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A window on diverse functionality, from foundation plantings to living landscape

by Timber Press on August 12, 2014

in Design, Gardening

Header-Image-WEBHow a neglected part of the yard became a thriving spot of beauty and habitat for wildlife.

This following series of images illustrates the transformation of a relatively sterile space off a north-facing bathroom window of our Pennsylvania home. Though a bathroom view may seem mundane, like the view from a kitchen window it is a small but significant element in our daily experiences—our “necessary journeys” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bringing life into these little landscapes can add immeasurably to the joy, the intrigue, and the functionality of the garden as inclusive habitat.

285_RD011593B_CAUT-WEBInstalled by the original owners 40 years earlier as “foundation plantings,” these Japanese yews may have provided some cover for wildlife, but their contributions to the overall livability of our landscape were minimal. It occurred to us that there was something oddly poetic about a bath window view staring at the backside of a yew, but this was insufficient argument for leaving them in place.

286_RD07599-WEB287_RD08563-WEBThese mid-May (top) and late-October (bottom) images show the same window view after replanting. It has remained like this with minimal care for 20 years. The planting takes advantage of partial shading from our single-story house and the higher-than-average moisture conditions resulting from this. Our management ethic is to irrigate plants only during the period of establishment and to rely on rainfall in subsequent years. The mix includes North American natives—Christmas fern, cinnamon fern, Jackin-the-pulpit, white wood aster, and threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)—in the herbaceous layer, along with exotic but perfectly adapted and compatible snowdrops. The shrub layer includes sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), open-pollinated native azalea (Rhododendron arborescens) crosses, and possumhaw (Viburnum nudum) including the cultivated variety ‘Winterthur’.

288_RD07309-WEB289_RD6022-WEBMid-May views from outside looking back at the north side of the house (above) and a bird’s-eye view from the roof (below) explain the patterns in the planting. The cinnamon ferns are placed closest to the house (but not directly under the eaves) to take advantage of the shade and moisture there. Virtual rivers of white wood asters flow around sweeps of threadleaf bluestar and around and below the woody plants.

290_RD02392-WEBA top-down view in October shows the viburnums and bluestars at their autumn color peak. The asters have finished flowering by this time but their developing seed-heads are still standing, mostly obscured by the lax stems of the bluestars.

291_RD03569-WEB292_RD03567-WEBWe allow the herbaceous layer to stand through fall and winter. By late November, the bluestars have turned tawny and are more upright than they were in October (above). Their needlelike leaves begin dropping at this time and by spring they have contributed a significant amount of organic material to the ground layer. Along with leaves from the asters and shrubs, this material all but eliminates the need to spread mulch in this area. If we do need additional material, we use composted leaf mulch produced on site. We find the aster seed-heads quite beautiful (below), and take pleasure in knowing that they provide food for birds all winter long as well as new aster seedlings in spring to fill in any gaps in the herbaceous layer.

293_RD09024-WEBAs this November image illustrates, the winter appearance isn’t exactly tidy but it is reasonably attractive, especially with snow cover.

294_RD2204-WEBBecause our herbaceous layer provides winter cover, this cardinal can safely forage on the ground below without fear of being spotted by a hawk.

295_RD04223-WEB297_RD05533-WEBAttracted by the cover and food provide by our layered planting, this hermit thrush, photographed through the window (above) has made regular visits in January for a few years now, and by February we can count on robins (below) and many other birds arriving to feast on viburnum berries.

298_RD05992-WEBIf we had wished to cut the bluestars back in fall, we would have needed clippers or shears. As the stems stand through winter their materials break down, and by March, they are fragile and brittle enough that they can easily be snapped off near the crowns with gloved hands, eliminating the need for bladed tools. The aster stems are also removed easily and quickly for composting at this time.

All images by Rick Darke.

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RD_authorphoto_by Ralph VituccioRick Darke is a landscape design consultant, author, lecturer, and photographer based in Pennsylvania who blends art, ecology, and cultural geography in the creation and conservation of livable landscapes. Darke has studied North American plants in their habitats for over three decades, and his research and lectures have taken him to Africa, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, and northern Europe. His books include The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes, The American Woodland Garden, and In Harmony with Nature. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, RickDarke.com.

DT_authorphoto_02_by Jon Baldivieso CROPPEDDoug Tallamy is currently professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, where he has taught insect taxonomy, behavioral ecology, and other subjects. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. Doug won the Silver Medal from the Garden Writer’s Association for his book, Bringing Nature Home. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, plantanative.com.

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Click image for a look inside this book:


“Two giants of the natural gardening world, Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, have collaborated on their best work yet.”—The New York Times

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