A Spring Tour of our Forest Garden

The dense mat of herbacious perennials at the front of my house was inspired by James Golden’s Federal Twist although the height of his garden is measured in feet while this section is merely inches tall.

I am honored to be hosting my first garden tour from 9am to 3pm on Friday, May 7 and Saturday, May 8 at my house (and now Saturday, May 15 from 10 to 2), 265 Highland Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey as one of two tours held by the Essex County chapter of the New Jersey Native Plant Society (more at the society’s site here). As chronicled on this blog, the landscape is a work in progress, begun in earnest only three years ago. It is far from done (whatever that means in gardening), but I have bold ambitions to make it a place that people can come to and see what a native garden can be like. It has been raining today, but because this is a garden designed for all weather and all seasons, I thought photographing it in the rain would be an effective way to convey that message.

Polygonatum biflorum, Smooth Solomon’s Seal, nestles in boulders while native Onoclea sensibilis, Sensitive Fern, opportunistically colonizes the area below.

My goal is to create a landscape to complement our house, not primarily an ecological restoration or wildlife habitat. Ecology is an ethical imperative for me, but initially I set out to create emotional impact. In opposition to the degraded condition of the suburban landscape—as gardener Pat Sutton says “neat as a pin, ugly as sin?”—I hoped to recapture the magic of finding trilliums and ferns, milkweed and coneflowers in the forest and meadows behind my parents’ house by the Ice Glen in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

A Trillium Grandifolium, White Trillium, peaks out from amidst Podophyllum Peltatum, Mayapple.

After some four years of work, the garden is getting there, maybe one quarter finished. While I have conceived of the garden as having year-round interest, from the spring into the early summer, the focus during this tour will be on the woodland ephemerals which bloom profusely in the spring. Later on, during the summer, fall, and winter, patches of meadow will remind us of the great interior of the continent and all it symbolizes. This could be seen as a journey from the Northeast into the interior, echoing the journey that early American settlers took in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or maybe, as the garden of an exile of Lithuania, the last country in Europe to be forced to stop its earth-centric religious practices, it could be seen as a passage of seasons, from spring to summer, from fern to grain.

Looking down from above onto a mere four square feet we can see the delicate blue flowers of Polemonium reptans, Jacob’s Ladder, together with the white blooms ofTiarella cordifolia, Allegheny Foamflower, next to Heuchera americana, Alumroot. The fernlike leaves are not ferns but rather Dicentra canadensis, Squirrel Corn. A Maianthemum racemosum punctuates the scene at top right and Geranium maculatum, Wild Geranium encroaches on the right edge of the photo.

For architects, limitations are a frame to react against. I have planted plants native to New Jersey—and largely eschewed cultivars as well…these are usually tacky and don’t thrive well—to produce the effect I want while fulfilling the ethical imperative we have to be stewards to the land. Even so, the palette I have to work with is huge. Our state has over 2,000 native plant species as compared to 1,022 in Ireland, 1,625 in England and 1,460 in the Netherlands. Thus far, I have only planted some two hundred species of native plants here.

Cercis Canadensis, Eastern Redbud by the roadside. The yellow flowers are Packera Aurea, Golden Ragwort.

With all this variety, why bother with the tired, ugly, and often invasive solutions offered up by big box stores and worn-out garden centers? Why bother with any lawn that doesn’t have a function (our patch of lawn is used for outdoor parties and is slowly shrinking)? Nor is it necessary to resort to a weedy look. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West write: “If it is true that the next renaissance of human culture will be the reconstruction of the natural world in our cities and suburbs, then it will be the designers, not the politicians, who will lead this revolution. And plants will be at the center of it all.”

Uvularia sessifolia, Spreading Bellwort, admidst Fragraria Virginiana, Wild Strawberry

The two most remarkable American public gardens of the last twenty years, Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden in Chicago and High Line in New York are largely made with native plants. Garden designers in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany eagerly make gardens exclusively with plants native to the United States because of the richness and wildness of what we have. What sort of madness is it that Europeans import American native plants for their gardens while we ignore gardening in favor of ugly, unused lawns, pincushion bushes, and have workers blow leaves out of woods with their infernal gas-powered leaf blowers, thus depriving trees of the mulch they need to thrive and dooming the ecosystem of the place?

Azure Bluets, Houstonia Cerulia, peak out from a rock retaining wall that we built last year.

