Flower Garden Designs with Heather McLean

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Heather McCleanHeather McLean loves helping people to rediscover and remember their connection to nature and the Earth.  She helps design personal garden environments and wonderful spaces for her clients.  It starts with a powerful question, “how would you describe your dream garden?“.  Heather gardens in the challenging climate of Central Texas.  Heather believes an empty space is just a place waiting to become…



In This Episode You’ll Discover …




Gardening Resources Mentioned

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/ 

This is the book Heather mentioned on the show! 

Our Guest’s Links

Visit Heather McLean online: http://GoodnessGrowsinAustin.com

Follow Heather on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/1heathermclean


Watch the Podcast Interview Here:



Six Thrilling Garden Design Ideas with Heather McClean


Dave:  Well good morning, good afternoon or good evening, depending on where you are in the world when you listen to this.  I’m Dave Ledoux and welcome to another edition of Back To My Garden.  Spectacular episode today folks!   Our guest Heather, she loves helping people to rediscover and remember their connection to nature and the Earth.  She helps design personal garden environments, and wonderful spaces for her clients.  It starts with a powerful question, “How would you describe your dream garden?”

Heather joins us from one of the most challenging climates in central Texas, please welcome from Austin Texas Heather McClean.  Hi Heather welcome to the show!

Heather:  Hi Dave thank you for having me!

Dave:  I’m glad you’re here.  I gave you a brief introduction.  I want to get to know you a little better, and our listeners want to hear your stories, and they’re all over world.  So Heather take a minute or two, relax, share with us a little about your background and how did you get into gardening?

Heather:  OK!  Well I think like many I’ve been gardening my whole life.  As a child I was completely fascinated with packs of seeds.  A lot of kids beg for candy, but I was just amazed with the idea an entire watermelon could come out of one little package, which of course for a small child, I didn’t know the method or what was going to be necessary to make the watermelon come out of the package.  But I was really interested in gardening and tried some attempts at my suburban home as a child but it wasn’t until I was an adult and had some property where I could put some time and effort into it that I started to become more successful.  I had moved from Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia and there’s really wonderful climate and soil in Atlanta so that was a great place to produce a prolific garden.  And then I guess my first professional stint in landscaping came when I wanted to do some work with a historic garden.  I’ve always had an interest in history and in art, also there is the Roswell Hall in Roswell Georgia and I was a dosen and a volunteer there working in the gardens to restore them to their historical appropriateness.  And that was fascinating.  And so then I moved to Austin Texas which is a fantastic place to garden, but it is challenging.  The last several years, I’ve been here almost twenty years, and I guess back in 2008 we officially dropped into extreme drought which is only interrupted by incredible deluge.  All the water is hard to come by because we have very rocky clay soil and when we do have a lot of rain it tends to run off.  We have to come up with strategies for capturing the rainwater.  I design personal and business and some larger gardens for clients trying to keep all that of mind, helping them to be successful.  It’s a great pleasure because it’s always something different, always a new challenge, new opportunity.  And so that’s pretty much what I do.

Dave:  Fantastic.  Dear listener, I will have all of Heather’s links up at the blog at BackToMyGarden.com.  You can follow Heather on Twitter @1heathermclean.  Heather has 2 great websites.  One is www.goodnessgrowsinaustin.com  and then www.1heathermclean.com

Maybe we’ll start on a project you’re working on.  I understand you’re writing a book.

Heather:  I am!  It became apparent to me about a year ago that I had a lot of interesting experiences and stories with other gardeners, that we seem to have a different perspective on life.  Gardening mirrors a lot of the challenges in life.  Gardeners are ever-optimistic.   My book is called “The Seventh Season: Wisdom From The Garden of Life”.  It’s truly about this continuum that we experience in nature as gardeners.  That we don’t just see 4 seasons.  In terms of your life in spring I’m young and growing, in summer is the fertile time of our lives, then comes a harvest if we’re fortunate, then winter comes and we’re sort of older and declining and then it’s all over.  And gardeners don’t really see it that way, there’s much more to it than that.  We see always, winter as a time that will lead to another season.

 The Seventh Season is really about coming into alignment with the seasons and the rhythms of nature much like many gardeners experience.

Dave:  I’m still here, it’s just my mind is blown.

