Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

Landscape designers never cease to amaze me. Yes, I confess that I could happily talk about garden design all day! But every now and then you have the good fortune to learn something that profoundly inspires. Such was the case when I heard Larry Weaner speak to us at our Landscape Design Student Alumni meeting at the New York Botanical Garden.

Weaner is one of the early and most prominent native plant advocates. He gave a presentation called: Setting a Process in Motion: The Self-­Proliferating Landscape. The basic premise is pretty simple and something that many of us already practice to some extent. You begin by implementing a planting plan that favors “the natural recruitment and proliferation of desired over undesired species.”

In other words…let the tough guys win! It is common in gardening to just put in plants that are aggressive enough to fill in empty space and let them beat out the weeds, either through self-seeding or root-based propagation. And when you are dealing with larger spaces as we often want to do in our rural area, Weaner’s approach makes a lot of sense. It can save you a tremendous amount of money and allow you to create large swaths of garden that don’t require an army of staff to weed and maintain. However, be forewarned! This doesn’t just “happen.” To do his techniques properly requires a geeky amount of science and a saintly amount of patience, but you will find the results well worth it. A few highlights from Weaner’s lecture:

Use only native plants. This is an ideological choice as well as a practical one. Native plants are much more favorable to the cohesive whole of an environment, including the pollinators and soils available to positively affect the growth and proliferation. Generally Weaner models his planting designs on native plant communities found in an environment comparable to the one he is designing for. Side note: This doesn’t allow for peonies and lilacs but creates a very natural look that can be very beautiful. While I use a lot of native plants in my designs, I am not religious about it. Personally, I prefer to use a combination of exotic and native plants in smaller gardens and gardens “close to the house,” but in larger or wilder areas I find that native plants and grasses fit the bill.

“If you do nothing, things grow”. Create conditions to encourage natural recruitment (encourage volunteer native plants). Rather than spending money on more and larger plants (trees & shrubs included), devote your resources to removing invasive and unwanted plants and creating conducive conditions for native plants that want to grow and to make it easier for your planting efforts to proliferate. Fact is, a volunteer plant will take hold and overtake a nursery plant introduced into the same environment! I have seen this happen numerous times on my own property as well as at clients. One of Weaner’s techniques is to leave an unmown strip or area where he wants to have some shrubs or trees and watches to see what appears natively. When he finds a sapling he wants to keep he gives it space and lets it do its thing. (Again…I mention that patience is required for these techniques).

The self-propagation of planted and naturally recruited species is a significant component of the landscape’s development, and is intentionally incorporated into all aspects of planning, planting and management. Plants naturally proliferate through a number of mechanisms including re-seeding, rhizomes (roots under the ground) and stolons (roots above the ground) and all strategies are incorporated into a successful design.

Choosing the right plant for the right place and creating the right conditions is the most critical piece of the puzzle. This includes moisture level, make-up of the soil, PH (acidity of the soil) and, of course, the amount of light. Knowing what plants will work together and which plants will win the battle over time is a key factor and takes research, experience and observation.

And finally, It takes time (several seasons or more) to reach a point approximating the desired result. In addition to encouraging volunteers, Weaner starts with a combination of nursery plants, landscape plugs and seeds. In large areas it is much more economical to use seeds and plugs. He often seeds with early succession plants and biennials (Rudbeckia hirta for example) to fill in the gaps while the strategic plants get established. If you have some patience and a longer term vision it can be very enjoyable to watch and participate in this process.

Some of you may find this a little too geeky, a little too much like eating your vegetables, but I think that it is an important seed to plant.~

Mel Bellar, passionate Andes gardener, is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes.