The Davey Tree

P90317This is no common Douglas fir. It is the ‘Davey Tree’, named after the tree service that so diligently prunes it for clearance from the utility cables above. Yes, I can see as easily as you can how disfigured it is. The plan is to cut it down before it falls apart. At least that is the excuse for cutting it down. It is relatively short an stout, so is likely quite able to support its own weight, regardless of this disfigurement. We really just want it gone because it is so unsightly.
Most who see the Davey Tree are quick to blame the disfigurement on those who prune it for clearance. They do not consider that without such pruning, the utility cables would eventually be ruined and unable to deliver the electricity that so many of us use. Those who prune the trees do what they must to keep the electricity and other utility cables operational. Unfortunately, such work sometimes ruins trees.
As an arborist who sometimes works with other arborists who must perform clearance pruning, I am more likely to blame other landscape professionals. Some landscape designers design landscapes with trees that get too tall or broad within utility easements. Heck, many designers do not even designate where such easements are on the drafts of their landscape plans. Some so-called ‘gardeners’ plant such trees in utility easements with no plan at all. For what they all charge for their services, landscape professionals should know better than to put inappropriate trees into situations where they will eventually need to be mutilated or removed. Not many think that far ahead, or even care.
Anyway, the inappropriate location and disfigurement of the Davey Tree really can not be blamed on anyone. It is a wild tree that grew there from seed.P90317+

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Horridculture – Fads

P90313This is why I do not grow hellebores in my own garden. The specimen in the pictures above and below are about as good as they get here. Most are quite a bit worse. Some put out only one or two flowers. Some do not survive their first year in the garden.
No one seems to know why they don’t do well here. It might be the lack of chill in winter, although they do better in even milder climates. It might be the minimal humidity, although they generally do no better in the damp redwood forests where the specimen in these pictures lives. Those that might get too much sunlight do no better or worse than those that get too much shade. They are simply not happy here.
My solution to this ‘problem’ is to not grow them in my own garden. I do not particularly like them anyway. Even those that look ‘good’ look like huge African violets dipped in paraffin. Those in the landscapes that I work with now are the colors of worn vinyl upholstery of 1970s Chryslers. Yup, I will pass on hellebores. ‘Problem’ solved before it happened.
That ‘solution’ does not work for everyone.
Some landscapers get what they can from the few growers who will grow them here, and plant them in all sorts of landscapes that they just do not belong in. Some will do it because they read somewhere that hellebores do well in shade, which is technically true, but only in regions where other environmental conditions are appropriate. Some do it because they saw pretty pictures of them, and read a nice article about them in some gardening magazine that features such articles about what does well where the respective magazines are published.
Sadly, many do it because hellebores are a fad here, and something that many landscapers with something to prove like to brag about. They are like dawn redwood and unusual varieties of Japanese maple that are so often installed into inappropriate situations just so the landscaper can add pictures of them to their portfolios. Fortunately, hellebores merely struggle or die without causing any other damage to the landscape.
There are a few kinds of fads, and some of them actually make sense, but good landscape designers should use fads responsibly and with discretion.P90313+

Horridculture – Good Design / Bad ‘Maintenance’

P90227From a distance, this landscape does not look so bad. It seems to have been only recently installed, and features the sort of material that was likely intended to not necessarily obscure the sleek architecture of the building behind it, but to eventually soften the starkness of it.

Let’s analyze the landscape. A glossy privet hedge in back should grow up into an informal screen to provide some substantial green against the wall, but with a bit of proper pruning, should not become too obtrusive. A lower hedge of variegated tobira (Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegata’) in front can be pruned into a semi-formal hedge to obscure the bases of the trunks of the glossy privets, which will undoubtedly shed lower growth as they mature. The lightly colored variegated foliage of the tobira contrasts nicely against that of the dark green privets. The blue festuca in front of the variegated tobira hedge provides even more contrast of color, as well as contrast of form, and also ties in with the same blue festuca elsewhere in the landscape. The only two ‘intentional’ interruptions of the simple sleekness of this landscape is where a pair of grapevines flanking a doorway await the installation of an arbor, and a single ‘Icee Blue’ yellowwood is expected to provide additional contrast of form and color in front of the glossy privets. Both features are well situated, and balanced within the symmetry of the landscape. Yes, it is all quite well designed.

