Landscape curmudgeons. . . disband, por favor

A lovely landscape outside the CECUT, Tijuana, MX

There is unfortunately a pervasive trend amongs landscape afficionados to be a bit haughty and snooty when it comes to knowledge of plants and what’s best for them. Two recent scenarios illustrate the point.

1. On a recent excursion to a nearby nursery to scout out containers for a client, PRAIRIEFORM witnessed the classic, completely disappointing interaction between burgeoning plant lover and believed plant expert:

Giddy Customer (box full of potted herbs in hand) to Owner: So, can I plant all of these together?!

Curmudgeony Owner (without looking at the customer in the eye), in deadpan, grumbly voice: Thyme absolutely cannot be planted with cilantro, the other two plant together.

Giddy Customer: So, the Basil and Cilantro are cool together; Thyme separate?!

Curmudgeony Owner: That’s what I said.

Giddy Customer: Great!

Curmudgeony Owner never looks up to acknowledge the customer’s enthusiasm.

2. J-Dog, the Chicago-based gardener who will be growing fresh vegetables on site for a downtown Chicago restaurant, was recently installing her raised beds in the parking lot when a passer-by stopped to presumably chat with her about how groovy and forward-thinking the project was.

Passer-by, grumbly and in an oh-so-patronizing tone: You know we have rats here, so I don’t know how you plan on getting those vegetables to grow.

J-Dog: Oh, it’s cool, I’ve had good luck with growing vegetables in the city. There are always various elements to be braved.

Passer-by: *silence, rolls eyes*.

J-Dog: If need be I’ll get a cat. It’s not the end of the world.

Passer-by, turning around and starting to walk away, looking victorious, says to the wind: The rats are as big as cats.

We are infinitely perplexed by the presumption that working with plants should be reserved for those who belong to a proverbial club with membership requirements. Granted, some knowledge of plant care is crucial if you are planning on pruning trees or larger shrubs, but the notion that that body of knowledge cannot be shared is quite preposterous. Plants themselves are the only ones who know what’s best for them; we just try and figure out what they might want. If gardening and spreading the good botancial news are the objective, then by all means get rid of the VIP-only attitude. PRAIRIEFORM observes this members-only attitude time and time again with various social movements – urban bicycling a key culprit – and wonders then just how committed its “members” are to the movement if they really don’t want anyone but a select few to join. Lose the dress code, open your doors, welcome newcomers with gusto.

Texture and the modern urban landscape

San Gabriel Boulevard

To many, Los Angeles contains some of the ugliest commercial boulevards in the world (perhaps rivaled only by those of Phoenix or Las Vegas (outside the Strip, mind you)). They stretch out for miles and miles, are egregiously wide, and tend to contain a jumbled hodgepodge of low-rise strip-commerical development coupled with above-ground powerlines and freeway-style streetlights. They exhibit a kind of coarse, jagged, oftentimes harsh texture that has become almost synonomous with the city itself. It is in part this harsh and jagged texture that people are responding to when they say the boulevards are ugly.

Recent streetscape efforts aimed at retexurizing the crummy commerical strip are well-intentioned in their efforts to insert some consistency within the clutter. Enter the evenly spaced, more pedestrian-friendly street lamps, design guidelines for buildings and signage, street furniture, and street trees. Such is what is proposed for San Gabriel Boulevard in San Gabriel.

Vintage signage on Main Street, Alhambra

However, the question arises as to whether efforts at smoothing out the coarseness of the commercial strip do little more than make things a little bit “less ugly” while in the process simultaneously eliminating some of the kitschy whimsy that characterizes the boulevard in the first place. And are urban designers simply attempting to make things “pretty” rather than fundamentally transform how people move through the city on a day-to-day level (re: reconfiguring streets and transportation to allow for walking, bicycling, scooter-riding, etc.)? Some of the greatest streets to walk through are not the prettiest to look at, and some of the prettiest streetscapes still give one little reason to walk down that particular street. A meaningful approach to urban design needs to hone the core reasons why we aren’t walking in the first place. Aesthetics are part of it, but the puzzle is much more vast and complex than mere window treatment.

Plant of the week

For an electric-blue swath of color, coupled with a feathery texture, nothing does it better than Helictotrichon sempervirens / Blue Oat Grass. Hardy down to Zone 4a, this grass is tough, drought-tolerant, and, as always, low on fuss. And, for people who have been frustrated with the short lifespan of Festuca glauca, Blue Oat Grass makes the perfect, long-lived alternative. The key to success with this grass is good drainage and sun. Amend the soil with organic matter and a cactus-like mix when planting and you should have good luck. This is a cool-season grass and thus will grow in spring and fall (or winter and spring in the Southwest) but will go dormant during the hot summer months. Just prior to the growing season, cut the grass back to about an inch above the ground to encourage fresh new growth; otherwise, the plant can become overwhelmed with dead blades. For those in Minnesota, stop by the Zenith Avenue and Wooddale Avenue landscapes this spring to see Blue Oat Grass in all its glory.

From carspace to farmspace

Dig-it-yourself plots its next moves in a parking lot

Over the past 80 years we have done a bang-up job of transforming our cities from places for us to places for our vehicles. In Los Angeles (and in the Southern California region in general), particularly high on-site parking requirements have resulted in many a demolition of pedestrian-friendly builidings, and in massive seas of asphalt – much of which is completely underutilized. A serious rethink of both parking standards and uses for exisiting parking lots is in order – particularly for low-cost uses that aren’t subject to the fickleness of the ever-unpredictable real estate market.

One such potential re-use is to transform parking space into urban farmspace. While at first glance this seems like rather a pie-in-the-sky idea, it has begun to gain some serious traction. In an earlier post, PRAIRIEFORM checked in on Dig-it-yourself’s J-Dog, who, starting this spring, will be growing fresh produce for one of Downtown Chicago’s most delectable restaurants. Well, she won’t be growing the produce in her own backyard. Nope, all growing will take place on-site, in the restaurant’s parking lot. How’s that for closing the rural-farm -> urban-dinner-plate loop?

Stay tuned for further explorations into the adaptive reuse of underutilized parking lots. This is the future, in a very real way.