Backyard Sanctuary

Seedheads for Winter Interest

It never ceases to amaze me how fast things change in the northeast when winter comes around. 
Here in the Hudson Valley, what was green and almost frighteningly verdant in September bursts into flames of yellow, orange, and red in October as the weather grows colder and the days become shorter. Then a hard frost hits in November and the landscape is transformed once again, this time into a muted tapestry of blondes, tans, browns and greys, with the blue sky and its early sunsets serving up the brightest colors of the day. If you, too, live in a cold climate and you haven’t already finished your garden cleanup for the year, it’s time to get out there before the snow hits (and transforms the landscape once again). 
I always encourage people not to cut their perennials and grasses back too fiercely in the fall. Leave some seed heads on those coneflowers, goldenrods (above), and the like – the birds will thank you for it, as will you on a snowy winter’s day when the seed heads sport delightful little snow caps and the grasses wave gracefully from a blanket of snow (or frozen mud in March). 
In a more institutional setting like a hospital, nursing home, or even a public park, this unkempt look may be a hard sell – many people like things to look neat and tidy because that’s what they’re used to. I don’t know of any studies that have looked specifically at people’s preferences between the wilder look and the more manicured, but I do know that education can go a long way. When people learn about the benefits to wildlife, or about collecting seeds, or even are just turned on to a different point of view, they may change their mind and appreciate those scraggly seed heads rather than just seeing them as “dead flowers that need cleaning up.” Hey, it’s worth a shot, right?  
Some good resources to inspire you and/or your clients: 
This is a great website with a wealth of resources: Winter Gardening: A Guide to Selected Resources.

Plus a few more:
Seedheads in the Garden, by Noel Kingsbury
Brooklyn Botanic Garden article: “Inviting Wildlife into Your Winter Garden.”
Lots more where that came from, just Google “garden in winter” or “planting for winter interest.”

Book Review: Your Home, Your Sanctuary

I’m always on the lookout for books that show the benefits of nature in a new light. While garden books are the usual fare, once in awhile something like Clodagh’s new Your Home, Your Sanctuary catches my eye. Unlike most “shelter” publications, which focus on interior spaces, this new book demonstrates how Clodagh, an architectural and interior designer based in New York City, blurs the boundaries between indoors and out, bringing elements of nature inside (through materials, colors, plants, fire, water, and views) and pulling home comforts (such as furniture, places to cook, privacy, fire, water, and views) outside. Of course, this inside-outside concept is not new; architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, and landscape architects like Garrett Eckbo and Thomas Church, inspired us to live in harmony with nature. Still, it’s an idea that sometimes gets lost in cycles of fashion and technology, and we’re lucky to have contemporary designers who remind us of its continuing importance.

Clodagh’s primary message is that your home can be a sanctuary for you and your family and guests. In addition to providing examples, handsomely illustrated by Daniel Aubry’s photographs, of how she does it for clients, the book serves as a kind of “how-to” for the rest of us. In the introduction, Clodagh poses several questions that people should ask about their home; they remind me of the kinds of questions that landscape designers should be asking their clients about their garden: “Is it harmonious and balanced? Does it enhance my life and bring me joy? Does my heart lift with pleasure when I think about it? Is it comfortable? Is it a place for healing and wellness? Can I invite anyone there at any time without stress? Do I get upset when I think about it? If so, what are the problems?”

Most of the book is devoted to interior spaces, with ideas about how to create harmonious and nurturing environments. Clodagh uses many natural materials and environmentally friendly principles that make rooms feel warm, soft, and comfortable. Not surprisingly, “Beyond the Window” is my favorite chapter. It contains an introductory overview, a set of nine “essentials” (which in this case are labeled privacy, texture, maintenance, plantings, food preparation, meeting, water, pets, and storage), a page on the importance of water and windows, and an additional “Nine details for creating a perfect outdoor sanctuary” (I’m not going to give those away, too – go buy the book!). Clodagh wants us to think about what kinds of spaces are right for us (or our clients)–not what we think our garden should be, but how we want it to function so that we can live fully in it: “Think about what you love to do in the yard and garden.” Do you love to entertain, play with your kids, grow your own food, do yoga, or simply put your feet up and listen to the wind and the birds? 

