University City

Davidson College Horticultural Symposium challenges lawn addiction

There’s one sure cure for the wintertime gardener blues: Davidson’s annual Horticultural Symposium.

Weeks before the bees return, local gardeners start buzzing about who is speaking at Davidson this year and what they’ll have to say.

The 2015 symposium will be March 3 at Davidson College. This year’s theme is Plantings Outside the Lines. Publicity chairwoman Pam Grant promises “intriguing presentations that explore the unconventional and look at gardening in a new way.”

Grant isn’t kidding when she says unconventional. Landscape designer Margie Ruddick, who leads off this year’s conference, was featured in The New York Times in 2011 after city officials in Philadelphia cited her for a weedy yard.

According to the Times, charges were dismissed after Ruddick, who holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard, appeared before the judge armed with photos and Latin plant names.

This year’s Davidson conference is shaped by growing acknowledgment that, in the long run, ecology and natural systems may be more vital to American landscapes and gardens than manicured shrubs and emerald lawns.

That makes sense, but it leads to some odd garden bedfellows: Members of Charlotte’s growing local wildlife federation organization, CROWN (Charlotte Reconnecting Ourselves With Nature) will find much common ground with the passionate ornamental gardeners at Davidson this year.

The Davidson presentation by Ruddick – a rewilding advocate – shares its name with her upcoming book, “Wild by Design.” After winning a prestigious Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in 2013, Ruddick told Dwell Magazine: “ ‘Wild’ landscapes – landscapes that have a certain amount of disorderliness or mess – are not only good for wildlife habitat and the health of the planet, but for our souls as well.”

Ruddick works with urban planning as well as home landscaping. Her project at New York City’s Queens Plaza – with its ample and safe bike lanes and a creative naturalistic but attractive planting design – looks like a futurist dreamscape contrasted with Charlotte’s Independence Boulevard.

“I like things that happen that you don’t plan,” Ruddick said.

Davidson’s other 2015 speakers are:

• Sandra Youssef Clinton, who designed Oprah Winfrey’s 160-acre Rolling Prairie Farm in Indiana, is deeply interested in how gardens express cultural identity.

In her talk, “Garden Transformed,” Clinton will explore how to improve gardens and landscapes through natural and cultural awareness. That goes beyond aesthetics; well-placed rows or layers of trees, shrubs and fencing can help reduce energy costs, as she told the Washington Post.

• Tennessee horticulturist and writer Carol Reese brings a down-to-earth sensibility to Davidson. Reese expresses dismay at “garden designers or landscape architects who trot out lofty principles or rules, striking fear into listeners that they might do something tacky.”

In a recent column in the Jackson (Tennessee) Sun, Reese waxed rhapsodic about broomsedge, an oft-neglected signature native plant of the Carolina Piedmont.

Reese will present twice at Davidson, in the morning about pollinators in “Sex and the Single Pistil,” and in the afternoon on those annoying rules in a talk aptly named “Just Do It!”

• Afternoon presenter Evelyn Hadden comes to Davidson speaking dangerous words for Charlotte: “What has your perfect lawn done for you lately?”

Let’s hope she doesn’t get turned back at the airport.

Hadden is a regular blogger for GardenRant (, the indispensable website that is a gardener’s equivalent to John Stewart and the BBC World Service all rolled up in one.

In her Davidson talk, “Beautiful No-Mow Yards” (also the title of her best seller for Timber Press), she explores a creative options for getting rid of chemically dependent and expensive lawns, from planting smart lawns to more ambitious projects such as creating natural prairies and edible landscapes.

• Rounding out Davidson’s 2015 program is Cole Burrell. He has speculated that retirees may do unintended damage to suburban ecology when they clean up areas around their homes reoccupied by native plants and wildlife.

Burrell has written and edited a shelfload of garden books, including, with Judith Tyler, a definitive volume on hellebores, the Lenten Rose and its relatives, beloved in Charlotte gardens.

A native plant authority, Burrell now lives on a wooded hillside in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville. Before moving there, he transformed a one-eighth-acre lot in sight of downtown Minneapolis into a mini-wildlife sanctuary, alive with songbirds and butterflies, just down the street from a neighbor with an AstroTurf lawn.

His Davidson talk, titled “Winter Garden Magic,” will explore more natural choices for interesting winter landscapes.

For 31 years, the Davidson symposium has featured some of the biggest names and brightest ideas in horticulture, and 2015 looks to be as entertaining, thought-provoking and valuable as ever.

Add a delicious lunch and vendor’s hall featuring books, garden materials, crafts and plants, and it is hard to think of a better way to recharge a gardener’s winter-weary soul.

One caution: Publicity chairwoman Grant warned that the event frequently sells out before the final sales date of Feb. 24.