Book Review: Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed by James Hitchmough

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by Eric Hsu

Together with his colleague Nigel Dunnett whose work at the Barbican Center in London is his most visible work, James Hitchmough have put Sheffield University on the map for their pioneering work in plant communities and their horticultural application in public spaces. While Henk Gerristen, Piet Oudolf, and their peers have respectively publicized the ecological-based tenets of planting for aesthetic effect and lower input than traditional plantings, James Hitchmough, despite being a well-respected researcher and a valued consultant to garden designers like Tom Stuart Smith, has largely been under the radar. Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed (Timber Press 2017) may finally shift the spotlight onto his work. The book is a distillation of more than 30 years of research at Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture. In his introduction, Hitchmough makes it clear that the book is “about utilizing an understanding of how naturally occurring plant communities function ecologically, and then transferring this understanding to help design, establish, and manage visually dramatic herbaceous vegetation in gardens, urban parks, and other urban greenspaces that is long persistent.” In no way are the vegetation he envisages for these plantings are always exact facsimiles of the wild ones, as sometimes he liberally borrows taxa from congruent habitats because seasonal interest must be sustained longer than natural plant communities permit.

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Hitchmough is aware of the native plant debate, recognizing that the inclusion of exotic taxa in his planting may be an affront to those who see the disparity between his lament of the biologically diminished landscape and his appreciation of wild landscapes overseas. For a country whose flora was left less diverse after the Ice Age, United Kingdom would be poorer without its garden flora, much of it introduced during the 19th and 20th centuries. Where would Cornish gardens be without their tree ferns, rhododendrons, and camellias, and how would the herbaceous borders on those palatial estates look with only native plants? Imagine Capability ‘Lancelot’ Brown creating landscape parks without the range of trees. Hitchmough points out that large countries like United States or China benefit from having a large native flora, yet the definition of ‘native’ becomes ambiguous if someone would use species with disparate distributions (East versus West Coast). There is a gulf between the political and ecological definition of what is native, and environmental stressors in urban landscapes may be unsuitable for native species where exotic species may be more resilient. Pollinators do not discriminate between native and exotic taxa as long as nectar and food sources are satisfied. Any concern about invasive species is negligible because these uncooperative species are incompatible with the complex vegetation Hitchmough seeks to create. Conscientious of his work within the political and social-cultural context, he will adapt if native species reflect more accurately of the site than simply having exotics. Whereas Hitchmough’s contemporaries depend heavily on plugs and containerized plants for their work, sowing seeds of the desired species is the crux of Hitchmough’s plantings. The immediate benefit is economical scale-wise since large meadows would have required generous financial expenditure. And there is a magic of seeing the ground once bare become awash with vegetation.

“Looking to Nature for Inspiration and Design Wisdom” addresses the ecological parameters one must consider for successful plant communities in gardens. These parameters include climate, soil types, degree of competition with other plants, and herbivore pressures. Any experienced gardener knows too well the heartbreaking travails of failing to grow plants that fit the climate. While it seems prescriptive to match climatic conditions to the plants that are engineered to thrive, it does save one from meaningless struggles, curtailing any unrealistic expectations. Operating on a sliding scale that can accommodate plants with different levels of climatic fitness may be a preferable approach than the dogmatic of sticking merely to ‘extremely fit’ plants. Unsurprisingly less productive soils generally produce species-rich meadows while rich fertile soils permit rapidly growing species to dominate at the expense of diversity. The morphological architecture of plants can indicate the type of environments they can withstand – large leaves can signal high moisture needs and shade. Hitchmough points out that plant communities possess canopy layering, and one can intuit the general appearance and character from each layer.

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Traditional horticulture perspectives doled out in general gardening books can unfairly alter our understanding of garden plants – for instance, well-drained soil, moderate temperatures, and sun are cultivation perquisites for Kniphofia, but when evaluated ecologically, a gradient of different conditions emerges for the various species. The horticultural advice overlooks the possibility of Kniphofia being in drainage swales because it assumes that the plants will be used in planting strictly for visual impact, not ecological sympatry. Hitchmough stresses this distinction because ecological, not necessarily aesthetic, traits of plants are the main priority.

