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 . . .

Garden Design: Quantity vs. Quality

There’s an old saw, probably apocryphal, about a ceramics teacher who divided her class in two, made one half spin as many pots as possible while the other struggled to create one perfect pot. The students who were graded by quantity rather than quality made the best pots. I’ve noticed, from the years I used to be in the art world, that he most talented creative folks I’ve met crank out lots of material.

So how do we apply the quantity over quality principle to laying out a garden–especially since you often get only one chance a year to get it right? Above you see some of Kelly’s ideas for the parkway garden we planted in the fall. I think it is at this first point in the process–when you’re just sketching out ideas–when it’s best to generate as many drawings a possible, stick them on a wall and see which ones pop out. I think Kelly made more than the three drawings we saved, but we certainly could have done more–I’d say 20 minimum.

Part of what we learn by focusing on quantity is about making mistakes and learning from them. But I think there’s more to it than that. A gifted high school English teacher of mined likened our creativity to a tank of water. Sometimes you have to drain off the not so great ideas at the top in order to get to the good stuff that lies deep in our unconscious. Letting go of stifling perfectionism also forces us to try out ideas that might not have come to us otherwise.

I wish you all a quantitative 2013. Best of luck with your gardens!

Qualitites of a Good Outdoor Room

Our front porch.

One of the features of gardens that I like is that they tend to be divided into smaller spaces, what has come to be called outdoor rooms. The Ecology Center, that we visited on Saturday, is a nice example of how to arrange a large space into many smaller ones. Just like the Huntington Ranch, the Ecology Center is subdivided into distinct spaces that host school visits and classes. Well designed residential gardens, like guest blogger Nancy Klehm’s, also leverage small outdoor rooms to make a small space seem bigger and to provide pleasant spots to read, meditate, use as an outdoor office, or host gatherings.

Our arbor and earth oven.

Outdoor rooms can be as simple as an area of mulch or gravel surrounded by shrubs. Or they can be much more elaborate affairs incorporating arbors, tables and decks. Their greatest benefit may simply be in getting us outside to commune with nature for at least a few minutes a day.

My ugly outdoor home office near the chicken coop.

We’re in the middle of a year of re-designing our garden and there’s still a lot of work to do. As a part of this process I’ve been trying to figure out why I prefer sitting on the front porch to sitting in the backyard. I came to the conclusion that the front porch works better as an outdoor room than the spaces we have in the backyard. I think it’s because the porch better embodies qualities that make for a successful outdoor room. Those qualities are:

  • A sense of enclosure or shelter
  • A view
  • Some shelter from the elements (in our climate that’s the sun)
  • A ground treatment that sets it apart from the rest of the yard (could just be mulch or could be concrete or wood)
  • A place to sit
  • Art, objects, i.e. some human touch

With these ideas in mind, how can I improve the outdoor spaces in the photos in this post? On the front porch I could add a small table to hold a book and a glass of beer. The space with the stove needs shelter from the sun during the morning (in another year the grapes will cover the arbor but until that time maybe I need to string up some shading). The earth oven we built definitely improved the “roomedness” of this space, creating a sense of enclosure and providing a focus. But I clearly need to construct something to hold the wood for that oven so as not to create a cluttered view. The last photo, of the area by the chicken coop, is obviously a disaster. Cleaning up will help, but the space also needs more of a sense of enclosure and a larger footprint to accommodate the table. A vine to cover the trellis would also help.

So what do you think makes for a successful outdoor room? Is there something I left off the list? What is your favorite space to sit in the garden and why do you like that particular spot?

The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano

Kelly and I had the privilege of doing a short talk this weekend at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. If you’re interested in Southern California food forestry, greywater, chickens, you name it, this is the place to visit. They have an amazing garden, classes and a well curated gift store. When people ask us how to design garden and house systems in SoCal, we’re going to send them to the Ecology Center.

