Creating harmony, simplicity and peace in the landscape......

"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.

Gardening is an instrument of grace. " - May Sarton


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Rolling Crabapples - smile

Rock Art by Thomas D Kent, Jr
This is funny. 

 Glenn Eichler wrote an open letter to the New York Botanical Garden in 2014 in the New Yorker regarding his love of their rock garden. He felt it deserved more attention: 

"—dragged by glaciers, striped and striated by, I guess, also glaciers—deserve better. 

Not sexy? Compared to what, the Donald J. Bruckmann Crabapple Collection? 

No disrespect to Mr. Bruckmann, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards haven’t spent fifty years playing to sold-out crowds as the Rolling Crabapples, the world’s greatest crabapple-and-roll band."

Glenn has a point, don't you think?

Mick Jagger in garden

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Glorious Sunflower - The Fourth Sister

 I have written about the Native Americans' Three Sisters Garden (corn, beans and squash ) but I neglected to tell you of the Fourth Sister...

a very important member of this family!

This is from Hubpages

"Fourth Sister, didn't look anything like her other sisters, although she was as tall and as slender as First Sister (corn) . That seemed fair to all, because Third Sister and Second Sister shared similar but different features. They could climb and run, while their other two sisters were forced to stand tall and proud."

Mother Sun explained that each sister had her job and each had to benefit from and protect one another.  But Fourth Sister's job was most important of all -- for she was the guardian of the North, planted firmly, to protect others from the robbers who soon would come.

The fourth sister was the elegant sunflower.

The Sisters are known to the Native Americans as the “mothers of life”  but they all need each other to survive. 
  • Corn uses the nitrogen supplied by the nitrogen fixing roots of the beans and provides a place for the beans to climb.
  • The squash suppresses weeds and keeps the soil shaded and moist.
  • The prickly leaves of the squash provide a deterrent from four legged raiders of corn.

So what does the Sunflower do?

The sunflowers keep the birds from devouring the corn.

How? Well, true sunflowers exhibit the heliotropic habit of following the sun through the day but when they are full of sunflower seeds they stay facing the east.

Thus when sunflowers are planted to the north of the garden patch, the birds see the sunflowers first thing in the morning sun and dine on the sunflower seeds rather than the corn kernels....

The FOUR SISTERS celebrate the harmony of nature and bring abundance to farmers and happiness to the well fed home.

By the way, the true giant sunflower is used as an emblem of the philosophy of Spiritualism.

They see the sunflower as forever looking to the light and applaud its unique arithmetic: supposedly each sunflower has

  • 12 sets of leaves ( months in a year) , 
  • 52 yellow petals (52 weeks in a year)  
  • 365 seeds (365 days in a year).

I cannot verify this but that is the story..... I hope it is true.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Verbena Bonariensis - Verbena on a Stick

Verbena Bonariensis is tall and airy and one of my fave flowers.

  It blooms like crazy all summer into fall. I plant it next to walls and fences for a stunning effect. Here I mixed it with white cosmos -   purple and white is such a great garden combination. 

The lavender clusters are held high on wiry stems that wave in the breeze from mid summer to frost. 

Called "verbena on a stick", it is a hummingbird magnet and is an easy flower to grow. 

It prefers full sun in well-drained soil. Remove top 1/4 of plant periodically to force new buds.   

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Sky and Earth - a Union We Overlook at Our Peril

Farm in Upstate NY - photo Jan Johnsen

I often write about creating beautiful outdoor environments to lift our spirits and enhance our wellbeing but we cannot be comfortable if the health of our planet is deteriorating.

We talk about restoring balance to the earth. This starts with the soil. Once the soil is revitalized the atmosphere and weather will correct itself.  

Here is why: the sky and earth interact.

In other words, droughts come from poor soils, pollution and other inharmonious activities on the ground. Fix the soil and the droughts and storms will subside. 

So start with fertilizing the soil - this does not mean applying more soluble nitrogen fertilizers loaded with anhydrous ammonia or nitrates. Doing this to plants is like feeding them amphetamines. Reliance on poisons to grow our food is one of our major problems right now. 

Changing this practice will help our atmosphere greatly. But it is not a quick process so we better start now.

At this point you may be skeptical but think of it this way- ammonium and urea-based fertilizers that we use to grow our food crops are susceptible to loss as ammonia (NH3 ) gas, especially when left on the soil surface. Ammonia gas from fertilizer has a negative effect on air quality and human health. Where are many of our crops grown? In the San Joaquin valley of California.  Here is a photo of atmospheric NH3 over the San Joaquin Valley in 2008 (measured by the IASI satellite). It shows the most concentrated area of NH3 in the air in red.  That was many years ago...guess what happened to California since then?
San Joaquin Valley, California - Harmful Gas emissions from Nitrogen fertilizers

 If you want to know more about this - click here. 

