A Garden for Life

The Natural Approach to Designing, Planting, and Maintaining a North Temperate Garden

Subjects: Michigan and the Great Lakes, Nature
Paperback : 9780472030125, 264 pages, 106 color photos in text, 4 drawings, 1 illustration, 8 x 10, March 2004
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Authoritative and environmentally conscious information on growing over 1,200 species of perennials, biennials, bulbs, corms, and tubers


The avid gardener will need no other resource than this book to plan and maintain a natural garden on the country farm or in the suburban backyard, a habitat congenial to the scarlet tanager, the monarch butterfly, and the toad.

Unique to this book is author Beresford-Kroeger's concept of bioplanning, in which the gardener views the site as a biological system and the activity of gardening as an ecological task. To assist in bioplanning a garden, the author provides both plans that are adaptable to different garden sizes and shapes, as well as planting instructions emphasizing organic care, ecofunction, and environmentally friendly means of pest control.

A Garden for Life challenges everyone to create an ecologically valuable garden for the joy of doing so, and for the salvation of our natural world.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is the author of Arboretum America. She is a botanist, medical and agricultural researcher, lecturer, and self-defined "renegade scientist" in the fields of classical botany, medical biochemistry, organic chemistry, and nuclear chemistry. She lives in Ontario, Canada.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is the author of Arboretum America. She is a botanist, medical and agricultural researcher, lecturer, and self-defined "renegade scientist" in the fields of classical botany, medical biochemistry, organic chemistry, and nuclear chemistry. She lives in Ontario, Canada.

"A Garden for Life provides one answer to Silent Spring as it brings happiness onto the doorstep. . . ."
---Miriam Rothschild

Q & A with Diana Beresford-Kroeger

To speak with or listen to Diana Beresford-Kroeger is an experience you'll never forget. After you've been captivated by her lilting Irish accent, you quickly realize she has a lot of revolutionary things to say about the ways we plan, construct, and maintain the natural world around us, particularly in the garden. Her laboratory -- spiritually, emotionally, and physically -- is the garden, from which spring her ideas about saving the world through rethinking how we put our gardens together.

Here, Beresford-Kroeger talks about her philosophy, her vision, and her book, A Garden for Life: The Natural Approach to Designing, Planting, and Maintaining a North Temperate Garden .

University of Michigan Press: Please tell us what the essence of your book is, and what the Bioplan is and means.

Beresford-Kroeger: The essence of A Garden for Life is simple. If you garden do not forget nature. This is what the Bioplan is all about. The Bioplan tells you how to bring nature back into any garden. And by this I mean, you will bring back birds, butterflies, dragonflies, all the native pollinators, frogs and their cousins the snakes, mammals, and the kingdom of beneficial insects. All of these creatures need water, food, and a safe place if they are to stay in your garden. The ideas of the Bioplan are simple, but they are not being used. A garden is not just for flowers, in my opinion. It should have more than that to satisfy the soul. It should have diversity. A Bioplan brings diversity into any garden. For me, the first time a giant swallowtail butterfly decided to stick around the perennial border in the garden, I felt I was getting somewhere as a gardener.

UMP: What is the difference between your book and all other gardening books?

BK: Inside the covers of A Garden for Life are new ideas in the world of gardening. There are Bioplans. One is an elastic design which will fit all gardens in America. Another is for schools and schoolchildren. And perhaps the most innovative is the Bioplan to protect the health of the household pooch from a toxic environment. There is a key at the back of the book for alternative chemicals to pesticides. The key is easy to use.

UMP: What is the aim of A Garden for Life ?

BK: It is to change the thinking of people on a grassroots level toward the environment. In the long run it is the only way to go because it is the cheapest and the most sustainable for the planet as a whole.

UMP: Have you considered narrowing the climate range for perhaps another book?

BK: Not really. I look at the entire face of the continent of North America with its unique capacity of spring moving up the land block. Then migrations of songbirds and butterflies follow the strength of the sun. This reverses in the fall when the sun dips down on the horizon and winter is again upon us. The seasons interest me as a palette for the garden. I like the big view of the landscape and all the small delights it holds in store for us. I suppose if I were a painter I would look to the big canvases of Georgia O'Keefe with their smaller treasures.

UMP: Why such a large geographic area for the book, North Temperate? The area is so big, and so many things that do well, say, in Florida don't do as well in Toronto, for example. Or vice versa.

BK: I look to the larger geographic areas, because the Bioplan works for a large land mass. The name of the bird may be different or the name of the butterfly may change but their needs are the same in the North Temperate area. The differences between Toronto and Florida for example are in dormancy times. Florida requires a bit of cold to get things growing and Toronto has too much. For the gardener this is just a matter of using the correct plant specie from a larger family group. An amazing tip comes to mind with tulips; Florida, for example, would be better off mass planting the tiny specie tulips and leaving the larger Dutch bulb breeds to the Toronto gardener. But, of course, that would never work because all gardeners are born optimists and will always look to greener pastures.

UMP: When you talk about bioplanning, you say "as soon as nature enters a garden, a much more harmonious system will be in place. . . ." Isn't nature the very essence of a garden? Please explain.

