Ecological disruption: Has Travis Beck been in my garden?

Fallen giant White Pines: a major ecological disturbance next to my garden

Ecological Disturbance

I’ve been thinking about the seventeen tall white pines that fell just outside my garden, casualties of Hurricane Sandy, leaving a giant, linear wood pile on the southern border. Thinking specifically about how to accommodate my garden to their fallen presence and, in the longer term, to the effects their absence will have on the garden and the surrounding woods.

The garden will certainly get more southerly light now, but other less immediately obvious and long-term ecological changes will be set in motion too.

Newly available sunlight and the protection of the trunks will encourage new growth and increased diversity

Such “disasters” in the garden are not necessarily bad. Disturbance brings change–and opportunity. My garden is itself a product of a major ecological disturbance I initiated–by cutting down a scraggly cedar wood (Juniperus virginiana) and replacing it with a “simulacrum” of a wet prairie, meaning a garden modeled on wet prairie ecology, but planted with a mixture of prairie and non-prairie species, many of exotic origin, that nevertheless grow in self-sustaining communities because appropriate to my conditions. Disruption resulted in changed conditions, creating an open glade, and making it possible for me to create a prairie garden.

Travis Beck’s Principles of Ecological Landscape Design

I just finished a stunning new book, Travis Beck’s Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, where I’ve been reading about the concept of “disturbance,” in the ecological sense, and gaining a better understanding of the opportunities and potential benefits of such disturbance–through changed conditions that allow new communities of plants to take hold, using new open space and increased sunlight, and opening the potential for increased diversity and resilience in the plant community.

Thomas Rainer’s recent posts on his notable blog grounded design introduced me to Travis Beck’s new book, a book that, I agree with Rainer, may well become a classic in landscape design. In my view, this book will stand beside another landmark work, one unfortunately not widely known in this country, Die Stauden und ihre Lebensbereich (Perennials and their Garden Habitats) first published in Germany in 1981 by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, which greatly advanced understanding of planting appropriate to many different ecologies or “garden habitats.” This was not a new concept even in 1981, but Hansen’s and Stahl’s work, an outgrowth of decades of research growing perennials in controlled conditions, and containing detailed information on a vast number of plants and their appropriate habitats,was very influential on contemporary thinking, and paved the way to new directions in garden design, among them the naturalistic “new perennials” movement epitomized by Piet Oudolf and other designers. It’s an essential resource for anyone trying to match plants to microecologies.

My foot, just for scale. Remember, these pines were sixty to seventy feet tall.

While Perennials and their Garden Habitats sets the stage for ecological planting through decades of practical observation of plants and their habitats, and broadened the understanding of plant communities and plant sociology (which plants like company, and what company, and which don’t tolerate others), it was limited primarily to gardens. Beck’s book has a much broader ecological scope as well as the benefit of several decades of additional thinking and research in ecological science since publication of the earlier work.

The root balls are taller than I am

Beck  addresses changes that occur over time, the importance of disturbance in introducing ecological change and diversity, the role of diversity in creating resilient plantings, the ways in which ecologies become resilient and able to respond to change, sometimes highly disruptive change, in positive ways (from the human or other perspectives), how we must learn to manage the ecologies of the earth (since we have changed all of them and have no choice in the matter), perhaps even developing novel, human-made ecosystems–and ultimately the need and the possibility of gardening the earth. It is a deeply optimistic book. (The book covers many subjects–the chapter on soil is a revelation–far too many to cover in this post. Get a copy. You won’t regret it.)

Diversity and Novel Ecosystems

This is where I find the relevance of Beck’s book to my garden. Yes, Travis Beck has been in my garden, but only in my head.


I found the discussion of ecological disturbance in Principals of Ecological Landscape Design of special interest because I’m looking a major disturbance in the face right now. My garden is all about disturbance and created diversity–a novel ecosystem, if you will. Perhaps not in the same sense Beck writes about, but sufficiently close that I find a theoretical basis for my approach to gardening here. My garden at Federal Twist had its origin in centuries of disturbance. In 1965 it was a meadow; through lack of mowing it  evolved into a juniper wood, and was well on its way to becoming a Beech, Hickory, Maple, Oak hardwood forest when we bought our house and cut down seventy or eighty trees to make space for a garden. Talk about ecological disruption!

Here is how my “garden” looked in the winter of 2005, before the trees were removed to make a clearing in the woods.

The cedar wood in 2005, site of the future Garden at Federal Twist

And here is how it looked in 1965, when the house looked out onto a meadow, albeit a meadow dotted with then small junipers.

