The Importance of Site Analysis, Part 3

As we have discussed over the past few weeks, beautiful gardens don’t happen by accident. You need to analyze and deeply understand your garden over time. Once you have a pretty good handle on what you are working with, you will be ready to begin the process of choosing the right plants. Here are a couple more things to be aware of within your landscape.

Sight Lines

One of the questions I ask clients about their property is “Where will you be looking at your garden from?” Seems like a simple question, but it is often overlooked. This helps orient the plants in the right lines and heights for maximum viewing.

For instance, for an island planting in your backyard, will you be mostly looking at it from your living room or deck? If so then put the taller plants in the back and the shorter perennials along the front. In the case of a foundation planting, then the viewing would be mostly from the street, but you will want to see it from your windows. I would not use really tall plants that block the view from the front porch or windows.

Another aspect of sight lines is screening. Is there a view that you want to hide/screen? Are taller plants needed to provide you with privacy? Both can be achieved with plant material but your need to be thinking about mature plant height. Is there a structure arbor, fountain or garden art that you want to guide people to with a path or by using the clean lines of a flower bed?

Topography and Drainage

Positive drainage away from your house is so important. Basements are ruined with poor drainage around your home. Really work at getting water to flow away from your home before putting any plants in the ground.

Another thing to understand within your landscape is where the water flows. Standing water for a few hours is one thing, but if the water stands for days then plants will be adversely affected. If you have pooling water after a big rainstorm, then you can divert it away more quickly via a ditch or shallow swale. A better idea might be to develop a rain garden?

Butterfly milkweed in the small rain garden at the arboretum

By understanding these aspects of your landscape, you will be rewarded season after season with beautiful, functional, earth-friendly oasis. A garden that works with landscape and not against it. Whether, you just moved to a new home that you are unfamiliar with or want to start over with your current garden, site analysis is the place to start. Good luck!

If you need help with your native garden come to FloraKansas: Native Plant Days.

The Importance of Site Analysis Part 2

The more you understand your garden, the easier it will be to choose the right plants for your site.  We all have plant preferences but not all of your plant preferences will grow in your garden.  Here are a few more aspects to consider as you analyze your landscape. 

Soil Type

Here in south central Kansas, our soils are typically alkaline, which is good for growing most prairie plants.  Soils can be pH neutral with a value of 7.0, or anything below that is classed as acid, and anything above, alkaline. To determine your pH, a simple soil test can be done by yourself from kits at most garden centers or through the extension service. 

Other soil considerations are consistency and texture. At the Arboretum, we deal mostly with clay soils.  This soil type compacts easily and drains poorly. You must find plants with root systems that can penetrate through the dense structure of clay, i.e., big bluestem, asters, and indigos.  Other soil types are sandy (dries out quickly, low nutrient holding capacity, low organic matter and loose in your hand), Silty (mixture of a sand and clay, easily compacted), Chalky (stoney, exposed subsoil after construction, good drainage) and Loamy (high in organic matter, holds moisture and nutrients). 

If you have been working in your garden for any length of time, you have a good idea of what type of soil you have.  You can add some compost to your soil if it is really terrible, but typically, you can find plants that will grow in your soil conditions.  For example, there are plants that appreciate the consistent drainage of sandy soils especially during the winter months. 

If your soil is alkaline, you will struggle growing rhododendrons and azaleas that need acidic soil.  Try to gather as much information about your soil and then find plants that grow in it. Finding the right plant for the right place will make you garden smarter not harder.

Think of Garden Aspect

Once you have defined the area you want to landscape, you need to understand aspect. Garden aspect simply means which way your garden is facing.  If it north facing, typically shadowed by your house, it needs plants that can grow in shade or partial shade.  If it is south facing, then choose plants for all day sun.  If it east facing, then choose plants that need six hours of sunlight, but are protected from the hottest sunlight hours.  If your garden is west facing then choose plants that can endure the hottest sunlight hours. 

South-facing garden with prairie dropseed, blackeyed susan, Amsonia hubrichtii, russian sage and Taylor junipers.

Obviously, trees, structures, and house orientation play a role in garden aspect.  The key is to observe your garden at different times throughout the year.  This will help you understand completely where the sunlight is coming from and how intense it can be.

One other thing to consider is microclimates within your garden.  There may be small areas that behave totally different than other areas ten to fifteen feet away.  One example would be a protected area along a fence or under a tree the shields that site from hot west sunlight and drying winds. Or, a low area in your yard that stays consistently moist is another example. These areas might allow you the opportunity to try a few different plants that would not otherwise grow in your garden.

