GARDEN TALKS by KAREN BUSSOLINI
For home gardeners, environmental and professional groups, parents, nature-lovers, and anybody who appreciates the garden arts
I aim to be accessible, informative and to give audiences new ways to think about the subject. Images, which are constantly updated, are beautiful, inspiring and plentiful. I stress both the practical (deer, maintenance, growing conditions, strategies for success, environmental concerns, organic gardening techniques) and the aesthetic (working with color and design). People have often remarked about the poetic quality of my images and speech.
Click on any title in the List of Talks below to see a full description of the talk
Learn to take better garden photographs while improving garden-making skills and insight
There’s nothing like looking through the viewfinder of a camera to tell you whether a garden composition works or not. Photography is an abstraction, a discipline and a great tool for understanding and designing gardens. The process involved in making meaningful photographs – setting an intention, paying attention to framing the scene, studying mass, light, composition and point of view – is as important in garden-making as it is for photography.
Creating compelling images requires a visually interesting subject and a commitment to seeing well. Focusing – both literally and figuratively – on wildly different kinds of gardens all over the country has taught me much. As the Italian writer Tiziano Terzani once said, “It’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back. Wherever I roam, ideas, solutions, plants and stories have a way of taking root in my own home ground. They enrich and inform my work as a writer, photographer, speaker, eco-friendly garden coach and designer. The insights and experiences I’ve brought home, along with a good-sized dose of practical advice, provide many lessons in creating visually rich photographs and gardens.
Plant deer and drought-resistant silver plants for shimmering beauty and low-maintenance
Karen photographed and co-authored Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for Every Garden (Timber Press)
Silvers are the shimmering chameleons of the plant kingdom. Their silvery appearance is caused by water-conserving hairs, scales, powder, waxy coatings or air bubbles. The beauty and drought-tolerance of familiar downy silvers such as lamb’s ears and artemisias have long made them favorites in the herb garden and perennial border. Elegant Silversexplores the entire range of these distinctive plants, from grey to almost white to icy blue, including grasses, succulents, tiny alpines, soaring evergreens, herbs, shrubs, perennials, native plants, tropicals and subtropicals.
Silvers were designed by nature to withstand extremes of heat, cold, drought, wind, or, in the case of variegated silvers, to grow in shade. Although many of these plants are adapted to poor soils and desiccating conditions from seaside to mountain and desert (making them especially useful where water – or the gardener’s enthusiasm for watering – are limited), many will also thrive in humid climates or richer or moister garden soils. The silver palette includes many plants that are fragrant, useful and deer-resistant.
Nature’s practical gift of silver plants brings a magical dimension to our gardens. Silver at its purest isn’t a color at all, but the very essence of light. It is elusive, changing with light and season. Silver can be a retiring background or the star of the show, garish or subtle, soothing or distinctly exciting. Silver plants have a unique ability to intensify other colors or to knit them together. It is in relationship to other plants that silvers truly shine.
In Designing With Elegant Silvers I show how gardeners across the United States have used these stalwart plants in containers, borders or the larger landscape. I pay special attention to the use of regionally appropriate silvers, protective adaptations, using color and texture to create exciting combinations and historical uses from medieval times to modern xeriscaping.
Learn to garden more sustainably, informed by recent ecological research
“Unless the discoveries of ecological science are rapidly translated into meaningful actions, they will remain quietly archived while the biosphere degrades.”
– Dr. William Schlesinger, retired President of The Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies.
We’ve all been subjected to heated, politicized and often misinformed debates on climate change and other environmental issues. While the debates rage on, generating much hot air but little action, Biogeochemist Dr. William Schlesinger and other scientists engaged in “Translational Ecology” are busy communicating their findings so that policy makers and citizens can make informed decisions.
My mission, as an eco-friendly garden coach and speaker is to translate Translational Ecology into action, one yard at a time. Big picture thinking brought down to earth in small ways, right at home, can have a big effect on water quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife diversity and ecosystem health. Any yard can provide ecosystem services rather than consuming resources.
