Creating harmony, simplicity and peace in the landscape......

"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.

Gardening is an instrument of grace. "

May Sarton

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


GOD: Francis, What has happened to all the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago?

 I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon.

The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds.

I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers "weeds" and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It's temperamental with temperatures. Do Suburbanites really want all that grass?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Not really, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it - sometimes twice a week.

GOD: Cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Lord. Most rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No Sir. Just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough. I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have they scheduled for us tonight?"

ST. CATHERINE: "Dumb and Dumber", Lord. It's a really stupid movie about.....

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

'Firetail' Knotweed - Pow!

courtesy GAPPHOTOS

Want to know what is beloved by James Van Sweden and Piet Oudolf and was a 2010 Royal Horticultural Society Plant of Merit? Hardiness USDA zones 5 to 9.

The 'Firetail' Knotweed or Persicaria amplexicaulis speciosa ‘Firetail’ - It is 3' - 4 ft tall.

photo by Chris Ghyselen

This non-invasive Himalayan perennial adds a “nice red spark” to the late summer garden (from July through Frost). It forms a bushy mound of foliage topped by brightly colored “tails” of tiny crimson flowers. Underplant it with early-spring-blooming bulbs for color in the spring .

It looks great in a mass planting and wonderful as a background for Asters, mums, short grasses, geranium 'rozanne'.

photo courtesy of Big Dipper Farm

It contrasts well with purple salvia, echinops, helianthus, nepeta or perovskia. Also effective in moist areas along streams or ponds.

Persicaria amplexicaulis prefers moist soils and partial sun to full sun conditions. It has no serious disease or insect problems.

Persicaria Pink Elephant from Chris Ghyselen

There area many varieities of Persicaria amplexicaulis available from white, pink to dark red.  For great photos of this beautiful and useful go to the website of Persicaria breeder Chris Ghyselen from Belgium. He lists over 30 cultivars of P. amplexicaulis! 

Some varieties flop over and are best supported or surrounded by dense neighbors.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

An Eye for Color - International Color Day

Yesterday was International Color Day.

International Color Day (started in 2008) promotes activities related to color and its perception. These can be arts exhibitions, contests on color and light design and workshops on the use of color.
The choice of the date was based on the spring equinox. They figured this was the best date because night and day are approximately equally long and this signifies the balance of light and darkness as expressed in all cultures.
source: Andy Basile - Insight 
My favorite color celebration is in India. It is called Holi. This is a spring festival (this year it was March 6, 2015), also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love.
 It is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has now become popular with non-Hindus.

The celebration involves colored dry powdered tints and also water filled balloons, water guns, and hoses. Everyone is splashed, spattered, and drenched in brilliant shades of every hue. The powdered pigments carpet the streets and eventually creates rivers of dyed liquid. The tints are traditionally made of natural plant and spice-derived sources like tumeric, neem, indigo, and beetroot and others. They are washable and non-permanent. 
This has to be, hands down, my favorite idea of a holiday...or holi-day.

Gardeners celebrate color day all year long! The patron saint, in my opinion, has to be the British garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, (1843—1932) who popularized the notion of single color gardens as well as subtle color arrangements.

 Here is what she wrote in "A Gardener's Testament":

"It is extremely interesting to work out gardens in which some special colouring predominates, and to those who, by natural endowment or careful eye-cultivation, possess ....what artists understand by an eye for color ....

Add caption

... I have in my mind a whole series of gardens of restricted colouring, ...besides my small grey garden I badly want others, and especially a gold garden, a blue garden, and a green garden; though a number of these desires may easily be multiplied."

gold garden at Epcot Flower and Garden festival 2015 -Jan Johnsen

So in the spirit of colorful celebrations, I hope you plant a riot of color in your garden this year....It will stir the emotions and make the pollinators so happy!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Go outside – happiness is maximized at 57°F

We humans should spend more time outdoors than indoors. A UK study from the University of Sussex found that being outdoors makes people happier:
'Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all natural environments than they were in urban environments.'

In the book about happiness, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor notes that 

" one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory…"
Twenty minutes is a doable amount - this is possible for us. 

The American Meteorological Society published research in 2011 that  found that happiness is maximized at 57°F (13.9°C), so keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading outside for your 20 minutes of fresh air. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Hosta plantaginea 'Aphrodite' - August Lily

Hosta 'Aphrodite' by Jan Johnsen

I took this photo at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. It is the lovely 'Aphrodite' hosta (Hosta plantaginea 'Aphrodite).

It has pure white,  intensely fragrant flowers that open in late summer on 2 ft stems. It is so gracious along a sheltered path as shown here.  Great for a fragrance garden.

Hosta plantaginea likes a moist location but can tolerate dry shade. Long lived. Moon garden, anyone?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Nature Sacred - An Interview about 'Heaven is a Garden'

One year ago, I was interviewed by the amazing group, the TKF Foundation . What an honor!

 They are doing some amazing things to promote the understanding of nature, space and design and how it relates to our overall wellbeing and the functioning of society.

