I THOUGHT I was familiar with the various and extensive botanical treasures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison–including the oldest restored prairie in the world, an arboretum and botanical garden, and its team of world-class plant breeders, just to name a few.
But through a friend I learned recently about another UW-Madison feature called the Allen Centennial Garden, and about its director and his passion for perennials that don’t just flower and then sit there unremarkably, but earn their keep beautifully through more than a single moment or season—and without excessive maintenance, either. (Above, an example is bowman’s root, or Porteranthus.)
The Allen Centennial Garden’s director Benjamin Futa told me about the garden and also about great plants we should been keeping an eye out for as we shop the catalogs this winter—perennials that really perform. He even confessed to having a touch of color-blindness, which turns out to be an asset because as his mentors have taught him: brown is a color, too, and by no means a dull monochrome, but instead a potentially vibrant mix of hues to enjoy from November till spring.
Read along as you listen to the Feb. 6, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). Get more information about visiting the garden and events there in the box at the bottom of the page.
multi-season perennials at allen centennial garden,
with ben futa
Q. Let’s start with a little background about the campus and about this garden within it.
A. The Allen Centennial as I like to say really is a gem. We’re 2-1/2 acres, but we have a lot happening in those 2-1/2 acres. The garden itself is approaching 30 years now in a couple of seasons. Historically it actually wasn’t a garden at all prior to that; it was sort of a lawn and farm fields, back in the day. It’s on the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences campus, and surrounds a really great historic property that used to house many of the deans for the college since the late 1800s.
The garden itself is actually part of the Horticulture Department here, and we do a lot of great work with plant identification and a lot of courses in the department. But we really strive to support the whole college and the whole university. Working with the Landscape Architecture Department, and collaborating with the other great public gardens on campus that you mentioned like the Arboretum and the Lakeshore Preserve and the awesome plant breeders here in the Horticulture Department, we like to describe as sort of a living laboratory that really exemplifies sustainable horticulture.
Q. When you speak about the house that has housed the deans, this is a beautiful Victorian era National Register building, isn’t it?
A. Yes, it’s Victorian Gothic.
Q. Isn’t there at least one historic tree there—a little bit that is even older than the garden?
A. Very much so—and it is actually my favorite plant in the garden. It’s what we call our Goff larch, and that’s after the Goff family that planted the tree many years ago. It is really kind of a special specimen, and has some interesting growing habits. It has what is called a pleiotropic branching structure—sort of these funky horizontal growth habits that are just sort of a natural mutation. It wasn’t a specific cultivar in any way; it just had this quality but they didn’t know it was going to do this.
When the garden was developed, this tree was the botanical centerpiece next to the house. It was visually on scale and really anchored the garden next to the house. In 2007 it had just put on its needles for the season—larch being a deciduous conifer—and we had a very freak late-season snow and ice storm that split the tree in two.
A tree that was almost three stories tall was reduced to a couple of limbs on the ground [photo below from 2007]. At the time, the plan was just to remove the tree, but I am so grateful to the director at the time who said, “Let’s just wait and see what’s going to happen here.”
Thanks to that it has now developed those lower two remaining limbs that were persistent after that snowstorm have now developed and evolved into this mountainous almost Asian-style landscape that is now the backdrop to our Japanese Garden. It’s pruned like a massive bonsai, and it really has that character to it.
It’s well over 100 years old, which is quite old. Most larch are expected to live about 80 or 90 years, so it has already outlived itself or its expected lifespan, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon. It’s a marvelous plant.
Q. So when you have an accident, or nature befalls one of your older trees, maybe you want to wait a minute before you decide to get out the chainsaw. That’s a good lesson.
Q. I was reading on your website of the strategic plan for the Allen Centennial Garden, and there was one statement I really loved: that the goal is the garden maturing rather than getting bigger.
That’s another great lesson that Margaret Roach did not learn. [Laughter.] It’s OK not to keep going—you know, Manifest Destiny, bigger bigger bigger—but to be within the space and let it mature and work with it, right?