Next Week: Site Analysis Part 3

The Importance of Site Analysis

Over the past few months, I have been working on some landscape designs.  These designs have reminded me how important site analysis is to a successful design.  Choosing the right plants for an area begins with a close look at the area being considered for a new garden. In my opinion, gardeners (I include myself in this category) don’t spend enough time observing our gardens throughout the year prior to planting anything. Here are a few important aspects to consider that will help you develop a rewarding planting scheme.

What is the size of your outdoor space? 

Site analysis begins with taking a step back to observe the big picture. A small planting bed leading to the front door versus a larger foundation or island planting require different plants. Most plants need space to fully develop. Be realistic when you first start thinking about your garden.  Lay out your garden beds with a hose to help define the landscape space.  Step back and look at the lines and size of the bed.  Is this the look you want for the area? 

Another piece of advice I often give is to start small and work on your areas over successive seasons.  A new garden can be overwhelming as you work to establish new plants, control weeds and maintain those new plants through the first year.  Once the first area is up and growing, you can move to the next area.  By starting small, you can build on your successes.

By using a garden hose to layout your garden, you can play with the design and curves before moving any soil. Step back and take a look. Adjust the lines until you are satisfied with the flow and size of the bed. Visualize the area with mature plants.

Control perennial/annual weeds before planting anything


Obviously, the best time to eradicate bindweed is before you plant. I spray the area with Roundup™ several times starting in July and August. Anytime we see green, the area is sprayed. This is the best time to spray because the plant is moving energy from the leaves into the roots for winter storage. The chemical is also moved throughout the extensive root system, killing even those deep roots. Trust me, it is worth waiting to plant until this weed is removed permanently.

Small patches can be hand pulled but you have to stay on it. Every sprig that pops up must be pulled immediately.  We have also had limited success with hand painting the leaves with Round-up.  Again, every new plant must be found and painted.  Essentially, you have to be as ruthless and relentless as this weed is to completely remove it from your garden. I thank my ancestors for bringing this over to America with their wheat seed.

If you are firmly opposed to using any chemicals, you might consider solarization instead, or you may want to read my colleague’s blog post “On Weeding“.

Bermuda grass

This perennial grass is a problem because of its vigorous creeping habit.  The plant spreads by seeds and by above and below ground stems that can take over a garden in one season.  It is drought tolerant and thrives with neglect.

Like bindweed, bermudagrass is best removed before planting (same as bindweed).  If you have it growing next to your gardens, a buffer must be maintained between the perennial display and the lawn area.  This buffer can be weeded by hand or sprayed every few weeks with Roundup™ to burn back any new runners toward the garden.  Raised beds are another defense against bermudagrass.  Don’t blow bermuda grass clippings into your gardens.  Again, it is better to wait to establish your new wildflower garden until you have bermudagrass eliminated.  I have made the mistake of planting into bermudagrass and I am fighting with it every year. 

Keep plants in scale

I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late. Keep in mind that your overall garden size helps determine what plants you can use in your design. Plant scale generally means using plants that are half the bed width. For instance, an area six feet wide needs plants that are no taller than three feet. A tall (8 foot) compass plant would stick out like a sore thumb if used in this area. In a narrow bed leading to your front door, taller plants tend to fall over and get in the way. Shorter plants such as prairie dropseed and black-eyed susans are a better option. Measure up what you have in order to see how everything will fit into place.

Compass Plant is a beautiful wildflower that gets eight feet tall. It is out of scale in a smaller space. Give it room to grow.

Look for Site Analysis Part 2 next week.

The Edible Landscape

I am a big fan of a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful. Functionality might mean wildlife and pollinator attraction, water absorbing (rain garden) or water conserving (xeriscaping). But it can also mean incorporating human food plants into your perennial garden. This not only provides a healthy snack, but it encourages more interaction and participation. What is the point of a beautiful landscape if you aren’t out enjoying it?

Here is a small preview of some of the plants I discuss in my Native Plant School class, now available on our YouTube channel, all about landscaping with edible plants.

