prairie – patterns, processes, and proliferation

Prairie gardening, as Larry Weaner says, “is a fundamentally different way of designing and building landscapes”. But what does Larry know?!!!! ha, just kidding.


above, Sandy Calder’s stabile and Darell Morrison’s meadow, bound in nuptials, Storm King Art Center and Sculpture Gardens

Prairie gardening is also a different way of looking at landscapes, a different way of enjoying landscapes. Prairie gardening is a way to reconnect with the earth, the soil below our feet.

Back when I was just a wee chap, knee high to a Miscanthus, I had a heavy hankerin’ for all things grasses. It was a different time then, before Al Gore’s internet. It was a time when you learned things from people you found through other people or you read it in a magazine or newspaper. The¬†written word was in hard copy only. You couldn’t google it back then. Dang I am old. ūüôā

It was a life time ago. I was so fortunate to have happened to¬†one day serendipitously find myself living in the picayune town of Picayune, Mississippi. I moved there to escape from city life- I had the Green Acres affliction. It was¬†not long after I had settled in to the country life, that the Crosby Arboretum opened in the early 1990’s, just down the road a piece from my humble homestead. I had been cutting my teeth on exotic-non-native grasses, having been inspired by an article I read about the famous grass nurseryman Kurt Blumel. Back then, there was no such thing as availability of native grasses (still isn’t, ha). Exotics were good enough. I delighted in the crappy gardens that I produced. I was on the cutting edge, I thought.

One of the highlights of my career was spending the day with Mr. Blumel at his nursery during a break in the Eastern Native Grass Conference- Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2007. I once had a photograph that someone had taken of Mr. Blumel and myself, two fellow Slovaks, at his nursery that day. The photo is long gone, but I keep the image of it, nice and tidy, in my mind. It seems like just yesterday….

II have been so fortunate to have met so many¬†people who are some of the pioneering geniuses (my friend Gail Barton calls them whiz-kids) of horticulture.¬†Gail doesn’t know it, but I consider her to be one of those hero wiz-kids. ūüôā

One of the most important and influential days of my career was when, in the summer of 1991, I found myself in the company of two of these genius-type wiz-kid fellows, in another picayune town, Eunice, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country- Acadiana- the Cajun region of Louisiana.

It was that day that ecologists Dr. Charles Allen and Dr. Malcolm Vidrine gave me a tour of their newly developed ten acre garden, the Cajun Prairie Restoration site. The garden was flush with the lushness of prairie. I had been experimenting with growing prairie plants by seed, in my sad little back yard nursery. I walked away from that meeting just like I always do when I visit that same garden- totally inspired and enthused.

It was that day the skies had opened up for me just like in the Monty Python movies, and the sun shined through as the Prairie gurus walked me through their handiwork. As Oprah would say, it was my Aha moment!


I determined to do something bold and different. I would build a business that specialized in prairie landscapes. I wanted to be a prairie landscaping dude. Still working’ on it, folks! ūüôā

Professor Darell Morrison encapsulates the prairie concept best I think, in this beautifully done ten minute video. Take some time for yourself and click the link below.  Morrison

If you have an hour one day, check out Larry Weaner‘s presentation on prairie proliferation below. Larry’s a master of designing and managing prairie landscapes and naturalistic – native gardens. His website says it best when its says that the¬†firm “blends environmental science and fine garden design” to produce wild and crazy-colorful, ¬†incredibly beautiful landscapes. click the link below.  Larry Weaner

Get Smart!

Two significant prairie educational events are taking place this year in Louisiana. One is the Louisiana Native Plant Society annual meeting/ conference in the metropolis of Pollock, Louisiana, where people who know prairie will share their prairie gardening life-stories.

The other is a Restoration Round-up event that is to be held possibly in the southwestern Louisiana area with everything you wanted to know about prairie landscaping, but were afraid to ax. The details are being determined right now for this event. It will likely be held in September. Stay turned, same prairie time, same prairie channel, ya’ll.

I am looking forward to the Round-up. I am proud to say I was on the board of the Coastal Prairie Partnership when we developed the idea for the first Round-up, held south of the Houston area in the summer of 2013. This should be a fun time, with expert prairie folks gabbing and mechanical equipment Рmachinery, on display for your enjoyment and pleasure- with folks who know how to work the machinery- that sort of thing.


