Thoughts From The Belly - November 2005

October 31, 2005

Thoughts From The Bellysize=+2>

copyright November 2005

By: Dan Mays

I have been pondering garden wisdom lately. To be sure, there is no shortage of gardening information available. The book stores have shelves of information just waiting to be purchased. Any county extension office has stacks of horticultural fact sheets, free for the taking. The Internet is filled with gardening forums and various garden related sites offering unlimited information  much of it specious or just plainly incorrect and often "supported" only with anecdotal "evidence" of veracity. Nonetheless, true gardening wisdom is a rare commodity; something which should be held dear and relied upon often for guidance.

I recently gave another rain garden class at my home with the help of weatherman and fellow Master Gardener, Ray Wolf. We were honored to have a local landscape architect and his associate attend our class. One of my personal goals with this particular class is to couple elements of good, aesthetic design with the functional aspects. I have noticed this approach as a glaring omission in the "How To" information provided by some very qualified institutions. In fact, I think the typically suggested rain garden planting designs are hampering the very projects they claim to support. The aspect of social acceptability cannot be ignored.

To support my theory, I gritted my teeth and actually used a widely recommended rain garden design layout. I purchased the recommended plants on the supplied list of plants and installed them per the accompanying design grid. I later compared the end results evidenced this fall against photos of first year results from my two other rain gardens which were planted "my way". While the recommended planting scheme does not necessarily look bad; it certainly wonÂt bubble your hormones either. The recommended design certainly does not capture your attention. It embodies a look that says, "functional". On the other hand, my other rain gardens using modified planting schemes were far more endearing.

While our class was out examining the rain gardens, I asked the landscape architect and his associate about the decidedly obvious differences in the visual appearances. Their answers were quite insightful. They noted that as they have continued to install more rain gardens and native plantings, they have steadily reduced the plant variety. Whereas the recommended design that I followed used about fifteen different plants, they said that they started out using nine or ten different plants and have continued to decrease that number until they are now considering using only four or five different species in any given planting. In other words, they planted in masses rather than sprinkling plants about the bed.

So what does this all have to do with garden wisdom? Well, to simplify things, the word is literally, "simplify". From the first time I attended a landscape design class taught by Dr. Ann Marie VanDerZanden of Iowa State University, I have been struck by her unusually short list of landscape design principles. There are many of these design principle lists with perhaps the currently most popular list being P. Allen SmithÂs "12 Principles of Design". Dr. VanDerZanden uses only five principles. However, it is the first (and according to her, the most important) principle that piqued my interest. Curiously, her first principle is "Simplicity"  thatÂs it  Simplicity. She is the only person I have ever heard espousing this remarkably straightforward principle; and therein lays the beauty and the wisdom.

A wise gardener simplifies things. A wise gardener simplifies things not only because it is easier but also because it almost always looks better. Using different words, this is exactly what the landscape architect and his associate were also saying: The more you simplify, the better it looks. Although I didnÂt realize it at the time, I was inadvertently doing the same thing with my own rain garden design. Far too many of us struggle putting together plant combinations. If we had the wisdom, we would probably just simplify and plant a generally more effective mass planting. Even the late, legendary garden writer Henry Mitchell touched upon the concept of simplicity in his own, inimitable way: "The temptation to devote every square foot to growing another plant should be resisted, for the excellent reason that other approaches will make the gardener happier."

Why is garden wisdom is is so hard to find when it is really (pun intended) quite simple?

Comments (17)

  • cheerpeople

    I am all for the look of mass plantings, and repetition.

    I am also into gardening as a learning experience and want to learn from 100's of plants not a mass planting of 6 varieties. To me the garden is to please me... and hopefully be arranged in ways that would suite the tastes of others that visit.

    Corporate looking gardens are well suited to mass plantings and
    much repetion. The overall look
    says, easy, common, boring....
    I feel a few brain cells dying off as I enjoy them...

    I do not know about rain gardens. I am going to forever pursue the perfect look for me... and relish every year of new discovery.

  • iowa50126

    I've always tried to use the "K.I.S.S." principle in most of my lifes endeavors.

    And speaking of repetition...

    This past summer ALL of the flowers in my shady backyard flower beds, deck pots and large pots by my garage were impatiens in 2 colors.

    I planted equal numbers of "el-cheapo" cajun red and cajun orange side by side in all the areas.