And yes, this is Wednesday; the day for my ‘Horridculture’ rant. So, let’s look closer.

Firstly, this is not a new landscape. It has been here long enough to mature better than it has so far. The so-called ‘gardeners’ know that allowing the material to grow means that they will need to put more effort into maintaining it. They would prefer to just keep the glossy privet hedge down low where it does not produce much debris, rather than allow it to grow most of the way up the wall, where it should be by now. A row of cinder block painted green would work just as well, and not need to be shorn at all. The ‘Icee Blue’ yellowwood should likewise be larger than it is now, and looking like a small and neat but informal tree. It actually seems to be growing slowly, which is no fault of the so-called ‘gardeners’.

The pair of grapevines have the opposite problem of the privet hedge. They are not being contained enough. Without the arbor that has yet to be built, they have no place to go, so are just being pruned as rampant and fat shrubs that will fall over as soon as their old stakes rot at the ground. If an arbor is ever built, all that congested and disfigured growth should be cut to the ground in winter, and started over from the ground up. However, it is unlikely that the so-called ‘gardeners’ would maintain them any better on an arbor than they do with them within reach; so it is probably just as well that they are in the ridiculous situation they are in.

That low spherical shrub in the front and center of the landscape, which is just to the left of the lower center of the picture, and is the unintentional interruption to the simplicity of the otherwise well designed variegated tobira hedge that I alluded to earlier, is a variegated Pittosporum tenuifolium. It is so ridiculously shorn and abused that I can not identify the cultivar. I can only guess that it is the common and overly popular ‘Marjorie Channon’. Apparently, one of the variegated tobiras died and needed to be replaced. Hey, it happens. A so-called ‘gardener’ knew that the necessary replacement plant needed to be variegated. He also knew that it needed to be a pittosporum, which is probably more than most so-called ‘gardeners’ could ascertain. The problem was that he went to a nursery and grabbed the first variegated pittosporum that he found, which, as you can plainly see, does not match the tobiras. It assumed a different form, flopped forward as they often do when shorn in such an inappropriate manner, and continues to be shorn into the ‘shape’ seen here now . . . as if it is somehow an asset to this otherwise well designed landscape. The blue festuca that it landed on gets shorn right along with it.

The only feature in this well designed landscape that does not have a serious problem, except for its one member that was clobbered by the single disfigured pittosporum, is the blue festuca, and that is only because the so-called ‘gardeners’ do nothing to it.P90227+

Horridculture – Miss Congeniality

p90109Now, before I commence with my rant and long list of problems with this picture, I should mention that this seemingly abused rose tree does seem to be appreciated. All the roses in this landscape seem to be very healthy, and they bloom constantly between spring and autumn. Their performance suggests that they are regularly fertilized and deadheaded.
The unusually brutal pruning may be an attempt to keep this particular rose tree as compact as possible, within very limited space. It is not how I would do it, but perhaps it helps. The size of the burl suggest that this rose tree has been pruned effectively like this for a few years, although the lack of weathering of the labels indicate that it is not more than several years old. Older canes really do seem to be getting pruned off annually as they should. Even though the remaining canes are stubbed much too short, the end cuts are done properly. I can not help but wonder of pollarding back to the main knuckle would be just as effective, and neater.
The labels seem to be retained intentionally. In fact, the smaller white label to the left is attached to a new cane. Either the label was removed from an older cane that was pruned away, and attached to a new cane intentionally, or the rose tree was planted only last year rather than a few years ago, as mentioned earlier. I do not know why this uninformative label would have been retained; but the other larger label might be there for anyone who wants to know the name of the rose when they see it blooming in season. It happens to be in a very trafficked spot, where people walk by it constantly.
Rather than snivel about the (seemingly) very bad pruning, and the retention of the (trashy looking) labels, I should just say that this apparently appreciated rose tree should have been planted somewhere else in the garden, or not at all. That wheel in the background really is in a parking spot that is bordered by the red curb. A tiny bit of another red curb on the opposite side of this very narrow space is visible in the very lower right corner of the picture. (I can not explain why the curbs are red.) This really is a very narrow spot between a parking space and a walkway! Those mutilated stems to the right are another shrubbier rose. Thorny rose canes could really be a bother for those getting out of or into a parked car, or walking by on the walkway. The seemingly useless stake might be there so that the rose tree does not get yanked over when it grabs onto someone. To make matters worse, this rose is a grandiflora, which wants to grow bigger and wider than most other types of roses. Defoliation during winter dormancy is no asset either. The pathetic marigold on the ground really does not help much.
The point of all this is that more thought should have gone into planting this rose tree here.
Even Miss Congeniality, who so proficiently adapts to the most unfamiliar of situations, has certain limitations; and this situation demonstrates the worst of them.

