Interview with David Beaulieu

27/09/2014 06:46

David Beaulieu's career as a garden writer and dispenser of landscaping tips builds on a decade of prior work in the nursery business. He attributes his accumulation of such a diversity of plant facts to a lifelong love of plants of all kinds.

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David was a regular contributor to Do! (2003-2006), the home and garden magazine published by Highbury House. He has been interviewed by numerous newspapers and by national U.S. magazines such as Woman's World and American Way and the Canadian magazine, Downhome. He has also appeared on "Ask Andrea," the nationally syndicated radio show targeted to do-it-yourself home and garden enthusiasts.

David Beaulieu

My approach to presenting do-it-yourself landscaping tips is not only to instruct, but also to inspire. To that end, I try to engage the reader in some of the wonderful narratives that underlie the more mundane of plant facts. Are you deeply passionate about plants? Then you will probably want to know more about them than just name, rank and serial number.

That's why I delve deeper than that for you at every opportunity, detailing not only what a plant looks like and how to grow and use it, but also providing background information to bring its profile alive. For example, as a former Latin teacher, I'm delighted to furnish you with the derivation of a plant's botanical name (there will be no quiz, I promise!). I may also surprise you with a mythological association from time to time, and I've even been known to divulge facts about traditional culinary or medicinal uses.


Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you interested in gardening/landscaping.

My dad got me interested in landscaping in the sense that, because he made me mow the lawn regularly and hack back a patch of Japanese knotweed with a sickle whenever it grew too tall (a rather ineffective means of controlling it), he inspired me at a young age (tweener) to ponder landscape-maintenance techniques.

My father was likewise the source of my interest in gardening, but in a more positive way. My horticultural initiation occurred at an earlier stage in my development (six years old).

Dad started out with a small patch of tomatoes in one corner of the property. I remember how much we looked forward to slicing in half the first ripe tomatoes of the summer, salting them liberally, and then devouring them as if they were ultra-tender, acidy slabs of steak. The terminology “beefsteak tomato” made perfect sense to me, despite the name's seemingly incongruous mixture of meat and vegetable.

Our passion for gardening soon outgrew the bounds of that tiny patch. We needed to open up more land for gardening, and dad, who had grown up on a farm, knew just what to do. Cukes, carrots, beans and other vegetables joined the tomatoes as our very own homegrown crops.

As exciting as all this was for me, dad couldn't help noticing that, when I entered a farm stand in the fall, what I gravitated toward was not the vegetables but inedible produce: namely, ornamental gourds. When he deemed me old enough to do my own gardening, he suggested that I make these colorful autumn characters the subject of my initial horticultural endeavors. And so began my lifelong commitment to the plant world and undying interest in gourds, as further elaborated upon in “Gourds: Gods of the Garden.”


At the age of eleven, using a shovel and a mattock, I broke up enough ground for my first gourd garden and planted the seeds. Under my dad's tutelage I became handy enough with a hatchet to be able to go out into our woods, fell saplings, and fashion them into trellises for my gourd vines. The harvest was everything I had thought it would be.


The gardening bug had stung me with a heavy-duty stinger. In the following years I not only grew much larger crops of gourds, but I also added pumpkins and Indian corn to my repertoire. I soon had so much produce that it no longer made sense simply to keep it around for my own perusal. Instead, each fall I would set up a makeshift farm stand and sell my harvest.

In many of your blogs/articles you get into the history of plants such as where their names originated etc. Fair to say that you have a love of history?


As you have observed, Scotty, in many of my articles I delve into the history of plants, especially the derivations of their names and their mythological ties. And yes, it is fair to surmise, as you have done, that I cherish a love for history. The source of this passion? My first time around in college, I was a Classics major at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). I spent my fair share of time poring over Latin texts and probing into historical origins.


 Ok ,now that we know a little more about you,lets get into some landscaping questions.Do you like the growing trend of folks replacing the front lawn with perennials?


Since, initially, all the ground that my dad and I broke for gardening was ground in the front yard – won at the expense of the lawn grass that had been there previously – you already have a partial answer. My life story argues that I have some sympathies toward this trend. So am I jumping on any bandwagons? Am I a “believer?”


I'm all too aware of how fanatical believers can become, so let me qualify my belief in a precise way. You can count me as a “believer” in the sense that, as a matter of general principle, I'm uncomfortable with the government coming in and telling people that they can't have front yard gardens on their own land. There have been some high-profile cases (high-profile in the gardening community, at least) recently where exactly that has happened.


But I would be just as opposed to the government telling folks that they can't have lawns on their own land (a development in this struggle that would not surprise me at all, by the way). So this is more of a property-rights issue for me than it is a garden vs. lawn issue. It's also a good reminder that you should be scrutinizing more than just the house when buying real estate ( learn about your neighbors' attitudes and the community's bylaws before signing on the dotted line.


