Experimentation: The Nature of Design

by Mark Dennis, ASLA, PLA, AICP

Residential planting design in winter
image: Austin Eischeid

An Interview with Austin Eischeid, Planting Designer

Describe your background a bit, and how you came to do planting design?

I started out experimenting in the vegetable garden as a kid. My parents wanted to show my sister and I where our veggies came from and I took a liking to it. I began experimenting with roses and found out how much work they were. I wasn’t willing to put in the time for dead-heading, watering through droughts, and treating them chemically. I was amazed to see entire sedum plants grow from a couple of cut stems, but I grew tired of them very quickly as my garden became overrun by sedum! I began experimenting with adding more annuals, perennials, and grasses, and the learning never ended. It was the only thing I could imagine going to college for, and it seemed I was destined to go to Iowa State University for a BS in Horticulture with an emphasis on landscape design.

While at Iowa State I heard Roy Diblik speak on perennials. His plantings were so vivid and inspiring, like nothing I’d ever seen before, and this was when I knew I had to become a planting designer. He spoke about his ‘Know Maintenance‘ approach to design, how there would always be some degree of maintenance, but that you had to really know your plants to build a sustainable plant community. Roy then became my mentor and introduced me to strong, hardy, long-lived perennials. For Roy, using perennials was about much more than just the flower; it was about overall texture and form for visual interest, winter structure, seasonality, and whether it behaved itself or not (for example, spreading or over-seeding).

image: Austin Eischeid

Your work produces some very dramatic, intense, even playful results. Is there a method to your madness?

The most important thing is to really have a deep understanding of plants. Once you know and understand how the plants you choose can work in a garden setting, rather than out of a textbook, you’re bound for success. I always start by making a long wish list of plants that would do well in the environment or fit the space. I then begin laying out my structural/architectural plants first. Structural plants are the wow factor and plants that will draw your eye through the landscape. I then fill in around the base with a groundcover/filler layer of plants that knit together and are playful together. The filler/groundcover layer helps to cover the ground and suppress weeds. You also want to make sure the palette you use has every season covered for seasonal interest, also referred to as theme plants.

image: Austin Eischeid

Whom would you count among your greatest influences, and why?

My family would have to be number one because they nurtured my passion of plants and supported my journey of experimentation. Also, Piet and Anja Oudolf, Roy Diblik, Cassian Schmidt, and Adam Woodruff, among many others in the industry, have been influential on my design aesthetic and learning process.

I’ve been able to connect to not only some of the best people in the plants industry, but also some of the most humble, kindhearted and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. I’m so fortunate to have mentors who are willing to take the time and guide me in the right direction. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Piet and Anja Oudolf, whom I went to visit after graduation. Anja told me I needed to be patient and gain experience in as many aspects of the industry as I could if I really wanted to understand plants. I took her advice to heart and interned first at Orchard Dene Nursery, a wholesale perennial nursery in rural Oxfordshire, England; then with Hermannshof Garden, a plant-community trial garden near Heidelberg, Germany; and finally, with Chanticleer Garden, a public estate pleasure garden outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Left to right: Adam Woodruff, Piet Oudolf, Austin Eischeid, and Roy Diblik / image: Austin Eischeid

I’ve been able to spend time with all my mentors visiting other gardens and working on garden layouts together, seeing how each of them defines beauty, and how to “look beyond the flower” in appreciating a decaying plant: its seedhead, winter color tones, and structure, and how to evoke emotion with movement, form, and texture using the right composition of plants.

What places have you found to be most motivational or inspiring?

I’ve found traveling to be the most inspirational to my creativity. I’ve traveled extensively through western Europe and North America in search of new plants, design inspiration, and technical skills. Whether it be from botanic gardens, nature, private or public gardens there are so many opportunities to learn from others.

One of the most influential places for me has been Hermannshof Garden in Weinheim, Germany. This garden tests and conducts plant trials for many different ecosystems and plant communities. I was fortunate enough to have a diverse, three-month work experience here. I learned a lot of different aspects of gardening: a huge palette of plants, understanding of plant communities, gravel gardens, grooming, weeding, and editing of plantings. I think a lot of designers lack practical experience in the field and it’s been the most important and integral part of my education for understanding how to create a long-lasting garden.