Horridculture – Three Is A Magic Number

P81219We learned it young from Schoolhouse Rock. Those of us who studied Landscape Design were compelled to learn why, and assume that it is always true.
Well, I am not a landscape designer. I am just a horticulturist and arborist. I can see why three is the best number for groups of trees, and that five is probably the second best option for larger groups, followed by seven, and then nine, and so on. I sort of understand why two, four, six, eight and so on are not so desirable. However, these rules are not absolute.
When I was a kid, many suburban front yards were outfitted with three European white birch trees. Such groups were typically in a corner of the rectangular yards, just outside of the curvacious mowing strips that were designed to make the rectangular spaces seem to be more irregular than they really were. Individually, the groups of three birches were appealing. Collectively, they were cliché. They were supposed to look more ‘natural’; but there is nothing natural about contrived groups of three trees, especially when it is so prevalent. That is not how they grow in forests.
Now, although I am no landscape designer, I do happen to know that good landscape design is compatible with the architecture of the building that it is associated with.
Early American architecture really should be landscaped in the Early American style. This might seem to be simple, just because Early American landscapes are simple and utilitarian, with most of the plant material at a safe distance from the buildings. The difficulty is that such landscapes are very symmetrical, with paired shrubbery and trees, and several paired and evenly spaced trees flanking roadways. The left matches the right. That means quite a bit of twos, fours, sixes, eights and so on. Early American landscape design developed at a time when nature was something to be dominated and utilized in the most efficient manner possible. Not many landscape designers comprehend this philosophy, or would adapt to it if they did understand.
The group of three dwarf Alberta spruce in the picture below was not intended to be a rebellious expression of formality. As you can see, it really is a group of three. Yet, they are also evenly spaced in a straight row that parallels the adjacent wall. Without pruning, they will always be very symmetrically conical. Cool!P81219+

Horridculture – CH CH CH CHIA!

P80829Skyscrapers are already very efficient. They fit more usable floorspace into their ‘footprint’ than any other type of building does. They conserve energy that gets used for heating and cooling by exposing less of that floorspace to the outside weather. For all that usable floorspace, they need only a single roof.
Think about it. A relatively short ten story building contains as much floorspace as ten single story buildings that occupy the same area individually, but collectively occupy ten times as much area! Nine of those stories loose heat during cold weather, and collect heat during hot weather, only around the exterior walls. Only the top floor loses and collects heat through the roof, and only if there is not an upper utility ‘attic’ floor that insulates it. Ten single story buildings of the same area are all exposed on top, as well as all the way around. Of course, ten single story buildings of the same area need ten roofs comparable to the single roof of the ten story skyscraper.
Skyscrapers certainly need more infrastructure to support all of their floors, and they lose a bit of their floorspace to that infrastructure, as well as to the elevators needed for access to the upper floors. It also takes significant energy to pump water up to upper floors. Regardless, skyscrapers are still the most efficient of buildings. They have nothing to prove to the treehuggers who dislike them so.
‘Green roofs’ on top of skyscrapers are a fun concept. They utilize space that is otherwise useless, and they really do help to insulate the top and most exposed floor of big buildings. However, they are no more ‘green’ than landscapes that are at ground level. In fact, they necessitate the incorporation of extra infrastructure into their respective buildings in order to sustain their synthetic environments, and to support the extra weight of the soil, water and flora. Pumping water to irrigate green roofs takes more energy than irrigating landscapes at ground level. Generally though, they are probably worth the effort, as long as they are not too elaborate,
Chia Pet Skyscrapers are what happens when they get too elaborate. The vertical landscapes incorporated into the facades of these buildings consume more resources and energy than they conserve. Although less energy is needed for cooling the buildings during warm weather, more energy is used to pump water for irrigation. Not only must the buildings be constructed to sustain these landscapes, but they require much more specialized maintenance than conventional skyscrapers need. Because the flora in these vertical landscapes can not disperse roots into real soil, the growing medium must be fertilized very regularly with more synthetic fertilizer than conventional landscapes in the ground need, and all this fertilizer eventually leaches into the drainage systems of the landscape. Insects might enjoy these vertical landscapes, but the necessary regular maintenance would prevent much other fauna from getting established like they could in conventional landscapes at ground level.
Although the skyscraper within this spectacular Chia Pet Skyscraper benefits the environment, the vertical landscape that adorns the exterior only benefits those who live and work in and around it.

