Natural Companions

See how the plant world’s blooming buddies can turn a garden into paradise.

By Ken Druse


Ken Druse's Natural CompanionsGarden art takes many forms and in his latest book, Natural Companions, Ken Druse shows us the creativity behind composing a garden picture in the physical garden, but also in capturing a pictorial representation of plants. Produced in partnership with photographer Ellen Hoverkamp, the text is vintage Druse: an engaging blend of humor (the punning titles are rib-ticklers), garden history, botanical knowledge, and practical advice based on the experience of creating his garden in northwest New Jersey as well as what he’s gleaned from gardens around the world.

Describing the duo’s work behind this generously inclusive gallery of plantsmanship, Druse writes: “I made lists of themes and subjects such as plant families, palettes, and other reasons to bring plants together. I grew many of the plants for our project in my garden, and Ellen went to her gardening friends, lists in hand, for more. We called in plants from friends in the Southeast and Southwest, on the West Coast, and at other locales around the country to be sure to touch on as many regions as possible.” Hoverkamp’s lens is not attached to a camera but is an oversize, 12-by-17-inch flatbed scanner. As the plants were collected, she’d take them back to her studio and set to work. The only light came from the scanner as it moved slowly across the glass bed on which she carefully arranged the foliage, blooms, stems, and seedpods to compose each frame, suspending some from wire frames above the scanner bed to avoid crushing them. The results have an intriguing depth and luminosity.

The images, although highly graphic in composition, reflect how the plants might be found in nature. So they instruct as well as inspire. As Druse explains, “...we tried to present a hierarchy as it might appear in a planting: from the low groundcover in the foreground, medium-size samples in the middle, and finally the tallest constituents at the top. The results in this book are slices of planting schemes, as if you could isolate a pie wedge from a bed or border to create an exhibition with samples plucked from the garden.” Adds Hoverkamp: “I’m in awe of what gardeners do [and] I’ve found a way to make a souvenir, a lasting memory of how my friends nurture nature. I want to show other people what gardeners know about the beauty of plants.” —Ethne Clarke

Magnificent Obsession

There may be no more satisfying thing than to pluck a fruit or vegetable from your own garden and sample it fresh off the vine. Talk about devotion. Vegetable gardening might just be the most challenging outdoor version of our pastime, and that goes double if you hope to do it organically and sustainably, as we all do.

It starts with soil. You can dig or double dig, turning over the soil in two layers and adding organic matter. Or you can make raised beds in which you bring in your enriched soil and fill bottomless wooden boxes set on the ground with sides that are from ten to thirty inches high. But the most modern approach, no-till, preserves the inherent structure of the soil by not disturbing it. Each season, compost is added to the surface as plants are plugged into the earth, then the bed is mulched. In time, the compost incorporates through the same processes that built the soil through the years. My garden is shady. I have few places where there is enough sunlight to grow tomatoes, which I allow to sprawl over makeshift supports up on the driveway. I grow winter squash on the southern edge of large plastic, faux terra-cotta pots, or a half whiskey barrel, and not alone. I plant upright ornamentals like Colocasia (elephant ears), and let the squash vines sprawl down over the container’s edge. My growing medium is soilless: two parts coir, one part compost, and one part perlite. Vegetable plants, and especially those in containers, are “gross-feeders,” so they get frequent doses of a balanced, organic liquid fertilizer like a kelp and fish emulsion.

Botanical scans by Ellen Hoverkamp