Monday, May 28, 2007

i Madonarri Chalk Painting Festival

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This is the weekend when great artists descend on Santa Barbara and show their stuff using chalk. I've caught a few on camera that actually created great garden color schemes. Here's one I might try in a garden some time!

Soil Amendments or Work With Nature?

So I’ve been snooping around the countless garden blogs that are out there and saw one about Xeriscaping—a term I thought had died about 20 years ago. Xeri—Greek word root meaning dry (same for Xerox, ‘cause they use dry toner to print). The article took the usual “10 tips” approach, and one had to do with “helping your soil.” Readers were encouraged to dump lots and lots of organic material into their beds to create a rich medium for their plants. That way you can grow “anything” and not worry about the water.

But how about designing with nature and not pushing uphill to work against it?

Living here in Santa Barbara, CA, I look out at the Santa Ynez Mountains every day. Tons and tons of native chaparral vegetation that bursts with shades of blue Ceanothus flowers and the rusty branches and trunks of Manzanita, then becomes dotted with stunning wildflowers in the open spaces. Cool canyons shaded by sycamore trees. It does this with no help from me or anyone else, thank you very much. It’s a natural system. No weekly gardener, no “projects” over the three-day weekend.

Here’s my philosophy about the “tip” on adding all that organic material to your soil—go with the flow. Why pay good money to add stuff to the soil, then rototill until the natural, living web of life that makes up soil is disturbed? Did you know there are billions of living organisms in a handful of soil? Who are we to mess with that?

What about selecting plants that are either native to your area, or from other parts of the world similar to yours? Stands to reason that there’s somewhere in Europe or Asia, or South America with a climate just like yours. It also stands to reason that plants from those regions need the same conditions and shouldn't have to be put on “life support” to thrive.

So I get to play with plants from Chile, Australia, South Africa, Italy, France, Spain, Libya, and my home state. They’re all adapted to a Mediterranean climate – dry summers, wet winters, mild temperatures, low nutrient levels. Most need little or no fertilizer, can get by with minimal summer irrigation, and if I create a lot of diversity, no pests. I use good design to create interest--form, foliage color, texture, contrast, harmony--it doesn't have to be only about big fat flowers. I work with what nature gave me and create beauty with plants that thrive on their own.

Your garden AND your lower back will thank you.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Surrendering Plants To The Enemy

Ethical Dilemma: Is it acceptable to leave healthy, beautiful plants in the hands of the devil when you move?

Santa Barbara—where the median price of a house left $1,000,000 behind years ago. Where 18 years ago, we rented a duplex formerly occupied by my mentor, Bob Cunningham, the first landscape architect who hired me (that’s another story). It wasn’t exactly a botanic garden—some fun stuff tucked into a mass of papyrus under the windows; a parking strip choked with Bermuda grass; high Eugenia hedges and a stunnning 150 year old Coast Live Oak that took out the carport in a wind storm (car was on the street—thanks Lin!)

But I digress (‘cause that’s what I do). Starting with a 10 s.f. demolition foray into the land of Bermuda grass, requested by my son Ben, we gradually began landscaping this rental with inexpensive and found plants until it looked almost exactly like what I tell my students and clients not to do. One of this, one of that—entertaining my fancy to experiment with whatever caught my eye (see Saturday Morning Syndrome blog). However, I DID create planting schemes using color, texture, foliage contrast and all that stuff that’s essential.

The 5’ strip along the driveway is now festooned with a stunning Princess Flower (Tibouchina heteromalla--see photo above), a prehistoric looking Honey Bush (Melianthus major) and Canna Lilies (don’t plant them under the eaves near your bedroom window if you don’t have rain gutters – they make FABULOUS percussion instruments when the water pours off the roof).

So we’ll be moving about two houses away in a few weeks, to a beautiful more modern place, but there is even LESS room to garden. Perhaps that’s a good thing—I’m now an ‘X’-shaped candle burning at all four ends so how can I care for a garden? Family, day job, trying to launch a new web-based business with the other Garden Wise Guy (Owen), my band, TV show, teaching (hey, that’s more than an X-shaped candle – have to invent a new letter with more pointy things). Who’s got time?

Here’s the dilemma—the owner here has a mow, hoe, and blow gardener who just seems to think every plant desires a hedge-induced box shape to look it’s best. If I leave everything to the Marquis de Sade it will be like selling my kids into slavery. Perhaps a “dig it” party for my horticultural friends, where everyone adopts these worthy chlorophyll machines and finds them a new home?

But THAT takes an organizational effort and I gotta move. The worst part is that since I’m only moving two houses away, I’ll have to see all those sad plants every time I walk by, asking “Daddy, why did you leave me here with that bad man?”

Gotta think about this.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Where do roses fit in?

I’ve been invited to speak at the Santa Barbara Rose Society on June 14 and had to think about how my approach to sustainable landscape design connects to folk who are ga-ga over roses. I’ve never been an enthusiast but can understand the passion. But on the face of it, roses aren’t the first thing that pops into my head when I think about plants that can more or less go it alone.