Heather:  Your mind is blown?  Well the interesting thing to me is everyone has a story for me.  Once I hit upon this I’ve included just so many great analogies for life that when you start thinking about it’s really true.  For example, the first season is the Winter of Discontent, and that is Nature’s way of clearing space for something new to grow.  We all know as gardeners that you get to a certain point, like here in Austin we had a great long summer and our fall season goes late late late like all the way to November.  And we still had tomatoes, and peppers, but you have to start to prepare for the winter garden.  I love to grow food, and I love greens that I can garden through the winter, so I knew I was going to have to go out and clear that space.  As gardeners we can accept that we’re going to have to make changes, big changes and go forward with appreciation.  You know this was a great summer garden and I’m looking forward to this new winter garden.  But in life it’s not always as easy for us to see those big changes with appreciation or even look forward.  I think it’s a really interesting analogy that when life dishes up these sudden changes for you, you can think about it in terms of a garden.

Dave:  Wow.  You had mentioned the inherent optimism of the gardener and that’s what got me thinking.  It’s virtually impossible to be a gardener if you stick a seed in the ground and say “that will probably never grow.”

Heather:  Absolutely right.  And that’s the nature of a gardener is to be not only optimistic but also envisioning the largest best potential possible because we plant that seed with the dream of the full fruitage.  We really do.  We see it that way.  And the other thing that’s interesting is time and time again gardeners are not disappointed people if things don’t reach that potential that they saw initially.  We take it as a lesson.  We think maybe I could do something different next time or maybe I’ll try another variety.  We’re always planning for another optimistic result.

Dave:  We have listeners now Heather in like 63 or 64 countries.  And there’s listeners right now listening to us saying “hurry up and get to the tell-me-what-to stage”.  And then there’s others who are really embracing, almost like energy or philosophy, because I’m trying to understand this whole concept of what you do for a living in garden design and landscape creation.  I almost lack the part of the brain to do what to do.  I always ask garden designers “is it a gift?  Is it a muscle?  Is it a skillset that can be developed?”

I ask the same questions of people who like to paint or write music.  That’s how I look at what you do.  I look with awe and trepidation.

Heather:  Well thank you for that but you shouldn’t be.  I think it is a combination of all those things as is any art form.  And I like to think of myself as a gardener rather than a landscaper because I like to see the garden emerge.  The garden emerges is an expression of the individuals who are desiring that connection and that beautiful space to have around them.  And then I help them identify the needs that they have, you know for their families or their pets or a place for them to relax and meditate.  I’m very much encouraging everyone to grow some sort of edibles in their garden and I’m extremely oriented towards native plants and appreciation for the particular landscape in whatever part of the country or world that you’re in.  Because what I do is, I really think I teach appreciation of nature.  And a lot of people call me, Dave, and they don’t really know what they want.  They just want something better.  

So a lot of times it takes some culling out, the right questions, what do you want to do here?  What do you see in the future?  What is this space going to be like for you?  Then I can glean that garden comes through that way.  And then it’s great joy to help see that burst into reality.  That’s what I do.

Dave:  Educate me as a layman a little bit.  I know, not all your clients, you can’t lump them into the same group, but do you ever have clients come to you, they’ve inherited somebody else’s mess and they come to you either frustrated or almost despondent, like on the verge of giving up?

Heather:  Oh sure!  We just had a big garden show here last weekend and I got to talk to hundreds of people about their gardens, it was really fun.  And either someone buys an existing home that has a landscaped garden around it and they don’t know what to make of it, or they bought and built a home.  I asked one gentleman, “well what did the builder give you?” and he said, “just a lot of stress!” which was really funny.

There is a starting place.  Whether it’s from I don’t like what I see all around me or I got nothing and I want something new.  Again I go back to that process every gardener uses is you’ve got to like form to follow function.  What do you want to do here?

Understanding what the space needs to be like certainly are tools that landscape designers use.  I think this might be helpful to your listeners.  One of the big mistakes a lot of people make designing gardens is they become infatuated with color and they forget to put evergreen structures, you know the bones of the garden, the stability of the garden, season after season into the design.  My personal preference is to look at that first.  Look at the hardscape.  Look at the areas where you’ll have seating areas and walkways and then look at how do I add structures to that room through the form of hardwood trees and evergreens?

And then work my way back to the color in the flower garden because all of the foliage and texture really need to form the garden year round.  The color is the exciting part that comes and goes like a symphony.

Dave:  Heather, you’re in Austin, Texas which is one of the most amazing cities to live in North America.  I’ve been explaining to my European gardening friends how brutal your drought is and how challenging it is for garden designers like yourself.  Can you comment a little bit about how you’ve evolved as a designer and some of the challenges and how you’ve met them?

