Part 2 of the Orange Line series
Heading south of the Harold St. overpass the Orange Line leaves the most urbanized portion of its route, or at least its most densely populated stretch. Traveling south to the Bybee, the Tacoma/Sellwood and then the Milwaukie stops, the line run alongside the BNSF tracks and there is very little ‘landscaping’ of the corridor. The railroads contract out maintenance of their thousands of miles of tracks. (For a brief look into their approach check this link.)
At the Tacoma Station the designers have chosen a more ‘native’ planting theme leaving the ‘graphic’ banding chosen for in the City proper. Here the usual native suspects are utilized keeping the palette pretty small. There’s a generous use of Tufted Hairgrass, Deschampsia caespitosa, tree dogwoods, not sure if they are nuttallii or one of the new hybrids, along with the yellow form of Redtwig dogwood.
It is commonly thought that natives have some advantage in the battle against weeds, they don’t. These are contrived landscapes, with soil seedbanks full of weed seed from around the world without even the benefit of an intact plant community to deprive weeds of easy germination opportunities. Bunch grasses always share space with spreading grasses, other bunchers, perennial and annual herbaceous plants and even shrubs and trees in savannah, woodlands and forest communities. These simplistic native plantings are far from a landscape ‘silver bullet’.
Weeds will select themselves depending on the precise conditions they face as well as in response to our maintenance efforts. Weeds, in one sense, are an attempt to ‘heal’ the wounds that our disruptive practices have inflicted on a site. The use of herbicides not only impedes weed invasion it also ‘stalls’ this progression that moves a landscape toward a more evolved, balanced state. It must be remembered that this process is a bit ‘chaotic’ and the general public won’t understand. It is also important to remember that this would not be an ‘abandonment’ of the landscape, but an active, engaged process though significantly different than what has become common maintenance practice. This is why monitoring and thoughtful action are necessary to move a landscape toward balance and stability. Because a designer may claim that a landscape is ‘native’ does not mean it constitutes a viable plant community, and, even if it did, it would still be subject to invasion by invasive plants and weeds that may move in in response to the human use and abuse of any given landscape.
The parking lot repeats the Dechampsia though they’ve added some tree form of Amelanchier, lots of western red cedar and the non-native low growing Cotoneaster and Rubus calcynoides. Some of the bio-swale’s appear to be topped with blue fescue and while the Galaxy Magnolias, used along SE 17th Ave make another appearance planted in the bottoms of the bio swells. Again a use that is in conflict with its needs. There is also a reappearance of the Rushes in the bio-swell to the south oddly with Viburnum tinus put in the bottoms as well where they will be inundated and suffer.
There is direct access to the Springwater Corridor to the south of the station. The tall earthen base is dominated by weed species that are ideally situated to infect the station’s landscapes. Park’s, who maintain the corridor, has historically been unable to control this landscape.
From here the Orange Line continues south alongside the ODoT maintenance yard and the warehouse district before entering the old town area of Milwaukie. Across much of this stretch the Line is raised on top of supports as it shares the narrow right-of-way with the BNSF. There is no ‘landscape’ until you approach the Main St. Station on the south end of town.
The Orange Line crosses Harrison St. passing behind the old school above the Ledding Library slanting in across the grid until it meets Main toward the south end of downtown. The angle with the addition of the implementation of federal regulations creates a new congestion problem for local car traffic. Landscapes fill the odd spaces left over by this geometry.
The largest is a triangular swale filled with smaller single species swaths and bands of Pennisetum, native sword ferns, some Carex smooth rush. Birch trees stand in back with Western Red Cedar, Snowberry and Red Flowering Current. Somebody thought to add a little Purple Coneflower for color. There’s some Kelsey dogwood and cotoneaster just below Liriope in the upper portion. A long established Pine fills much of the space in the higher south portion. Street trees include columnar European hornbeam.