So I think my approach will be to expound on the mystical art of landscape design in general, and explain how it’s in everyone’s best interest to adopt the principles of sustainability. Sustainability isn't just about giving stuff up. There’s a place for exotic plants like roses, as long as you put them where they have the greatest chance of thriving with the least input of harmful stuff.

I’ll let you know how this one turns out. Maybe there’ll be a few converts out there ready to catch religion!

Monday, May 21, 2007

What does Harry Connick Jr. have to do with gardens?

Actually, not much--at least on the surface. But I could stretch a wee bit and talk about how I live in two worlds of creativity. Though I spend more time as a landscape architect than I do as a musician, my heart is with the music first. So last night was a solid 2 hour performance by one of the most humble, sincere, sharing jazz and funk musician's I've experienced. Harry and his immensely talented crew were all about having fun, taking chances, and sincerely receiving joy from each other's efforts.

How can I morph that spirit into my designs?

The "have fun" part is a given--I always try to explore something that excites me, or there's no reason to sit down at the drafting table.

"Taking chances" is always in the cards, but depends on the sense of daring of the client. Lately I've been blessed and lucky!

"Joy from each othere's efforts" is a stretch, but I think it has to do with the collaboration between client and designer--there's no way I would force my design intent on them, and there's the part about helping them express what they want and me giving it physical reality. I try to hear and see what truly excites them, then turn it into a garden they can love.

Let's see if I keep that in mind on the next design. Meanwhile, my band has two gigs this week and I'm SOOOOO ready to play.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Walking in the 'hood...

With the long-neglected need to get out and exercise, Lin (my wife and spousal support unit, and from this point dubbed SSU for efficiency) coaxed me on a walk up to the lovely Santa Barbara Mission. Undaunted by fog and mist, we trudged on, giving me the opportunity to look at and comment--sometimes with enthusiasm, but mostly with exasperation--at the sorry state of so many front yards.

SSU commented about my dark running commentary. It gave me a chance to ponder my internal thought process that probably doesn't need to be externalized quite so much in her presence. I see how it can be a little depressing. Here are my ponderings.

Landscape design seems to be a mystical process for a lot of people, especially the scores of students who show up at my Adult Ed classes every year. And for good reason. Most of us seem to have a sense of matching articles of clothing, picking out furniture that creates a semblance of fashion statement, and hang a picture over the mantle that kinda goes with the couch (next incarnation--curator for the Met!).

But when it comes to plants, all bets are off. I think that the key missing ingredient is that most people don't have the vocabulary they need to describe why they like a particular garden. Maybe that's because there is such a range of visual features in the plant world that we can play with as design elements.

You look at gardens you like (magazines in the waiting room at the dentist spring to mind) and get that Pavlovian response when you see something that catches your eye. But if you can "reverse engineer" the design to the basic components that make it work, then you can emulate it in YOUR garden.

So for the purposes of teaching, I use four basic principles to describe any design composition: Harmony, Contrast, Balance, and Scale. I'll be brief here, with more postings to follow.

Harmony: Elements that look like they belong together and share common visual features. Maybe its the repetition of a spikey form or the cool appearance of gray foliage. It's what keeps a garden from looking like it was designed by a committee that's never seen the site or met each other. Repetition of a few basic elements holds the composition together. Let's move on.

Contrast: Well, it's like the opposite of Harmony. If it's all harmonious, nothing jumps out and yells "Hey! You lookin' at me?" So if most of the garden has a foliage theme of medium green leaves or mounding shrubby plants, throw in a burst of burgundy foliage, or something with an upright architecture. Better than No-Doz. Next...

Balance: At the most basic level, think formal, symmetrical balance. Draw an axis through the yard and create a mirror image on each side. It works, but unless you're auditioning for a gig at Versailles, let's try something a bit more naturalistic. Think of the "visual weight" of massings plants and try to distribute them within the landscape. A massing of one type of plant taking up 100 square feet on one side of the bed can balance a single big tree nearby. Also, balance is the key to a great color scheme, but that's another post.

Scale: For me, it's the relative size of the various elements in a composition and the appropriateness to the size of the space you're working in. Picture a formal stone ballustrade like you see along the terrace of a grand building, but put it in place of a white picket fence in front of a country cottage, and you'll have some idea of mismatched scale.

So, on my morning grump walk, I realized that my out-loud pondering was me reminding myself what still needs to be fixed, why I teach, and now, why I'm starting this blog. If I can verbalize the problem I might have a better idea of how to reverse the damage, teach people how to create what they are really seeking, and give my SSU a chance to hear the birds twitter instead of me.

Thanks for "listening".

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Five Sacred Rules for Buying Plants

O.K. the show was less than great, so now I have some time. My hope with this blog entry is to help you make good plant selection choices that go beyond whether the plant has cool flowers or not. Read on and you'll be a better gardener and accomplish the basic tenets of sustainable planting. The benefits include not only a better LOOKING garden, but also reduced maintenance, resource conservation (water, fertilizer, fossil fuels and the like) and all-around healthier plants.