Heather:  Well I have one input that I think is really important and it’s really shifted my perception of what a landscape should be.  I think for a long time, we as designers and as individuals crowded a great deal of plant material into small spaces hoping for instant gratification.  But because of the extreme drought I’ve really learned to put all of my hope into creating a good amount of soil and space for the root system of plants to take up whatever moisture and nutrients are available.  Then whatever supplemental water we can give them.  So fewer plants that are allowed to grow to their mature size are definitely the new paradigm to move forward to.  The days of trying to shove a whole lot of small plants into a space hoping that it will immediately fill the area, the root systems just began to decline.  They can’t get enough moisture or nutrients that way.  So I think that’s been one of the number one things for me.  And it’s quite shocking to people if they’re not accustomed to it but we’ve had great results where within one to three years the plants take off and really grow a lot because they’ve been given that space to thrive rather than trying to compress them all into a tight area.  I think that’s a huge thing.

Dave:  You mentioned how stress is often a starting point for your clients.  I guess designing, not everybody wants a high maintenance garden, do they?

Heather:  No and I go on the assumption that they will put very little maintenance into it.  I think that the best we can offer right now is very sustainable landscapes that require small amounts of maintenance and then include spaces where you do have the opportunity for someone to putter around.  Whether its with their edibles or with flowers or with things that they want.  I think that it’s imperative that we use native plants and well adapted plants that can pretty much tough it out on their own.  We’ve looked at, in the last several years, not just extreme watering restrictions and lack of rain, but also extremely high temperatures, not just in the day, but throughout the night, so the plants never really get a chance to recover.  So it’s been a different way so the native plants that are well adapted to this area and this type of climate are the order of the day for sure.

Dave:  We have a lot of listeners Heather that live in urban centres.  A lot of people that listen to this show have patios or maybe balconies.  Can you share a little bit from your bag of tricks as a designer?  When you’re working with an intimate space, what are some of your favorite tips or starting points when designing in really small spaces?

Heather:  Oh I love this question!  Again I think that looking for one element that can be a focal point, depending on the size, a very small balcony that one focal point might be let’s say a container lemon tree, or a jasmine.  I love the impact jasmine has because it’s got that luscious fragrance.  Or a rosemary, something  that can be a beautiful focal point.  And then I always think that it’s really great to incorporate, if possible, some sort of ornamental artistic element too.  I love small water features, or small wind chimes or finch feeders.  Something decorative that gives some activity to the garden as well.  So I think you can build a beautiful garden with as little as three components.  But again I look to the structural things first then the third component would be the color.  And the color often is something seasonal, where you can change in the summer depending on what part of the world you lived in.  You may want a blooming flowering plant and in the winter you may want something that you’ll know will stay evergreen and maybe have a foliage fragrance or something.  I think you can do a wonderful balcony space.  I think it’s nice if you can incorporate somewhere to sit and enjoy it that’s great too.  Small little table and chair where you can sit and enjoy your cup of tea.  I think it’s great.


Balcony Garden


Dave:  You really need that don’t you in the city? The constant stress from traffic and noise, compressed living.  I always think of the Japanese you know.

Heather:  I think it’s essential.

Dave:  Nice. Now you’re working with clients, you’re writing a book, you’re busier than all get out.  Did you get a chance to garden yourself last season?

Heather: Oh absolutely!  I make it a point, it’s part of my spiritual practice, Dave, to go out there every morning.  So I really enjoy thinking about encouraging others as well to just get some fresh air even in the cold cold temperature of the winter or the brutal heat of the summer.   The freshness of the morning is the best to me to come out and just take a look.  So, yes I garden in every season, I truly do.

Dave:  Now the listeners, without being nosy, I’m their conduit, what brought you joy this year in your garden, and did anything frustrate or surprise you?

Heather:  I have my vegetable garden in my front yard because that’s where I have the most sun for it so I always like to plant something surprising.  I’ve done artichokes and brussel sprouts and the neighborhood children all thought those were great.  So this year I’ve done some purple peppers that they all found quite entertaining.  I believe the variety was Purple Beauty.  I think it’s Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers but we did purple peppers and it was pretty fun.  And then frustration?  Just with the extreme heat and drought my tomatoes did much better in the fall, in the summer they didn’t do as well.  

