Ecotherapy: How Contact With Nature Can Improve Your Well-Being

Yesterday, my team and I completed a large project. As we stood surveying our work, we were overcome by emotion. It had taken us months, working together, to coax seven gardens into full bloom. You could say that the plants had really done a number on us.

No, it hadn’t been easy. But now, a cornucopia of fall colors was our long-awaited reward. We all felt a profound sense of well-being.


There’s a relatively new field in town called ecotherapy. Also known as green therapy, it is increasingly being used to improve people’s mental and physical well-being. Broadly speaking, ecotherapy promotes interaction with nature as a means to fostering healing and growth. 

forest path

Think of it as the health of a human viewed in context with the health of the Earth. We often forget that man depends on the natural environment and its ecosystems for survival. Ecotherapy seeks to realign people with their surroundings while also safeguarding and improving their local environments. 


Indeed, research shows that contact with nature can transform us. Not only does it boost our moods, but evidence shows that it can even help with mild forms of depression. In fact, studies have shown that when people are given plants to care for, it not only strengthens their social connections, but also produces increased levels of happiness.

group of houseplants

Houseplants can boost our sense of connectedness

Countless poets have written about this feeling of connectedness towards each other and plants and the inner joy a person can experience in nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

‘Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”

lake in Glacier National Park

Lake in Glacier National Park

Perhaps it’s the combination of physical activity coupled with being outdoors, but I feel considerably better when I’m immersed in my garden. Almost daily, I enter the yard only to discover something new. Monte Don, gardener and TV presenter wrote in a column for Gardener’s World that “When you plant something, you invest in a beautiful future.” It’s true that sowing a seed or nurturing a plant naturally affirms our faith in a good outcome.

Or as Walt Whitman wrote,

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

field of sunflowers


My boyfriend wasn’t a gardener before we met. But after almost a decade together, he has developed not only a keen knowledge of plants, but distinct preferences for some species over others. Lately, I’ve even caught him weeding.

Recently he came into the house to report on all the pollinator activity going on in the garden. His eyes lit up as he described the range in size and color of the bees he had observed over the course of the afternoon. I smiled to myself. His eyes had been opened to a whole new world of plants and the workings of tiny living beings.

In my case, it’s the sensation of my hands in the dirt, the sound of the wind in the leaves and the changes in the songs of the birds that thrill me. Or the interesting fact that many butterflies’ wings seem to match the flower they pollinate. You could say I’ve been undergoing ecotherapy for years.

monarch on butterfly weed

W.B. Yeats summed it up beautifully. He wrote,

‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’

There’s so much to observe, right under our very noses. Taking time to note all the goings-on around us helps us step outside of ourselves and take a broader interest in our environment.


Finally, there’s the social aspect of ecotherapy. In my view, you can’t beat the feeling of gardening with others. I’ve learned a lot about my team as we’ve installed countless plants, stepping back to see which ones look right where. Previously shy members have suddenly revealed a great eye for color or for cutting curves. Another shown a talent for designing containers. We’ve discovered so much about each other over the course of the years.

Part of my incredible team

This is certainly how we felt yesterday while contemplating our creation. Suffused with a profound sense of accomplishment, we embraced the beauty in all things. I’d say it was ecotherapy at its finest.

Or, as William Wordsworth put it,

“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”

And so it was. 

For more information on ecotherapy and its programs, check out Making sense of ecotherapy.

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage and rosette but is also one of just a few species that thrives in cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperature so much it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers.


Things can get confusing at the nursery. Even though they belong to the same family, cabbage and kale are actually not the same. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable whose leaves come together to form a head.

Cabbage head growing in the garden

Conversely, kale has a cluster of upright, open leaves called a rosette.

Ornamental kale

That being said, you will generally find ornamental varieties with broad, flat leaves labeled as ‘cabbage’ and those with ruffled, crinkled or curled leaves labeled as ‘kale’ at the store. 


Selectively bred to produce spectacular leaves and rosettes, flowering kale comes in all shapes and sizes. The outer leaves are typically blue-green in tone while the rosettes start out pale green, then gradually shift to pink, red, purple, or cream depending on variety. The florets expand as temperatures cool, .

The distinctive, blue-green outer leaves of flowering kale

In recent years, innovations in color and form have made ornamental kale a ‘must-have’ in fall gardens. The new hues work beautifully with chrysanthemums, pot marigolds and pansies. And the variety in sizes makes the plant perfectly suited to just about every container.