This is an “inspiration” book, not a textbook, and its focus is residential design. For designers and health and human service providers who want facts, case studies, and concrete examples of therapeutic gardens, there are other books out there that will be more useful (see, for example, this blog posting: “Psst! Wanna buy a book?”). However, many of the principles discussed and illustrated in Your Home, Your Sanctuary – comfort, human connection, joy, balance, harmony, safety, and responsibility to our environment – are excellent reminders of what all designers should bear in mind when creating restorative environments and meaningful places.

Your Home, Your Sanctuary is available wherever fine books are sold, or online at

All quotes © CLODAGH: Your Home, Your Sanctuary, by Clodagh, Rizzoli New York, 2008. 

Planting for Seasonal Interest – Fall Color

Witch Hazel and the Technicolor Dreamcoat

Way back in January of this year, one of my first blog postings (“Backyard Sanctuary,”  1/21/08) was about my dear little witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena,’ who was budding (and who bloomed a few weeks later…in March! How cool is that?). I wrote about that, too, in a post titled “Winter Landscapes: Planting for Winter Interest,” (3/5/08) and included a photo of ‘Jelena’ in her strange and wonderful fringed burnt-umber glory. I meant to write more about plant material this summer, but never quite got to it, and I apologize for that. I will attempt to make up for it in the dark days of winter by providing some juicy images and ideas for the spring and summer garden (the blogger’s equivalent to sitting in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa in your hands, poring over seed catalogs). 

In the meantime, it’s peak leaf-peeping season here in the Hudson Valley, and I can’t help but extoll the virtues of planting for year-round seasonal interest. Flowers in spring and summer are wonderful for all sorts of reasons, but whether you are planting for your own garden/backyard sanctuary or for a more public space such as a healing garden in a hospital, the landscape at a nursing home or retirement community, or even the grounds in a public park, it’s best to consider plants that will provide year-round interest. After all, if we’re going to appreciate the landscape for the entire year, whether by being in it or by looking at it from a window, we should plan for it to delight in every season. 

Above is a picture of our other witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’ (Jelena isn’t doing her thing yet – earlier to flower and slower/not quite as showy with fall color).  Some plants, like dogwoods (Cornus florida), are beautiful in every season – they bloom in the spring, they are a rich green in the summer, they turn a gorgeous burgundy in the fall, and then their berries last at least part-way through winter (while also attracting birds and squirrels, which is why the berries don’t usually last all winter long). Their form is also attractive year-round, especially in winter when you can really see the gracefully spreading branches.

There are many good websites to get information on designing for fall color, including and the University of Illinois Extension. Some plant databases, like the University of Connecticut’s Uconn Plant Database (go Huskies!) let you search for specific attributes like fall color – Uconn’s even lets you look for which specific fall color you want. Lots more where those came from, just Google away. 

Some good books: Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn; Autumn Gardens by Ethne Clarke; Gardening with Foliage Plants: Leaf, Bark, and Berry, also by Ethne Clarke; The Year in Trees: Superb Woody Plants for Four-Season Gardens; The Autumn Garden;  Fall Foliage: The Mystery, Science, and Folklore of Autumn Leaves by Charles W.G. Smith isn’t so much a planting guide but looks like a really fun read. Michael Dirr’s Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs is one book I use all the time because each plant gets several images, giving you a sense of what it looks like through the seasons. I’m sure there are more out there, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Go on, add a few to your Christmas/Channukah/Kwanzaa/Winterfest list!

Here are some tips to keep in mind for fall color (note: this posting is geared to people like me who have “seasons” – if anyone from L.A., Miami, etc. wants to submit a similar entry for their area, I’m all for it):

1. Use plants like the dogwood mentioned above that give a good show in more than one season: Shrubs and trees that bloom in the spring or summer and put on a good fall show with their foliage, and/or brighten up the winter landscape with berries, or seedheads, or bark, or an interesting form. Of course, some plants are amazing enough that they don’t have to do double, triple, or quadruple-duty. If the site is right, who would say no to a red maple in October? Still, many people tend to fall back on the old stand-bys instead of looking for the multi-season gems.

