THINKING OF MAKING A MEADOW, or helping a woodland area back to life, with fewer invasives? Larry Weaner has a dynamic perspective: Let the plants give us a helping hand with the planting, and even the design.
Larry is principal of Larry Weaner Landscape Associates, and has more than 30 years of experience creating natural landscapes, and national recognition for a unique blend of environmental science and keen aesthetics. Though their projects, which are mostly from Virginia through New England, range from small backyards to highways and historic places, “the naturalistic and native-plant thread runs through it all,” he says.
a conversation on the radio with larry weaner
IN OUR CHAT on my public-radio program, I learned why not to till when prepping a planting; how to help a desired species outpace an unwanted one by learning to manage and influence natural processes; and what the word “naturalistic” means today.
Q. How did the native and natural become your specialty, Larry—did the education in landscape design come first, or the nature and science?
A. My first experience in the landscape world was working in traditional horticulture—first a job, and then going to school for it. However my interest in it always came from the naturalistic end.
As a kid, I grew up in the urban Philadelphia and I don’t think I even knew there was such as thing as a garden designer, until I got a job with a landscape firm, in the summer between high school and college.
But the thing that always interested me was nature—as a kid I was always wandering the open fields and woods; that was just my natural inclination.
Q. What is it that the homeowner-type clients come to you with? Is there a common thread?
A. Since my style is pretty well-known now, folks who come to me are generally looking for that. But they have very different levels they want to go with it, and different ideas in their head of what naturalistic really means.
But basically they are frequently coming to me to attract birds, and their aesthetic preference is in the more naturalistic vein, and increasingly they have an interest in doing something that’s if nothing else environmentally benign, but hopefully environmentally contributing.
Q. So what does naturalistic mean to you? Is it the look, or also the function?
A. I’m very aesthetic oriented—everything I do, I am thinking about aesthetics, and it’s not always the same in every project. Everything may be naturalistic, but there may be very different levels and applications.
However, for me a garden really needs to function in the surrounding ecological milieu in which is exists. If a garden is just simply a pretty thing to kind of hang on the wall and look at—for me that’s not enough.
Q. Not just an imposition on the surrounding area; it has to connect.
A. Yes. The word naturalistic is very interesting. When I first started 30-something years ago, I considered myself a naturalistic designer. However, I didn’t realize that meant studying nature and bringing that into the garden in somewhat concrete and literal ways.
It just meant to me creating things that looked naturalistic—that weren’t clipped, and overly pruned, and overly formal.
Over the years, I’ve learned that if you really want to call something natural, it ought to have some real connection to what goes on around you in the natural world. That started off by using native plants, or an increasing amount of native plants, and then it turned into in more recent years to understanding that no matter what plants you choose, but what natural processes you allow to unfold or manage in the landscape.
To me right now, that’s really the difference between being able to make these things happen over time, and overcome a lot of the difficulties that gardens have from a maintenance standpoint and an environmental standpoint.
Q. In an email, you shared this:
“Nature has spent millennia perfecting plants’ abilities to reproduce and proliferate on their own, and yet we often go to great effort and expense placing every plant in our designed landscapes,” rather than capitalizing on plants’ reproductive abilities.
A. There has been a great movement toward environmental design—use of native plants, and creating habitat—and I am all for that, and I’m glad that it’s happening; it’s my goal also. However, what it really means is expanding in scale from isolated garden beds and huge areas of lawn or woodland that end up invasive-dominated, to taking some of these areas and trying to convert them into native species that are ecologically contributing.
Even if you have a small property—a half-acre property—and you convert 80 percent of it to some native vegetation, besides lawn, that’s a huge garden. At that point you use the ability to purchase and plant every single plant, and weed everything that comes in between it.
It’s just too big.
At that point, you have to learn to manage and influence natural processes, and that means encouraging plants that you have planted, or naturally recruited ones that you consider desirable, to proliferate—and there are methods to do so, as well as put together processes that discourage the undesirable species outside of weeding every single one by hand.
Q. Can that be something like mowing, if you’re managing a meadow-ish area to discourage woody things?
A. That would be a simple tactic: If you’re managing a meadow, and don’t want it to succeed into woodland, which it almost always will, you would mow it once a year end of fall or preferably early spring, and that will prevent the advent of trees.
But it can get a lot more sophisticated than that. Let’s say you have an existing field that is dominated by non-native pasture grasses (which is what most field are dominated by, a remnant of agriculture and grazing, hayfields and such). If you would rather turn it into native grasses—well, most native grasses are warm-season plants that don’t actively grow until the hot weather. Pasture grasses are cool-season plants, actively growing—like lawn—in the spring, and they’re not so happy in the summer.
Q. It sounds like they get a headstart over the native grasses.
A. Exactly. So by understanding the differential between those two life cycles of the plants you’re trying to encourage and the plants you’re trying to discourage, if you actively mow this meadow in the spring, the cool-season grasses are the only thing growing then. It’s expending resources, getting cut, expending resources, getting cut—then at the end of spring it’s at a time of year when it’s not going to grow much, because it doesn’t like the hot weather.
