Gardens are Good for You

Gardens are good for you!  This is statement is easy to believe; many people enjoy gardening and appreciate times spent outdoors.  But, let’s dig a little deeper, why is this true? Norwegians have a term, Friluftsliv, which means “free air life.” This describes a way of life spent exploring an appreciated nature and Norwegians believe it is good for human’s mind and spirit.  The Japanese have a different term, Shinrin-yoko translated as “forest bathing” that means spending time in the forest and other natural areas is good preventative medicine because it lowers stress, which leads to many problematic health issues.

People, especially young people, often don’t recognize all the benefits of a connection to the outdoor.  This is thought to be due to a condition of “plant blindness.” Since we only consider consciously a minute fraction of the information taken in by our eyes, we prioritize that which we find familiar or are programmed to notice or appreciate. Until someone points out the plants in an attractive landscape, they may just be background noise and not truly noticed. Once you start noticing though, it is hard to stop!

We all spend a good part of each day with voluntary attention focusing on work or study and concentrating on the task at hand. We need to balance that intense attention with involuntary attention that is effortless and enjoyable. Noticing sensory stimuli in our environment is a good way to achieve the rejuvenation that comes from involuntary attention.

Many believe human evolution is responsible for our connection to the natural world. It makes sense that our ancestors who found nature effortlessly engaging were more likely to know where to gather berries and more alert to dangerous predators. They lived to reproduce, and those characteristics are still in modern humans’ genes.

Jay Townsend found in his PhD research at UD that trees have a mitigating effect on community stress. Studies in the Netherlands and Japan showed easy access to green spaces resulted in better health and lower mortality.

A famous study by Roger Ulrich (formerly a UD geography professor and recently retired from Texas A& M) found that hospital patients recovered better, required less pain medication and had shorter hospital stays when the view from their hospital room was a grove of trees rather than a brick wall.

Many people assume plants increase crime because they give criminals a place to hide. In fact, plants decrease crime because in landscaped areas attract people resulting in increased surveillance reducing the likelihood of crime. They also reduce stress, a precursor to violent crime.

Children are better able to focus on schoolwork when they have recently had contact with the outdoors. Duh, why do you think schools have recess!

It is not just contact with the natural world we seek, but an active participation with plants through gardening. Gardening improves physical health (great form of exercise) and psychological health. Accomplishing gardening tasks increase our sense of control and distract us from negativity. They also widen our focus and remind us the natural world is so much larger and greater than our troubles.

So, what is the prescription for getting some of this good mojo? Start observing the world around you. Consciously notice your surroundings. Look for patterns in the landscape. Notice change. Challenge yourself to figure out the how and why of what you see. Look for palimpsests – old writings (in this case a former use of a landscape) that have been overwritten by the new but are still visible. You can read the history of a site with a little careful observation and discovery.

An urban street with and without plants – you make the choice!

Leave the Leaves

Everyone has their favorite season, mine is fall (except for the fact that it means winter is next).  Crisp mornings and colorful leaves are part of this wonderful season.  Those colorful leaves have already started falling and to many that means it is time to get out the rakes and leaf blowers.  There is also a “clean up” task looming over gardeners’ heads to clean up perennial plants and get your garden ready for winter.  Guess what? It doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the most valuable practices that supports pollinators, butterflies, beneficial insects and small vertebrates is to provide winter cover in the form of fall leaves and standing dead plant material.  Unfortunately, we have been programmed to clean up the garden each fall; raking up leaves and cutting back the tops of perennials.  These practices are not completely wrong – it is important to remove leaves from the lawn because the exclude light and turfgrass needs light to grow.  It is also useful to remove the dead perennial foliage so new sprouts can come up next spring without being hindered by old dead stems and leaves.

By continuing to mow the lawn periodically during the fall, you basically remove those leaves by chopping them up and letting the nutrients in the leaves eventually make their way back into the soil for use next year. By leaving perennial stems and flower heads up during the winter, you provide food for birds (coneflower seeds are nutritious bird food) and you make the “clean-up”  job much easier in the spring after winter rain, ice and snow has beaten down the foliage, stems and flower heads.  In many cases, there is no removal required. Only remove diseased plants in the fall.