In 1965 the house overlooked a field of grass

Planting in Rough Grass

After clearing the land, I began introducing plants, some native, some exotic. I used as models the books I was reading by Noel Kingsbury, which elaborated on the concept of plant communities (a lesson passed quite generously from Hansen and Stahl)  and approaches to planting practices by such cutting edge garden designers as Piet Oudolf and Cassian Schmidt, head of Hermannshof Garden in Germany. Kingsbury’s work introduced me to Hansen and Stahl’s work, leading me to search out a hard-to-find copy of Perennials and their Garden Habitats, which became my guide for plant selection (with some adaptation for my different continent, climate, and difficult soil conditions).

So, as I said, we cut seventy or eighty trees, cleared the land of the most obvious detritus, and burned when necessary, essentially returning at least part of the land to the 1965 baseline. Not really–that would have been impossible–but returning to it the potential to become a meadow-like environment.

Clearing the site in early summer 2005

I did not till the land, remove any of the native herbaceous vegetation, or make any attempts to improve the soil. It remains heavy, wet, with poor drainage. Following Kingsbury’s advice in The New Perennial Garden (Francis Lincoln, 1996), I started planting directly into the existing matrix of plants, closely following his advice on planting perennials directly into rough grass:  in certain difficult circumstances, Kingsbury writes,  “the best solution is to plant really tough, often large, perennials which will be able to compete with vigorous grasses and weeds on their own terms… ”


“… a meadow of sorts will be the result–much coarser, perhaps, than the ideal but still potentially exuberantly colourful. This is the kind of planting that some garden designers call a prairie, although the plants may not all be true prairie species.”

My Wet Prairie of Evolving Plant Communities

My garden is barely seven years old and, I hope, has a long period of change to come. I certainly don’t claim to have the scientific credentials of a Kingsbury or the design capabilities of Oudolf or Schmidt, but I do try to follow in their footsteps, though adapting for my location in a continental North American climate, using highly competitive plants with the ability to out compete weeds, and choosing plantings to suit my heavy, wet clay soil and woodland site.

As appropriate to a prairie, I burn large parts of it, as you can see below (yet another major disturbance).

Burning the wet prairie is now a regular management practice

Greening usually begins within a week or two after burning …

0322 pond & early look 082

… and by early May, you’d never know this young, green prairie was a charred, scorched landscape only a few weeks before.

0504 Federal Twist Differentiation of Plants 125
By early May the garden is transformed

In nature, plants grow in communities, achieving an extraordinary level of integration over time. My goal is to create that kind of habitat  in my garden, planting large numbers of individual plants in aesthetically pleasing drifts and bunches, with occasional areas of single or grouped vertical plantings. Over the years, I’ve continued to seed in different plants, to see what will grow in my conditions, and to increase diversity. Many native plants, particularly large numbers of carex, mosses, early spring ephemerals, arisaema, blue eyed grass, rushes, some native grasses, and other plants remain, adding to the diversity and complexity of the plantings.

Here is a large community of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, about 30 feet across, planted probably six years ago. A highly competitive plant, it remains vigorous and is kept in bounds by surrounding plants.

0601 ft cloudy dusk 061

Here is another stable mixed planting of Iris pseudacorus, Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’, native irises, and other perennials not yet visible. Note the large, glaucous leaves of Rudbeckia maxima. Though these plants don’t spread rapidly, they are highly resistant to their aggressive neighbors and appear to be long-term and healthy residents after almost seven years.

0524 042

Below, two more very aggressive plants, Petasites hybridus x ‘Dutch’ and Pycnanthemum muticum, with a couple of self-seeded Inula racemosa, have also established a stable community.

0524 123

Day lilies and Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerester’ in rough grass below. The Calamagrostis hasn’t been invaded by the surrounding vegetation, as one might expect, perhaps because I burn the area every year. The day lilies continue to bloom year after year, then their foliage fades into the background (as I want).

0504 Federal Twist Differentiation of Plants 108 - Copy

An interesting story here. Equisetum arvense, which I find quite attractive, is rampant throughout this area. (It was present when we arrived, and there’s no way to eliminate it.) I’m sure it has a retarding effect on some of the other plants, but the highly invasive Petasites needs to be controlled, and is.

0504 Federal Twist Differentiation of Plants 080

I’ve also continued to seed in new plants and, as the ecology of the garden changes, different seeds find appropriate niches and take hold. Because I chop and burn, rather than removing the organic detritus, the accumulation of organic material from year to year is changing the soil conditions. More successful seeding is one result of this. In the future, conditions may change so much that the plant communities will evolve enough to require some dramatic intervention, perhaps not. I just need to remain observant, and learn to adapt to the arc and momentum the garden presents.