As far as the native plants in my flowering garden my Texas Mountain Laurel were amazing last year with the blossoms.  Are you familiar Dave?  It’s got a purple blossom, Sophora Secundiflora that has a great bubble gum fragrance, they’re fabulous, and they were great.

Dave:  I’m going link to the Latin on Wikipedia from the blog because I’m trying to pick it up as I go.  I find Latin extremely challenging.

Heather:  I do too! And I only mention that one because there’s a sister plant with mountain laurel that they easily confuse.  So the Sophora is the truly native evergreen, a small tree that grows here.  The other mountain laurel is more like a shrub.  That’s the only problem with common names and I mostly use common names myself.  And debate the pronunciation of many of the Latin names, I probably don’t do the best job sometimes.  But that one in particular was outstanding with the drought and the heat and everything, it just thrived and did wonderfully last year.

Dave:  That falls perfectly into the surprise category.  Anything that does well in 95 degree heat that’s amazing.

Heather: Oh we’re talking 117 on some days!  But 95 was a good day.

Dave:  It’s a dry heat!  No, it’s not, oh my goodness.  Now for the Celsius listeners out there 117 is in the low 40’s, think like India in the summer, not as moist but still, my goodness!

Heather:  We have strings of 100 degree days with my crews and we’re working, we start work very early, it hinders us working late in the day because we certainly don’t want anyone to get sick or injured.  We didn’t have too many that were that hot this year, 2011 was really brutal, and 2012 was a little better.  So it’s been just a way of life.  A definite change the way things are here now.

Dave:  You know Heather I glanced at the clock and our time is flying by.  And now is the time in the show when we play a game called Five Quick Questions.

Heather:  Ok!

Dave:  This is your chance to share your wisdom and experience with novice rookie gardeners.  Are you ready to play?

Heather:  Of course.

Dave:  Question number one … what is the funniest or silliest gardening mistake that you’ve ever made that you’re willing to admit to in public?

Heather:  Oh wow.  I guess planting ornamental artichokes hoping for food and getting fabulous flowers but no food.  That was not real well researched.

Dave:  That’s a good one, that qualifies, excellent!  Question two.  You’ve been at this now, did you say 19 years?

Heather: Yes.

Dave:  What is a skill or unique talent that you possess that is either very useful or a time saver for you in your line of work?

Heather:  Useful or time saving … uh, I want to say optimism.  But I don’t know if that’s really a tool.  I think if you’re talking about literal tools, like a hand tool or garden tool?

Dave:  Well I was going to say a personal skill or talent, but you can do a garden tool.

Heather:  Oh, well I love my Felco Clippers, especially the ergonomic ones that help my hands a great deal.  I love my adjustable rake that I can contour the width in and out.  And a really good pair of mud boots is also essential.

Dave:  Off topic here … a century ago especially like in England, garden design and landscaping was predominantly a male-dominated line of work.  Is it balanced now, 50-50?

Heather:  Oh definitely not.  I think it’s still fairly male-dominated, but there are many women who are in this profession.  But I’d still say it’s still a smaller number of women than men.

Dave:  The reason I bring it up is I get emails, I have a lot of parents that listen to this show with young teenagers.  And you know how North America now you go into crazy debt to get a degree from a university and then you probably can’t find a job.  And we’ve been evangelizing horticulture as a career path.  And for women, if it’s viable, and I’m of the camp that it’s extremely viable for ladies to do professional horticulture.

Heather:  I think it’s extremely viable to do professional horticulture with or without a degree.  I think it’s one of those disciplines where apprenticeship or internship is really valuable, where you can as a teenager or young adult you can try it out and see if you like it and then gain more education through extension services like the Master Gardener program.  There are a lot of ways you could enhance your ability to have a career in this industry without a traditional degree.   I came to it by way of my art history background, and did some historic garden restoration as I mentioned.  I think there are a lot of ways into this industry for sure.

Dave:  I love it, great tips!  Internship. You know 200 years ago that’s how people became weavers, and fletchers and coopers, and every profession you started at the bottom and studied under a master.

Heather:  You also learned if you like it.  I think the most important thing is finding a profession that if you love what you do, then your work is your love.  It’s a gift to the world and so spending many years studying something but not being really sure if that’s what you love to do is kind of a danger.  I think apprenticeship is essential.

Dave:  As I usually do, I got off my five quick questions outline, but that’s a good tangent.  Question number three, everyone of course should go to your website at www.goodnessgrowsinaustin.com  That’s a fabulous one, well done.  Do you have one or two favorite websites for resources that you can recommend for new gardeners?