We all know about the great monarch migration to Mexico, but that is not the norm for butterflies.  Most butterflies and moths overwinter in the landscape either as eggs, caterpillar, chrysalises or adults. These insects use the leaf litter for winter cover.  Great spangled fritillary, Luna moths, Baltimore checkerspot butterflies, and woolly bear caterpillars tuck themselves into a pile of leaves for protection from cold weather and predators. Red-banded hairstreaks lay their eggs on fallen oak leaves, which become the first food of their caterpillars when they emerge. Luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalis as dried leaves, blending in with the real leaves. Pithy and hollow stems of plants offer a safe winter environment for many native bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. These are but a few of countless examples.

If you really want to be friendly to your local insects, simply rake or blow leaves off the lawn and into landscape beds.  Whole leaves provide better cover and will decompose more slowly.  If your lawn is large and you don’t have enough area in landscape beds to accept all those leaves, build a compost pile. Or better yet, consider reducing the size of your lawn and adding beds of native plants to support native wildlife.

Leaves in your landscape beds are good for many reasons. Make sure the leaf layer is at least two inches thick to get the full benefit. Leaves will decompose naturally and provide valuable organic matter to build up healthy soil. They support the many forms of microorganisms that live in the soil. These microorganisms are for the most part beneficial, helping decompose organic matter and combating disease. A layer of leaves has the same weed suppression and moisture retention properties of shredded wood mulch – and they are free. A thick layer of leaves provides insulation against cold weather and can protect newly planted perennials when frost-heave may expose tender roots. Anyone who has spotted fragile spring ephemerals popping up in the woods knows that all but the frailest of plants will burst through the leaf litter in spring without trouble. As perennials emerge you can brush the leaves aside and give them room to expand.  As your plants grow and beds fill in, they will cover the leaf mulch. But the mulch will still be there to provide water retention, weed suppression, and compost for the upcoming season.

This system of allowing leaves and perennials to remain all winter and into the spring mimics the natural functioning of an ecosystem.  Forests, where leaves fall, blanket the ground and decompose each year have rich soil and support lots of wildlife.  Allow your suburban landscape to function like a forest ecosystem.  Don’t throw away one of the environment’s best resources by sending leaves away each fall!


Limit the lawn in your yard and fill the landscape with native plants. Rake the leaves off your lawn into surrounding landscape beds.


Gardens are Great!

In this crazy time of limited travel and socializing, one thing we can engage with fully is our garden.  This pandemic has brought out the ultimate in cocooning to the benefit of many home landscapes.  More time on your hand? More opportunity to spread mulch, weed and prune.

When spreading mulch, be sure to use an organic mulch that will decompose, adding nutrients and improving the structure of your soil. My preference is leaf mulch, but bark mulch or well composted yard waste is OK, too.  Avoid dyed mulches. The dyes can be toxic to plants and dyed mulches are usually made from un-composted wood high in carbon that can pull nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes.  Plus, mulch dyed red is just unnatural looking and has no place in a landscape.  Also, be careful to rake old mulch before adding new mulch to prevent a hydrophobic crust that prevents water from reaching the soil and ultimately plant roots.  Add only a small layer of new mulch to your garden beds.  Mulch should be no thicker than 2-3 inches including both new and old mulch layers.  Do not pile mulch up around the base of tree, despite what you see in public landscapes or neighbors’ homes.  Mulch mounds are a ploy by unskilled landscapers to make you buy more mulch. Mulch mounds promote a moist environment around tree trunks and cause decay, allowing the entry of insects and disease organisms.  Some people think they are preventing weeds by piling on the mulch, but a thin layer will prevent most annual weeds from germinating and perennial weeds, like dandelions, can grow though any thickness of mulch.

Most pruning should be accomplished in late winter and early spring before trees and shrubs leaf out.  But some shrubs that bloom on old wood are better pruned right after flowering.  Also, some plants will have dieback and it is hard to see which branches require pruning until the tree or shrub has leafed out fully.  Now is the time to carefully prune dead branches back to the nearest live branch.  That can be tedious work, but your trees and shrubs will look much better when cleared of the dead branches.

