Gardeners love surprises.

A classic design technique is to create a spot where a visitor turns a corner and sees something – an unusual plant, a sculpture, a bright piece of furniture – that is totally unexpected.

At a class at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens earlier this month, writer Larry Weaner described the problem with this technique: “For the owner of the property, there is no mystery anymore,” he said. “The owner has already come upon that spot 100 times.”

But Weaner, co-author with Thomas Christopher of the just published “Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change,” has a solution: “But if you plant a landscape that changes over time, you will have some new plants that just come up and provide you with a new experience.”

Weaner, teaching at a sold-out six-hour class, has expanded on the ideas of Doug Tallamy, who wrote the native-plant treatise “Bringing Nature Home,” and Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, authors of “Planting in a Post-Wild World.”

Tallamy outlined how native plants are needed to support the native habitat; Rainer and West wrote about the best ways to arrange the plants for the good of the environment, Weaner explained, while he (and Christopher) emphasize how native landscapes develop over time, usually beginning when the soil is disturbed.


In the book he notes that one of the first plants to sprout in disturbed soil is often the cardinal flower, or lobelia. It seeds quickly, but is eventually taken over by longer-lived meadow perennials, such as black-eyed Susan, aka rudbeckia. Because the northeastern United States is naturally forested, the landscape will go through a shrub stage with plants such as viburnums and then eventually fill with trees, such as oaks, pine and maples.

The book describes how gardeners can direct that natural progression.

“You will accept that the garden never stops evolving, that it will always be a work in progress,” Weaner writes in the introduction. “Your role as the gardener will be to watch, interpret, understand and, at critical moments, give a push to direct the landscape into a path that you can enjoy.”

Many of the gardens Weaner shows in the book – and that he created through his Pennsylvania landscaping company – are meadows. He brings in plants and allows others that he wants to sprout. All the while he eliminates, through high mowing or cutting, the succession plants such as shrubs or trees that he does not want. Some other gardens are shrublands or woodlands, and on larger properties, homeowners can have some of all three.

While many of the pictures in the book are of large gardens, Weaner has incorporated the techniques at his own home, which sits on just one-third of an acre in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

He said that most properties of that size have a small traditional garden, with ornamental plants separated by mulched soil, and the rest of the property a lawn. What he suggests people do is eliminate half of the lawn and create his kind of natural, evolving garden – keeping it in scale with the property.


Because of all the weeding, fertilizing and mulching that would be required, a traditional garden that size would require too much work to maintain. But with a natural garden, which covers all of the soil with plants and where the evolution of the garden is encouraged, after a while, it would be much less work. And less stress, too.

“You have to go through a period of much higher maintenance when you are just starting out,” Weaner said, so he recommends that you make the changes incrementally.

And, he believes, the change is definitely something homeowners can do by themselves. If homeowners hire a traditional landscaper, they will end up spending a lot of time teaching the professional what they want, he said.

Weaner stresses that the garden does not have to be all native plants. If you want a vegetable garden, which is mostly non-natives, go for it. If you love roses, grow a rose garden on part of the property. Right next to the house, you can include a lot of exotic flowering plants just because they are pretty.

But if you have an evolving natural garden that you maintain by letting the plants you like to grow and expand while eliminating the ones you don’t mostly through mowing or using a string trimmer, you will have a beautiful, ever-changing, low-maintenance garden that is full of mystery.

Who doesn’t want that?

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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