(May 31, 2007-NY Times by Anne Raver) - Montgomery Farm team member Rick Darke, one of the nation's foremost authorities on the balance of nature and culture in the regional North American landscape, is featured in a New York Times profile.
| ||When Rick Darke bought this one-and-a-half-acre property about 20 years ago, it was nothing to write home about: a modest ranch on a lawn set a bit close to the road, with the usual crabapples and yews.|
But to the east was a spectacular view of fields rolling down to an old farmhouse and barn, bordered by a forest full of oak and beech, with a meandering creek.
Mr. Darke, then curator of plants at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pa., soon met his future wife, Melinda Zoehrer, who was then the development director of the Delaware Center for Horticulture, in Wilmington. The two threw themselves into gardening, planting unusual trees and shrubs and turning the lawn into a prairie by scattering seeds gathered from little bluestem, Indian grass and other natives growing along the roadsides.
Now and then they sat down on the brow of the hill to drink in the scenery.
“We were completely content to put two chairs there and say, ‘The whole thing is our garden,’ ” Mr. Darke said one afternoon about two weeks ago. “But we were always aware that it wouldn’t last forever.”
Sure enough, oversize houses now dot the old hay meadow. The farmhouse and barn are up for sale. To screen out the houses, Mr. Darke and Ms. Zoehrer have planted cedars and katsura trees, sweetshrub and shadbush, and turned their gaze inward, to the garden of their own making.
They even had a little cabin built out of the hemlock and white pine that lived and died here; it faces the garden. It’s just big enough for sitting around a wood stove in winter or on the porch outside in the rain.
They carved spaces at first with grasses like Karl Foerster, a feather reed grass planted in a semicircle to define an outdoor dining area. It formed a billowy curving wall until the seedlings of silverbell trees they planted in between grew tall enough to hold the space.
They have planted many other trees, and moved some brought in by birds, like the alternate-leaved dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, that Mr. Darke found as a seedling beneath an old apple tree. He dug it up and replanted it by the front door of his house. Now the tree is 20 feet tall, 30 feet wide, its tiered horizontal branches covered with white flowers in spring, black fruits in summer, red leaves in fall.
Beeches have blown in on the wind, their seeds floating up from the forest, and some seem to know just where to plant themselves. Others are moved, or given away.
The bottlebrush buckeyes, brought as mere root divisions from Longwood, are now great green mounds of palm-shaped leaves; the winter hazels, started as cuttings from Longwood, fill the air with their perfume in February. Fragrant azaleas — both native and exotic hybrids — bloom beneath the huge whorled leaves of umbrella magnolias. And under the oak, Japanese lady-slippers have opened their crenellated leaves.
“They’ve been here for 15 years with no water, no fertilizer,” Mr. Darke said, mentioning the two characteristics that are bound to win his heart. “We don’t have the kind of moisture and acid conditions to keep the native lady-slipper alive.”
Mr. Darke has experienced a sea change in his own thinking as he has traveled widely; he now makes a living as a writer, photographer and consultant. He watches what succeeds and fails in this garden, as well as in the public spaces he works on: he has helped develop highway plantings for Delaware’s Department of Transportation, and he is in drought-stricken Australia now to share his knowledge of grasses with public horticulturists.
Many grasses are tough and drought tolerant, like Dewey Blue, a coastal switchgrass that Mr. Darke first spotted years ago while searching for roadside plantings. Ms. Zoehrer, who is now the deputy director of the University of Delaware’s Botanic Garden, has adopted Dewey Blue in her mixed border, where its arching blue-green blades complement the deeper blues and purples of baptisias, irises and salvias.
Designing with grasses is the subject of Mr. Darke’s latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes,” published by Timber Press in April, but it has a far more global perspective than his earlier books, “The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses” and “The American Woodland Garden,” which emphasized the use of native plants as a means of preserving regional landscapes.
This new book opens its boundaries to welcome plants from other parts of the world if they can thrive without water, fertilizer and pesticides; if they are not invasive; and if they can harmonize with the surrounding landscape.
“Ten years ago, I was unabashedly aligned with the native plant movement,” Mr. Darke said. “I’m still desperately interested in conserving local things, but sometimes the native plant movement is not nuanced enough.”
It doesn’t leave room, in other words, for Japanese lady-slippers, even though they can thrive where natives can’t. It doesn’t acknowledge that many urban landscapes are too degraded for dogwoods and shadbush, and so many other natives that flourished before the concrete and asphalt. But prairie species like little bluestem and sheep’s fescue can flourish in parking lots and along old rail lines, even in Manhattan.
In his new book, Mr. Darke concedes that a Japanese maple, like Acer trifolium, which turns bright orange in fall, can fit right in with native purple asters and the red-gold leaves of native sumac.
In his own garden, Bowles Golden sedge, from northern Europe, nestles among white variegated Hakone grass, which hails from the Hakone mountains in Japan. Both plants need cool, wet habitats, like the north side of this Pennsylvania house.
“A sensible palette takes a global ethic,” Mr. Darke said. “You never want to do anything potentially damaging to any habitat. But if we are going to keep spaces green around the world, we can’t restrict the garden to plants that existed before anybody touched it.”
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