Weekend viewing for the topiary-curious

Many of you have probably seen a sculpture by Patrick Dougherty but haven’t realized who it was by. His tilting and spiraling sculptures and structures (and, some would say, topiary) are constructed of cuttings and trimmings of softwoods, which are thus perfectly pliable for the kinds of stick-y edifices he produces. Along with 80 volunteers, he is currently completing a large installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, to commence the summer season. For those who do not live close by to one of his installations, this quick video will give you a good idea of the tone and form of his work. Enjoy.

Tomorrow commences Phase IV of the Zenith Avenue Landscape, which includes the area featured in the planting plan shown on the page. Stay tuned for photos of the work in progress.

Weekend viewing for the drought-tolerant / -curious

Anigozanthos rufus Red Kangaroo Paw

PRAIRIEFORM believes that going drought-tolerant should not be synonymous with punishment. Using less water in a landscape should not require one to give up their desire for a full-looking landscape and to buy into a depressing, scrubby aesthetic. Why people insist on this as a strategy for winning over converts to the low-water landscape is beyond PRAIRIEFORM. Going drought-tolerant should be presented as a true opportunity to discover and explore whole new worlds of plants – a 21st-Century makeover to one’s landscape, and water bill. Yes, you are perhaps saying goodbye to Azaleas and Cala Lilies, but you are saying hello to Kangaroo Paw, Indian Grass, Silver Buffaloberry, Little Bluestem, Ginkgo trees. And the list goes on.

In a recent episode of The Outdoor Room, Aussie Jamie Durie offers up an relatively instructive approach to the low-water landscape, one that merges the client’s wishes with the overarching theme of water-conservation and visual splashiness. Some good old-fashioned weekend entertainment for the drought-tolerant and -curious.


The shrub as the unsung landscape hero

Shepherdia argentea

PRAIRIEFORM perenially views landscape design as problem-solving; the components of a landscape are but pieces of a larger, spatial-botanical puzzle. This is, however, generally not how landscape is viewed. The conventional approach is to construct a landscape from disparate pieces, moving from these pieces towards a vague idea of a whole. As a result, the tendency is to gravitate towards deemed “show-stopper” perennials and to ignore the somewhat less glamorous but equally crucial building blocks of the landscape.

Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’

The shrub is one such overlooked component. While many a shrub has been played out to the point where someone simply needs to issue an early-retirement notice (i.e. Yews, Arbor vitae, Juniper and all of those other static and itchy ’50s-era shrubs), there exists a wide wide world out there of shrubs of varying colors, textures, and forms that can do wonders for the overall structure of a landscape. For maximum effect – and to avoid the depressing topiary-shrub-hugging-house motif – their placement should be considered within the larger context of the landscape, and mixed in with a host of plants of various heights and forms. In this way, you will be able to begin buidling a true landscape composition, whose form, foliage, and texture will endure across the seasons and through the years.

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.