Hitchmough’s valid points come from serious studies during his visits to various plant communities in Eurasia, Western North America, Asia, and South Africa. These communities are described and analyzed for their relevancy to his designs. A major challenge from incorporating some of the plants is slugs, which flourish in the maritime mild climate of United Kingdom. There is an inverse relationship between slugs and altitude – the higher the altitude, the less the slug population. High altitude species are sometimes difficult to incorporate because of the slug pressure. Nonetheless Hitchmough does draw up examples of species with high design potential from the plant communities. Gardeners may already grow some of them; for example, Achillea filipendulina, Alcea rugosa (hollyhock), and Eremurus species are suggested species found on productive soils of the Eurasian steppe. How does one take inspiration by studying plant communities worldwide and translate it for designed versions?

Hitchmough lays out two approaches in ‘Designing Naturalistic Herbaceous Plant Communities’: the biogeographic method and the non-biogeographic, pick and mix route. The former results in a some facsimile of the wild community where the sense of identity is emphasized and the planting more likely sustainable long-term. In contrast, the latter exercises more creative freedom due to the lack of biogeographic constraints. It does require more complex understanding of the plants and their interspecific interactions. Hitchmough even proffers the species level rather than the community approach, although the conditions at the proposed planting site must be approximated first. The well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto has taken this species level methodology in which species sharing similar cultural requirements are grown together. Regardless of which approach one applies to their design, macroclimatic and microclimatic factors must be weighed. Latitude, altitude, and continentality define macroclimatic ones while degree of shade, aspect, soil moisture stress, and soil productivity and pH characterize microclimatic ones. Hitchmough has helpfully organized the environmental and management limitations for various natural meadow-like plant communities and species in a table.

Flowering is categorized interestingly in three ways, dramatic, intermediate and low key, driven by the ratio of foliage to flowers at peak bloom, the size of each flower, and the impact of flower color. Asclepias tuberosa would be dramatic because it elicits the ‘wow’ reaction from people otherwise indifferent to plants. Sanguisorba is considered low-key for its flowers are small and not vividly colorful. It may be easy to be dismissive of these systematic categorization, but a wide gulf exists between the public perception and the trained eye. If designed plant communities need to have the impact in public spaces, sometimes our aesthetic values need realistic reassessment for a dispassionate perspective. It is a telling reminder before design objectives can be formulated.

“Seed Mix Design, Implementation, and Initial Establishment” looks at the intricacies of seed mixes. For those outside the profession, using seed mixes seems a failproof technique of achieving the colorful beautiful displays. However, these mixes are usually made of annual species whose high germination rates and little or no seed dormancy enhances successful results. In contrast, mixes of perennial species are sometimes unreliable because lower germination rates and consequent lower density of seedlings are inherent. Seed quality and storage is the main culprit when one selects species for seed mixes – obscure or rare species tend to have the lowest germinability, leading to intermittent demand and longer storage time. Because assessing seed quality takes considerable expenditure, one must brace for paying higher costs upfront. However, the tradeoff is better viability and less variability, which is less costly than having to repeat orders and contend with erratic germination.

Hitchmough cautions readers not to confuse percentage germination with percentage field emergence. High germination can be offset by mortality in field emergence, the survival rate of seedlings visible to naked eye. What can break or make is soil moisture – seedlings, irrespective from dry or moist habitats, benefit with no or minimal moisture stress. All these factors must be weighed before numbers are made for the seed mixes. The mathematician in the horticulturist may delight at the opportunity to calculate the weight of seed for species for a 288 M2 plot. Hitchmough has provided helpful formulas for breaking down the results. Sometimes to bypass the unpredictable facet of direct seed sowing, one can grow plugs or semi-finished plants. Then the question jumps to the available planting spaces per square metre, but actually ends up the same as sowing. What follows is too unchanged. Site preparation, soil cultivation, and sowing mulches will influence the crucial period of seedling survival and establishment. Even the timing of the sowing has an effect as Hitchmough weighs in species with seasonal preferences. Primroses are best sown spring, but Aconitum prefer early and mid autumn to break deep dormancy. The chapter is rounded by an invaluable compendium of emergence data for different taxa.