In nature, plants, animals, insects and microorganisms organize themselves into complex, interwoven, diverse, self-sustaining and resilient communities. On the other hand, conventional simplified landscapes aren’t at all self-sufficient or resilient. They demand constant inputs of time, money and fossil fuels, while contributing to water and air pollution. That model is broken. It’s time to learn new techniques to become true stewards of the land in our care. We will take a look at global cycles and principles and then focus in on stunning home landscapes that function like nature, reduce pollution, conserve water and other resources (including time), while providing rich habitats for both people and wildlife.
Read my Wildflower magazine interview with Dr. Schlesinger, Carbon Connection
Add beauty and biodiversity to the vegetable garden – and edible plants to ornamental gardens to create home landscapes humming with life and good things to eat
Vegetables, fruits, berries and herbs are often stunningly beautiful plants. Any vegetable garden can be a feast for the eyes when attention is paid to design, color, interesting structures and plants’ ornamental qualities. Adding companion plantings of herbs and flowers attracts pollinators and beneficial insects that prey on pests while turning a utilitarian plot into a pleasure garden.
But home-grown produce needn’t remain segregated in its own plot. I’ve collected tips and photos showing the many inventive ways home gardeners have tucked edibles into flower beds, used herbs and fruit trees as landscape plants, assembled colorful edible container gardens. Whether you call it permaculture or edible landscaping, these biodiverse yards are humming with life and good things to eat. Being a locavore and reducing your carbon footprint never looked so pretty
Here are links to articles I wrote and photographed about using herbs and cold hardy greens in the garden and the kitchen
Tried and true beautiful, rugged problem-solving plants that support wildlife, resist deer and keep on performing for a long season of interest)
The plants I turn to again and again, both in my work as an eco-friendly garden coach and in my own yard, aren’t just beautiful, they’re rugged, low maintenance problem-solvers. This talk features 40 indispensable plants that grow in challenging conditions such as shade, soggy soil or dry poor soil. They support pollinators and diverse beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife, thrive without a lot of care, resist deer browsing and pack the garden with color throughout the year.
Each plant is treated in depth, with closeup images, seasonal highlights and examples of effective use in the landscape, along with striking plant combinations.
Arranged from the earliest and lowest, they include
- Spring bulbs that keep on going year after year
- Ground-layer plants that out-compete weeds or play well with others, including groundcovers, ornamental perennials, herbs, ferns and grasses
- Shrubs and small trees
Fill your yard with problem-solving, wildlife-supporting beautiful woody plants
(Karen photographed The Homeowner’s Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook (Storey Publishing)
Trees and shrubs play an outsized role in our landscapes. They’re big and they last a long time, so we should expect them to pull their weight with both aesthetics and ecological services. There’s no reason why these structural woody plants can’t be beautiful, solve problems and support wildlife all at once. Well-chosen, suitably sited trees and shrubs require little care once established, which conserves time, energy and material resources. They form layers in the landscape, creating habitat for wildlife while cooling the earth, sequestering carbon and preventing erosion. Native trees and shrubs are especially beneficial as food sources, shelter and nesting sites for pollinating insects, birds and animals.
There are so many beautiful, interesting, low-care, life supporting trees and shrubs available to us. Yet across the nation, we see cookie-cutter landscapes with the same few plants drowning in a sea of wood chip mulch. Many are invasive, disease-prone, short-lived, ill-matched to the site, or just plain boring, and offer minimal ecological benefit. So let’s replace them with diversity, practicality, color and year-round character.
How to choose them and how to use them?
Karen introduces an array of superior trees and shrubs that are either widely adaptable or adapted to difficult conditions such as shade, salt spray, deer browsing or wet soils, emphasizing eastern North American natives. Her identifying photos convey each plant’s character, beauty and wildlife value. Images from attainable sustainable landscapes show how to use them effectively – as groundcovers, colorful accents, specimens, screens, hedges, creators of shade and privacy, as erosion control, in rain gardens, in formal and informal styles and in all seasons. The presentation concludes with a discussion of tree and shrub care – pruning, protecting and celebrating.
