Gardening in Public, Charismatic Mega Flora and the Need for a Public Horticultural Intervention

We ‘need’ charismatic mega-flora today, plants that scream out to even the most plant blind of us to take notice, those that create such a sudden and uncontrollable ‘stir’ within us that our simple glimpse of them breaks our momentum, our chains of thought, interrupting whatever we’re doing in that moment bringing about a reflexive interjection, cause us to take notice, create an uncontrollable urge to stop what we’re doing and come back for a closer look!  To tell our parents, partners or friends, to drag them back, for a repeat performance or to see if what we saw is really there or merely a mistake of perception.  And they do come back.  I see them every day, sometimes dragging disinterested friends to see this unimaginable impossibility.  I hear them when I’m out working in the private part of the garden with excited voices, sometimes expletives, “Look at this ‘F@#$ing’ thing! Can you believe it?”  I love this. They’ve come for ‘Monte’!

What exactly do I mean when I write of ‘charismatic mega flora’? Well obviously I’m speaking of plants, but which ones? There are upwards of 300,000 species of Angiosperms, the ‘flowering plants’, on earth alone, Add to this the ferns, which number an estimated 10-15,000 and the Gymnosperms, of which there a thousand plus, and that’s a lot of possibilities. (I think we can exclude the other classes of plants, the red, green and brown Algae which may be impressive in mass, but certainly aren’t as individual single celled organisms.) The simple fact that most of these are easy for the typical human to overlook, in either nature or the garden setting, tells us something. Size is important, because we are speaking of those plants that we humans notice, in a particular way and, if they’re too small, we simply don’t.

To ‘qualify’ then a plant must be large enough, there must be some minimum threshold, but what is it? How big must one be before we notice? There are thousands of trees and shrubs, even large herbaceous plants, that can physically block our passage, that we must notice and acknowledge, at least as ‘barriers’ to our movement. There presence alone in a landscape require that we negotiate our way over, around or through them. What I’m getting at here is the subjectivity of our human and very personal ‘attention’, those plants we notice, that register in our awareness, that can cause us to focus on them as more than just objects taking up space. While size does matter, and greater size can impart a more undeniable quality to a plant, there are many other qualities and conditions that affect those we notice consciously in this way. The setting is certainly one of these.

Attention and Design
Setting refers to the particular landscape within which we and the plant are in. Both. This is about relationship after all and we are a factor in this ‘equation’. Designers will talk about the repetition of a particular element in a landscape and its necessity to bring both coherence and a sense of calm, even ‘belongingness’. If too many elements don’t repeat regularly, a design can become chaotic, a jumble, and it can lack the sense of peace and calm that is desired and this has a direct influence on our own inner state as we experience the landscape. Our ‘eye’ will have no place to ‘rest’. As we move through the garden or landscape there will be nothing that ‘draws’ us through. No progression or sequence of ‘vignettes’ drawing us from one to the next. Such a landscape is a jumble of disconnected elements. We may not be designers ourselves and we may not know why we are so affected, but we are. The experience is real whether understood or not. These need not be precisely the same cultivar, there can be more variety, as long as enough of these share qualities of texture to ‘read’ as one…but you don’t want them all to read the same.

At the other extreme, too much repetition creates a monotony of sameness. It can become boring and because of this our eye quickly ‘learns’ to go no further. We look for cues elsewhere to help us negotiate the landscape. In an urban setting we rely on the grid of streets, there names and the addresses of our destinations, perhaps particular landmarks we are able to recall, we learn routes and patterns…or we simply rely on our navigation app to quickly get through that of little or no interest. The intervening landscape is rendered blah. There is no progression. No thoughtful arrangement of plants in space to draw us through…nothing memorable, it is boring, below notice. It becomes incoherent and we tune it out.

It is our capacity to notice that I’m really speaking of here and the fact that you can take any plant and repeat it often enough and render it ‘boring’. Likewise, by manipulating the setting, by intentionally arranging the plants and all of the other elements, you can accentuate certain individuals, put the focus on them and you do this by considering their characteristics. If your palette is too small, you run the danger of an overly repetitious design. You must consider the scale of the landscape itself as well. What can work in a postage stamp garden, won’t in a larger landscape. Scale changes the balance. It effects the size of your groupings, the masses you must use for effect if you expect them to be noticed. If you want your intention to be ‘read’, to be effective.

While we are busily creating calm in our landscapes we are also attempting to add enough interest, setting out particular plants of character, that will stand out enough to be noticed without distracting too much from others, so we arrange them in a kind of progression so that as we sit quietly or walk the paths, different specimen plants and features come into our view…they in a sense, draw us through. We do not, can not, be allowed to see it all at once for this to work. If they are too close, in size, form, texture and color, they will compete and there is no ‘resting’ point. The landscape becomes more frenetic, less restful, like a living version of New York’s Times Square, buildings looming too close overhead, the nexus of a grid with unfamiliar angles, ablaze with electronic flashing signs, competing giant images vying for our attention, the crowds of people and characters, the never ending parade of street theater all around you. This is only tolerable in doses and what may once have felt energizing, exciting, can quickly become disorienting and exhausting.