Weeding can be an undesirable task or an absolute pleasure depending on your frame of mind.  If you have a comfortable pad for your knees, a good weeding tool (like a narrow trowel or a hori hori), a pair of well-fitting garden gloves and a bucket for placing your weeds, I can think of nothing more satisfying than making your way from bed to bed and pulling weeds in your garden. Be sure to pull out the entire plant, including the roots.  If you pull the top of the weed, you have only solved the problem temporarily.  Some plants may even grow back more vigorously when their foliage is removed.

The long, cool spring has been great for many plants.  Blossoms on spring blooming trees (other than saucer magnolia that got hit by our late frosts) have lasted much longer than normal.  Now that we are getting some warm days, you can start putting foliage plants outdoors and pot up containers of annuals and mixed tropicals. Take some time to walk around your garden and notice the subtle changes that occur daily as well as the “wow” aspects of your garden that are unmissable (like this sweep of golden ragwort – Packera aurea).

The bright yellow sweep of golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is much prettier than its name.

Lessons from Brazil

In January, I led a study abroad to Brazil for UD with my colleague, Anna Wik—what an experience!  We took 14 students to the Amazon region and stayed in floating lodges to learn about the flooded rainforest ecosystem (Varzea). The water rises 12 meters during the rainy season and animals must find refuge in the trees (including the elusive jaguar).  After the Amazon, we traveled to Rio de Janeiro, where we studied the work of Roberto Burle Marx.  This famous landscape architect died in 1994, but not before leaving a legacy in Brazil and throughout the world.  What can we learn from him today?  Lots! He is credited with being the first landscape architect to celebrate the native plants of his homeland.  When he started designing landscapes in Brazil, most landscapes were comprised of European plants, but Burle Marx loved the bold textures of native tropical flora and used them in his designed landscapes.  The benefits of using native plants in planned landscapes are well-known now but not always practiced.

Roberto Burle Marx approached landscape design as a painter and used the landscape as his canvas.  The renovated Cavanella’s landscape just north of Petropolis is a fantastic example of the brush strokes he painted with plants.

Cavanella’s gardens designed by Roberto Burle Marx with a home designed by Oscar Niemeyer taken on a recent visit by a UD study abroad.

Burle Marx had a passion for plants and discovered many new species and cultivars, some of which bear his name.  In his sitio (ranch) about one hour outside Rio, he displays many of those plants, but his gardens also include built features in which he reused recycled materials – another current trend.  His home landscape sports a retaining wall constructed of granite from Victorian buildings torn down in Rio in the 50’s to make way for modern buildings that had taken over the public’s desire.  This reuse of existing materials is an important component of sustainable landscape design today.

Recycled Victorian granite built into a retaining wall at Roberto Burle Marx sitio in Brazil.

The UD students on this study abroad not only walked through Roberto Burle Marx designed gardens, but biked through the famous Flamengo Park, also designed by Burle Marx, and intended to provide people of Rio de Janeiro a place to relax and enjoy nature in the midst of one of the biggest cites in the world.  The park uses groupings of trees and shrubs as well as rolling topography to create private spaces for people to enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities.

In the US, we are proud of Central Park in NYC, but Rio de Janeiro boasts 2 of the world’s largest urban parks. Tijuca Park was once denuded for timber and then planted to sugar cane followed by coffee.  When the soil could no longer sustain crops and started to wash down the mountainside, Brazil replanted the forest and it is enjoyed today by many people and animals. Unfortunately, it was planted to mostly non-native species, so Brazilians cope with some of the same invasive plant problems we face in the US.

Roberto Burle Marx has a special place in the hearts of gardeners in the Delaware Valley, because his only landscape design installed in the United States is at Longwood Gardens.  The Cascade Room at the end of the Acacia walkway and past the orchid display features waterfalls and bromeliads and was designed by Burle Marx near the end of his life.

The Cascade Room at Longwood Gardens during the 2019 Christmas display with its bold bromeliads.

Our students learned much about landscape architecture and the culture of Brazil.  What are the take home messages for all gardeners?  Celebrate native plants of your region.  Be artistic in your planned landscapes (in whatever form you wish to express yourself).  Reuse and recycle materials to make sustainable landscapes.  And finally, create gardens that people can enjoy.  Touché’ Roberto Burle Marx, your legacy lives on in the minds of many and especially in the 14 UD students who are wiser after this winter session for having learned about your work.