The first season of sowing still needs diligent husbandry before anything tangible can be witnessed. “Establishment and Management” advises on this first season and subsequent years. Weeding is paramount to any meadow-like gardens since weeds are energetic opportunists. Hitchmough is adamant about weed control, having once hand-weeded an 800-m2 sowing of the prairie garden at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens in its first season. He discourages fertilizing, a self-defeating tactic unless soil compaction and nutrient deficiency necessitates a nitrogen-only fertilizer. Editing becomes a priority once the plants mature and spread. It is a challenge that involves reviewing and conceptualizing the changes because a certain threshold for density of plants is visually acceptable. This threshold comes down to the specific nature of each herbaceous plant community because climate exerts an inexorable effect on window of growth. Hitchmough lays out the community type (i.e. forb dominated and grass dominated for temperate, forb dominated and geophyte dominated for Mediterranean) because the system is no longer a garden where all species from different communities are simultaneously accommodated.

The last chapter contains several case studies in United Kingdom (one exception being in China). Each project is prefaced by a summary of the plant communities, seed source, client and conditions, project area, and timescale. Hitchmough’s scientific methodology is conveyed in the project descriptions where chronological photographs illustrated his points. It is enlightening to read about the successes and failures of each project because most garden designers do not convey the arduous process, focusing instead on the ‘glamorous’ or ‘soft-sell’ results. Having trained and skilled staff to oversee and maintain these complex plantings is another factor Hitchmough brings up – such plantings are not the simple ‘mow and sow’ variety. However, with the slow erosion of skilled horticulturists, the resiliency of meadow-like plantings may be more advantageous than the traditional schemes, like annual bedding. Hitchmough concedes that no amount of empirical data can accurately predict how successful each plant plays in their ‘designed’ communities as plants being living organisms are forever shifting in their longevity and reproductivity. Instead, what the data can achieve is to minimize the losses and increase the rate of establishment.

Sowing Beauty is Hitchmough’s visceral reaction to the environmental degradation of the mining town he grew up in northern UK. It is possible that the extremes we are frequently experiencing from climate change may mean the gradual decline of conventional gardening ideals. In no way should we wait for an ecological catastrophe larger than Chernobyl nuclear disaster or Exxon Valdez oil spill for our mindsets to change. One may discount the meadow-inspired plantings overwrought imitations of the Real McCoy, but for people whose natural connections are becoming fractured in an urbanized world, they represent a vital connection to nature. Thoreau once said: “We need the tonic of wildness”, and Hitchmough’s work brings not only that ‘tonic of wildness’, but an empathic respect for our planet.

Book Review: Kniphofia: the complete guide by Christopher Whitehouse

by Eric Hsu

One outcome of the European colonization in South Africa was the establishment of botanic gardens and the affiliated research centers. Today Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden can trace its founding back to 1913 when a British expatriate Henry Harold Pearson, who had moved down in 1903 to chair the botany department at South African College (University of Cape Town), agreed to serve as its first director in spite of difficult beginnings. Botanists wasted no time in documenting the floral biodiversity of South Africa by publishing their finds and preserving specimens in herbaria like the Compton Herbarium. Books were published as people clamored to learn more about the exotic flora, some of which was then dispersed to other parts of the world (with some disastrous ecological consequences). These books followed the European tradition of commissioning skilled botanical illustrators to produce watercolor paintings and having botanists prepare the scientific descriptions.

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A treasured plant monograph in my library is The Genus Dierama by O.M. Hilliard and B.L. Burtt, which I was fortunate to purchase from the RHS Wisley Bookshop despite being out of print! The watercolor renderings and pencil sketches of these photogenic iris relatives by Auriol Batten are among the best in the South African botanical illustration. Dierama, better known as Venus’s fishing rods, are best in mild maritime climates, such those of Ireland, northern California, and United Kingdom. They were in full glory when I interned in plant records at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and some were actually type plants from which Hilliard and Burtt described new species. Another plant monograph The Proteas of Southern Africa by John Rourke follows the same format with illustrations by Fay Anderson. I am often reminded of my days in Australia when I would buy cut protea flowers for floral arrangements. A local grower would arrive at the weekend market with buckets of different proteas to sell, and sometimes the temptation was too much to leave without them. Months later, I found myself transplanting Protea cynaroides, rightly called the king protea for its majestic large flowers, in a friend’s garden.

