The Return of the Native 

A Belle Meade estate's sharp-lined, hard-angled landscape plan gets scrapped in favor of natural, curving beds of indigenous plants

A Belle Meade estate's sharp-lined, hard-angled landscape plan gets scrapped in favor of natural, curving beds of indigenous plants

Mike Berkley is a passionate man. The object of his passion is plants, but not just any plants—only Tennessee natives. With partner Terri Barnes, he's the proprietor of GroWild, a Fairview nursery that stocks over 850 native species—wildflowers and perennials, vines and grasses, trees and shrubs. Berkley's goal is to return native vegetation to its former position of preeminence in the Tennessee landscape.

"I take it as a personal challenge," Berkley says, "to find a native to match every nonnative species that people like. I've found a native groundcover to use instead of monkey grass, for example, which actually grows better in dry shade."

Berkley's advocacy is not the horticultural equivalent of the Daughters of the American Revolution, rooted in genealogical obsession. He has practical reasons for urging us to go native.

"In our climate—and we have weird weather patterns where it can go from 70 to 30 degrees in a day—natives are more durable," he explains. "They're proven because they've been here for a thousand years. It takes less chemical use to keep natives happy and healthy and pretty."

Berkley also feels an ethical obligation to preserve native flora. "We're losing a lot of species. Wildfire suppression costs us some, because some seeds need to burn to germinate." Other species fail to survive the erosion of their habitat. "Some plants like to germinate in moss. A persimmon seed, on the other hand, is hard as a rock, and needs scarification to germinate. In the wild, the seed gets scarified because deer chew it. At our nursery, we have to scari fy the seeds ourselves."

Berkley has learned the tricks of propagation by observation. "I do a lot of backpacking to learn what these plants do in their natural habitat. And we have a huge trial garden in Fairview." He also studies the exposures in which a plant thrives, and how much moisture it needs. "You can't put every plant anywhere in a backyard and have it survive. Native azaleas, for example, need protection from afternoon sun. We don't want to make high-maintenance landscapes."

For his low-maintenance landscapes, Berkley employs what he calls "naturalistic design: no symmetry or balance, lots of flow and continuity of massing. That's what Mother Nature does, and she's the oldest landscaper around. It's humans who added the straight lines."

The Belle Meade estate of Stephen and Myla Lynn is a good example of Berkley's horticultural and design philosophy. "It was a great opportunity—five acres, and we were pretty much starting from scratch," he says. "The site already had some large caliper trees, and the pond, which Tara Armistead designed, was under construction. The rest was all dirt and dump trucks."

Berkley replaced the straight lines of the plant beds in a previous landscape plan with curves, and added berms and undulations to the lawn "to give some depth to the site," he says. "I think of it as a painting. Picasso used lots of sharp, linear forms, which look agitated. Monet is more soothing."

Berkley took one look at the plant list for the old plan—all exotics—and started anew. What he gave the Lynns was a broad palette—over 40 species—of natives. Stellar attractions include the sweet scent of Piedmont azaleas in spring, golden hypericum in summer, itea shrubs for winey fall color, the crimson of winterberry holly in the cold months.

"A lot of people, when they think of native plants, they think weeds," Berkley says. The Lynn's landscape shows that natives can deliver beauty—and formal interest—all year round.

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