Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The One Plant Pot

Large pots are delight in a garden. Pots are perhaps the purest expression of planting design. Composing a pot is like a chef creating a salad—all of the rules of design get stripped down to their essence. In a larger landscape, the hand of the designer can be lost, but with a pot, the artificial environment is a pure display of horticultural skill.

Earlier in my career, I was obsessed with highly mixed pots. With pots, you can pull off things you never can in a larger landscape. One year, I did a theme pot of nothing but plants I found on the side of the road. It actually turned out ok. Other years, I’ve had fun combining annuals with huge leafed perennials like Tetrapanex. A well designed combination lets you see plants in a new light.

But recently, I’ve been drawn to simpler, single-plant pots. They seem to have more impact in a garden than a fussy, highly mixed pot. I wanted to share a few images of gorgeous, one plant pots from other designers:

Monday, August 15, 2011

When Metaphor Fails

This year, my wife and I made a token attempt to start a garden. We managed to pull ourselves away from the home renovation long enough to carve a perennial border out of a piece of our side yard.

Right now, it looks like a tattered tapestry. Some perennials have established with athletic vigor, while others lie low, perhaps waiting till next year. I’ve seeded the holes in the border with summer annuals, which have quickly taken advantage of their slower to establish neighbors.  The riotous color and size of the annuals have eroded what bit of compositional clarity that initially existed. Weeds run rampant throughout.  Crabgrass, Bermuda grass, and Bindweed dominate the area where we plan to add a stone path and terrace. They control territory like a Mexican drug cartel.  With so little time for the garden, the weeds and I maintain an uneasy d├ętente—they have their territory, and I have mine.

Already I’m making notes about what needs to be changed. Too many filler plants, not enough structural ones. Needs more upright spires. Dot in a few architectural shrubs. Add low, dark-leafed annuals along the edges for contrast. Too many thin, linear masses: re-mass perennials in block-ier, thicker masses. The list grows by the day.

August crushes my idealism. All winter and spring I made pretty pictures of the garden in the soft light of my mind. In May, these images felt almost attainable. But August is the ultimate judge; the glare of the midday sun bears upon me the inescapable force of reality. All prior imaging disappears with the dew. The garden is simply what it is.

Realism is the theme of my summer.  Last month my father went through a complicated open-heart surgery and began a miraculous recovery from a stroke. Seeing him suffer through an intense recovery has also confronted me with a jarring reality. With a recovery like his, nothing goes the way you expect. With every hurdle he overcomes, another battery of complications sprout up. He has faced his recovery with a strength and grace that is indescribable unless witnessed. The man I knew as the sweetest man on earth has proved to be one of the strongest.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beyond the Border 4: Maintaining Perennials to Last

This is the final post in a series I’ve been doing on how to design perennials and grasses in landscape settings. By landscape settings, I’m referring to non-garden sites, including public parks, commercial and institutional landscapes, or even residential sites larger than a single bed. Throughout this series, I’ve made the claim that herbaceous plants—the most dynamic and expressive plants a designer can use—ought to be used more often in our built landscapes.

My last post talked about how to select plants for these low maintenance sites. This post will focus on the single greatest reason people avoid using perennials and grasses: uncertainty about how they should be maintained. Almost every time I suggest using herbaceous plants in landscape settings, here’s what I hear: perennial plantings are fussy and high maintenance; clients don’t understand them and won’t take care of them; in a year from now, it will all be a weedy mess; use more shrubs or lawn.

It kills me. Some days I wonder if I will spend half my career battling the tyranny of low expectations.

The reason it kills me is because I know from experience how low maintenance perennials and grasses can actually be once established. I know that clients can have a lasting, beautiful, and sustainable planting in a fraction of the time it takes to maintain a lawn.

To understand how to maintain perennials and grasses, one must first understand a few basic concepts:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Native Plants & The Wild Look: An Argument for Design

Marcus de la Fleur's design for a residence using native plants prompts the question: does using natives in wild patterns help or hurt the native plant movement? Image by Marcus de la Fleur
I have a conflicted relationship with wildness.

When I think about the sea of lawns and generic plantings that dominate our built landscapes, when I reflect on how quickly our native woodlands are disappearing, I yearn for more wildness. In many ways, our landscapes are too tidy. Our shrubs are too clipped, our lawns too manicured, our planted spaces too restrained. Despite recent progress with more sustainable gardens, the McLandscape is still the dominant form in our country.

"Yard of the Month"
Just to get a sense of what’s considered beautiful in our country, try this experiment: do a Google image search for the phrase “yard of the month.” The aesthetic is clear: tightly clipped evergreens smashed up against the house, an endless expanse of weedless lawns, and—for landscapes with a special flourish—a floating bed on annuals around the mailbox or a tree.

So in this context, wildness is desirable. How liberating is it to banish lawn altogether from one’s yard? How delightful is a project like the Highline that has an elevated meadow that winds between skyscrapers? How welcome are spontaneous, self-seeding wildflowers in an institutional landscape? Wildness adds an element of drama and dynamism sorely needed in our landscapes.

While I praise wildness on the one hand, I am concerned that it has become the de rigueur of native gardens these days. It is as if a native garden, by definition, must be wild and sprawling. To create a native garden is not only a statement against exotic plants, but it is a statement against traditional garden forms altogether. Almost all of the sustainable landscape techniques, including rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs—have adopted a wild aesthetic.

So what, you might ask? Don’t we want to import not only native plants to our built landscapes, but the patterns and forms of our native landscapes? Yes, but I want native gardens to embrace a diversity of design styles. I have a couple of problems with a “natural only” look.

An advertisement for native planting, or an argument against it? Rain Garden.  Photo and design by Marcus de la Fleur
First, designing a garden or landscape with a wild look takes quite a bit of effort and planning. There’s a difference between a carefully crafted wild look and sloppy planting design. Too often, sustainable landscapes emphasize plant selection at the expense of overall composition. Plants are not massed, so they don’t have visual impact. Small wildflowers are placed next to towering prairie plants, creating a chaotic scene. Lines, form, and order are banished, so all sense of relationship to existing structures is lost. Herbaceous plants are often placed too far apart. In our effort to imitate nature, we’ve turned our back on the forms and meaning of 4,000 years of garden history.

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