About a year ago I posted a series of three articles on Tri-Met’s landscapes along the new Orange Line. They were a critical assessment of their design with many photos and explanations for my criticisms. I had a brief correspondence with the project manager after the first two before he stopped responding. I had asked about the maintenance schedule that they had with the contractor who would be doing the work. I did not receive it. Part of the reason was mine, as new ideas came up for me, my interest wavered and I moved on. Still, I’ve never received anything. Now, a year later, I decided to reassess the first portion of the landscape that I wrote about, as it is a section I regularly walk and ride by bike to downtown or to just get out. I would encourage readers to see my previously posted reviews.
Gardeners learn many lessons as we progress through our ‘careers’. We read books, attend seminars, take classes, join groups and visit or tour with our peers, but some things are really only learned on the ground as we work, observe and make mistakes. Like when we travel by car, our attention and experience changes when we go from being a passenger to the driver. We see the world differently. We’re more thoroughly engaged. Our awareness focuses and deepens. While all of the other more indirect methods may provide a context, an explanation, it is the doing in the garden that links all of the pieces together and brings the understanding ‘home’ to us…all of the theory, ideas, if we are careful observers, can create a deeper and broader understanding of what we are doing and of the place in which we garden. One of the big things we can learn is that our gardens, our landscapes, are ‘alive’, they have a life of their own which we can influence, or to a lesser extent, control, if we commit enough time and resources to the task and, when we’re wrong, we can watch them rapidly deteriorate if our efforts are inadequate or misdirected.
Nature is a dynamic force. Left on its own it moves each particular piece of land toward a diverse and complex landscape, unique, attuned to the conditions in play there. On an undisturbed natural site, an increasingly rare phenomenon, a casual observer visiting from time to time might think that it is ‘fixed’, a climactic expression of that particular place. In fact, it is anything but static as each organism works toward its fullest expression in league with some, symbiotic even, and, at other times, at apparent cross purposes as they compete for light, water and nutrient or material sustenance, sometimes directly consuming the other. It is a gigantic and nearly unimaginably complex equation each member simultaneously contributing and taking what it requires…until it can’t…all the while adding complexity and to the richness of life, an overall positive evolution. It is a dance and it has been going on for millions of years. As gardeners we are offered the opportunity to ‘peek behind the curtain’. These glimpses offer us moments to reclaim the sense of wonder and awe that we once viewed all of the world as children with, only this time with more understanding. Increasingly, and frighteningly, our modern world has consumed and transformed these places into what we recognize as development, ‘disturbed’ or urban places, where human activities dominate and have transformed the natural world, but this has not changed the forces still at work, rather it has changed the ‘game board’, not the rules of the game, the dynamism. We fool ourselves if we think that this earth is nothing more than a giant canvas subject simply to our will and whim, our plans, however grandiose or simple. Buildings and roads still slowly crumble while landscapes tend toward their own fullest expression. We haven’t figured this out yet as a culture, that if we desire that our own creations thrive and endure, they must be aligned with the natural forces that work here, anywhere. To deny this puts a never ending burden on us of keeping these forces at bay, a commitment of labor and resources that when insufficient, when priorities and politics shift, will no longer be there to stop the decay and dissolution of our often willfully ignorant designs.
We have been deceiving ourselves for decades. We have failed to recognize the inherent dynamism of the world. We build structures and landscapes that are monuments to ourselves and the moment we find ourselves in…static structures and landscapes fixed in time, an obvious fiction. Much of this is essential for the support of and the continuation of an urban population. But we approach it like children unable to take responsibility for what we have already done, unable to commit to the long term and endlessly fascinated by the next new thing. We defer maintenance on structures long enough that they become impossibly expensive to ‘repair’ so instead tear them down and build new at huge cost to our resource base. We scrimp on landscape maintenance cutting 3% here, 5% there, or deferring it completely until revenues can be found that are sufficient to cover them without realizing that landscapes are dynamic, they don’t wait until we can catch up, they don’t ‘degrade’ linearly, a 3% cut in maintenance does not result in a 3% decline and cannot be reclaimed by simply adding the 3% back in a year or two. No, declines are exponential and they cannot be simply and cheaply reclaimed once they are severely degraded. They are not canvases that can be ‘painted out’ and planted again. They have histories that follow them in the form of degraded soils and seeds that will present problems for decades, depending, again, on how the landscape is ‘approached’, how ‘corrections’ are made. Our decisions, once effected, remain in ‘play’ long after they were made. An overwhelmed home gardener can move and start again, selecting a new site with the help of the experience they gained from their previous garden. Over time, as this process goes on, repeated over and over, the ‘canvas’ that we each start with will present an increasingly difficult starting point. Institutions and government entities don’t have the luxury of moving and starting over. It is more important that they get it right and ‘correct’ problematic designs that they are burdened with, improve their maintenance practices and work to insure that they don’t repeat their mistakes…, but this is not apparently the case, because, like individuals, institutions, agencies and government bureaus are human constructs and, as such, suffer very human frailties. They also possess our ‘strengths’ and, sufficiently motivated, can change.