Landscaping with Native Grasses – Strom King Art Center – New York

One day I want to find myself visiting the Storm King Art Center not only to see Mr.¬†Morrison’s grass garden designs but especially to see the amazing Calder Sculptures and of course, and most especially to float on Maya Lin’s “Waves”.


Maine 020 tumblr_mak4fx8yzR1qzprllo1_1280

Maya Lin’s “Waves” – Storm King




Sandy Calder’s “Arch” 1975, painted steel, 50 x 41 x 34, Storm King



Calder, Five Swords, 1976, sheet metal, bolts, and paint, 17 x 22 x 29, Storm King


Calder’s “Black Flag”, 1974, sheet metal, bolts, and paint, 23 x 19 x 17



Manashe Kadishman, “Suspended”, 1977, weathering steel, 23 x 33 x 48, Storm King


Crosby Arboretum controlled burn, 2014

Box 2-23

Meadowmakers Farm and Nursery, Carriere, Mississippi, circa 1999 (before google earth)


Meadowmakers Farm prairie plantings first post-burn, 1999


art meets Lauren’s gardens


On my recent trip to visit family in Colorado, I was able to make a long awaited trip to see the Denver Botanic Gardens. I have, for several years, wanted to see, among other things, ¬†the handiwork of Lauren Springer, one of the horticultural artists who have put their personal touches on some of the Garden’s many themed venues.¬†We happened to time our visit coincidentally with the installation of Chihuly glass art in the Gardens, installed for our enjoyment, during a bright and sunny day stay in the Mile High City.

Lauren and her husband Scott Ogden, are a husband and wife team of horticultural heavyweights, authors of the popular 2008 Timber Press book Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens That Honor Plants, Places, and Spirit. Their book is a treatise on garden design with plant diversity, botany, as the main focus. Architecture and hardscape fills a more functional, secondary, less obvious roll in their plant filled garden designs.

Lauren designed the perennial border, the romantic garden complex, the xeric garden and the romantic garden at the DBG. If you get the chance, drop in and see how she thinks when it comes to incorporating plants into the landscape. Its pretty cool stuff, folks!


the perennial border is about 200 ft in length, bounded on the sides by a clipped cedar-like hedge, standing about ten feet tall. The garden space is filled with herbaceous perennials of many sorts.



above: Joe-Pye weed and cobalt blue Chihuly lobes





click on photos to enlarge…


IMG_6943 IMG_6936 IMG_6940IMG_6938

above: at the the end of the Perennial Border garden is an axis point, ¬† ¬†….looking north, east and then west in the entrance of¬†Lauren’s Romantic Garden.


above: the central area of the Romantic garden hosts a very large Chihuly tower

IMG_6998 IMG_6999

nice glass in North American prairie area

IMG_7001  blue-grama-inflorescence

above: Blue Gramma grass in the Short grass prairie area killed the day with a stellar display of such beautiful low-growing foliage, inflorescences, and associated groovy herbage.


Blue Chihu!


a very extensive, smartly executed, Alpine rock garden (garden visitor and belly in picture for scale)


above:¬†parts of Lauren’s high-desert Xeric gardens

IMG_6961 IMG_6965

misters created a softened feel to the Ornamental grass garden, with towering white-flowering ornamental Tobacco


above: Tobacco, Celosia and Cosmos blend in with the finely textured species, Dog Fennel, Eupatorium capillifolium, considered a weed in our part of the country

These gardens show how naturalistic design can be utilized more commonly in our regional landscapes, even in formal settings. This type of gardening shows a connection with the land and a sensitivity to natural areas and how we can emulate them more completely using a lighter touch of our hand.



living on the edge!

I had the good fortune to hear¬†James Hitchmough speak about his favorite subject¬†at a conference in January. Dr. Hitchmough is Professor of Horticultural Technology, Department of Landscape, Sheffield University, Great Britain. At one point, he was talking about trying new and different things in landscape and he said “all of the exciting stuff that happens is not in the normal center, but on the edge…”.

My good friend Charles Allen often famously says “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”. He usually follows this up with big belly-laugh.

In Louisiana, our “cutting edge” is usually twenty or forty¬†years behind everybody else’s.

In the upper Midwest and Northeastern U.S., landscape designers regularly incorporate sedges, as grass-like plants, particularly for wood edge meadow plantings and for woodland ground cover, when designing with¬†natural systems, designing for biodiversity. I’ve thought about Charles and James and their “edge” remarks a few times this week since I was planting what is, I believe¬†is¬†the first purposeful sedge meadow planted in the region, right here at the Ponderosa.