Horridculture – Agave

06When they became a fad in the 2000s, it was one of the very few fads that was actually sensible for California. Agaves certainly are not for every landscape, and certainly do not suit everyone’s taste, but they are ideal for the climate here. In some regards, they are more practical than the more popular of the native specie that tend to be scrubby looking and short lived. Agaves really should have become trendy a long time ago.
The problem with the fad, like so many other fads, is that it caused the object of desire to be overly popular for a while. Many agaves consequently got planted into situations where they did not belong. Landscape designers often forced them into the gardens of clients who did not know what they were, or did not even like their bold style. To show them off most prominently, designers often put the agaves next to walkways, driveways and doorways, rather in the background.
Those who know agaves know that they belong in the background because of their nasty foliar teeth! Technically, they are neither thorns not spines, but they are so wicked that they are known by both terms. These teeth are remarkably sharp and stout. Next to walkways and doorways, they can inflict significant injury to anyone unfortunate enough to bump into them. Next to a driveway, they can puncture tires! The foliar teeth of agaves are so dangerous that they do not belong anywhere in the gardens of homes where children or dogs live.
What is worse about those that are too close to walkways and such is that they grow! Landscape designers are notorious for installing small agaves that grow large in tight spots, merely because they were so cute and innocent when they were small.P80822K

Career Counseling

P71206This is not a sequel to my rant ‘Real Deal’ from yesterday. It is just another rant. I should write more such rants; and I am actually considering designating Wednesday, as the day for discussion of the various hooey in horticulture, from some of the many fads and gimmicks to the lack of professionalism in the horticultural industries. Wednesday is the day between my current gardening column articles and the gardening column articles that are recycled from last year. There is certainly no shortage of hooey to discuss. I have been mostly polite about it so far. I sometimes wonder why I should bother with politeness. I sort of think that some would prefer more honesty than such unfounded pleasantries. Well, I can give more thought to that later. There are still a few more pleasant topics that should be discussed as well. For now, I will continue:

Many years ago, while driving the delivery truck, I took a few orders to various jobs of a particularly annoying ‘landscape designer’ in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties. His orders were never planned. He would come to the nursery and just pick out random plants that he thought were interesting, including many that happened to be on the side of the road waiting to be taken away for disposal. (Overgrown and disfigured rhododendrons that get junked often bloom better than plants of better quality because they are more mature.) His landscape design was planned in the same manner. He just planted things wherever he though they looked good. There was no thought to the preferences of the various cultivars, exposure, irrigation, the trees above . . . or anything. He landscaped right around whatever happened to be in the way, including dead trees, fences overwhelmed with ivy, and dilapidated carcases of old brick barbecue pits that were beyond repair. I really disliked being on his job sites.

During one such deliver, he explained to me that he had been a chiropractor. He got bored with his career, and decided to do something more fun, so decided to become a landscape designer. He enjoyed buying pretty blooming plants in nurseries and wearing khaki shorts and big straw hats to work like all the landscapers with something to prove do.

