From our recent plant-scouting excursions

Photo from scouting out plants at Classic Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley
Photo from scouting out plants at Classic Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley

Snapped this photo when we were out scouting out plants for our lawn-to-garden project in Glendale, CA. One of the challenges of sourcing plants in Southern California is that by and large nothing is labeled, so a Cistus plant is just a Cistus, and a Phlomis is just a Phlomis, even though there are so many varieties of each. As such, it is hard to know what you are getting and what form the plant will ultimately take – not to mention how big it will get. In any case, we really enjoyed going to this Nursery, Classic Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley. Lots of healthy, happy drought-tolerant plants tended to by helpful people. And an amazing view to boot.

-John Kamp

On trees and what they say about us

Jared Farmer's book on the history of the trees that now signify "California" in the public imagination
Jared Farmer’s book on the history of the trees that now signify “California” in the public imagination

Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.

There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.

Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.

Of grasses and gardeners

Pennisetum rubrum (purple fountain grass) hedged to look like a. . . hedge (but looking like a hot mess)

We’ve just returned from Palm Springs, where we had a chance to soak in some good old-fashioned rays, and check out some fantastic and not-so-fantastic desert landscapes. A recurring theme amongst the landscapes there was the introduction of ornamental grasses, which is a fantastic endeavor. Pink muhly, deer grass, and pennisetums abounded. Unfortunately, it was apparent that not one of the gardeners maintaining these grassy landscapes knew how to care for the grasses; most of the grasses we saw had been hacked back to unsightly buns, pillars, and scrappy mounds, in a vain attempt to tope them out. Landscape design in Southern California is tricky, as most of the maintenance is done by low-skilled gardeners who are underpaid and overworked. In any case, much time and money could be saved if the gardeners were provided a quick and dirty lesson in ornamental grass maintenance, which is that you leave them alone, save a solid chop to the ground in fall. We as designers need to somehow forge better communication ties between us and those who will maintain the landscapes we design, otherwise we’ll just end up with sad-looking grassy buns and ratty pillars.

When maintenance becomes butchery

Hacked-up Liquidambar styraciflua

For those who aren’t familiar with the territory of landscape in Southern California, we will let you know this: Almost every landscape is tended to by hired gardeners. Some know a thing or two about plants; many do not. What for newcomers comes initially as a godsend – the opportunity to have a green landscape year-round – quickly becomes a burden. And so enters the hired gardener. That the gardeners are generally underpaid and without any sort of horitcultural background translates into a very limited plant palatte that can look good and survive under their care. And when it comes to trees, the cardinal rule of never lopping off the leader trunk (as this is essentially the spine along which the tree grows) is broken every day, by the hour.

PRAIRIEFORM is not in the business of forcing people to take an interest in tending to their own landscapes; it is, however, in the business of working with skilled gardeners who can ensure that your landscape is cared for properly. An exquisite landscape design means nothing if the subsequent maintenance on it is shoddy at best, especially because one of the most rewarding, soul-satisfying aspects of a landscape is watching it evolve across the seasons and through the years.