Natural Companions

See how the plant world’s blooming buddies can turn a garden into paradise.

March 13, 2012

Garden art takes many forms and in his latest book, Natural Companions, Ken Druse shows us the creativity behind composing a garden picture in the physical garden, but also in capturing a pictorial representation of plants. Produced in partnership with photographer Ellen Hoverkamp, the text is vintage Druse: an engaging blend of humor (the punning titles are rib-ticklers), garden history, botanical knowledge, and practical advice based on the experience of creating his garden in northwest New Jersey as well as what he’s gleaned from gardens around the world.

Describing the duo’s work behind this generously inclusive gallery of plantsmanship, Druse writes: “I made lists of themes and subjects such as plant families, palettes, and other reasons to bring plants together. I grew many of the plants for our project in my garden, and Ellen went to her gardening friends, lists in hand, for more. We called in plants from friends in the Southeast and Southwest, on the West Coast, and at other locales around the country to be sure to touch on as many regions as possible.” Hoverkamp’s lens is not attached to a camera but is an oversize, 12-by-17-inch flatbed scanner. As the plants were collected, she’d take them back to her studio and set to work. The only light came from the scanner as it moved slowly across the glass bed on which she carefully arranged the foliage, blooms, stems, and seedpods to compose each frame, suspending some from wire frames above the scanner bed to avoid crushing them. The results have an intriguing depth and luminosity.


The images, although highly graphic in composition, reflect how the plants might be found in nature. So they instruct as well as inspire. As Druse explains, “...we tried to present a hierarchy as it might appear in a planting: from the low groundcover in the foreground, medium-size samples in the middle, and finally the tallest constituents at the top. The results in this book are slices of planting schemes, as if you could isolate a pie wedge from a bed or border to create an exhibition with samples plucked from the garden.” Adds Hoverkamp: “I’m in awe of what gardeners do [and] I’ve found a way to make a souvenir, a lasting memory of how my friends nurture nature. I want to show other people what gardeners know about the beauty of plants.” —Ethne Clarke

Magnificent Obsession

There may be no more satisfying thing than to pluck a fruit or vegetable from your own garden and sample it fresh off the vine. Talk about devotion. Vegetable gardening might just be the most challenging outdoor version of our pastime, and that goes double if you hope to do it organically and sustainably, as we all do.

It starts with soil. You can dig or double dig, turning over the soil in two layers and adding organic matter. Or you can make raised beds in which you bring in your enriched soil and fill bottomless wooden boxes set on the ground with sides that are from ten to thirty inches high. But the most modern approach, no-till, preserves the inherent structure of the soil by not disturbing it. Each season, compost is added to the surface as plants are plugged into the earth, then the bed is mulched. In time, the compost incorporates through the same processes that built the soil through the years. My garden is shady. I have few places where there is enough sunlight to grow tomatoes, which I allow to sprawl over makeshift supports up on the driveway. I grow winter squash on the southern edge of large plastic, faux terra-cotta pots, or a half whiskey barrel, and not alone. I plant upright ornamentals like Colocasia (elephant ears), and let the squash vines sprawl down over the container’s edge. My growing medium is soilless: two parts coir, one part compost, and one part perlite. Vegetable plants, and especially those in containers, are “gross-feeders,” so they get frequent doses of a balanced, organic liquid fertilizer like a kelp and fish emulsion.

Botanical scans by Ellen Hoverkamp

Some of the challenges of growing food are avoided by using containers. I can move them if need be for more sunlight. I can pick off bugs if they appear. Having edibles in several places helps keep the critters at bay. Then there are the things you cannot control, like the weather. One year, rain ruins your crops. The next, drought takes its toll.

When the weather forecaster says, “another beautiful day without a cloud in the sky,” I want to scream.