    Since I live on a corner lot by a fairly busy street (by Iowa Falls standards) I was amazed at the people who stopped to tell me how much they liked the flowers...

    However, I claim no wisdom for this plan ...just an under-funded budget for buying annual bedding plants.

    Pete in I.F.

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  • jspece

    I always enjoy your "Thoughts", IronBelly.

    I think your point is valid in certain cases. I agree with Karen that corporate/public settings are probably best suited for mass plantings. The people in charge want the end result to look good...they could care less about what the plants are or how diverse the planting is. They want "landscaping".

    I want a "garden". I am a plant person. I get great kicks from learning about, hunting down, and growing new plants. Sure, a mass planting of a single (or few) hosta varieties (insert your plant of choice) looks nice, but I would get tired of looking out my window to that every day. This is probably why I find most public gardens kind of boring. I like diversity and I don't think diversity looks bad. It is interesting. Granted, some "mix n match" gardens look better than others, but that is half the fun. If the combo doesn't work, you dig the plants up and try again!

    I guess I study the same school of thought as Tony Avent..."plant in drifts of one!"

  • ironbelly1

    I thought you might like to see my corporate garden. ;-)


  • ironbelly1

    The above comments are an important feedback to me for these little newsletter columns. They help to give me some idea as to how well I have developed the clarity of a concept. This can be a difficult thing when limited to the brevity of about 700 words. Below, I am going to prove the veracity of the statement, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

    The thrust of my article was particularly, but not solely, dealing with the use of native plants in a garden setting. My lament is directed towards the typical advice from far too many "design experts" when using native prairie plants. (However, the concept still has validity with landscape design in general.)

    The standard advice from the experts promoting native prairie plants essentially recommends using lots of different plants randomly scattered and then waiting to see what survives. While this may be good advice on a large prairie restoration project, it fails miserably when applied in a residential setting. Instead of random chaos, a bit more order becomes a social demand in an urban setting. Below is a photo of a native planting design from a big-shot, "expert" designer from Chicago -- and this is fairly representative of the normal advice being given. {{gwi:50613}}
    Would you want this look in YOUR backyard?

    I take a different approach that I will let you be the judge of. I think the example of my native plant design below is much better. In fact, if anything, it could be improved a little more by removing species such as the Big Bluestem, which I think detracts from the overall effect in this particular setting. {{gwi:1002185}}

    Sometimes less is more.


  • garasaki

    While your point of simplifying plant selection may have been directed towards Rain Gardens, the idea of simplification is applicable to any garden or landscape.

    Simplification does not necessarily have to be applied to plant selection. It could be applied to bed design (ie simplier shapes are often more effective then complex shapes with lots of corners or curves), plant locations (ie plants with similar watering requirements located near each other simplifies watering procedures), plant maintainence (ie cut down on the number of chemicals you are applying on your plants, either as pesticides or fertilizers), etc etc etc. The list of things you can simplify in your garden is infinately long.

    The point being, wise gardeners do what they can to make gardening easier for them. This also allows them to do more with the same amount of time.

    Anyway, thats what I got out of this when I read it the first time. Even though IB mostly speaks about the asthetic advantages of simplification, the idea flows easily onto other subjects, for me anyway.

  • cheerpeople

    Ironbelly- I liked your first read and pic (might want to rethink the color of your fire plug;) LOL! and the second post.

    Is a native plant garden and a rain garden the same thing?

    Native plant gardens are not my GARDEN thing. A true native garden is what's goes on in the DITCH and PASTURE. I enjoy them, when I go for walks or ride the horse, but it's not what I want in my manicured garden. Particularly not the 5 ft thistles!

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    So if you are asking what's beautiful- you will have many right answers from all even experts. But if you are asking yourself- then it's the one that's right to your eye-

    And that's the only one that's right for you.

  • garasaki

    Can you paint fire hydrants? I'm pretty sure you cant. Your pretty much stuck with what the local fire dept gives you (I think) ...

    A rain garden is a garden who's primary purpose is to absorb and filter rain runoff from a site before it reaches local streams or other waterways. There's tons of info on the net, and on these forums (mostly courtesty of IB himself!) about exactly what they are.

    An interesting subject that many people don't think about, is the impact civilization has on stormwater runoff, and how that relates to groundwater problems and how that affects the earth as a whole. It's a really fascinating subject (believe it or not).