I'm not a big fan of lawns and plan on having front yard gardens on my own property for the rest of my life. But it all comes down to choice, to freedom. My own personal choice is to grow beautiful flowers that I can admire or tasty vegetables that I can harvest in my front yard. Other people may choose to grow something that they have to mow weekend after weekend. That's as it should be: that's their right, even if their choice doesn't appeal to me, personally. I defend their right to have a lawn as much as I'd want them to defend mine not to have one. And that, in a nutshell, is why I'm so leery of jumping on a bandwagon – any bandwagon


When it comes to landscaping, how important is it to take into account the style of ones home? Does it matter?


As in all matters of landscape design, this really must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. What is it that the individual homeowners in question are trying to achieve? Do they have plans to put their property up for sale? Are they trying to "fit in" in a chic neighborhood? In both of those examples, coordinating plantings with the style of the home is worthy of consideration.

By contrast, let's say you're a lifelong gardening enthusiast. You've lived on small plots in the suburbs all your life, and you've had to put your dream garden on hold. For example, perhaps you've always wanted one of those wild and rambling cottage gardens, but you've never had the room for it (or the neighborhood would have balked at such an "unkempt" property). Now, however, you're retiring and moving to a large plot in the country in a private setting. Finally, your dream garden seems to be within your grasp. As I suggest in my article on cottage gardens, it would be rather silly to give up your dream now simply because the house you just bought doesn't look like a "cottage" out of a Thomas Kinkade painting. That would be a case of pushing the coordination of garden and house styles too far.

If you are, in fact, trying to complement your house style with your plantings, sometimes common sense goes a long way. For both the Southwest Pueblo and Mediterranean styles, you'll want to select plants appropriate to the regions indicated in the names of those styles, whenever possible (but your climate could obviously be a limiting factor here). Accessorizing with terra cotta pots usually makes sense for these two styles, as well, giving you an easy, inexpensive way to evoke the desired mood. With their sleek lines, both the Modern and Contemporary styles profit from minimalistic plantings and plants with architectural forms; if you have the extra money to spend, hardscape and modern garden art can complement these styles to great effect.

Other house styles may give you more leeway. This can be good or bad, depending upon how easy you find it to make decisions for yourself. The Craftsman and Cape Cod styles fall into this category. If you're really having a hard time making a decision with these, just remember that it's hard to go wrong with naturalistic plantings and high-quality hardscape for the Craftsman, while it would be hard to argue very much with the choice of a cottage-style garden for a Cape Cod house.

What look do you prefer: cottage garden or formal?

I can certainly appreciate both, so this one isn't a slam dunk for me. I marveled at the formal gardens I encountered in Europe as a student and traveler there. A landscape design with geometric patterns still turns my head, and I've been known to pull over to take pictures when I'm out driving around and spot one.

Having said that, if you were to put a gun to my head and make me choose one style or the other for my own ideal yard, I would have to select the cottage style. For one thing, I prefer the country, and the cottage style seems a better fit in a wooded environment than the formal. And since the cottage style is, by its very nature, less restrained than the formal style, it is also more forgiving of laziness. And I must admit that I can be a lazy landscaper. One of my mottoes is, "The landscape exists for you; you do not exist for the landscape."

Don't get me wrong: landscaping work can be very enjoyable, and sometimes there simply aren't enough hours in a day to do everything that I'd like to do in the landscape. Time flies when you're having fun. But landscaping isn't my whole life. There are other pursuits in life that are equally worth investing my time and energy in. And as we all know, both of those commodities – time and energy – are available only in finite quantities. Besides, I spend a lot of time admiring my landscaping, as opposed to working in it. What good is an immaculate landscape to me if I'm not enjoying it properly?

If I were wealthy, I'd have two different properties, one designed in the formal style, the other in the cottage (of course, when money is no object, one can pay hired help to do the landscape maintenance). Short of that, one possible way to enjoy both styles would be to partition one's yard into distinct outdoor living spaces and dedicate one to the formal, another to the cottage style (as a botanical garden might do). However, this solution assumes a number of things, starting with having sufficient land with which to work (and the inclination to work it). You also have to be pretty creative in designing the transition areas if seeking a harmonious whole.


What is a 'Foundation planting'?

That terminology came into being, in part, to describe a planting that would hide an ugly house foundation. People typically used evergreen shrubs such as yews that would attain enough size to screen the foundation but that would be relatively fuss-free.

When we became tired of seeing these yews, etc., “foundation planting” acquired something of a bad name, and our attitude toward them changed. But we shouldn't let this change stigmatize any and all plantings appearing in the vicinity of a house foundation. Even if you're not trying to hide your foundation, you can still plant in this area of the landscape (indeed, on small properties, you may need to take advantage of every square foot you have for planting). Think of the new attitude toward foundation plantings as giving you more leeway in plant selection, since you will now be choosing plants that appeal to you, rather than plants meant to obscure the view. Nor is there any reason to restrict yourself to beds that are rectangular in shape.