Unlike the Lurie Garden or the Highline, this project is done entirely without hired help. It has required both money (although a fraction of what it would take to have landscapers involved) and time (but this has been a joy, especially during our plague year). There are still plenty of remnants of the original contractor landscaping that accompanied the construction of the house. I don’t have the heart to cut down the dwarf Japanese red maple in front of the house or the larger Japanese red maple, Enkianthus and the two Kousa dogwoods in the back. Those can remain as specimen plants but I won’t plant any more non-natives. Invasive and overused groundcovers Vinca minor and Pachysandra terminalis still dominate much of the hill above the driveway, even as I slowly replace them with native plants.

A birdfeeder (mounted on a pole from an old rooftop car rack) from “https://www.etsy.com/listing/1004294603/modern-bird-feeder-gray-birdhouse-bird”>Ironbrain amidst native plants such as Aquilegia canadensis, Wild Columbine, with some non-native Chaenomeles speciosa, Flowering Quince, to the right that came with the house.

With a half-acre of steeply sloped property rising fifty feet, it proves unfeasible to undertake total eradication and restoration overnight, so while keeping an overall vision for the entirety in mind, I have focused on individual areas. In these areas, I have tried to take an approach borrowed from Rainer and West, from Oudolf’s designs, and from James Golden’s groundbreaking garden at Federal Twist, which I visited a couple of years ago. Instead of the “plop a plant” approach, in which a plant is buried in mulch, I am out to create areas in which plants themselves are the mulch, preventing weeds from getting through by their sheer exuberance. Let them climb atop one another, let them compete. I want a riot of life. I’d rather edit out plants than add mulch, even when the plants are six inches tall instead of six feet tall (as at Federal Twist). Imported specimen plants plopped in mulch, surrounded by lawn nobody ever uses are a lazy aesthetic. Surely we can do better.

Tiarella cordifolia, Allegheny Foamflower, is probably my most common native now. Why bother with exotics that are less interesting and have little benefit to our ecosystem?


Native Plant Podcasts

Learning about native plants requires some effort, but that education itself can be deeply pleasurable—not only do you learn what to grow on your property and how to grow it, you learn about the landscape around you, uncovering the natural wonders already here and the invasive thugs that threaten the national park you are creating in your back yard. There are so many gorgeous, beautiful books out there. I find myself fatally drawn to them. Where will these go? I suppose one day I will remove the architecture books from a shelf in my office and put them in the basement or maybe sell them. It’d be for the best.

While I garden, I like to listen to talk shows of some kind. In the late afternoon, I listen to the Julie Mason show on SiriusXM POTUS to get a hype-free sense of what is going on Washington, but in mornings I like to listen to podcasts and about half of the podcasts I listen to are about plants.

This may seem counter-intuitive since, of course, there are no visuals, but if you are gardening or, for that matter, going for a jog, you can educate yourself on North American native plants. Here’s a list of some of the best. I’ve posted each podcast’s web site, but if you listen in the Apple Podcast application on your iPhone, you can just search for the names of the podcasts and subscribe to them directly there.

In Defense of Plants

The first podcast isn’t entirely about native plants, since its focus is global. Ph.D. candidate Matt Candeias is an enthusiastic guide to the world of botany and his obsession with plants is infectious. There aren’t many better ways to get excited about plants. Matt finds weird and wonderful topics, insightful guests from the world of botanical research, and is a top-notch interviewer. Matt also maintains a blog at www.indefenseofplants.com

A Way to Garden with Margaret Roach

Margaret Roach has decades of gardening experience and is one of America’s most loved writers about gardening. Margaret’s podcast usually consists of an interview with a noted authority on matters such as composting, milkweed, attracting birds butterflies, native plants, as well as food and many other topics. Not all topics are native-plant oriented, but that’s fine too. She often teams up with Ken Druse to discuss topical themes and answer questions. While the rest of these podcasts are useful sources of information, Margaret’s podcast—as well as the excellent (and newly revised) book the podcast is named after—is particularly informative for gardeners. I have learned a huge amount from Margaret (and Ken) and am grateful whenever I hear her. Margaret also maintains a blog at her site.

I won’t mention it separately since I ‘m really only covering actively maintained podcasts here, but the archives of Ken’s Real Dirt podcast are full of useful information for gardeners as well.

