From Weedy to Wonderful - Creating a wildlife-friendly garden that even the neatnik neighbors can love.
According to C. Colston Burrell, the princi- pal of Virginia-based Native Landscape Design and Restoration, one design strategy in par- ticular is key to making a yard as appealing to humans as to wildlife. “It’s really important to have a focal point,” he says. “Unless people have something to focus on, meadow or woodland gardens can look messy.”
The Native Plant Podcast
This week we're very happy to bring to you someone whose work we've admired for years. C Colston Burrell has been at the forefront of the native plant movement since he was able to garden. He's a brilliant author, photographer and one of the greatest designers we know. Have a listen and please share with your friends! It's the Native Plant Podcast!!!
Shady Place: A Tapestry of Forest Plants on an Albemarle Hillside
Under a canopy of mature poplar trees, beds full of ferns, hellebores, trilliums and many other shade-loving species carpet the ground. Stone steps and gravel paths thread through the foliage, with circular “nodes” at the intersections: repurposed millstones and whetstones set into the paths. Set among a natural cathedral of large trees, the first promontory has a large millstone in its center, glass marbles strewn among the gravel and a view of a large pignut hickory across the lawn.
For Virginia landscape designer C. Colston “Cole” Burrell, one of the biggest challenges is melding tradition with sustainability. “In my area there is a deep sense of regional history; people are married to the Colonial Revival aesthetic, with neatly clipped boxwood hedges, formal parterres, and European-style borders,” he explains. Burrell who is also an author, lecturer, photographer, and travel guide, compromises with his design clients by mixing natives with more popular ornamentals and substituting common landscape plants such as japanese cedar with native Eastern red cedar. “I don’t veer too far from what people want, but gently nudge them with smaller changes that they can accept,” he says. “It can be as simple as allowing leaves to decompose to enrich the soil rather than raking them up to make things look neat.”
A Line to Design: Beauty, Integrity, Resilience
At first, Cole Burrell was hesitant to pursue landscape architecture. He’d spent his life (since childhood, when he was, as he says, “a bona fide science nerd”) studying botany and horticulture, nurturing a curiosity about nature that has since taken him all over the world to lecture on plants and ecology. But, eventually, an interest in design demanded further attention, so he went back to school to pursue a third degree in landscape architecture.
Through the Hedge: A Charlottesville Garden Embraces a Woodland
“An unfolding story” is how one Charlottesville resident describes her collaboration with landscape designer Cole Burrell. That’s apt —their work together has logged nine years and counting. But it’s also a fair description of what happens when you walk through the garden. From the street to the rear property line, the landscape here reveals one lovely chapter after another.
Parts and Whole: Design Makes This Property Bloom
To Cole Burrell, landscape designer, a garden is an extension of a house. “There’s a million styles and a million vocabularies,” he said, “but none makes any sense unless it makes sense with the house.”
Ecobeneficial Interview with Cole Burrell
Join Kim Eierman, Founder of EcoBeneficial! for her interview with C. Colston Burrell (Cole), a noted author, lecturer, landscape designer, and native landscape expert. Cole has some fascinating observations about native plants and how native landscaping is evolving.
Virginia Professor C. Colston Burrell Brings Extensive landscape Experience to Central South Native Plant Conference
Every three or four years since 1991, gardeners, landscape architects and plant enthusiasts have been treated to one of the most extensive seminars in the nation, the Central South Native Plant Conference. On November 1 and 2, Birmingham Botanical Gardens will host this symposium, featuring keynote speaker, David G. Haskell, Ph.D., a Pulitzer-nominated author and professor at Sewanee: The University of the South. Over the course of two days, the conference will feature speakers from across the nation, early morning birding, field trips to some of Alabama's unique outdoor educational spaces and an event at Birmingham Zoo. Learn more about the entire conference, its speakers and how to register online at www.bbgardens.org/csnpc.