  • uicricket

    Ironbelly -- Mass plantings and pictures to demonstrate -- I've had an AHA moment! I get it! My mind could see what I wanted to achieve but my brain couldn't grasp the concept of mass plantings. Now that I've seen your garden I have a much better idea of how to achieve what I'm looking for in my own.

    Pete - I planted two north beds of impatiens one year and was very happy with the way they looked all summer. Then I fell for the "they're so common" statement. I've been trying different things every year and I'm always disappointed. I'm going back to the impatiens that looked fabulous all summer and tons of daylilies that made me happy.


  • Dianne42

    I'm like Karen in that the joy of gardening is trying different plant combinations and I find that it works for me when I intersperse these combinations with solid blocks of one flower. Most of my solid blocks are plants that reseed such as "Indian Summer" Rudbeckia,Verbena Bonariensis, and "Victoria" Salvia ect.

  • ironbelly1


    Another way to consider what you are doing is framing your combinations -- or perhaps we could even say, framing your "vignette". Your solid blocks are acting as a frame, every bit as much as a frame around a picture. Virtually any picture looks better once it is framed. The concept works in the garden too.


  • ironbelly1

    A couple of you picked-up on the "wonderful" color clash (first photo) of my fire hydrant -- a colorist's nightmare, to be sure. How would you best handle it? By law, you cannot conceal it or hinder access to it.(It would be REALLY stupid to do so.) It is intentionally painted a gaudy color so that it will really stand out -- and it does.

    This one was a real challenge for me to aesthetically integrate this eyesore into my design. Although it is tough to tell from that small photo, I decided to apply the old wisdom: If you can't hide it; flaunt it!

    Since this is a fire hydrant, I decided to capitalize on a fire theme. The taller yellow flowers about three feet directly behind the hydrant are a Goldenrod called 'Fireworks'. Behind the Goldenrod is a crabapple named 'Prairie Fire'. At the base of the hydrant, I grow seveeral of our wonderful native plants, Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), for early season interest and 'Fire Witch' Dianthus for later blooms which last through frost. You get the idea -- I just have a little fun with the fire theme and everyone gets a chuckle. Although the color clash remains, attention is diverted away from it and it is soon forgotten.


  • Mozart2


    You're a good man to have around!

    It was from "finding" you on this post that I am becoming initially "educated" on "Rain Gardens". I've never heard of them before.

    If you have the time and energy, could you provide me with a few links to find out more thoroughly what "Rain Gardening" has to do with groundwater, etc. and what might its advantages be for non-prairie areas of this country, such as northwestern Michigan. I suspect that there might be other plant materials/ornamental grasses used for this type of gardening.

    Obviously, I am being a bit lazy this evening - otherwise I would do my own "homework." ;>) - long night - last night - too much of a "second wind" late in the evening and a short night's sleep - doesn't bode well for an old fart like me. ;>)

    Years ago, when I was living on the tallgrass prairie of central Illinois - Peoria - I met Jock Engels who operated the Lafayette Home Nursery in Lafayette, IL - east of Galesburg, IL - when he made a wonderful slide presentation on the use of prairie plants and grasses along Illinois highways at a convention of the IDOT engineers.

    Of course, I had already been inspired by John Madson's book: "Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie" - especially the earlier editions which listed more "prairie sites" in the back of the book than the later editions. Hopefully, it is still in print by the Iowa State University Press.

    Talk with you later and thanks for the links, information, etc.


  • ironbelly1


    If you used to live in Peoria, then I'm sure you know about my area, the Quad Cities. It is interesting that you mention meeting Jock Engles. He was truly a pioneer in recognizing the importance of preserving our native plants. Although I have never heard Jock speak, (I believe he has since passed.) I did hear his son, Eric, speak at a symposium some 8 to 10 years ago.

    Eric was an unusual speaker. Technically, he had to be the worst speaker I have ever seen. According to "the book", he did about everything wrong that a speaker should never do -- and the crowd loved him. It wasn't long before he had everyone in stitches. He presented an enormous amount of material with numerous photos and funny stories to back it up. However, his sessions did present a bit of a problem for the organizers of this multi-session symposium because nobody wanted to leave his class and go on to the next one.