How To Design a Garden Step IV: Clues to Care

Clues to care at the Huntington Ranch

In the landscape architecture biz, “clues to care” is a phrase meaning that a garden has some sort of indication that humans were involved. Those clues could be anything from a couple of stepping stones, a bean teepee, to a piece of garden statuary. Particularly if your garden has a wild look or if you’re trying to grow vegetables in the front yard,  “clues to care” can go a long ways to keeping the neighbors happy.

Dr. Susan J. Mulley, a landscape architecture professor at Cal Poly Pomona is doing some interesting research on how people react to alternative forms of landscaping such as native plants and urban vegetable gardens. She’s doing opinion polls using Photoshopped mock-ups of residential, academic and commercial landscapes with food crops, native plantings and more conventional landscaping. The conclusion I took away from Dr. Mulley work is that most people like some kind of clue to care. In general, most folks don’t like a residential front yard that looks like a farm, or anything that looks too “wild.”

Clues to care include:

  • Defined pathways
  • Raised beds
  • Mulched beds and paths (vs. bare soil)
  • Artwork
  • Trellises and other attractive supports
  • Birdbaths
  • Benches

While the above items fall under the category of hardscape, clues to care also include aesthetic choices in planting and arranging the yard. For instance, it’s never a bad idea to plant lots of flowers, even if you’re more interested in food, and place them toward the front of the yard to appease the neighbors. Choose your flowers well and they’ll both please the neighbors and the beneficial insects.

And keep the yard tidy. Part of the mystique of the pristine suburban front yard is that it somehow takes care of itself–there is never any evidence of work left around. Similarly, your front yard garden should be clear of wheelbarrows and shovels and piles of manure &etc., and the less attractive parts of garden infrastructure, such as the compost pile, should be kept out of sight. If you can’t hide your compost pile around back, consider building a screen around it.

So why not use clues to care to make native and edible landscaping more appealing to the general public? The central principles of permaculture according to David Holmgren, are “care for the earth, care for people and fair share.” I believe that the “care for people” portion of those three ethics should include our aesthetic needs as well as our needs for sustenance. And clues to care–a human touch–are the means to fulfill those aesthetic needs. With just a few simple touches a garden can fulfill aesthetic, nutritional and wildlife habitat needs.

Right now our back and front yards really need some clues to care! I’ll document those clues as they are created.

How To Design a Garden Step III: Pathways

So you’ve set your goals and have a scale drawing of the land you plan to garden. What’s next? Paths! Paths keep you from compacting soil and lend visual interest to your garden. Some tips:

Establish a path hierarchy
Create wide paths with smaller branching paths. Think of the human circulatory system:

Or fractal patterns found in nature, like tree branches:

Now our property is so small that, when I’m done re-doing the backyard it will only have two main paths and one or two branching paths, but the path hierarchy concept is scalable to any piece of land large or small.

Put paths where people walk
Avoid what’s called in the landscape architecture biz “vanity paths,” i.e. paths that look good but aren’t actually used. If people are taking a shortcut, make that a path!

Path size
A comfortable path is probably no smaller than 18 inches. If you’re designing a public garden where wheelchair accessibility is an issue make the path no smaller than 3 feet. For two people to pass each other you need 5 to 6 feet, though a path that big would be for a larger piece of land than we own. Consider the size of any tools or wheelbarrows you might need to accommodate.

Materials
I’m fond of mulch. It’s free, easy to maintain and breaks down into soil. I’ve used gravel in the past–it looks nice but it can be hard to keep clean over time. Stepping stones also work nicely. As for edging, I’ve been using river rock as it’s easy to find in my area.

Create gathering areas
Paths should open up in to larger seating areas. We have a deck area for entertaining visitors and a smaller spot that I use as an outdoor office in the summer months. A school garden might have an outdoor classroom off of a main path.

I can’t emphasize how important paths are, both aesthetically and for preventing soil compaction. Years ago Kelly suggested the path we just put in and it’s a real improvement to the garden. Perhaps listening to your wife is a design lesson for another post!

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for inspiring this post.