One of those speakers is C. Colston Burrell, Principal, Native Landscape Design and Restoration at the University of Virginia. He spoke to The Gardens about native plants and making their homes more ecologically healthy.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens: Your talk at the conference will address the history of the native plant movement. During your career, what changes have you noticed?
C. Colston Burrell: There is a bit of a paradox in that there has been a lot of change and a little change. Little change in that at the surface, people are still promoting and enjoying native plants as they were 30 years ago. The popularity is strong and always has been there in a segment of the gardening public. What has changed is that below the surface, there have been major paradigm shifts, especially as the wider public has become aware of native plants and their uses and benefits. I will put the in outline form.
• The 50's and 60's promoted native plants as unique, exotic garden denizens, often in need of specially created environments to sustain them. This is the literature with which I grew up. People valued natives but in a way they were not for everyone due to their needs. Of course everyone grew some natives like Phlox and Baptisia but they were considered perennials.
• In 1976, Bebe Miles published Wildflower Perennials For Your Garden, one of the first books to present native plants for the garden on par with perennials, as easy and needing the same conditions as already familiar garden plants. This and books like it were a giant step. This made it seem that anyone could grow natives.
• The 1990s were interesting as in many ways it was a decade of damage control. Many proponents of natives had promised carefree native gardens, instant beauty with meadow in a can, and the birth of much hated expression "natives are better than exotics because they are better adapted to local site conditions." Just like Lucille Ball when she got into a predicament, we "had a lot of 'spailin' to do." Invasive exotics were in the news and at garden conferences and they seemed very adapted to local conditions, hence they were a problem. Meadow in a can was a mix of non-native annuals that failed to return the second year, and people were getting numb to the message because of a lot of shrill voices saying "Natives Only". Also, by this time everyone was on the native bandwagon because it was trendy, but the knowledge was lacking for intelligent follow through.
In 1960's and 70's, we saw the birth of environmentalism and natives were seen as integral to that movement; kind of a return to Eden. Habitat gardening got some rebirth. In the 1980's, native plant conferences started up, and the environmental movement had spawned some new and exciting native plant nurseries that were propagating wildflowers not collecting them from the wild. These conferences like the one around 1983, the Cullowhee Conference, brought people together who were working somewhat in isolation on local or regional levels. The opening up of a larger regional or even national network connecting producers and consumers was a critical point in the mainstreaming of natives. Also, for the first time people could actually find sources for the plants they wanted knowing they were not from the wild.
In the new millennium, I think things have leveled out and deepened in many ways. More and more natives are available at local garden centers, though the green industry at large is still resistant in some regions. Natives for food, for pollination, for reduced maintenance and for beauty have all come together and I think we are in a good place. Natives are not for everyone, especially in the guise of an all native garden. People understand the important place of natives, but also wee the value of site adapted plants that are not invasive. We also see the value that a gardens structural/functional characteristics can have, whether made up exclusively of native plants or not. Also, green technologies are important today for water and energy conservation. Though many of the offsets are not completely vetted re: the initial costs of inputs, people see green as valuable. Sometime, native plants fit well, as in rain gardens, sometime not, as in most green roofs.
BE: Why do you think there is such a growing interest in native plants?
CCB: I think the single most sustaining facet of peoples continued interest in native plants (other than their beauty) is the renewed and growing interest in pollinators and insect-plant relationships. Add this to the already extant interest in wildlife, especially birds and butterflies, and I think there will be an enduring interest.
Many books have influenced people's perspective on native plants and widened their audience. Noah's Garden by Sara Stein is one. Her plea for the native/bird connections struck a chord with a wider public than the somewhat false promise of low maintenance did. Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home has been a tour de force in the insect/plant connection, though by no means is it the first book to do so. Like all narrowly focused books, the message at time can be shrill, and shrill messages turn some people off, but Doug got people asking the questions "How can I do a better job?" which is great. A better job means people have woven the native element into their garden tapestry and they perhaps think "Can I use a native here rather than an exotic?" This has really propelled native plants into he spotlight and widened their audience.