How has your approach to planting design evolved over time?

My approach to planting design evolves constantly. I’m always meeting new professionals that make me think and re-evaluate my practices and how I can do it better. There are always new plants to add to your palette, new combinations to discover and new places to be inspired by. Traveling always keeps me fresh and helps clear any “designer’s block” that I might have. When I’m designing a new space one of the things I do is reflect on a design or place I have visited before. Sometimes I try to use certain elements of a space to evoke an emotional response through the texture, form, or composition.

image: Austin Eischeid

Before I started working with naturalistic plantings I was using highly maintained roses, annuals to fill in empty spaces, over-watering with irrigation, and planting perennials three times farther apart than they should be, drowning in accumulated wood mulch. I then met nurseryman and planting designer Roy Diblik and learned that plants don’t live under these conditions in nature. Plants live intimately together, touching one another, living in their own debris. It’s also important to make sure we’re putting the right plants in the right community, for the right site conditions.

I was fortunate enough to work alongside Piet and Roy on a complex planting plan for a large residential project in Iowa. They showed me how to make the plantings look more natural, and why Piet chose the plants and combinations that he did. I now work as a steward for some of Piet’s completed commissions in the United States, as well as new and ongoing work such as the second phase of the Iowa residential project, three phases of the Delaware Botanic Gardens, a project on the historic Belle Isle in Detroit, and a private residence in Rhode Island.

Implementing Piet Oudolf’s planting design at the Delaware Botanic Gardens / image: Austin Eischeid

What has been the most challenging part of your work as a designer, and why?

The most challenging thing about my work is finding the right garden stewardship after the completion of a project. It’s important to find someone who really knows their plants and can see the garden’s future. The first thing I talk about with my clients is the importance of what I call an “after plan” for the garden. There’s no sense in putting in the effort of putting in a garden if there is no afterthought for its upkeep, maturation, and evolution. No garden just takes care of itself after planting.

You mention the need for thoughtful commitment to maintenance and accepting change in the garden. What do you see as the hardest habits for owners, gardeners, and maintenance crews to overcome?

One of the first things that comes to mind is the obsession we have with mulch! Whether it’s piled over tree root flares, creating the infamous “tree volcano,” or adding 3 to 4 inches of wood mulch year after year on our perennial gardens, restricting and rotting the crowns of the perennials. We need to use the mown leaf litter of the decayed plant material to suppress weeds and nourish the plants and soil.

Soil after years of leaf mulch / image: Austin Eischeid

Garden maintenance must be one of the most concerning issues with my gardens. We need experienced garden stewards who understand plants. The first thing that I discuss with a client is the importance and necessity of a maintenance plan for the garden after implementation. Without someone who knows how plants grow, and when the key work of managing weeds, cutting back, and editing the garden should take place, there is no future for this kind of garden.

What are some surprising revelations you’ve had pertaining to plant selection, combination, or adaptation?

I often forget how resilient plants are. If we create the right plant communities, the plants do the work for us. I’ve learned how important it is to pick the right species/cultivar of plants and how different they can be from each other. There are lots of things to look for when choosing a plant: length of bloom time, a capacity for second flowering, self-sowing, winter interest, and the structure of seed heads.

How did you acquire the plant knowledge you have today?

The most beneficial part of my education has been the practical aspect of garden stewardship. I’ve been able to experiment in my parents’ garden for 30 years and understand how plants work or don’t work. I would try new plant combinations and plant varieties to see if they are thugs, what their cultural needs are, longevity, and seasonal interest.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been willing to try a lot of different plants, which means that I’ve also killed a lot of plants trying to find the ones that are resilient. I was always curious and wanting to stop at every garden center my family would drive past, to see if they had something new I could try. People always think of a dead plant as a bad thing, but it just helps you narrow down the field and find the good, useful plants. We’re also lucky to have people like Roy Diblik and Piet Oudolf who have decades of experience to offer, who write books and can help us on the right path to deciding which plants to use.

image: Austin Eischeid

Talk about how your work connects into broader urban imperatives for resilient, functional ecologies, stormwater management, and low-impact development?

