Boulders In Modern Landscape Design

90703thumbIt is hard to say why boulders and sculptural stone are sometimes incorporated into American landscapes. A long time ago, boulders were only left in landscapes if they were to big and heavy to move out of the way or break apart. Early American landscapes were designed to express dominance over nature by replacing as much of it as possible with unnaturally organized landscapes.

Slowly through history, less refined and more relaxed landscapes became more tolerable, and then became popular as an expression of rebellion to earlier formality. Nowadays, most landscapes are inevitably informal, partly because so many believe that informality is more natural, and partly because few landscape designers will design anything else. Simplicity and symmetry are passe.

This informality allowed for the incorporation of various elements from various styles of landscaping, regardless of how incompatible some of such elements were with each other. Boulders and sculptural stone that had been traditional with many Asian styles of landscape design were added to American landscapes in rather nontraditional fashion. It has been a slow process of evolution.

Boulders are obviously nothing like viable and dynamic plant material, although they do contribute form, texture and color to a landscape. Designers might say that bigger and sculptural boulders add drama without even trying. In some situations, boulders are as functional as they are aesthetically appealing. They can obstruct unwanted traffic or hold back soil that is at a higher elevation.

If they need not conform to any of the various Asian landscape design traditions, there are not many rules for the use of boulders and sculptural stone. Exotic stone that might be incompatible to big open landscapes where exposed endemic stone is visible nearby, might be just fine in enclosed gardens where there is no reference for what is natural.

The standard rule of burying as much as two thirds of a boulder to make it seem as a natural outcropping is only valid if it is intended to look like a natural outcropping.


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: .)

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 – 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+

Pseudodendron falsifolia

p90126kLatin and the other languages used to designate botanical names can make the mundane seem compelling, and the unpleasant sound appealing. ‘Nasturtium’ certainly sounds better than ‘nose twister’, which refers to the reaction to the unpleasant fragrance of the flowers. Horticultural professionals can use such language to our advantage, and for more than designating real genera and specie. ‘Necrodendron’ certainly sounds more interesting than ‘dead tree’, and is less likely to offend tree huggers.
‘Pseudodendron’ is a euphemism for ‘fake tree’. Brent, my colleague in Southern California, sometimes points them out in interiorscapes, or worse, in real exterior landscapes. We sometimes analyze them as if they are real. We both are amused to see fake bananas or fake pineapples, or both, hanging from fake cocoanut palms. Sometimes, someone who overhears our conversation feels compelled to inform us that the pseudodendrons that we are so intrigued by are fake. Sometimes, someone asks about growing them in their own gardens.
Of course, hassling Brent about his artificial turf never gets old. It is installed outside of his office to demonstrate how practical it is for clients who are considering it for their landscapes. It really does look great though. Brent probably gives it plenty of fertilizer, and waters it well.
By the time Brent finds out that there is something much worse in one of the landscapes that I work in, it will be gone. Now that it is late January, these fake poinsettias will be removed any day. I will not miss them. Even if they were real, they would still look silly. That is just too much red.
Unfortunately, these poinsettias are perennial. They will be put away until next winter, when they will come out of storage to go back into the same spot in the landscape.


p90120p90120+It seems that I have been negligent about writing about my colleague Brent Green and some of our crazy adventures in horticulture. I said I would do so when I started writing my articles here way back two Septembers ago. It is easy to get distracted from such topics, particularly since we do such different types of work. Brent is a renowned landscape designer and proprietor of GreenArt Landscape Design in Southern California. I am just a horticulturist and arborist who really should get back to growing horticultural commodities in Northern California. For all of our similarities, there just might be as many differences.

After posting that old video of the Birthday Trees yesterday, I thought that I should also write more about what Brent does for the urban Forest of Los Angeles, which is probably more interesting than our crazy adventures. I really want to find the old news article about how he busted tree rustlers who were stealing mature Canary Island palms from the embankments of the Santa Monica Freeway, which is pictured above. It is still a sore subject because we know that it continues, and that the trees that were stolen were not returned as promised.

I could write a separate blog about the work that GreenArt does if I were more involved with it. I just do not enjoy design like Brent does. Actually, I am no good at it. I just work with the horticultural aspects of it, and growing material for it. In the future, I will probably be more involved with projects that are not directly affiliated with GreenArt, such as initiatives to maintain and protect trees in public spaces of Los Angeles.

For now I have only this brief and outdated video of the landscaping of Brent’s home, .