Being a landscape design teacher in the loverly paradise of Santa Barbara, I have cause to reach a lot of homeowners whose idea of plant selection falls under the methodology dubbed Saturday Morning Syndrome. You've done it, I've done it, kids who climb on rocks have done it (I think that's from the Oscar Meyer hot dog commercial). Here's how it goes...

Sat. AM, crisp sunny day, fuel up at your favorite caffeine house, maybe a bagel with a schmeer (my Brooklyn roots) and cruise over to the nursery. Like any good retail organization, guess what you encounter at the gates? Yup, whatever is looking great this week. Luscious blooms beckon "take me home; I'll make you sooooo happy." Underlying theme includes "all your friends will say nice things about you" and all those other primal stimuli that make us garden.

"Hmmm. Cool plant," you think, "but I told myself I'd wait until I had that master plan done before I buy another cell of chlorophyl." With resolve, you try to pass but the plant won't give up. Some hidden tentacle of this needy bush reaches out, finds that spot under your ribs and starts tickling. Now your left leg is spasming uncontrollably, kind of like that slightly sadistic thing you do to your dog when he's on his back, feet flailing. The pleasure center of your brain takes over, you pick up the new addition to your family and walk to the check-out clerk. Ching! New plant!

Pulling into the driveway, the excitement mounts as you drain the last of your coffee, unload the 1 gallon-size whatever (don't want to impose my taste on this tale) and head into the yard. Now comes the design process, following in the footsteps of legendary designers throughout time. You hold the plant out in front of you, like Martin Scorsesse assessing the next camera position, pan from left to right while thinking "WHERE SHOULD I PUT THIS?"

So let's stop the playback here and rewind to what should have happened back at the nursery. Yes, there was a mystical spell overtaking you and you might not have had your wits about you, so we'll give you a break. Consider these to be the 5 sacred steps to smart plant purchasing. The concept is RIGHT PLANT / RIGHT PLACE and it's the basis for creating a sustainable garden.

1) Know thy plant! Did you read the label that was stuck in the soil? Are you already familiar with this plant? Did you ask a KNOWLEDGABLE employee? Did you check a reference book at the nursery. Being familiar with the genus isn't enough. Check the genus (first name, like Acer, or Juniperus, or Hemerocallis - that's just the big category) but also the species and perhaps the cultivar or variety of the plant. A rose might be a rose, might be a rose, but not all Maples or Junipers or Daylilies are created equal. Plants of the same genus and even species can vary greatly in their mature size, cultural needs (sun, water, soil, etc.). You want to be sure that the plant you're taking home won't just grow there, but will thrive! Do some research.

2) Visualize. Before you put that plant in your car, do a mental tour of your planting areas. Using the information you now have about the plant, picture a location where you can plant your new baby and have it grow to maturity without running into its existing neighbors. Why?

This is a whole other posting, but let me summarize: We plant because we like nature and nobody goes out into nature with hedge trimmers and loppers and shape nature into balls, cubes and discs perched on brown, woody legs. That's not a garden; it's plant torture and you might save yourself some time and money by instead carving interesting shapes from styrofoam, painting them green, attaching silk flowers here and there, and scattering them hither and thither about the beds. We're trying to create a bit of natural beauty, and Momma Nature has already figured out how to program her kids to look best (hint: it doesn't include shaping them into submission). So, when you put the new plant in, give it room to grow without having to be shaped.

3) What can that plant do for you? This is called the plant's "function." Yes, we're buying it because it's drop-dead-gorgeous. However, what if the plant can also help make the yard more comfortable (provide shade), or screen a view we don't like (your neighbor's car repair hobby), or block some uncomfortable winds, or just be the punctuation mark in a highly visible bed (focal point). Doesn't it make sense to think on a few levels? Yup.

4) Are you thinking year 'round? It was the flowers that grabbed your attention, but that won't last all year. The plant's "architecture" (general form, outline, density, etc.) is more permanent that the flowers. So think about how this beauty's other characteristics will contribute to the garden scheme for the rest of the year. Create contrast with foliage colors and shapes; pair a low-growing dense plant with a wispy vertical bamboo! You get the idea.

5) Hydrozones (huh? He's making this up.) Yes, a fabricated word we use in the green industry, but it's a good one. Basically, group plants with similar watering needs together for the convenience of watering. In other words, you can water them all on the same irrigation valve, or set up a hose-end sprinkler or soaker hose, let it run for the prescribed time, and ALL the plants in that "zone" get the same and correcct amount of "hydro." Seems logical, eh?

So, if you thought about some or all of these ideas before the swiped your card at the counter and swaddled that container in the back seat, HURRAY FOR YOU! If not, you've got something to think about next time.

I hope to keep this blog moving and might have some announcements to make that could be of interest to you. Like any new blogger, I crave feedback, so be kind, be generous or challenge what I've put down here. We'll learn together.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Saturday Morning Syndrome - picking plants

I'm sure I'll write something here, but my favorite TV show is about to start. Kinda leaves ya wondering, eh?
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