2. Think about what color the leaves turn (yellow, orange, red, burgundy, or technicolor like my witch hazel) and design for the effect with other fall foliage plants or with late-blooming perennials and bulbs – lavender asters and sepia mums look stunning next to brilliant yellow autumn leaves; yellow goldenrod (Solidago) dazzles against a backdrop of dark-red foliage. Of course, also find out when they turn – if you planned for your goldenrod-and-sweetspire (Itea virginica) combo but the flower is done by the time the shrub has turned, the effect is not quite so powerful. 

3. Try all-in-one-show plants with contrasting berries and leaves, like the spicebush pictured below (Lindera benzoin), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), some viburnums, like Viburnum dentatum, beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.), and crabapples with yellow rather than red fruit.

4. Some perennials and vines get great fall foliage, too: true geranium (geranium sanguineum‘s common name is bloody geranium because of its fall color), plumbago (ceratostigma plumbaginoides), and many ferns are some examples.

5. Don’t forget grasses! Many ornamental grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) turn beautiful colors in the fall, and unlike those maples and that burn bright and then drop their leaves for you to rake up, grasses keep their foliage all winter long – the colors usually soften to blondes and russets, but they are still a beautiful contrast to the brown mulch (or mud) and white snow.

6. Think about the site and how it’s all going to work together – if your plants are in front of a dark building or a row of evergreens, something that turns bright yellow is going to have a lot more impact than a deep red that will get lost in the depths; if your hardscape (walls, paving, steps) or furniture is a distinct color, think about what colors of foliage will either complement that or help to set it off (and not clash – for example, I’m not wild about lavender and burgundy together, but maybe that’s just me).

7. If you want glorious fall color and you have a shady site, make sure that the plant you choose will still perform in shade – many, but not all, plants require full sun for the best display. Others (like my witch hazel above) don’t seem to care. This on-line Houston Grows article mentions a few that will perform even in shade, but there are more beyond that, too.

8. If you’re designing for any type of healthcare facility, safety comes first! Always make sure that what you’re specifying is not poisonous or thorny or otherwise harmful – those berries might look very attractive to a young child out for a stroll in the garden when she’s visiting her sibling…see more on this subject on the Therapeutic Landscapes Database Plants page, including some great links to poisonous plants databases.

9. Don’t let any of these suggestions intimidate you – most designs have at least some “bonus” or “happy accident” element. You buy a rose in the nursery because it’s blooming and it smells delicious and then you discover in the fall that it’s borne these gorgeous orange “hips” (fruit) that also attract all manner of birds and are also, should you care to harvest them, rich in Vitamin C. As with all gardening, designing for fall color and seasonal interest takes a healthy combination of curiosity, research, experience, passion, and luck.

“Isn’t every garden a healing garden?” Part I

According to my definition, a Landscape for Health could be a garden designed specifically for healing, like for a hospital or nursing home (see above), and it could also be any number of other landscapes, designed or “natural,” as long as they make people feel good (in technical terms, Landscapes for Health bring “positive outcomes” that reduce negative factors like stress, high blood pressure, and anti-social behavior, and instead encourage positive and restorative factors like fascination, wonder, healthy social interaction, relaxation and/or physical activity, and a general sense of well-being). A stretch of beach; a clearing in the woods; a park in a city (Central Park being a supreme example); a community garden; a backyard sanctuary; Francie’s fire escape in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; a memorial; an indoor atrium that stays green and lush even when it’s -30 degrees and sleeting outside. Get the picture?  

Central Park, NY, NY

Couldn’t that be just about any landscape, the slightly vexed reporter asked? This is similar to my most-frequently-asked question, which is “isn’t every garden (or landscape) a healing garden?” to which I unfortunately have to answer no. There are plenty of landscapes, both designed and undesigned, that are not conducive to our health and well-being. A few examples that spring to mind would be (see below) most parking lots; many urban and suburban landscapes, including streetscapes; most quarries, clear-cut sections of forests, superfund sites, and other damaged landscapes (brownfields); most of New Mexico in March when the juniper pollen renders anyone even slightly allergic into a tired, sniffling, eye-watering, blubbering mess; and, sadly, many designed gardens, sometimes even ASLA award-winning, magazine-published spaces (yup, just because it looks good in print doesn’t mean it feels good to be there). 

Photo of California foothills housing by Alex Maclean – 

There are plenty of landscapes, and even gardens, that at best are not salutary, and at worst are actually harmful to our physical, emotional, and even spiritual health. So, smarty-pants, you may be wondering, how do you differentiate Landscapes for Health from “healing gardens?” Stay tuned, I’ll try to answer that one tomorrow.