Back to those Fallen White Pines

So I’ve dealt with disturbance before, have even incorporated it as part of my garden management practice, and created a garden that, though not perfect or complete, satisfies me day by day. Now I’m deciding what to do, if anything, about those huge fallen White pines. These fallen trees, while a visual mess, have a creative role to play. First, I want to clean them up, cutting off the rough wood and slanting limbs to emphasize the horizontal monumentality of the remains.

I imagine I’ll be seeing seedling Sassafras in a few years, almost certainly poison ivy and Virginia Creeper. The large woodpecker population will soon be at work as the wood is invaded by insects and decay sets in. The fallen patch of forest will slowly regenerate, though I won’t be here to see it reach maturity.

As to effects on my garden, I wait to see. I’ll have a southern sky for the first time, and much more light. I’m adding trees, shrubs, grasses, and herbaceous perennials to the hedgerow between the garden and the fallen trees to partly hide their bulk. I hope the brilliant light will help promote rapid growth of a protective screen. I don’t know what the effects the brighter light and heat will have on existing plantings on the southern side of the garden, but the garden will adjust. I’ll watch and intervene as needed.

To make the meaning of the fallen trees clearer to visitors, I may ask some artist friends to help out. I’m thinking about taking some relevant words about ecological process from Beck’s book–disturbance, change, adaptation, diversity, resilience–and painting, carving, or burning them into the fallen trunks in such a way that they remain in the background, yet can be read by those who want to see.

federal twist spring 1


This post is about a practical problem and how an understanding of the scientific discipline of ecology may help solve that problem. It has little to say about garden making as I know it, little to nothing about design to evoke or convey meaning, emotion, aesthetic intent, about the experience of the garden. If I were to point to a single key theme, it is the idea of the novel, or created ecosystem, and what that means for the garden of the future. In short, this is not the whole story, but an important chapter.


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24 thoughts on “Ecological disruption: Has Travis Beck been in my garden?

  1. Thought provoking. The key in your landscape system is repeated disturbance — you burn and revive each year. Your meadow is not planted and then left on its own. The disturbance, whether from burning or from opening up the pine canopy beyond, is why it is all so healthy (and visually pleasing). Destruction is as valuable to a garden as planting. I love seeing the burned mess and the early spring revival pictures!

    I’m pondering your communities of plants that keep each other in check. Do you have rosa multiflora or bittersweet anywhere? Those two seem to ignore any attempts at balance in a plant community. How do you deal with those?

    I have to go back and re-read this post now — there’s a lot here to study and think about (and some great reading references).

    Any date yet on your Open Conservancy tour?

    1. I do have multiflora rose, but I keep cutting it back and hitting it with Roundup. It’s a minor nuisance now, at least in the gardened areas. I still need to deal with it in the far corners of the garden. So far bittersweet has kept its distance. If I occasionally see small self-seeded plants emerging, I pull them out. My major invasive problem is the annual Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegeum vimineum), which grows like topsy. It’s easy to pull out, but the plants seed by the millions. My hope is to get it all out before it goes to seed every year, which should be possible because it’s an annual, and eventually eliminate it. The stilt grass isn’t large enough to pose a challenge to the large perennials, at least in the short term, but it’s aesthetically objectionable.

      My Garden Open Days will be June 29, then again October 19. I’m closer to Bucks County (PA) than to most of the gardens in NJ, so I asked to be scheduled with those gardens. I also asked for a second late date because the garden is at its peak in fall. Hope you can come down, and bring friends.

  2. I find the successions in nature fascinating. I’m always torn between leaving everything and just watching, or interfering. You are fortunate to live and garden where you are permitted to burn. I wonder how you are able to burn if it is such a wet area, do you use chemicals like gasoline? I doubt you do, but maybe you do. I wonder if I might get by with it by sneaking a burn of a couple of feet at a time. My property is much smaller than yours (one acre total with a house on it), but I have wooded area, a steep bank area, limestone outcropping area, a large daylily bed, and a small “meadow” which needs to be re-established. Ice and snow storms over the years have kept change on-going. Because I mustn’t burn, we trim off the brushy parts of fallen trees and remove it from the property, but leave all the major sections and incorporate them into the informal naturalized garden areas. Actually, that interruption is important in opening the Woodland Garden because without it the area is a closed ecosystem that denies success of anything I try to introduce. When the house was new the first owners planted sun-loving plants and many trees. By the time we moved in, the trees were mature forty years old trees casting so much shade the sun-loving plants were almost gone. During the twenty-five years I have gardened here, I introduced shade plants. Eventually, the on going storms did their work, causing sun burning of shade plants and the sun plants are making a come-back. The result is that Nature has produced a variety of maybe not micro climates, but at least many small gardens that make the large Garden at Crocker Croft. (Lexington, Kentucky) Now that I will be seventy-seven years old this year, and no longer able to garden, I hate to think what will happen here. Succession continues. Your project is so interesting. Enjoy!

