You can’t train a plant

The title concept bears repeating, so I’ll repeat it:  You can’t train a plant.  You can, if consistent and firm, train a dog; you can train your children (provided you start early), you can sort of, kind of, train a spouse.  But you can’t train a plant.  Plants lack the higher-order cognitive functions—not surprising given that they don’t have brains.  So you can’t plant them in areas which are radically different than the environments of their ancestral origins and expect them to plot out a survival strategy.  They will look at you in shock and surprise, and then in despair, and then they will cease to look at you at all and gaze directly into the ground–and then fall over.  Very dramatic.  A sad commentary on your efforts, and guilt-producing to boot.

And expensive, needless to say.  So if you have had trouble getting plants to “do” for you, consider whether in the past you have chosen a plant solely for its looks (and just a thought:  how well has that worked for you in your romantic life?) and then decided it would work, by golly, wherever you wanted to put it.  Just like picking a partner by looks and blind hope, that approach works, with luck, maybe 5% of the time.

Here’s a thought:  start by assessing your actual, physical, real-world needs (this really is starting to sound like relationship advice–the parallels are striking!  I may write a book!) and then search for your plant based on that. Do you have a corner that is in shade all day?  A hot, sunny balcony?  A tree whose roots have lifted up above the soil, spreading in every direction?  How often—truthfully, now—will you be checking the progress of your plantings to adjust water and care as needed?  How much money are you willing to spend on water monthly?  Ask these questions, don’t judge your responses, take a little time to think, and then it’s time to sally forth to the singles bars, um, nurseries, to pick out your right plant for the right place.

You can, of course, read widely and educate yourself about plants; you can take your next neighborhood stroll with an eye to noticing what plants are working in the kind of spots you’re planning for; and last, which might be first, you can seek expert advice.  Start by finding a nursery close to you.  Though the big-box stores are ubiquitous and value-priced, the staff is often not especially knowledgeable, so seek out local counsel, which can be far more accurate and useful.

You may have to find the manager—some nurseries seem to cycle through employees, so you want someone who’s worked there long enough to amass some knowledge of subject matter and region—but it’s absolutely worth your while.  Describe in specific detail the space you’re shopping for (low water, morning sun, deep afternoon shade, living room windowsill, e.g.), and then pay careful attention.  And then buy something from them.  If we expect these places to stay in business against the cutthroat competition and enormous buying power of the Home Depots et al, we have to be willing to do our part.

Whatever you plant, though, here are your mantras:  You have to water consistently till the plant is established.  Always.  And you can’t train a plant.

Marthas and statice

This hedge of pelargonium and statice is a good example of right plant, right place–
which for them is full sun and little water.

Piecework

Often when we think about going sustainable, we picture tearing out everything we have and starting all over again.  The prospect can be so exhausting that the project simply never begins, and so we just keep watering our lawns and cursing the water district.

We imagine that changing our landscape will be like organizing our closets, another large chore that no one leaps to do because it seems so monumental, so overwhelming, such a Hercules-cleaning-out-the-Augean-stables undertaking.  For this myth, I blame the shelter magazines and their photo spreads featuring makeover magic—the spaces utterly, and sometimes unrecognizably, transformed in the final reveal.

The truth is that you don’t have to take a closet or an outdoor space down to the studs; doing so is enormously time-consuming and expensive.  You can instead take it one corner, one bed, one patch of ground at a time.  You can chip away at the lawn without the chaos and rumpled look of a work in progress.

One way is to consider putting in big things (plants, pots, hardscape) where once there were thousands of little things (blades of grass).   Taking out a few feet of lawn and replacing it with a bed of larger, waterwise plants can be strikingly beautiful and will reap benefits almost immediately (do keep in mind that plants have to establish first).  If you have money and the inclination for hardscape, it’s another way to take up large amounts of space that won’t require water.  Covering an area with bark, mulch, or gravel is another option.

One of our neighbors is taking the little-bit-a-time approach by cutting big curved beds into what used to be lawn, and planting the new spaces with New Zealand flax (phormium), grasses, and succulents.  You can see by the photo that the owners really have a good eye for what works; as a person who doesn’t necessarily have that same gift, I look, and remember, and try to incorporate the principles into my own little-at-a-time planning.