At some point, as a people, we will have to start acknowledging the necessity and complexity of the natural world. The denial or refusal of this can only last so long. We are rapidly closing in on the point where our urban world is crumbling faster than we can rebuild it and large enough that most of our remaining, intact, wild areas are feeling similar ‘pressures’. There are simply not enough resources to continue this very much further into the future. Political leaders with enough courage, humility and foresight to change course are desperately needed. The backlog of deferred maintenance, of obsolete structures and landscapes, is swamping us, while we continue to build new, in the old pattern, for those people wealthy enough or disassociated enough, that they willfully and effectively demand that our pattern of ‘progress’ continues unchanged. None of the needed changes are beyond our abilities, we simply haven’t possessed the political will to change. There are still too many, well positioned individuals, pushing and demanding the same old thing.
I pick on Tri-Met here…they are an easy and obvious target, regarding their landscapes, but there are many others out their, locked in to old habits, defending their practices or simply lacking real support to fully commit to a different path, one that acknowledges our reality today and the conditions at play in the landscape and community. We are in grave need of new/different leadership, leadership that acknowledges all of this in our changed and precarious world.
Some examples of problems getting out of hand : One year later
It wasn’t until later when I looked up this property, in the photo to the left, to better understand the issue, that I discovered that the property for sale inside the fence, graveled and in the process of being over taken by weeds, is also owned by Tri-Met. The narrow fence line planting of a west coast species Iris, Kelsey Dogwood and roses adjacent to the sidewalk here on SE 17th, immediately south of South Powell Frontage Rd., is in the process of being overwhelmed by Crab Grass, Cat’s Ear, Blackberry and a host of others. This is an impossible planting if Tri-Met’s own real estate people don’t step up to manage the weed’s on their property. This is common of such properties up for sale, any money spent on weed management seems to be viewed as wasted. The second picture shows another Tri-Met property listed for sale, fenced, with a weed population growing largely on its own near several of their planted landscapes.
This bed shares a long edge with the Rhine St. Station. It remains relatively clean. I walked it and found only a few things like Red Sorrel, a spreading perennial weed, but all and all pretty good. I would attribute this to it being an initially clean site without any nearby sites serving as continuous and heavy producers of weed seed that could move in. For many weeds, distance from a weed source, is a major limiting factor.
Last year this area was bare, unplanted, with ‘soil’ of poor quality containing rock and much of it topped with gravel. This year it is full of weedy growth, sidewalk to curb. It’s possible that it was seeded with a mix of species including Dutch White Clover a common component of ‘ground cover’ and ‘wildflower’ mixes. Ecologists consider this Clover to be an invasive. There is also some Yarrow here another common element of such mixes. But these are not alone. Canada Thistle is thick in places. Chickory, a too common weed of disturbed sites is here as well as many others. What is the goal for this long weedy strip?
A typical railroad edge landscape with Tree of Heaven, Blackberry and many other matured weeds all capable of moving to nearby Tri-Met property. This puts incredible weed pressure on adjacent landscapes. Maintenance staff would be dollars ahead to control weeds..on the railroad’s property. The railroad has a long history of indifference regarding its own landscapes. The second photo shows the section of railroad looking east from Division and SE 8th. While the woody weeds aren’t as bad here, they were west of here before they were recently cut down, this entire corridor is a problematic weed seed producer for all of the Tri-Met properties.
These four pics above are of the same bed where the Orange Line turns away from the westside Tillikum Bridge ramp. This site has been designed with a very different aesthetic than the previously discussed east-side beds. It is a mostly flat broad strip between two highly engineered structures, with imported, likely compacted soil, planted first in a pure stand of the more alpine ground cover, Kinnickinnick, the second, more northerly, in native Strawberry. A broken line of Incense Cedar dot it. This is an irrigated planting. I do not know what the schedule is, but it would seem to be frequent. Kinnickinnick is a drought tolerant native, the site is flat and the Kinnickinnick is doing poorly as have the trees in the upper portion which indicates wetter soil conditions. There is a rough weedy bank high above the tracks that no doubt dumps weed seed here. The weed growth is heavy. To the north, the strawberry is planted and has down well. It is much more tolerant of regular irrigation. Annual and herbaceous weeds have been less competitive as would be expected given the Strawberry’s vigor. Still, with a simple single species planting of a ground cover, tree seedlings are volunteering as is the invasive Clematis vitalba, of which there is a mature mass of growing next to the nearby freeway ramp, currently heavy with seed.
