Roots and Shoots: Creating a Flower Forest Garden

By Pamela Doan

Being a self-trained gardener who has studied and attended many conferences and seminars but not pursued a degree in any relevant field, I haven’t followed a direct path in my own landscaping or adopted a formal style.

Helping nature has always been my driving purpose and I’ve learned through observation what works and who likes it — be it bird, butterfly, insect or wildlife. Writing Roots and Shoots has secretly been a selfish pursuit to have an excuse to solve my landscape issues by interviewing researchers and experts who probably wouldn’t have time to speak with me if I weren’t a journalist.

This year as my landscape burst into bloom, heavily fortified by all the rain and years of building up the soil with organic matter, I’ve finally found a term for my gardening style: flower forest. My perennial beds of native plants have grown into banks of blooms 6- to 8-feet high that expand into more space every year.

Butterflyweed, anise hyssop and bee balm make a wall of foliage and flowers that pollinators love. (Photo by P. Doan)

I’m so into watching how a tiny seed becomes a tiny plant and, then, three years later, a wall of foliage and flowers. When I feel terrible about the state of the world, walking through my yard and seeing the life that’s appeared and is being supported by these plants lifts me up.

The glorious winterberry bush (Ilex verticilata) is in flower and there were so many bees around it that it seems to be shimmering. The minute flowers aren’t flashy but they have an outsize impact. This winterberry bush is also the largest I’ve seen. Usually they are kept pruned but the previous owners of my land put this one in just the right spot and it has reached its full size. It’s 12- to 14-feet tall and just as wide, and the branches arch to the ground, making a tunnel and hiding space that children love.

That’s one of the guidelines of flower forest gardening: let plants and shrubs and trees be themselves. I have the acreage and, honestly, no time for pruning or removal unless it’s part of my ongoing battle with Japanese stiltgrass, Japanese barberry and mugwort.

Another guideline for my personal mission is to employ native plants that have aggressive spreading instincts. Again, we have lots of acreage and I live in the woods so maybe they’ll have a chance to repopulate these areas that are being swallowed by the aforementioned invasives. I let them go to seed and distribute themselves any way they can.

Goldenrod, yarrow, red clover, mint, lilies, and black eyed susans have grown into a colorful, informal mix. (Photo by P. Doan)

A flower forest is also a dynamic approach. I let the plant communities shift and spread without much choreography. Every season is different and interactive with its own look and feeling. In some years one species dominates and then it gets pushed back and something else takes up more space. Or I add a plant to change the aesthetic. This year it’s Blue Paradise (Phlox paniculata) and blue cardinal flower (Lobelia siphilitica).

Recommended plants

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum): This easy-to-grow plant is a collection of 5- to 7-foot stalks with purple flowers on top. I think of it as a columnar vase shape with shorter stalks on the outside and the tallest on the inside. Watching bees crawl over the 12-inch flowerheads is fun. With the footprint of the plant about 2 feet by 3 feet, it hasn’t spread too far in my yard; it’s planted at the edge of a patio and makes a wall behind the lounge chairs.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) and Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa): A single bee balm plant now covers an area that’s 5 feet by 5 feet in my flowerbed and I had to cut it back so that other plants wouldn’t be engulfed. Simply cut the stalks — they each grow to 4 feet tall or so — that are intruding down. These plants are lovely and fragrant and hummingbirds will visit.

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa): This milkweed is necessary for the endangered monarch butterflies to lay their eggs and feed on. Thank goodness it’s seriously lovely. The orange flowers pop and it spreads nicely; every garden should have it. A single plant can become 10 in a few years.

Ox Eye Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides): This striking plant grows to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide and will be covered in cheerful yellow flowers. Shrubs require more care, so why not use a plant that can take up as much space as a shrub instead? Mix this with yellow coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and any goldenrod (Solidago) for a hedge of foliage and yellow flowers of different shapes and sizes.

Pamela Doan, a garden coach with One Nature, has grown ferns in Seattle, corn on a Brooklyn rooftop and is now trying to cultivate shitake mushrooms on logs. Email her at [email protected].

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