I don’t usually do this, write about a particular landscape with which I have no history, so this is a bit of a departure for me. I’ve know Sean Hogan for quite a few years, consider him a friend and a highly influential mentor of sorts. His encyclopedic knowledge of plants, his boundless enthusiasm, has been infectious and inspirational over much of my career as a horticulturist while I was working for Portland Parks and Recreation. I’ve benefited from the existence of his nursery and his commitment to horticulture picking his brain for plant and design suggestions as I attempted to broaden my own repertoire.
Over the last several years sustainable design has become a ‘thing’. It is discussed in academia, amongst private and public land managers and designers. Too often it has become politicized, twisted into what people want. By doing this the concept of sustainable design is in danger of becoming yet another ’empty’ buzz word, stripped of its value by those with their own agendas and ambitions who attempt to wring every bit of value out of it for their own ends. Sustainable landscapes, when you come down to it, are essentially well designed in terms of horticultural practice, paying very close attention to site conditions. Plants are chosen with the utmost attention to ‘fit’ because such plants will require less in terms of resources to thrive, including little to no supplemental water, pesticides, fertilizers or any other outside inputs…because that is what a truly sustainable landscape is, a landscape that is capable of meeting its own needs on site. Typically today, our landscapes don’t do this, we pour water on them and throw labor and herbicides at them to maintain them as collections of individual plants, often out of balance collections, their separate plants, standing on their own with little ‘relationship’ to their neighbors, while the spaces in-between them are maintained ‘clean’ and free of growth, a completely unsustainable condition. We too often follow an aesthetic that puts nature and site second. The fact that Sean has obviously put a lot of thought into this design in terms of the ‘needs’ of the plants, is one of the things I like about the Argyle Winery landscape in Dundee, Oregon.
Over time, having paid enough attention, you can learn to read a landscape, see its plants, how they perform how they work together and from this begin to ‘know’ something of the conditions there…but at first, any of us, are going to make mistakes trying to do this, we’ll assume things, simply out of our inevitable ignorance, about a place and the plants growing there. In a kind of horticultural ‘reverse engineering’, a practice we employ when working ‘blind’, ignorant of the details of construction process, we ‘break it down’ to see how they got there. We begin with the finished ‘object’ and work ‘backwards’ in order to understand it and perhaps reproduce it in whole or in part.
In a landscape like this, we can walk it, note the combinations and their aesthetic effects…we can ‘feel’ it…but, we don’t know what the soil conditions were to begin with, what soil prep they undertook…we won’t know the specifics of the site including those of its micro-climates… we won’t even know which areas may have had irrigation installed, which areas are watered and on what schedule…we may even ‘misread’ some of the plants and ‘identify’ them as the wrong varieties or species, or get the ‘site wrong’ and think we can reproduce it at ‘home’ because we don’t understand how different the two sites may be. With gardening comes experience and, if we’re good ‘students’ we’ll pay attention and do a little research, so that over time when we come across a plant we recognize we’ll know what to expect and, from this, be able to evaluate its performance, is it struggling or growing with ‘normal’ vigor? We’ll have a better understanding of its requirements, so that if we do see it struggling that will tell us something about how it’s growing, about it’s maintenance and how well it ‘competes’ with it’s companions. As we add to our experience, increasing our plant and site knowledge, we’ll be able to do more of this, by which I mean, if I see a Manzanita growing well on a site, I’ll know that its basic requirements are met, that its drainage is adequate, that it gets enough sun and, more than likely, that the site isn’t receiving supplemental summer irrigation, because if it were, in our climate here in the Willamette Valley, it would have likely collapsed quickly. If I know which species it is, I can know even more about this place that it’s growing in.