Create dynamic plant combinations without agonizing over the color wheel
This talk is for gardeners who, when confronted with a learned treatise on the color wheel, go numb in the brain. Perhaps, like me, they hear a stubborn inner voice insisting, “Gardening shouldn’t be this hard – and it should be a lot more fun.”
Savoring sizzling plant combinations in other peoples’ gardens, while being dissatisfied with my own, led me to look a lot closer at what made certain combinations work – or not. A truly satisfying garden is much more than just a bunch of nice plants. It’s boring if plants just sit there next to each other – they need to interact, to carry on a conversation, to have dynamic contrasts.
I’ve packed this talk with dozens of exciting plant combinations photographed in gardens across the country. Starting with simple combinations, and an explanation of how the gardener used color or texture, gesture, light-reflecting qualities, repetition, color echoes and other qualities, the talk progresses to more complex schemes. Plants with distinctive character and plants that move – or appear to – enliven the mix.
Jazzing Up the Garden with Color, Contrast and Movement gives gardeners simple intuitive ways of thinking about combining plants that anyone can use easily – without angst or color wheel.
My hands-on Custom workshop based on this talk has been a big hit at garden centers. Working with container-grown plants allows for interactive audience participation and allows customers to carry plants around the garden center to see what “zings” with their chosen plants.
Encourage kids to connect with nature by creating gardens for exploration and delight, fantasy, fun and irresistible edibles
Our yards – gardens, landscaping and wild places – offer boundless opportunities for learning through all the senses. At a time when so many children – and adults too – suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” obesity, ADHD and other problems, connecting with nature is more important than ever. Typical suburban landscapes don’t supply the needs of either wildlife or children and can be downright toxic to both. In this talk I show – and get people to think about – easy ways to make the whole yard a safe place rich with sensory stimulation, opportunities for imaginative play and discovery. This includes:
- What kids really want
- Fostering creativity
- Plants that engage all the senses, support wildlife, tickle the funnybone
- How gardens open the door to learning about history, science, other cultures, the ancient earth, physics, stewardship
- The importance of bugs, fungus, water, dirt and things that stink
I was so pleased to discover, when speaking at The National Children & Youth Gardening Symposium a few years ago, that, while I had been fighting the tide of popular culture and figuring these things out with my son in our yard, teachers, landscape designers and botanical gardens had started a whole children’s gardening movement. I hope that adding my voice to theirs brings the message to your back – or even front – yard.
Reflections on my personal journey
Four big realizations upon becoming a mother made gardening a platform for learning for both me and my son:
- How profoundly growing up in woods and garden shaped and educated me, benefits I wanted to pass on.
- How every single thing a parent does teaches something.
- An aphorism that floored me with its truth: “A child is not a vessel to fill but a fire to light.”
- Seeing my son learn about the world with his entire body, all senses engaged, from the day of his birth
I began to plant experiences, not just plants and to give him a rich, safe environment to explore. Even the lawn was organic, so kids could roll on it and eat violets. We made places to dig and places to hide and dream; we named plants, insects, snakes, birds; we studied them, learning what they ate and where they lived; we planted vegetables with funny colors and plants for caterpillars and birds to eat; we preserved habitat by leaving stumps and native understory shrubs, carrying what we learned at home to all we encountered elsewhere. And so we began a journey of discovery that shapes how I landscape even now that he is an adult, what I teach as a garden coach (I’m very lucky to have some ongoing coaching clients with kids) and how we both experience the world.
Karen has also adapted this talk as part of a custom workshop.
Learn to choose plants that can take benign neglect or thrive in problem places by understanding adaptations that allow them to survive in nature
Sooner or later most of us gardeners fall in love with a blue poppy that would rather be in the Himalayas or a hybrid tea rose that looks fine at the nursery but develops every disease in the book the instant we plant it. Figuring out how to satisfy the needs of these fussy plants can be a rewarding challenge – or an exercise in frustration.
I prefer my garden to be an escape from the frustrations of life and to be more sustainable. Choosing plants that want to grow where we plant them makes for more pleasure and less work. “Survival in the Darwinian Garden” explores some of the many adaptations plants have developed to survive various challenges, to outcompete other plants, conserve moisture, avoid being eaten.
