Landscape and Gardening in the early 21st Century

Beginning in the 1960s, a paradigm shift occurred in the American residential landscape.
Folks no longer thought their back yards were for the swing set, tool shed, veggie garden, pet runs and clothes lines. Many homes did not even have back doors; only front and side doors.
In the 1960s, we discovered, what the very fortunate knew for years, the back yard was also for entertainment.  Swimming pools and charcoal grills hit the market. Exposed finished basements, mid-story large deck spaces and three story back yard edifices rapidly become the norm in the suburban scene.


This trend continues today with multilevel patios, decks, aquatic features with streams and arroyos, hot tubs, permanent outdoor fireplaces with built-in grills, screened rooms with weather-proof air-circulating fans, artificial putting greens, sport surfaces, children’s gym sets, rain gardens, thematic gardens, ornamental lighting, automatic irrigation and drip systems and peripheral insect control fogging systems.

Natural stone continues to be the material of choice in many landscapes. Building on the influence of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other stone and boulder gardening societies, our landscapes are expanding on these concepts and incorporating them more commonly into our designs.

, one of the more ancient building and paving components, is having a renaissance. While brick still comes in clay and concrete, the manufacturing techniques and their quality has vastly improved from antiquity. Improvements in colors, shapes, textures, surfaces, sizes and durability allow paved area to express simple monochromatic to complex multi-colored patterned surfaces. 

Curb Appeal
, one of the big buzz words, enhances the appearance of your home from the street. Remember, it’s the first impression folks have when arriving for a visit. While the entertainment is still in the privacy of the back yard, curb appeal is becoming more complex. OUT: with the rigorously pruned rows of green meatball globes, boxes and cubes of Taxus-Yews, Juniperus and Spiraea. IN: with more relaxed, colorful, natural and feeling landscapes. 
Feng Shui and Ying Yang are the buzz words in landscapes.

Modular concrete retaining walls have certainly improved from the early days of silo staves, wood, recycled railroad ties and building blocks.  Many of the companies that manufacture concrete modular components arose from the dying silo manufacturing companies. They have come a long way in the quality, aesthetic appearance, color durability, design engineering and parameters.

Water management
, avoiding the rapid run off of water from impervious surfaces, is working with rain barrels, porous surfaces and rain gardens. While porous surfaces still have a lot of kinks to work out, it is a sound idea. Rain barrels only work if the water is used and the excess is not spilled directly along your foundation. Water management and rain garden are contemporary buzz words.

Xeriscapes and other eco-friendly landscapes are on the rise.  Designing and installing plants and materials that are suited to the existing environmental conditions are being utilized more frequently.  We should stop trying to grow acid loving plants in alkaline soils and watering them with alkaline tap water. Conversely trying to grow alkaline loving plants in acidic soils is also tainted logic. Planting and maintaining moisture loving turf grasses and other plants in hot desert environments is a form of eco-abuse.

Rooftop gardening
is not growing moss on your roof and seedlings in the gutters. This is growing plants on a rooftop to green the environment. Few existing residential Wisconsin roofs could tolerate the weight of the growing medium and heavy winter snows. But, built with a green roof as part of the construction, the environmental benefits can be significant. Green Roofs is another contemporary buzz word.  For more information visit:


Landscaping for wildlife is also the buzz of contemporary landscapes.
Mammals; pets okay, most others, not really.
Birds; mostly yes.
Reptiles; some okay.
Amphibians; generally yes.
Fish; if possible
Invertebrates; in some very specific instances, yes.

Deer, rabbits, mice, voles, chipmunks, moles, fox, wolves, gophers, rats, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, badgers, bears, mink, elk, cattle, weasels and the like, are uncommonly enjoyed in our landscapes.  We have eradicated most of the carnivores from our residential landscapes. So, what we have left are herbivores and omnivores. We have allowed these populations to explode, causing changes to our ecosystems that are resulting in major environmental damages. What self respecting herbivore would eat Alliaria petiolata-Garlic mustard, Lonicera-Eurasian Bush Honeysuckle or Rhamnus cathartica and R. frangula-Buckthorn when there are delicious, ‘mother nature taught them to eat’ Aronia-Chokeberry, Ceanothus americanus-New Jersey tea, Cornus-Dogwood, Hamamelis virginiana-Witchhazel, Viburnum and a host of other wonderful native delights. Our impact on the landscape goes far beyond paving paradise with parking lots.