A. Exactly. And I am right there with you. I come from rural landscapes in Indiana, where I had acres upon acres that I could never possibly develop even if I wanted to. But here I am reduced to this kind of postage stamp but I kind of like it, because it does force you to focus a little. And of course being on campus, we are pretty well landlocked, and space is at a premium here. We have to make the full use of what we have.
Again the garden isn’t even 30 years old, and so many great gardens and landscapes are 50 to 100 years old. We have what I see as our “next larch,” a wonderful katsura tree, that’s still a teenager in the lifespan of a katsura.
It’s been here since the early days, and it’s finally getting to the point where it is starting to have some heft. This thing will probably outlive us all, and in 50 years it will be the centerpiece of the garden, in a really powerful way.
So in our next master plan, we’re starting to think about how the gardens around it need to evolve to accommodate that, making room for its shallow root system, making sure it has room to spread, and keeping away foot traffic, and thinking about the long-term health of some of these things–and thinking abut the whole garden from that perspective as well.
Q. You said when you are in a postage stamp—and it’s 2.5 acres, but relative to other public gardens that’s small—you have to really consider what plants rate the space. So let’s talk perennials, which I know are a passion of yours. Was the Allen Centennial garden all perennials when you arrived or what, besides the trees we just talked about?
A. The garden was a pretty diverse mixture of annuals and herbaceous perennials, maybe 20 or 30 percent annuals and seasonal tropicals, and the rest were herbaceous perennial plantings. We have a really wonderful collection of alpine and rock-garden plants, really one of the best rock gardens I have seen out there, at least in the Midwest, and an incredible space.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in alpine plants, unfortunately, but there is a wonderful group of volunteers that takes care of it for us. We are very grateful to them.
The rest of the garden was very annual-intensive in various spaces. I very much appreciate the value of annuals for what they can do in a season in terms of allowing quick changes of color—a bed that was blue one year can be orange the next. At first thought people think it’s easy to switch that out from one to another, and perennials take three years before it does what you envisioned it to do.
But at the same token, because one of the garden’s hallmarks is trying to model sustainable and exceptional horticulture, there is almost a moral imperative we thought to really start to draw back on what we do with our annuals. Not to eliminate them entirely, but to show how they can be used maybe more as accent points or moments that can drift through the garden—things that will reseed from year to year like biennial things that can pop up and migrate and move. That almost adds a little more whimsy and character I think that your traditional annual bedding.
We still have them, but we’re starting to think about the herbaceous perennial layer as more what anchors the space.
Q. Your background, and loves, in planting design—your inspirations—go toward what I described in the introduction. It’s not “no maintenance,” but actually plants that give you a lot of mileage for your investment of space and time. You give them some real estate, and they really perform—and not for just two minutes.
For instance, I always say with lilies, the genus Lilium, you can’t make a garden out of lilies. They look good for two weeks, and then they don’t look like a whole lot of anything. So whether annual or perennial or bulbs or whatever, you have to have oomph, and duration—some real soldiers.
What are your inspirations, and what kinds of plants?
A. An interesting thing for me is that I am actually just a hair color-blind—red-green color-blind.
A. I have been gardening since I can remember. I didn’t have a person that got me into it, per se, but I like to say I had enablers who said, “Oh, he’s outside,” and let me go.
I slowly started to realize as I got more into design, that certainly I can see colors and I can see certain things—but I have a hard time with pure reds, and oranges really fade in for me unless they are combined with certain things, and even certain greens I can sometimes have trouble with.
I really started to gravitate toward this notion of perennials not just for their color, but for more structure and texture. Then in undergrad, I discovered Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik, and oh, it was all downhill from there.
Q. Well, maybe uphill. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, exactly—the wonderful happy spiral of discovering all of what they do. I remember reading a passage in one of Piet’s books that said if you take an image of a garden and de-saturate it of all color, and if you can still pick out one plant from another, you have been successful at establishing a strong textural relationship. Versus if you take out all that color and everything sort of blends together, your texture may not be as strong.
Ever since then, I have started to think about texture almost more powerfully than I think about color, because texture is with you for longer–again 9 times out of 10 the bloom is with you for just that one blip of time.