BE: What are a few steps that homeowners can take to make their properties more ecologically healthy?
CCB: Layering the landscape is a major one. Think of the integration from canopy to ground layer and consider the soil and rhizosphere as well. Structure improves function, and if we are aiming for a garden that enhances the local ecology, this is a big step in enhancing habitat value. Use natives where desired, feasible and appropriate. Use regionally natives wherever you can. In my view, a coastal plain species in the mountains is really not any more "native" than a Siberian iris, once it is divorced from its habitat and its pollinators. They are both being used ornamentally. Yes, one is native to North America, the other to Asia, but is just being native to NA enough? This is a philosophical question that each gardener must ask. So think of your intent. Tallamy provides excellent info on which natives offer the greatest benefits. Plant oaks, leave the borders and fringes of your property to the local flora. Have fun with your garden. If you do not love your garden and what you are doing there, the garden will have little intrinsic value, native or not.
BE: Some people say they have trouble finding many different native plants for their gardens. Why do you think that is, and how can it be rectified?
CCB: There is still resistance in the market to anything new. So, many local garden centers do not carry many natives, yet many do. Demand creates supply, so get out there and ask for the plants. Many of the original 70''s and 80's native plant nurseries that helped propel the native plant movement have closed. But, there are also some new ones. The Midwest is far ahead of the rest of the country, and California as well with its unique climate. They have many great regional native plant nurseries and have for decades. Areas with strident environments have long had nurseries that offer plants well adapted to those conditions.
Nurseries will never sell what people do not buy, so........
"I Call Myself A Chlorophyll Whore."
to do all that, know all that...I went to find out. And it is possible to be particularly engaging and modest at the same time.
Burrell is a Southerner and it shows. His manner mixes old-fashioned charm with 21st. century knowledge. He began with "I want to share with you a lifetime of discovery." When someone wants to SHARE with me, I am immediately positively disposed towards them. Burrell set the parameters for the discussion. He is not purist or heretic, somewhere near the purist, but with a mixture of realism.
He invoked the mantra of the sustainable sites movement: DO NO HARM. And then he asked the question what is native plant?
1. a plant with medicinal value
2. a plant that provides food
3. a plant that adorns the landscape
4. a plant that can be used as a tool for restortion
5. a plant that is an object of desire
6. a plant that is part of food web
7. a plant to is a structural component in a plant community
Burrell traced the evolution of native plant movement/revival. The call to arms: think globally, act locally. The bumper sticker on his car: DARWIN LOVES YOU.
Without recounting the entire lecture, as they say you can buy the book or books, Burrell ended the lecture by going locally...talking about his own garden. A combination of garden and woodland.
"I am a lazy gardener. Native plants are a great way to sit outside, watch the butterflies, dragon flies, hummingbirds and have a glass of wine." Burrell has a deer fence, which made him extremely happy, until the voles, moles, rabbits, skunks, and woodchucks invaded. "Now, I 'm happy if it just lives, self-sows and makes a colony."
So am I.
Early Signs of Spring
In Minnesota, where I used to live, winters are unforgiving. A deep blanket of snow covers the ground for six long months. The January thaw, while great for loosening the ice in your nose hairs, seldom melts enough snow to expose bare earth. Winters in my part of Virginia are markedly different. Snow is usually at a premium, and even when the ground does get laced with white stuff, it seldom makes more than a cameo appearance. There are a few exceptions, however.
A recent blizzard transported me back to my Minnesota days. A blinding haze of white swirled earthward for the better part of a day, leaving in its wake a 14-inch accumulation of satin flakes. With the help of cold temperatures, the snow lingered for nearly two weeks, then slowly faded with the rising mercury. In Minnesota, this meltdown would have signaled the start of spring, and though it was only December, I was seized with an inexplicable urge to search for signs of stirring growth. To my surprise, I found some. In reality, quite a few herbaceous and woody plants were poised for spring. Many plants, such as hellebores, are winter flowering, but some of the treasures I found usually hold their flowers until temperatures moderate. Nonetheless, there they sat, ready to spring into growth.
