June 2010

Whether or not you find the new trend in vertical gardening and “green walls” to be a bit gimmicky (as we somewhat do), this showcase of the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc is still something to marvel at. His efforts to work greenspace into the tiniest of built-out urban spaces should inspire a few garden- and urban-minded thinkers to conjure up ever new ways of greening up our world’s cities.

Now, not to be naysayers, but how they plan on keeping the tropical plants alive outdoors through a Parisian winter is beyond us.

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Understory planting of Stipa (or Nassella) tenuissima in Downtown Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the prevailing desire is to have a landscape that is green year-round. Your landscape in June looks like your landscape in December, and like your landscape September. We have created an entire metropolitan region of landscapes that seem to live outside the cycle and change of seasons – especially the summer dry season. That summer dry season we are so afraid of, embarrassed by, that we pretend it doesn’t exist. We water our lawns endlessly, feed our Azaleas to the brim, and try to trick ourselves into thinking we’re in New England. In the process, we have failed to ever develop a regional landscape aesthetic that invites the tawny golds and tans of summer in.

To be sure, many of the prevailing plant materials used in the Los Angeles landscape would not ebb gracefully into summer dormancy and produce the tawny hues we are describing; they would dry up and go brown and look dead, with most actually dead by July. That would be ugly, and this isn’t what we are advocating for. To embrace the seasons here means completely rethinking the plant materials we use, choosing ones particularly adapted to this climate – native and non-native alike. The mass planting of Stipa tenuissima shown above is a case in point. As a cool season grass, it greens up in winter and spring. Then, in summer, it fades to a light gold, surviving on virtually no supplemental water throughout the summer. While Stipa tenuissima is perhaps not appropriate for a site located near more untouched native landscape (it self-sows very readily in arid climates and is thus best suited for more urban, less environmentally sensitve sites), there is a world of grasses and Mediterranean plants out there that can provide that seasonal interest we are talking about.

For a starter on the botanical paradigm shift we are talking about/advocating for, a read through Beth Chatto’s Drought Resistant Planting Through the Year is in order. Then, move on to Olivier Filippi’s The Dry Gardening Handbook. These gardeners and writers never get bogged down in the clumsy dogma of advocating a native-only approach, or require that you buy into an ugly scrubby aesthetic; rather, they are truly interested in honing a landscape style that works with their dry Mediterranean climate and not against it, that is equally beautiful during the rainy and the dry seasons alike.

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PRAIRIEFORM-designed container landscape

We much prefer compositions to one show-stopper plant placed haphazardly with other show-stopping plants. Form and texture are equally as important as the fleeting blooms a plant might produce. These same principles apply to the container landscapes we have begun designing in Los Angeles. Rather than favor three decorative pots fillled to the brim with plants of every color and shape under the sun, we take a more compositional approach. Containers tend to be simple, plants and colors repeated throughout, and the landscape’s three-dimensional form is always designed as a compliment to the horizontal and vertical planes it sits on and against. As always, the plants we choose are low-water and tough, so a trip out of town never requires finding someone to water; these plants like a little neglect. Stay tuned for more photos of others.

Another view

And another

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