EACH YEAR, the powers that be in the horticulture industry declare what the trends are, what color is in, and what design styles we’re all meant to adhere to—and what plant is hot, or not. Dr. Jared Barnes and I beg to differ, and have decided to do some trend declarations of our own, from big, bold perennials (like Baptisia, silhouetted in the morning light, above) to why you should learn to propagate and share some plants.
Jared is an associate professor of horticulture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and the creator of the “Planted” blog and e-newsletter, and the monthly “Plantastic Podcast.” He’s been gardening since about age 5, and I was glad to chat with him, to do some forecasting together.
Read along as you listen to the February 27, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
naming our own garden trends, with jared barnes
Margaret Roach: Hello, Jared. We have so many friends in common, and plants in common [laughter].
Jared Barnes: Yes, definitely. And I also want to say thank you so much for all that you put into the world to make the world more plantastic.
Margaret: Well, ditto.
Jared: So, I appreciate it.
Margaret: I’ve been subscribing to your e-newsletter, which I enjoy very much, and reading more and more of your blog, so it’s mutual. A little background, you just tell us quickly: You teach horticulture. Where do you garden? Do you have a garden, a home garden?
Jared: Sure. I live in East Texas. I am a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. We’re a nice school. We’ve got about 12,000 students. And of those, we have a lot of students that are interested in plants. I also oversee our horticulture program, and our student botanic garden, the Plantery, where we attract and bring in passionate, talented students, to help us celebrate plants with the community. It’s definitely fun.
I live about 20 minutes outside of town, and my wife and I have a 2-1/2 acre homestead called Ephemera Farm, where we celebrate the small moments of life that make life worth living. We’ve got beautiful wildflowers that bloom in the spring, the stalwarts of summer, and then of course fall interest that leads into winter interest as well too. We’ve lived there about five, six years now. It’s definitely been fun to start from scratch, bare soil, and build a garden from that.
Margaret: That’s great.
Jared: Thank you.
Margaret: I read a recent post you’d did in your blog about the naming of the place, Ephemera Farm. Very Buddhist; I loved it [laughter]. Celebrating-
Jared: Thank you.
Margaret: …because as they say, “Nothing lasts.”
Jared: That is true. That is true.
Margaret: Nothing lasts. And holding on too tight, pretending it will, is not going to get you anywhere [laughter].
In the intro, I promised we’d announced Jared and Margaret’s 2023 garden trends [laughter]. The heck with the industry’s list. Not really; there’s plenty of good ones on the industry list. It’s just that I have other things I want to shout out to people, and I know you do too. But maybe we should start by predicting that you can’t predict the weather anymore [laughter]. Last week, between Saturday and Saturday I was minus 14 and plus 54. And I think you Texans have had some disturbing cold snaps yourself, yes?
Jared: We have. Two years ago at our house… In fact it’s been, it’s basically now two year anniversary because it was Valentine’s Day weekend. We got down to negative 6 degrees Fahrenheit. And at our house in East Texas, we live a little outside of the town. Here in town it was only negative 3. But the thing to take away from that is that we’re normally zone 8b, and we were 6a for at least eight hours. We were below zero for at least eight hours because I checked before I went to bed at midnight, and it was already below zero.
And then back before Christmas, we were 9 degrees Fahrenheit. I definitely see that as we go forward in the future, we’re going to have to start thinking about plants that are more resilient. For us here in East Texas, we’ve got a lot of broadleaf evergreens that have now had two rough winters out of three years. And last winter we had a very dry spell, so a lot of our spring ephemerals took a long time to emerge. I thought it was going to be forever until bloodroot emerged. Trying to find plants that are more resilient in landscapes is definitely something we’re going to have to look more into.
Margaret: A trend I know that we both want to see come true, because I’ve read again, your blog and newsletter and so forth, is big perennials. Tell me about some of your big perennials. What’s a big perennial?
Jared: Well, a big perennial is a plant that achieves some mass throughout some point in the growing season. This could be early on, and for me, I do try to strive to have some of those in my garden, like Baptisia alba [above]. Some of the baptisias, we have actually baptisias here in Texas that get 6, 7 feet tall easily.