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Beds of flax and grasses occupy space that was formerly lawn,
and soften the front of the house

These artistic neighbors, Matt and Denise, very generously let me take pictures and told me how they’ve gradually gone more sustainable over time.  Matt says the reduced lawn requires almost 50% less water, and the beds of flax and grasses (obtained for free from a friend—my favorite kind of plant shopping!) get no supplemental water at all.  Water-wise, money-wise, and still beautiful–that’s the best kind of sustainable.

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New Zealand Flax, fountain grasses, myoporum (ground cover) and strategically placed rocks require little to no supplemental water (especially the rocks).

The benefits of walking your neighborhood really can’t be overstated.  You get ideas of what to do (and the occasional insight on what not to do); you see for yourself what really works in your immediate location, and you realize you can change to a more sustainable gardening style a little bit at a time.  And best of all, you meet the nicest people.

The heart-ful side of landscape design: use your words

“Trust thyself–every heart vibrates to that iron string.”–Emerson

I was walking the dog this morning by the community gardens, happily situated in a corner of our city’s equestrian park, thus ensuring an unending supply of fertilizer—now that was some thoughtful planning!—and I started noticing how much variety there was in the beds.  If you’d asked me, I’d have said I would have expected to see vegetables planted in the beds, because I’ve always held this unsupported-by-research notion that people rent beds in community gardens to supplement their food supply.

And vegetables there were a-plenty; as you would imagine at this time of year, tomatoes had escaped their cages and were snaking out the sides, dripping fruit; all kinds of squash and pumpkins were peeking out from under their giant leaves.  But there were also beds of nothing but sunflowers (this may or may not have been intentional; if you’ve ever grown sunflowers, you know they are one garden gift that keeps on giving); there were beds of solid blooming rosebushes; there was a bed with a bumper crop of (go figure) amaranth.

amaranth4

Amaranth

Some beds were quite artistic, with arches woven of branches and vines; there were white picket fences; there was a space enclosed by what appeared to be laminated pieces of a former desk.  No two beds were alike in either intent, function, or appearance.

And this brings me to my point (finally!  you think), which is that a garden is living art, and art is intensely personal in nature.  To adapt the old saying about art, you may not know garden design, but you know what you like.  And that should be where you start, regardless of any other advice you get about gardening sustainably.

If I could remember where I got this advice, I’d credit it–it may have been A Pattern Garden, by Valerie Easton, which to date is the only landscape design book I can absorb.  But the advice was to write down a few words that describe the way you want your space to look and feel.  So I wrote down:  “Green, shady, secret, dappled, inviting.”  And I held that thought in my head as I set about choosing plants and designing our layout.

A tremendous amount has been written (and filmed) about our houses as our archetypal selves; it’s been observed that we connect almost viscerally to houses that spark in us some memory of our early selves. I think the same is true for the space that surrounds the buildings we live in.  We connect, not just visually, but through the heart, and so it’s important to keep the heart’s desires in mind when planning.  You might not have a clear vision of your landscape design at the outset, but it’s worth a few minutes of quiet time to think about what your words would be, and write them down.

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Ceanothus and crape myrtle in late afternoon

In case you’re wondering, I did indeed end up with a green, shady, dappled front yard space, with secret nooks and niches–and I think it’s very inviting.

And it was only when our friend Roberta remarked, “This reminds me of the mountains” that I realized I’d recreated the feel of  the landscape of my youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Now, there’s not a single plant in our yard that could actually be found in Asheville, but it was possible, by keeping my word list in mind, to find California-friendly plants that would create the same feel.

Dappled lawn

Early evening front yard

So give it a try–put a few words down on paper; see what your heart wants to feel in your garden.  Because “sustainable,” remember, works in many ways–the space you create should be one that will sustain you.

Consider the bottlebrush

Bottlebrush blossom

An important insight early in my re-education in “plants we take for granted” came from Beverley Nichols, an English writer whose works have recently been revived by Timber Press.  Nichols was a man of his age (early 20th century), complaining about his manservant lying a-bed too late of a morning, employing gardeners to tend his conservatory, and so on.  He is frightfully opinionated–and completely addictive.  You won’t read him for garden advice–at least unless you have an English estate–but I do recommend you read him for his take on people, cats, and plants, and his use of the King’s English.

Now that I’m done with that plug for his estate, let me move on to the moment of revelation.  Our neighborhood has a number of old bottlebrushes (callistemon) stuck here and there in the landscape.  Untended, unwatered, they’re mostly gnarled and scrubby, and if I noticed them at all, I mostly noticed how untidy they were.  And then one day my husband was reading Nichols’ Garden Open Tomorrow, and read out loud (as he is wont to do even though he can clearly see I’M READING, TOO) the author’s description of seeing a bottlebrush for the first time in Kew Gardens’ Australian greenhouse:  “It is a flamboyant, extravagant, and altogether unlikely creation; the arrogant scarlet flowers are like fantasies of spun glass tied to the branches by a modern decorator.”

