There is many a native plant that when young (or even when not in bloom) looks like a weed – or could be confused for one. Even though I’ve been a landscape designer doing design/build for 10 years, there are times where even I’m not sure if the young plant I’m looking at is supposed to be there or is a volunteer of the weedy variety. This reality poses real challenges not simply for burgeoning gardeners who are looking to invite in a bit more of the wild but also for larger landscapes that require maintenance crews to keep the landscapes relatively weed-free. A certain level of skill and experience is required to discern the difference between emerging plants you want and the weeds you don’t, and a certain level of care is required as well, as these young plants are oftentimes relatively fragile and simply won’t take well to the traditional mow-and-blow treatment. Thus it is little wonder that default for so many landscapes great and small are cultivars, as their intentionality is readily apparent, and thus they are unlikely to be accidentally ripped out by a maintenance crew or an everyday gardener.
In native-plant catalogues and in photos accompanying purchased, potted native plants, we most often are only presented with a pretty photo of the plant in bloom and close up. As such, we can be left in the dark when it comes to seedlings of the plants and what they look like when emerging. Additionally, we are left in the dark as to the overall form of the plant when it isn’t in bloom, thereby complicating the design of a landscape, as that form will be what people perceive most of the year, with the bloom merely lasting a couple of weeks.
Whether it be for the training of maintenance crews for a larger landscape, or for just your everyday gardener or designer of smaller landscapes, it is really high time that the photo of a plant – in particular those that could be confused for weeds – be accompanied by another photo of the plant when just emerging and young. As such, those maintaining or managing the landscape can know what to pull and what not to pull, and we’ll end up with fuller, more thriving landscapes in the process.
In the realm of authentically exciting news, we’ve begun work on our newest landscape project, dubbed the #ButterflyRedux and which involves retooling and reworking what has amounted to a well-intentioned but hot-mess-looking butterfly garden. Of course, never ones to just plant something pretty and call it a day, the #ButterflyRedux project is a thoroughly two-layered endeavor:
Layer 1: Explore how self-sowing native plants and more tried-but-true garden stalwarts and cultivars can be combined within one – ideally harmonious – landscape.
Over the next week, we will be retooling the existing landscape and giving it some good bones (see some of those bones in the photo above), and then we will be laying a grid atop the finished product to then document the species and location of every plant within the space. This grid we will then be laying over the landscape every spring to see how the composition of the landscape evolves over time. Kingsbury’s (and by extension our) intention is to really explore and observe how horticulture and ecology intermingle in such a landscape, and then to generate a set of data and observations on how dense plantings can reach a sort of natural equilibrium that maximizes visual heft and impact, creates a carbon-capturing ground cover, and minimizes maintenance.
Pertaining to Layer 1: Heretofore, many a wildlife garden has been treated as seeming sacrifice for a cause: who cares if it looks weedy, as it’s doing so much good for the world? Additionally, mixing cultivars into a native-plant landscape has been seen as somehow “weakening” the value of the space. We are thoroughly of the opinion that wildlife appeal and aesthetics shouldn’t and don’t need to be mutually exclusive but that achieving this two-pronged landscape requires mixing cultivars with native plants. As such, we will be exploring what techniques can be employed with varying shapes, colors, textures, and forms to create a landscape that can read as an intentional garden space on the one hand, and as an actual attractor of wildlife on the other. Our ultimate aim of this endeavor is to generate a series of key principles and how-tos for creating a new kind of wildlife-friendly garden that is rooted as much in human psychology and how we perceive landscapes and space and their intentionality and beauty as it is in attracting the beneficial insects and critters that we are increasingly realizing are integral to the overall health of our world.
You may read further blog posts/updates on the project HERE and/or follow the work on Instagram.
Just another photo from our visit to the first irrigation-free landscape six years later. It was so fascinating to see how the landscape had taken on a life of its own, and how the wild and exuberant self-sowing plants had mixed in with the more stay-in-place cultivated ones. There were even new arrivals to the landscape that weren’t weeds, something we had never seen before. Anyway, happy Friday.
It’s hard to say what you first notice when you see the irrigation-free landscape now after six years of being in the ground. Perhaps that everything looks huge and full and not at all tired or half-dead or all the things people were worried might happen when we proposed the idea seven years ago. The little bluestems (Schizachyrium scoparium) have self-sown with abandon, as have the pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Golden Spirit smokebush (Continus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’) looks almost otherworldly in its stature and form – no doubt loving the gravelly, crummy soil we planted it in. Some extremely tall perennials have also appeared in the landscape, and, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what they are, but once they’ve bloomed the mystery should be solved. The pathways are less perceptible than they were before – in part because of how big the grasses have gotten, but also because they need a good weeding (we learned early on how much certain self-sowing plants loved the gravel as a growing medium). But all in all, we think most would call the landscape a success if they saw it – and the bees and butterflies think so too, as they have very much found an ideal foraging spot within it. And how exciting it’s been to see the landscape take on a life of its own since it isn’t tethered to an irrigation system. So maybe that’s what you sense most when you see it now: a freedom and exuberance that can only be found within a landscape that is given a little license to do what it wants.
For this year’s annual Transit + Design workshops at SPUR in San Francisco, we will be leading an interactive, model-building workshop on rethinking the Bay Area’s transit system so that it is efficient, comfortable, and easy to navigate for all users, regardless of gender, cultural background, or sexual orientation. All are welcome to attend. For more info, click HERE.