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Kniphofias always drew snickers from my non-gardening friends who knew them as red hot pokers for they saw bawdry humor instead. However, I wasn’t always appreciative of what these South African natives had to offer.  I first knew kniphofias as tritoma when I purchased plants from the bargain table, and watched them thrive in my modest garden plot. Unfortunately their lanky foliage always looked unkempt and became a liability as the flowers faded quickly in summer heat. Frustrated one day, I pulled out the plants to create space for more desirable perennials. Christopher Whitehouse’s horticultural monograph on Kniphofia, the first to be published in the RHS’s five year long horticultural taxonomy project,  may change my perception for the genus. Christopher was the Keeper of Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium when he was one of my advisors on my M.S. project on putative Erica hybrids. I was aware of his life long affection for South Africa flora especially when he had worked on his doctorate on Cape roses (Cliffortia) in Cape Town. The Royal Horticultural Society Botany Department would not have found a more qualified person to study and publish the Kniphofia monograph, and the last authoritative reference was in the botanical journal Bothalia. Sorting out the species is already a monumental task, and adding the hybrids and various cultivars turns into a slippery path because Kniphofia interbreeds easily.

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Whitehouse was able to draw from the RHS Plant Trial of kniphofias to sort out nomenclatural issues and confusion in the trade; the results compiled with the help of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee and RHS Botany Department resolved some contention over cultivars. He has had the good fortune and perspicuity to conduct field studies of the genus in the wild. Bringing together the cultivated plant nomenclature and field studies gave a better understanding of the polymorphic genus.

Throughout the book, one will find useful charts that categorize information, like the chronology of naming for various Kniphofia species, introduction of cultivars especially those raised by Maximilian Leichtlin, or the endemic species by geographic region. Gardeners will find the flowering period of the species and the color grouping of cultivars indispensable for planning their plantings.Most books on specific genera lack such charts that help readers make good decisions about plant selection.

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The range of colors from the Kniphofia cultivars at the 2007-2009 RHS Trial (Photo Credit: Tim Sandall from Kniphofia)

The chapter on relatives helps elucidate the relationship of Kniphofia to similarly confused genera (i.e. Aloe and Bulbinella) in the same family Asphodelaceae. Whitehouse points out that traits separate Aloe from Kniphofia in the former’s succulent nature, absent keel in leaves, and upward orientation of the floral pedicels (stalks connecting the flowers to main stem). However, Aloe and Kniphofia show ecological convergence in their tubular flowers, which are adapted for pollination by sun birds, although competition is avoided by different flowering seasons (Aloe dominantly winter). An interesting note is that kniphofias with V-shaped leaves are less likely to flop than those with less pronounced V-shaped ones. It is a diagnostic feature worth remembering for anyone who has had the unpleasant task of cleaning slimy, cold damaged leaves in spring. One thing that surprised me was the medicinal use of Kniphofia for female ailments, although their use for twine and threaded talisman necklaces seem expected.

Cultivation is not shortchanged here as it would be in other monographs. Readers need to be aware that the perspective is that of UK rather than other regions which would experience either warmer summers or colder winters. Waterlogged soil during winter is usually the chief demise of kniphofias in northern climates, hence drainage is usually recommended. However, some moisture is needed if plants are to grow and produce good flowering.