Flowering kale rosette featuring ruffled edges

Best of all, flowering kale usually reaches its crescendo just after the first frost. And some plants maintain their intensity all the way until spring.

flowering kale covered with snow


Kale is a biennial, which means it has a two-year life cycle. The first year it produces leaves and the second year it produces flowers. Most people grow it for its ornamental qualities, however, and throw it out after the first year.


Ornamental kale and cabbage require very little maintenance and are bothered by few pests. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and benefit from feeding. For the best color, position your plants in full sun.

Since there won’t be much top growth after September, look for ornamental kale in one gallon size pots. Then keep spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the rosettes to remain small. Over time, plants generally attain a width of approximately 12 inches.


Ready to get started? Here are some of the most popular varieties:


Redbor has narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach a height of 3 feet. Use it by itself in a parterre garden, or try massing it behind annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas in contrasting colors.

Purple-leaved Redbor kale


Peacock series ornamental kale are large, open and frilly plants that can reach 2 feet across. They feature deeply serrated, feather-like leaves and cream or red-toned centers. Extremely cold hardy, they can survive even the harshest of winters.

Deeply serrated, feather-like leaves distinguish Peacock kale


Pigeon Series (Pigeon Pink and Pigeon Red Pigeon Purple and Pigeon White) ornamental kale most closely resembles cabbage with its tight rosettes of light pink, dark red or creamy white. The round-shaped plants have wavy outer leaves that remain medium to dark green while the flower-like centers change color. I’ll often combine different colors to form geometric patterns.

The tight rosettes of ornamental kale ‘Pigeon Series’


Osaka Pink, Osaka White and Osaka Red are often termed ornamental cabbage due to their smooth, flat leaves and tightly-packed rosettes. The plants produce layers of wavy edged green leaves while the florets gradually change to bright purple, pink or cream.

Osaka series ornamental kale has flat green leaves like cabbage


Due to its wide range of sizes, flowering kale looks equally good mixed with other flowers or all on its own in a single container. Below is a parterre garden I created using two broad-leaved varieties. 

Parterre with two different varieties of ornamental kale/

The tall, frilly purple and green varieties and the broadleaf Osaka make a contrasting statement in large containers. In this planter box, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia soften the mix.

The Impatient Gardener/Pinterest

In this small container, I’ve combined ornamental ‘cabbage’ with violas and Swedish ivy. The greenish-purple kale complements the colors of the dusty red pot.

Fall container with ornamental kale/herebydesign

In this formal urn, I played up the drama using tall grasses as a centerpiece. Then I added different varieties of red and green flowering kale, purple violas and mahogany-toned potato vine to create a warm-toned composition. 

Fall container with grasses, flowering kale and potato vine/herebydesign

Since ornamental kale retains its color well into winter, it also pairs beautifully with evergreen branches, pinecones and catkins to form stunning holiday arrangements.

Photo Credit/Canadian Gardening Magazine

In the garden, deep purple varieties like Redbor pair beautifully with salmon chrysanthemums and straw-colored grasses. The maiden grasses’s creamy plumes add a delicate touch.

Photo Credit/The Hoosier Gardener

Finally, when combining flowering kales with other plants, think about varying the foliage. Here, purple fountain grass and lime green potato vine provide color. And the frilly purple variety lends contrast. 

Photo Credit/Three Dogs In A Garden

Ready to get started? Check out your local nursery for the newest varieties. And don’t be afraid to combine them with other cool-season companions like evergreen branches, dried flower heads, catkins and berries. These fillers will add interest to your containers and help pump up the volume.


The Seed Vault That May One Day Save The World


If our planet ever goes to ruin, it’s good to know there’s a place squirreling away the world’s seeds. Located deep inside a mountain just north of the Arctic Circle, it’s known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Here in an icy chamber, duplicates of close to a million seeds are stored in the largest secure seed storage facility of its kind.


In a world of increasing instability, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault offers the ultimate life insurance policy. Its mission is simple. Designed to safeguard the world’s crops from large-scale natural or man-made disasters, it’s a backup for the global food supply.

We have the Norwegian government and Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust to thank for the idea. In the early 2000s, they recognized that the world’s gene banks were inherently vulnerable. Given that most of the world’s population depended on agriculture for survival, it seemed prudent to preserve seeds. They hit on Svalbard as the answer.


Situated north of Europe midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. One of the world’s northernmost inhabited places, the area boasts rugged mountains, fjords and frozen tundra providing refuge to polar bears, reindeer and the Arctic fox.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands served as an international whaling base. But in the early 1900s, they turned mainly to mining coal.  