Wild Plant Culture

I’m happy to call Jared Rosenbaum a friend. He and his wife Rachel Mackow own and operate Wild Ridge Plants, a farm in western New Jersey where they grow beautiful New Jersey native plants. Jared recently started the Wild Plant Culture podcasts in which he conducts long-form interviews with noted authorities in the field, such as Leslie Sauer, ecological restoration practitioner and author of The Once and Future Forest or permaculture expert Dale Hendricks. Jared’s blog is here.

The Field Guides

Here is a podcast ideal for people stuck in their apartments in the city. Hear the sound of crunching leaves as Bill Michalek and Steve Fleck (aka Bill and Steve) walk through the woods while discussing an aspect of the natural world, generally in western New York State. Like Matt Candieas, they both have science backgrounds so they research peer-reviewed literature for the podcasts, which often leads to their underscoring just how much more science there is left to do on the natural world. One thing that I particularly love is that they generally contextualize whatever topic they are talking about within human culture as well. The Field Guides isn’t very oriented toward growing plants but rather urges you to get out into the woods and hike and that’s a very cool spin.

The Native Plant Podcast

Mike Berkeley of Growild Native Plant Nursery and landscape designer John Magee host the native plant podcast, interviewing horticulturists, designers, botanists, and other individuals in the field. I found the discussions with Larry Weaner and Thomas Rainer particularly important in my thinking. The Native Plant Podcast hosts are based in Tennessee and the mid-Atlantic area and I am often jealous of how much richer their areas are in native plant resources compared this plant-impoverished area of northeastern New Jersey (which doesn’t have a single nursery with a large selection of native plants…even Jared and Rachel’s nursery is over an hour away!).

Native Plants, Healthy Planet

Fran Chismar and Tom Knezick, the owners of the wholesale Pinelands Nursery in Southern New Jersey run this new podcast which has a specific mission of highlighting the work non-profit organizations are doing to restore habitats and bring back native plants, focussing on the New Jersey area.

[I took all the photographs in this piece at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s magnificent Apshawa Preserve in October 2019]

Art and Gardening in the Time of Crisis


I know what I should be doing. I should be working on the Netlab book, much delayed since, no matter how important it is to recapitulate a decade of intense work, it’s more exciting to look at the future than the past. I should be working on developing new art, my main project for the year. I had a series of residencies lined up, but at this point it appears that the only one that will take place is the week I spent this past February, at Signal Culture, the successor to the Experimental Television Center. There, in the midst of a snowy New York town, I managed to bootstrap the code for Perkūnas to drive my video synthesis rig. Here is a proof of concept video.

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Now what this is, why it matters, and what I actually do with it, is another story. Inspired by the Wobbulator at Signal Culture, I managed to obtain a Vectrex gaming console and had it modded to handle control voltages. This, too, proved productive, here is another experiment.

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But just what do I do with all this? That was the point of this year’s investigations. My daughter had a few days off school so we went to the city to tour colleges and then the shut down we’ve all experienced. For me, the first few weeks were especially hard. We lost Michael Sorkin to the virus and then Bill Menking (as well as my first teaching assistant, the brilliant Mark Skiles) to cancer.  Deep dark accelerationism. I needed to take a break. This is my first day back in the studio.

In the meantime, I’ve been spending my time in quarantine continuing gardening as a practice, establishing a native plant community on my property. I think it’s time to start writing more about this, create some kind of presence for it on my site. I’ve written about it a little before, but this hardly gives an idea of how important it has become as practice.

After living in the middle of Los Angeles, when I returned to New York in 2006, I found that I couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn and since my job at Columbia was on the west side of Manhattan and my wife’s was in Nyack, NY, we wound up settling in  the relatively nice town of Montclair, New Jersey. We waited out the real estate market until it collapsed and were able to find a house that could accommodate our whole family as well as my studio for less than the price of a one-bedroom apartment in the city. With it came 1/2 acre of land and—although I’d worked with the Center for Land Use Interpretation and done a lot of research on the impact of humans on the landscape—I found myself rather ignorant of my own property, never having given enough thought to what a domestic landscape might constitute.

I looked at this land—steeply sloped and partially wooded—and I wondered why it was so ugly, so unlike the wooded area Berkshires that I’d grown up in. I was shocked by the hard, clay-like red soil (it’s actually more silt than clay), which clumped together when wet but was so difficult to dig in when it was dry. Soon the twin disasters of the 2011 Halloween nor’easter and Hurricane Sandy destroyed enough of the trees on the property that I needed to rethink what I’d do here.