But the warm-season grasses are just getting started, and all the mowing you’ve done has not cut them, and now they grow up and shade the cool-season grasses to further weaken them, and then you don’t mow for the rest of the year.
So that’s an example of being able, even in a field where both of these plants were existing, to use a very simple tactic to significantly moves the vegetation in a direction that you want, as opposed to weeding out all of the unwanted grass.
One of the maxims that always comes about in managing landscapes, or setting processes in motion:
If you have a plant you want to manage for, and a plant you want to manage against—and it’s beyond the scale where you can physically remove the one—you need to find something about those two plants that is divergent, and exploit than divergence.
In the example I just gave, the divergence was growth period—one grows in the spring, one in the summer, so you can exploit that by mowing in the spring.
Q. Other examples of differences you can take advantage of?
A. A strategy we’ve used particularly in woodlands is the divergence in height of species, and cutting at a selected height.
A property we worked on had Canada mayflower and wild geranium and white wood aster and a few species of ferns growing, and tons of blackberry. We didn’t want the blackberry, because it was taking over, but the other species were very desirable.
Now the blackberry gets 4 or 5 feet tall, and everything else I mentioned tops out at 24 inches. So depending whether trees were in the way or it was an opening, we mowed (with a brush hog, raised up to 24 inches) or weed-whacked at that height. Basically if we cut the foliage a couple of times a year at 24 inches, we’d be cutting only the blackberry and never cutting the other species, because they’re below the mow height.
So we’d inventory the desirable species, we’d determine the maximum height they’re growing, and we’d determine the species we want to manage against—and we could exploit that height differential.
That doesn’t convert the vegetation to totally herbaceous species the first time, but over a period of a few years the vegetation starts moving toward the direction you desire.
Q. Where were you when I was fighting blackberry in my upper field here?
A. Where was I before I figured that out? [Laughter.] A lot of it is common sense—you start thinking a different way. You look at vegetation and it’s not just about whether you planted it or it’s naturally occurring; it’s not just about what’s there this moment. It’s about how did it get that way, and where is it going if I do nothing, and the characteristics of these plants and how can I manipulate them in a way that will end up a healthy landscape.
Q. Meadow making doesn’t happen Shake and Bake-style, from a can. From “stop mowing and see what comes up, then manage it,” to, “start from scratch, or else,” what tacks do you recommend?
A. No two projects are the same. You really have to look closely, because one difference from this property to another can make the whole result different. However, there are some characteristics about how you approach meadows that pretty much almost always run through what we do:
One is to avoid tilling or disking like the plague. We seed with a no-till drill, which cuts the furrows and drops seeds into the furrows and covers it up all in one process.
We avoid tilling, because when you till you bring up all kinds of dormant weed seeds to the surface, and you create a nice, fluffed-up seedbed that’s a great medium for any weeds that blow in.
If you do a no-till drill, you’re not deeply disturbing the soil. Again: that’s understanding the ecological process: Disturbance generates seed germination.
Q. What about plant palette?
A. In general, you want a mix of native grasses and forbs—broad-leaved flowers, though you can plant all-grass meadows.
Key is to look at the conditions—soil, light, hydrologic ones–and pick the plants that are most adapted to that. Everything you do is to stack the deck in favor of the species that you want to end up dominating that field, and the first thing you can do is pick the plant not that can maybe live there, if you’re weeding and watering it, as you do in a garden. In the garden they may be OK, but here they’ve got to battle it out.
Q. So don’t fight the site.
A. And don’t try to improve the site, soil-wise. If you have a dry soil, use the species that grow in dry soils; if it’s a wet, poorly drained soil, use those species.
If you make a perfect soil with compost and such—you’ve made it a perfect soil for weeds. If you pick the plants that are perfectly adapted for your soil conditions, it’s fine and doesn’t need anything.
Q. Do you “read” the palette of plants on the site to get a hint of the conditions, and what plants will work?
A. Yes, you’re looking at the conditions, and you’re also scouring the site and beyond. You may be on a property where the entire place is mowed lawn with mowed garden beds—what are you going to learn from that? You may go next door, where they left a few areas off the edge of the lawn, where things grew on their own, and see what’s growing there. Both the weedy plants, and the good plants.
If something is desirable and naturally recruited on the site, it should be used unless there is some reason you don’t want it, because it’s naturally adapted to the site.
Some plants are very common, like yarrow, and grow everywhere and don’t tell you that much; others only go in certain places. Like butterfly weed—I see one naturally recruited butterfly weed off in the rough, and I know there’s a whole suite of plants that grow in the same conditions.
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LARRY WEANER was my guest on the July 7, 2014 edition of my radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(All photos courtesy of Larry Weaner Associates.)