While snipping off the persistent brown leaves that make Hamamelis ‘Diana’ a bit of a pariah, I noticed some rich brick-red petals peeking out of the tawny, globular buds. A quick check of other cultivars revealed glints of bright color scattered among the bud clusters. Buds on flowering apricot (Prunus mume; pictured) showed no color, but they were plump and raring to go. Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) bears its globular buds in pairs. I noted the contrast of sun-burnished scales with the pale, newly exposed tissue that signals the buds are slowly opening. Even the maple buds seemed to be swelling in anticipation.
I expected to see evidence of bulbs, and I was not disappointed. Delicate, rushlike leaves of Narcissus jonquilla were the most advanced, poking an inch or more from the soil. Green noses of April-blooming snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) seemed hell-bent on defying the season. Would the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) be in bloom for the holiday, I wondered? I pulled back the leaves to find a nest of pale green buds resting just above the soil surface.
It seems only fair to mention that the first of winter’s blooms usually emerge by mid-February, but in December the worst of winter’s cold is yet to come. Most plants are cued into growth by a combination of photoperiod and temperature, and the days were still getting shorter. It seems that many plants receive ample winter chill in the autumn, and simply await increasing temperatures and lengthening days.
What I enjoy most about a Virginia winter is that the garden never really stops developing. Even through the few months where no flowers are evident, plants are stirring. You really can find signs of life all 12 months of the year if you know where to look. Best of all, you don’t have to go nosing around under the snow with frozen nostrils to find them.
Plantings For A Home Nestled In The Forest.
When C. Colston Burrell and his partner of 20 years, Bruce Ellsworth, first saw the house — all cypress and glass — tucked into a wooded slope in the Blue Ridge Mountains, they made an offer without even walking in the door.
That's how seductive the landscape is: Virginia pine and hickory, tulip polar, black birch, and hop hornbeam rolling down to a stream at the bottom of a grassy ravine. "To drive over a creek to get home is pretty good," said Mr. Burrell, 49, an ecologist and a garden designer who is known as Cole, recalling his first impression of the place. After eight years, he said, that feeling has only deepened.
On a balmy morning in mid-April, Virginia bluebells, self-sown from a few plants put in eight years ago, were spreading along the stream banks. He had also found a few trilliums blooming among the starry chickweed and a jack-in-the-pulpit or two poking through the leaf litter. Wild geranium and black cohosh, too. Up the slope, toward the house, he had scattered seeds of bloodroot, blue phlox, wild ginger and crested iris. "All local," he said. "I'm hoping these will all spread down the hill."
Mr. Burrell, one of the country's foremost native plant experts, runs a design firm, Native Landscape Design and Restoration, out of Bird Hill, his garden here, 16 miles northwest of Charlottesville. He founded the company in 1982, but has lectured internationally about design, plants and ecology for at least 35 years. Twenty years ago, he founded the Lahr Symposium, a popular regional conference on native plants, held every March at the National Arboretum in Washington. (At the time, he was earning a Master of Science degree in horticulture at the University of Maryland and working as a curator of the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection at the arboretum, and he saw the symposium as a way to raise money for an intern.)
Although native plants are Mr. Burrell's passion, his latest obsession is the hellebore, a winter-blooming perennial with saucerlike flowers and often evergreen leaves, which is native to Europe, the Balkans and parts of Asia. Along with two Virginia hellebore growers, Judith Knott Tyler and her husband, Dick, Mr. Burrell roamed the wild meadows of the Balkans with taxonomists, immersed himself in the gardens and nurseries of the best hellebore breeders in Europe, and crisscrossed the United States to report on the state of the hellebore. His new book, "Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide," written with Ms. Tyler, with a foreword by Daniel J. Hinkley, was published by Timber Press in April.
