Our new front yard, part 5: Constructing a meadow community

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One of the many tracing paper overlays that I used to think through the placement of the plants

Okay, I’m back to the series which never ends after a break for flipper fence building, Thanksgiving and a few days nursing a cold.

“Constructing a meadow community” translating from Planting in a Post-Wild World, means choosing a bunch of shortish plants which work well together, with an emphasis on grasses. (Well, maybe a little more than that.)

I’ll get into the details of the community building, but I’ll say first that I’m not so sure about all of my decisions, but they’re done.

In the world of the DIYer, there’s a big gap between the idea, and what actually gets executed. Then again, that is true for most art. I spent a lot of hours researching plants, trying to find plants which would work together as a community, had low water needs and which would provide nearly continuous bloom over the course of the year. It’s a puzzle that runs in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time.

Then, of course, I had to find the plants themselves, and that was not so easy. So my original selections were edited to fit what I could actually find in stock at our local nurseries. (Most of the plants came from the wonderful Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery.)

I’ve been doing this long enough to pretty much expect a certain percentage of these plants will not do well…you know, just ’cause.  And then I also expect that once stuff comes in and starts to come together, I’ll have to make changes or fill gaps. Editing comes with the territory.

If I’d had more lead time, I wold have grown more stuff from seeds and cuttings–so I’d have had more options and saved a lot of money. Isn’t that always the case? You pay for speed and convenience. I know this. But I really wanted the plants to have a chance to root down a little before our torrential El Niño rains hit in January. At least our money is going to a worthy non-profit.

So, that’s the end of my excuse-making and complaining.

Lets look at a what a meadow community consists of:

First, there are layers.

As I mentioned my previous posts, Planting authors Rainer and West encourage us to plant densely, but intelligently. The plants are not crowded, but no space is wasted–as it is in nature. As simpleton humans, the best way to approximate the abundant intelligence of natural systems is by developing our own mimetic systems. In Planting, Rainer and West encourage us to conceptualize our planting in consecutive layers:

The structural layer: In a grassland, this includes tall grasses and species with tall flowers which will poke up above the rest, preferably too, these flowers will form interesting dried seed heads or pods for continuing visual interest. Think milkweed, for instance. These should make up 10- 15% of your community.

The seasonal theme layer: These are plants chosen to add seasonal interest either through bloom or texture. So for instance you might choose certain plants for their spectacular spring bloom, knowing they will act more like green companions to the other plants for the rest of the year. Ideally you can mix this category up enough so that you have continual interest in the garden. Think irises, for instance.  These make up 25-40% of your community.

The ground cover layer: These plants are more functional than showy–shade tolerant plants like low grasses and creeping ground cover which will suppress weeds and help anchor the soil. Rainer and West admit that this is often the most difficult category for folks to fill, because nurseries sell flashy plants, not sturdy background players. Think sedges. These make up about 50% of your community.

The dynamic filler layer: These are short lived, opportunistic species which will self seed and pop up whenever there is a temporary space to exploit. Think about wildflowers, for instance, which show up first in the spring, and fade away as the perennials come back to their own. These make up 5 -10% of the community.

Now, this sounds pretty straightforward, but once you get into the weeds (so to speak) it gets a little confusing. I wasn’t always able to decide what category a plant should be in.

For instance, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a seasonal theme layer plant, but it is low and spreading and works rather well as a ground cover when not blooming. It’s usually considered a sun-loving plant, but our sun here is not like normal sun, it’s SoCal SunPlus! ™ and the slope gets a lot of it, so I don’t think the yarrow would mind if it got some shade from tall grasses and the like. Basically, since I like yarrow, and already had it growing on the slope, I just doubled down and planted a lot of it, making it sort of do double duty as both theme layer and ground cover. All of this is to say, I fudged through the categories. If the garden is a design disaster, it’s not Rainer and West’s fault.

My ratios don’t line up exactly with theirs, but they are not crazy far off. I found it was hard, as they said, to find much choice of ground cover plants–especially in the drought tolerant category. I know I don’t have enough. I think if I were smart now I might start some interesting grasses from seeds to fill the inevitable holes which will form as some of my selections die.

Planning for seasonal interest and function

My primary goal for this mini-meadow was to provide food and habitat for insects and other small critters. My secondary goal is for it to be an attractive front yard landscape. Both of these criteria hinge on the plant choices being sufficiently dynamic to keep the yard interesting for both people and critters.

Rainer and West– as well as others– have warned me that one of the dangers of meadow gardens is that they can be really boring looking if they are too grass-heavy or otherwise poorly planned. Instead of ending up with a fabulous Piet Oudolf-esque landscape, your “meadow” looks like an overgrown lawn. Aesthetics aside, we also want flowers in continual bloom to feed the critters, so planning is critical. (Other meadow design dangers, according to Rainer and West, are towering plants–remember the intimidation factor I spoke about before?–and clashing plant color or textures. Meadow are diverse, but mysteriously unified.)