I Demand Satisfaction! The Role of Nature in Job Satisfaction

Photo by Naomi Sachs

Not the dueling kind, but the kind that involves psychological well-being.

The next time you need a reason for investing in a garden, or windows that look out onto an interesting view, or even some indoor plants, you can cite this new study which has linked job satisfaction to views of live plants or windows:

Individuals working in spaces with live interior plants or window views have significantly higher levels of job satisfaction than people who work in spaces without live plants or windows: “Findings indicated that individuals who worked in offices with plants and windows reported that they felt better about their job and the work they performed. This study also provided evidence that those employees who worked in offices that had plants or windows reported higher overall quality-of-life scores.” Live plants in an office, even without the window views, lead to more positive psychological states.”

Andrea Dravigne, Tina Waliczek, R. Lineberger, and J. Zajicek. 2008. “The Effect of Live Plants and Window Views of Green Spaces on Employee Perceptions of Job Satisfaction.” HortScience, vol. 43, p. 279.

I found this study listed on Research Design Connections, an excellent resource for anyone in the design and healthcare fields.

This is the view out my office door, so I have no excuses for not loving my work!

Winter Landscapes: Planting for Winter Interest

The view from my office window during an ice storm in February
(trees are Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’)

It’s finally March, which means winter is almost over, and spring is almost here. In some parts of the country and world, this means a lot. But before winter comes to a close and we forget about it until next year, some thoughts on designing outdoor spaces that hold your or your clients’ interest, even on the darkest, coldest days.

1. Use plant material that offers winter interest.
a. Evergreens such as pines, junipers, holly, bamboo, and ivy, to name just a few, offer glimpses of much-needed green at this time of year.

b. Berries that linger throughout the winter give us something colorful for us to look at (two of my favorites are winterberry holly (
Ilex verticillata) and hawthorne (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’), and also provide much-needed food for birds and other wildlife. Some fruit, such as rosehips from Rosa species, can be harvested by us, too, for medicinal purposes (rosehips contain a huge amount of Vitamin C; note that care should be taken when harvesting any plant for medicinal purposes – research how to do it before just plucking and eating!)
c. Bark on trees can sometimes be even more beautiful than foliage. London plane trees and
sycamores, Stewartias, alligator junipers, and several types of dogwood shrubs are just a few examples.
d. Attract wildlife. Even if the plant itself doesn’t look like much at this time of year, if it’s providing food or shelter for wildlife, then we have plenty to watch through the window from the warmth of inside. Of course, there are other ways to attract wildlife as well (see the previous couple posts) such as adding bird feeders, baths (you can even get heated ones), and houses. Even if your “
garden” is a fire escape or a window ledge, you can install a bird feeder.
e. Plant early bloomers. Remember that witch hazel I mentioned on 1/21 ( She bloomed about two weeks ago, and is still going strong:

Spice bush (Lindera benzoin) is another early spring bloomer, and of course bulbs such as snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils are delightful harbingers of warmer and brighter days to come. There are a number of good books out there now on planting for the seasons, as well as for texture, bark, berries, etc. I’ve listed a few on the Therapeutic Landscapes Database Plants page; if you buy these or any books from by clicking on the Amazon Associates logo in the left-hand column, a percentage of the sale goes to support the Therapeutic Landscapes Resource Center.

More Resources for Wildlife Habitat

In case you’re all fired up and want to learn more about creating wildlife habitat, here are a few more good links:

Backyard Wildlife Habitat:
Wildlife Habitat Council:
Natural Resources Conservation Service:
The Butterfly Site:
The Butterfly Website:

And just so you have everything together, here are the other key links I mentioned a couple entries back:
National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Habitat Certification:
National Wildlife Federation’s “The Green Hour”:
The Children & Nature Network (started by Richard Louv):

You’ll find a few more links on the Therapeutic Landscapes Database; look on the Plants, Related, and Links pages.

Many thanks to R, L, and O for the image!