In April, when the garden is just getting up and getting going, having that early mass is really good. But the other thing, too, is that with these big perennials, I think especially with more interest in naturalistic design and doing this design plant communities, we need these primary plants, these anchors in the landscape, to make sure that we have interest, and things that we can kind of hold throughout the season, so that way people have multiseason interest on some of these species. So that’s one of the reasons I love Baptisia so much is that, you get those early spring flowers, you then have this stemmy mass of plant tissue that lasts on into the fall. For us in East Texas, baptisias tend to start going dormant actually in early September. They start to fade away then. But then you’re left with these beautiful pods that are left behind for winter interest.
And the other thing, too, that I love about these is that I don’t think a lot of people appreciate this about Baptisia and the wild indigos, but they have this tumbleweed action, where when we get those stiff December winds that start coming through, Baptisia will start breaking off at the base, and kind of tumble.
Margaret: Oh, how funny [laughter].
Jared: I know. It’s a brilliant seed dispersal mechanism. So it’s a great way to spread your seeds around, just tumble along and just every time you hit the ground, knock a few out.
Margaret: Cool. I started with big perennials maybe 35 years ago, was what I was most attracted to. With big foliage like for us Astilboides [above], and its relative, Rodgersia. And I have a late bloomer, you were just talking about a big bold thing that happens early, which is wonderful. But Lespedeza thunbergii, the bush clover, and that could just get to be this massive, almost looks like a shrub, but it’s herbaceous. It can be purple or white flowers, and the insects really love it and so forth.
The native goat’s beard that we have, and I don’t know how far south it goes, Aruncus dioicus, or however you say it. Boy, that gets to be also like a shrub. And we have a native spikenard, Aralia racemosa, that also it takes on shrub stature, and flowers and fruits and so forth, big insect attractor, a native. It takes on shrub stature even though it’s herbaceous and dies to the ground in the winter here.
So yeah, those are some great ones. And then there’s one from the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, Darmera peltata.
Jared: I’ve heard of it.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. These umbrellas on these giant stems, almost like, well over thigh, maybe hip high, and these big green umbrellas on top, and just really fun. So yeah, lots of good, big… I love, that’s my thing, is big perennials. Definitely.
Jared: Awesome. And then another one that I love here is Rudbeckia maxima. Giant cone flower. And so for us in East Texas is actually a four-season plant, because for us, it never truly goes dormant in the wintertime, even if it gets knocked back pretty hard. So you have that beautiful glaucous green-blue foliage throughout most of the wintertime to enjoy. [Above, the bold foliage of R. maxima in a bed at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.]
Margaret: No, I don’t, Jared [laughter].
Jared: Well, at least we do. At least we do. So I grew up in Tennessee, and even for my parents, it would die back to the ground every year and reemerge in the spring. But for us, a lot of times when we do our January mow backs and cutbacks, we’ll already got foliage up, and we’ll just cut it to the ground and it pops back up. But I was amazed how thick it gets in the ditches here. There’s ditches out by where I live, and literally it’s just solid Rudbeckia maxima for probably a hundred feet. So yes.
Margaret: We have the big Joe-Pye weeds late in the season as well. And we have a Vernonia, an ironweed, which even is called New York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis. And that gets to be whoa, like way tall. Yeah. Fun bloomer. So lots of those prairie-ish plants, prairie plants that are statuesque, too.
So big plants, we want to say to people, “Put them into your landscape because they give a different visual impact.” They break it up, don’t they?
Jared: Yeah, they do. They definitely provide some oomph in your landscape. So if you have big perennials, some things to think about are, a lot of times people like to locate them more towards the back of beds, or the back of plantings, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t put one up front for impact. so it’s almost like a random planting.
And the other thing too is that, some of them do respond to early season cutback, where you go in and just cut the foliage down, maybe do that Chelsea Chop. And then that can help to prevent some floppage later on in the growing season.
Margaret: Yeah. So here, the reason it’s called Chelsea Chop is because it is usually done in the UK around the time of the Chelsea Flower Show in May.
Margaret: So it’s like when things are partway up, you cut them back maybe by a half or a third. And it works great for things like a lot of the aster relatives and even Sedum, the big tall sedums, and lots of other things. So, you get a little later the bloom begins, but a little bushier, and a little less tall of a height. Yeah?
Jared: Yes. And then the other thing too that we deal with here in the Deep South is that because we do have such a long growing season and things can get so dry, we tend to start having plants that show what they call “the nekkid knees” [laughter], where it’s like, it’s kind of knee height and lower, waist height and lower, you have basically open stem tissue, and it is a lot of times crinkly, almost dead foliage. And so sometimes a nice cutback in May stunts that plant back-
Margaret: I see.