I started keeping notes on the plants I liked with all their basic stats, including their bloom time. The notes got so out of control that I was forced to make a spreadsheet. Now, some people really like themselves a spreadsheet, but I am not one of them. The fact I was forced to make one only shows how much information there is to juggle in this process. In fact, I began to wish I knew more about spreadsheets, because more functionality would have helped at times–like, being able to arrange the list by bloom time or color or whatnot. But I was content enough just to have it all in one place in standardized columns.

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Anyway, for the seasonal interest plants, I was keeping my eye out for any native plant which had strong insect or bird appeal, and which was relatively small. My slope is not big, so if I wanted a diversity of species and the ability to have bloom over multiple seasons, the plants couldn’t be too large. Otherwise I could just plant six big shrubs and call it done. My sweet spot for this seasonal category was around 1 foot high (the flower stalks may be taller) and anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet wide. This led me to some plants I’ve never grown before, including:

  • Sisyrinchium bellum (Blue eyed grass) This is an pretty little grass-like plant with tiny blue flowers, very meadowy. Pro: it’s a self seeder! Con: It’s summer dormant, meaning it will leave holes in my landscape in the dreary height of our long summer.
  • Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’ (Coyote mint) This one is new to me, a small leaved creeping plant with purple blooms the insects just love. The foliage is also gently mint scented. I planted this along the terrace edges so it can spill over and hide our ugly retaining walls. I also planted it closer to where people walk, so we can smell it.
  • Eriophyllum confertiflorum (Golden yarrow) This is a small shrub, not a true yarrow at all, with “ladylike” habits and proportions. It blooms more in the summer, so is valuable, as so many plants want to do all their business in the spring.
  • Sidalcea hickmanii “Cuesta Pass” (Checkerbloom): This is a cute little miniature mallow. I bought it on a whim because it is so very endangered. It’s called Cuesta Pass because it only grows in the Cuesta Pass anymore (and at the Theodore Payne nursery). Unsurprisingly, it strikes me as fussy. Fingers crossed it will like our slope.
  • Linnum lewsie (Blue flax): This is another excellent meadow-y meadow plant, made to peek up between the grasses.

The problem with unfamiliar plants is that they are unfamiliar. It’s nice to know the ways of a plant when you choose to use it in a landscape. Many of my selections are complete mysteries to me. That can be fun. I’m really curious to see how they’ll grow in and what they’ll do. It’s also a little nerve wracking.

In this seasonal interest category, beside the plants already listed, and the yarrow which I mentioned above, I’ve also got a good deal of Salvia spatheca (Hummingbird sage) planted, and a few other things that I can’t remember right now.

My goal was year round blooming. I don’t think I quite have that ( the November–February period is drab, even here), and what I do have is not equal. Spring is glorious. It’s easy. That’s when everything seems to want to bloom, and all the foliage is lush. That’s when we take pictures of the yard, so we look like we know what we’re doing.

Some plants will bloom intermittently though the spring and summer and into the fall, dragging out the show, but I’m just going to have to see how much of that happens. There are far fewer late summer bloomers to choose from. I’ve planted native goldenrod (Solidago californica) even though it can be an rangy, weedy terror, simply because butterflies love it and it blooms when everything else is dead. If it takes over the slope, I’ll have to come up with a plan B. I’ve also got a few Zauschnerias (California fuschia) in place for later summer into winter bloom, and am really hoping that wild sunflowers will show up give the slope some fall color and happy chaos.

On Grasses:

As I said above, I need more, I suspect. Instead of being too heavy on the grasses, my meadow might be too…random. Too insufficiently grassy to be meadowlike. The world of grasses is confusing, especially as regards dormancy. Some sleep in the winter, some in the summer. Okay, but how bad will they look while dormant? Will they vanish or just look pleasantly dry? Some avoid dormancy if you give them water. Some die if you give them water at the wrong time. Oy! Save me from our crazy native grasses.

Right now I have three species of native bunching grasses on the slope.

The first is Sporobolus airoides (Alkali dropseed). This is the tallest of my grasses. It gets to be three feet tall, with more height from the seed heads, I believe. It’s showy, with nice airy seed heads. I planted it in the “back” portions of the slope, i.e. the furthest from the street and stairs. (As one of my aunts once said of gardening, “I finally have gardening figured out: tall stuff goes in back!”)  This way it doesn’t block other plants, and it will be pretty when backlit by afternoon sun. It also serves to hide the retaining walls and other ugly bits of infrastructure. It falls under the structural category because it is striking, more of a diva than a backgrounder.