Raptors, crows, pigeons, grackles, geese, gulls and blackbirds are typically uninvited guests. Most of the others are welcomed and even encouraged in contemporary gardens. We put out heated bird baths with auto-fill drip systems. We build aquatic features with streams and shallows to give them habitats they hopefully will enjoy. We place tons of bird seed and other foods in our gardens to entice them to inhabit our landscapes. We grow plants in the hope they will enjoy them as food and habitat. We do this without any regard to the changes we are causing to the environment. Some migratory birds now reside though out Wisconsin’s winters. Cardinals used to be rare in Wisconsin and are now common. The Audubon Bird Guide Published in 1953 didn’t even mention Cardinals in Wisconsin.  

Snakes, turtles, lizards, crocodiles thriving in Wisconsin gardens? I would love to have some garter snakes in my garden.  But alas, reptiles in Wisconsin gardens, uncommon.

Salamanders, toads, and frogs are fairly common in Wisconsin gardens. These are wonderful creatures and should be encouraged in the residential garden. Any creature that eats insects is a friend of mine.

We not only love the sounds of moving splashing water, but most folks who have aquatic features enjoy stocking them with fish.  If you are fortunate to live near a natural body of water, fish are common. If not, we are increasingly more apt to install aquatic features to maintain them in our landscapes.

Spiders, mites, millipedes, centipedes and roly-polies are common in Wisconsin gardens even though we don’t notice nor typically encourage them. Many of these enhance our soils, devour untold numbers of insects and consume live and decaying plants, and animals including their by products.

Butterflies, yes. Almost all others, no way. Japanese beetles, do I need to even ask? Moths, some may be okay. We grow plants specifically for attracting butterflies to our gardens. However, you can’t have adults without the children. So put away the chemicals and enjoy the butterflies in all of their life stages as they enjoy your garden. I realize it is sometime very difficult to tell the difference between the larvae of moths, sawflies, butterflies and others, but there are some excellent books and on-line information explaining the differences.


Native Plants
The early 21st century is seeing the increased use of native plants. Native to when and where is a contentious issue. When? Wisconsin has been covered with glaciers a number of times in the very recent past. Our climate has gone through drastic changes in the past 10,000 years, a blink of a ecological-geological eye. Everything, which is growing here now, had to move into our environment. So, in the strict sense of the word, nothing is truly native to Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a transitional landscape with cold loving plants in the north and moving more northerly and those to the south, moving north into our environment. Where? It’s interesting that we may discuss plants as being native to Wisconsin that grow over 300 miles to the north, but not those that grow 50 miles south of Madison. Since when do plants and animals, and their eco-systems abide by and understand political boundaries? I prefer to note plants as native to North America. Just as a side note, China’s ecosystems are in the millions of years old in contrast to ours being less than 10,000 years old.
Even though they are native, we exclude plants with bad habits. Typically we don’t wish to use Acer negundo-Boxelder, Acer saccharinum-Silver Maple, Salix fragilis-Crack Willow, Populus-Cottonwoods, Taraxacum officinale-Dandelion, Ambrosia-Ragweed, Toxicodendron-Poison ivy and the like. The use of non-invasive plants, regardless of origin, is the buzz.

