Finding Balance in the Garden

Gardening expert Rick Darke strives to create “liveable landscapes” using both natives and exotics

You won’t find the word invasive — at least in connection with plants — in gardener, award-winning author, photographer and consultant Rick Darke’s vocabulary. Meet him on March 2, when he makes the trek from his garden oasis in Pennsylvania to Annapolis, and you’ll hear about balancing natives and exotics in the garden. His talk and slide show come at just the right time for gardeners thinking about spring plantings.
    For Darke, what to include in one’s garden comes down to functionality, support of diversity and resource demand. All three need to be balanced, he says. That means gardeners need to understand the traits of the species they intend to plant, along with how they behave in the local ecosystem: What kind of soils do they prefer? How much water do they need? What other species, such as birds and insects, do they shelter and feed? Ignoring these questions is akin to sending a Texan to live among the Inuit.

Functionality as well as beauty should guide good gardening, says Rick Darke.

    Darke often asks audiences whether they have plants five years in the garden. Ten? Twenty years or more?
    Few people have experience in that last category. Yet plants that survive that long are often best suited to their particular microhabitat, ecosystem and local bioregion. These are the kinds of plants that thrive in the local soil, support neighboring species and don’t demand a lot of human labor or other resources, such as water or chemical fertilizer.
    Functionality — as well as beauty or latest fashionable cultivar — should guide good gardening.
    If your property slopes to the Chesapeake, for example, you may want the meadow look that coneflowers provide. That’s fine, says Darke, if the gardener can accept using the pink (Echinacea purpurea) or the white (E. angustafolia), two coneflowers that will reseed and last for years. But if nothing will do but the latest coneflower cultivars that come in different colors, those plants will last only a couple of years because, like many hybrids, they lack good fertility. In that case, a better choice may be the Asian vinca. It’s not native, but it will hold in the soil, prevent runoff and doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance.
    Darke’s talk benefits Unity Gardens, which makes grants up to $1,000 to community groups undertaking greening projects in Anne Arundel County. Projects include outdoor classrooms, reforestation and rain gardens, among others, says executive director Barbara Dowling.
Saturday March 2, 11am-12:30pm (refreshments served from 10am; book signing afterward) at The Key School, 534 Hillsmere Dr., Annapolis. $55; rsvp: www.unitygardens.org.