Healthy soil is a teeming world that contains a symbiosis of fungi, minerals, organisms and more. Root structures interact with these ingredients to elevate levels of certain nutrients. It is an interacting and amazing network.

For example, legumes such as beans, alfalfa and peas bring oxygen to the root tips and release oxalic acid. They affect lime levels, nitrogen and more in the soil (cation exchange, etc. its complicated). Legume's beneficial activity is augmented in the presence of certain crop roots that exude carbohydrates, like corn or sugar cane. 

You can see this in full force in the Four sisters method of crop planting used by the Native Americans:  corn, beans, squash and sunflower. 

  • The corn is deep rooted, mining the soil for minerals and exuding carbs to the soil, 
  • Beans 'fix' nitrogen and  elevate the lime 
  • Squash covers the soil to prevent weeds, 
  • The sunflower's stems, leaves and pollen contain phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium. They can be composted in the soil to help keep it nourished.  
Buy from Renees Garden 

Add to this, composts, compost tea, rock dusts or pulverized quartz and seaweed or kelp and the soil will start to sing. 

This is vastly different from using soluble fertilizer that releases harmful gas to the sky - 

we should be building a matrix in the soil that is alive and healthy.

So Governor Brown,  please address the state of agriculture in California asap 

and the skies will rain upon the earth once again.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Garden Photo of the Day - Late Summer Foliage Tapestry

Garden photo of the Day by Jan Johnsen
This is a foliage tapestry to plant in a pot or in a bed or around rocks...Sedum Lidakaense ( purple), Sedum Angelina (yellow) and Cerastium or Snow in Summer (silvery-white).

Easy to grow, loves the sun and heat, and needs little root room. Voila!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Great True story about Organic Soil

Tony Avent runs the wonderful Plant Delights Nursery - offering a diverse collection of plants and the catalog is a collectors' item

On April 29, 2010 Anne Raver of the New York Times asked:  "How does Tony Avent, the horticultural mythbuster, grow so many plants successfully in his garden?

Rule No. 1: he uses the same mix of 40 percent native soil, dug on his own land, and 60 percent compost for every plant.

''The soil for every plant we have is prepared exactly the same, whether it's a pitcher plant or an agave,'' ....

After he switched to organics, he said, ''it took about a year before everything started jumping. Our insect problems disappeared. It was just amazing.'' ...."

This observation took me back to 1972 when I was a landscape architecture student at the University of Hawaii and minoring in tropical agriculture

The university farm was in Pearl City ( next to Pearl Harbor) and it was divided into one large section devoted to standard agriculture (agribusiness majors)  plots and a very small section reluctantly relegated to organic gardens (run by us 'hippie haoles' who were studying tropical agriculture)...

I had come to Hawaii via Kenya and was very interested in saving the world through tropical organic gardening.
This is me in Pearl City, Hawaii tending to my vegetable garden years ago - note the Kenyan Kikoy I was wearing..the latest in fashionable gardening clothes.. .:-)

The agriculture students got stipends for their seeds, fertilizer and pesticides...

the organic students got nothing....and you know what happened?


Well,  every semester the organic plots got better and better because the soil was being improved consistently with fish emulsion and compost ( a local health services organization was training mentally disabled students on how to make compost on premises)

while every semester the big fertilized plots run by the aggies got worse and worse...this was back when 'organic' was some weird, unrealistic approach to agriculture....and no professor back then would acknowledge what was pretty evident to the eyes.  The crops treated with herbicides and chemical fertilizers were poor and weak....

Of course, it didn't help when the campus newspaper did a cover story on our 'new organic plots' at Pearl City..and they interviewed me.

I talked about how our crops were flourishing and about a new (ha!) organic pest control called BT -bacillus thuringensis. After that interview,  I presented a report to a Hawaii legislature committee on why Oahu should use their sewage sludge in a soil fertilizer similar to Milwaukee's Milorganite ....

they didn't go for it but look at what is out there today:

Now, almost 40 years later, I marvel at how long it took society to understand what we - the hippies - knew:  Organic is the only is Nature's Way.

And look at what they offer at Pearl City today:

Organic Gardening!

Live demonstrations by UH Master Gardeners including Organic Gardening 101, Building Healthy Soil, and Composting! First demonstration begins 9AM -10AM, next session 10:30AM -11:30AM. 