For more information about horticulture in Delaware visit and follow me on Instagram at sbartonhort.  The Sue Barton blog has a calendar of events that includes many interesting meetings, workshops and webinars for interested gardeners and landscape professionals.  Check it out!



Why Landscape Design?

As we cross over from summer into fall, there is still time for planting, but there is also lots of time to think about revising your landscape next year.  Maybe you think your landscape is perfectly acceptable, like those around you and simply not in need of any revision.  That may be the case, but there are also several reasons why you might want to consider a landscape renovation.  Do you ever renovate the inside of your house?  How old is your kitchen?  How about bathrooms? When was the last time you bought new curtains, a new rug or applied a fresh coat of paint?  We take many home renovations for granted, without every really thinking about renovating the outdoors.

Think about whether your landscape truly provides spaces for you to enjoy the outdoors or is it simply a decoration of the front of your house? An effective landscape creates outdoors rooms in which you and your family can live, especially now in Delaware when the outdoors is such a pleasant place to be! But, creating outdoor rooms doesn’t just happen. You need a floor—a nice lawn area, patio or deck.  You need walls—shrubs or small trees that block some views and accentuate others.  And you need a ceiling—large trees that overhang your room and provide a sense of enclosure.

Another reason to renovate your landscape is to make sure your outdoors is providing the ecosystem services you need to live.  Ecosystem services include clean water and well-managed water.  Does the water that falls on the roof of your house or your driveway stay on your property and infiltrate, where it can become cleansed by flowing through the soil and making it to the groundwater?  Or does water flow off your property into storm drains carrying debris and other pollutants to our surface waters? You can design your landscape to keep all the water on site and allow it to infiltrate to water your plants and slowly recharge the groundwater of Delaware.

Another important ecosystem service is clean air.  Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, of course, but they also remove undesirable particulates from the air.  While turfgrass is a plant and does give off oxygen, it is not as good at supplying oxygen and removing particulates as a more complicated multi-layered landscape.  If you have lawn plus groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, small trees and large trees, you are intercepting and cleansing air at many different levels or layers within your landscape.

A third ecosystem service is wildlife habitat.  We have all been hearing how important it is to provide plants for pollinators to pollinate our food crops, but in fact, every plant needs to be pollinated in order to survive.  Also, plants are the basis of the food chain.  Without plants we would not support insects and without insects, we can’t support birds, without birds we can’t support carnivores that eat birds, etc. It turns out we need not just any plant, we need native plants.  Native plants and native insects have developed close relationships over evolutionary time, so if we want to have enough insects to feed baby birds (and who doesn’t want to invite birds into their landscape), we need to plant native plants.

The fourth ecosystem service is human wellness.  Spending time outdoors is a great stress reliever and is important to a happy, healthy life.  Creating landscapes that make it fun to be outdoors will restore your mental capacity to deal with that tough problem you are facing at work or at home.

So where does landscape design come in?  Creating landscapes that fulfill these ecosystem services takes skill and experience.  Landscape designers and landscape architects have been trained to think in terms of creating outdoor rooms and functioning landscape that do more than just look pretty.  At the University of Delaware, we are training students in our Landscape Architecture program for careers in which they can help homeowners, businesses, and communities create functioning landscapes that meet the needs of the users and provide the ecosystem services we all need to survive.

A group of landscape architecture students at UD is hosting the second Landscape Architecture Symposium sponsored by the program (and by the Delaware Center for Horticulture).  The Craft of Design: Enhancing Skills and Landscape Function will be held on November 1 (8 AM – 6 PM) at the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington, DE.  Speakers will talk about people-centered landscapes and afternoon workshops will work on building landscape skills in sketching, photography and modeling.  This symposium is open to anyone who is interested in landscape design and would be the perfect opportunity to help you jump start a garden renovation project at home.  For more details and to register visit

This low retaining wall and perennial provide a “wall” for an outdoor seating patio. Plus lots of native plants provide food for native insects encouraging birds and other wildlife.

Tall, arching trees provide a sense of enclosure in this backyard patio.

Control those weeds!

