Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980’s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.

Horticultists

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Michael Tortorello has written another great article for the New York Times, “Marriage is Yard Work.” The article details the San Diego garden of Ryan Benoit and his wife Chantal Aida Gordon. The two have created a DIY oasis worthy of dwell magazine. What’s noteworthy about this couple’s garden is that neither of them are professionals, the hardscaping is done largely with salvaged materials and it’s all portable since they are renters not homeowners.

Benoit and Gordon also have a blog I’m looking forward to following at thehorticult.com.

Stencils as Garden Art

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Seneca has a posse.

I’ve been looking at a lot of garden design books lately. These books always contain a photo illustrating the concept of the focus point, which is inevitably an 18th century marble bust of some ancient deity. Try to source one of those busts from your local big box store or Amazon and you’ll find some really scary stuff.

I can’t afford those 18th century busts, so I decided to try a two dimensional alternative: stencils. Above is my first primitive attempt–Seneca, spray painted on a chunk of concrete and propped up against a palm tree in the parkway.

A blog post over at Green Roof Growers alerted me to the far more impressive stencils of San Francisco street artist Jeremy Novy:

Photo by Dawn Endico

Photo by Dawn Endico.

Green Roof Grower Bruce was inspired by Novy’s work to make his own koi stencils on the sidewalk in front of his house. Now if enough of us adorn these edge spaces (in a neighborly fashion, of course) perhaps we’ll be able to reclaim our streets from the distant bureaucrats who hassle us over our parkway gardens. It’s precisely the kind of intervention on the permacultural “edge” that Mark Lakeman of Portland City Repair talks about.

So let’s make some stencils! Here’s how I do it:

Image processing
First step is to find a suitable image. This tutorial shows you how to use Photoshop to make your stencil.

Materials and tools
I used acetate, but it’s expensive. Bruce used old manilla folders. A cheaper alternative is freezer paper. I cut my stencil using an exacto knife.

Painting
First I spray the surface I’m stenciling with some Krylon Easy-Tack. This temporarily holds the stencil down. The rest is easy-peasy and the stencil can be used many times.

My next stencil will be a three color stencil. Here’s a tutorial on how to do this.

Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

Yes, We Do the Pinterest Thing

trellis

What do I use Pinterest for? To gather design ideas for home and garden. I just built this trellis to grow vegetables vertically. It’s part of a plan I have to deck over an ugly concrete patio. The inspiration for the trellis came in part from an image I pinned off the interwebs:

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Not having a natural design sense, I gather images and synthesize them to come up with plans I can build. Google image search and Pinterest are great inspirational tools.

But I have not made good use of Pinterest’s social features. Towards that end, follow us on Pintrest and we’ll follow back. Let’s exchange ideas!

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

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The artist Sandow Birk once did a show depicting a fictitious war between Northern and Southern California. If that war were to be fought by plant nurseries, the forces of Northern California would have us, down here in the Southland, badly beat. There’s a few good native plant nurseries here, but that’s about it. There’s nothing quite as spectacular as Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, located in Richmond on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay.

Entrance display. Photo: Annie's Annuals and Perennials.

Entrance display at Annie’s. Photo: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials.

Annie’s was one of the stops on the Garden Blogger’s Fling, where we got to hear Annie Hayes herself talk about her business. She noted that most retail nurseries get their stock from distant, centralized wholesale nurseries. An outbreak of late blight disease in tomatoes back in 2009 demonstrates that centralized nurseries are a great way to spread plant diseases over wide areas.

Annie’s specializes in riotous color. Many of the spectacular gardens we visited on the Fling sourced their plants from Annie’s. And in addition to unusual and rare ornamental plants, Annie’s has a great selection of edibles. It’s first time I’ve ever seen Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) outside of a book.

I had to keep a tight grip on my credit card to prevent myself from buying plants I had no way of getting home on my bike. The good news is that Annie’s does mail order. And she’s got a bunch of tutorial videos covering topics such as container planting and plant combinations. As we begin version 4.0 of our back yard garden, I have a feeling we’ll be ordering plants from Annie’s.

Disclosure: we’re always happy to write about businesses we like and support. We did not get any compensation or free items from Annie’s.

Defining a Garden’s Purpose

Organic Mechanic's Garden in San Francisco

Organic Mechanic’s Garden in San Francisco

I’m an idiot when it comes to garden design. To up my skills in this department I attended the annual Garden Blogger’s Fling last week, which took place this year in San Francisco. Thankfully the Fling did not involve sitting in a sterile hotel conference room. Instead, we boarded two buses and took a look at fifteen spectacular gardens in the bay area over three days.

I’ll share the gardening lessons I learned over a couple of posts. But if I could take away only one lesson it would be this: every garden has a purpose, but great gardens have clear and beneficial purposes.

Continue reading…

Piet Oudolf’s Enhanced Nature

Planting a New Perspective

A garden designer has the difficult task of balancing texture, color, and space while simultaneously dealing with the unpredictability of nature. Long ago I gave up on the idea of ever being good at garden design. But help has come from an unlikely source, Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury’s revolutionary book Planting A New Perspective.

High Line Park

High Line Park.