If this topic fires you up, stop by our gift shop to grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, a wonderful plant guide and exploration of ethnobotany on the Great Plains.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

A personal favorite of mine, Elderberry is as beautiful as it is nutritious. This plant will love a low spot in the yard where water tends to collect after rains, or an area with poor drainage. It can reach 8ft tall, putting on an impressive show in late spring when covered with massive white flower clusters. Berries ripen in July, a perfect time to spend the hot afternoons in the kitchen making jams and syrups. I make a cold remedy from them that has never let me down!

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Persimmon (left) and PawPaw (right) both produce delicious fruit.

Everything about pawpaw seems tropical. Surely this fruit cannot be native to hot, dry Kansas…yet it is! It is an easy growing plant that can grow in full sun or partial shade and tolerates alkaline soil. To get a good fruit set you should plant more than one; though they have both male and female flowers on a single tree they are not self-fertile. The fruit is worth it! A custard-like texture with the flavor of bananas and mangos, it is perfect for pies and homemade ice cream.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

If you are short on garden space and can’t add a shrub or tree, never fear. Monarda fistulosa is a wonderful edible perennial much smaller in stature than the previous options. About 3ft by 3ft when happy and mature, the leaves of this plant make excellent tea, with a flavor reminiscent of the bergamot oil used in Earl Grey. It has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous North Americans, for everything from upper respiratory problems to sore feet. The flowers are also edible and add a citrusy, spicy punch to salads.

From persimmon to chokeberry, we have so many native plants to choose from to diversify our diets and add beauty to our home landscapes. Thanks to thousands of years of culinary experimentation by the tribes and nations of North America we have a rich ethnobotanical tradition to learn from, an example of how to learn about, appreciate and interact with food and flora.

Gardens of France: American Cemetery at Normandy

When most people visit Normandy, they aren’t coming for the gardens. World War II historians flock here from all over the world to learn, explore, and pay tribute to the thousands who died here liberating France, and later freeing Europe. I personally love this area of France. It is my favorite by far, not only for its history, but for its beautiful, rugged landscape and friendly people. (And did I mention Normandy is the home of Camembert cheese?)

Of course, no trip to Normandy would be complete without a stop at the American Cemetery and Memorial. And though we aren’t always looking for great garden design, sometimes I can’t help but notice!

Design That Sets the Tone

This is a garden bed at the entrance to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It surprised me! Modern and understated, blending so well into the blocky, simplistic design of the memorial I almost walked right past it. It is made up of two species: likely Calamagrostis ‘Karl Forrester’ and Gaura lindheimeri, also known as white beeblossom.

This is a perfect example of matching the tone of the place to the design. At such a somber site, it might feel strange to have anything too colorful, jazzy, or disorganized. Instead, the grasses stand tall and stately, the Gaura wispy and low. The combination is perfect here, and when a bit of wind comes through them the planting has wonderful movement, and an ethereal quality. If a garden could whisper, this one would.

Ornamental Grasses

I spotted some familiar North American native grasses as I explored the well kept grounds. Through the memorial and onto the walkway to the cemetery, there is a border of switchgrass and fountaingrass. This combination was repeated multiple times along the way, softening the edges of the walkway – pink and pillowy, and always in motion thanks to the sea winds off the beach. The shrubs and trees behind created a three tiered border – making the walk feel a bit enclosed and sheltered from the otherwise open plain. After a tearful trip through the memorial hall and museum, it is a lovely feeling to be ushered along by this soft texture and gentle swaying movement, mimicking the waves on the beach.

A planting of ornamental grasses at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Beauty in the Margins

In Normandy, even the parking lots are beautiful! I was impressed by the city planning. In the many small towns in the area around the beaches, there was an effort to create greenspace at every opportunity. Instead of bare, sparse plantings dominated by mulch we are used to seeing in parking lot islands, I encountered lush shrubs and thickly planted perennials. This is simply a choice of good design — choose plants that thrive under harsh conditions, plant thick enough that weeds cannot get through, and stick to mass plantings for the greatest effect.

Landscape vs Landscaping

The genius of the plantings in this region was that they seemed to blend right into the surrounding rural landscape. I can’t be sure whether the plants used were always native to the area or just well adapted ornamentals. But regardless, great care was taken to blend and match the natural shapes and textures of the seaside climate. Sometimes with grasses that bring to mind sandy hues and beach waves. Or even by using dense shrubs planted in layers, to mimic the famous hedgerows of the area. We can bring this lesson back home by taking careful note of the common shapes, colors, and textures in the natural landscape of our area. Using that, we can recreate those things in our residential landscaping on a smaller scale. It is an abstract way of designing, but the pay off is a garden that feels balanced and very much at home.