The second is Aristida purpurea (Purple Three Awn). This is also a lovely grass, just not as tall as the Sporobolus. I used a lot of it –it’s one of the backbones of the slope, so I hope it’s happy and looks right. By the way, it’s not a purple grass–the purple in the name refers to the purplish cast of its seed heads. As far as categories go, I sorta decided in my fudging way that it must be a seasonal theme plant, mostly because it ain’t groundcover and it ain’t a structural plant. Probably.

The third is Festuca idahoensis ‘Warren Peak’ Idaho fescue. This is a small fescue which is drought tolerant, which I am using in the groundcover role. It’s okay in that role, but I need more groundcover which spreads on its own. This fescue sits in polite clumps, waiting to be divided. But you know, they had lots of it at the nursery, and it will fill up some space with short grassy goodness. Good enough!

In general, I need more ground cover. One idea I have is that I have some wild strawberry growing in the shade under the pomegranate at the top of the slope. It’s beginning to take off after a slow start. I’m going to root some of it and introduce it on the slope, where I think it will be okay in the shade of taller plants.

What I don’t know about:

Community. I understand how to make the plant groupings work aesthetically–in theory, at least– but I’m not enough of a botanist to understand their more hidden interactions and relationships to one another and the soil and the world at large. Natural plant communities are extraordinarily complex. Communities designed by master designer/botanists are pretty complex. My community is…well, a little random. What do I know about what plants want or need, much less how they interact with each other? But I do have faith that the plants will tell me what they want–if I listen closely. This means that some of my ideas will be jettisoned (plants will die) and some unexpected things will probably happen, and I’m ready to go with all of that. I’m just waiting for my orders.

Our hypocrisy revealed

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(Well, one of our hypocrisies.)

We make snarky comments  all the time about the new trend toward horizontal fencing in our neighborhood– what we call “flipper fences.” We’ve talked about flipper fences at least once on this blog, probably more, and anyone who hangs out with us has heard the term from us too many times.

To us, these fences are symbols of gentrification. The appearance of one in front of an old house is a sure sign the interior has undergone a rough-n’-ready “Dwell” style modern makeover inside, and the house is about to be re-sold at a 100k mark-up.

Yet when it came time to finally install a handrail on our staircase (just in time for the holidays, to appease our family, who for some reason find our treacherous staircase problematic) we discovered that arranging the boards horizontally worked best.

In short, due to a combination of laziness and skill deficiency and general expediency (the usual deciding factors in our design decisions) we’re constructing our very own flipper fence.

Yup.

Our new front yard, part 4: a digression on the new paradigm

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Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1500

A couple of comments have come in on my last post remarking that this way of designing a yard (inspired by Planting in a Post-Wild World) seems really complex. And I’d say to that, it is! And yes, it’s kind of a pain to figure out. But (fingers crossed) I think it is a worthwhile thing to do.

What I’m talking about here is moving from seeing our yards as outdoor rooms, and our plants as furniture to be arranged and re-arranged at a whim. Instead, I’m talking about seeing our yards as communities, or as systems. You can pull a chair out of a living room, or paint the walls a new color one day, and these changes won’t effect the the other furniture. In a living system or community, though, changes to parts of the community ripple through the whole community.

I used to buy plants to suit my needs. These needs came in two general categories. The first was the need to fulfill a limited function: “I need a bush over there to hide that section of fence.”  The second was acquisitive lust: “That plant is beautiful.  I’m going to buy it and find some place to put it.”

Both of these ways of thinking are, to go back to the first simile, very much like doing interior design. I need a curtain for this window. I found a great clock at a swap meet, and now I need to fit it into the living room. In approaching planting this way, I’m pretending that plants are inanimate objects subject to my will, and I am placing my needs ahead of theirs.

Sometimes this approach “works” and the yard looks good. What this means is that I make some right calls and the plants play along. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and the plant dies, or fails to thrive, or conversely, grows unexpectedly large and tries to take over the yard. When this happens, I cast blame around, against myself for being a poor gardener, against the soil, against the drought, against the nursery which sold the plant, against the plant itself. In all cases, though, I’m considering the plant as an isolated individual, and I’m evaluating its success or failure in myopic terms.

Now, I’m not a botanist or any other kind of “ist” and I sometimes I suspect all I know about plants would fit in a thimble. Yet I don’t think that the point of viewing the yard as a system means that I have to understand the intricacies of how the system works–I just have to respect it. That’s why I prefer the term “plant community.”

System implies something we could pick apart using logic. Community is more mysterious–it gives agency to the plants. In other words, they are doing their own thing, they have their secrets, their alliances and their agendas– and I, twitchy, chatty primate that I am, can only understand a little of what goes on in their elegant, sessile world.