On this anniversary, I thought it would be good to share our interview again. The bold text represents their questions to me. 

garden and photo by Jan Johnsen

A Deeper Place of Being - An Interview with Jan Johnsen

Jan Johnsen’s forty years of practice in landscape architecture has taught her that gardens not only inspire and delight but also impart a sense of well-being, offer respite, and induce feelings of renewal to those who visit and simply sit awhile.

Drawing on historical precedents from many cultures as well as design techniques honed through recent practice, her gardens are deeply nuanced, no matter the size.  In anticipation of the upcoming release of her latest book, Heaven Is a Garden – Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection, published by St. Lynn’s Press, Open Voices spoke with the noted landscape designer about her passion for creating outdoor havens for our spirit.

A Gate Facing East 
Open Voices:  Your blog is called Serenity in the Garden, and you describe your landscape design practice as serenity by design.  How did you come to understand and specialize in the serene aspect of gardens and garden design?
Jan Johnsen
Jan Johnsen:  I went to Japan as a college student, in the 1970's. I was planning to be an architect, primarily because that’s all I knew. I was working in an architecture office as an intern in Osaka but I lived in Kyoto, the home of all the legendary Japanese gardens.

So on the weekends I would visit them.  The architecture office was very stressful during the week and the experience of going into the Japanese gardens such as the Nanzen-ji or Kinkaku-ji opened my eyes to the power of gardens and nature and how they alleviate stress.

Just breathing in the cedar-scented air and walking on those quiet mossy paths that are so familiar in Japanese gardens made me aware of a deeper place of being.  I could just feel the stress just drop off of me and the longer I stayed in that environment the happier I was, the calmer I was.

from Heaven is a Garden 

I went on to study landscape architecture but no one ever talked about that; everybody talked about all the various functional things that you have to consider, but nobody ever talked about how gardens make you feel.  It was then I just realized I wanted to create serenity in the garden and that’s how I came upon it.
Open Voices:  Your gardens provide the opportunity for renewal and respite – how are your gardens designed to support that goal/outcome? What are some of the design building blocks you use to promote that opportunity and that feeling for people?
Jan Johnsen: That’s the crux of my new book, Heaven is a Garden.  I use various understandings that I have developed that are not normally taught in garden or landscape design classes.  I’ve developed them over the years through my reading and my experience, and that’s what I want to share with everyone.

from Heaven is a Garden 

For example, one of the most important techniques is what I call finding the power spot.  I believe that every bit of land even my little postage stamp of a backyard has what I call a “power spot” — which is any place that you might find a little more interesting or compelling than the rest.  It can be a high spot, even if it’s just like say a foot and a half higher than anything around it, or it can be a shaded corner.  Essentially, it’s the heart of the garden.  Most people look at shaded corners as dank places that nobody wants to sit in, but once you see it as a power spot you can draw attention to it in a variety of pleasant ways.  I often say to my clients, let’s go find the power spot and people really respond to it, often asking, “How do I know where it is?”  And I say, 'it’s any place that you deem noteworthy.  There is no right answer.'

And that kind of makes everybody relax, it’s more of an intuitive feeling where you walk around and say oh, I like it here, I like the view here, I like the way the breeze hits me here, I like the shading from the tree here; whatever it might be.  So that’s one of the first things that I do.
book cover
click here for book
Open Voices:  Your new book draws on the ancient traditions of sacred space to create havens of retreat and respite in our hectic lives today.  What are some examples of sacred spaces or their traditions that inspire you and how have you translated that into landscape design?
Jan Johnsen:  One widespread tradition that I like is that of the prayer tree.  Long ago in Siberia they would hang bits of cloth on trees, mostly birch trees, and use them as prayers to the universe; the trees would act as emissaries and the messages would somehow be transmitted through the tree itself.  They still do that today in Siberia.

At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, they have a wishing tree and I talk about this in my book, too. They have little paper labels with strings and you write your little wish on the label; it’s lovely.
Open Voices:  What is the most common request you receive from homeowners looking to create a little slice of heaven in their backyards?
Jan Johnsen:  The most common request is for a quiet, beautiful sitting spot where people can just literally relax.  And, once you find a power spot in the garden it’s often located in a place which would be just the perfect spot for a quiet sitting area.  In that regard, I utilize something I call “The Lure of the Sheltered Corner.”

from the book, Heaven is a Garden

We all adore being in a place where our back is protected and we have a nice little view.  It doesn’t have to be expansive just a nice little view to look at.  But I think it’s the quality of being protected behind either by a low wall or by some shrubs, a tree, or fence or trellis, which is so common and appeals to everyone.
Open Voices:  What do you notice happens to those who make an effort to search for “serenity in the garden”?
Jan Johnsen:  They connect to nature better. My hope is to open people’s eyes to the deeper understanding of power of place and nature. I want people to understand how being connected to the earth and connected to nature can transform their lives.  

