068 Planting a Post-Wild Garden

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This week I interview Kelly about the ideas behind the remake of our front yard. We talk about why we took out a bunch of stone fruit trees and Kelly discusses how the principles in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s book Planting in a Post-Wild World  inspired the new design of our yard.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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When it’s time to remove a tree

I was standing in our friend David’s back yard, talking with him about the difficulties of re-designing your garden. One of them is removing trees and shrubs, not because of the physical labor–though that is considerable–but because of the psychic cost.

David shrugged and said, “I don’t know–when they get to be as tall as me, and I go to take them out, it feels like murder.”

I agree with him. It’s hard. One of the old rules of gardening is that you can’t be afraid to be ruthless in achieving your vision, but one of the realities of gardening is that most of us are not ruthless and often live with less than ideal situations because we don’t want to make those changes. Or we make the changes, but feel bad as we do it.

This dynamic is interesting, because we are told by our culture that we can do whatever we want to nature, because nature is just a pile of insensate matter for us to work our will upon. Fine. But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? Oh, well…that’s just because we’re foolish and sentimental. Right?

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