Jared: … and makes it fuller and bushier, so that way it can grow better and then look more cleaner, later on in the growing season.
Margaret: So we could talk about big plants for a long time, but let’s just move on. When we emailed and communicated the other day, you were predicting a few other hot trends of 2023 [laughter]. What else do you have on your list?
Jared: Well, one of the things that on the list was carnivorous plants. Because I don’t know if this has ever been on a trends list, but they are hot, because one of the things I love about working with students is that you can always see what people gravitate toward, and what they’re very interested in.
And so some of the more tropical pitcher plants like Nepenthes, but then of course we can’t forget our natives as well, too. And so, one of the things we’re working on here is trying to get more diversity of some of our native species, like Sarracenia alata, which is one of our native pitcher plants, Sarracenia rosea, getting seed of these, and then actually teaching students how to germinate them, and then grow them on. Because if you’ve got carnivorous plants, they sell hotcakes, as the plethora of people on Instagram can share and talk about.
Margaret: Yes, it’s definitely a collector’s thing. It’s like this… And even as a “houseplant,” even as an offshoot of the houseplant craze, there are people who are… like that great nursery, California Carnivores, that’s been in business forever, out on the West Coast. And they sell them not just for planting out in the landscape. But they’re great for making, if you have a wet area of your garden, like a boggy kind of area, or really wonderful for those types of spots in the garden as well, or for creating that type of a spot, a little poolish kind of boggy spot. [Above, Sarracenia ‘Dixie Lace’.]
Jared: And I’ve actually seen people too, just dig out a hole in their landscape, paint a kiddie pool black, and then set that down into the soil, and then actually fill that with a peat moss/sand mix and then just plant the carnivorous plants directly into that. So you just got to keep it moist. But there’s a lot of really creative ways about how people can integrate those into their landscapes, especially the native ones.
Margaret: So that’s like a faux bog.
Jared: Yeah, exactly.
Margaret: [Laughter.] A trompe l’oeil bog made out of kiddie pool. That’s a good idea.
Jared: Yeah, yeah. It’s a faux bog. Yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. There’s such important parts of certain native habitats, and yet their territory in the world has been abused and lost and so forth. Seeing them in nature is pretty amazing.
Jared: Yeah, and that’s part of the wonder of plants is I feel like all gardeners need to play a role in trying to conserve, and rescue, and be part of. And that doesn’t mean go out and dig plants up in the wild, but whenever you find them available in the trade, definitely making a little pocket area of our gardens, for some of these more extreme specialists, that need more specific types of conditions to grow in.
Margaret: Yeah. So what else is on your list?
Jared: Well, another one that I have on the list is, I think that this could be the year of cover crops.
Margaret: Oh, really [laughter]?
Jared: Because, I think we need to teach people that, you need to be thinking about keeping the ground covered. And this is one of the principles of naturalistic design, but it’s also, I think, one of the principles that needs to be in vegetable gardens. And Mother Nature hates bare soil. She does. And so, if we are taking advantage of cover crops to go in there and plant in our gardens where we’ve got open spots, then I think that we’re more aching to help capture carbon, provide habitat for pollinators and early beneficials, fix problems in the soil, maybe fix nitrogen. There’s evidence that some of the mustard plants can also have high levels of sulfur, that can help deal with pathogens in the soil.
Margaret: Yes, they can. Yes.
Jared: And the other thing too is that, I learned about cover crops from reading Eliot Coleman’s book, “The New Organic Grower.”
Margaret: Me, too.
Jared: So this is an idea I’ve have for a long time. But I think we’d also cover the soil, too, in our gardens where we have things like bluebonnets. In Texas, we have bluebonnets that seed themselves around, and there’s other native wildflowers out there that are these ruderals like Aquilegia, the columbines, and Gaillardia. A lot of people think Gaillardia is a perennial, but really it’s more of this short-lived perennial, a little bit longer-lived annual. And so having these plants that are kind of self-sowing themselves in around our beds… cardinal flower, Lobelia. That’s another great one as well, too, for wet spots.
So having these plants that if there’s disturbance or the soil is disturbed in some way, that we can come in and bring into the landscape or the garden, to cover that soil, you’re also helping to prevent your weed issues.
