Horridculture – Metasequoia glyptostroboides

P90626The easier name is ‘dawn redwood’. I just used the big and fancy Latin name because that is how landscape designers with something to prove say it. If the big name does not impress clients, an explanation of how rare it is, and that it is one of only a few deciduous conifers, will likely do the job. Even back when it was still a fad, I got the impression that was its main function; to impress clients.
It is not even a particularly practical tree. If it gets too big for its situation, it is difficult to contain without disfiguring the canopy. Because the priorities for most were conformity to a fad and to dazzle a client, not much thought went into their appropriateness to their respective landscapes. Consequently, many went into landscapes that were not big enough for them.
Although deciduous, dawn redwood does not even get good color in autumn. It just turns rusty brown, and quite frankly, looks dead.
It is true that there are only a few deciduous conifers. However, the dawn redwood stopped being rare shortly after it became a fad. I mean, how rare can it be if every landscape designer with something to prove gets to plant one?! Isn’t that what happened to the formerly rare yellow clivia after it became a fad?
The only one that I work with now happened to be planted before dawn redwood became a fad. I suppose that makes it okay. It is quite tall now, and has plenty of space to mature. However, I can not help but notice how silly it looks with all the other surrounding coastal redwoods. Although very different, it is similar enough to look like a coastal redwood with some serious problems, especially when it seems to die every autumn.


Utilitarian Landscape

P90505I am no designer. I am merely a horticulturist. I grow things, and I know how things should be grown in landscape situations.

My colleague Brent Green is a landscape designer, as well as a horticulturist. He knows how things should be grown in landscape situations too, but more importantly, he knows how to assemble the landscapes that they grow in. He creates the sort of landscapes that most people think that all horticulturists strive for. (A few pictures of his home garden can be found in a former article, as well as another similar article that it links to: https://tonytomeo.com/2019/04/06/six-on-saturday-brents-garden/ .)

Brent and I have two completely different sets of standards for landscape design, to say the least. His ideal landscapes are very lush and inviting, with abundant color and fragrance. Mine are very simple and structured, with abundant fruits and vegetables. He strives to bring the ambiance of wild jungles into very urban settings. I try to instill formality and structure into the forests. Yet, we both agree that landscapes must be functional.

That means that landscapes must work for those using them, whatever they are using them for. Almost all of Brent’s clients use their landscapes as extensions of their homes, so want them to function as such.

I do not design landscapes, but I do happen to work in some. Most are in public spaces, and some are comparable to athletic fields. They function very differently from those in residential situations.

The unexpected way that these three small redwoods are functioning in this landscape was just too amusing to not get a picture of. I have no idea where all these wet suits came from, or why they are hung in this particularly prominent location, but it is the last thing I expected to encounter here.

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 – Lessons From Motivational Posters

P81010I work for the best. I do not intend to be too terribly pompous about it. I am just being honest.
This is not first time I have worked for the best. I have worked for at least three of the best arborists in the Santa Clara Valley, and two legendary horticulturists. I intend to eventually return to work for one of those legendary horticulturists back on the farm.
The main work I do now is part time and temporary. That means that I work less than four days each week, and will not be working there forever. I try to not think about leaving because it is saddening. I enjoy those whom I work for so much.
I work for only one other horticulturist, and one who is studying to be an arborist. Neither of them grow any significant quantity of nursery stock like I intend to spend the rest of my career doing. They maintain landscapes and facilities. The others of our elite group are very specialized professionals who work with everything else that is not relevant to horticulture. One is a carpenter. One is an electrician. One is a plumber; and so on. Although impeccably specialized, any one of us would do what he must to accomplish whatever needs to be done, even if it is beyond his respective specialty. Collectively, we are the ‘maintenance staff’.
How is this relevant to horticulture? I suppose it is not very relevant. However, everyone else on the maintenance staff respects what the other horticulturist, the other arborist, and I do. Anyone who needs vegetation pruned for clearance from a project contacts us to get it done properly. Anyone who sees obvious problems in the landscape informs us about them. Everyone on the maintenance staff respects everyone else and their respective professions.
To describe what makes the maintenance staff the best, I could use any combination of those inspirational words that are so ungraciously followed by an overly simplified dictionary definition on those insultingly inane motivational posters that so many other employers display prominently in the workplace. They are all relevant. However, we have nothing to prove.
Besides, this is not about the best. It is Wednesday, when I write within the context of my ‘Horridculture’ theme.
I have also worked for the worst. One of these worst was portrayed to be a very professional landscape maintenance company. We had a much larger staff, spread out over nine counties. We had a good variety of those motivational posters in our main office. Unfortunately, I did not realize when I went to work there, that those posters merely defined what we lacked.
Integrity – Dedication – Perseverance – Discipline – Teamwork – Excellence – Strength – Endurance – Accountability – We had none of that. I was the only horticulturist in the big staff of a big landscape maintenance company that simply did not care. I do not know how to describe it more accurately. We simply did not care. We were there to make a buck any way we could. We swindled, cheated and lied. I was only there as their token horticulturist and arborist, to help them get away with more of their illicit activity, and to make a good impression for their victims.
It is so backward. The big and seemingly reputable landscape maintenance company has less regard for horticulture than a maintenance staff who has other completely different priorities.

