The Theme of a Great Garden

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Today we toured one of the finest gardens in California, the new garden at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. The occasion was the opening of the new pollinator habitat. Head gardener Richard Hayden showed us around, taking us to the edible area as well as the new pollinator and Nature Gardens. This garden gave us so many ideas that we’re going to do several posts about it. One important design lesson I learned today is that great gardens have a theme.

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Designed by the landscape architecture firm of Mia Lehrer and Associates, the Natural History Museum’s garden subtly suggests the contents inside the museum: dinosaurs, prehistory and the passage of time. There are no animatronic dinosaurs to be found in the garden. Instead, the theme is suggested through dramatic, rough stonework and the use of California native plants. The garden feels as if exists in a time before humans.

It got me wondering how thematics would play out in a more modest home landscape. Perhaps, when it comes time to design a garden it would be useful to toss around a few abstract words and ideas to help unify the design vocabulary of the garden. Picking a theme or several related themes could make it easier when it comes to making plant and hardscpaping choices.

Of course, the current theme of our garden is “Skunk Encounters.” We’re going to have a bunch of stinky school groups this spring . . .

How to Get Skunks Out of Your Basement and Yard

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Basements and crawl spaces under houses make idea dens for urban critters. If we could charge rent for all the skunks, raccoons and feral cats that have taken up residence under the house we’d have paid off the mortgage by now. Our particular crawl space critter B&B was opened by virtue of a flimsy access door. Some animal, most likely a raccoon, pried it open. The problem with this situation is that you can’t just close up the door. Some poor creature would die a horrible death and then stink up the house for months. The answer is to create a one-way critter exit.

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How to Keep Skunks Out of the Yard

wireskunkSkunks love to dig up our vegetables in search of grubs. Our late Doberman used to enjoy late night backyard skunk hunting expeditions which never ended well for him. For years I’ve used bird netting to keep them out of my vegetable beds. The problem with bird netting is that it’s a pain to work with–it catches on things, tangles up, and occasionally traps a bird. I hate the stuff. It took me 16 years to realize that I could exclude skunks from the entire backyard.  All it takes is a simple strategy: know thy enemy.

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Dudley brittonii “Giant Chalk Dudleya”

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Image: Annie’s Annuals.

The Annie’s Annuals and Perennials catalog has, as the hip kids say, “dropped.” and I’m wishing we had more space for some of the amazing plants shown on all those glossy pages. One, in particular, caught my eye: Dudley brittonii “Giant Chalk Dudleya.” Just imagine spotting this plant under the light of a full moon.

Annie notes that Dudley brittonii requires excellent drainage, can be grown in pots and is suited to USDA zones 9 to 11. Given our Arrakis like conditions here in California, an excellent bonus is that this plant does well with only monthly water. It also thrives in a pot. Mature, it’s around 18 inches across.

Annie’s does mail order and we’ve had a lot of luck with their plants. I visited the nursery on a blogger junket last year and was very impressed with the variety and quality of the seedlings–no root bound plants!

Now I’ve got to remind myself that a garden needs to be viewed from an overall design perspective, not as collection of pretty plants. Maybe there’s a place for Dudley brittonii  in our garden but it will have to work with what is already there before we, as the hip kids also say, “swoop” one.