Gardens of France: Chateau de Chenonceau

Refined, elegant, and dare I say…lady-like? The castle and gardens of Chenonceau are truly a must-see in the Loire Valley. It is known as the ladies castle because of its many famous female inhabitants, as well as the fact that its construction and upkeep was overseen by women. With formal gardens surrounding it on two sides, and an extensive estate with woods, hedge maze, vegetable plot, and a medicinal herb garden, one could easily spent the entire day here. This is one of my favorite gardens of France, but sadly we only had a few hours to admire the grounds and take a few notes on the exquisite landscape designs!

view of Diane de Poiteirs garden and Chateau de Chenonceau
View of Chenonceau from Diane de Poitiers garden, from Wikimedia

A Brief History

Owned by the monarchy, mistresses, government financiers, and chocolatiers, this property has a fascinating history. Straddling the river Cher, it was used as a military hospital in WWI and a secret escape corridor in WWII. But none of its history defined it as much as the rivalry between Catherine and Diane. Catherine Medici was the wife of King Henry II, Diane was his mistress. These women had a famous feud with a lasting imprint on the castle and grounds. Henry gifted the Chateau de Chenonceau to Diane, much to Catherine’s chagrin. Once Henry died, Catherine promptly took the castle back and sent Diane packing. Among the many renovations and additions each lady made, the gardens stand as an obvious example of their contrasting styles and personalities.

View of Chenonceau from the Medici garden.
Hermann Luyken, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dueling Gardens

On one side of the entrance to the chateau stands the garden of Catherine de Poitiers, and on the other side the rebuttle: the garden of Catherine Medici. Both gardens are built on platforms above the banks of the river banks, and both exhibit the elegant features popular in the 16th century:

  • long straight gravel pathways (French parterre style)
  • small sections of very short shorn lawn separated by low hedges
  • topiary and ball-shaped shrubs
  • all paths leading to a central fountain or pool
Diane de Poitiers garden, one of the famous gardens of France
Garden of Diane de Poitiers, complete with its dwarf fruit trees and carefully manicured scroll pattern made of Santolina.

But they are unique in tone. The Medici garden is orderly, if slightly less symmetrical than Diane’s. It contains more squares rectangles while the Poitier garden is laid out in triangles. Catherine’s garden is modest in size, while Diane’s stretches on lavishly. But, many agree that the Medici garden has the best view of the Chateau, perhaps purposely planned that way due to her great affection and attachment to the residence. The memorable feature in the Garden of Diane de Poitier are the “santolina swirls”: grey santolina, trimmed very low, in delicate scroll patterns throughout the innermost lawns. Diane’s garden is grand, showy, and sprawling, while Catherine’s is elegant and slightly understated. While Diane’s has a flashy fountain in the middle, Catherine’s simply has a reflecting pool.

Catherine Medici's garden at Chenonceau (taken in October 2023), one of the famous gardens of France
The Garden of Catherine Medici, with its dark leaves sweet potato vine and the ornamental grasses (Pennisetum?) bursting upwards.

Formality with Flair

While formal gardens are not my particular taste, I really enjoyed the way these gardeners are playing with color palette. Dark leaf ipomea constrasts with silver santolia and lavender. The grasses rush upwards out of the other ground-hugging foliage like fireworks (which interestingly enough, were used for the first time in France at this very location). Rather than feeling stuffy and boring, the contrast of dark and light keeps it interesting and the winding shapes lead your eye in unexpected directions. On Diane’s side of things, a strict adherence to shades in purple, pink and whites keeps an otherwise very thick, diverse beds looking intentional.

A garden border of hibiscus, salvia, and castor plants in the colors purple, pink and burgundy. Plants range from 3ft to 6ft high, and the chancellory building is in the background.
Pinks, purples, and the burgundy of the caster bean leaves all blend together to create an almost monochrome landscape design.
A low hedge in the vegetable garden area, made of what I believe to be apple trees, in the espalier style.

Grandness, Scale, and Planning for the Future

the long entryway lined with plane trees (sycamore) that leads to Chateau de Chenonceau. This is a very memorable scene from one of the most famous gardens of France.
Chris enjoying the walk to the chateau, lined with massive plane trees.