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.

Shady – MSDS – (yes, another sequel)


As the Certified Pesticide Applicator working for the ‘landscape’ company that I wrote about earlier ( https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/03/18/shady/ ), I assumed several responsibilities pertaining to the pesticides and other chemicals that the ‘landscape’ company used. Among other things, I needed to inventory all the chemicals, monitor their use, submit use reports to the Department of Agriculture for each of the nine counties in which we used these chemicals, and provide MSDS binders for all of the ‘landscape’ company offices and vehicles within their fleet.

MSDS is for ‘Material Safety Data Sheet’. They are actually several pages each. Each MSDS binder contained two copies of the MSDS for every chemical the ‘landscape’ company used, or even had on site, whether it was actually used or not. One MSDS was in American English. The other was in Mexican Spanish.

So every office and every facility and every vehicle in the fleet of the ‘landscape’ company was equipped with an MSDS binder. Every binder was equipped with two copies of the MSDS for every chemical even remotely associated with the ‘landscape’ company. That is a whole lot of MSDS!

It’s the law.

I was required to provide all of this literature in languages spoken by anyone and everyone in the workplace, for all vehicles and facilities. Okay, so we’re clear on all that.

However . . .

There is no law requiring those using chemicals to be literate.

I certainly do not expect everyone to be literate in American English. They do not need to be able to read or write it. That is why there were copies of all the literature in Mexican Spanish. I could translate field notes from those who wrote them in Mexican Spanish. That would not have been a problem.

The problem was that many of those using the chemicals could neither read nor write in ANY language! At first, I though we could improvise. I instructed the accounts managers to inform their technicians to merely write down basic information, like the identification number of a chemical being used, the volume of the chemical used, and so on. Most of it involved copying information from the label, and the location from the work order provided to the accounts managers. It sounded simple enough. Sadly, it was not. Copying such information was too much to expect from those handling these potentially dangerous and polluting chemicals. The literature in the MSDS binders that I had so dutifully printed and provided was merely used as napkins and toilet paper.

By the time I could no longer be affiliated with this particular ‘landscape’ company, I had no idea where all of the inventoried chemicals ended up or how they were applied.


P80310+++++Shady applies to more than trees. It applies to many of those who are hired to maintain trees and landscapes. In my career, I have worked for some of the best arborists, nurserymen and other horticulturists. In fact, some of my colleagues, particularly a landscape designer, two nurserymen and at least three arborists, happen to be legendary. I would say that I don’t mean to brag, but that would be inaccurate. I will write about some of them sometime. This here is not about them.

Sadly, I have had the misfortune to work with some really shady characters and businesses. They may seem to be more professional than the real professionals who take their professions very seriously, but it is all for show. I can tell you all about the brochures, and use all the buzz words, but it is all a lie. From sustainability and planting natives to save water, to diagnosing problems before they become serious, they are all lies. Their objective is to take money; as much money as possible, for as little effort as possible.

Even their contracts were not considered to be sustainable. I once informed an operations manager that the oleanders that were planted below a sign were not the dwarf oleanders that they were supposed to be, and that in order to prevent them from obscuring the sign, they would need to be pruned and deprived of bloom. He was not concerned, and told me that we have no idea who will be taking care of the landscape by the time that happens.

Sure, they would plant garden varieties of native ceanothus, supposedly to save water, but then water them so much that they would rot and die. In fact, they would put so much water on lawns that many established trees would rot and die. They would then charge a lot of money to remove the dead trees, and then charge more money to plant new ones, even though they were responsible for killing the originals.