The remaining 2/3 of the book is given over to species and cultivars. Whitehouse has mercifully pared down the diagnostic descriptions in floras to those important for identifying the species in an accessible manner. Each species is prefaced by color photographs that depict the flowerhead, the plant in full habit, and the habitat. Additional comments are reserved below the bullet list of traits. Whitehouse follows with the chapter on cultivars. Organized by color, cultivars are condensed with short descriptions with the breeder, date of introduction, and dimensions. A checklist of epithets helps with cross-referencing correct names and their earliest discovered sources. With several hundred varieties in existence, a gardener can find sorting out the names a time consuming ordeal. The checklist does much to straighten out the nomenclature affair.

Conclusions drawn in Kniphofia are not necessarily firm.  A nurseryman friend who breeds kniphofias contends that Kniphofia thomsonii var. thomsonii ‘Stern’s Trip’ is not sterile, although it is not overly fertile. He has grown a few plants from its seed, despite the progeny not having any appreciable ornamental value.  Another nurseryman has likewise raised seedlings, one of which is currently evaluated for its ornamental quality. However, no disagreement will and should dissuade gardeners from seeking out Kniphofia as a reference. It is rare for books to bridge the gap between horticulture and botany.

Book Review: The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik

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Behind each creative mastermind is someone who possesses the expertise to obtain the ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ for the vision to be realized fully. Just as the fashion designer cannot complete a collection with a team of seamstresses or tailors to execute his designs, the landscape architect or garden designer is dependent on someone who can supply plants for their projects. Midwest plantsman Roy Diblik was tasked to source and grow for the Lurie Garden in 2001 – hardly any nurseries in the Chicago area had the variety, quantity or quality that Piet Oudolf sought. Diblik co-runs Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, a 1 1/2 hour or so drive from Chicago. A Chicago Tribune article in 2010 christened him the ‘perennial persuader’. This ‘perennial persuader’ irrevocably altered Piet Oudolf’s original planting plans, especially after he took him to Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and other Midwest landscapes. Now Diblik aims to proselytizes a wider audience through The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden (Timber Press 2014).
Roy wants his readers to revise their attitudes towards traditional gardening practices where herbaceous perennials are regarded for landscapes. For instance, the conventional method of incorporating manure and compost generously into the topsoil causes herbaceous perennials to senesce prematurely and weeds to prosper instead. Nor does the wood chip mulching benefit perennials.
The first few chapters are the requisite ones that address plant selection, site preparation and planting and maintenance.  Any gardener can tell you that keeping ahead of weeds is always an ongoing battle – and weeds almost always seem to mushroom overnight after a good rainfall. As Diblik points out, weed suppression is an inescapable legacy of agricultural history for every healthy plant community contain few species of high fecundity and rapid colonization, and the rogue’s gallery of worst weeds sandwiched between weed control tactics and maintenance (i.e. watering. division) is useful as horticultural texts often skirt over the culprits.
The list of plants in Chapter 5: Key Plants for Know Maintenance Gardens may attract detractors for its lack of encyclopedic depth, but Diblik makes it clear that his selection fulfill the following criteria: hardiness and reliability in the Midwest and Northwest; adaptability within different climatic and soil variations; gradual beauty over the years. And his selection is on the mark as I have grown a few of the plants like Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and Solidago spahecelata ‘Golden Fleece’ in my parents’ former garden and observed them in compromising public spaces repeatedly. Who can argue with a man who introduced Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, one of the best ornamental grasses? Diblik even gives deserving due to sedges, which are woefully underused in gardens, and their diversity remains untapped for gardens. Narrowing the list to proven performers ensures that his readers have a better rate of success and once gratified, more open to experimentation with experience.
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For those hesitant about using these plants, garden plans either named after places or paintings are included. It is no coincidence that the paintings can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago for which Diblik designed the plantings. Cezanne’s The Forest Clearing, a tonal study of green and blue, inspires a sunny planting of Allium (A. atropurpureum, A.  flavum, and A. moly), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Carex flacca, Echinacea ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’,  Kalimeris incisa ‘Blue Star’, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, and Sesleria autumnalis. The ‘creative intersection’, the lack of which my blog collaborator Jimmy laments in a recent post, reveals Diblik’s artistic leanings.
Towards the end is a nice acknowledgement of individuals who have influenced, inspired, or worked with Roy in the Midwest US. I would have been interested to read more about the interesting work of these individuals, but that angle is entirely a book in itself. Cassian Schmidt’s gravel garden at Hermannshof, a brilliant garden itself in Germany, is an interesting case study for potential tough areas like parking lots or overscheduled people interested in the beauty of gardens, but lacking time to maintain them.
Photographs, while nowhere dreamy or moody as those in pretty useless books, illustrate the concepts well. They are solid, playing out Diblik’s practices well.
Informative and well organized, the Know Maintenance Perennial Garden rounds out nicely the spate of books regarding ecological or naturalistic gardening and native plants.

