but if the right plants are selected for your environmental conditions, the result is a landscape that prospers with little human intervention.
This approach is the theme of the Crosby Arboretum exhibits. Plants in our savanna, woodland, and aquatic habitats are members of continually evolving plant communities. Rather than being arrangements of plant specimens managed to remain the same over time, the Arboretum’s exhibits change throughout the seasons, and evolve through the years, bringing continual delight to visitors strolling the pathways.
The comparison between visiting a traditional public garden and exploring the Crosby Arboretum’s plant exhibits is much like the difference between seeing the same painting hanging on your wall every day versus, well, television!
Many presentations and conversations at last week’s conference focused on creating such landscapes that are allowed to grow and evolve, often surprising their designers as the plants shift and rearrange themselves in response to various changes.
One memorable story was related by speaker and landscape designer Larry Weaner, co- author of the recent book Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016; recipient of a 2017 Book Award from the American Horticultural Society). Larry discussed how, when plants are given the opportunity to seek where they want to be, dynamic landscapes can result.
He showed slides of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), an attractive but short-lived native perennial with striking scarlet blooms. This plant occurs in our region, usually in shady wet areas such as stream banks, ditches, and swamps. In Larry’s garden, which has a woodsy, naturalistic style, this plant had disappeared due to competition from other species. He told how a sole flower spike had reappeared and was laid in an open space in his garden bed. That one spike went on to reestablish the plant again in his garden as the small seeds were moved throughout the garden and patio area, continuing to germinate and repopulate the area.
Many years ago, as a young estate gardener, my most memorable properties were those which had become well-established and were constantly changing in composition. All we had to do was keep the pathways clear, which made these spaces almost effortless to maintain. Why not strive for this in your own garden?
A writing workshop “Bringing Nature to Life in Your Writing”, with Mary Beth Magee will take place on Saturday, July 29, from 1:00 to 3:00 PM. The fee for non-member adults is $7. Space is limited. Call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311 to sign up and guarantee your seat. Once the program has filled, walk-ins will not be admitted.
For more information, see The Arboretum is located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

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