Its not a big planting at all, just about twenty feet by ten¬†feet: a small “edge” garden. Small or not, it should, in time, reveal some interesting things. We will see.

While working with Philadelphia prairie hipster Larry Weaner on the Lafitte Corridor project in New Orleans, I was introduced to the concept of using these fine ornamental plants in instances where grasses can’t be used.¬†The Lafitte¬†project¬†has¬†three acres of sedge meadows designed into the landscape as rainwater run-off retention basins, designed to capture and filter the water. This was done because of the infestation of¬†Torpedo grass and Johnson grass that exists on the project site.

The sedge meadow I planted is a red-neck prototype intended to be a model for¬†promoting the use of this problem solving idea. Here at my place, it allows me to plant a garden of good plants where I couldn’t otherwise. You see, I have forty different flavors of bad weeds¬†here and this approach helps me work past¬†my weed problems. Kind of like a twelve step program works for winos. After all, the first step is admitting you have a problem, huh? For example, I have, in some parts of the yard, the awful Skunk Vine, a plant that can take over a lot of land really quickly and all but make it disappear. I can spray a selective herbicide over the garden and not hurt sedges but will kill the dickens out of the Skunk Vine. Yay!!!! This way, I can eliminate¬†the¬†old nasty,¬†stinkin’, no-good skunk vine.. Thats a big deal when you are otherwise stuck with doing battle with such a brute forever.

Sedges are numerous in species anywhere you go in the eastern U.S.. Many forms to choose from….but I have my favorites.

The sedge¬†I’ve worked the most with is¬†Carex glaucescens, or Clustered Sedge. Its a bad-ass grass but not a grass at all, really. Its blue toned in color and grows in a fairly vertical form and has fine to medium textured, strapped foliage with unique flowering parts that are delightfully (relatively) ornamental. The ultimate hieght of this is thirty inches and the width, about eighteen inches. I grew this plant for years in my nursery even though no one would buy it. I, however, have always liked its charm and character and I would “work-it-in” when the client was¬†looking the other way. Super-cool pics of it @ the link, below

Carex vulpinoidea, or Brown Fox Sedge is a most desirable plant for gardening¬†with¬†poor, perennially moist to constantly wet soils. Really, its a beautiful thing, y’all! This plant is perfectly rounded in overall form, about 30 inches¬†tall and four feet around. The foliage is very fine textured and deep, dark green. The flowers are not particularly showy but the fruit bearing stalks are. The golden brown fruit color contrasts nicely with the wispy-hair strapped leaves. I noticed this attractive grass-like plant on the property here several years ago because it was so graceful¬†and green in the harshest part of the winter. I have come to appreciate it greatly. Nice plant.


click to enlarge the photo of Fox Sedge, above.


above: the fruit-bearing terminal of Fox Sedge

Both Brown Fox and Clustered sedge are what I would call evergreen sedges since they do not have a period of dormancy, ¬†…just transition.

Carex flacosperma, or Blue Wood Sedge is another. I originally got a start of this plant many years ago from my plant-friend Lynn Libous-Bailey of the Mississippi Delta who got it from Dr Charles Bryson, the regional expert on Carex and Cyperus. This sedge has an attractive  glaucus-blue foliage color and is found here growing occasionally on this remnant Pine flat-woods. The fruit of the plant is nut-like and comes packaged in elongated clusters. The height on this one is about four or six inches and the width, about 18 inches around. Saweet!


above: Blue Wood Sedge in winter time


scaly, nut-like fruit of Blue Woods Sedge arrives in late spring

These three all bloom and fruit in the spring. Of the three, only two are “evergreen” and have substance in the summer garden (C. glaucescens and vulpinoidea). Flacosperma disappears in summer and comes back magically come October. FYI, Carex, here in the Gulf South, have a backwards dormancy period, typically going dormant in the hottest part of the summer, returning when the days become shorter, in early fall. They are in their glory in the dead of winter when most plants are taking a long siesta.

So, the deed has been done. The seed has been sown. And I will manage and watch closely, this garden, over time. I will let you (all three of you) know what does or doesn’t happen in the mean time.

au revoir!