Composting Worms for Hawaii  
Small-Scale Vermicomposting 
Backyard Composting Recycling a Natural Product 
Building Healthy Garden Soil
Organic Gardening Resources

We have come a long way....

The truth is that true tranquility lies in compost and happy earthworms....

And if you live in Connecticut you should know about these people too:

And you should know:

Authentic Haven Products - Compost tea

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Cottage Garden Primer

Cottage Garden - Jan Johnsen  

  I once worked with a lovely client ( now a dear friend!) who wanted a cottage-style flower garden.

Now there are cottage gardens and then there are cottage gardens...know what I mean?

In Great Britain, it seems everyone has the most magnificent flower garden, each more spectacular than the next...

their lushness sets a standard of perfection for cottage gardens that makes me want to say to someone here in the Northeast U.S., 'Would you like to consider an ornamental grass garden instead?"

Designed and installed by Johnsen Landscapes & Pools

But of course, the call of a cottage garden, filled with a profusion of  flowers and smelling of roses, peonies and lilacs, makes one dizzy with anticipation.

All you need in my part of the world is a deer fence, deep fertile soil, constant watering and someone to tend it lovingly... a tall order indeed.  

But it can be done.  And that is what we did - installed a deer fence, brought in great topsoil and carefully amended it and added irrigation. My client followed through and tended it with a loving hand and added wonderful flowers whenever she saw the need.

The result?  A sumptuous garden filled with a riot of colors, lurid with intoxicating scents.

I planned the garden to be a 10 foot wide curved plant bed bordering a level lawn. The only problem - there was no level lawn.

The rear property sloped steeply downhill and in order to make it level I needed to bring in soil and retain it with a wall. This is a big proposition in any situation but here it was especially dicey because I didn't want to disturb the roots of the native hemlock trees growing near where the wall was to be located.

To accomplish this, I used the stacking, concrete units that are part of a wall system called Alpenstein. This is a great solution because no footings are required and Alpenstein allows you to plant within each unit!

 It is a versatile, plantable wall system. Once planted with vines and spreading groundcovers, an Alpenstein wall blends with the natural setting.

Designed and installed by Johnsen Landscapes & Pools

After the site was perfect, I set about planting perennial and annual flowers. Perennials come back every year and form the backbone of the cottage garden. For that I set out large drifts or groups of medium tall, durable flowers in the mid-zone of the bed  to add height and variety. 

These included 'Sunny Border Blue' Speedwell (Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue'), the PPA Plant of the Year 1993, and 'Caesar's Brother' Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica 'Caesar's Brother'), a reliable and graceful flower with pansy blue coloring....

Veronica photo from Bluestone Perennials 

Additionally, I planted the graceful Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis gracillimus) and other 'foolproof'' perennials like dwarf Gayfeather, (Liatris spicata 'Kobold'), the tall 'Magnus' Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'). 

Below is the list of the dependable flower varieities I used for this garden. No unusual cultivars here - just a cottage garden full of faithful staples that work together in cozy harmony..

My Flower List for This Cottage Garden
Jan Johnsen


Botanical Name                                       Common Name

Artemesia 'Silver King'                             'Silver King' Wormwood

Astilbe chinensis pumila                            Dwarf Chinese Astilbe

Coreopsis vert. 'Moonbeam'                    'Moonbeam' Coreopsis

Dianthus 'Bath's Pink'                               'Bath's Pink' Dianthus

Echinacea purp. 'Magnus'                         Magnus Coneflower

Heuchera  'Palace Purple'                         'Palace Purple' Coralbells

Iris sibirica 'Caesar's Brother'                    'Caesar's Brother' Siberian Iris

Liatris spicata 'Kobold'                              Dwarf Gayfeather

Lilium orientale 'Stargazer'                         'Stargazer' Oriental Lily

Peonies                                                      Peonies

Persicaria 'Donald Lowndes'                   Don. Lowndes Fleeceflower

Phlox pan. 'Bright Eyes'                           'Bright Eyes' Garden Phlox

Sedum 'Autumn Joy'                                   'Autumn Joy' Sedum

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm'                     Dwarf Black eyed Susan

Veronica 'Sunny Border Blue'                     'Sunny Border Blue' Speedwell


Botanical Name                                          Common Name

Senecio cineraria                                          Dusty Miller

Cosmos sulphureus                                      Cosmos 'Klondyke mix'

Ageratum 'Blue Hawaii'                                Blue Hawaii Ageratum

Catharanthus roseus                                     Annual Vinca

Heliotropium arb..Marine'                           'Marine' Heliotrope

Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue'                      Salvia 'Victoria Blue'

Salvia 'Sparkler Purple'                                'Sparkler Purple' annual Salvia

Monday, July 18, 2016

Win a free issue of Garden Design Magazine right here!

