In the Garden With: EnergyScapes

How is summer treating you? Are you enjoying criss-crossing the globe with my designer friends? I certainly am….Douglas Owens- Pike designs gardens in Minnesota, and is the man behind Energyscapes, the blog and the business. Here is a little more about Douglas:

I grew up in small town in southern WI.  Our home was built by my parents.  I lived there until moving away for college.  Suzanne and I bought our home here in Minneapolis in 1986.  So, I can claim that I have lived in two homes in my life, other than apartments while in school.  Interesting to have seen growth here in our yard of plants I have experimented with over these past 25 growing seasons.

One of the aspects I always try to incorporate into my designs is to find the spot my client finds most sacred.  I like the way Julie Moir Messervy frames this in her archtypes, people are drawn to: cave, promontory, harbor, etc.  Even the smallest spaces have a place the client would most love to inhabit or look out upon.  Often, that space is compromised when we start.  I have a  couple of examples:  one mom loved to sit on a bench we created for her that was on the end of switchback of trail from their home to beach.  When she sat there she couldn’t see her home, so could put household challenges away for that time, she could hear her kids playing in the water on the beach, know they were safe, but not have to be there restraining their play.  When we started that spot had a pile of boulders and brush/vines.  It was completely neglected.
before and after garden energyscapes garden minnesota

before and after bench garden minnesota energy scapes

In another case, client has Minnehaha Creek just beyond her back slope.  The site was obscured with low brush of undesirable plants, box elder, buckthorn, etc.  We opened up the view to the water by saving the most desirable hackberry and other trees, limbing those up and transforming a former kids play structure into a small stone patio, with a bench overlooking the flowing creek.  It has become a favorite place for her to meditate.  She even has neighbors who come by to experience the energy of that spot.  An aside, the kids’ play structure was removed by one of our staff and his children one Saturday.  They took it apart and moved it to their home.  Our client’s girls were too old to be using it at that point.

My Favorite things: Douglas Owens-Pike

More broadly: finding the sacred spot, and playing with water (if it is not there, we add something simple, birdbath / bubbler / to more complicated recirculating streams/ponds).  In one case we ripped out boring violets and set beach pebbles between larger stone to yield an image of a stream with no water actually flowing.  Planted either side with wild lily of the valley, but we still need to pull violets.  The other funny thing about that dry stream is that the backdrop is an old crabapple now hanging in there despite deep shade.  So, we took the top off and left one viable branch (trunk is ~ 6”, it rises about 3’ to where this branch arcs off to right, providing an illusion of the stream continuing.  We play with some Solomon seal on the other side to continue the arches theme, gracefully sweeping over the far end of dry stream, with a 12-18” boulder at the end near the trunk of crabapple.  This is an intimate space, but the view is important from her screened gazebo where she most often is sitting in that part of her garden.

garden bench energyscapes minnesota

What do you do to find inspiration?

I love getting out into natural settings.  Preferably not too manicured, but one of my mentors helped establish a system of Scientific and Natural Areas here in MN.  They are an attempt to save native diversity.  None have trails or interpretive signs, other than some boundary markers.  There is a wonderful directory to find the sites and when you arrive you just have to find your own way.  On Fathers’ Day, one of my best friends and I planned to do some kayaking.  As we pulled up to the launch site he said, “We forgot the paddles.”  It was clear we were both exhausted by the previous week of challenges in our lives.  We pulled out the map and found the nearest SNA.  Drove over there in ~ ½ hour, parked in a field, since there is no parking lot and the road in is just sand, no gravel.  We started hiking across a sunny, hot meadow with some nice diversity, but the treat at that site is the old growth white pine.  Once we entered that cool shade both of us calmed down.  We stopped on a gentle slope covered with Pennsylvania sedge overlooking a beautiful lake, lined with water lilies and not sullied by any power boats.  We had our lunch with us, so we alternately napped, noshed, and chatted on our cell phones with our kids who all happened to be out of town that day.