These are taken of a relatively weed free ‘clean street’, curb side plantings along SW Lincoln St. Adjacent commercial landscapes are maintained clear of weeds likely using herbicides, as is common practice. These generate very few weeds and seed to spill over. The last photo shows the common weed, Yellow Flowered Oxalis, that has found its way into available crack spaces here sprayed with a contact herbicide. The tell tale sign is the ‘spotting’, dripping of dye, on the concrete, a common additive when spraying, to help the applicator’s effectiveness. The drip is an equipment problem. Weeds can still arrive airborne, via wind and birds or be washed in along the street and sidewalk through the ‘cuts’. The absence of significant area seed sources helps greatly with weed control here.
Weed List for 17th St. Median Bed Between Pardee & Schiller
Barnyard Grass – There are several coarse weedy grasses in here that I’m not sure of.
Black Medic – Medicago lupulina, annual or short lived perennial
Bull Thistle – Cirsium vulgare, annual or biennial
Buddleia davidii – shrub, invasive
Canada Thistle – Cirsium arevense, perennial, very aggressive native
Cat’s Ear or False Dandelion – Hypochoeris radicata, perennial, invasive
Common Mallow – Malva neglecta, annual or biennial
Common Groundsel – Senecio vulgaris, annual
Cottonwood – Populous trichocarpa seedlings
Crabgrass – Digitaria sanguinalis, annual, compact warm soils
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale, perennial
Dutch White Clover – Trifolium repens, perennial, ag crop and invasive
Elm – Ulmus spp. seedlings – volunteer trees
Empress Tree – Paulownia tomentosa seedlings – volunteer trees
Epilobium ciliatum – Willowherb, native ‘weedy’ annual
‘Himalayan’ Blackberry – Rubus armenicus, perennial shrub/caneberry, invasive
Horse Weed – Conzya canadensis, annual, aggressively spreading native
Lambsquarter – Chenopodium spp., annual or perennial
Maple seedlings – volunteer trees
Northern Red Oak seedlings – volunteer trees
Pale Smartweed- Polygonum lapathifolium, annual
Petty Spurge – Euphorbia peplus, annual
Prickly Lettuce – Lactuca serriola, annual or biennial
Prostrate Knotweed – Polygonum aviculare, annual, compact soils
Queen Anne’s Lace – Daucus carota, biennial
Red Stem Filaree – Erodium cicutarium, winter annual
Small Leaved Vetch – Vicia spp., annual
Sow Thistle – Sonchus spp., annual
St. John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum, rhizomatous perennial
Sweat Peas – Lathyrus latifolius, perennial
Traveller’s Joy – Clematis vitalba, perennial woody vine, invasive
Tree of Heaven – Ailanthus altissima seedlings, invasive
Yellow Flag Iris – Iris pseudoacorus, perennial bulb, invasive (in wet areas)
Yellow Nutsedge – Cyperus esculentus, perennial, rhizomatous, tuberous, invasive
All of these weeds, and more I didn’t identify, were found in the one large median bed on 17th between Pardee and Schiller. The list doesn’t give you a complete ‘picture’ or understanding of the weed problem there. Some are relatively few in number others are quite common in large loose swaths…all of them, assuming maintenance practices and schedules continue as is, will likely be increasing in number, growing in the open spaces between the intended plants, sometimes within their crowns, within the niches the design has created for them, unintentionally. Each of these have particular characteristics of growth and habit that have helped determine their ‘success’ here. With experience, we understand something of their persistence, their ability to dominate or to yield to other plants as conditions and populations in the bed change, because, change they will. Knowing this, can help us determine the most effective means for their control and the timing of those efforts. Before we take action though we need to acknowledge all this and make a decision, a broader decision about our goals for these landscapes that will determine the strategies that we choose.
Turning This Around
I spent years walking through such beds doing evaluations, planning strategies, attempting to understand what was happening in any given bed, how my actions effected it, whether they were worthwhile or not. Before I could choose one, I would have to decide what is the goal in each, is it to maintain the designers simplistic ‘graphic’ design with its discrete swaths and strokes placed on the landscape, the canvas, static and fixed? or is it to create a more sustainable landscape with a dynamic community of plants, fitted to the site that can fulfill our functional needs for the space, with a more natural aesthetic, within the confines and limits of the overall landscape? One recognizes the primacy of the designer and subsumes and minimizes nature, the other attempts to acknowledge the wildness within each space…within its aesthetic. Each requires a different approach, a different kind and intensity of maintenance. The former, the static, fixed vision of the landscape, requires an almost constant ‘disturbance’ of the site proportional to its degree of imbalance, a commitment over the life of it to continue indefinitely, while the other is essentially an approach that could be characterized as transitional, adaptive, transforming each over time into a more stable and simultaneously, dynamic landscape that is ‘responsive’ to the changing conditions on each site. Each requires a different mind set: control vs. cooperation, rigidity vs. flexibility, artifice vs. naturalness, limitation vs. exuberance, built vs. alive.