We will investigate plants that are widely adaptable as well as those that are adapted to specific, often difficult conditions. Taking a good look at how plants arrange themselves in nature and how we can use those observations, we consider a diverse range of gardeners’ strategies for encouraging plants to survive beautifully in their gardens.
This talk can also be modified to create a custom workshop.
Create beautiful gardens and landscapes that knit together the web of life, supporting wildlife and repairing fragmented habitats
Landscaping with Native Plants is about ecological thinking as much as it is about plants. We need to recognize that our yards are part of an ecosystem and that everything we do on our home turf can heal and support that ecosystem or can cause damage, often without our knowing.
This lavishly illustrated talk features my photographs of attractive home landscapes based on natural systems and using native plants, especially shrubs and trees. Readily available native plants that thrive in eastern North America will be highlighted, including plants that are adapted to difficult conditions such as rocky slopes, poor soil, shade and damp areas.
Native landscapes are diverse and sustainable. They attract and support birds and other wildlife. Using nature as a guide can lead to great savings of time and money, reduce runoff and soil erosion, cool the atmosphere, reduce or eliminate watering and fertilizer use and knit together plant and animal communities that have become fractured by development and common landscaping practices. And native landscapes convey a sense of place. They “feel right” in the way they express and reflect the character of the region.
Contact Karen to book this talk.
Learning to see, whatever camera equipment is used
A lot of people think that photography is about equipment. They love the gear, the mystique, the gadgets. Although I have made my living as a freelance photographer for more than 30 years, and have been published in magazines, newspapers and books all over the world, many amateurs have cameras far more sophisticated than mine. For me, photography is about seeing and about communicating. This can often be done with the simplest of equipment.
Most photographers make a lot of mistakes when they start out. I certainly did. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes and quit repeating them. Here is an opportunity to boost your photography skills using my bad examples. Whether the aspiring photographer uses a disposable point and shoot camera, a single lens reflex or the latest in digital technology, the tips and examples I present are guaranteed to lead to better garden photographs.
A critique of work or hour-long demonstration following the talk may be added for an additional fee. Longer Custom Photography Workshops are also available
Contact Karen to book this talk or inquire about workshops.
Look to nature as a guide for creating sustainable, low-care, high-satisfaction gardens
Karen photographed The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bringing Nature to Your Backyard (Timber Press)
But it also means landscaping like nature. Nobody plants, waters or fertilizes the forest or the prairie, yet they survive – beautifully – on their own. Naturescaping – also called Ecological landscaping – creates self-sustaining (i.e. low-maintenance) landscapes that function like nature.
Naturescape Your Yard is informed both by the work of notable ecologists and ecological designers and my own understanding that everything comes from somewhere, everything goes somewhere and it’s all connected. I present big-picture ecological thinking, nitty-gritty how-to tips and images of sustainable yards and gardens that serve the needs of the people who use them, look attractive and function as small ecosystems.
“Naturescape Your Yard” encourages
- emulating the ecosystems we have here in the forested East by planting in layers and covering ground -– and benefiting from ecosystem services
- thinking about plant communities rather than just individual plants
- planting to feed wildlife all year long
- attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects
- choosing plants that want to be in the soils we have rather than constantly disturbing and amending soil
- managing invasive plants
- designing to allow water to infiltrate the ground rather than running off
- looking at leaves, garden clippings, sticks and even dead trees as resources to return to the soil rather than waste problems
- using local and recycled materials
- organic gardening
Using natural processes makes our yards easier to maintain, more conserving of time and resources, less polluting, more beautiful and enjoyable.
About The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bringing Nature to Your Backyard
Just as I launched my Eco-friendly Garden Coach business after years of photographing and writing about ecological landscaping, native plants, biodiversity, xeriscaping, organic gardening, planting for wildlife, gardening with nature and related topics, Oregon landscape designer Beth O’Donnell Young called out of the blue to ask if I’d be the photographer for the book she was writing on Naturescaping. I am pleased that my photos – and the stories behind them – now grace her exceedingly useful planning guide, published by Timber Press in 2011.