dry stream garden douglas owens pike minnesota

The lay of the land, the way plants evolve to fill different habitats, blending one to another, all very important for stimulating my design eye.  Yesterday, was with same fellow and one other man we love hiking with.  The 3rd guy is in training for an arduous hike in Wyoming, high elevation lots of miles/day, and he was carrying a backpack with gear he will need, trying to get some mileage in.  Kevin and I were basically following behind him in a large state park bordering St Croix R, with WI on the far shore.  We had a goal of getting to beach on the river before returning to our cars.  Ken kept making the wrong turns toward the end.  Not sure if he was just tired or wanted to work harder before taking a break.  Anyway, I finally stepped up to do a little map reading and the last ravine we followed to get to the beach was the most spectacular we had seen all morning.  So, the gift once again, was getting a wee bit lost/having to respond to the challenge vs. whatever we thought we were going to do, and then discover some wonderful gift in that “mistake.”  In this final ravine there was little buckthorn, lots of vertical relief, but open to allow clear view, exposed rock, diversity of ferns, cool, mossy, lots of fairy energy.

dry stream

Best Garden or Design Advice Ever (Given or Received)?

I always try to do is visit the site where client is most concerned, take a walk through and examine it myself, before the client starts talking about what they like or dislike about that area.  It helps to be a bit less biased if you can see it for yourself before listening to the client’s needs/desires/complaints.  I like Walt Cudnohufsky’s approach:  listen to the full list of your client’s desires, create a plan that responds to those desires, but the solution should also incorporate resolving problems with drainage, sun, soils, and other factors the client is totally unaware of.  So, you often need to move the pool, patio, gazebo to a location that better fits the site.  In one case, the client had been living with a gazebo built right after they had moved into their home.  From my perspective it blocked both the view to their woods and the chi/energy flowing through a ravine between their deck and the natural slope that rose up behind their home.  We literally rolled the structure using poles and a skid steer to a site just 50’ down that slope to a place where it no longer blocked views from their home, but was still easily accessible and connected it to their home with some native flagstone, that we continued inside for the new floor of the screened in gazebo.  It was a very dramatic change for little effort.

The other person I must mention is Donald B. Lawrence.  He is the man who helped begin our SNA system.  He was a U of MN professor emeritus when we met, so no longer teaching.  We met at a January meeting of our MN Native Plant Society.  It was well below zero and quite dark outside when the moderator of the evening admitted the speaker had mixed up his dates and would not be arriving.  We used that time to introduce ourselves and network.  Since it was a room full of people interested in germinating prairie seed.  Don stood up and said he had been gardening with native plants in his yard for over 40 years.  I made a bee line over to him, gave him my card and we had so much fun the next 5 years of sharing our struggles and knowledge.  He was a professor of ecology and ethnobotany.  Just wish we had more time before he passed away.  He is responsible for my continuing with EnergyScapes when I was thinking of quitting (we met in 1990 just after I started the company).  We had two young girls and it was hard for me to contribute much income for the family.  Don kept prodding me to keep my eyes on my mission of helping people see the beauty and utility of using more native species in landscape design.  He taught me many things about life, how to manage photo collection, plants that remain favorites today…he also has a lab named for him at the Cedar Creek natural history preserve.

solomon seal

Don and a few other ecologists were doing low level flight reconnaissance in 1930’s.  They looked down and saw several unique plant communities coming together at one point about an hour north of St Paul campus of U.  They went down and started buying up the land that is now one of the very few long-range ecological research stations in the country/world.

I have a dream of writing a biography of Don’s life, using interviews with his students.  Many of them are now retiring, so I need to get going on this project.  Don retired back in 1975.  Many more stories I could tell you about him but will save that for another time.

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rochelle greayer

Hi, I'm Rochelle and for 18 years I have worked as a landscape designer, author/writer, and design teacher. I've designed residential and hospitality (for hotels, restaurants, and spas) gardens across the USA and in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. After many years of teaching garden design topics in person, I launched the PITH + VIGOR Boot Camp series in early 2018. Through my blog, social media, and online courses (Garden Design Bootcamp and Planting Design Boot Camp) I aim to help homeowners learn how to confidently design and create home gardens that reflect their own personal and unique style.
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