Landscaping a property can be quite expensive so what suggestions would you make for those on a limited budget?

One reason why landscaping becomes expensive is that folks sometimes demand instant gratification. You may have a particular image in your mind of what you want your yard to become, and you go to the nursery with the goal of achieving that vision as quickly as possible. This can lead to your buying relatively large trees and shrubs. Not that there's anything wrong with that, in principle. But you're going to pay for that privilege. Customers often have no idea how much time, energy, and money it cost the nursery to grow those plants, so they experience sticker shock. If you're on a limited budget, you have to be realistic: think small, and remember that patience is a virtue.


One of the frustrations of landscaping a new property is how long it takes for plants to get to a nice size. What fast growers would you suggest?

A nice follow-up question, Scotty. Because even though patience is, in fact, a virtue, there's just no reason to wait longer than we have to if a cost-effective solution presents itself. As long as you're flexible in your plant selection, it's sometimes possible to stick to your budget and, at the same time, reduce your waiting time. I've provided some information on my site about both fast-growing shrubs and fast-growing trees.

Top three mistakes in landscaping?

In no particular order:

1. Failing to read between the lines when reading gardening articles. Like folks in other walks of life, we garden writers, being human, sometimes have agendas, prejudices, idiosyncrasies, etc. Make sure that you, as the reader, detect these, and keep the proverbial grains of salt handy. Also avoid going to the opposite extreme, however, and throwing out the baby with the bath water at the drop of a hat. Steer a middle course between, on the one hand, rejecting a book/website in toto based on one point of disagreement with the author and, on the other hand, slavishly following the words you’re reading just because they have been published. Treat gardening resources as springboards for further research and experimentation on your part, not as gospel.

For example, you'll often hear garden writers speak of "overused plants." What you have to remember, though, is that garden writers are around plants all the time. So, from their perspective, it really may get tiring to encounter the same type of plant over and over again. They've grown it, themselves and have learned all they need to know about it, so they develop a “been there, done that” attitude toward the plant in question. But if you, the homeowner, have never "used" (i.e., grown) the plant, in a sense it can hardly be "overused" from your perspective. Don't miss out on exploring the wonderful possibilities a plant may hold simply because someone else has become jaded about it.

Moreover, keep in mind that garden writers write not only for homeowners, but also for others involved professionally in gardening and landscaping. Unfortunately, there's often not a clear demarcation in their writings between advice intended for the homeowner and advice intended for, say, a landscape designer. The latter may, indeed, wish to avoid so-called “overused plants” as a matter of professional policy, because such plants hardly aid one in fostering one's image as a creative designer. Such concerns are, however, irrelevant to the homeowner.

2.Getting bogged down in landscaping tasks that you don't enjoy – and that can be avoided. Depending on your landscaping goals, some tasks may be unavoidable. For example, if you love the look that a certain shrub offers when it is well cared for, then it behooves you to get out there with the pruners and prune it at the proper time (see below). But sometimes we get into a rut and just blindly accept that we have to conduct certain chores in the landscape. Maybe we've been conducting them all our lives, and we've just never taken the time to rethink what we want in a landscape. That's too bad, because we're dedicating the time allotted to us to drudgery rather than to something that's going to bring us satisfaction.

If the chore in question is unpleasant, consider removing its source (i.e., whatever feature necessitates the maintenance). Is it mowing and other lawn care? Maybe you should reduce the size of your lawn by killing some grass and replacing it with something you'll enjoy more. Is it maintaining a hedge? Consider replacing it with an informal privacy screen. Do you find yourself constantly troubleshooting for a certain plant (due to insect problems, disease problems, etc.)? It might be better to replace it with a type of plant that will cause you fewer headaches. After all, there are plenty of fish in the sea. If you're limited on space, the problematic plant may be taking up valuable real estate where you could be growing a much better plant, instead.

The point here is that, again, you have only so much time and energy for maintenance. So shouldn't you optimize your efforts to make sure you're deriving maximal satisfaction from them? But to do that, you must first know your own mind. If deadheading seems less like work to you than mowing, maybe a flower bed makes more sense for you than a lawn. It's your life; take charge of it by reassessing your goals and making the necessary adjustments.

3.Getting Trigger-Happy With the Pruners. A common rookie mistake is to trim a shrub first and ask questions later. As a result, many a beginner has been disappointed by the paucity of blooms on a bush that had been planted with such great anticipation. When you're new to gardening and landscaping, you really need to do your homework first on the best time to prune shrubs.

Stay tuned for part two