 IMMEDIATE gratification
Our contemporary societies are seemingly based on now is better. We don’t wish to wait for something to grow, it requires too much time. We want INSTANT gratification or even ANTICIPATED gratification. We desire larger caliper trees, larger and more mature shrubs and herbaceous perennials for our gardens. This is also reflected in the sales of more mature annuals. Pierre Bennerup of Sunny Border Nurseries coined the word TEMPERENNIALS. These are plants that in their native environments are long lived perennials but in our climate, they would not survive our winters. Tried and true old friends include: Geranium, Coleus (Solenostemmon), Hibiscus, Canna, Begonia, Impatiens, Kalanchoe, Lantana and Fuchsia. We now have these available as more mature plants with many new taxa and improved desirable traits. Solenostemmon that rarely flower, tall bushy Begonia, Impatiens with blue and orchid-like flowers and variegated ornamental leafed Canna are now part of the contemporary garden scene. Along with these traditional ones, we have the more unusual TEMPERENNIALS such as: Banana, Palm, Datura, Brugmansia, Abutilon, Arctotis, Aptenia, Dalechampia, Echevieria, Isolepsis, Farfugium, and Tunera to name a few. Within a few minutes, we can have huge pots of TEMPERENNIALS adorning the portico, deck and patio areas. Just add water. The fertilizer has already been added to the soil mixes.

Timed Release fertilizers began showing up in the 1960s. Today, they are being used in all forms of landscape maintenance. Unfortunately, folks still use rapid release fertilizers with dire consequences to our aquifers. Fertilizers are available that release nutrients based on temperature, soil moisture and bacterial activity. These new fertilizers avoid the feast and famine aspect of rapid release fertilizers as they slowly release plant nutrients during their entire growing season.

Botany vs Horticulture
One of the dynamic attributes of horticulture is scientific nomenclature.  With new and-or corrected names appearing at a feverish pace in the botanical literature, it is difficult if not impossible to keep up with the changes.  Changes in Genus includes: Cimicifuga to Actaea, Anemonella to Thalictrum, Aster to Eurybia, Symphyotricon and others, Acothopanax to Eleutherococcus, Chrysanthemum to Argyranthemum, Leucanthemopsis, Leucanthemum, Rhodanthemum, and Tanacetum, to name a few. Just because of a name change, you may think you are getting some wonderful new plant, when indeed it’s the same that you already have. Hopefully the botanists will get this sorted out soon. For more information The Plantsman 6(3): 188-189.

Plant imports arriving from China, Japan, S. & Central America and Europe are not only using different genus names, but also different epithet and cultivar names. Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blauhügel’ been anglicized to Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blue Hill’. I guess the original language names are considered, by the American horticultural industry, to be too difficult for us to pronounce or use.
Then there’s the confusing issue of patent names and cultivar names.  Buxus ‘Chicagoland Green’ (the cultivar name) is the same as Buxus ‘Glencoe’ (the patent name). It’s common for new introductions to have these two valid names.  Caveat emptor.

POP Sales
A great deal of energy is being put into plants with better POP - Point of Purchase appeal. If the plant, label AND pot does not look good at the time it is offered for sale, it may not sell. We want to see every little Marigold plant in its tray of 72 seedlings, then 48 in a tray, then 36, then 18, and now in 6” individual pots; to be perfect and in full flower. Even if the one that is not in flower may be healthier, it stays on the shelf until it blooms. It is not uncommon that the best plants at POP; are not the best performers once they begin to grow in your garden. However, we desire immediate IMPACT and COLOR.  Remember when we went to a greenhouse, bought some of these and six of those? The staff would remove the plants with a bit soil from their reusable wooden trays, wrap them in recycled dampened newspaper, place them in a paper bag and you went home and planted them. Today, they are individually contained in a non-recyclable full-color printed, pink plastic, or some other notorious colored plastic pot, with an artificial growing medium, with a non-recyclable individual full colored metallic luster plant tag, placed in a plastic tray or bag and arranged on an imprinted plastic trunk liner for you to take home and plant. Once planted you toss everything except the plant into the trash.  What would the nursery think if you brought your own newspaper to wrap the plants in and leave the pots for them to reuse? (At LDI Nursery, we reuse most every uncompromised solid black, green, white or terra-cotta colored containers. So, bring them back, and we will put them to good use. Sorry, we don’t recycle the little cell packs that annuals are sold in.)
POP sales include nearly every aspect of nursery stock from annuals, to perennials, shrubs and trees. Pretty packaging sells.