One of the most memorable moments of Chenonceau is the tree lined entryway. It stretches on for the entire stately avenue and perfectly framing the castle up ahead. The property also has a hedge maze made of yew bushes, as well as a great collection of specialty trees. These types of displays only work with patience. For these grand landscapes to take shape, it takes more than just a growing season. Years, and in some cases, centuries of growth have to be accounted for. So if you have big plans for your own property, perhaps a tree lined driveway of your own or a prairie reconstruction, remember not to be intimidated by big plans! Start now to create something truly spectacular and awe-inspiring for future generations.

A mass planting of Hydrangea along the fence of the vegetable garden and maintenance area. Even the mundane and functional spaces are beautifully kept!

You don’t have to go all the way to France to experience excellent landscape design – implement these lessons into your own garden and get that royal touch of elegance! Keeping a simple color palette, use clean lines and repeating geometric patterns to achieve a timeless aesthetic. And for further inspiration, take a virtual tour of Chenonceau here. There are only a few more posts left in our gardens of France series, so stay tuned!

Gardens of France: Nantes

Nantes is not one of the more famous locations in France. It has a major port and lots of commerce, and vacationers often pass it up in favor of all the other more scenic cities. But it is full of history, has a walkable city center, excellent public transport, and LOTS of greenspace. It is known as the city of 100 parks, with ample access to free and beautifully maintained gardens and greenways. I got to enjoy several of these places on our three-day stay while visiting friends.

Japanese Garden

In the middle of Nantes is the river Erdre, and in the river there is an island, and on this island is the Jardin Japonais. The island was made with the mud removed from the river in an 1800s canal project, and though it had many uses through the years, today it is home to cherry trees, rhododendrons, and bamboo. Winding paths lead to tranquil ponds, a small waterfall, and pagoda-style architecture. The principles of Japanese gardening are very different from those of classical European styles. These principles include asymmetry, concealment, miniaturization, and “borrowed” scenery, and they were all on great display on this little island.

Jardin Extraordinaire

Set inside an abandoned quarry, this garden is bordered by a river on one side and steep granite cliffs on the other. Because of these south facing cliffs catching the sunlight, the garden stays several degrees warmer, on average, than the surrounding area. A perfect microclimate for exotic plants like palms, hibiscus, and banana trees! These tropicals intermingle with ornamental grasses as well as sycamore trees. The garden is luxurious and bizarre, like something out of a storybook. Nantes happens to be the birthplace of author Jules Verne and there are many elements of this city that feel influenced by his eccentric and active imagination. Or perhaps the city influenced Verne!

Jardin des Plantes de Nantes

Just like in the US, almost every major city has a Jardin des Plantes, or botanical garden, to explore. Nantes had a lovely and unique collection to explore and we had a relaxing stroll through their greenhouses devoted to tropicals, cactus, orchids, and more. The park stretched on through coniferous forest plantings and opened onto placid duck ponds and lush lawns. The horticulturists there even created grass covered mounds and sculpted them into sleeping figures. Maybe I need to try this at the Arboretum!

A wetland exhibit featured a stunning display of Sarracenia species. These are carnivorous bog plants that trap and digest flies in their flutes. Commonly known as pitcher plants, they are native to North America but are grown ornamentally around the world.

By far the best part of my visit to Nantes was getting to see my host family again. After so many years apart, we had such fun catching up. They were razzing me heartily about my mediocre French pronunciation skills, just like old times!

Nantes is truly an excellent city (maybe the best in France, according to City Monitor) and definitely one to visit if you love gardens, as most are free to enter and can be easily reached by public transit or pedestrian walkways. As we only visited a few of the one hundred parks, I hope to visit again soon and see many more!

Gardens of France: Monet at Giverny

The famous painter Claude Monet transformed his acreage in Giverny into his own private paradise. It is the complete opposite of the other gardens we have discussed in this series. Gone are trimmed topiaries and carefully pruned perennials, and there are no great lawns on which to have military marches. Instead it is naturalistic, flowing, and whimsical. With it’s famous lily pond and Japanese bridge, we felt as if we were walking right into a famous painting! We saw some great landscaping principles here that you can apply to your own landscape, even if you don’t have an artist’s eye for design.

This lily pond was the subject of hundreds of paintings by Monet. I can see why he never tired of looking at it!

An Artist’s Garden

Monet was a preimminent painter of impressionism, a style placing emphasis on color, movement and light rather than intricate detail. Impressionist painters used broad strokes of color, and paintings in this style can seem blurry or unfinished. Understanding the impressionist style of painting helped me appreciate the garden design as well. The beds are tightly packed and verge on overgrown, and fine details are mostly lost, but the colors and textures shine through the chaos. Each area transitioned effortlessly into the next as we walked, flowing and natural. The garden was very much like an impressionist composition: seen too closely, it seems unintelligible but step back to see the whole and you are rewarded with a beautiful view!