I knew one thing, I wasn’t very interested in what passes for landscape architecture today. Reshaping the land extensively isn’t interesting to me. I’ve done some of it, adding some dry-stacked stone retaining walls throughout the property, but I’m more interested in gardening as a radical practice. My first impulse was to grow food. I was good with that, but misguided souls who refuse to let hunting take place in this area have created a massive, deeply unhealthy overpopulation of deer and any food crops are eaten by ravenous hordes the moment they are planted in the ground. If food wasn’t an option, I started browsing the town library for gardening books until I ran across the beautifully illustrated and written American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest by Rick Darke. Darke’s photographs depict a beautiful, ever-changing natural world that we have largely wiped out. But rather than lament it, Darke suggests that we can take action to restore the North American woodland and outlines our native trees, shrubs, flowers, and ferns in great detail. I also picked up Ken Druse’s The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change, which helped guide me through this journey. Druse makes the argument that, by providing cooling shade to humans and the buildings they live in, by cooling the earth itself, and by sequestering carbon shade, gardens are critical tools in our fight against climate change. My journey began there, but only with my retirement from teaching in 2018 have I had the time to really invest in the garden. Now, with the coronavirus forcing me to abandon the projects and residencies that I’d planned for this year, I’ve turned, with renewed energy, to the woodland landscape around my house.


[Rue Anemone, Anemonella thalictroides, by an emerging Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum Pedatum]

So this is a distraction, or is it? If you are lucky enough to have some land, now is a good time to re-think it. Thoughtless architectural and landscaping practices have undone our environment, but it is possible to create more ecological communities that require far less money and effort to keep up while benefiting the environment. In a damaged world, doing something positive for the environment in our immediate vicinity can be a means of self-care as well as a means of repairing the Earth. Homeowners, collectively, need to rethink what our patches of the Earth are. Employ landscape architects and landscape designers if you want, but then take it on as a gardening practice of your own. Unless we radically democratize gardening as a practice, we won’t get this done.

The first thing to do is to furlough the landscapers, with their gas-powered leaf-blowers, lawn mowers, chain saws and pesticides. Their job is to keep your property “neat as a pin, ugly as sin.” (quote attributed to Pat Sutton). Save money, get rid of them. Since they use devices that produce huge amounts of noise and pollution and don’t wear protective equipment, you are doing them a favor in the long run anyway. Plus, if you get rid of landscapes that demand constant attention and shift to landscapes that evolve themselves, you will reduce the labor necessary to maintain your property.

Instead of a lawn kept green artificially with toxic chemicals (Roundup, for example, is widely believed to cause a variety of horrific illnesses) plus a few badly-manicured bushes from Home Depot that copiously spread their barbed offspring everywhere, why not take seriously wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy’s wild idea that your yard can be a fragment of a national park? Not only is that an incredibly seductive idea, the reality is that if we add up the 45 million acres of lawn in the United States, we get a state the size of Washington. If, as Tallamy suggests, we get rid of half that lawn and convert it into native landscape, we’d have a homegrown national park the size of Maine.* Now, imagine that as a positive step coming out of this crisis.

It’s not a matter of talent, it’s a matter of experimentation, and a little bit of reading. Native plants don’t require excessive efforts. Choose the right plant for the right site, plant in cool weather (usually), water in the first week throughout and when it’s dry for a spell during the first year until roots establish. Some plants will die, most will survive. There are plenty of guides available online, so I won’t go over it. What we do lack in the native plant movement is enough thinking about design. I’ll be back with another post later this week addressing ways of thinking about native plants,  design, and time.


[A non-native dwarf Japanese red maple that was here when I bought the property with a host of native plants now planted against it, together with a dry-stacked retaining wall that we built. Hanging up a new bird feeder (not visible here) and the construction of dry stack stone walls last year has led to a boom of adorable chipmunks who frolic merrily around our property].

*I am fully aware that some people make the argument that an argument in favor of native plants and against invasive foreign species is much like the nativist, anti-immigrant politics. To be blunt, this is a dumb position. I started writing a response but as it grew, I decided it deserves to be a post of its own. For now, if you hold this position, stop because trust me, the scientific facts are against you and I will be deploying them.