We’ve been ‘building’ landscapes much like we do buildings and our needed infrastructure. But landscapes are essentially alive and to ignore this profound difference, as we have been doing, is incredibly wasteful and, ultimately, self destructive, self defeating. Healthy landscapes are growing and alive. Their efficiency lies in this fact. On the other hand our urban infrastructure, upon which our modern lives depend, must be well engineered and beautiful. It is at the edges, of the engineered and the living, that we must be especially careful so that the engineered does not exclude the living. We as humans are living as well. Our needs are remarkably the same as the rest of the living world. Build a world that refuses to make accommodation for the living and it will fail, us with it. We need to begin remembering and revaluing the living world, especially in our cities so that they do not keep creating ever expanding dead zones with effects that reach far beyond their political borders. Places that we are increasingly driven to escape to where nature remains beyond its influence and transform them into places that more fully nourish all life. This is not an impossibility, the one does not automatically exclude the other. We are human beings and one of the things that defines us as such is our creativity. We can do this.
Weeds were all once native to a particular place, their vigor suggests that they were members of a variety of plant communities, with a particular and relatively wide set of conditions, often likely found quite broadly geographically as well as in terms of their site requirements, but native and natural they were, but they were limited and contained as well, geographically, and in terms of the relative slow rate of disturbance and of the introduction of new species. They are so successful as weeds today because we have this habit, a cultural ‘default’ if you will, that determines the base conditions within our landscapes. We have brought ‘these’ weeds with us, selecting them, fine tuning them along our historical path…alter this default pattern and we change the weed population, the species that comprise it, the intensity or degree of the problem, even whether we have a problem at all. This process itself is still changing as we create more and attempt to maintain these out of balance landscapes allowing the most aggressive adapted weeds to occupy them as they arrive in our region.
To change this pattern and practice requires consciousness, an awareness of the conditions and the plants themselves and perhaps most importantly, the commitment and the patience to see the process through back to integrity and balance through the natural dynamism at work in any landscape. Weeds are not simply weeds. They are plants, much like any other, imbued with potential, unique to themselves that exist in a world of relationship where every plant exists in relation to the life and conditions that it finds itself in. There is no hocus-pocus, no essential organic ‘evil’ shared amongst a group of plants we call weeds. No magic. They are with us for a reason. Take away the reason, change the conditions and they’re gone or reduced. Of course it’s more complicated than that because there is a lag period associated with the bank of seed in the ground, of weeds and desirable species, and the bio-chemical, structural and textural changes we’ve made to the soil, all the changes, all of the breaks in the normal healthy cycling of energy and resources that have a persistent and accumulative effect. The green world is broken…and we did it. It is not beyond us to grow it back, if we choose to, but we can’t do it if we continue with our practices of continual and cyclic site disturbance of forcing simplistic ‘graphic’ designs on the ground. We will only find our way as our landscapes regenerate themselves…or not, if we can find it within ourselves to do this. It is not a passive process, rather it will be one of commitment that will require a certain openness and flexibility that is very different from the much more rigid and formulaic approach that we have taken to this point. We need to understand the inherent value in the operation of the natural world…that it has a kind of base or primal importance to the very existence of life…that is essential.
We have for too long been proclaiming that we, in our superior ‘wisdom’ are the ultimate arbiters of what is valuable and have determined that everything has its price, that, then, ultimately nothing is essential. Our landscapes are a powerful opposing argument. We have been breaking things down, reducing them to their fundamental, constituent parts, to understand them in a singular, and important way, for so long that we’ve forgotten how to see wholeness and health, the inherent beauty in the wild, the dynamism that derives from relationship. We’ve unlocked the code of DNA while simultaneously chasing the life out of the world that we live in. We need to bring these two philosophies, these two ways of knowing, back together and create a new view of wholeness, health and relationship, linking the disparate parts back into a viable whole that can sustain itself much as it did for the millions of years before we became numerous enough, in possession of a potent enough technology, that we have become a serious threat to the very life on this planet, ours included. Today, many of us live in relative comfort consuming the life and resources of the world around us while an ever increasing population, of species, suffers. These are not separate problems. We can only choose life and all that it encompasses, health, vitality, wholeness or we can separate ourselves out, place ourselves above it and pay the price through the sacrifice of others, be they the less fortunate, the disempowered, the wild, the domestic, organic or mineral. It is all ultimately one and we sacrifice one at the cost of all. We must choose! Let us choose wisely for thoughtful reasons, not out of ignorance, habit and custom.
See also my other postings on Adaptive Management and Sustainable Landscapes.