If I’ve learned anything recently, from books like Planting, from talking to Masanobu Fukuoka’s student Larry Korn, and from hearing Suzanne Simard speak, from studying the aboriginal idea of the kinship of all things is that we should be humble before plants. As Fukuoko-san said, we know nothing. Starting from a place of humility, I’m trying to find a new path. I’m trying to develop a new relationship with plants, and as a result, a new approach to landscaping. This is the path of the post-wild.

New paths often run rough. Meanwhile, the lawn n’ shrub is a path worn into smoothness. In fact, it is a rut.

So yes, learning to view the yard as a community takes some mind stretching and extra work. We are changing the lens by which we view our relationship to the natural world. (Dare I say we are becoming wise?)

This is work, but it is rewarding, because as we engage with this process, we realize that we’re a part of the community, too.  Instead of being a petty overlord, mowing and blowing the world into submission, we are partnering with the life in the yard to make the world a better place. Re-connection with nature is its own reward, because lets face it, it’s lonely being a despot.

Our new front yard, part 3: design

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The endless series continues!

In this post, I’ll cover the design principles I used (or at least tried to use) as I planned our landscaping. As I’ve said in the previous posts, this project was greatly inspired by the wonderful book, Planting in a Post-Wild World.

Planting shakes up our basic assumptions about what a landscape is, and how it functions. I tried to absorb this information as best I could, and used it to inform my design.  Here’s a quick summary of the five basic design principles the authors lay out:

Principle 1: Related populations, not isolated individuals

Don’t think of plants as individual specimens to be arranged, as you’d arrange your furniture in the living room. Instead, conceive of the area as an interrelated community. The design process is more akin to putting together a puzzle than arranging a room. How do these plants relate, how to do they fit together, how do they function together?

Principle 2:  Stress as an asset

When we start a garden, we want level everything out, turn over the soil, add lots of water and amendments because we think that is what gardening is all about.  This makes for boring gardens, and for weak gardens. Gardens are given character, given a strong sense of place, by their limitations: a dry garden, a beach garden, a rock garden, a wetland. Don’t fight the site, embrace it. Let the plants work it out themselves.

Principle 3: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants

Bare soil is uncommon in nature, being found only in deserts and a few other extreme environments. Plants want to live cheek by jowl (to use a very poor metaphor!) with other plants. They are cooperative by nature. Yet our yards have vast areas of bare soil–under trees, around bushes, for instance–and you’ll note we spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep those areas “clean”. Weeds naturally rush in to fill those gaps, because nature abhors bare soil. Rainer and West advocate “green mulch” — covering all the soil with plants. (Wood chip mulch is better than bare soil, but not as dynamic as green mulch).  There is an art to planting many species close together, and that is what the book is about, in essence.

Principle 4: Make it attractive and legible

I’ve already talked about legibility some in my last post. We are saddled with some kind of devolved 18th century British concept of the picturesque as the model for our landscaping, no matter where we live, no matter how unrealistic that might be. Thus the continuing ascendancy of the lawn and the specimen tree as the be all and end all of suburban landscaping.

It is difficult to challenge this model with more naturalistic landscaping. If a design is not going to cause complaints and wrinkled noses, it can’t look “too wild.” This means using hardscaping strategically to make a landscape look well planned, and to also mix in more traditional landscape elements with wilder ones. A good strategy, for instance, is to keep some mowed turf as a border or frame for a wild area. The contrast between the manicured turf and the more loose and rangy plant forms can be really appealing, and the turf demonstrates that the garden is in fact a tended space.

Continue reading…

Our new front yard, part 2: theory

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Erik’s Sketchup rendering of the front yard.

In my previous post, I discussed the history of this little patch of slope which we’re trying to redesign. Now I’ll talk about the ideas behind the redesign.

What do you do with a slope?

Our front yard has always been a bit of a puzzler, because it tilts up. I’ve envied folks with flat front yards, because you can sit in them. You can host a party out front. Our slope has always seemed like a space which we had to take care of–but which wasn’t very fun or useful. It’s not built to be accessible by humans (which makes working on it real fun.) That might be one reason why the idea of making it into an orchard had so much appeal.

When garden design books bother to address hillside gardens, they always feature much bigger hills than ours, and these hills feature expensive hardscaping, like artfully arranged imported boulders, fancy staircases which sweep along the contour of the hill, or dazzling water features. Nobody designs in 15 foot wide spaces stuffed between a staircase and a garage. There’s just not a lot of room in our yard for sweeping gestures. I’m afraid our space is inescapably boxy, dorky and pokey.

Continue reading…