As you may know, I love Garden Design magazine. It is gorgeous, each issue is 148 pages thick and packed with fascinating gardening info and landscaping ideas and, best of all, it has no ads!  It is published quarterly, one issue per season.

How can they make it work? Well, it is a subscriber-supported magazine. Jim Peterson is the publisher and Thad Orr is the editor. I think they have made it the best garden magazine out there....
Would you like an issue? I am giving out the current issue to 3 lucky winners...see below for my random drawing.
 And I am thrilled to say that Garden Design chose to feature my ideas on Creating a Relaxing Retreat in their current issue which features Serene Spaces. I am honored and so happy that it is being shared by such a prestigious and elevated magazine!
The 6 page article, 'Serenity and the Sweet Spot', offers my tips for creating relaxing outdoor spaces that I have refined over the years. I look to ancient sources and have used them in my landscapes. They took my photos and had a brilliant illustrator from Spain, David Despau, interpret them in colored pen an dink drawings. Wow.

Also they have a 16-page spread on David Austin roses.

And an article on hydrangeas that made me swoon. I am planting so many of the new varieties these days for clients. And then there is the article on the Thomas Jefferson garden at Monticello with Peter Hatch. It is called 'Jefferson's Legacy, at last' That is the best!  TJ is my hero and I went to see Monticello on my honeymoon. (I have been back since). 
(Photo credit: GardenDesign/Ngoc Minh Ngo — used by permission.).
And lastly, they have a great piece on Disneyland's horticultural magic. What a fascinating article! Am I gushing? Well that is because it really is a great magazine.

For a chance to win an issue of Serene Spaces issue of Garden Design (U.S. and Canada residents only) post a comment below.
I use the number generator at to select 3 winners.

Winners will be announced both here and on my Facebook page on Saturday, July 23, 2016, so check back!
If you want to buy your own subscription to Garden Design, and receive your first issue for free? Click here: Garden Design.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Loren Eiseley's Prescriptive for Our Times

"Let it be admitted that the world’s problems are many and wearing, and that the whirlpool runs fast. 
If we are to build a stable cultural structure above that which threatens to engulf us by changing our lives more rapidly than we can adjust our habits, it will only be by flinging over the torrent a structure as taut and flexible as a spider’s web, a human society deeply self-conscious and undeceived by the waters that race beneath it, a society more literate, more appreciative of human worth than any society that has previously existed. 
That is the sole prescription, not for survival — which is meaningless — but for a society worthy to survive."
Loren Eiseley,  Firmament of Time
For more excerpts from Loren Eiseley go here: 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Garden Design Magazine - My Tips and Interview

Garden Design Magazine interviewed me for tips for blending ancient and modern ways to create gardens that simply make you feel good.  

They also had the fabulous illustrator from Spain, David Despau, illustrate photos of some of my landscapes.

 I am honored.  It is in the summer issue of Garden Design:

It is such a great magazine. 

You can use this link to subscribe to garden Design and get your first issue free

You can also order just this one issue here

Friday, July 8, 2016

“Learning the Trees” - Howard Nemerov

I used to teach Tree Identification at a community college decades ago.

 I also wrote the book, 'Ortho's's All About Trees' which introduces trees to the reader. 

This poem reveals the beginner mind.   Watch for samaras and drupes.... 
Jan Johnsen

Learning the Trees

Related Poem Content Details

Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn 
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors, 
Out of a book, which now you think of it 
Is one of the transformations of a tree. 

The words themselves are a delight to learn, 
You might be in a foreign land of terms 
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome, 
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth. 

But best of all are the words that shape the leaves— 
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform— 
And their venation—palmate and parallel— 
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate. 

Sufficiently provided, you may now 
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets 
To see how the chaos of experience 
Answers to catalogue and category. 

Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree 
May differ among themselves more than they do 
From other species, so you have to find, 
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.” 

Example, the catalpa in the book 
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three 
Around the stem; the one in front of you 
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost; 

Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt. 
It may be weeks before you see an elm 
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids, 
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape. 

Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says, 
Little by little, you do start to learn; 
And learn as well, maybe, what language does 
And how it does it, cutting across the world 

Not always at the joints, competing with 
Experience while cooperating with 
Experience, and keeping an obstinate 
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own. 

Think finally about the secret will 
Pretending obedience to Nature, but 
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere, 
Dividing up the world to conquer it, 

And think also how funny knowledge is: 
You may succeed in learning many trees 
And calling off their names as you go by, 
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.

Howard Nemerov, “Learning the Trees” from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977). Copyright © 1977