Color Story

The garden of an artist would, of course, include a careful study of color, and Monet’s estate does not disappoint. Each densely planted row clearly had a plan. Yellows and whites are planted next to an entire row of blues and purples, which visually melt into burgundies and reds. Around every corner were fascinating flower species in row upon row, but always in monochrome or a two color maximum. Consequently, the busy landscape appeared organized and very relaxing.

Wildness Contained

Dozens of narrow paths lead you through the estates gardens. At times you can scarcely see around the corner or over the hedge. With no idea where we were headed, we just enjoyed the walk and didn’t worry about what’s next. Perhaps that the was the artists plan all along! It can feel like a wild place but in fact, from an aerial view, the estate is laid out in neat rows and squares. The staff keep the paths well maintained and very tidy. This helps to carefully frame all that wildness, giving viewers an easier time viewing, interpreting, and enjoying the space. As the garden of an artist, it makes sense to strive for visual balance. This principle of good planning and framing is one we encourage in all of our landscaping classes.

Japanese Influences

Claude Monet devant le bassin aux nymphéas de Giverny
(Monet in front of the water lily pond)

Monet was a collector of Japanese prints, which are on still on display in his home today. His love for this art form inspired him to include classic Japanese elements in his garden. Water lilies are an important motif in Asian art, as well as arched bridges. Accordingly, Monet renovated his countryside property to include these elements, which have become the most recognized subjects of his work. Japanese woodblock art is known for clean lines and flat, unshaded color. Monet mixing Japanese stylistic elements into his garden is a great reminder for us all: don’t shy away from trying new garden styles you like, as great design can be made from unexpected combonations!

Monet’s garden was a much needed break from all the formal, stuffy gardens of French nobility. It was a family estate, and the place felt much more loved and lived in. The artist’s influence was very much still present on the grounds in its naturalistic style and rambling paths. I am reminded that great garden design should be a reflection of your personal style, and can inspire great art…or vice versa!

Gardens of France: Versailles

Another post in my series on some of the gardens I visited while in France, today we are talking about the famous gardens of Versailles. At one time the palace and grounds were the symbol of a nation: wealthy, powerful, and not to be trifled with. The gardens are dizzying in their scope and meticulously manicured. It is so large, in fact, we rented a golf cart on our visit and still barely covered a fraction of the grounds. While times and tastes have changed, many of the common horticultural practices of that by-gone era are still with us in modern times. But should they be?

A Famous Palace

The Hall of Mirrors offers a spectacular view of the gardens. The thousand reflections behind you only amplify the effect. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Versailles palace started as a mere hunting lodge for Louis XIII in the early 1600s, but grew exponentially under his son, Louis XIV. The palace and gardens expanded and gained their grandeur under his reign. Known for his stylish flare and a love of luxury, he spared no expense. He hired famous landscape architects and kept a close eye on every detail. But why is a garden important to a king?

Just a sliver of the palace is seen here. With 2,300 rooms it is very difficult to try to capture the whole palace in one frame, so I gave up!

A Garden’s Purpose

More than just a pretty place to take a walk, the gardens were an expression of culture, national pride, and the absolute power of the king. Politically, it is savvy to have an impossibly huge and cushy estate to share with your courtiers, to ensure they can never dream of turning on you. And to have spacious and glittering gardens such as these might have been a jab at Italy, France’s direct competitor for all things culture and luxury. The gardens are not only designed with military symbolism, but also with real strategic overlooks. A large open plane with view from above is a strong position, metaphorically and literally. While on his land, nothing escapes the eye of the king!


Topiaries (700 in total!) shorn into unnatural geometric shapes. Hedges squared off at right angles. Lawns carved into patterns that look like a green tapestry from above. This style is very much about control. A show of man’s power over nature, and the ability to tame wilderness into our idea of aesthetically pleasing order. There is even an Orangerie at Versailles where hundreds of tropical trees (oranges, olive, palm, pomegranates, etc.) are housed, moved in or out depending upon conducive weather. And while this may seem like an overdone, classical style from the past, isn’t this what we are still doing today? Modern horticulture in neighborhoods and parks still priorities tidy, unnatural shapes, short cropped lawns, and a total replacement of the natural landscape. We continue to import exotic plants that take a painstaking amount of work to keep alive. It seems we still like the feeling of control.