Fresh from the Garden

Summer garden flowers, especially annuals from seed, beg to be cut for the house. There are ways to make flowers last as long as possible. Cut early in the morning when the blossoms are full of moisture and the air is cool. Some flowers cut in bud will open; others will not. Roses, irises, gladiolas, and daffodils can be cut in bud (give daffs their own vase; they shorten the lives of other flowers). Lilacs should be cut when half of the buds have opened. Marigolds, delphiniums, and dianthus should be cut when they are completely open. Try to collect zinnias when the ray florets (the sterile flowers around the outside) are unfurled, but the tiny fertile ray florets (at the center of the flower) are just beginning to bloom.

Carry a bucket of water, and a very sharp knife. Immediately plunge the cut stems in deep water. Bring the flowers into a cool place. The stems may be left submerged for hours. You should always recut the stems before you use them and, if possible, underwater. Air bubbles can get into the sodastraw-like tubes within the stems and seal them—trapping some water in the stem, but also keeping more water out. A few exceptions are plants like poppies, which have sap in their stems. Those plants should be recut, and the tip of the stem held over a flame until it blackens. Woody plants like shrubs should have their ends slit a few times about two inches up the stem lengthwise, and/or have the bark scraped from the bottom few inches to expose the most area to water.

Photo: Ken Druse

Store-bought packets of preservative work, or you can make your own. Mix one part naturally sweetened citric soda like 7Up to three parts water for a bacteria-deterring, nutritional solution. Other home remedies also have some value. A penny in the water may help reduce fungus. Aspirin is acidic and prevents bacteria growth just like the citric acid, as does a quarter teaspoon of bleach per quart of water. Flowers will last longest if kept cool—even in cold storage, down to 38 degrees F. Keep flowers in the house out of direct sun and do not put arrangements near fruit, which gives off ethylene gas, shortening their life.

Most important: recut the stems and change the water every day. I use warm water, except for bulbs.

One Good Fern Deserves Another

We know that foliage is often more important in a garden vista than blooms are. Flowers are fleeting, but foliage lasts all season long or longer, in the case of the needle and broadleaf evergreens. There are evergreen ferns, as well, but most of the choices for our gardens die to the ground in winter and present their coiled, bishop’s crook crosiers again in spring. Most ferns come from the shaded, moist woodland areas of the world, but there are drought-tolerant ferns, desert species, and ones that grow in sunny rock crevices (Cheilanthes spp., for example). Hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) also likes sun and can often be found growing in open areas like somewhat dry meadows with sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), a creeping subshrub, and little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). In shady spots, we’re happy to have plants with large solid leaves that evolved to gather as much light as possible. Ferns, on the other hand, unfold their feathery fronds to absorb light and provide us with unmatched texture in these protected spots. There are some 12,000 fern species in the world, and these are among the oldest plants on Earth. There are ferns with colorful fronds, like the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ and other varieties). Some of the hardy ferns for gardens are evergreen; for example, the Polystichum spp. like Christmas fern. Other useful garden ferns are Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern), Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern), Dryopteris erythrosora (autumn fern), Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern), Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern), O. claytoniana (interrupted fern), O. regalis (royal fern), and Thelypteris noveboracensis (New York fern). Some fern allies to grow alongside these old-timers include plants that will provide contrast to their feathery foliage or produce flowers that punctuate the plantings. Worthwhile examples include Rodgersia spp., Trollius spp., Brun­nera macrophylla varieties, Omphalodes cap­padocica, hosta varieties, Carex spp., Milium effusium ‘Aureum’, Primula sieboldii, Epimedium varieties, and shade-tolerant spring-flowering bulbs. As delicate as some ferns appear, most are fairly sturdy, and a few might even become an aggressive problem. The North American species Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) has runners—just below the soil surface—that connect plant to plant. Although slow to establish like many ferns, once it gets going, ostrich fern will colonize as much territory as it can, and even choke out weeds. You may want such a species for a difficult site that is too shady for lawn yet still calls out for a blanketing cover, but be wary (or at least knowledgeable) about what you wish for.

Excerpted from Natural Companions: The Garden Lover’s Guide to Plant Combinations, by Ken Druse, botanical scans by Ellen Hoverkamp. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; March 2012; U.S. $40.00/Can. $45.00; ISBN: 978-1-58479-901-6)

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