Using the lilies as an example, or iris that are my Achilles heel. I grew up loving them—the big bearded iris. And there are hundred of varieties or thousands of varieties out there
Here at Allen Centennial we have an iris garden. When I arrived, it was sort of a collection of different iris species. You had your dwarf iris and Japanese iris—a little bit of everything. And I said I was going to try an experiment and break with tradition a little bit. Again: it was a wonderful space in May, and in June on there were a couple of things that bloomed, but it was really much more static. I didn’t like that, because if I am going to champion a plant like an iris, which I think is a very strong garden plant, we need to be able to show how it can be really successful from a design perspective.
So we redesigned the space. We still have iris as the main anchor point, but it’s more designed around their foliage than it is the bloom. We’ve combined them with a lot of soft textures—low-growing ornamental grasses like purple love grass (Eragrostis, a nice native for us) and Deschampsia [below], the tufted hair grass, and sort of doing a matrix of those with the iris leaves coming up through that.
In the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is at that angle, it backlights the leaves and they just glow. When the leaves glow against that turf matrix, it’s just as magical if not more so and that’s a feature that delivers June through October, not just when those flowers are blooming.
Then we’ve interspersed a few other flowering perennials for late-season interest, but the role of the iris is the most bold, ballsy texture we have in there now. They stand out so much more now—they’re almost these islands, and we have really accentuated what they can do for the space.
Q. If people are listening, and they’re thinking, “Oh, I have that bed by the kitchen door that has those iris, and it does only look good for a couple of weeks…” We’re not saying cast out the iris; we’re saying give the iris the companions they need to play a role in a duet or a trio or whatever, that makes it work for a longer period of time—with supporting characters.
You mentioned a couple of grasses.
A. Eragrostis, the purple love grass, and Deschampsia.
Q. And you had mentioned the style of garden designers whose work you were struck by when you were in school. They use grasses, too. Do you use a lot of grasses? I think people think it’s a quick-fix—like, “I’ll just shove some grasses in there and that will make all the difference.” In the examples you gave, I can see it, but is that the only solution?
A. I think it is part of the solution. I guess it also depends on what your goals are for the landscape. The two grasses we used are meant to play with the iris foliage. When we are thinking about November and beyond, for example—that whole composition looks great through about October, and then after that it’s done.
The iris foliage—as soon as we get a freeze, it melts. As soon as we get a decently heavy snow, those grasses are so far down that any texture that they might have had is lost. And that’s one thing, I think, being inspired by Piet’s styles, of course he’s doing these great displays in slightly more temperate regions or in Europe, where they have that wonderful hoarfrost that comes in their winter and sort of lights things up and accentuates the lines of everything.
Everything can stay standing through February without taking much of a beating. Here for us in the Midwest, we get a nice significant snow event—and usually the first snow of the year is wet and heavy. By November, sometime sin that range, that has occurred and most things are on the ground, especially the grasses that aren’t as durable. Of course the grasses also can collect weight better, because of the amount of surface area they have—so they just collect that snow and they are down.
There are a couple of grasses that really hold up exceptionally well to that sort of heavy snowpack condition, but it’s not that every grass is a good choice necessarily. Some do only work through November.
Q. And ones that hold up longer?
A. One that I love is Panicum ‘Northwind,’ which is a really beautiful grass with great fall color. I’ve never seen a grass with fall color like this: a really nice lemon-golden color, and then it goes to a really beautiful buff-tan color. It’s a nice tight clump rather than a lot of other Panicum that sort of get a little almost weedy at times—sort of spreading a bit.
Any of the Miscanthus, as much as they can be a thug in certain conditions. In the right conditions, Miscanthus will hold up to just about anything. And then some Pennisetum as well. They form that nice tussock, and they are tall enough at 2 to 3 feet where even if you get a significant snow event you will know that it’s there.
Q. My property had some little bluestem, which is a native prairie grass that extends all the way to the East Coast if people don’t know it, and I find that darn stuff comes back no matter times it gets hammered. It’s only about knee-high, but even now, after many snows including some heavy wet ones, it’s still up and an orangey warm color. It’s pleasing, and birds are picking over it looking for seeds—it’s a good thing.
