Garden Designers Roundtable: Idols

This month on Garden Designers Roundtable, we explore the topic of Idols, those people we look to for inspiration when we’re designing gardens for our clients. As I was thinking about who to profile, I started thinking about different aspects of inspiration.

Perhaps I should profile a person whose book I turn to for inspiration and guidance time after time. Maybe a person who epitomizes a future of garden design where we stop choosing plants simply for their natural beauty and instead start to choose beautiful plants that have value for local wildlife and enhance the larger ecosystem. Or possibly someone who pushes the envelope a bit and challenges the way we view plants and how we treat them?

And then it dawned on me, I could profile one person and meet all those requirements…and more. So let me introduce you to Carolyn Summers.

Admit it, some of you are probably thinking ‘who?’  To tell you the truth, up until about 15 months ago, I’d never heard of Carolyn Summers either.

Shower Caddies and Safe Sex

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East cover image I stumbled upon her book, Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, at the UCONN bookstore when I was buying supplies for my son who was starting his freshman year there. He was looking for a shower caddy and some extra hangers and I was browsing the Co-op’s extensive book department when I picked up Carolyn’s book.

A quick look at the title and my immediate reaction was that it was probably one of those scholarly books without much real ‘meat & potatoes’. I quickly flipped through it and decided I might be wrong.

Chapters like “Safe Sex’ in the Garden, Showy Substitutes for Common Invasive Plants and Designing Traditional Gardens with Indigenous Plants peaked my interest. Enough for me to pay retail price for a book, something I haven’t done in years!

Building on a Foundation

Many native plant enthusiasts can trace their interest in native plants and the growing awareness of the role native plants play in the ecosystem back to reading Douglas Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home.  While Tallamy’s book was eye-opening, it didn’t offer much in the way of actionable steps for incorporating native plants into designed landscapes. And let’s face it, for many gardeners, and garden designers for that matter, native plants = wild, messy, unkempt. Not exactly a style many homeowners are looking for.

Summers’ book picks up where Tallamy’s left off and shows how easy it is to incorporate native plants into any style of designed garden. Her message is powerful but not controversial. Aware that ‘native’ can be politically charged, she instead uses the phrase ‘indigenous plants’.  Indigenous plants evolved as part of the regional web of life and are useful to the majority of local insects and birds and therefore the broader ecosystem around them. Regardless of where you garden, you can embrace Summers definition of indigenous plants and find apropriate indigenous for your own garden.

She is pragmatic and understands most gardeners will never give up all their non-native plants so she promotes adding more indigenous plants, while at the same time reducing the number of exotic plants. Not only does she offer native substitutes for commonly used invasive plants, Summers also provides lists of native plants to use in various garden styles. Dreaming about your very own cottage garden? There ‘s a list of over 25 native plants that will look great in a cottage garden and will also feed the local wildlife. Or perhaps a Japanese inspired garden? There’s a list of native plants you should check out.

Activist & Educator

Carolyn Summers (photo courtesy of

In addition to being a landscape architect, Carolyn is also an adjunct professor at Westchester Community College and is deeply involved in WCC’s Native Plant Center, an affiliate of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  I’ve been fortunate  to see Carolyn speak at events and have also taken one of her classes.

She is a passionate advocate of indigenous plants. She was even a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit where the city of New York was sued when they wanted to cut down some indigenous plants, including Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) growing on Staten Island to make way for a new Target. While she and her co-plaintiff lost the lawsuit, the City did pay to relocate the indigenous plants and pay for their care for a few years. Kinda of neat, huh!

Looking for more inspiring horticulture and garden design idols? I invite you to check out the links below to read post from my fellow Roundtablers, and our guest this month, Thomas Rainer of Grounded Design.

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Arlington, Virginia

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin, TX

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Book Preview: Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East

Cover image of Designing Gardens with Flora of the American EastPlease don’t let the title of the book intimidate you.  I agree, it’s not one of those ‘warm & fuzzy’ titles that you are immediately drawn to as you’re searching the gardening section of your local book store. And that’s a good thing.

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East is written for the thinking gardener.  The gardener who sees their garden as more than a collection of pretty plants.  The gardener who understands the important role every garden plays in the broader ecosystem and realizes the critical importance of bio-diversity. 

Summers’ book picks up where Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home leaves off. It offers practical information about gardening with native, or indigenous, plants.  Since Summers is also an adjunct professor at the Westchester Community College, her book is sprinkled with lots of scientific facts that admittedly bogs down the book in certain parts.

Where this book excels is at offering indigenous alternatives to invasive plants and presenting design ideas on how to incorporate them into various garden settings – from cottage gardens to meadows to traditional foundation plantings.  There is a chapter on shopping for native plants and also lists of native plants for various purposes such as attracting birds, providing host plants for butterflies or gardening in the shade.

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East is a must have book for any gardener in the region who is interested in making their garden more sustainable, bio-diverse and ecologically sensitive.

As an aside, I just saw the author, Carolyn Summers, speak at the Ecological Landscape Association’s conference and she was wonderful. Ms. Summers is a lively and engaging speaker and the hour presentation flew by. If you ever have the chance to see Ms. Summers speak, don’t pass it up.