Polar bears are the iconic symbol of Spitsbergen

Of the four main islands, the largest one is Spitsbergen, which accounts for more than half of the area. Most of the archipelago’s small population lives here in Longyearbyen, a small coal-mining town.

The colorful houses of Spitsbergen’s largest settlement, Longyearbyen 

And just a little over a decade ago, the residents welcomed the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as their new neighbor.

Svalbard was chosen for several reasons. Not only was its remote location ideal, but its Arctic climate and year round frozen ground made it perfect for underground cold storage. Construction of the facility began in June 2006 in an abandoned coal mine deep inside Spitsbergen’s Plateau Mountain. Surrounded by thick rock and permafrost, the completed vault had the capacity to store 4.5 million different crop varieties. 

‘It is the best insulated freezer in the world,’ said Cary Fowler.


Credit: Matthias Heyde


Like many out-of-the-way places, the only visible part of the 10,764 square foot facility is its entrance. Formed out of dark grey concrete, the minimalist lobby juts horizontally out of the mountain. Inside, a massive tube of corrugated steel pipe leads down into the permafrost to three separate but identical chambers.


Credit: Matthias Heyde

According to the Crop Trust, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently houses more than 980,000 samples. Originating from almost every country in the world, they include tens of thousands of essential crops such as beans, wheat and rice as well as many unique food varieties. To ensure their survival, each species is stored in boxes behind heavy locked doors in custom, four-ply aluminum packets. 


Credit: Matthias Heyde


So how does it work? It helps to think of the Svalbard Seed Vault in terms of a bank. For example, the vault is owned by the country it’s located in (Norway) and the depositors (global gene banks) own the contents of the boxes. However, seeds are accepted only a few days a year.

Moreover, the seeds are not ‘originals’, but copies of seeds belonging to the depositing gene banks. Anyone who wants access to the seeds, such as plant researchers, farmers or other groups, must request seed samples through the donor gene banks. No one can access the site directly.


Credit: The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture i Nigeria (IITA)

In fact, the state-of-the-art and fully automated seed bank has no permanent staff on site. Instead, the vault is monitored remotely.  Even so, Spitsbergen residents check in on it regularly.


Despite the fact that the seed vault is not open to the public, a piece of art nevertheless embellishes the roof of its lobby. Created by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, it is called ‘Perpetual Repercussion.’ Composed of stainless steel triangles, mirrors and prisms, the unusual piece reflects the Arctic light back out into space in an ever-changing composition.


Credit: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv


A feasibility study, undertaken prior to construction, determined that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault could preserve most major crops’ seeds for centuries. And some important grains could survive even longer, possibly for thousands of years.



In 2015, the civil war in Syria prompted the first ever withdrawal from the Svalbard Seed Vault. Researchers took 38,000 seeds out of the vault to replace crops that had been diminished in the conflict. Read about it and view coverage here at 

Construction of the $9 million facility was funded by the Norwegian government. The facility is now managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the kingdom of Norway in coordination with the Nordic Gene Resource Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Recently, Norway announced they will spend close to $13 million dollars to upgrade the 10-year-old facility. 

To learn more about the Global Seed Vault and take a virtual tour of the facility visit the Crop Diversity Trust.


Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since.


It turns out that while I may have been uninformed, the genus lespedeza has quite a reputation. A member of the pea family, it comprises over 40 flowering plant species. These include shrubs and trailing vines, some of which are grown as ornamental plants and others for forage or to prevent erosion. But some species exhibit some downright deviant behavior.

Take for example Lespedeza striata, commonly known as Japanese clover. A ground-hugging annual, it forms dinner-plate size patches of dark green leaves with wiry stems. In late summer it produces a mass of tiny pink flowers. The downside is it also delights in choking out turf.

lespedeza striata

Lespedeza striata, commonly known as Japanese clover

Then there’s Lespedeza cuneata, an extremely aggressive warm-season perennial. Also known as Chinese bush clover, it was brought to the United States from Asia in the late 1800s to prevent erosion. However, it rapidly began invading open spaces, out-competing native vegetation. Now the upright, gray-green shrub with cream flowers is classified as an invasive weed in the Midwest and eastern United States.

lespedeza cuneata


But, there is a member of the family who is considered the star of the genus. Relatively unknown to the home garden, it is the species Lespedeza thunbergii (also known as bush clover.) Recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Award of Garden Merit, it boasts beautiful blue-green foliage, cascading panicles of rosy-pink flowers and a dramatic fountain-like appearance. 

