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…

Our new front yard: history

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Our front yard a couple of weeks ago. This is a “before” picture.

Recently we posted my enthusiastic review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. In it, I mentioned that I was using this book to help guide the redesign of our front yard, and promised to post about that process.

In the hope that our process might be of some use to somebody considering their own landscaping, I’m following through on that promise. In a more selfish way, I like to have records like this of both our actions and our thought processes, because inevitably Erik and I will forget when we did things– and sometimes even why we did them!

In the unlikely event you want to learn the history of our front yard while you drink your coffee, read on.

Continue reading…

“Urban Homesteading” belongs to us all

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Huge congratulations to James Bertini of Denver Urban Homesteading, for winning the right for all of us to use the term “urban homesteading” freely from now on out.

Longtime readers may remember that back in 2011, the Dervaes Institute sent notices to a dozen or so organizations, informing them that they could no longer use the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” unless speaking about the work of the Dervaes Institute, as they had registered trademark on both terms. Beyond that, some people found their web pages or social media sites removed when their hosting services responded to take-down notices issued by the Dervaes Institute, including Denver Urban Steading and Process Media/Feral House, the publisher of our book, The Urban Homestead.

The good folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) stepped forward to help. One of their interests is protecting the commons of language from being limited by the intrusive use of trademarks on generic terms. They offered to appeal these generic marks for all of us at the trademark board, pro bono, and partnered with the super-talented attorneys at Winston & Strawn, who are trademark specialists, to do so. Meanwhile, James Bertini of Denver Urban Homesteading–who happens to be an attorney– also began to take action.

And as of last week, Denver Urban Homesteading won a victory in California federal court: U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, canceled the trademark “urban homesteading” on the grounds that it was too generic for protection.

“Urban homestead” is still trademarked, but after this precedent set by Judge Walter, we hope to hear good news from the EFF and Winston & Strawn, very soon.

Read more in the OC Weekly

Denver Urban Homesteading’s press release

Our previous posts on this subject