Man is not a bird; grass is not a hedge

Badly hacked up Pennisetum setaceum

Maintenance is that not-so-glamorous part of landscape design that no one wants to think about, but it is perhaps the most important part of the entire design process. Shown above is what remains of what just two years ago was an exquisite-looking, brand-spankin’-new landscape (no, not designed or orchestrated by PRAIRIEFORM, mind you). The dying, brownish clumps you see in front are what remains of the Pennisetum setaceum (aka Purple Fountain Grass), which the hired gardeners attempt to sculpt into a hedge every week. The accent is on “attempt,” as grasses simply cannot be hedged. The designer in charge of this landscape never bothered to let the subsequent gardeners know this.

Pennisetum setaceum in its proper, unhedged glory

Above is shown the normal form of this particular Pennisetum. Flowy, wispy, cascading, full of movement and slow evolution across the seasons. It is because of those qualities that PRAIRIEFORM favors grasses so much in its designs. It is also because grasses are by and large quite low maintenance. Aside from a little water here and there, and a good dose of sun, grasses can be left to their own devices for much of the year. Only once annually do they need to be pruned, which entails little more than a cut-to-the-ground chop before their growing season begins. That’s it. Had the owner or designer of the above landscape known this, they could have saved quite a bit of money in maintenance costs, and could have spared everyone the eyesore.

PRAIRIEFORM works either with your existing gardener to ensure that they maintain the newly design landscape properly, or offers you recommendations for gardeners who are knowledgable about specific plants and their care – including grassses. The end result is a landscape that endures, evolves, and grows up into something beautiful, the way it was intended to in the first place.

Freeways as landscape

Solar Serpent, by Måns Tham

The modern freeway system has left an indelible mark on our cities and neighborhoods, and that mark is generally not viewed as an altogether positive one. However, rather than wish freeways out of existence (which is not likely to happen), there are ways in which we can treat these linear strips of massive infrastructure as multi-functional spaces of sustainable energy production. And sometimes it takes an outsider to see what a great untapped resource LA’s freeways could become. Swedish archtect Måns Tham sees the Los Angeles freeways as a space of infinite possibility – in his case, the possibility of energy production. His Solar Serpent in Paradise project envisions the Los Angeles freeways clad in a shelter and network of 1000s of solar panels, thereby transforming what was once merely a transportation network into a multifunctional web of transporation and energy production. Additionally, the panels would double as sun shades and sound barriers, thereby reducing the need for air conditioning in vehicles, and reducing the sound impact on adjacent neighborhoods.

While we are still left with a host of urban design challenges that have not – and perhaps never will – be erased from the introduction of such massive infrastructure into existing urban neighborhoods – Mr. Tham’s proposal is perhaps the most ingenious re-think of freeways PRAIRIEFORM has seen yet.

Plant of the week

Penstemon parryi

Penstemon is a tough-as-nails but showy perennial that comes in a huge range of cultivars and native types, allowing folks in regions as cold as Zone 4a to appreciate their often electric-colored blooms. The plant foliage tends to remain somewhat low to the ground while its flowers grow on taller spikes that shoot up from the base of the plant. As such, you can plant Penstemon mixed in with mid-height grasses and catch flashes of color peaking out through the waving blades.

The above-shown variety, Penstemon parryi, is only cold hardy down to Zone 9 and is thus one for the warmer Western garden. Below is shown Penstemon barbatus ‘Prairie Dusk,’ a cultivar hybridized for its early blooms and cold hardiness (Zone 4a). Minnesotans and other folks of the Great Tundra can also check out Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink,’ Penstemon barbatus ‘Prairie Fire,’ and Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker’s Red’ – which was the 1996 Perennial Plant of the Year.

These drought-tolerant plants prefer well-draining soil, a good dose of sun, and a little benign neglect once established (too much care and water will make them unhappy botanical campers). You can cut back spent flower stems to encourage year-round blooming in Western zones. This can also be done with the cold hardy Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink” up in Zone 4.

Shades of green

The number of landscapes in Tucson that consist only of low-water and desert species is impressive. Increasingly gone are the days of a Kelly green lawn and a few (depressing) Hawthorne shrubs hugging the house or building. The same unfortunately cannot be said of the LA Region. While the new Los Angeles Water Ordinance is a step in the right direction, the Southern California Region has a long, long ways to go in regards to water conservation and landscapes. The prevailing theme is still the Bermuda Grass lawn, and perennial borders consisting primarily of water-thirsty perennials borrowed from East Coast and English landscapes. In short, Kelly Green still dominates the landscape discourse.

Potted Agave at the Tohono Chul Botanical Garden

While PRAIRIEFORM is ever-weary of the dogmatic “must-plant-native” approach (particularly in regions where the native plant palate is limiting at best), a serious, collective landscape rethink is in order. There is a wide, wide world of low-water plants out there that can look full and lush virtually year-round, and can survive on very, very little water. A trip to the Sonoran Desert and Tucson and a visit to any of the numerous desert and low-water landscapes that exist here is a perfect start to see just how possible it is.