New Plants

New plants have always been sought after by the gardening public. Plants that were out of favor a few years ago are now on the top of the list. Peonies that don’t flop, Daylilies that bloom non-stop, sterile plants that don’t invade the native ecosystems, drought resistance, disease resistance, insect resistance, compact bushier plants, more colorful foliage, interesting growth shapes, texture, form, and color, color and more color. Contemporary gardeners want color now and we want it all season long.

Disease and insect resistance are big concerns in many new plants. With the green desire to use fewer harsh chemicals in the environment, the nursery industry is on the continued lookout for plants that offer gardeners better choices. A number of different cultivars of the same plant may look nearly identical; however one is disease and insect resistant.  Compare Helictotrichon sempervirens with Helictotrichon sempervirens ‘Saphirsprudel’ (‘Sapphire’). They look identical, but ‘Saphirsprudel’ is wonderfully resistant to rust.

Compact forms differ a great deal. This is a large issue in landscaping. When purchasing Cornus alba `Red Gnome' you are receiving a wonderfully compact heavily branching form. Purchasing Cornus alba 'Bloodgood' gives you a larger plant, seemingly more for the money, but to keep it within bounds, you will need to invest in regular pruning. Increased maintenance costs in the long run versus the slightly higher expense when purchasing a compact plant to begin with.  Check out the difference in Clethra alnifolia ‘Pink Spires’ versus Clethra ‘Hummingbird’.

Spreading form versus clumping form. Diervilla sessilifolia-Diervilla is a spreading erosion controlling plant for difficult locations, including those with significant highway deicing salt. Native to the Eastern United States, this plant is equally at home in full sun to medium shade. It is however a significant spreading colonizing plant. The cultivar `Butterfly' is a compact tighter clumping Diervilla that is more suited to the smaller residential shady garden, with great yellow flowers much of the season and wonderful autumn colors.

Wide growing versus fastigiata or columnar growing. Malus-Crabapple comes in just about every imaginable form. Disease resistant foliage and fruit, color and shape of the leaf, single to double flowers, flowers with or without fragrance, flowers that hold and bloom over a longer periods of time, fruitless or fruits that are small, very colorful and persist often into, if not throughout the winter, are all aspects of contemporary crabapple selections. Their growth forms include: upright columnar, upright vase, upright oval, to round, to lollipop, to flattened oval to pancake, to wide weeping and narrow weeping and weeping like ‘That Girl’s’  hairdo.  Some of the finer new cultivars of crabapples include:  ‘American Masterpiece’, ‘Guinevere’, ‘Lillipop’, ‘Prairifire’, ‘Firebird’, ‘Louisa’, ‘Golden Raindrops’, ‘Madonna’ and ‘Sugar Tyme’.  When I see one of the early crabapple cultivars such as ‘Hopa’, I common note ‘I Hopa-it-ah-dies-ah.’ They are so prone to problems it is best to remove them and start over.

Dwarf conifers are the rage and there are thousands of them. Some dwarf conifers grow only 1” or less per year.  Tsuga canadensis ‘Minuta’ grows about ¼” per year. Even though dwarf conifers may only grow 1” per year, in 100 years, they will be 8½ feet tall! Don’t be dupped into believing that they stop growing once they reach the height noted on the tag. They don’t stop growing until they are dead. Check out some of the interesting forms of Thuja-Arborvitae: ‘Grune Kugel’, ‘Golden Tuffet’, ‘Norm Evers’ and Thuja koraiensis ‘Glauca Prostrata’.  

Colorful conifers such as: Abies-Fir, Chamaecyparis-Hinoki, Picea-Spruce, Pinus-Pine, Taxus-Yews, Thujopsis-Staghorn Cedar, and Tsuga-Hemlock have numerous choices in colors, foliage textures, shapes and sizes. One really wonderful new plant to check out is Cephalotaxus ‘Prostrata’. A 12-24” high, wide spreading easily maintained (although rarely requires any maintenance) evergreen for shady gardens. Mine is over ten years old and continues to be a charmer thriving in shade where no turf grass would even dream of growing. Also check out Taxus ‘Dwarf Bright Gold’, growing about 12-18” high and wide spreading. The new spring growth on ‘Dwarf Bright Gold’ is a fresh bright chartreuse-yellow, with the older rich green needles serving as the perfect back drop. ‘Dwarf Bright Gold’ is a tough great plant for sunny to shady gardens.

