Monday, August 13, 2007

Santa Barbara County Hort Society Tour

Plants! Where would we be without them? We’d be hungry, breathing toxic gases, sporting various sun-related skin conditions, and thoroughly perplexed with our irrational urge to visit the garden center on beautiful weekends.

I’m in a minor panic at the moment, sitting here at the keyboard putting together my thoughts before taking an enthusiastic group from the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society (founded in 1869—who said we don’t have our stuff together?) through the Thayer’s garden. No offense to my other clients, but that’s still my fave rave of all the places I’ve done over the decades.

Who joins the Hort Society? Not to generalize too much, but it’s folks who just plain love plants—weird ones (the plants, not the people, although…) rare ones, drop-dead-gorgeous ones, odd ones, fat ones, skinny ones, plants that climb on rocks. Knowing from my own temperament, sometimes the possession of the plant overwhelms the necessity of fitting it into the overall design. “I just HAVE TO HAVE IT! I can always move it later” is the primal brain response from somewhere deep in the cortex.

I know I’ll be asked to “address” the folks before we turn them loose in the garden. So what gem can I impart that if they retain nothing else, will make this visit worthwhile? It’s my handy dandy system for taming potential chaos.

A couple of years ago I was asked to create design guidelines for the main meadow area at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Honored? Stunned? Humbled? You bet. More on that another day.

The key idea was to tame the potential chaos of this grand palette by viewing the entire area as four or five major groupings of plants, each held together with a harmonizing theme.

Huh? Here’s an over simplification, but what if there were 100 varieties of plants to display. Do we combine them alphabetically by genus and species? Not likely. How about by the zip codes of the area in which they commonly occur? All the plants from downtown Santa Barbara’s 93101 would be in one group, the plants that naturally occur on the Mesa in another grouping…nah.

O.K. Back to the four or five major swaths, one with predominantly yellow and golden flowers, another made up of plants with a spiky form, another with gray and silver foliage. From a distance, there would be a sense of order due to the common visual characteristics, but if we move closer into the meadow, we’d see subtle and not so subtle contrasts between the various plants in each grouping.

Within each major block can be associations of plants of different species, but they’d all fit within the common theme. This allows a large variety of plants to be combined while simplifying the overall scale of the bed.

So what about trying this in your own garden, but scaled down to fit the spaces? I think the best example of this approach is the combination in the “Big Sur” garden at the Thayers (pictured above). Aeonium and Echevaria planted in blocks. Each has the same form and structure—flat succulent leaves held in a rosette. But the yellow-green of the slightly more robust Aeonium paired with the gray-green smaller Echevaria create a mass that from a distance, appears to be a single entity. But move in closer and there’s a subtle mix that provides another layer of complexity.

Too similar? I understand your concern, so we sparked things up by backing up that mass with Myer’s Asparagus, the common link in this grouping being the yellow-green foliage that complements the Aeonium, but with a radically different form—in this case, something like Rastafarian dreadlocks heading skyward.

Nuff for now. I can go on and on about how I visualize and compose with plants, but my hope is to give my readers a starting point for taming the one-of-each plantings I see in so many gardens owned by plant fanatics. Round up all the plants you’re thinking of using and see if you can categorize them by some common characteristics. Within those groupings, play with varying degrees of harmony and contrast.

Lemme know if this helps.


bs said...

i feel somehow validated by what you wrote here... that's what i've been doing so far, but tentatively. thinking of it almost like jokes or puns in the garden. or, as you're saying, as groupings organized by similar characteristics. i think i might go post about that in my blog... i've been thinking of how to introduce it and explain, but you've done a beautiful job here. thanks!

Catherine said...

You have a very informative , interesting blog..enjoyed your post for today!! And loved the picture! great site!

Wicked Gardener said...

OHHH!! What a good idea. I've tried to do just the opposite. I have varied my plantings trying make sure I do not have too much of one thing in one spot. The effect is nice up close, but chaos from far away, which how we typically look at the gardens. The garden beds that I am happiest with have only one or two plants. Thanks!