What I’ve Been Reading

Greenroofs article in the Washington Post

Landscape Design Featuring Gordon Hayward in the Washington Post

New Environmental Design Guidelines from ASLA

Designing and Renovating Larger Gardens, Douglas Coltart


Horse Chestnut Incoming!

I worked up a plant list for a playground this week in landscape design, thinking I had covered all the ways a plant could be threatening to children: poisonous, prickly, thorny, laden with tempting but inedible fruit, clothes staining, and skin snagging. I spent a lot of time picking the perfect grass that didn’t have toothed edges and the right shrubs that were without berries.

After turning it in, we discussed all the variables and I had forgotten a critical feature that seemingly only boys are aware of: plant parts that make excellent weapons.

I would have never thought of that.

Is it working for you?

I mentioned before how it’s sometimes hard to articulate what works so well about a good landscape. It is much easier (and far more fun) to critique them.

This is a front yard in newish development, and I was all excited to see such a Mediterranean looking house and garden – it is the Pacific Northwest after all, just check out that white sky.

The plants are great – the low mounds in the center are sedums and ice plant, yarrow, and thyme. Then there’s Mexican feather grass, feather reed grass, rubeckia, flax, rock rose, artemisia, rosemary, and some heathers. It’s not mature yet, but neither is it a brand new installation; it’s maybe 1-2 years old.

The picture is taken from the street; there’s no sidewalk in the neighborhood. See the problem? Those towering Feather Reed Grasses (Calamagrostis) on the right are out at the street and though you can’t see it, there are four of them planted together in a group. Even numbers and tall forms in front of short forms. Breaking the rules is edgy and can totally work, but it doesn’t here.

From this angle, the burgundy foliage of the flax is framed by the grasses and it looks great. Facing the house directly, it doesn’t look bad, but it feels weird. Know what I mean?

You can’t see very much of the house, so let me tell you: it’s enormous. Two stories and maybe 4,000 square feet or so. That type of architecture normally has a warm feel to it, but instead it looks stark, hulking over the wispy landscaping. I think it needs a nice hulking tree for some balance and anchoring.

We’ve been talking in class about how when places are well designed, you can feel it. You want to stay and wander and kick off your shoes. When it doesn’t quite work, you want to get away, walk quickly to the nearest exit. After class, whether we’re talking about sense of place or balance or lines, I go out and look at landscapes and try to recognize those themes, or the lack of them. This particular house is an example of something being just slightly out of order – after all the plants are great, the rocks are good accents, the mulch looks natural. For me, though, it’s not working.

I’m entertaining the idea of trying to estimate the house’s footprint and the size of the lot, then redrawing it in CAD and moving the plants around. It would be a great exercise and good practice in CAD. I’d love to see a 40′ Jacaranda or a pepper tree to the north of the house, but again: PNW. Not going to happen.

Google Earth Provides Reassurance

So I looked up two of the gardens I designed on Google Earth today and the trees I planted are still there and look good. They’re big enough that the pictures were probably updated in the last year. Neither are eating the adjacent fences or growing over houses. When street view takes over the world, I’ll cruise through a few more. At least two were on major streets likely to be included on street view.

Technology. Yay!

A change in path

I’m going to be telling you more landscaping stories because I’ve changed my option in horticulture.

I’m a senior this year, and I’ve finished the core horticulture courses that provide the science for making it all work. That said, I am quite clear that I do not wish to know anything more about cropping systems, mist and boom systems, greenhouse information systems, or wholesale nursery systems. I am over crop management.

I negotiated for some flexibility in my course path and two weeks into design, I remembered how much I loved it. Coincidentally, I was two weeks at the retail nursery where this journey started when I knew I had found it. It doesn’t take me long to look at a horseshoe.

My emphasis is now environmental landscape, though if you’re wondering what that adjective means exactly, I don’t know either. A sustainability buzzword no doubt.

My next three terms will be filled with landscape design, construction, management, and operations and I couldn’t be happier. If I don’t ever hear about scheduling floriculture crops again, it’ll be too soon.

There was a slight trade off as now I have to learn CAD, but I’m coming around to liking that too.

Know better, do better

I’m taking a landscape design course this term which I have approached with bated breath.

See, I did design and installations in Southern California before I decided to go to school for a horticulture degree. I came to it with a decent eye, but zero experience. My experience was with community gardens and my own garden, plus what I was learning in a retail garden center. In six months, I did about 40 designs and installed around 15 of them.

So when I started this class, I thought: okay, I’m going to find out now if I did okay or if I was off my ass.

For the first three weeks, I was relieved. First, I handled the business end of design well which only makes sense as that was my background. I sold designs and consulting like a pro; my projects were organized, on time and on budget. My clients were happy.

I also did a decent job with the overarching themes of design – beauty and functionality. My lines and balance were good and I’m still impressed by my plant selections. But.

I see in hindsight some problems with the details. And they make me cringe.

I’m thinking of one project in particular this Sunday morning. It was house with a small front yard, a long drive that spanned the length of the house, and a medium sized back yard. My client wanted a different feeling and different theme in each part of the yard. She wanted tropical in front, Mediterranean along the drive, and Japanese in the back. (Stop laughing.)

I don’t think I even tried to talk her out of that idea, I just designed what she asked for. Now I would explore that idea a little more and talk about the pros and cons of the mixed approach. My concerns would mainly be about potential buyer’s perception when they sold, but let’s move on with the story.

The east facing front yard was subtly tropical – the specimens were red banana and queen palms, both common in the neighborhood. (First self flogging: I think I spec’ed the banana about 10-12″ too close to the house. We may have even snuck in a tree fern back there in the corner, which I now think was a mistake, though not a deadly one.)The south and north facing beds of the driveway were, even in retrospect, perfect. Mediterranean design is my strength and my specialty, and the beds were a well balanced, adequately spaced mix of Pittosporum tenuifolium, grasses, lavender and a very restrained sprinkling of annuals. The drive had just been redone, and the planting turned out gorgeous.

The back yard. OMG the back yard. I don’t know if I can say it. It’s too terrible for words.I didn’t use any foundation plants. That’s right. Every plant was a specimen.

Wait, I may have repeated a low mounded dwarf red pine once. Other than that, no repetition.

Also, there was a specimen tree, a Geijera parviflora, and yes, I think I spec’ed it too close to the property line.

I can’t recall all the plants that were in the backyard main bed, but let me tell you what I know now: there were too many, there was too much variation, and the area was probably grossly overplanted. In fact, most of my designs were overplanted – a common amateur’s mistake.

I have a friend who is a designer and we talk about being afraid to find out what happened with our designs. Time is one true and ruthless measure of a designer’s worth. Things dying doesn’t bother me as much as that doesn’t reflect on me. Things being too big or too wrong – that bothers me. Immensely. They all looked good when they went in, and certainly, it’s important that a design look good when it’s freshly installed. It’s also pretty important that it mature well and look good 1, 3 and 10 years later. It’s my worst fear that the whole thing would be torn out because I’d made some terrible mistake. This is not very likely as I know that I at least sited things well – nothing was planted in a place it wouldn’t do well. It’s the doing well part that’s scary.

I’m taking a trip to SoCal in December, and I am going to face the music and drive by all my designs. I’ll even take pictures so I can critique (read: torture) myself. When I visited last year, I asked my old boss how my clients were doing and he enthusiastically said they were great – visiting the nursery often, buying more plants and supplies, being the high maintenance customers I fondly remember. My old boss is the kind of guy who would tell me straight, so that’s comforting. Nevertheless, my knowledge grows and my confidence in my past work is shaky. I’ll find out for sure in December.