Moreover, unlike other family members, bush clover sticks to its place. Slowly developing over the summer into a roughly 6-foot mound, this beautiful shrub spends August and September laden with thousands of tiny pink flowers. It’s a burst of color just when you least expect it, and at a time when most other perennials are losing their luster.


Designing with Lespedeza thunbergii offers many opportunities. Given its large size, the shrub is a natural for the back of the border (or used as a specimen.) Although it will tolerate some shade, it flowers best in full sun, where is combines beautifully with other fall-blooming perennials like caryopteris, Russian sage, asters and chrysanthemums.

At my client’s home, we’ve gone for a spring-like approach, pairing her shrubs with ‘Little Lime’ hydrangeas, apricot shrub roses, Icy Pink vinca and the upright swords of bearded iris. Anthony Waterer spirea, Longwood Blue caryopteris and white Japanese anemones provide subtle background color.

september perennial border in virginia

To date, the only other place I’ve found Lespedeza thunbergii is at Maryland’s Brookside Gardens, where last fall, I spied it displayed in one of their formal gardens. Here, their staff paired it with Autumn Joy sedum, giant hyssop, maiden grass, pink anemones and purple top vervain to form a stunning combination.

brookside gardens

Brookside Garden’s fall display 


Bush clover flowers on new wood, so you can prune it anytime without shaving off next season’s blooms. Most people cut stems to the ground in late winter. It’s astonishing to watch the shrub bounce back over the summer months into a large, bluish-green sphere as big as most men.

Deer resistant and virtually pest and disease-free, bush clover grows in zones 4-8. The roots are winter hardy to USDA zone 6, but expect the top growth to die back during the winter. (For more about the USDA Plant Hardiness Map and how to use it, click here.)


Lespedeza owes its name to Vicente Manuel de Céspedes who served as governor of the Spanish province of East Florida from 1784-1790. Céspedes gave botanist André Michaux permission to explore East Florida in search of new species.

Michaux ended up discovering the flowering species, which he named in honor of the governor. Unfortunately, when he published his book in 1802, the name de Céspedes was misspelled as de lespedez. The current botanical name lespedeza allegedly derives from this mistake.


The Late-Summer Delights Of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

sedum autumn joy in the garden

Are you on the hunt for a dependable plant for your late-summer garden? Look no further than sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’ Come August, its lovely clusters of tiny flowers are just starting to adopt a rosy-pink hue. And best of all, the blooms keep going for weeks, gradually turning a dusty red that’s the perfect compliment to fall. Continue reading

Up In Smoke: Why Lodgepole Pines Love A Good Forest Fire

Lodgepole pine forest

Lodgepole pine forest

If you’re a homeowner, there’s nothing good about forest fires. But it may come as a surprise to learn that for some species, they’re essential. And one of them is the flagpole-shaped tree known as the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine. Continue reading

Chesapeake Bay Wildflowers: July’s Top 10 Bloomers


‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse

For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Even though I’ve noticed many beautiful species in the landscape, I’ve never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind. Continue reading

In The Zone: The USDA Plant Hardiness Map Explained

The 1967 Arnold Map/Image courtesy of Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University.

Most of us know not to plant watermelons in the mountains or aspen trees at the beach. But, when it comes to the myriad plants available to gardeners and landscapers at the nursery, things can get murky. That’s when a handy tool called the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map can make all the difference. Not only can it tell you what plants will survive where, but it can also ensure a year’s worth of success in the garden. Continue reading

How To Pronounce Botanical Names (Hint: It Doesn’t Matter)

Just the other day, I was working with a bunch of Master Gardeners preparing a garden for the county fair when one of them noticed a bare space. Sure enough, in one of the central beds, a group of plants had recently given up the ghost on a prominent corner. In no time, we all agreed that a lacy evergreen would be the perfect replacement. And that’s when I suggested chamaecyparis. Continue reading

How To Build A Perfect Lawn: A Maryland Turf Expert Speaks Out

When it comes to experts on lawns, University of Maryland’s Chuck Schuster is a cut above. Not only is he an educator in commercial horticulture, but he also consults on grass with many nursery, greenhouse, turf and garden center industries. Oh, and in his spare time he provides guidance on turf protection to some of the largest stadiums and sports complexes in the Washington, DC area. Continue reading