There’s a ‘State Bank’ on the west side of the station with blue fescue and Mexican orange and what looks like spirea betuloides. Across the walkway, to the left in the shot below is a long strip planting edging a parking lot dominated with the same plants. Again, as I’ve seen elsewhere these are receiving too much irrigation, probably as a result of the hot summer conditions we’ve experienced and the contractor’s concern that the plantings make it. It is always difficult to establish summer planted material as their roots are slow to extend out into the surrounding soil and so are subject to drying out and dying. Plants’ roots are largely confined to the original potting soil upon which they depended. This medium dries out at a different rate than the surrounding soil. Keeping the roots adequately moist can result in surrounding soil that is too wet discouraging root extension. Such conditions tend to be problematic here in our warm summer dry climate. Plant establishment is always easier during our cool months which may not mesh with construction schedules.
I was surprised when I left the Milwaukie Station on my bicycle that I wasn’t thrown into the mess of auto traffic on Mcloughlin. I was prepared to take River Rd. and arrive at the Park Ln. terminus from the back. There is, however a bike path, clearly marked, though it is a little sketchy as it plies its way around and through cross traffic and the supports for the overhead tracks before starting up the hill separated from Mcloughlin by the tracks themselves. Nice!!!
Starting up the new bike path, which is part of the Trolley Trail that extends south to the town of Gladstone, the landscapes become ‘woodsy’ though not always composed of natives alone. This area curves around the hill as it climbs up from Kellogg Creek. River Rd begins its climb just west of here. The first larger planting includes Amelanchier, Kelsey dogwood, Deschampsia caespitosa, Mahonia repens with Smooth Rush in the bottom of the bio swale. The inclusion of Dutch White Clover is interesting because it is a very ‘effective’ ground-cover and is considered invasive and even to be an ‘ecosystem disruptor’ by some ecologists because of its ability to dominate landscapes, including native.
Up here on the side hill things tend to be planted linearly, in rows, not in the broader bands that predominated in the flat areas the track passes through in the City. I’m seeing more Mahonia, one of the small group of natives used regionally in most ‘native’ landscapes. In some places they’ve added Evergreen Huckleberry, another native common to the repertoire which often struggles to survive, along with a few Ceanothus and compact Strawberry Tree, the later two a nod to the more exposed site, whose more xeric water requirements don’t ‘mesh’ with those of the native Huckleberry.
At the terminus itself is a large Plaza, a big parking structure, several art installations, covered bicycle parking and a rest area for the train operators. Miracle of miracles I spy my first plantings of our native Garry White Oaks next to the train stop. Garry’s are much slower growing than the other more commercially available Oaks in the trade. They are also less tolerant of root disturbance when dug and moved as larger trees. They are, however, supremely well adapted to our conditions here in xeric plantings. This planting, as are all of the others that I noticed, are irrigated. Valves could be shutoff after establishment and it would benefit the Oaks, however, some of the understory may suffer as a result. These plantings, like many of the others could be ‘tweaked’ reducing their need for irrigation and the ability of many common weeds to invade. This somewhat triangular space is probably 5000 ft.² alone. The appearance of the Oaks is fitting as we approach the community of Oak Grove, historically populated with many of the grand trees, now lost to development, but making a bit of a resurgence with the help of dedicated plantspeople and local organizations.
It was a little disappointing to see an effort made to create a ‘native’ landscape and then to stop short. There’s a grove of Garry White Oak planted closer to the ‘garage’ entrance under which they planted more Clover. There’s ladies thumb and what looks like perennial rye, a desirable turf grass here in the Valley, but a weed in native meadow plantings along with several other weedy grasses I can’t identify. There are relatively few remanent Oak Savannah and Oak Woodland landscapes, mostly intact, in the Willamette Valley. While maybe not directly reproducible they could still serve as an ideal or a model.