Heather:  Oh I sure do.  If we’re interested in native plants, not just in my region but all around North America, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, I believe is wildflower.org  is their website.  There’s an incredible database where you can put in your climate zone and you can select plants based on their size, color, habit, it’s a wonderful database.  Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center here in Austin.  And then another one of my favorites for organic gardening is the Natural Gardener, which is John’s business here, I think he has the oldest organic gardening radio show in the country. And it’s got video and tips and recipes and a calendar for planting and it’s a really helpful website.

Dave:  Wonderful!  Now on the opposite side of the coin, old school, do you have a favorite gardening book that you can suggest?

Heather:  Well you know, I really like inspiring garden books.  One of my all time favorite is called Monet’s Garden by Vivian Russell.  And it’s a collection of Monet’s art work along with photographs of the actual gardens, and then it even includes stories about the gardens, plans for the gardens, it’s really inspiring to me to just look through that from time to time.  I also really like, there’s a book that I’ve had for years called Visions of Paradise by Marina Schinz.  It’s beautiful with themes and variations, different styles, the Italian style, the English style.  Those books, if i need some inspiration, those are books I go to.

Dave:  Wonderful!  I’ll have links up on the blog at Back To My Garden for all of those books and websites.  Questions five is a fun one Heather, no right or wrong answer.  Is there anything you’ve never grown that you’re just itching to experiment with?

Heather:  I am going to try White Eggplant this year.  I look at Monticello, they have heirloom seeds from the Jefferson Garden and there’s a Ghost Eggplant, a little white eggplant which I think I’m going to try out this year.


White Eggplants


Dave:  Ok!  I just started taking notes and I messed up.  Ghost Eggplant, you got my interest.  Monticello?

Heather:  Jefferson’s Garden in Virginia is a functioning historical garden.  And they have heirloom seeds that you can go to their website and you can order seeds from the ancestors of plants.  He was the ambassador to France so some of his plants and foodstuffs go all the way back to that time period.  They’ve been saving seeds and reproducing.  It’s an amazing garden I’ve visited it many times.  It’s wonderful.

Dave:  That’s the tip of the week for me!  I wrote it in giant letters.

Heather:  Oh you need to look at the website Dave!  You’ll love it it’s really great.  And there are many books, journals.  A lot of the garden practices that we have in the country we could trace way back to him.

Dave:  Wow!  I’m all about the heirloom seeds.  We grew 23 kinds of heirloom tomatoes last year.

Heather:  Oh well he’s got a bunch.  Lettuce, and peppers and all kinds of things.

Dave:  Nice!  Ghost eggplant, wow.  I thought for a second you were going to say Ghost Pepper.

Heather:  Well I grew a fairytale eggplant, and that was fun, but I think the little white ghost eggplant will be fun too.

Dave:  I’m growing a Taiwanese eggplant called a Ping Tung.  It’s long, about the length of your elbow to your fingertips.  Very unusual.  You kind of slice them thin and cook them on the bbq or in ratatouille.  Oh my goodness, I can’t believe our time is nearly over!

Listeners, I told you this would be a good episode.  I want you to follow Heather on Twitter at  @1heathermclean and check her out online at www.goodnessgrowsinaustin.com  and at 1heathermcclean.com   Watch for Heather’s book.  Do you have a timeline for your book release?

Heather:  I’m hoping this year, it it’s not 2015 it will be early 2016.  On the website you can click to subscribe to get updates, and then on the 1heathermcclean.com  I put up a blog with bits from the books, so it’s a little taste of what’s to come.

Dave:  Fabulous.  If you’re in the Austin area and you’re looking for a sensational garden designer, reach out to Heather.  Heather, you’ve been just a brilliant guest.  Time has flown by, I’m kind of flummoxed here.  I want to give you the last word to the listeners.  They’re all over the world, every climate zone, every kind of garden.  Can you leave us with a note of encouragement, or a pearl of wisdom?

Heather:  This is something I tell a lot of my clients, and I think you can use it in your garden, or you can use it in your life.  I think that it’s very appropriate with some of the things going on in the world right now.  I would say to everyone, an empty space is just a place waiting to become.  

Dave:  Absolutely brilliant!  Heather you’ve been fantastic.  Thanks for being on the show.

Heather:  Oh, you’re so welcome.  Thank you for having me.


Listen To The Gardening Podcast Here: