Women of influence



Tracy DiSabato-Aust with students from a local horticulture program.(Sorry for the iphone shots.)

Fortunately, Timber Press let me know that garden writer/designer/triathlete Tracy DiSabato-Aust was coming in to speak to our local nursery/landscaping association last Friday, because there was a not a breath of local PR about it. I attended the all-day seminar mainly so I could meet her and ask her about her new book, 50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants, but it was also interesting to see one of these events, designed purely for the gardening trade.

A bevy of soil-moving machines were parked seductively at the entrance to the conference center, while inside a few hundred gardening/landscaping professionals listened more or less attentively to Tracy’s keynote address. Everything had started half an hour late thanks to the weather; I encountered white-outs every quarter mile on my way to the meet-up, which was held south of Buffalo (where they keep the real snow).

Tracy paced the floor energetically, trying her best to get everybody excited about plants. It worked for me. I’d skimmed through the book, not really focusing on individual cultivars, but when she got going about grasses for dry shade (my specialty) like elymus hystrix, chasmanthium latifolium, calamagrostis brachytricha, and carex elata “Aurea,” I forgot about the monstrous drive there. It was a brutal January morning in Western New York, but I was very excited about plants. I hope everyone else was too, because these are the people who will decide if I get to see any of these plants on nursery shelves.


Later, I attended a seminar by local guru Sally Jean Cunningham, who was writing about the importance of companion planting and beneficial insects long before sustainability was a buzzword. Her Great Garden Companions is now in a new paperback edition, but that was not the book she was brandishing as she exhorted her fellow professionals to include more native plantings in their designs. No, she was holding Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, as she spoke about insects and the trees, shrubs, and perennials that will nurture them. There is minimal awareness of the importance of native plants in our area, so this is a message that is needed. WNY nurserymen and designers will not become radical converts—absolutely no fear at all of that—but if a few native cultivars sneak into their repertoire, Sally’s mission will be accomplished.

Both Tracy and Sally spoke with charm, humor, and fervor, and though their messages were somewhat different, the intent remains. We need to create gardens that are exciting, unique, and a little friendlier to wildlife. I talked to Tracy at length about her new book and how it departs from the Well-Tended Perennial Garden. It is very different, and there are several interesting reasons for it. An excerpt from my interview with her follows later today.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I have found chasmanthium latifolium to be pretty invasive in my garden if I leave the seed heads on and the beautiful seedheads are the main reason for growing it! I finally pulled it out. Also have had a problem with carex sylvatica (same as above) but carex plantaginea, rosea, and platyphylla are all fabulous — growing under silver and sugar maples.

  2. I have been rereading Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham just this week. Her ideas about planting blooming nectar producing plants around and between vegetable plants(not just on the edges) and gardening to bring beneficial insects and birds to the garden were the reason for first picking up the book several years ago.
    I can see where she would be very excited about the use of native plants and Doug Tallamy’s ‘Bringing Nature Home’. It seems to be a natural progression from organic food growing.

  3. Non-native invasive plants cost over 143 billion in taxes. Almost $500 for each man/woman/child in the USA. EVERY YEAR.

    A fact convincing enough for non-gardeners to understand. Yes, more natives. Yes, ridding landscapes of non-native invasives.

    A non-native invasive plant (mahonia, chasmanthium, Jap. cl. fern &tc) may not be a problem in your residential landscape but you are responsible for birds and other wildlife spreading seeds elsewhere.

    And they will.

    Many subdivisions are not friendly to native plants. Humus soil has been bulldozed, canopy trees chopped, mycorrhizal fungi killed & rain water is lost thru storm sewers instead of retained where it fell, temperatures are higher due to more roads/cars/buildings.

    New, and non, gardeners should know it may be difficult to use some natives in their subdivision.

    Garden & Be Well, Tara Dillard

  4. Tara,

    A slight correction …

    Chasmanthium latifolium IS a native. You might also like to know that it is a larval food source for a number of skippers — a small type of butterfly.

    From an Illinois website:
    Faunal Associations: The flowers attract few insects because they are wind-pollinated. The caterpillars of the butterfly Enodia anthedon (Northern Pearly Eye) feed on the foliage of Inland Oats, as do the caterpillars of several Amblyscirtes spp. (Roadside Skippers), including Amblyscirtes vialis (Common Roadside Skipper), Amblyscirtes linda (Linda’s Roadside Skipper), and Amblyscirtes belli (Bell’s Roadside Skipper). The latter two skippers are restricted to southern Illinois and neighboring areas, where their preferred food plant, Inland Oats, is more common.

    Dan Mays

  5. Oh good gawd , another native plant Nazi, didn’t your biology teacher tell you that diversity is a good thing ? –
    It couldn’t be said any better than this Tara :

    To deny the inevitability of ecological change or to pass moral judgment on it is to deny the reality of organic evolution – Steven J. Gould, “An Evolutionary Perspective on Strengths, Fallacies, and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants,” Arnoldia 58, 1998, 2-10.


    Don’t limit your planting designs to a palette of native species that might once have grown on the site. Imposing such a limitation on diversity not only reduces the aesthetic possibilities for the landscape, but also its overall adaptability. As a graceful way out of the native versus exotic debate, I recommend using sustainability as the standard for deciding what to plant. According to my definition, sustainable landscape plants: can tolerate the conditions that prevail on the site; require minimal applications of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to look good; have greater drought tolerance and winter hardiness than other plants; and do not spread aggressively into surrounding natural areas. From this perspective, invasiveness is but one of several criteria that should be used when selecting plants for a given site, and sustainability means that the final planting list is based on a realistic evaluation of site conditions rather than on a romantic notion of the past. – Peter del Tredici , Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum

  6. An interesting point of view, Michelle, especially since you had to prefix it by calling someone a …Nazi.
    If biodiversity means that people are happy with their colourful gardens, you’re right. If it means that the local flora and fauna can survive, you’re wrong. Birds and butterflies eat insects, and many beneficial insects require native plants. Tallamy’s studies prove quite conclusively that the common ornamental plants do not support the insect population required by plants. And with 8000 different natives in California alone, I don’t feel so deprived (even if they’re not all garden worthy).

  7. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your words.

    You’ve opened a new arena for consideration. Native plants not suited to a subdivision environment.

    My landscape design customers demand low maintenance. Most want a lot of natives. Of course they get them. Several have requested chasmanthium. When told of their spread they’re declined.

    My landscape, a mix of native/non has honeybees, butterflies, possums, chipmunks, birds, & more. ALL YEAR. Zone 7.

    It has no turf, no irrigation, no chemicals, no hired help, & survives for weeks at a time without maintenance. There isn’t a day in the year something isn’t blooming and I don’t use annuals.

    It’s open twice a year, and to garden clubs and out-of-state tours. It’s been in national mags and on TV.

    If I’m going to lecture/write about gardening I must open my garden to scrutiny.

    Have I made mistakes? LOTS. With a hort degree, decades of experience, over 2000 designs, 5 books, my own tv show and awards. (all puffery)

    Mistakes? MISTAKES?

    They are my best teachers. What I’ve learned by doing, from mentors & mistakes has been my most important learning.

    Again, thanks for your words.
    Garden & Be Well, Tara Dillard

    FYI: A few months ago my newspaper column about butterflies was censored. They didn’t approve the part about spermataphor!!

  8. Hi Michelle,
    I’m confused. You think I’m a native plant nazi? I think it was my poor writing. My point was many natives can’t be used because we have destroyed their environment.

    My designs & my garden mix natives & non-natives. For over 2 decades.

    Unfortunately I have some non-native invasive plants. Only a few of the mistakes made 22 years ago when I built my home.

    It’s emotional to get rid of them, they were dug from my grandmother’s garden, but I’ve seen the devastation they cause in the wild.

    Strength will be gathered and they will be removed. No date set, yet.

    Today’s mistake was not writing clearly.

    Zig Ziglar said it’s great to make mistakes. It means you are doing something. I’m like Anne
    of Green Gables. Always making mistakes but never the same one twice.

    I agree with your response and have lived/worked on its template for decades.

    Garden & Be Well, Tara Dillard

  9. Grasses for dry shade? I didn’t know there were any. Does she discuss them in the book or was it only in her presentation.

  10. Hi Tara,
    Hats off to someone who never makes the same mistake twice! The Lords of Karma don’t mind watching me make the same mistakes over, and over, and over, and ov….

  11. It’s rare that I get my back up about a thread but:

    Hasn’t this type of book been done and done again to death.

    I read it and quite frankly it reads like a job application and per usual are all plant picks from her own personal garden. It’s not bad but it’s not great either – seems to be mostly PR hype.

    I’m tired of best selling gardening books by hobbyists instead of practical business owners while the “real world talent” goes unnoticed.

    Michelle D – please write a book for us, it’s desparately needed.

  12. My apologies to the owner/s of this very cool blog, but I really must reply to SJ.

    Dear SJ. I see by some responses of yours to other posts, that you are a professional gardener. My hat is off to you. It’s hard work and long hours. However, I feel I must challenge some of your statements above.

    Tracy DiSabato-Aust has been a professional in horticulture for over 34 years. She has worked all levels of it, including professional studies abroad, working with top level professionals in highly regarded gardens, and grad school where I first met her. She owns her own very successful design and installation business. Therefore no “hobbyist”. She is, indeed, a “practical business owner” in her own right. She is also a designer, photographer, teacher, lecturer, writer and has been for many a long year.

    You may decide not to add her newest book to your library and that is your choice. But I hope you will now agree that her book is not just “mostly PR hype”, that she is not just a “hobbyist” and that she is definitely a professional in horticulture.

  13. Well, I was hesitant to get into this but I will say that the “hobbyist” characterization is quite simply inaccurate. There is opinion and then there are facts.

    Otherwise I could see where opinions on the book would vary, and why.

Comments are closed.