Book Review: The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik

Behind each creative mastermind is someone who possesses the expertise to obtain the ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ for the vision to be realized fully. Just as the fashion designer cannot complete a collection with a team of seamstresses or tailors to execute his designs, the landscape architect or garden designer is dependent on someone who can supply plants for their projects. Midwest plantsman Roy Diblik was tasked to source and grow for the Lurie Garden in 2001 – hardly any nurseries in the Chicago area had the variety, quantity or quality that Piet Oudolf sought. Diblik co-runs Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, a 1 1/2 hour or so drive from Chicago. A Chicago Tribune article in 2010 christened him the ‘perennial persuader’. This ‘perennial persuader’ irrevocably altered Piet Oudolf’s original planting plans, especially after he took him to Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and other Midwest landscapes. Now Diblik aims to proselytizes a wider audience through The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden (Timber Press 2014).
Roy wants his readers to revise their attitudes towards traditional gardening practices where herbaceous perennials are regarded for landscapes. For instance, the conventional method of incorporating manure and compost generously into the topsoil causes herbaceous perennials to senesce prematurely and weeds to prosper instead. Nor does the wood chip mulching benefit perennials.
The first few chapters are the requisite ones that address plant selection, site preparation and planting and maintenance.  Any gardener can tell you that keeping ahead of weeds is always an ongoing battle – and weeds almost always seem to mushroom overnight after a good rainfall. As Diblik points out, weed suppression is an inescapable legacy of agricultural history for every healthy plant community contain few species of high fecundity and rapid colonization, and the rogue’s gallery of worst weeds sandwiched between weed control tactics and maintenance (i.e. watering. division) is useful as horticultural texts often skirt over the culprits.
The list of plants in Chapter 5: Key Plants for Know Maintenance Gardens may attract detractors for its lack of encyclopedic depth, but Diblik makes it clear that his selection fulfill the following criteria: hardiness and reliability in the Midwest and Northwest; adaptability within different climatic and soil variations; gradual beauty over the years. And his selection is on the mark as I have grown a few of the plants like Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and Solidago spahecelata ‘Golden Fleece’ in my parents’ former garden and observed them in compromising public spaces repeatedly. Who can argue with a man who introduced Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, one of the best ornamental grasses? Diblik even gives deserving due to sedges, which are woefully underused in gardens, and their diversity remains untapped for gardens. Narrowing the list to proven performers ensures that his readers have a better rate of success and once gratified, more open to experimentation with experience.
For those hesitant about using these plants, garden plans either named after places or paintings are included. It is no coincidence that the paintings can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago for which Diblik designed the plantings. Cezanne’s The Forest Clearing, a tonal study of green and blue, inspires a sunny planting of Allium (A. atropurpureum, A.  flavum, and A. moly), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Carex flacca, Echinacea ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’,  Kalimeris incisa ‘Blue Star’, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, and Sesleria autumnalis. The ‘creative intersection’, the lack of which my blog collaborator Jimmy laments in a recent post, reveals Diblik’s artistic leanings.
Towards the end is a nice acknowledgement of individuals who have influenced, inspired, or worked with Roy in the Midwest US. I would have been interested to read more about the interesting work of these individuals, but that angle is entirely a book in itself. Cassian Schmidt’s gravel garden at Hermannshof, a brilliant garden itself in Germany, is an interesting case study for potential tough areas like parking lots or overscheduled people interested in the beauty of gardens, but lacking time to maintain them.
Photographs, while nowhere dreamy or moody as those in pretty useless books, illustrate the concepts well. They are solid, playing out Diblik’s practices well.
Informative and well organized, the Know Maintenance Perennial Garden rounds out nicely the spate of books regarding ecological or naturalistic gardening and native plants.

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