On my next walk I stopped to consider the bottlebrush that hung over the sidewalk, asking for nothing—not water, not fertilizer; maybe only some attention—and decided, by God, that was an accurate description.  It was truly spectacular.  And we already had a previously-unappreciated one on our bank, surrounded by ivy.  So we cleared the ivy, and planted three more.  The bees and hummingbirds could not be happier, and when the sun shines on the blossoms, they do indeed look like spun glass.  And look at it (above) after a rain!  It looks like a Chihuly piece!

So in your plant selection, do consider the bottlebrush.  They attract hummingbirds and bees, come in a number of cultivars to fit a variety of situations, from patio tree to hedge to foundation plantings; Callistemon viminalis, the weeping bottlebrush, can stand in for people nostalgic for the weeping willows of their youth, and the smaller-sized Callistemon “Little John is a wonderful compact, blue-green shrub that, in Bob Perry’s words, is “highly tolerant of heat, aridity, and cold termperatures below 20 degrees.”  Can’t get much more versatile than that.

How not to plan a landscape, part two: going to ground

“When the way is not clear, stall.”—Anonymous, or maybe that was me

Because no Grand Vision had yet presented itself to me, I conceived the notion that once the existing lawn and its shrubby accoutrements were gone I would have the empty space I needed for said Vision to manifest itself—hopefully all at once.  So we removed some bushes and decided to remove the lawn in a delightfully sustainable, solar-powered manner we’d seen in an organic gardening magazine.  This method consisted of covering your lawn for a few weeks with black plastic and letting the sun do the rest–it would kill the grass, humanely, with no suffering, and turn the blades and decaying roots into a sort of mulch carpet that could be–voila!–or, as some of my friends say, viola!—easily be pulled up with a flourish, just like wall to wall.  So the article said.

What a couple of goobers.  We’ll apparently believe anything.  The black plastic made the yard look like we were covering some sort of menacing biohazard; also, since we didn’t have one single piece the size of the front yard, we were laying it down in squares (we pressed the grandchildren into dropping bricks onto crucial seams).  Even so, the wind got under the pieces and they flapped away, exposing dead beige grass and strewing bricks about.  It was quite a bold environmental statement for a number of months, and if you have an HOA, you should not try this at home.

Killed grass

The results of our solar experiment, minus the black plastic. The birch tree in the left corner would become a casualty of the experiment.

We were still left with a tightly packed mass of dormant-but-waiting grass roots, though, and eventually we knew that the better part of valor would be to hire someone with more experience, and loads more expertise than we had between us.  Thank goodness for Miguel, the calm landscape professional who’d worked with us on our backyard project, where we’d learned not only what a professional he was; how possessed of equal measures of patience and wisdom, but also how skilled he was at maintaining a straight face at some of our magazine-generated ideas.  Miguel felt the thing to do would be for him to bring a few of his men with pick axes and shovels and just dig out the soil containing our former grass and their far too lively roots, and carry them off.  Sold, we said, and then we were staring at a big, grass-free blank space, without a clue about what to do.

Bare lawn

Okay, bare ground–sure hope that Vision comes along soon!

How not to plan a landscape–part one

“Planning is everything; plans are nothing”–General Patton

When it comes to gardening, I can’t say I’m much of a planner.  I do have an almost constant stream of ideas, but they never cohere into a grand whole.  Adding to that is my complete lack of visual-spatial ability, rendering me nearly incapable of reading, much less producing, a map or a blueprint (to come up with your own ed psych excuses, try this quick quiz).

So that left me somewhere back behind the usual starting point when it came to visualizing our new front space.  I stared out front from every window for hours upon end (not helpful), looked through landscape books and magazines (overwhelming–but then, I can easily get paralyzed in the shampoo aisle at Target); I even traced the yard and house onto graph paper, just like the books always tell you to do (but then had no idea what to do with it–please see my thesis contained in the second sentence of the first paragraph).

