March 2011

Edible front-yard landscape

We are infinitely perplexed by debates that arise between camps that should seemingly be in agreement and that are ostensibly working towards the same ends. Of late we have observed an artificially two-sided, black-and-white, green-and-brown debate over edible landscapes vs. ornamental ones. The most die-hard of edible landscape proponents insist that ornamental landscapes are wasteful and useless and that any available greenspace one has should be devoted to growing one’s own food. “Productive landscapes” they refer to them as. And so it goes that productive = good; ornamental = bad. In a flaccid attempt at infusing pop culture into the debate, one blogger went so far as to describe ornamental landscapes as “so ’80s,” in essence ignoring the 4,000+ year history of ornamental gardens. The whole debate recalls the native vs. non-native one in which native = good and non-native = weedy and bad. Black and white, green and brown, with us or against us.

Prairie-inspired front-yard landscape in Plano, TX

But what of those grey areas, and the proverbial areas of the color that green mixed with brown make? What of an ornamental landscape that is chock-full of pollinator-attracting perennials that provide food for the suffering monarch population? What of Perovskia atriplicifolia / Russian Sage, which, while not native to the US, blooms endlessly from June to October, attracts a staggering swath of pollinating bees, is remarkably drought-tolerant, and is completely non-invasive? Within these artificially two-sided debates, there is no room for these questions. It is as if, in an effort to bolster the validity of one’s mission – be it edibles, native plants, government spending, etc. – we feel compelled to eliminate the grey areas altogether, as they may weaken our respective missions or agendas. As a result, people working towards the same end of reducing the impact of humans on the environment are pitted against each other in a debate that shouldn’t be. The truth of the matter is that some people want to grow their own food, and some simply don’t (there’s nothing wrong with purchasing your produce from the farmers’ market, is there?). Some want a wild, all-native landscape, and some want something tidier while still including plants that will attract wildlife. Why we insist on diluting the validity of the sustainability movement through these artificially black-and-white arguments is beyond us.

For more on the subject and grey areas, click here.

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A beehouse to attract solitary bees in search of residence

We were going to write about more serious, polemic-y matters today, but a post on the Garden Rant blog about bees and ways of inviting them into your landscape to shack up and stay a while made us switch gears. With bee populations in decline, now could not be a better time to not only add bee-friendly plants to your landscape (Perovskia atriplicifolia / Russian Sage being an easy, and tough-as-nails favorite) but also a beehouse to encourage your bees to stick around. You can not only purchase beehouses to attract solitary, stingerless, pollinating bees, but you can order your own bees too. For more on the subject, click here. We hate to use the word “cute,” but the whole thing does amount to cute goodness.

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Pennisetum rubrum (purple fountain grass) hedged to look like a. . . hedge (but looking like a hot mess)

We’ve just returned from Palm Springs, where we had a chance to soak in some good old-fashioned rays, and check out some fantastic and not-so-fantastic desert landscapes. A recurring theme amongst the landscapes there was the introduction of ornamental grasses, which is a fantastic endeavor. Pink muhly, deer grass, and pennisetums abounded. Unfortunately, it was apparent that not one of the gardeners maintaining these grassy landscapes knew how to care for the grasses; most of the grasses we saw had been hacked back to unsightly buns, pillars, and scrappy mounds, in a vain attempt to tope them out. Landscape design in Southern California is tricky, as most of the maintenance is done by low-skilled gardeners who are underpaid and overworked. In any case, much time and money could be saved if the gardeners were provided a quick and dirty lesson in ornamental grass maintenance, which is that you leave them alone, save a solid chop to the ground in fall. We as designers need to somehow forge better communication ties between us and those who will maintain the landscapes we design, otherwise we’ll just end up with sad-looking grassy buns and ratty pillars.

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Conventional American front yard of turf and a few shrubs

There is very much a history of formality when it comes to the American front yard. A swath of freshly mown lawn, plus a few evergreen shrubs hugging the house or building, still endures as the overarching landscape aesthetic of the age. However, with growing concerns over sustainability and natural resource conservation, there has naturally been an increasing number of people calling for a modification of this water- and fertilizer-intensive approach to the front-yard landscape. New books such as Lawn Wars, by Lois B. Robbins, and John Greenlee’s The American Meadow Garden, advocate for a wilder, less tamed approach to the front yard. And enter the front yard that has been converted to a prairie or meadow, or some variation thereof.

On the opposite end of the spectrum

The challenge of this endeavor is not pushing the formal aesthetic too far in the opposite direction to a weedy or scrubby aesthetic, which is so often what the front-yard conversions end up looking like. As a result, people equate less lawn with weedy, and the mass appeal of the endeavor has been intensely diminished. There are those who counter that wild is good, manicured bad, and that people need to simply accept that that will be the future state of affairs. It is as if we were given only two options: water-thirsty lawn and dull evergreen shrubs, or overgrown weedy hot-mess that is good for the environment, so therefore you should like it. We are thinking human beings, capable of solving multifaceted problems, and don’t buy into this artificially two-sided argument one bit. The enjoyment and challenge of the front-yard landscape is merging the formal and wild and coming up with an aesthetic that is a hybrid of what came before and what is to come. These hybrid landscapes can potentially have infinitely more mass appeal than the purely wild and weedy ones, and if the objective is to reduce water consumption and chemical fertilizers on a large scale, mass appeal should very much be the objective, not buying into a rarified aesthetic that is tough to swallow. After all, these are landscapes, spaces that are supposed to delight the eye and the senses, not be exercises in difficulty.

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