Contact Karen to book this talk.
Plant beauty close to home for enjoyment from fall until spring
Karen photographed The Unsung Season: Gardens and Gardeners in Winter (Houghton Mifflin)
Nature’s poetic sights in winter have always enchanted me. When I quit grumbling about the cold and dark, and just go outside, I always encounter unexpected beauty. Furry staghorn sumac branches encased in ice, a tree filled with golden apples and flittering golden evening grosbeaks, red winterberries in a grey landscape, rustling papery beech leaves, waterlily leaves encased in frozen silver bubbles – these sights warm me and linger in my imagination.
But nothing in my early fair-weather gardens quickened my pulse or fed my soul in the cold season like those sights in nature. When I bought my home in 1989 I was determined to draw that kind of visual poetry close to me. I wanted to be surrounded by gardens that gave me pleasure 365 days a year whether I was inside or out.
I was also curious about what other gardeners – people who by definition want to be outside – did to keep themselves from going bonkers through the season that, despite its charms, always seems to come too soon and stay too long. To find out, I collaborated with writer Sydney Eddison on a book, The Unsung Season: Gardens and Gardeners in Winter, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995.
In my talk, “The Unsung Season, Gardens in Winter,” we look at the many possibilities for interest way past first frost. I consider form, line, color, texture, plays of light and shadow, movement, sound, birds, surprises you find when you drag yourself out of the comfy fireside chair and go outdoors. Big structures carry the garden when details are buried under snow, evergreens provide color and form, deciduous trees and shrubs create form with lines. Seedheads and pods lend punctuation and texture and many herbaceous plants – I call them my foul weather friends – persist well into winter.
I’ve come to appreciate winter as a transition from fall to spring. In autumn, ornamental grasses, berries and seedheads (many attractive to birds) are in their glory. Then colored and textured barks, needles and buds take center stage. Before you know it, early bulbs are pushing up under the snow. I make sure to plant the earliest of early bloomers in warm microclimates so I have flowers before snow in the rest of the yard melts. The unsung season never seems unbearably long any more, for there is so much to see and enjoy.
Contact Karen to book this talk.
Integrate bulbs that last – and increase – into the designed landscape – there’s always room for more
Why do some bulbs persist in the garden, while others disappear? It’s so easy to fall for those seductive photos in the bulb catalogs, to optimistically plant every pretty thing that catches our eye only to be disappointed in spring. Some disappear without a trace. Others we expectantly watch as they emerge from the cold ground, elongate and develop fat promising buds that become deer candy before they have a chance to open. Some are great the first season, O.K. the next and totally wimp out after that. Others are so enthusiastic we wish they would wimp out. A lot depends on breeding, site conditions, origin and palatability to critters.
With a commitment to sustainability and preference for conserving my own time and money, I’ve come to depend on an array of bulbs that come up every spring with no effort on my part, bloom their heads off, disappear without much fuss to make room for successive plantings and increase year by year. Seductive photos of long-lasting bulbs in real gardens and landscapes around the country will be accompanied by advice on selection, siting, bulbs for difficult conditions, naturalizing, perennializing and artfully combining with perennials for a long season of bloom.
Read more in Karen’s article Great Bulbs That Last for The American Horticultural Society’s magazine, The American Gardener
Contact Karen to book this talk.
Some pollinators are better at the job than others, just as some flowers are more valuable food sources. Bees and other insects are key – they give a snapshot of the health of the entire ecosystem. Like all living things, they need good habitat – nesting places, resting places, hibernation sites, mating opportunities, food and water, in a non-toxic environment.
This is not a bee i.d. presentation, its about best plants and practices. Gardeners are uniquely able to support the entire life cycle of beneficial insects and other pollinators. Good plant choices and land care, coupled with simple awareness of the living world buzzing all around us make all the difference. After all, we’re not just cultivating flowers, we’re cultivating habitat.
Contact Karen to book this talk.
Books related to these talks, as well as The Homeowner’s Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook (Storey Publishing 2007), with more than 600 of Karen’s photographs (Link to the book’s page) are available for sale and signing