The design techniques and the design understanding that I share in my book can be used not just by homeowners, but by community groups as well. 

A Rock's Resonance grounds us 

For example, I talk about a rock’s resonance; people look at rocks like 'ah, a rock'.  But in fact, rocks are our memory keepers, they’re there before we got here and they’ll be there when we leave, they’re the quiet ones.  If we can open people’s eyes to things like that I think we’ll have vibrant community spaces and maybe municipal managers will look on our endeavors a little more openly.

There is a lot more  - Check out their website!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

3 secrets to a successful CHILD'S VEGETABLE GARDEN

 I am reprinting this post from last year timely!

 3 secrets to a successful 
  1. They should not be too demanding, 
  2. They should offer fairly quick results
  3.  The must not  require too much maintenance.

But how to achieve this in a garden in the short few months before school is over in June?

 Go to and then, prepare, prepare, prepare.

1First, your veggie garden site has to have full sun for over 6 hours a day. This is a must! And morning sun is preferable over 6 hours of late in the day sun.

2. It must be relatively level and have soil deep enough to sustain plant roots and facilitate adequate drainage (about 16 inches deep at least). No 6" to bedrock or placed atop asphalt.

The soil has to be prepared beforehand - not by the kids, but by adults. 

The quality of the soil decides the success of the garden. Little kids cannot be expected to amend and prepare the soil in the correct manner...

The soil preparation stage is where most kids' gardens go astray.

it is all about the soil!

The grown-ups must work the soil to get the ground ready for the enthusiasm of children with trowels and a bunch of seeds.  This is no easy task -  the soil has to be friable ( I love that word) and fertile. 

Woodland soil is not suitable nor is sandy amendments will be needed (worm composting, anybody?)

check out Haven Brand Soil Conditioner Teas

3. Third, the arrangements for watering and weeding have to be addressed beforehand. Kids will lose interest after a while (summer sports are calling) and someone has to do it consistently...

If those three considerations are fulfilled then the kids' garden will be a great success! If not, it may become a short lived exercise....

What to plant?
Veggies for a kids' garden should be hardy, fun to look at and mature quickly before school is out in what can we plant?

One idea is to choose varieties in unusual colors, shapes and sizes:

"Easter egg" radish Ovals in shades of purple, lavender, pink, rose, scarlet, white. 25 days. Fast and easy to grow, radishes are best in cool weather.

Carrot Thumbelina
Round, golfball  gourmet carrots can be harvested after 60 days!

Ideal for containers or gardens with poor soils. Sweet taste and small cores make thumbelina great for salads, stews, snacks or hors d'oeuvres.

 Red Saladbowl - Oakleaf Lettuce 

Radiant burgundy, deeply lobed, delicate oak-like leaves form a rosette. Red Saladbowl matures early, holds its mild, nonbitter salad quality for a long time, and is slow to bolt.  seed with organic pelleting for fast and easy germination.

Potato - All Blue
Skin is purple and the flesh is blue.  A wonderfully flavorful potato with meaty flesh.  It is not a quick grower but the fun is in harvesting it in late summer...

one great way to grow potatoes - fill a tire with soil and plant the seed potato within this tire...add another one atop it as potato seedlngs emerge and grow about 8  inches and cover them with soil it again with a third tire as they grow toward the light...

Swiss Chard 'Bright Lights' Mix

This chard seed mix has stems in yellow, gold, pink and crimson.  They're best harvested young for salads. Ready to harvest in 60 days.

And what about flowers?
Plant spring pansies for color and this:

Nasturtium Alaska Mix

These colorful and edible flowers tolerate poor soils and heat or cold. They grow on compact plants with attractive variegated foliage. Flowers and tender young leaves add color and a peppery zip to salads.  Big seeds are ideal for kids' gardens.

I hope this gets everyone starting to think about planting out those veggies...I got these photos from Burpee's Seeds. This well known company is a great on-line seed source - but the time is nigh...the best seeds go quickly.....

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Wood Ash to Sweeten your Soil

never use hot wood ash....

 Now that winter is coming to a close you can utilize a valuable soil amendment from your fireplace: Wood ashes.
They are rich in Potash which “sweetens” the soil by raising the pH (more alkaline).
Sweet soil is the balm of lilacs and other flowering shrubsIf your lilacs produce too few flowers, Potash can help. 

Apply regular wood-ash applications on soil beneath your shrubs in fall, winter and early spring. 
You cannot apply too much; rain and snow dilute the concentration of Potash considerably. Empty thoroughly cooled fireplace ashes into a large container and then pour a large amount in a wide circle beneath the drip line of  mature lilac shrubs. For small ornamental, herb and vegetable plants,  pour about a cupful beneath them.
wood ashes

Here are plants that prefer sweet soil:
Clematis, Gypsophila,  Japanese anemones, Lilacs, Madonna Lily, Nasturtium, Passionflower, Peonies, Phlox, Sweet Peas, Virginia Creeper
Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme
Beets, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Leeks, Melons, Onions, Parsnips, Spinach