My comment to him was that my career as a horticulturist was so much hard work and so frustrating at times that maybe I should also consider a career change. Perhaps I should consider becoming a chiropractor. If someone without ANY education or experience in horticulture or design . . . or anything even remotely useful in the landscape design industry can become a landscape designer, than it should be just as easy to become a chiropractor, despite a lack in formal education or experience in the industry.

He did not like that comment.

Location – Location -Location!

P80422Speaking of which, this is not the right location!

This unhappy Mexican fan palm may have grown here from seed, as they often do. They are notorious for growing under utility cables because that is where birds drop so many of their seed. Perhaps the seed for this one was dropped by a bird perched on the sign many years ago.

Ironic, isn’t it. Birds tend to perch on utility cables and signs and in trees and everywhere that palms should not be planted. How often do they drop seeds out in the open, where whey will not encroach into something as they grow up? Why can’t they drop palm seeds in places where palm trees would actually be an asset? It happens sometimes, but not as often as palms appear where they are not wanted.

The picture below shows three larger Mexican fan palms that were intentionally planted in the original landscape, with a smaller palm between two of the larger palms. The palm in the first picture is barely visible in front of the sign in the background, and is about the same size as the smaller tree that is more visible between the taller trees.

It is possible and perhaps likely that the two smaller palms were not planted intentionally. It is also possible that someone actually planted them.

It does not matter now. The palm in front of the sign needs to be removed. The removal of all the foliage will not kill it. It will generate new foliage that will again obscure the sign if the tree is not eliminated soon. There is no way to prune the palm to divert growth around the sign. It has only one terminal bud, and is unable to generate another if topped. Palms under utility cables have the same problem. Once they get too close to the cables, they must be removed.

Getting back to the first picture. The shock and awe of the defoliation of the subject Mexican fan palm was likely sufficient distraction to prevent anyone from noticing the queen palm foliage peeking around the right side of the sign. Unlike Mexican fan palms, queen palms rarely grow from seed here, especially in a spot where there are no other queen palms nearby. Yes, someone planted ‘another’ palm in the same spot!P80422+

Median Landscapes

P80311Medians are nice on the widest of boulevards. They break up the expansiveness of otherwise contiguous lanes. They make a four lane boulevard seem more like a pair of two lane roadways. Berms and other obstacles within medians limit the potential for head on collisions with traffic from opposite sides of the medians. Trees shade and cool some of the pavement when the weather gets warm. Besides all that, medians that are modestly landscaped simply look nice.

Notice that I said ‘modestly’ landscaped. There really is no need to get carried away with landscapes in medians. No one is really looking too closely at them anyway. People are driving past them, and really should be paying more attention to the road ahead rather than what is blooming to the side. Even passengers who are not driving probably are not seeing much of what goes into median landscapes. Color in such landscapes is nice; but no one cares if the color is provided by plants that are expensive and consumptive to maintain, or plants that can more or less survive on their own. It other words, resources should not be wasted on medians. Expensive and consumptive public landscapes should be installed only in parks or other places where they can be seen and appreciated.

Then there are those who must perform the maintenance. It is not safe for them. It will of course be necessary for crews to go out to maintain medians sometimes, and sometimes they might need to block a lane to do what needs to be done; but they should be out there as little possible. They should not be out there deadheading roses, pruning wisteria or planting petunias. They certainly should not be mowing lawns that no one can use! High maintenance features, like formal hedges, fountains, espaliers, trellises, arbors and beds of seasonal annuals, have no business out in medians! Such features require too much attention from those who must interact with traffic to attend to the maintenance.

Turf uses too much water anyway. It is useful in parks and athletic fields, but should be limited to situations where it can actually be useful for something. It is not useful in medians.

Trees are perhaps the best features of median landscapes, but even they are often not well thought out. They should be proportionate to the roadways that the get installed into, and get high enough for adequate clearance above truck traffic. Vertical clearance is not important if small trees can fit between the curbs of wide medians, but such wide medians should probably be outfitted with larger and taller trees. Trees in medians should exhibit complaisant roots that are less likely to damage curbs and pavement.

Landscape design takes serious work; and there is a lot to consider when designing landscapes for medians.