    1. You remind me that when I looked at that 2005 photo of the woodland we cut down to make this garden, I was struck by what a pretty woodland garden I could have made, and with much less effort. I agree with you that it’s sometimes better to leave things alone and just do minimal care. I definitely do not recommend you try burning. I only do it because there are no houses around us, and when I burn, the ground is either snow covered or so wet the burning is easily controlled. I also burn only a small area at a time. Surprisingly, the plants get very dry even when the ground is wet, so burning is easy. I use a small propane tourch for ignition. I also take care not to burn around trees or shrubs; that would do them in. In such cases, I rely on cutting things down, then later running over them with a weed strimmer. That leaves lots of organic bits to become part of the soil. I’ll be 68 in two more months, and I certainly don’t have any plans to stop gardening at 77. I’m in good health, go to the gym three times a week, and generally eat well and do what I can to keep healthy. I can’t say I’ve ever felt better. I just hope this continues for another 20 years. Fingers crossed. If you’re interested in succession, I recommend Travis Beck’s book. You’ll learn that succession is a continuous process, one in fact, never complete. Plant communities don’t move to a climax stage and remain stable there forever; change is a constant. Just as you describe it in your own garden.

  3. Thought provoking. At first I felt horrified by what you did to the trees but then…… eco systems chnge, grow, change. Think and respect what you are trying to achieve. You are achieving a great space. Christina

    1. The junipers are virtual weeds here, so no great loss. I didn’t think I was doing a bad thing when we cut them down since we were restoring the land to a state similar to what it was 40 years before. Interestingly, many of the native perennials benefitted from the increased light. By opening up the space, I can now see further into the surrounding woods, which are much older and have become a mixed hardwood forest. I can even see the beeches through the screen of trees, still holding on to their leaves in late February.

    1. To paraphrase Neil Diboll’s closing remarks at the Perennial Plants conference at Swarthmore College a couple of months back, “I know I’m a free man if I can leave my keys in my car ignition over night, burn my prairie, and pee off my deck.” Neil founded Prairie Nursery and was one of the earliest proponents of prairie gardening in the US. He got very excited describing the burning of his prairie.

  4. All the research and ‘best’ practice paid (and continues to pay) dividends as your space is beautiful and seems to keep with the rhythm of the place. There is something particularly positive about a clearing in the woods. I’ve always liked the idea of burning back your garden. It puts something back which would otherwise be taken away and strikes me to be a whole lot less tiresome and back breaking than cutting back an ever expanding community.

    So you’re in for an increased dosage of spring sunshine and what that entails.

    I like the idea of numerous woodpeckers ‘grubbing’ the pines. Great sound.

    1. I’d like that spring sunshine to come soon. I just went out to plant some Liatris corms and discovered the ground is so frozen I can’t get a spade in. The woodpeckers are great, though they may have done in the Blue Atlas cedar in front of the house. It’s virtually a seive of woodpecker holes. I’m hoping for the pileated woodpecker to get to work on those great pines. It’s about 18 inches long and makes 4-inch squrare holes. Quite a beast.

  5. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this post – so many things to think about. For me, it made me reflect on change, and just how adaptable nature is. In nature, change is always an opportunity for something new and exciting, never a reason for mourning. As gardeners, I think we’re so lucky to be working in a medium that is optimistic and wants to thrive, as long as we pay attention. We now have a lot of opportunities to make use of these qualities, given all the disturbances we have caused. But as a scientist, I’m also cautious about giving us too much credit – thinking that we understand more than we do. Often things are successful because nature fills in all the gaps for us, rather than following our script (although on the surface we may think it is). In any case, the evolution of your garden was really nice to see, and shows that you certainly have been paying a lot of attention.