Peace in Winter

“Whatever peace I know rests in the natural world, in feeling myself a part of it, even in a small way.”
– May Sarton

Backyard Sanctuary Tip: Create a NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat

An important element of a healing garden is
wildlife. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, authors of The Experience of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), have studied environments that elicit “soft fascination,” which “occurs when there is interest in the surroundings sufficient to hold one’s attention while allowing room for reflection.” (You can view the abstract for “The Monastery as a Restorative Environment” on the InformeDesign website, at

Supporting and observing wildlife invites soft fascination, which can reduce stress and restore cognitive function. Songbirds and hummingbirds to watch and listen to; butterflies to observe as they float on the breeze and glide from flower to flower; honeybees and bumble bees to nurture as they buzz around gathering pollen. Not to mention all of the smaller creatures like ladybugs, praying mantises, and earthworms that keep our gardens healthy. The Therapeutic Landscapes Database lists a few good references on their Plants and Links pages for creating wildlife habitat, but the National Wildlife Federation website is also a great place to start.

In fact, The NWF has a certification program for creating wildlife habitats; they’ll even give you this cool sign to post in your garden once you’ve completed the four basic steps of providing food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Go to for more information.

Last October when I was in Chicago, I drove to Evanston (a suburb adjacent to Chicago) to see the house my mother grew up in. I was delighted to see that its current owners are avid gardeners who have one of those NWF signs. Below are a few images from the house. Note their clever solution to a blank, windowless wall!

A Healing Garden Should be Healthy for the Planet, Too

Arugula grown from Seeds of Change organic seeds; swiss chard and other herbs and vegetables bought as seedlings from a nearby certified organic farm.

This may be forehead-smackingly obvious to many of you, but I’m going to say it anyway:
In my opinion, a healing garden should be good for the earth as well as for us. What does this mean, exactly? Here are some thoughts, and I welcome additional suggestions from my readers:

1. Go organic, or at the very least, don’t go toxic with your “raw materials” (soil, compost, plant material) and how you treat them (e.g., companion planting or permaculture instead of ChemLawn). It’s better for us, it’s better for the birds and other wonderful creatures we’re trying to attract, and it’s better for the earth. There are lots of good websites, companies, and organizations out there with information about acquiring and growing plants without the use of pesticides and herbicides. Sometimes it takes a little more work, or you might have to deal with some unsightly holes in your leaves. I wasn’t wild about the look of netting on my strawberries last year, but I sure was wild about the taste and knowing that they were 100% chemical free.

And is my own garden 100% organic? Honestly, no. That Hamemelis I mentioned on 1/21/08? I seriously doubt that it was born and raised without chemicals. But now that it’s in my garden, it’s in a pesticide-free zone.
2. Save water. Especially in drought-riddled areas like New Mexico, where I lived before I moved to soggy New York, it’s just downright irresponsible to plant things that need a lot of water to grow. Or to install a fountain that doesn’t recycle its water or that sprays huge jets that evaporate before the water lands back in the pond. And even in New York, I strive to plant things that, once they’re established, can manage fine on their own.
3. Reduce waste. Create a brush pile and/or compost pile for leaves and other garden debris and for kitchen scraps (no meat, nothing cooked). Brush piles make excellent wildlife habitats; compost piles make the best plant food around, and it’s free! And you’re keeping that much more waste out of the landfill, thus reducing your overall “footprint.” Everybody wins.
For hardscaping and planters, use natural materials such as stone and wood that won’t fall apart after a couple of years, or that can be recycled.
4. Use materials that don’t negatively impact the earth. Those pvc picket fences may be cheap and cute, but they are toxic to make, they can’t be recycled, and they can cause serious problems if they catch on fire, creating carcinogens that get into our groundwater supply. Imagine the ironies of a healing garden for cancer patients surrounded by a pvc fence. The mind boggles.

And again, am I the perfect “zero carbon footprint” example? No. The stone and soil used to create my raised vegetable garden, in the photo above, did not come from the site, they were trucked in from somewhere else. As with almost anything in life, designing a healing garden is about balance. Maybe you’re a small non-profit that relies on donations from a big box nursery for your plant material; maybe the house you bought already had a pvc fence when you moved in; maybe you don’t have the space or the time for a compost pile. We all have to make choices about what we can and can’t do. The important thing, in my opinion, is to at the very least be aware of your impact on the earth, and to strive to reduce your negative impact and to increase your positive impact in whatever ways are possible and feasible to you.