Using a dynamic group of plant materials supports our pollinators in an urban environment, and we need to make the most of the urban green space we have. Making dynamic, naturalistic perennial plant communities accessible to everyone is a key to changing the norm. Collaboration is important: I always work with a landscape architect when I need to find the best solutions for stormwater management and low-impact development. Combining proven engineering techniques with the best curated plant communities will result in more effective landscapes than many we see today, which are often slanted more toward one discipline or the other.

What do you see as the most pressing concerns for plant designers to consider today?

In general, we need to start putting plants into their proper environments. If we don’t, we will lose the faith of our clients. We need to elevate the common perception of planting design. We need to start observing the plants we select. We need designed ecosystems with more dynamic plantings that can thrive without being overly dependent on irrigation.

What advice would you give budding designers on working with growers, allied professionals, contractors, owners, and other stakeholders?

My biggest advice to emerging professionals is not being afraid to ask questions! The industry is so open and willing to share what they know, you just need to reach out. If we can help it, we’d rather not learn the hard way, right? Someone in the industry has probably gone through the same struggles or have had to face similar situations you are. We’re all humans and make mistakes and it’s okay to fail or not know the answer to everything.

I would also say it’s important to get involved with whatever gardening or design affiliations that fits you best. It’s great to be surrounded by like-minded people and ones that you create a long-lasting relationship with. I wish I knew more about these organizations and the scholarships they give out to entice the next generation to be involved.

image: Austin Eischeid

Try your hand in many different facets of the business, and don’t be in a rush to get a full-time position straight out of school. It’s important to figure out what you do and don’t like, and to understand how all different professions and services combine to make gardens work. Nurseries, public gardens, design/build firms, and maintenance crews each operate from different values and vantage points, but all are focused on the success of planted spaces.

Do you see any emerging trends or movements within the profession of planting design?

One of the biggest movements I’m hearing about from clients is the importance of biodiversity and sustainability in their gardens—dynamic gardens that utilize naturalistic plant communities are considered “closed cycle” gardens, which means they don’t require supplements after establishment. The plant debris left over at the end of the growing season (February) are mown and left as mulch, not hauled away, as there is no need for supplemental nutrients. With this approach and a diversity of plant material the garden attracts a lot of pollinators, beneficial insects, and soil microbes.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working for the Millennium Park Foundation on the redesign of the landscape master plan for Millennium Park in Chicago, with the goal of creating more dynamic, natural plantings where there are currently more modernist/minimalist plant palettes. Part of the plan is to reduce turf grass and areas of monoculture plantings, replacing them with a widely varied, dynamic, and lush perennial plant palette. The end goal is to try and match the level of artistry in planting design found at Cloud Gate, Crown Fountain, and the Lurie Garden.

I’m also creating nursery trial gardens for Midwest Groundcovers Nursery in St. Charles, Illinois, as a resource for landscape architects, planting designers, and contractors. The intent is to showcase individual plants by habit, such as evergreens, roses, perennials, grasses, or shrubs; and to provide inspiration on how to combine them in new and interesting ways, like dry shade-gardens and other low-water alternatives, erosion control areas, and matrix plantings.

image: Austin Eischeid

I’m also working on a master plan with Apiary Studio for a beautiful 40-acre estate in the rolling hills outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s an exciting project because we’re starting from scratch and the client loves plants. One of the reasons I’m excited about this project is because it’s in a warmer climate, so I get to use some things I may not get to use in Chicago.

Austin Eischeid is an independent garden design consultant based in Chicago. He is a student of Piet Oudolf and has worked with him on several commissions in the United States. Austin (Austin Eischeid Garden Design) specializes in designing dynamic naturalistic plantings using strong perennials and grasses with all season interest.

Mark Dennis, ASLA, PLA, AICP, is a Senior Landscape Architect and Planner at Halff Associates, Inc. and an Officer of the ASLA Planting Design and Education & Practice Professional Practice Networks (PPNs). Mark is a landscape architect and planner with a background in urban design, environmental restoration, and historic preservation and with projects in Texas, Michigan, Virginia, Maryland, and metro Washington DC. He has a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and an MLA from the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan.

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