With experience we learn to read a landscape. In this way when we walk through one that we’re unfamiliar with we can ask and answer questions we see which can tell us much about the site and the work put into it…We’ll understand that this didn’t just happen and, if we want to duplicate it elsewhere, we’ll have to pay close attention. But there are things I’m sure I don’t ‘see’ here yet, questions that I’d need to ask Sean or of the maintenance staff. As gardeners we find ourselves regularly banging up against this. We see a plant we may be unfamiliar with, that is well grown near by, make a few mental notes and assume we understand and then plant it in what turns out to be the wrong spot in our own gardens…and then watch it die, slowly or quickly. Sustainable design demands this kind of attention to detail. We need to know our plants, the site and the relationships we’ll be putting them in, how our actions in them will effect them. It is a challenging task, but one that I would argue is very rewarding
I first walked the site when a group of us toured the Manzanita test plots at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center with Neil Bell, Sean and a slough of other Manzanita aficionados, early this last summer, before driving to Dundee to tour the Argyle landscape. There are many of the usual subjects found in chaparral/mediterranean landscapes here. As I walked it with Sean and then again later, by myself, I begin to see how thoughtful and intricate the plantings are. Some genera have a goodly number of their member species represented here. There are lessons to be learned both for the novice, preferably with an experienced guide, as well as for the more experienced designer and plantsman, amongst them the necessity of leaving very little bare ground, using a high percentage of evergreens that cover the soil and add their ‘presence’ year around. Because this is a Sean landscape, and ours is a summer dry region, there are evergreen Oaks and sclerophyllous plants. While the ground layer doesn’t strictly reproduce our native plant communities, they do cover the ground with a changing matrix of plants in relatively complex patterns, not broad single species sweeps, demonstrating a thoughtfulness in the plantings that occupy many of the niches that are too often left available for weeds in most landscapes.
Good designs ‘resonate’ within us when we walk through them. They possess a ‘rightness’ and subtlety, a naturalness that echo our experience in landscapes we’ve known in the past. They engage us. They aren’t merely there. But they have to do more than this. A good design can’t just appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities, it has to be responsive to its site and its constituent parts must complement one another. They need to ‘belong’ together, be in relationship with one another. Plants share space above and below ground, each species with its particular requirements. What one plant doesn’t require is picked up and held by another, brought back into the cycle of nutrients, absorbed, transformed, utilized within their structure until they are released as spent structures to the soil again, this time taken up by another plant, perhaps a different species…endlessly. There is an intricate dance that goes on down in the soil, the root zone of plants, sometimes with the roots of different individuals joining/grafting to those of others forming networks across a landscape, allowing a degree of ‘sharing’, buffering, while bacteria and fungi form structures with them utilizing the strengths of very different organisms. Complex communities form, both competitive and supportive, building in a complexity that is supportive of life. These communities, with their relationships, support a kind of stability that assures its continuation, a responsiveness that allows a ‘bridging’ to occur when minor perturbations happen, enabling them to fill in the gaps when members weaken and die. There is a level of beauty in these complex communities, these matrices, that go well beyond the aesthetic, while in fact support its possibility.
Too often our landscapes are imposed on our sites with little regard for their uniqueness and limitations. This is what gets us in trouble, what can make their care tedious and overly demanding of our time and resources. A landscape that ‘fits’ its site will demand considerably less of us. A landscape that exists in relationship, with all of its individuals melded into a coherent whole, exhibits a different kind of beauty, an aesthetic like that nature has worked out over countless millennia. These aren’t created in a single rendering of a plan. They are the result of continuous, sensitive observations and feedback from the landscape itself. A well designed landscape incorporates all of the lessons. There is no guarantee, no short cut. Our biases and preferences come with a cost and if we pay attention we may learn how to honor both those and the site. Landscape design requires a sensitivity to both and an awareness to the ‘damage’ already done to a site. Any landscape that we create today will demand our ongoing participation for no other reason than the ‘damage’ imposed by those who came before us.
Ours will always be ‘managed’ landscapes. While Dundee isn’t the most urban area, it resides in the middle of agricultural country, at the foot of hills increasingly festooned with vineyards, it has seen extensive disruption with few if any intact native landscapes, with a good ‘complement’ of eurasian weeds and invasives. This landscape’s long border that it shares with the adjacent property is dominated by weeds. The surrounding landscapes will always exert weed pressures and, because of these plant’s aggressive nature, will require monitoring and timely action. Still, a landscape like this provides its owners with an excellent opportunity to have a beautiful quality landscape with minimal inputs.
While I haven’t had the opportunity, I’d love to spend some time here with the maintenance crew, go over their schedule and quiz them about its performance and its response to their work in order to better understand what they do and what the problems are on the site. It is in the maintenance of any landscape that we learn and can refine a design to better fit both the site conditions and our purposes. When I walk this landscape I see lots of promise and much to emulate in landscapes across the region and strongly encourage anyone to visit…add a glass of wine and it more than makes up for what you will have to endure in the traffic bottleneck that is still Dundee! (When will that bypass ever be finished?)