    1. I agree that we can’t take too much credit when things turn out for the better instead of otherwise. We certainly need to apply principles learned from ecology to guide our work, and when we substitute a non-native for a native plant, we need to be pretty sure it will serve a similar ecosystem function to the one the native would and will not displace the native community if that community remains viable. It will, of course, always be necessary to pay attention and to intervene when the garden does not follow the intended path. Keep a light hand on the reins, give the process freedom to develop as the living system it is, and make changes only when you’ve determined change is necessary. These “novel ecosystems” must be approached with care. More science, and more practice, will help … and then there are the aesthetic issues …

    1. The idea of a stumpery certainly occurred to me but I can’t think of a way to move them. If I cut the root balls off, they’d still weight many hundreds if not thousands of pounds, and they’re immense, some 9 or 10 feet tall on edge. It’s interesting how others read this post. I see an undertone of wrestling with life, death and rebirth, perhaps too personal to be apparent. Also a warning about the dangers of very long posts full of words, words, words.

      1. Your garden is such a successful mix of deep thought, deep emotion, and the scientific and practical. And so much hard work! Just seeing the 2005 photo together with the more current ones made want to take an ibuprofen.

        Moving a little to the side of the topic — have you seen the blog “Taking Place in the Trees: Tree Issues for Arborists and Landscape Architects?” A lot of posts discuss the use of air tools to expose and clean roots before moving a large tree. Very interesting; your stumps made me think about it. The link is here:

        1. That blog looks very interesting. I subscribed. I’ll look into what these air tools are, how much they weigh. Whether I could use them in rather inaccessible areas. It occurs to me that the high-pressure “house washing” tools people use in suburbia might also work for cleaning the root balls. Thanks much for the info.

  6. The transformation, over time and form, to seasonal disturbance, is something. Especially once it grows back…not sure I can do that with woody and succulent-dominated vegetation, but the patterns seem possible!

    Hmmm…been vaguely planning a trip to see my sister in SE PA…

    1. I haven’t thought about how this might, or might not, work in an arid envirornment. A good point. Let me know if you’re coming to PA. I’d be happy to have you visit, and I’m just across the Delaware from PA. Near New Hope.

  7. Hi James, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for a couple years now, and have never taken the time to comment previously. Thank you for your thoughtful posts and the beautiful images of your garden. I have learned much from you about plants that are unfamiliar to me. I aspire to one day do a planting in the style of your Federal Twist garden. Aspire!
    I’m wondering if you used Roundup on the existing vegetation when preparing the planting site of your garden. You mentioned planting directly into rough grasses. Do you have quack and brome type grasses with the long white rhizomes? If so, are your competitive plants capable of squeezing them out? I live on 14 acres in Iowa, where these invasive grasses thrive in ample moisture and full sun, and there is no getting rid of them. I would like to think that a planting of tough, competitive perennials is the solution. Any insight you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Anne

    1. Anne, it sounds like you could make a real prairie, so I’d think hard about what plants I use. Mine is a created wet prairie with plants from all over the world. I don’t hesitate to use Roundup, but I do it carefully and not frequently. I did not attempt to clear the land before planting. This hasn’t been a problem in areas where I have very large, competitive plants and grasses. In other areas, where the introduced plants are not as large or as highly competitive, the old pasture grasses that were here before me are a problem. I haven’t identified the offending grass, but I’m sure it’s a European pasture grass introduced long ago for animal grazing. It’s almost evergreen and gets an early start on growth. It can even invade such native grasses as Panicums. I just live with it, but I plan on knocking it back with Roundup as soon as the weather warms enough to do that. It you start from scratch, I’d recommend killing the aggressive grasses before planting. Note that these grasses may have been around a long time and may appear to be native. I doubt they are.

      I’ve discovered I can actually let these grasses go, allow them to mature to their 2-foot height, and brown off. They make a nice addition to the meadow look, but they do need to be controlled every few years by spot applications of Roundup. In short, you can live with the grasses already there. If I were starting again, I’d kill them to avoid the future work they cause.

      You should check out Neil Diboll and Prairie Nursery. They sell plants for your kind of garden, and I’m sure you can find useful information there. I’d also recommend the books by Noel Kingsbury, though he is British, and you need to filter his advice for North American plants and environmental conditions. Also look at Rick Darke’s books on grasses.

      One word of warning. I find that I need to plant large specimens with some maturity so they can compete successfully with the weedy grasses. If you start with “clean” land, you can plant much smaller, and less expensive, plugs.

      1. Thank you for recommending that I start with a clean site – I needed to hear that. I just dislike what a clean site entails – using lots of Roundup, & probably a minimum of 2 passes. I use it to manage thistle and burdock, but I don’t like handling it.
        In addition to land suitable for a prairie planting, I also have wet clay bottomland like yours. I hope to experiment with some of the competitive plants you grow- especially some of your pond plants.
        Thanks for the other recommendations- I’m a big fan of Noel Kingsbury. I’ve heard of Neil Diboll and will check him out.
        Looking forward to your next post, Anne

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