“Did it ever occur to you that light creates landscape, so that the world itself is created daily, in a sense? In my sense,” says one character to another in Ross MacDonald’s noir classic, The Ivory Grin.

So often, the role of light is forgotten in the composition of a landscape. By light, we do not mean lighting, but rather, that particular light from the sun that reads differently from place to place. This Foothill Palo Verde (seen at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum) shown above positively glows in the stark Sonoran sunlight; whereas in many parts of Los Angeles, the same tree loses its brilliance, as the light is simply more washed out there. Same goes for Bougainvillea – so brilliant in the stark desert light of Palm Springs; somewhat drab in much of Los Angeles. When thinking of borrowing plants you have seen in other regions of the country and world, try to imagine how that plant might look in the particular light that shines where you live. Adding this much-overlooked criterion to your landscape composition process will invariably result in a more spectacular, show-stopping landscape.

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KOELERIA MACRANTHA / JUNE GRASS (as seen in the Zenith Avenue Landscape)

One of the great cool-season grasses of the prairie, we love June Grass for its fresh blue-green color in spring – one of the first grasses to pop up – and then for its wheat-like panicles, which flicker from yellow-green to tan as spring melds into summer. When backlit, the panicles simply glow. The grass is clump-forming, especially when planted from a container specimen, and stays relatively neat and compact, not reaching more than 2 1/2′ in height, with a spread of about 1 1/2′ – 2′ after a few years. As it is cool season, it will go dormant durng the hottest months but won’t brown out until winter. And, as usual, it is quite drough-tolerant. In Los Angeles, you can see it planted in a mixed meadow with Bouteloua gracilis / Blue Grama Grass at Barnsdall Park as an alternative to conventional turf grass. In Minnesota, June Grass needs no supplemental water once established, except during particularly dry stretches. PRAIRIEFORM prefers June Grass in mass plantings for dramatic swaths of texture, color, and sway, but you can plant June Grass tucked in here in there in the front or mid-section of a mixed bed or border and you’ll still be happy.

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The designs of PRAIRIEFORM very much seek to locate that intersection between aesthetics and resources, where the design packs in the biggest visual bang for the smallest natural resource buck. This never means a dogmatic “must plant native” approach. It means a design approach that is infinitely more nuanced and always varied. Occasionally, the designs, where requested, may include a vegetable bed here, a groovy chicken coop there. Even in the smallest vegetable plot tucked within a landscape, you can produce an amazing amount of stuff.

When I had a plot at the Manzanita Community Garden in Silver Lake (shown above), it was mildly insane to see how much you could produce in such a small amount of space (my plot measured probably no more than 4′ x 8′). The most fantastic part of the whole thing, however, may have been that I started growing all of my vegetables from heirloom seeds. I got mine from Seedsavers Exchange, whose seed catalog is extensive and full of stories behind each variety of vegetable. Tomatoes passed down from generations of Hungarian immigrants from a remote part of Hungary; varieties of squash unavailble in any grocery store, passed down from generations of French immigrants who insisted that this was the best squash ever.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the grow-it-yourself bandwagon (even Triscuit is promoting DIY gardening). The best part about this bandwagon, though, is that it seats everyone. One of the coolest people pursuing her own grow-it-yourself endeavors is Dig-It-Yourself’s (the new DIY!) Jessica Rinks, who has transformed her little Chicago backyard into a veritable agricultural hotbed of DIY goodness.

Rinks grows so much in her small space that she is now bringing her bounty to Chicago diners around the city. In no small help to her newly patented “vegetable bounty resume” she has begun working with restaurants who are seeking to purchase their produce from as close to the Loop as possible, so as to serve the freshest, tastiest dishes around, with minimal impact on the environment. This is a trend that deserves to become not simply a trend but a lasting approach to living and eating. Here’s to 21st Century Heirloom DIY.

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