In fact, at this point of the process, all I could think of was what not to do.  I did not want to go traditional drought-tolerant (Mediterranean/native) for the following reasons:

We live in a ranch house.  Not a fabulous, Cliff May Atomic Ranch rendered faintly ironic with curated thrift store finds and one fabulous vintage Eames chair or Haywood-Wakefield table:

Cliff May picture

Fabulous ranch (Credit Anna Almendraia for the Huffington Post)

No, we have a “realtor ranch,” which is what realtors seem to call any one-story home without discernible architectural style, except maybe the “there are four more of this floor plan on this block” style.  This particular ranch house, built in 1961, has been customized by the previous owners to evoke a slight cottage-y vibe, by pushing out sections of the house and adding peaked roofs.  And it’s gray.  Kind of a June gloom gray, with dark red trim.

View of house before landscaping

Less fabulous ranch, with previous landscape

This being the case, and while I know the LA Times likes to feature in its living section people who’ll remodel or repaint the house prior to re-imagining the landscaping, we were not contemplating any such heroic undertaking.  Because excuse me a minute while I clamber onto my soapbox (I’m not as limber as I once was), but how sustainable is it to gut a house or even re-cover it in paint, sending materials to the landfill and spending lots of cash in the process?  (Maybe for you money is an ever-renewing resource, but at our house, we try to conserve it).  I know, I know that the people featured in photo spreads claim green by rebuilding their living rooms using seasoned timbers miraculously salvaged from a Maine barn inhabited by the original settlers.  But until I see one of these layouts of Extreme Fabulousness feature a house miraculously built from its own salvaged materials, I’m calling B.S.

So redoing the house in anticipation of new landscaping was not an option we would contemplate.  We had to choose landscaping that honored the house the way it was.  In my (hardly humble) opinion, Mediterranean/native looks good with the bones of:  modern, Spanish, Craftsman/bungalow, fabulous ranch.  Note from this point on how often these drought-tolerant landscapes are featured as examples with exactly these types of architecture, and let me know if you see anything different.

So, cottage, or at least cottage-y.  Cottage to me evoked the need for green, which is a problem, because so many water-wise plants are gray.  Gray on gray, no.  Even as irony, it doesn’t work for me.  So, not traditional drought-tolerant, and not-gray.  But also not-Marathon grass, we knew that, and not-annuals or anything else that would require particular attention (because our energy, as we saw it, was another resource to conserve).  Where did that leave us?  Well, not-anywhere.  So, unable to live with not-action, we decided at the very least to remove the existing lawn as a starting point.  Surely faced with not-lawn and a blank slate, something would come to us.

Considerations of going native

Ceanothus branch

Ceanothus “Concha”

I have nothing against California natives; in fact, some of my best friends are natives.  Some, like the sturdy, glossy, and un-temperamental Yankee Point can be easily adapted to the home landscape, and perform beautifully in a range of soils and conditions.  And it’s green year-round, so what’s not to love?  Planting California natives will attract a whole new population of wildlife and butterflies to your yard, and over time, they can lower your water bill.  Over time.  See below.

But keep in mind that natives will, on average, have a 30-40% failure rate, which is a polite way of saying that 4 of every 10 you plant may die; slowly or inexorably, or seemingly overnight.  Natives tend to carry a higher cost owing to their slower growth rate and difficulty of cultivation (see:  failure rate).  So figure an average of $8 per 1-gallon plant, and figure replacing 3-4 at each go, and you begin to see just how expensive a proposition tearing out your lawn and putting in natives might be.

If you’re an impatient gardener and want to go native, you’ll either have to take up meditation or look out some other window after you’ve planted, because Theodore Payne Nursery’s mantra are the truest words ever spoken on the subject:  The first year they sleep, the second, they creep, the third, they leap.  The first year, TP neglects to mention (but which we learned through bitter failure and advice from Las Pilitas Nursery), you must water like you would any other plant.  The second year, less so; the third, probably less, and so on till you reach equilibrium or all your plants die.

So my advice (not that you asked) is to educate yourself a little and again, take a walk through your neighborhood.  Using natives is very mainstream now; what’s surviving?  What natives have made it to the big nurseries?  This is how we glommed onto the Yankee Point, which forms the foundation plantings of our front yard.

Yankee Point ceanothus in spring

Yankee Point ceanothus in spring

Ask yourself how much dormancy you are willing to tolerate; you may be able to tuck plants with a long dormant season in and around other plantings, similar to the way you might treat bulbs.  Just remember a great many natives do have a long dormant season, usually summer; there’s a reason the Theodore Payne Foundation Garden Tour is in April.