Compactness, non-invasive spreading, and non-thatching
cultivars are a significant push in herbaceous perennials. Hemerocallis fulva-Tawny Daylily is a disaster of a plant. Invasive, short flowering season, early foliage loss, and nearly impossible to get rid of, it has soured many folks on having Hemerocallis is their gardens. Within the past few years, Hemerocallis are the plant of choice for the garden. Nearly every color, except true blues, is now part of the Hemerocallis’ repertoire. Flowering heights vary from near 6” to about 72”tall! Blooming times are from the end of May to late September. The floral form, texture, color combinations, weather resistance and fragrance are incredibly diverse. One only needs to go the Wisconsin Daylily Sale at Olbrich Gardens in Mid-August to experience the diversity. If you cannot find one daylily, in the nearly 70,000 that are now available, that strikes your fancy, you might consider another form of gardening experience.

Epimedium – Barrenworts & Fairy Wings. Joining the tough & durable European Barrenworts are the Fairy Wings from Asia. All are great plants, with over 40 different taxa thriving in my Madison garden. The colors range from pure white to yellow to pink to red and purple. Foliage form is variable along with colors ranging from chartreuse to blushed burgundy to variegated and speckled in reds, yellows, browns, greens and whites. Heights are also variable from a few inches to nearly 72” tall in ‘The Giant’, a cultivar recently introduced by Cobblewood. While the European Barrenworts are more tolerant of drier conditions, the Asian taxa enjoy more moist environments. You can never go wrong with Epimedium in the shady garden.

Hosta are experiencing the same renaissance as Hemerocallis. Look for cultivars with burgundy foliage with pert pink fragrant flowers in the future.  Gone are the days of Hosta lancifolia ‘Tutuous’ surrounding the base of oak trees. Check out the Hosta Sale at Olbrich Gardens in Early June.

, including the non-invasive Fargesia clumping bamboo, are enjoying garden culture like never before. Winter hardy Fargesia-Fountian Bamboos are thriving in very moist Wisconsin landscapes. Check out Fargesia nitida with its wonderful polished near black stems. Our wonderful native Panicum grasses are magnificent structural elements in the Summer, Autumn and Winter gardens. Some of the wonderful cultivars include: ‘Dallas Blues’, ‘Heavy Metal’, ‘North Wind’, ‘Prairie Sky’, ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Trailblazer’. Remember, these are native grasses and have a tendency to aggressively seed in the garden. Use a pre-emergent such as Pre-M to control the re-seeding.

 Nearly gone are the droopy off rose colored flowering Coneflowers. In are the new ‘Mango Meadowbrite’, ‘Coconut Lime’, Fragrant Angel’, ‘Tiki Torch’, ‘Hope’, ‘Raspberry Tart’, ‘All That Jazz’, ‘Big Sky Sunrise’ and a long list of others. Regrettably, some of the new cultivars are not as long lived as the species. Also, they hybridize easily with each other, resulting in some very interesting seedling colors and forms. Don’t cut them back before Winter, just bend over the stems to prevent water from getting into the crowns via the hollow stems. Birds do love the seeds.

Heuchera I estimate the number of different cultivars available for 2008 is in the hundreds with more on the way. Durability varies immensely as some cultivars are much more tolerant to heat, moisture, various soil conditions, nutrition levels, diseases and pests. Black Vine and Strawberry Root Weevils, and root rots commonly attack the best of varieties. The high humidity and hot Midwest temperatures also raise havoc on many taxa. Well drained gravely/sandy loamy soils are imperative. Before watering, make sure you check the soil’s moisture. I have over-wintered Heuchera in pots without any moisture for 5 months! Within days of watering them, they begin to grow their beautiful new foliage. Don’t toss away those nice patio containers of Heuchera. Pop them in the garage for the winter and forget about them until Late March or Early April. Place them out on the patio or portico, water them and enjoy. Some of the best for Midwest landscapes include: ‘Palace Purple’, ‘Vesuvius’, ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, ‘Plum Pudding’, ‘Paris’, ‘Dale’s Favorite’ and ‘Obsidian’. Generally, the presence of Heuchera villosa and H. sanguinea in the cultivar’s lineage, the better it should be for the Midwest.