    As to the rain garden topic: The best available information online is at the link provided below. The information is presented in a wonderful, 32 page, full-color booklet that you can print out if you desire. The only caveat that I would add is that the design I was complaining about above is one of the designs recommended in this booklet. Of course, the actual choice of plants may need to be adjusted for differing climates. This booklet was developed by the University of Wisconsin and should cross over pretty well to most parts of Michigan.

    I guess the point I would like to emphasize about rain gardens is not to get hung up on the technical stuff. Quite simply, you are just creating a shallow depression that catches some water and gives it little more time to soak into the ground. Certainly there is a litany of ways (some quite technical) to improve the performance. However, the average home owner usually does not need much more than a spade, wheel barrow, rake and level to do a pretty darned good job and this is exactly the approach this booklet takes.


  • garasaki

    Bill -

    One thing to mention, is that the use of native "prairie" plants in rain gardens is more of an mean to an end, rather then the whole emphasis.

    Rain gardens are just as applicable in a "non prairie" region as anywhere else. The point of rain gardens is to provide a more natural and effective method of handling rainwater then just letting it run to a sewer system. So in any region where there is rain, rain gardens are an enviromentally beneficial solution.

    "Prairie" (and other native) plants happen to do a tremendous job soaking up water, and are "user friendly" in general (require no babying). This is why they are often slated for use in rain gardens. However, you could also use non-native plants for a rain garden, assuming you could pick plants that would thrive in your zone, light conditions, and like moist soil. Thats sort of a tall order in reality...

  • Mozart2


    Thanks for your immediate response and the recommended link, which I've already checked out.

    When I arrive "home" this weekend, (more on that below **) I'll check out the University of Wisconsin and see if I can find out further information on the subject and either obtain a booklet from them or print out the information from the link you provided.

    A "Rain Garden" sounds like an interesting and worthwhile project. I am not certain that it may be entirely suited for our particular yard, since parts of our yard are rather "wet" during the spring - the moisture does drain slowly - at times. I don't know if it is because the water table is high and/or the ground is made up of heavy clay and/or if there are some minor springs around or a combination of several things. I'll have to ask my wife, Sue, who along with her former husband, bought the house many years ago.

    Speaking of Jock - time passes by so quickly - it must have been a few decades ago when I met Jock and saw his slide presentation. He showed one photograph of someone's house out on the edge of a city - I think or the country - the owner didn't wish to be a "horticultural drug dealer" any more (my phrase) and/or be over involved in the grass game (fertilizing, watering, grass cutting on end throughout the summer) and so removed the grass, etc. and planted prairie plants and grasses. Rather impressive when it finally came into full maturity.

    A "Rain Garden" project interests me for another reason. Sue and I have been thinking about putting in a small, hopefully inexpensive, water garden of some sort. Perhaps - a combination of the two might be something worthwhile to explore as a possibility.

    I'll have to do some extensive "homework" on this idea and see what Sue and I can come up with. As you indicated, the construction of this combined project, etc. or even a stand alone "rain garden" and finding suitable plants, etc. might be a "tall order in reality".

    I've been up to the Quad Cities a number of times - to visit and photograph the John Deere Headquarters; take a AVA (American Volkssport Association) hike; to check out the library at Augustana College, where I applied for a position shortly after graduation - see below ** - etc. Having been born and bred on the tallgrass prairie, I often miss its openness, but not, necessarily, the heat and humidity of prairie summers. ;>)

    ** FYI - I am a Librarian (MLIS - Rosary College - now Dominican Unversity, 1994) with the Michigan Department of Corrections and work in the St. Louis/Alma area of Michigan during the week and go home to Manistee during the weekend, holidays, and vacations. Did my undergraduate studies at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. (BA - History/Political Science, 1964).

    Again, thanks for your quick response and, especially, for your generous comments on my posting regarding the "Pro Gardening Auger System", which I have been using to plant bulbs and a few other plants before winter sets in. One or two folks in the Anitique Roses forum really got their underwear caught up in a bundle over my posting! Kind of surprised me in a way. Oh well.

    Thanks again and I'll talk with you later.


  • AdelJeff

    Hello IronBelly,
    On your dealing with a fire hydrant. I have seen some that had a face painted on it also with painted vines growing up it. One was painted to look like a British solder. It is amazing how doing something as simple as a face on them can soften them alot or if you can paint it different color as the others around town. Like you said " I decided to apply the old wisdom: If you can't hide it; flaunt it!"


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