On the Mcgloughlin side of the parking structure is a massive bed filled with a mix of small leafed Evergreen low shrubs like Lonicera pileata and Cotoneaster with Kinnickinnick and scattered Sumac plantings. There’s already a well-established population of grass and herbaceous weeds including crabgrass, barnyard grass, Queen Anne’s lace, more ladies thumb, Vetch, a golden flowered lotus, Clematis vitalba and the invasive Buddleia davidi. There is Horseweed going to seed and Common Groundsel. Volunteer willow, some kind of Linaria and Rumex, along with Horse Tail and common mustard, Lambsquarters and Sorrel are growing in the green-streets on the other side of the walk. Landscape roses cover portions of the steeper slopes as they drop down toward the garage. Clover also appears to be seeded here. This area is roughly equivalent to the landscapes in 12 typical 50’x100′ Portland lots if each had 2,000 sq.ft. of bed space. This would be less than a twelfth of what I took care of in Parks. The scale woudn’t bother me, but the fact that so many weeds seem to be left alone here to mature is frightening. It would seem that the maintenance contractor is not on board yet. Once these go to seed this will be crazy and will necessitate the use of more herbicides than I would typically use. I am also unclear on the maintenance of ‘greenstreets’ as they all have overflows which will carry water, water soluble chemicals and organic material offsite via the drains. Can maintenance include the use of herbicides???
After finishing this ride and my ‘inspection’ more questions came to mind and I thought that it would be informative to ask TriMet some questions about the plantings, as well as their, or their contractor’s, maintenance plan and schedule. My first query resulted in an email stating that the release of such information would require a request of public records routed through their legal department!!! I sent it and got a brief note back listing the landscape architects, the installer and contracted grower of the trees. Green Works and Mayer-Reed did the design. They along with Walker Macy do much of the public design work in the Portland area. Over the years they were awarded most of the contracts for design work in Portland Parks and Recreation while I was there, so I’m familiar with them and can see that their work here is consistent with what they have done in the past. It is consistent with the standard that they helped create. Arguably, it is dated and is falling further behind the changing needs of our times.
Single species swaths, strips and masses simply don’t have the complexity to ‘resist’ invasion. At this scale of landscape they will require intervention with herbicides including pre-emergents to keep the spaces ‘clear’ and the crowns clean. Spot spraying and weeding will be needed as well. Single species swaths, bands and rows fill one niche. We can do much better mimicking nature. Nature forms complex plant communities each member competing and cooperating with the others taking advantage of the many niches that exist. Clumpers, spreaders, grasses and forbes, shrubs of various heights and densities and trees, all varying depending on the existing growing conditions, strengthening the community. They are composed, not a hodge-podge collection of what is at hand and they are in relationship with one another. The members of such communities is mostly stable, but the arrangement is dynamic, shifting over time, responsive to damage and death in the community. This should be our ideal because with this ‘stability’ comes less ‘demand’ for intervention on our part. Such landscapes are better able to ‘defend’ themselves.
Complex landscapes will not be immune to weed invasion because of the contrived and compromised conditions, the narrow strips and left-over spaces that we cut and divide the world up into, the artificial nature of any created plant community, the massive amounts of weed seed in the soil seed bank and being contributed to from nearby properties and the ‘uses’ and abuses that the human community puts on them. ‘We’ broke the landscape, it is up to us to ‘fix’ it and we will do that through a long term relationship with it, one that has not existed at any point in modern history. We have been declaring our independence for decades now, pursuing convenience and living largely in a ‘consumptive’ mode, none of which are conducive to building such relationships.
We need to be pursuing ‘ideal’ plant communities composed of plants that fit the existing conditions at their sites including the heavily damaged, with their destroyed biotic communities. These strive toward a goal of healthy vibrant plant communities, dynamic and stable. It will be a process of finding and creating stasis within a dynamic population, of minimizing and ameliorating impacts that are limiting and destructive of life locally and it will always entail an evolving goal or target, an ideal that can change over time as the site changes and as our relationship with it changes. It can and needs to begin simply and directly as we work towards creating this new balance and community, as we modify our practice with knowledge gained from observing the response to our own decisions and efforts. I encourage readers to read my positing on Adaptive Management. There I examine the process and decision making structure needed to move landscapes closer to an ideal of one comprised of plants in community, in dynamic and stable relationship with one another.