Note: all of the Carex species I have worked with/have mentioned here have been positively identified by Dr. Charles “the Sledge of Sedges” Bryson. Thanks, Doc!

cool-cat prairie ecologist Larry Weaner Skypes with LSU Meadows class

It was a fun day yesterday at the Urban Meadows class. I pulled up to my parking spot on campus just outside the front door of the Design building and its roped off for who other than moi!

In case you don’t know, being a guest on campus and having a legal¬†parking place on the LSU campus is¬†like having reservations at the famous New Orleans restaurant Galitoire’s, it almost doesn’t exist.


Anyway, we got Larry on line and he did a wonderful job articulating the intricacies of prairie landscaping enough to satisfy our thirst. He was kind enough to spend 45 minutes reeling through the techniques he has spent thirty years honing.

For those of you who don’t know of Larry, he is an amazing force. He is based in Philly and travels about the northeast gracing property with ecological substance. He is a nationally known speaker and has hosted the New Directions in the American Landscape ecological design and landscaping conference since its inception twenty-five years ago. I was first introduced to Larry when he asked me to speak at a New Directions spin-off conference in Mississippi with he and Ed Blake back in 2008, just after the economy fell off the cliff. Then, he and I were hired and worked together very closely for over a year as native plant-meadow consultants for¬†the award-winning Lafitte Corridor project with the Design Workshop.

Wes Michaels was particularly helpful with guiding the conversation since he had a bunch of really good questions to ask. Good thing he didn’t leave that up to me. ūüôā



above: Larry covers design and management of meadows via Skype for the LA crowd. Technology rocks, ya’ll!! Wes has committed to having Larry come and visit, do a Guest Lecture thing next year for the Urban Meadows class. Cool? or whut?


above: the photo-friendly portion of the Meadows class at the Abita Flatwoods Preserve, Abita Springs, La, on our field trip last Saturday. The other part of the class was busy removing their muddy boots, getting ready to head out to the Abita Brew Pub for lunch (it was a long morning in the field, the kids were thirsty). This photo kinda looks like the 70’s grunge-rocker band¬†album cover. Lead guitarist¬†Wes Michaels is at far left. click on the photo.

We are headed to Houston for three days in April¬†to see the Nash Prairie, Russ Pitman Park, Katy Prairie Preserve, Peckerwood Gardens, and the piece de resistance!………a garden and killer sedge-meadow created by the incomparable and masterful hands of fourth-degree-black-belt-garden-designer-plantsman and famous Texan, Will Flemming.

If you are interested in going to Houston with us, just send me a note and LSU will include you and pay all of your expenses!


just kidding…APRIL FOOLS!!!!!! ¬†wah wah wah…

hahahahahahaha see ya


the proliferation garden

In nature, seeds from plants move around quite a bit and by many different means. In a prairie remnant or in a diverse prairie garden, there’s a continuous contest for space and sunlight, with species throwing down runners or or traveling by underground stolons, dropping seed by gravity or dispersing seed by wind, by bird, or by other natural mechanisms, to reproduce, to procreate, and to then compete and survive in the landscape: or to die off. Dominant species exert competitive pressure, as the less-dominants struggle to find any niche they can. All are fighting for the same light, moisture, nutrients and soil space. Some species can be more prolific in producing viable seed while some, such as running species tend to produce less seed and less viable seed. They have adapted to a better strategy of proliferation.

All of this happens, of course, until a change comes along. If its a severe change such as a major soil disturbance(say a heard of buffalo comes through), the result will be expressed in the resulting vegetation. That is, until things are sorted out again, when some level of stability has been reached.


above: a blurry picture of former Bison range in Louisiana from Lowery’s Mammals of Louisiana

This is the topic that Larry Weaner, of LWeaner Landscape Design, spoke of in his presentation at the New Directions in the American Landscape, the very cool ecological conference I attended recently. He spoke not of Bison, but¬†of strategies to more easily manage natural landscapes, in his presentation, “The Self-Perpetuating Garden”.