BK: It is the system I am speaking of. Let me give you an example. I know a very educated gardener. She has small garden. It is composed of grass, a small tree, and a handful of petunias. She asked me why she didn't have bluebirds and butterflies. If she gardened for 1,000 years she wouldn't have them because her garden should have food, both for the birds and butterflies. The garden needed to have water, nesting materials, and it needed other plants in the form of shrubs, bulbs, and perennials. In other words she had to increase the biodiversity within the framework of the garden. Then nature comes in the door in the form of other species and this means insects, microbiota in the soil, including bacteriophages which prey on bacteria. All of this comes in with the feeding patterns of the moving creatures like birds and bees. My friend's garden was like a sterile bell jar. No wonder she didn't have bluebirds-they need juicy insects for their fledglings and petunias are not the answer, even though there is nothing wrong with petunias.

UMP: Couldn't someone with a few acres in the city, for example, simply let whatever wants to grow in his or her garden grow? Isn't that how nature works? Then, by letting whatever grow where it will, this would restore to a degree the equilibrium in a garden? Let's say willy-nilly a typical north suburban tree- and landscape of box elder, Chinese elm, sugar maple, ash, goldenrod, Queen's Anne's lace, dandelion, etc?

BK: Somebody with a few acres in the city can certainly let it grow wild. But we are, in fact, speaking of a time frame here; that two acres will in 50 to 100 hundred years grow into a small wilderness area which will be balanced in time. Trees, shrubs, and wildflowers will certainly grow together to form the wilderness. But I am speaking of gardens and what I am saying is that within the garden you can take the essence of wilderness in the form of a Bioplan and within a short time you will achieve a balance of nature. A Bioplan ensures biodiversity in plant specie and fragrance. It forms safe airways for birds and insects to take off into flight, to fly, and to land. It protects health in the soil and this in turn affects the children and the household pets, keeping them safe and happy.

UMP: We hear a lot about the beneficial properties of many tropical or rain forest plants. Of the plants one may encounter in the North Temperate Zone, what are two or three you believe may have real but to date largely untested ameliorative, healing, or otherwise beneficial properties for humans?

BK: Yes. I have mentioned in passing some very interesting healing aspects of North Temperate plants. There are so many more. The names are not common names to most gardeners. I find these species to be fascinating but then, they are my passion. The North Temperate regions of the globe including North America have a large number of healing plants and fascinating medicinal native plants that science has not looked at to date. Unfortunately the rainforests and tropical forest areas are disappearing by the minute and that is why there is interest in these exotic areas. I think that the species of the North Temperate area are of equal but different importance but they are being ignored, not because of a lack of intrinsic value but because 'seldom seen is much admired.' We are losing species in the North Temperate region, too. What we lose locally, we will mourn forever.

I suppose I have not answered this question properly. Yes, there are more than a few plants that fascinate me. One is the lovely snowdrop. It and its sisters in the amaryllis family have a molecular biochemical that inhibits frostbite. It was found by accident. That means that it also affects nerve regeneration. Now, I am wondering to myself if this chemical and its daughter compounds could not be used in back injuries, especially those of the spine itself. The other half of this question is invisible to the human mind but is nonetheless important for other forms of life. These are the protective chemicals of the insect world, foxgloves and wallflowers come to mind. They offer up chemical delights for the protection of the butterfly world. And there are others, all of which are untried territory in science.

UMP: You mention an old variety of peony you've managed to resurrect and save, the Chocolate Soldier peony. Do you think this peony will ever be available commercially?

BK: Absolutely. I am doing this myself. This peony will soon see commerce somehow. It is a beauty. The color is stunning; it quite takes your breath away.

UMP: You talk about the decrease in the population of amphibians in recent years. There are many theories for this. Do you have an opinion as to the reason for the decrease?

BK: I am a bit afraid to talk of this because the same things are happening to our children. There is a disruption in the molecular biology of amphibians because they lead so much of their life in watery systems that they are being polluted by pesticides. These creatures have to procreate in the vilest habitats, we should be afraid for ourselves. And if you think the human being is any different, I will remind you that all of us have lived for nine months in a water sac before we were born. Let's hope that that one was clean. But we know it is not. Not now. In my opinion the fat metabolism of amphibians is being affected by pollution, like it is for all other species. Fat is difficult to study for many complex reasons. Science does not have a good handle on it yet. Hence the importance of the Bioplan. It is my answer to Silent Spring. It is the only answer for us and for nature, globally.

UMP: Will bioplanned gardens work if they are separated from each other or random in distribution? It seems as if the maximum benefit to be gained comes from many of these spaces working in concert.

BK: Ah! yes, the word concert. You see I have a dream. I do think it is OK for a scientist to have a dream. Well, here it is. I want corridors of life, of Bioplanned gardens working in concert together. I want to see these in every part of the North American continent. Then the migrations of songbirds with all their majesty can move from nesting to maturation on this continent. When a man in Florida says goodbye to the hummingbird, a man in Toronto can say hello. You see we all live together in a fragile web of connectivity with nature on this planet. Simply, it is our home.

UMP: What do your next projects look like? Another book?

BK: My husband Christian and I would like to do a sequel to Arboretum: A Philosophy of the Forest . Then I would like to write about native flowers and their medicines.