A major summertime gardening task is controlling weeds.  Especially this year, with all the rain we’ve had, weeds are running rampant in many gardens.

The best way to control weeds in the garden is to prevent them from growing in the first place.  Planting desirable plants close together to cover the ground is the most natural and effective method of weed control. Some people seem to think vast spaces of mulch are beautiful, but ideally mulch is a temporary ground cover until plants fill in. That said, mulch spread to a thickness of one to three inches will prevent many annual weeds from germinating.  So, mulch is better than bare soil.  Anyone who has managed a vegetable garden knows that bare soil will become a bed of weed seedlings in a few weeks with sufficient rain. Keep mulch away from tree trunks, where is will rot the bark and open wounds for disease and insect entry.  And don’t let the mulch get thicker than about 3 inches.  We want plant roots to grow in the soil, not the mulch.

Another method of preventing weeds is to use a preemergent herbicide.  Crabgrass is controlled in the lawn with a preemergent in early to mid-spring.  Unfortunately, in a rainy year it may be necessary to reapply crabgrass preemergents to keep the herbicide barrier in tact and prevent weed seedlings from emerging. Summer annuals can also be controlled in landscape beds with the use of a preemergent herbicide, but it must be applied before the weeds come up. I have effectively controlled Japanese stilt grass in some areas of my landscape by applying a preemergent in early spring.

Finally, weed fabric. black plastic or even newspaper can be used in the vegetable garden to either smother or prevent weed emergence.  We have a large vegetable garden created by the former land owners and since we can’t use all the space, rotate areas to cover with black plastic for a season.  We let leaves and weeds decompose and usually have great soil for the following year as we rotate planting areas.  We have also learned it is well worth the time to plant tomatoes and peppers in rows and use weed fabric in between.  There are fewer weeds and a good surface for walking on to pick your produce.  This year we seeded corn, beans and other veggies in rows spaced perfectly to allow us to put down weed fabric once the crops germinated.  When putting weed control in an area where you are growing plants, you must use a permeable fabric, not black plastic, so water gets to the plant roots.

We already know “on ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Benjamin Franklin), but if you have weeds already growing in your garden, prevention is not an option.  There is a school of thought that says it is better to spot treat with an herbicide than to disturb the soil by pulling up the weed.  That makes sense when you think about how many weed seeds are present in soil (130 million weed seeds in a plow acre in a Minnesota study). When you pull up a deep-rooted weed, you disturb the soil, bringing new weed seeds to the surface.  By spot treating with an herbicide, no additional weed seeds are exposed.

Another school of thought believes in regular tillage when weeds are young to desiccate those weed seedlings. I admit, it is a lot easier to pull weeds as you see them than to mix up herbicides whenever you want to attack your weeds.  Probably for most people, a combination approach makes sense.  Be sure when you pull weeds to use a trowel and get the entire root. Another strategy is to use a flame torch to control weeds.  We had to buy a torch to seal some roofing material, so we started experimenting with it in the vegetable garden.  It burns off the weed tops but does not kill the roots.  Although with young plants and repeated use, it does a pretty good job. Be careful not to burn desirable plants. This method is best used for cleaning up larger spaces in a vegetable garden prior to seeding.

When you spot spray for weeds in the garden, be sure to spray on a calm day and use a spray nozzle that allows you to carefully direct the herbicide to the weeds you are targeting and avoid desirable plants.  There has been much written about glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as RoundUp) in the news lately.  I suggest you consider the source of the information you are evaluating.  Many people believe that since two juries have found RoundUp at fault in causing the plaintiff’s cancer, it must be a cancer-causing chemical.  Everyone has the right to make their own decision, but for my money, I will believe the data from over 100 research studies that support the belief that RoundUp does not cause cancer, before I will believe 24 jurors, most of whom are probably not scientists, who were convinced by a lawyer (also not a scientist) that RoundUp does cause cancer.  What I can tell you for sure, is to avoid “home remedies” for weed control.  There are many substances we have in our kitchen or bathroom cabinets that are toxic to humans and bad for the environment.  Do not mix up your own brew to control weeds, no matter what you read on the internet!

Use plant masses and a bit of mulch at the edge to prevent weeds.