I was once instructed to go look at a ‘Marina’ madrone that was a street tree in what had been the old Fort Ord, where some of the old homes, buildings and landscapes were in the process of being salvaged or renovated. I was only informed that the tree was in bad condition. Upon arrival, I found the single madrone in a well matched row of others, on a curving street. I was quite annoyed that the tree was so distressed from severe aphid infestation that it could not be salvaged. The subject looked as if it had been healthy for many years, but only recently became infested with aphid within the previous two years. The other ‘horticultural professionals’ at the site should have noticed the problem before the tree had deteriorated as much as it had. Now, removing the tree was going to compromise the conformity of the evenly spaced and well matched row of street trees. I wrote the report prescribing removal.

I needed to visit the site for another problem a few weeks later, and when I drove by where the tree should have been removed, I noticed that it was still there, and very dead. Interestingly, a tree next to it was missing. That made me wonder. I radioed in, and was informed that the tree had been cut down. You can guess where this is going. They had cut down the wrong tree; a perfectly healthy ‘Marina’ madrone. Why didn’t the crew removing the healthy tree question the removal of such a healthy tree next to a dead tree? Who knows. I wrote another report prescribing the removal of the dead tree, which was removed the second time around.

The client was charged for the removal and replacement of BOTH trees, the dead tree, and the healthy tree that was removed by ‘mistake’! The replacement trees were large boxed trees that better matched those that were removed!

For those who do not know, madrones should be planted while young, and will rather efficiently grow to match the others. Boxed trees get too distressed from the transition to recover right away, and wait around for years before they resume growth. By the time a big boxed tree starts to grow, a smaller tree would have already gotten established and grown larger. Boxed madrones are really for those who want to charge more money than they could get for smaller trees that cost much less.

So, the landscape company charged a lot of money to maintain the landscape, so that trees would not die from negligence. Then, they charged not only for the removal and replacement of a tree that died as a result of their negligence, but also a tree that was killed by their stupidity. As if that were not enough, they charged for the the most expensive replacement trees available. They were shadier than the trees that they killed.

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.

Tent City

P80224KIn the autumn of 1989, small and temporary tent cities appeared in parks and other public spaces around the San Francisco Bay Area and the Monterey Bay Area, where many homes had been damaged or destroyed by the Loma Prieta Earthquake. They were necessary at the time, but were not intended to be permanent features of the landscapes. For a while, they were unpleasant reminders that some people could not go home until their homes were repaired or rebuilt.

In more recent history, ridiculously expensive real estate and rents have increased homelessness in the same regions. Even gainfully employed people are homeless because they can neither purchase nor rent a home, either because of expense or because of a lack of availability. Those who live in homes complain about the unsightliness and other problems associated with the homeless living in homeless encampments and small tent cities.

We get it. Tents are bad.

So then, what is this small tent city on one of the main roadways in town?

Good planning and bad planning.

First the good. Each of the shop spaces in the contemporary retail building behind this tent city needs its own water meter and valve manifold. Each of these meters and manifolds must be easily accessible. Because they are accessible, they are also exposed, so they need to be insulated so that they do not freeze during the very rare occasion (in our mild climate) that the weather gets cold enough to do so. This explains why the water meters are next to the sidewalks, and the upright valve manifolds behind them are covered with these billowed tents.

The bad? Good landscape design should have been considered with the location of these meters and manifolds. A water main line should have been routed so that this whole complex could have been constructed within a utility closet or shed, or even a small utility yard that could have been fenced in a less prominent location. If constructed inside a utility closet or shed, the insulating tents would not be necessary. Now that it is too late for that sort of planning, there is not even enough clearance from the sidewalk for hedging or low fencing to obscure the meters and manifolds without obstructing access. It really would not have taken much of a landscape modification to obscure the view of all this infrastructure, if only more space had been made available where it is needed.

Sadly, landscape design was not a priority on this building. Although the water meters and manifolds are completely exposed, shrubbery obscures window and more appealing features of the buildings, such as ornamental stonework. The view from inside many windows is of the unsightly backsides of pointlessly shorn shrubbery. Trees were crowded and planted directly in front of signs, even though there is plenty of frontage without signs where trees could have been planted. It is amazing what some landscape designers get away with.