Get garden advice in your inbox:



Saturday, February 11th, 2017


Over the winter I took a trip down to Philadelphia for the 28th Annual Landscape Design Symposium with the provocative theme: Analyzing the Wild Designing the Garden. I wasn’t sure who would be there and what it would be like but spoiler alert I met wonderful people and it blew my mind.


A couple quickie notes for the Canadian delegation…for the most part the scale of projects presented are WAY bigger. In part due to the fact that half the audience is landscape architects. In addition many of the projects occur in the rural areas around the urban core.


For this reason every speaker was asked a question about deer regardless of there chosen topic. What was really interesting was that the speakers ranged from purely quantitative ecologists to purely qualitative designers and you are left trying to put it all together into some practical application to take back to your practice.


The symposium started with a great talk from Frank Gilliam. I met him in the lobby of the hotel across the street and was won over by the Virginia accent,corduroy jacket and rep tie. Frank did a run through on the critical importance of the herbaceous layer of the pine forests he was studying. He also took the time to blast off on all the climate change deniers but he was clearly preaching to the converted. Of course the entire symposium was held with the backdrop of the inauguration of the 45th president who shall not be named here. In fact founder Larry Weaner made a point of joking that the president elect had tweeted that Frank Gilliam was overrated. so sad!
Here is the book Gilliam wrote


Anyways my takeaway from the talk was that the herbaceous layer forms a critical component to the structure and function of the forest ecosystem as a whole. The herb layer interacts with saplings of the canopy layer. Although they make up a tiny 0.2% of total forest biomass, the herbaceous plants can really punch above their weight when it comes to storing carbon and cycling nutrients. Great news for all woodland gardens!


The speakers were jammed back to back with only a short break in the middle and lunch midday. Mathew Cunningham’s talk couldn’t have been more different although the themes were the same. He described a project that was located at the bottom of a watershed requiring extensive water management. Ultimately it was a study in using the local flora to create a garden that fit into the landscape like it had been there forever. The scope and scale of the project is beyond my imagination and Mathew did not share the budget.



My take away from that project was an affirmation in how we use recycled stone in our projects. It definitely inspired me to explore storm water management more as a integral part of our business (see more great pictures from this project and others).


I had a very interesting lunch with some of the younger staff at Larry Weaner and Associates, a restoration contractor and Travis Beck from St. Cuba (see below). The conversation stayed on point for the most part and I was struck by the contrast between mow and blow and high brow design. An informal poll at the table revealed that although all were interested in planting and designing large gardens, meadows etc. they had little/no interest in maintaining the grassy areas between them.


There is a lot to unpack here, cutting grass is looked down upon and you can’t charge what you need to make it a good part of the business. This leads to low wage work and creates a real challenge to retain workers. Nevertheless we are often roped into it, as part of the obligation of maintaining the more complicated and high skilled areas of the garden. This is becoming an important theme that requires more exploration!


Travis Beck director of horticulture at Mount Cuba Arboretum related some very interesting work they were doing in adopting organic turf management for the 15 acres of grass they have on the property. Our discussion continued the following day where I blasted off on the crisis of maintenance (a topic for future post).


After lunch Derick treated us to a very detailed account of ancient flora history in the United States and the possible impact that changing climate would have on endemics (stranded plants that cannot adapt). Dense academic stuff to be sure and I didn’t leave the talk with anything practical to bring home to our work except that elevation mimics latitude when experimenting with the limits of plants in our region. He left us with this thought that makes you think about the times we live in “When we see the plants on a cliff face in Pennsylvania, in a dry sand scrub in Florida, in a Coastal Plain pine barrens in New Jersey – they are not a community of plants that have traveled together through time but rather a set of immigrants who (metaphorically) ended up in the same town together for this period of time, but weren’t necessarily together in the past and won’t be together in the future”. 
Example of endemic plant stranded by big changes in the environment over time the rare and endangered Geum radiatum.
geum radiatum photoPhotos by USFWS/Southeast,

“Number of woody plant species and grass species is higher in the southern united states this is determined by several factors 1  diversity of geology 2 changes in elevation 3 time and 4 precipitation -Derick Poindexter


The symposium was heavily weighted to restoration projects of various botanical gardens and Ann Aldrich from Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy was the first of several of this type. What followed was a great discussion about the balance between restoration, budget, removal of invasive plants and the critical importance of volunteers.