Let’s Talk Lawn

Lawn was a relatively new fad of that time period. Short-cropped expanses of grass were showing up at all the fashionable chateaus and manor houses of northern Europe. Lawns of the period were maintained either with sheep, or a small army of servants and gardeners. To have a lawn meant you also had money and status. The lawns of Versailles are vast and stunning, but interestingly they were not weed free. Even now, the gardens of Versailles have clover, dandelions, and various other broadleaf intruders – so go easy on yourself! True monoculture is so unnatural and hard to achieve that even the most famous garden in the world can’t manage it.

What practical lessons can we learn from Versailles?

  • Purpose. Are you trying to stave off a coup or intimidate a foreign diplomat? Not likely. But how about enhance curb appeal, deal with poor drainage, or create pollinator habitat? Identifying your purpose helps you make wise design choices.
  • Relax. Our desire to control every leaf of every plant is a thing of the past and totally at odds with nature. But we know now how to design aesthetically pleasing landscapes that work with nature instead of against it, meaning less work and more enjoyment.
  • Traditional ≠ Beautiful. Americans would do well to stop aiming for that impossible lawn standard set by aristocratic Europe (saving money and pollution along the way), and leave these outdated landscape principles behind as we move toward more sustainable practices.

All that said, of course the gardens of Versailles are a wonderful place to visit. The fountains, the mazes, the statues, it’s a feast for the eyes! And though I don’t think these horticultural principles should be emulated today, we can certainly enjoy their amazing historical restoration and learn from these innovative designs of the past.

The Importance of Diversifying Landscapes

When you look at a virgin prairie (one that has never been tilled), you quickly discover a tremendous diversity of plants. Each square foot has many different species vying for sunlight, moisture, and space. Species change throughout the prairie as well from high to low, wet to dry, sun to shade, and vary even with soils. This diversity contributes significantly to the overall health and sustainability of the prairie landscape.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017. Photo by Brad Guhr.

One of the keys to successfully creating a prairie garden is including a diversity of plants suited to your site. Time of bloom and aesthetics are often considered first, but including variety is an essential element in the process too. It’s also important to think about diversifying trees and shrubs. Let’s look at some reasons why diversifying our home landscapes to include more species is so relevant.    

A Diverse Landscape is a Resilient Landscape

While each landscape is different, they all face an array of environmental pressures, such as drought, floods, pests, and diseases. A diverse landscape is more adaptable and resilient, able to endure these environmental hazards.  We have all seen shelter belts and monocultures decimated by drought, pests or disease-leaving large holes in the landscape.  If you think about it, single species or similar species landscapes are vulnerable to eradication in ways that diverse landscapes are not. 

A Diverse Landscape Attracts Diverse Wildlife

Building season long blooms benefits wildlife. Plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom mimics the prairie ecosystem. If you watch any prairie throughout the year, there are always a new set of plants blooming every few weeks throughout the growing season. Beyond building resilience, a diversity of plants attracts a diversity of pollinators and wildlife allowing them to complete their lifecycles. This is so crucial for their survival.  Patchwork prairies can serve as harbors, offering food and shelter to a broad range of wildlife. 

Butterflyweed with pale purple coneflowers and common milkweed

A Diverse Landscape is Visually Interesting

As I said earlier, often our first consideration when choosing plants is aesthetics or ornamental characteristics. I don’t want to downplay this step in the process, but I do want to encourage you to try many different types of plant species. By varying plant species, you provide visual interest, which adds character to your landscape. Some of the most inviting spaces have diverse colors, shapes, blooms, textures, layers, and heights of plants.   

A Diverse Landscape is a Dynamic Plant Community

A diverse plant palette suited for your site can look formal, but it generally requires more effort on our part to keep it looking kempt. However, an informal planting can be just as attractive. It depends on your maintenance style and preference. No matter how you want your landscape to look over time, we must prioritize the careful selection and planting of diverse prairie species.

It can’t be overstated – diversifying landscapes in the urban setting is so important. Diversity in the plants you include in your landscape attracts diversity to your landscape. This thoughtful approach to design not only enhances the beauty of our gardens but also strengthens their resilience in the face of environmental challenges.  It also promotes sustainability, conservation of natural resources, and enriches our experiences with nature.