Margaret: Yeah. I’m much older than you are, and I’m leaning more now toward… I was always a cover crop, green manure, type of person, and that’s how I did my vegetable beds every year and so forth, and turned it in. And I’m leaning now toward more no-dig, where I’m topdressing with compost without disturbing the soil in the fall, and putting the beds to sleep that way and so forth. But they’re very established and the soil’s very good. And that constant topdressing with the compost also works itself in almost passively in a way. Yeah. So, but that’s interesting. So cover crops, because I’ve used a lot of them over the years [laughter].
Jared: Just like, yeah, the no-till dig, excuse me. Like you just talked with Charles Dowding about.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Jared: Yes. Definitely on that. But there’s also winter cover crops that just winter kill. So cowpeas is a great ones.
Margaret: They are great.
Jared: It’s a little bit stemmy, but winter kill. And then like you said, you can put compost on top, and then don’t dig again.
Margaret: Right, right. Exactly. O.K., so cover crops, carnivorous plants, big perennials. I think you like fragrance. Like my friend, Ken Druse, I think you’re a lover of fragrance.
Jared: I very much am. And I was recently speaking in Atlanta, and I forgot how a lot of these fragrant plants are at the Atlanta Botanic Garden. They have Lonicera fragrantissima [above], and they have Edgeworthia chrysantha there. And I’ve got some of these plants in my landscape, but they’re just small plants. But. I did grad school at N.C. State, and visited frequently the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. And that’s one of the things that I loved in the wintertime is when everything is dead and dormant, or just emerging, you have all these winter fragrant plants that come out in the landscape, like Prunus mume, the flowering apricot, and others.
I know it has some tenderness up your way, but Chimonanthus praecox, wintersweet, those flowers are just so intense. But even later on in the growing season, sweet peas, I finally figured out how to grow sweet peas in East Texas.
Jared: You just got to start them in November, and then they overwinter. So it works beautifully. And then there are other plants that are fragrant as well, too, later on in the year.
Margaret: I have that Lonicera fragrantissima. I have a very large plant of it. And actually our mutual friend, Bob Hyland, when he had a nursery not far from me, he gave me that plant. And mine is, oh gosh, it’s probably 10 feet tall, and it’s outside my front gate-
Jared: Oh, excellent.
Margaret: … in the late winter. If you park your car in my driveway, you’ll smell it [laughter]. Or if you go to open or close the gate, you’ll smell it.
So, in the name of time, I want to just make sure we have a little time for some talk about foodscaping, because I know that’s something that… I really don’t know that much about it exactly. How to go about it, but I know you steward this food garden there at the university called Sprout [above], and other things. So, that’s one of your things that you’d like more of us to know about in 2023 and beyond, yes?
Jared: Most definitely, yes. Because I think growing our own food, there is something about raising your own food that makes you feel alive. It makes you feel connected to the world around you, because even when things are going terrible… And this is something fascinating: I actually found an article years ago that showed that pretty much every downturn in society from depressions, to wars, you typically see a gardening increase after that.
And so, that’s one of the things that we see is that there’s something about growing your own food. So like you alluded to, we have the Sprout Garden here at the university. When I came, our enrollment numbers were down, and my boss was saying, “I want you to basically figure out how we can try to increase enrollment.” And so I knew how important growing food was for students. And so, we overhauled part of the area here around the ag building, that eventually became the Plantery, our student botanic garden. But we overhauled it, and turned it into an edible garden, where we teach students how to grow plants, small scale.
We typically do it more… We teach them small scale, because you can scale that up to any size. We teach it on a small 6,000-square-foot garden. But they could scale that up to do what Conor Crickmore does at Neversink Farm. Or they could go take that knowledge and apply it to rooftop garden, like Brooklyn Grange.
So I think we’ve got to figure out how to grow plants in small areas, not using plastic, and plasticulture, if you want to go the route of using the landscape fabric to keep things down. Now, ours is a little bit more of a production garden, but what you’re talking about foodscaping is of course integrating plants into the landscape that then have some edible component to them.
And I will tell you, too, whenever I go out and give talks, this is a common question people have is, “How can I integrate more edibles?” And so, I think we can come at it a couple different ways. One is to look at some of these plants that are edible, that have ornamental characteristics. One of my favorite ornamentals to use in the landscape are blueberries.