Secret Lives Of Christmas Trees

90102thumbPeople really stress out over Christmas trees. Some do not want a cut Christmas tree because it involves killing the tree. Some do not want an artificial Christmas tree because it is . . . artificial. Some do not want a living Christmas tree because it is too expensive for a tree that is too small. There are so many myths and misconceptions about Christmas trees, yet everyone wants one.

As mentioned, artificial trees are . . . artificial. Obviously. They are not a horticultural commodity, so are not an appropriate topic for a gardening column. What can be said about them is that they are not a more environmentally responsible option to disposable cut real trees. Countless dinosaurs died to make the petroleum for the plastic that these non-biodegradable trees are made of.

Cut trees are still the most environmentally responsible option. They are not harvested from forests, but from plantations, just like any other cut foliage, cut flowers or vegetable crops. Many are grown from the branched stumps of previously harvested trees, by a process known simply enough as ‘stump culture’. It works like coppicing, and allows some stumps to produce for many years.

Potted living trees are the most misunderstood type of Christmas trees. There is nothing environmentally friendly about them. They are exotic (non-native) trees grown in synthetic media (potting soil) in vinyl pots. They get synthetic fertilizer, artificial irrigation and very unnatural pruning while growing within artificially regulated environments that are designed to promote efficient production.

Only a few of the more compact types of living Christmas trees, like Colorado blue spruce and dwarf Alberta spruce, can survive confinement in pots for more than just a few years. Austrian black pine and dwarf limber pine need a bit of trimming as they grow, but also have the potential to work for a few Christmas seasons. The common small potted Christmas trees that are already decorated are Italian stone pine and Canary Island pine, which do not survive confinement for long, and get too big for home gardens.

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+

Plan Ahead For Coniferous Evergreens

81031thumbWe all know what autumn is for. Planting, of course. Yes, it is a recurring theme; but there are so many different things to plant. Dormant bulbs need to get into the ground before cool and rainy winter weather. Deciduous plants that should be planted while dormant prefer an early start if planted as soon as they defoliate in autumn. Believe it or not, most evergreen plants are no different.

Evergreen plants do not experience the degree of dormancy that defoliated deciduous plants do, but they too are significantly less active during autumn and winter than they are during warmer weather. Therefore, if possible, they should also be planted in autumn, so that they can begin to slowly disperse roots through winter, to be ready to resume growth as weather warms next spring.

All planting should be planned. This is more important for trees, big shrubbery and other plants that are difficult to relocate once they have dispersed their roots. Some broadleaf evergreens that get bigger than expected can be pruned into submission. However, most coniferous evergreens are notoriously difficult to contain if they get too big for the situations into which they get planted.

‘Coniferous’ plants are those that produce cones. Cypress, pine, fir, spruce, cedar and redwood are the more familiar coniferous trees. Most coniferous trees, except for most of the various cypress, have excurrent branch structure, with lateral limbs extending from a central trunk. They can not be pruned down without disfiguring their central trunks. Lateral limbs can be disfigured if pruned back. Such trees should therefore be planted where they can grow unobstructed to mature size.

Juniper and arborvitae are some of the more familiar of coniferous shrubbery. They can be shorn even into formal hedges, but only if shorn very regularly. Their dense foliage shades out interior foliage. If they get too big for the respective situations, they can not be pruned back into submission without exposing their bare interiors. Once exposed, bare interior stems may never recover.

Horridculture – Ignoring Arboriculture

P81003There are too many different types of horticultural professionals to count. There are nurserymen who grow horticultural commodities. There are landscape architects and landscape designers who design the landscapes into which some of these horticultural commodities will go. There are landscapers who install such landscapes. Of course, there are gardeners who maintain the landscapes after they are installed. These are just a few of the more familiar horticultural professionals.
I will refrain from my typical ranting about the extreme lack of professionalism among almost all horticultural professionals who are not nurserymen or arborists (okay, and one landscape designer), but must point out something in the picture above. Do you see it?
It is not the fact that this once very well designed landscape was dismantled and mostly replaced with a cheap slapped together assemblage of cliché plants by someone who just needed work.
Nor is it the pointlessly disfigured shrubbery from the original landscape that was salvaged while the best features that could have been salvaged were removed.
Nor is it the fact that this process has been repeated a few times since the building was originally landscaped back in the 1980s, leaving a nicely maturing but weirdly non conforming crape myrtle in front of the queen palm that should be the focal point, as well as a new dogwood that will compete with both focal points.
It is the fact that despite all the effort that went into the installation of this garage sale style landscape, no one bothered to procure the services of an arborist to groom the queen palm. Do you see it now; all those dead fronds hanging from the canopy of the queen palm? It is like taking a pick up through a car wash while it is loaded with garbage.

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