“We are going to need stewards going into the future”-Ann Aldrich

Aldrich told us how Beatrix Farrand became the first female landscape architect designing the wild garden at Dumbarton Oaks in the 1920’s.
DUMBARTON OAKS photoPhotos by john weiss,
It was saved in the 90’s by friends groups. Many of the original plants became invasive including bush honeysuckle porcelain berry and bittersweet.
Solanum dulcamara – Bittersweet
bittersweet photo
Lonicera mackii – Bush Honeysuckle
bittersweet photo
Ampelopsis brevipendunculata – Porcelain Berry
bittersweet photoPhotos by Indiana Ivy Nature Photographer, wackybadger, freezr,
The volunteers created a weed warrior program that tackled Canada thistle, Garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed and Norway maple (sound familiar?). Other big challenges included no leash dog walking, succession planning for old trees and deer. Part of the solution is education. on top of that is the critical importance of celebration.


“native annuals tend to be colonizers of bare ground from burns, ice scour, animal and human disturbance – Ethan Dropkin

by far the highlight for me was Ethan Dropkin from Weaner Landscape Architects. His presentation was about the possibilities for native annuals in the landscape. So far out in left field and so knowledgeable. I have reprinted his handout here for you dear readers….
also he presented us with weeds and told us they had potential for cultivar selection.
“euphorbia maculata can tolerate extreme ph grows in cracks is native and annual can handle saltspray and foot traffic” – Ethan Dropkin
I am not 100% sure its the same one, but we have a similar one that is common in all the grassy areas of our public parks in Toronto. In summer the grass goes dormant and this tough workhorse plant stays green and provides cover to large swaths of our parks with no glory or recognition handling the scorching heat of summer, heavy foot traffic and drought better than the lawn that it lives in.
euphorbia maculata photoPhoto by Starr Environmental
Ethan proceeded to provide examples of short lived perennials and annuals that could be useful in a variety of habitats.
Corydalis sempervirens for example I have seen growing in granite outcrops of southern Ontario with Sedum and would be an interesting experiment on a green roof.
corydalis sempervirens photoPhotos by Superior National Forest,
Or Hypericum gentianoides that would also be an interesting addition to a green roof application.
Hypericum gentianoides photoPhotos by FritzFlohrReynolds,
Here is Nuttallanthus canadensis (Linaria) that also has green roof potential, and Ethan thinks there is potential for selection of cultivars!
Nuttallanthus canadensis photoPhotos by kellyv,
I am including Bidens cernua as an excuse to share how Ethan described it as not a hard sell on the surface but can be aggressive and that it “works well at 65 MPH”
Bidens cernua photoPhotos by wackybadger,
Dropkin kept dropping profoundness off the cuff “annual natives can be  aesthetically pleasing, provide ecological benefit, succeed in difficult conditions, and are underutilized. if enough people talk about them perhaps the seed houses will start to carry?” Dropkin was actually using the presentation as a platform to advocate for adding an enormous class of plants into the marketplace.


Patricia Dracket took us through the story of the Crosby Arboretum.
crosby arboretum photocrosby arboretum photoPhotos by Loco Steve, Loco Steve
Started 30 yrs ago with a radical design based on ecological principles and native flora. the design took 10 years to complete! having a board that could not agree actually helped to slow the process down enough to test ideas and added an (unintentional) learning phase to the design process. To my mind this is starting to look and feel like real gardening but on a larger scale and with more people. the importance of slow change and asking yourself what the land wants to be and working within that not against it. In my humble opinion the more cross over there is between gardening and design the better off we will be.

 Day 2 To Be Continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


We love hearing from you!

Whether it’s about working together, a testimonial, ways we can improve, or just a how-do-ya-do – please reach out!


44 shanly street,
toronto, on
M6H 1S3


Jonas Spring



A little test to prove you're a human and not a spam robot :)


44 shanly street,
toronto, on
M6H 1S3