Keeping all of this in mind, our intention, as we approach this task, is the one thing that we have any control over. I will not be laying out a recipe, or a maintenance schedule. It will be wrong. It is not that simple. This will require observing, understanding, followed by considered action and then repeating, a building toward. It will require patience and will, two things that politics, as practiced today, lack the maturity to grasp as we scratch away on the surface. The first thing to be done is to define our goals and committing to the idea that we don’t know, making public our sense of humility and communicating to the public the importance of what we are attempting to do. It is huge. We are in fact attempting to redefine our place in the world, with nature, not as the commander, or consumer, but as vital link in recovering the health of a broken world, a world that we depend on for survival, whose destruction scares the hell out of each and everyone of us today. That is what we are attempting here. It isn’t about making the landscape pretty or neat, it’s not about saving money, though these ends will likely follow from our efforts if we are ultimately successful…it is about becoming successful actors in the landscape, about healing the broken relationship we have with the world and it is about regaining our power, our potency, as actors on the world stage, at a meaningful level, that we can feel good about, about restoring our own damaged credibility as parents and members of a community that truly matters. It is about finding our role as stewards of the earth and being able to say that without out it sounding corny or as some kind of admission of weakness. Because it isn’t. It is about a strength that is an integral fact of life. It lays bear the lie of a strength that relies upon consumption and destruction, of sacrificed health and beauty and the extraction of wealth from life. We redefine ourselves by being something different, more whole, more complete. Like the plants in a healthy, dynamic plant community, we too are more when we are in healthy relationship. We gain value and meaning through relationship. It is up to us to shepherd the process. It is our responsibility and through that will come meaning and value.
If we are going to be building these ‘novel’ landscapes that are able to endure such unnatural conditions, we must be committed to the practice of ongoing monitoring and their appropriate care or they will quickly devolve and serve only to add more ‘pressure’ to our few cared for landscapes nearby and across the region. As we observe the decline of, for example, the Blue Oat Grass, we need to examine our irrigation practices that, combined with slow draining soils, appears to be causing their crowns to rot (The placement of a water retaining thick layer of mulch next to their ‘collar’ adds to this problem). We need to question their placement adjacent to plants that are healthier with summer water like the summer wet Liriope.
Change will demand much of us, it always does. We must move toward a zero tolerance level for the mis-management of landscapes, that landowners like that of the railroads, that serve as conduits and incubators of invasive plants and weeds of all description. The poor management of such landowners contributes to the burden that the rest must carry. Their ‘profits’ come in part from this burden they have put on the rest of us. It is a losing strategy to fail to control the production of weed seed entering your landscape. Seed does not recognize property rights. Its production is a biological imperative and our legal and social contrivances to the contrary don’t matter a wit. Plants don’t choose. It is grow or die. The content of seed in a site’s soil seed bank is vital.
We need to assess the appropriateness of each plant we include, given the conditions on each site. Simple survival should be an inadequate criteria for choosing plants. Mediocrity loses in nature or is at best a simple ‘place-holder’ until a better ‘answer’ comes along, or until the conditions change. In a vibrant plant community those would be the plants in decline and as such special efforts to save them is unnecessary, wasteful and would be better spent establishing plants with more promise. Plants are often chosen because we are familiar with them, not because they possess some inherent superiority in a given location. Viburnum davidii, a decades long favorite of many in the local landscape architecture community, is from China, a summer monsoonal plant, planted in Portland, in compacted soil, full sun with reflected heat, is a poor choice. There are many better choices to make and the only way to do this is to have the maintenance of our landscapes be a part of the ongoing decision making process. If there is an end result it is not the paper plan of the designer. That is only the beginning.
This posting was largely finished as I started a dialogue Tri-Met. They seem to be interested in my comments here. As my ultimate goal is to effect the design and maintenance of public landscapes I will pursue that and keep you apprised of our ‘progress’. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Another, addendum: In June I attended the HPSO Study Weekend and had the pleasure of hearing Thomas Ranier’s presentation on a more ecological style of planting. His book, Planting in a Post Wild World, is out this fall through Timber Press. I eagerly await its arrival.