Piet Oudolf is probably best known in the US as the plant designer for the High Line park, an abandoned elevated railway turned into a park in New York City. Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer who has been the primary promoter of Oudolf’s work and what has come to be called naturalistic gardening or the “new style.”

It’s an approach that’s more complex than it might seem at first glance. Oudolf walks a fine line between the public’s desire for “nature” and the untidiness of the real thing. Oudolf responds with what some have called “enhanced nature.”

It’s an approach that’s pragmatic, recognizing both the need for natural ecosystems within an urban environment, while at the same time providing visual interest. Oudolf’s imprint is on the landscape, but to most people that human touch will remain on a subliminal level. It’s a brilliant “third way” strategy outside of the dualistic smackdown between the simulated nature of English style gardening and the rectilinear hedges of Versailles.

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Oudolf’s plan for the Serpentine Gallery garden.

Fruitcake design
In Planting, Oudolf and Kingsbury describe their approach as like a fruitcake. The dough of that fruitcake is what Oudolf calls “matrix” plants, most often grasses, that hold together the overall design. The fruit in the fruitcake are what he calls “primary” plants, “high-impact plants chosen for strong color or structure.” Like the fruit in the fruitcake primary plants repeat in clumps throughout the overall design. He suggests a 70% matrix plant to 30% primary plant ratio. Lastly, Oudolf introduces “scatter” plants, sometimes by literally scattering seeds that will pop up seasonally and introduce spontaneity and wildness.

Oudolf and Kingsbury favor perennials both for environmental reasons (popping in annuals every year supports a energy intensive nursery industry) and for aesthetics (perennials are more prevalent in the natural landscapes Oudolf is mimicking).

Winter on the High Line.

Winter on the High Line.

The tyranny of the rose
Oudolf and Kingsbury stress the importance of choosing plants that have interesting structure throughout the year. Too often, they say, garden designers choose plants, such as roses, that flower in the spring but have uninteresting foliage the rest of the year. Oudolf’s ideal plant flowers, has striking foliage in the summer and fall and produces seed heads towards the end of the season. Those seed heads provide visual interest and food for birds and other wildlife.

I was also struck by how similar Oudolf’s gardens are to the edible landscapes of Native Californians as described by USDA botanist Kat Anderson. As Anderson has shown, the “wild” landscapes encountered by the first Europeans to visit the west coast were anything but wild. They were, in fact, carefully tended and very similar in appearance to Oudolf’s designs. You could easily combine Oudolf’s aesthetics and Native American practices to create an edible and medicinal landscapes–many of the flowers Native Californians encouraged have edible bulbs or foliage.

Criticisms
Oudolf’s work is cutting edge and by his own admission there are problems–such as maintenance workers confusing plantings for weeds. Kelly and I also debated how much this book can be used to understand small residential spaces–I found the ideas helpful, but most of the photographs are of large public gardens. And the plant lists are of no help for those of us in Mediterranean or tropical climates.

Oudolf's gardenin Hummelo, the Netherlands.

Oudolf’s garden in Hummelo, the Netherlands.

Conclusion
But these are minor criticisms–Planting is provocative and practical, with far ranging implications about the way we interact and perceive landscapes. Oudolf’s style both acknowledges the agency of humans at the same time as it provides habitat for wildlife. His approach is desperately needed in our cities and backyards.

More than any other book on garden design, Oudolf’ and Kingsbury’s Planting helped me understand how plant designers work. I can now see the problems with our garden (a lack of matrix plants), and appreciate the work of other garden designers even if their approach is different than Oudolf’s.

The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta

Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay spent forty years creating his garden. He called it “Little Sparta,” a reference to the battle he fought with the town council who wanted to tax it, claiming that it was a gallery not a garden.

Little Sparta was a place of healing for the intensely agoraphobic Finlay. In the city, he could barely leave his room–at Little Sparta he could go outside.

This is one of my favorite gardens–I’m a sucker for classicism but I also like that it has a narrative, that it tells the story of the people who lived in it.

Here’s here’s another nice video about Little Sparta narrated by Finlay’s son:

I hope to visit it someday. In the meantime, I’ve got my own Little Sparta to work on.

Garden Design Trends: Interplanting and Plant Communities

The Daily Telegraph garden designed by Sarah Price.

Landscape architect Thomas Rainer has a new post on his blog looking at some current garden design trends. Two of these trends intrigued me: what Rainer calls “interplanted everything” and another he calls “community gardens” (by which he means plant communities not allotments).

Rainer says, “Massing is out.  Highly interplanted, mixed schemes are in.”  It’s a design aesthetic that mimics nature’s diversity, but in a somewhat more compressed form. The example he uses is the striking garden at Arthritis Research UK. You can see a video of that garden here. Rosalind Creasy has demonstrated, this same interplanting strategy can be used with edible and medicinal plants.

Another related design strategy are gardens inspired by wild plant communities. The example Rainer cites is the Daily Telegraph garden seen in the picture above. You can watch a video about that garden here.

Now how do I get Sarah Price to redo our backyard?

Have you seen a new garden you really like in the past year? If so, tell us about it in the comments . . .