Trends in Gardening with John Peter Thompson

by Susan Harris
John Peter Thompson is a fourth-generation nurseryman who’s also in the thick of things in the gardening world nationally.   His blog describes him as a “gardening speaker, invasive species program developer, sustainability consultant and agricultural research policy advocate. ”  He serves as a technical adviser to the much-anticipated Sustainable Sites Initiative that’s been developing standards for certification of sustainability in landscapes.

So when he talked to customers about Trends in Gardening as part of Homestead’s weekend-long Perennial Affair, it was clear that he knew his stuff.

Designing with Vegetables
Traditionally, the  front yard has been an empty showpiece of lawn and evergreens while the back yard was where the food was grown, but we don’t have to separate edibles from ornamentals anymore.   To illustrate the truth of that assertion here’s an image from the rather large edibles section of the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Nice mix of edibles and the just-pretty,  in this case the little violas.


More on Design:   John Peter thinks that trends can be overwhelming in gardening, especially in design, and suggests we not get “too hung up on the color wheel”.   He always tells gardeners to start with a plan, which comes from two questions we should ask ourselves:  Why am I gardening?  And what do I want to do with my yard, functionally?

Gardens as Contributors to the Environment
Another big trends is seeing our gardens as an extension of the environment around us.  Our gardens are part of the local ecosystem and can contribute significantly to some essential ecological services for that ecosystem, like cleaning the water and our air, managing stormwater runoff, preventing erosion, and providing food and habitat for wildlife in this overdeveloped world we live in.

Most gardeners are pretty aware by now that our gardens can provide for wildlife, but we don’t hear much about another point John Peter makes – that we can encourage the bugs and other critters that help us in the garden.  For example, box turtles love slugs, so being careful not to mow or drive over them isn’t just being kind; it’s smart gardening.  Our gardens also benefit from the honey bees and native pollinators attracted by the plants we grow to feed and shelter them.  And on a larger scale, oaks (of which there are over 500 species) are great host plants for insects that feed our beloved songbirds.

“Hold the poisons!”
Here’s still more evidence of the trend toward gardening with nature, not fighting nature.  More gardeners are choosing to avoid pesticides of any type – organic or otherwise – because they kill wildlife and soil micro-organisms, and sometimes just cause more problems.   And when gardeners give up the pesticides, they then notice their gardens responding by attracting more beneficial insects, which helps that garden and the greater environment, as well.  John Peter adds by email to me that “In our attempt to find quick solutions in the garden to weeds, insect and disease damage, we are fast to apply chemicals that can in many cases damage the living biome that supports our garden, causing us long-term investments in time and money to mitigate the damage done by our need for quick results.”

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) showing its famous fall color.

Diversity in the Garden
It used to be that gardens were composed of a very limited palette of plants.  Until recently, the typical Maryland landscape had lots of lawn, of course, plus some miscanthus grasses, daylilies, back-eyed susans and a few Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’.   But now John Peter is seeing diversity-conscious gardeners adding more native plants to their gardens, especially in our area Serviceberries, may apples, Redbuds, ferns and gingers.

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