Tiarella – Foam Flowers are close relatives of Heuchera. These native woodland wild flowers spring joys with their fragrant fluffy spires of white to pale pink flowers and evergreen leaves. Again, the number of different cultivars is approaching the 100s with more being regularly selected. Some of the better cultivars include: ‘Black Snowflake’, ‘Crow Feather’, ‘Iron Butterfly’, ‘Spring Symphony’, ‘Cygnet’, ‘Dark Eyes’ and ‘Elizabeth Oliver’. Once again, drainage is important. Where Heuchera can tolerate droughty conditions, Tiarella prefers moist humusy soils.

Heucherella is a cross with Heuchera x Tiarella. Foamy Bells are wonderful durable plants for the garden. Some of the best include: ‘Bridget Bloom’ (one of the first and still one of the best), ‘Kimono’, ‘Viking Ship’, ‘Chocolate Lace’ and ‘Burnish Bronze’.

Paeonia Peonies are finding new favor with the improvement in non-shattering flowers, disease resistant foliage, and ‘hold my flowers up during our spring rainstorms’. One only has to visit Song Sparrow Nurseries, Avalon, Wisconsin, in season to view more Paeonia than most anyone can hope to remember.

Narcissus-Daffodils are also experiencing a make-over. Many of the older cultivars are being dropped from production due to the EU ‘Environmental Green’ mandate to reduce the heavy use of chemicals to keep stock healthy. The newer cultivars are not only more disease and pest resistant, but also significantly more weather resistant. The flowers of Narcissus ‘Decoy’ and ‘Camelot’ have so much substance that they almost laugh at our inclement springs. The future holds Narcissus with a white perianth and Bucky Badger red trumpets. It would be nice if they named it ‘On Wisconsin’.

Other plants having a renaissance include: Arisaema-Cobra Lilies, Athyrium-Lady Ferns, Baptisia-False Indigo, Brunnera-Siberian Forget-Me-Nots, Carex-Sedges, Corydalis-Corydalis, Geranium-Cranesbill, Helleborus-Hellebores, Hepatica-Liverleafs, Hydrangea paniculata–Panicled Hydrangea, Monarda-Bee Balm, Phlox-Phlox, Pulmonaria-Lungworts, Podophyllum-Mayapples, Sedum-Stonecrops, Tricyrtis-Toadlilies, Veronica-Speedwell, and Weigela-Weigela.

new plants are finding their way to our gardens from China and other Oriental environments. Look for different taxa of: Anemone, Anemonopsis, Asarum, Asteropyrum, Cacalia, Chelonopsis, Chionographis, Chloranthus, Codonopsis, Coptis, Croomia, Dienanthe, Diphylleia, Disporopsis, Disporum, Geum, Glaucidium, Keiskeia, Leucosceptum, Mukdenia, Platycrater, Rabdosia, Ranzania, Saruma, Serratula, Shibateranthis, Syneilesis, and Tofieldia, to name a few. Many are so new their hardiness is unknown and is only being estimated.

I believe we are living in the
golden age of gardening. Exciting and awe-inspiring plants are being discovered from all realms of our planet. Try something a bit new in your garden this year and enjoy the rewards. Who says you can’t have your Impatiens and Heucherella too?

Copyright March 2008 - Landscape Designs, Inc., Steve Lesch
Newsletter-Spring 2008

Offices: 5434 Dahlen Drive, Madison, WI 53705 • (608) 233-4215 • Operations: 3290 Elvehjem Road, McFarland, WI 53558