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


Monday, October 10, 2016

Garden Design Magazine's New Gorgeous Videos!

This is a great magazine.

Have you noticed that I love the new Garden Design Magazine?

At every talk I give, I gush about it.  It is a gorgeous magazine devoted to garden design and plants. Every article is fascinating. It comes every few months.

Dwarf NY Asters featured in the Fall issue of Garden Design magazine

Now they have upped their game even more and have developed some fabulous videos that share with you a little of what is in their issue....

Jim Peterson, the publisher and driving force behind the magazine, plans to make three kinds of videos. The first supports stories in the magazine. The second is about garden features that are popular and on the fabulous Garden Design website  and the third will be about garden design and will be made in collaboration with designer,  Richard Hartlage.

Here is an interview with the editor of Garden Design magazine, Thad Orr, talking about the magazine and what is covered. It is a gem of a magazine and I urge you to subscribe to it!

Here is Thad Orr talking about the article about Desert Native Plants - wow!

Get your first issue free when you subscribe, use

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

October Glory in the Garden

October Skies Aster- Jan Johnsen 

 In my part of the world - New York State - October is when Mother Nature shines.  The days are shorter, the sun is low in the sky, but the weather stays warm enough for the flowering plants to hang on.

 I design and install gardens with October in mind because it is now when people have time to appreciate their grounds - it is too cold for the beach and graduations and summer parties are a memory. This is when people can stop and savor a garden. 

The design of Fall gardens is something I urge my students to master because these gardens prolong our enjoyment of Nature's gracious gifts.  

And, more importantly, they quietly trumpet the siren call of the garden muse who is about to take her leave...but not just yet.....she sticks around to give it one last show....

So in that vein, I am describing a little of what goes into making a autumn flower border... I know most readers simply enjoy the photos but maybe a few are interested in the 'gory details'. 

the holly backdrop here hides a deer fence

The flower border shown above is at the bottom of a long, gradual hill - thus, water collected here in great pools after a rain. It was wet and soggy a good deal of the time. Many plants would not have lived in this wetness so I had large amounts of soil brought in to create a high mounded bed to lift them above the damp conditions. 

Additionally, we had a 'field' of subsurface pipes (set in gravel) installed in front of the border to catch and carry away the runoff. We then graded and laid sod to create a lawn atop the pipes.

Please know it is always about the grading and the drainage..the plants come later....

Farther uphill I planted shrub roses - 'Sunny' Knock Out Roses and beyond is another flower border featuring Nepeta, Japanese wind anemones, garden phlox, goldenrod..

'Sunny' Knock Out Roses are three shades of light yellow / white...luscious.

One of my 'fave rave' perennial flowers for October (in my part of the world) is Japanese Wind Anemone...gently waving in the cool breeze. Its dainty flowers are the jewels of the flower world.

And of course some flowers of summer persist into fall and are actually more glorious now than ever...Lantana is a strong October performer.

White Lantana in October next to Blue Spruce globosum

also don't forget the berries! Winterberry likes it moist.. feeds the birds and is a native.

Love that winterberry...

and now that October is coming to a close...on to November!

Steinhardt garden bridge in NY in October -   photo by Jan Johnsen

I am speaking with Kerry Ann Mendez and Karen Bussolini at the Fall Garden Symposium in Stockbridge, Mass on Oct 20, 2016..
Go here for more info.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Beyond Prison : Insight Garden Program

Otisville Correctional Facility - where I taught but it was not this nice looking back then

In the 1970s, I was a part of a team that taught a one year intensive certificate program on Landscape Development and Maintenance at a community college near New Paltz, NY.

I was a young instructor but was very earnest and devoted to teaching. Then one day the president of the college called me in and told me that I, alone, would be teaching all my courses at a men's correctional facility 44 miles away. 

What??!! all my classes? away from the campus? in a prison?

After much protesting, I was sent 'away' to teach the entire program at a men's prison. Well, as often happens, it was one of the best experiences in my life. I taught full time there for 2 years and still cherish the memories.

Otisville Correctional Facility classroom  - but not my specific class

I have a lot of fun stories. We installed walks, plant beds and even a solar greenhouse (it was donated by a friend who had it on his property)  where we grew organic salad greens. I was not backed by any grants or organizations - I just forged ahead.

I taught college level classes on plant identification and usage, horticultural techniques 1 and 2, soil science, landscape design, greenhouse management tree and shrub pruning, small engine repair and turfgrass management. 

The best thing was to hear from my students later (mostly black and Latino from NYC) who got out and got jobs based on their hort. training and their knowledge of landscape plants. One student got a high position with the Parks department, he wrote such a wonderful letter thanking me.

I left after 2 years and I never found out what happened to our solar greenhouse. Today I hear that similar programs are happening around the country and it makes me so glad.  

As a kid from the city, I know exactly how life-changing developing a connection with the natural world can be: I remember being 20 years old when I realized that sunflower seeds came from a real sunflower and not a box. An epiphany.

Today, Kallopeia Foundation is supporting transformative prison programming (see their multi-media website here: including a project called the Insight Garden Program

Here, inmates at San Quentin prison in Northern California are offered vocational training in horticulture and are also introduced to holistic practices like mindfulness meditation. I love this approach because it enhances a connection to nature. Click here:

from the Insight program
Please check out their article called Beyond Prison - Breaking New Ground (click on this) from the website. They are doing a great job!

We need to offer more opportunities for all city kids to touch the earth and work with it - not just in prison. Landscape development careers offer the grounding we all need in this screen-dominated age. 

they have a video too - go to their site

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.