“What’s a self-perpetuating garden?” you ask? Its simply designing with list of carefully chosen species, a species list that closely mimics the local or regional natural model, using seed and plugs in order to create enough species diversity that the system becomes, over time, a dynamic restored natural system. This idea, this strategy, enables landscape designers and land managers(gardeners) to think in really big terms, and offers opportunities to restore landscapes more successfully and in an economically and biologically significant fashion. Design and plant with a strategy to introduce successfully, species that will seed profusely and establish colonies and hold their own in extreme competition, as is the case in the natural prairie and the natural Long Leaf pine herbaceous models. This idea is promoted by many landscape designers as a more functional, sustainable and practical model of ecological design and artistic expression.


above: Larry Weaner, of Philadelphia, speaks at NDAL about self-perpetuating gardens

Larry said in his presentation,¬†“We are looking for a higher level of self sufficiency and if we want that, we need fidelity in terms of matching the species to the habitat in which it is accustomed to growing. Why? Because we are not just looking for plants to survive and to put out some flowers, we are looking for them to proliferate in the landscape. We’re looking for them to be successful, not according to a horticultural definition but according to an ecological definition. In horticulture if you plant a plant and it lives and it looks okay, then its successful. In an ecological terms if you plant a plant and it lives and looks okay but does not reproduce, it is not successful. We need to start bringing that definition into the landscape. We can’t plant every single plant, we can’t weed every weed, especially when we start turning lawns into something else, when we start trying to control invasive species (in large landscapes).”

He advocates designing with this in mind and by doing so, becoming more successful when it comes to management, and ultimately, aesthetics: how it looks.

The name of his lecture was actually The Self-Perpetuating Garden- Setting processes in Motion: Assisted Plant Proliferation in the Designed Landscape. Pretty solid subject matter, I’d say. In other words, how do you design forty acres to enable you to manage it as easily as you would one acre? How do you design a one acre property for bio-diversity and do it as easily as you would 1/10 of an acre? You do it the natural way.

Getting more and doing less, that is what drew me to restored prairie many years ago. When I first visited the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project site and began to interpret the dynamics and the beauty of it all, I was blown away. I had found just what I was looking for.

Natural landscapes designed using the model of native plant communities provides better chances for success in managing these landscapes. Anyone can put a bunch of native plants together in a landscape but if it isn’t designed, restoration of the landscape will be limited and aesthetically, its probably going to be unsuccessful or at least difficult to manage..

Its amazing stuff, to study the natural landscape. You don’t need an instructor, really (although it helps, occasionally). You just need a forest or a natural meadow area to walk through, to study. By studying and observing the processes and the changes over time, you can learn a lot about how to go about producing such a landscape. You have to study it to understand it.




hangin’ with my design heroes

Amazing things can happen in one’s life. Crazier things have happened though, I know.

Well maybe not.

I will be speaking at the ecological landscaping conference, New Directions in the American Landscape, in January. I am so humbled (I’m tearing-up :)) to talk about my connection to the Crosby Arboretum, and on methods of local-genetic seed in biodiverse grassland restoration (the Cajun Prairie Model). I learnt abuncha stuff from a few plant geniuses and people way-up in Pennsylvania and Connecticut want to hear about it. Hmmm.?

Some of the people speaking at the conference are long time heroes of mine. Most wonderful is Carol Franklin, renown known landscape designer instrumental in helping develop the concept for the Crosby in its earliest stages. The Crosby is one of the few Arboretums designed as a model specifically focused on interpreting the use of fire as a necessity in sustaining a biodiverse natural landscape. Ms. Franklin’s firm, Andropogon Associates, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was there in the beginning, helping guide the Crosby family and Ed Balke, the landscape designer who they had hired to create the arboretum master plan.

I will also get to meet a couple of my newest heroes, Nigel Dunnet and James Hitchmough, amazing plantsmen from Great Britain. They are professors of Horticultural Ecology at Sheffield University. Nigel, is a green roof guy and James is doing amazing things with the idea of blending natives and exotics in seeded landscapes, in the urban context. I was so excited to discover these two hep cats last month on Noel Kingsbury’s blogpost and then I realized I would be speaking with them. whut.? check out James’ waycool paper on link below:

New approaches to ecologically based, designed urban plant communities in Britain: do these have any relevance in the United States?

Oh, and Thomas Rainier, Landscape Architect prof who writes the Grounded Design blog.

Maybe I’ll get some hang out time with Kurt Culbertson, of the Design Workshop, who I have had the great pleasure of working with, along with ecological landscape wiz Larry Weaner, on the Lafitte Greenway Project, a 3.2 mile linear park, from The French Quarter to City Park, in New Orleans. The Greenway, after two years of design, just broke ground last week.

There’s a bunch of stellar plant folks I will get to see speak. What a treat. I will try to do my best to ‘represent’, as the youngsters say.

peace ya’ll!

Merry Christmas, Happy Channuka, Happy Quanza, and Happy Festivus, ONE AND ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

conferences links