While Helleborus niger, the white Christmas rose, was an old standby in Grandmother's garden (Mr. Burrell grew it when he was 8 years old), a flurry of new hybrids, as well as the availability of good seed strains in a variety of colors, have created a renaissance for this sturdy genus. It may have something to do with full-time jobs and water restrictions. The hellebore is tough as nails, drought-tolerant, fairly deer-resistant and, above all, interesting year-round. "Hellebores really are four-season plants," Mr. Burrell said. "Even though they bloom in winter, the colors of the petals stay good until the seeds ripen in May." They also combine well with spring flowers, like snowdrops and primroses, and can be planted beneath fragrant witch hazels and other early blooming shrubs.
Mr. Burrell has only one complaint about them: "I'm running out of space." Thousands of the nodding cups of white, chartreuse, dusky purple and olive green fill the woodland gardens near his house. He loves the hybrids, but it is the pure species, "with their wild beauty," he said, that claim his heart. There is the dark purple Helleborus torquatus, which grows wild in western Bosnia. There is H. purpurascens, with its dove-gray, saucer-shaped flowers, native to the rocky woodlands of Hungary and Poland. There is Helleborus thibetanus, from China, with pink flowers that droop over silver-green leaves.
Mr. Burrell's artful combinations of plants form a lush carpet over this hillside. But it is the rhythm of the paths — pea-gravel walkways that move across the contour of the hill; stone paths that climb up and down — that shape as well as activate the space. A zigzagging rock path pauses at millstone terraces set at regular intervals along the slope, stopping just where the land falls away toward the stream — where poplars form a natural gateway.
"It's an ode to the Japanese garden, where you change direction to signify a change in experience," Mr. Burrell said. "This marks the change from the cultivated to the wild landscape." The house, designed and built in 1980 by Chris Halstead, an architect, and his wife, Lee, a painter, is exquisitely sited, its south and east walls mostly glass. During his first months here, Mr. Burrell stared out the windows of the living room, his eye constantly drawn to the sledding path the former owners' children had made, which cut diagonally from the front door to a meadow beyond the trees, making a sharp left and shooting down to the stream.
Mr. Burrell, who loves old farm implements and cooking equipment, set a big iron kettle — the type used to scald hogs — at the edge of the meadow. "From that focal point, this sequencing of space began to emerge," he said. The sledding path, part of this site's history, became a rock walkway, where bluebells now bloom between the stones.
Then one day, looking out the window, he saw what he called the "feng shui palace" — a circular opening, halfway down the hill, between the poplars. "See how this is a promontory, set out into the landscape?" he asked, standing in the prowlike space of the living room. "Well, that's a promontory as well, and a reflection back to the house." Where the land falls away from the poplars, Mr. Burrell built a circular rock retaining wall, then back-filled and covered the surface with pale pea gravel. A table made by setting a millstone on a grinding stone feels anchored yet open to the sky.
The space recalls the work of Jens Jensen, the early 20th-century Chicago landscape designer and conservationist, known as the father of the Prairie Style of landscape architecture. "He believed that the circular form gave order to the randomness of nature," Mr. Burrell said. "This woods is really the whole genesis of the garden." (Although a rectilinear garden does exist in the clearing, where Mr. Ellsworth, a social worker, grows vegetables down a terraced slope.)
Before moving to Virginia, they lived in Minneapolis while Mr. Burrell earned a master's degree in landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota. For nine years, they had only an eighth of an acre. Still, in their tiny garden, layered with shrubs and groundcovers, Mr. Burrell counted 171 different birds and 17 butterflies. "Our garden was a magnet for these creatures looking for someplace to rest and feed," he said. Here, at Bird Hill, he has counted 160 different birds, 39 of them nesting. "This garden responds to the topography and wildness," he said.
So, if you have room, plant native viburnums, like maple-leaf viburnum, native hollies, winterberry and chokecherry for those birds. Include some early fruiting plants, like serviceberry and fringe tree, as well as phlox and columbine to bring the hummingbirds.
And don't forget the hellebores.