Last week I headed out on a scouting trip. Unlike the scouts of the great American expansion of the 1800s, I headed east, not west, towards the green, green grass of home, not away from it. To see family not to escape it. But I was also a scout for the Northwest Horticultural Society. We are planning a tour of gardens of Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin for the Fall of 2012. I was sent to make connections and find gardens.
A few savvy gardeners here in the Pacific Northwest questioned my sanity:
Isn’t it all lawns and foundation plantings?
Corn fields and pastures bucolicly furnished with Holsteins?
Maddening right-wingers and a disgruntled working class?
As a scout I wanted to prove them wrong:
Wisconsin, like the world, is not flat.
The natives aren’t hostile.
And all gardens are not made of junipers and lawn.
I saw the happiest and healthiest hostas I’ve ever seen. I experienced the hot humid weather that encourages exotic annuals to tropical proportions. I met fervent gardeners who would not let USDA zone 4 stand in the way of creating interesting gardens.
And I envied these gardeners’ panache with grasses.
Madison is situated in a very botanically complex part of the country. A area where the great hardwood forests of the Northeast peter out making way for oak savannas and prairies. This biome exalts in grasses. And so do the gardeners.
My first stop was at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, where I met with Director of Horticulture Jeff Epping. Olbrich is included in Horticulture Magazine’s top 10 inspirational Gardens in the U.S. for a reason. Under Epping’s guidance these gardens are a show case of what is possible in this nearly impossible climate. Grasses are one of the many things that make this garden so successful.
The enchanting softness, yet down right toughness, of prairie dropseed ( Sporobolus heterolepis), a Wisconsin native reaches it’s peak in this selection ‘Tara’ found not far from the garden by nurseryman Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm.
Though there are plenty of native grasses exotics like silver feather grass (Miscanthus sinensis) seem right at home. Here Epping uses the cultivar ‘Adagio’ in masses to great effect against the Prairie School arbor and large lawn at the center of the garden.
At home Epping has a little less ground to garden, yet he gardens it exquisitely and intensively, not even shying from including two lawns. In the back of the house a small square of traditional lawn is crossed by neatly set pavers that lead to a pocket park, where boys tackled and tossed footballs.
At the front of the house Epping challenges his neighbors with a fescue lawn which he mows only once a year. In the waning daylight of late summer it’s tousled, sexy bed-headed look made it seem gentle enough for cuddling. Or was it the red wine and fireflies?
Further afield at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum I met Ed Hasselkuss, curator (for 45 years!) of the internationally recognized Longenecker Gardens. I was impressed by Ed’s planning. Here he has planted trees in rows separated by lawns the width of a normal city street to demonstrate there use as street trees.
What the arboretum is probably most famous for is the Curtis Prairie, the oldest restored prairie in the world. Here one finds not only the beautiful little and big blue stem grasses (Schizachryum scoparium and Andropogon gerardii) but an absolutely complex yet unified matrix of forbs and grasses which make prairies so beautiful and important ecologically.
As my day wound down I headed to my friends’ house. Linda Brazill and Mark Golbach (Each Little World) have truly bucked the trends, following a very traditionalist lead from another country: Japan. Working within the limits of climate and site they have created an exquisite and strangely exotic garden in a rather ordinary neighborhood. Their attention to detail and commitment to traditional Japanese garden making is admirable.
Though they use grasses sparingly, and often accidentally, grasses can not be denied their place in this garden. Berms, mimicking mountains at the back of the garden, are allowed to grow a host of grasses and wildflowers, They read with a velvety softness from the distance and echo the great swaths of moss in the shadier parts of the garden.
Grasses become fragile in the shade, like whispers in wind, they bond in quiet communities with violets and mosses keeping my steps firmly on the granite pavers. I am reminded of the delicateness of existence here as much as I was reminded of it’s robustness in the Curtis Prairie, or it’s toughness played out on a park lawns.
When I returned home to the Evergreen State I was not surprised by the tawny lawns, at least not like I was 22 years ago when I moved here. With are predictable late summer drought and abundant rain the rest of the year many eco-concious gardens forego being green for the summer. Hardly a place for football or a picnic, or pasturing sheep for that matter, these burn out lawns have a certain amber-waves-of-grain beauty about them. And though they look like the penultimate in neglect, at least to someone, like my father who had the oscillating sprinkler out on our Wisconsin lawn weekly, they are a sign of the great care for the greater garden in this place that “always” rains.
Except in summer.