Margaret: Me, too. That’s so funny. Me, too.
Jared: Yeah. And I love them because they have the beautiful flowers in the spring. They’re small, but they’re still beautiful and can be enjoyed. They’re native. And then of course they produce the beautiful blueberries afterwards that you can then pick, or the birds can try to pick them first. And then in the fall, here at least, in East Texas, and I’ve seen up too in the mountains of North Carolina, oh my goodness, blueberries turn this just crimson red.
Margaret: Here, too. The red color is unrivaled by any other plant, I think. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. [Above, fall foliage on lowbush blueberry.]
Jared: And we even have red stems on them that last throughout the wintertime, too. So finding woodies that we can integrate that have… So again, going back to some of these other episodes that you’ve done, on uncommon fruits with Lee Reich; I believe you did with that one. And so looking for those woodies.
But then for the edibles, we can also think of things… One of the tricks I learned from my friend, Brie Arthur, who wrote the book on foodscaping is, you can take shrubs, and use them as trellises for tomatoes, or pea vines, things like that, so that you’re basically integrating, finding those small patches.
So again, it goes back to this concept: Mother Nature hates bare soil, and how can we figure out ways? One of the things, too, that we did whenever I started here at the university is, we did a Swiss chard trial. And I think people thought I was a little bit crazy, but the reason we did it is because Swiss chard is beautiful. It’s ornamental, it’s edible-
Margaret: It is.
Jared: … it survives the winter [in Texas], and so why not research which ones grow best? And now I think that that is definitely coming full circle because when millennials and young people go into garden centers, they are asking the question, “Show me plants that do a little bit of everything.” So when we’re looking at foodscaping, that’s our goal is to find the little pockets and holes, and also start small. It can seem a little bit overwhelming to suddenly try to overhaul your whole landscape to make it edible, but start small, make some small impacts on things, and tuck in more rosemary and chives.
And the other thing, too, is that a lot of times we have ornamental beds around our house already, and we’re around that area close in proximity to the house. So that way, it’s not a big issue if you need to run out for some thyme, or some herbs-
Margaret: [Laughter.] Right, exactly. [Above, ‘Rhubarb’ chard.]
Jared: … real quick, and just grab them.
Margaret: It’s a little harvesting.
Jared: Exactly. Right as you’re cooking.
Margaret: Yeah. I promised at the beginning, one of the things we both want to put forth is that people think about propagating and sharing plants, is there some advice you want to give us quickly about that ethic?
Jared: I would love to. I would love to. So I argue that we are incredible propagators of plants, but one of the things that we need to do better about is figure out how to propagate more gardeners. And so, a couple of the principles that I teach people is: 1, you have to sow wonder. So when a seed goes to germinate, it takes in water, it imbibes water. And just like us, pretty much every gardener out there has had some experience of wonder in their life where they’ve experienced something that connected them to the natural world.
And so we’ve got to be making sure that we share stories about plants, because cultural information is important, but it’s actually the stories that connect people to plants.
We’ve also got to make sure that we’re helping amateur gardeners take root. And so we’ve got to make sure that we’re connecting the value of plants and that we’re not leading them astray. That’s one of the things that I focus on, too, is making sure that the information we’re sharing is truthful and accurate, because you see way too many information that’s out there.
For example, one of the things I teach my students is that some people say like, “Well, there’s male bell peppers, and there’s female bell peppers.” No. Because, bell peppers contain seed, and that seed comes from female placental tissue. So we’ve got to make sure we’re accurate.
And the last thing I want to say too is just that we’ve got to figure out ways to graft interest together. So that means connecting plants with art, connecting plants with music, with food, with beauty, with health.
And the other thing, too, that we’ve got to do is that we’ve got to have fun with plants. I think that too often, gardeners make plants boring, and they do it because they plant meatballs, or they just kind of throw some stuff in to fill a landscape. But we’ve got to remember that we share this planet with incredible organisms that transform the world, and we’ve got to celebrate them more.
Margaret: Well, Jared Barnes, a good place to finish, and I hope we’re going to talk again soon. I know I learn a lot from each of your newsletters and so forth, and your blog, and the podcast. And thank you for making time today. Thanks for sharing all these ideas. I’ll talk to you again soon.
Jared: Yes, Margaret, it was a true joy. I really appreciate you inviting me on. And until next time, keep growing.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 27, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).