I loved when we spoke the other day on the phone, before I knew that you were “a hair color-blind” as you just confessed, and you said that “brown is a color, too.”
A. This is where I get to wave my color-blind flag loud and proud. [Laughter.] And again: I definitely appropriated this from people like Piet and Roy; they’ve definitely used it before. I remember one of my earliest moments with the light bulb clicking on was when I read or heard Piet saying that brown is a color, too. As soon as you start to really think of a garden from this perspective, suddenly brown is not just brown—you realize that “brown” is far too ambiguous.
It’s like when people say, “Oh, it’s blue” or purple—and people in fashion design say, “No, it must be mauve, or periwinkle.” “Brown” lacks precision, is what it really boils down to, because when you start to look at the range of colors that are available for that November-and-beyond palette, things that you’d typically call brown start to emerge as taupe and sepia and sand and silver and black and terra-cotta. All of a sudden it’s not what we typically think of—that it’s all brown and all done.
Q. Any more than the spring and summer garden’s greens are monotone.
So about perennials: We’re all madly catalog shopping (though I haven’t even ordered any seed yet!). What are some great perennials that you covet, or recommend, that have this quality?
A. I think anything especially that has really strong seedheads. You might think looking through a catalog, how do you possibly know that? But I think you can by anything related to Echinacea…
Q. The Composites or Daisy family or whatever we call them these days….[laughter]…
A. They change them every minute. Those seem to do really well, and also provide food for birds in the winter—natural bird feeders—and seem to hold up to anything.
There are also a lot of perennials out there that give us fall color that isn’t in that brown scheme. There is Monarda bradburiana, a bee balm that is terribly underutilized and should be on everybody’s Top 10 list. It’s a wonderful, demure, early blooming Monarda that is about 18 to 20 inches tall. A small clump-former and completely resistant to powdery mildew. I’m saying it here: It is a beautiful plant, with nice powdery lavender-blue flowers in May. It does everything that your normal Monarda doesn’t.
But the most wonderful thing is that both in the spring and then late into the autumn, the undersides of the leaves are the most brilliant burgundy, and in fall that burgundy moves through to the top of the leaves, and they get this almost iridescent burgundy-purple blush to them.
Q. I just ordered 10 of those while we were talking. [Laughter.]
A. Good. This is that one plant that everyone must have; a trooper.
Also: Formerly known as Gillenia trifoliata [below in two seasons; top of page in late fall and winter], but now as Porteranthus trifoliatus, or the bowman’s root—that is another exceptional plant. The emerging foliage in spring is that burgundy tinged with orange in the veins, and it electrifies the soil when it first comes up.
It blooms this wonderful cloud of powdery white flowers, a couple of feet tall. Super adaptable to sun, shade, well-drained soil or I’ve even had it in clay—and it seems to do pretty well. And the fall color reverts back that orangey-burgundy again. They’re giving us colors that we would expect out of woody plants like burning bush—which we shouldn’t plant any more. We’re getting that from native perennials like these, getting our fix of fall color.
Q. You sold me.
more from ben futa
more november-and-beyond plants from ben futa
- Pennisetum alopecuroides
- Astilbe sp.
- Phlomis tuberosa
- Eupatorium maculatum
- Perovskia atriplicifolia ’Little Spire’
- Calamagrostis brachytricha
- Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’
- Eryngium yuccifolium
- Rudbeckia maxima
- Fillipendula rubra
- Panicum virgatum ’Northwind’
- Echinops ritro
- Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Jazz’
- Ernygium ‘Big Blue’
- Echinacea sp.
- Aster tataricu ‘Jindai’
- Parthenium integrifolium
- Silphium terebinthinaceum
- Monarda bradburiana
- Baptisia leucantha
- Amsonia hubrichtii ‘Halfway to Arkansas’
- Porteranthus trifoliatus (formerly Gillennia trifoliata)
- Aruncus ‘Horatio’
- Solidago ‘Fireworks’
- Digitalis ferruginea
- Veronicastrum virginicum
- Penstemon digitalis
- Pycnanthemum virginicum
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Feb. 6, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos from Ben Futa at the Allen Centennial Garden Arboretum.)