The garden is dead, long live the garden

Bowman’s Root in Page Dickey’s garden.

Dee Salomon

The garden is dead, long live the garden

It is indisputable that we are moving toward a new garden aesthetic. I would even go one step further to propose that gardening’s "man over nature" ethos — which has a classic exemplar in the formal gardens of Versailles — is now over. Nature reminds us, with greater frequency and intensity, that she is in control, and we are beginning to come to terms with the reality that it is a fool’s game to try to tame her.

As you think about your spring planting plans, slide into a new mindset. Let’s call it "human abetting nature." This mindset finds beauty less in rigorous planting schemes and more in the creation of habitats. The aesthetic associated with this new mindset is, thankfully, more forgiving — not so much the baggy dress to the tailored suit, but a looser beauty that can still be shaped or contained in ways we find pleasing.

As with many of our choices these days, mindfulness is the first step. Where are you planting?

And what are you planting there? When planting at the edge of the woods and in her fields, writer and garden designer Page Dickey will only plant natives. Here she has incorporated American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, redbud, Cercis canadensis and gray dogwood, Cornus racemosa. In her book "Uprooted," Dickey writes about her experience moving from a home where she crafted and tended an intricate garden to her current home in Falls Village with acres of woodland, fields and fen. Instead of working to transform the land into something else, she now listens to the land and responds to nurture it.

This new mindset does not mean that aesthetics are less important than before; rather, the aesthetic has shifted. In Dickey’s garden beds that surround her house, she mixes non-natives with native perennials, such as her favorite Bowman’s Root, Gillenia trifoliata (The Cornwall Garden Club native plant sale will offer Bowman’s Root plants among other native perennials Saturday, May 25, in West Cornwall.

Among Dickey’s favorite native shrubs are Fothergilla, Clethra alnifolia, gray dogwood, Cornus racemosa, and the American cranberrybush viburnum, Viburnum trilobum. She also used Viburnum lentago, called nannyberry, in place of adding more lilac, that had originally tempted her, for a hedgerow along a rough track on her property. From "Uprooted": “Surely I could plant something with more to offer, a plant that would enrich our wild habitat.” I can attest to the beauty of this native tree which grows at the edges of our marsh. It can get as tall as 15 feet and has a wide spread if given the space and light. Flowers in spring, nutritious berries for birds in fall.

Deborah Munson is one of our area’s top horticulturalists and landscape designers, who happily admits that her approach to garden design changed over the past decade: “In an ecologically driven garden/landscape I love a wilder and much freer style where there is little to no delineation between the wild and cultivated landscape and incorporating natives as often as possible; a landscape that over time can find its own way, being nudged occasionally by the human hand, often planted to allow the plants to drive the design, allowing self-sowing and covering ground.” One of her favorite native plant combinations is “shadblow, Amelanchier arborea underplanted with our native foam flower, Tiarella cordifolia and miterwort, Michella diphylla is a favorite combo. Add some snowdrops and white daffodils if you’re not a ‘native only’ purist.”

Out with precision edging. Out with yards of trucked-in mulch covered beds: “We can often create our own mulch on site by composting leaves and other garden debris as well as using plants as a living mulch. One should be aware that trucking in products can often bring new diseases and pests.”

Key to our new mindset, Munson reminds us, is "learning about a plant’s behavior… i.e. invasives (don’t plant) or colonizers (be careful what you ask for.) Is it a generalist, a plant that will grow almost any condition or specialist; for example, a plant that will only grow in wetlands or only in well drained acidic conditions?”

Many of Dickey's and Munson’s favorite native plants — from Redbud to Shadblow to Clethra, Sweet Fern, Viburnum Lentago and Anenome Canadensis — will be available from the Northwest Conservation District annual plant sale. You can preorder at and attend April 19-21 at Goshen fairground.

More on spring plant selection in next month’s column. If you have any questions regarding spring planting, please send them to

Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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