Book Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber

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In an earlier post Summertime Reading, I had recommended Dan Barker’s The Third Plate, and having bought a copy myself, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Farming is no different from gardening – both involve a human relationship with the environment and both In recent years, the locavore movement has gained significant traction in United States as farmers market and restaurants have sprung up to accommodate the public demand for local, sustainable food and cuisine. Alice Waters, the mastermind behind Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and the nationwide Edible Schoolyard program, was one of the early proponents for organic and healthy food sourced from a network of local farmers and producers, and her influence is still felt today in today’s farm-to-table ethos (one would argue that Italian and other European immigrants had been eating their food this way – I remember visiting this Italian family in northern Long Island where vegetables and fruits, save for meats and dry goods, were produced on-site. It was always a treat to see the grapes ripening from the arbor, the endless rows of plum tomatoes for saucing, and unusual greens). At his eponymous restaurant Blue Hills in New York City and upstate New York, Dan Barber takes this philosophy to a obsessive level of detail.

The title ‘The Third Plate’ takes its name from a survey prominent chefs were asked to depict and describe the future plate, and Barber envisions the third plate as a carrot dish flavored with sauce made from secondary cuts. Industrialized agriculture exemplifies the first plate – the 7-ounce corn-fed and a vegetable side like potatoes or carrots, and the farm-to-table movement characterizes the second plate – the free range sustainable steak and organic carrots. Barber points out that these two plates are essentially the same – the protein as the big portion, the vegetables as the small portion. As the world’s population grows, raising meat to sustain the masses will likely be untenable, taxing the earth’s already strained resources. Rather than nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner, we continue to subsist heavily on meat, including seafood, at the expense of vegetables. Barber recognizes the challenges of swaying people into eating more vegetables when flavor has been mostly sacrificed, and the elevated prices charged at Blue Hills only reach a subset of the US population who won’t balk at paying $95 for a set course.

The book is divided into four sections -‘Soil’, ‘Land’, ‘Sea’, and ‘Seed’, all of which brim with food history, memorable characters, and environmental sensibility. ‘Soil’ is best encapsulated in Barber’s succinct point: “How soil is managed and how a farmer negotiates weeds and pests, is the single best predictor of how food will taste.” For ‘Land’, Barber travels to the dehesa, the cultivated agricultural landscapes of Spain where the famous jamón ibérico is made from Iberian pigs cavorting underneath century-old oaks and natural foie gras from naturally-reared geese. ‘Sea’ focuses in Spain too, this time at a fish farm Veta la Palma that merges ecological stewardship with delicious fish production. ‘Seed’ drills in the danger of our dependency on a few narrowly genetic crops and the beauty of embracing diversity to address food shortages and broaden the flavor profiles of food.

Barber simply wants us readers to advocate a more holistic food-to-table philosophy – rather than buying the ‘charismatic’ vegetables like sweet corn and tomatoes or fruits like strawberries, we consider cooking with more ‘experimental’ grains and greens like emmer wheat and mustard greens. Because the ‘charismatic’ vegetables are hungry feeders, they take a lot from the soil and require the farmers to compensate for the output. Only do a rotational basis of grains and greens that rehabilitate or maintain the soil’s health and fertility will modern farming be more meaningful and ecologically sound.

What will a Blue Hills tasting menu look like in 2050? Its six courses include a farmed trout with farmed phytoplankton and a parsnip steak with a Bordelaise sauce wrested out of grass-fed beef bones. This menu gives genuine momentum to Barber’s vision in the Third Plate.