In a large landscape, larger plants are required to stand out, to attract our interest. In a mature forest of Doug Fir or Coast Redwood, they too can take on a kind of sameness, but it’s different and that’s because these places make us feel small. The same happens on a mountain top, a desert whose horizon extends for many miles, the same for the ocean and the ocean of grasses that comprise a prairie. In expansive wild places the landscape itself can take on the character I’m trying to describe. It is something ‘alien’ to our everyday experience, that gives us pause, takes us out of our everyday world.

This quality is commonly lost in manmade cities. It does not spring naturally from the surveyor’s grid or engineered ‘fixity’ of our built infrastructure. With enough ‘art’, built structures and bridges can be added as featured elements of the landscape, imparting this quality if the other elements of design are attended. This too requires a coherent design, a shared vision, an understanding of a shared design ‘language’. If we want to bring the feel that arises from the wild and natural landscape, with its beauty, to the built structure that underpins a city, we must pay a lot more attention to its living components, to their placement and design on both a small and large scale, to mimic those of nature and recreate that which cities generally miss.

Plants gain our attention by more than their size alone. Their structure and texture, their form and color, go a long way in determining whether and how we notice them. Because they are alive, because they change over time, follow seasonal cycles, because so many flower or at least produce distinctive reproductive structures…we notice them. They add as well in terms of their movements, their response to the wind, the sounds they ‘make’, the scents they release, their volatile oils and resins, how they change over time in relation to the landscape and us.

Size amplifies a plant’s characteristics, bringing them to our notice, sometimes making it impossible to not notice, as long as they are placed in a setting that frames or features them, so they can draw our attention, even though they may not be particularly big themselves, as long as they stand out from their surroundings. Such plants often possess a degree of the unexpected. They stand out from those around them, perhaps appear ‘surreal’, jarring, disproportionate, or amping up some memory or experience that feels bizarre considering where we are. Plants that strike us as prehistoric, Dr. Seussian impossibilities, in our world of memory and experience. As gardeners we are more attuned to plants than non-gardeners, we’ve become more sensitized and start responding to smaller differences, nuances. But these plants, those that call out for the attention of even non-gardeners, I’m calling these plants charismatic.

On History and Experience
I gardened in Portland Parks for almost 30 years, almost 20 of those on the westside, first a few years in Washington Park, Pittock Mansion and the hillside Parks rising west out of downtown, before moving there itself.  These were not just grass and trees parks that predominate our neighborhoods, intended to give the public a needed dose of green open space.  These all had high visitation rates with large bed areas often with more defined themes, aesthetic focus.  Traditionally these were filled with the regular suspects Rhodies and Azaleas, Camellias and the other proven, often evergreen supporting cast, with a scattering of ‘old fashioned’ woody shrubs, while here and there were found little jewels.  Roses were and still are the stars in many of our Parks, a management decision, with the occasional annual display bed, at least until monies began to dry up and they were cut, replaced by more ‘permanent plantings’, or in some cases, simply lawns.  The plant palette shrunk across all of Parks, but a few of us began to ‘push back’ in ways that we could.

I’ve always gravitated toward more ‘architectural plants those whose form, when well placed, pop out to be noticed.  I was always ‘experimenting’ at home, drawn to plants new to me, and had become intrigued by those preferred by those who advocated for a style in the mid-80’s, 90’s(?), sometimes referred to as ‘Tropicalissimo’.  I chose plants that were just that, of tropical or sub-tropical origin, but soon discovered that this was an impossibility, in a practical sense, in Parks, with our limited labor and greenhouse space.  It also left us with the problem of bare soil when the tropicals were safely sequestered away inside over the winter.  I began to look for hardier plants that lent themselves to the desired effect and began with Cannas which we once used regularly in back of annual beds in a standardized way.  Cannas, in our climate and soils, proved to be largely hardy, though with these we began to have virus problems, not COVID. For years we would fall dig them, storing them from Parks across the City, centrally, later pushing them in pots in the greenhouse to make them substantial for May planting out. The infection spread, plant to plant.  Many of my peers stopped using them, eventually we all did, at least those plants.  A couple of us bought new cultivars on our own, virus free stock and began sharing them. Keeping them in the ground, more isolated.  From there I began to branch out, looking at what was historically used here and had fallen out of fashion, sometimes many years ago.  

My years growing large annual display beds had educated me and I understood that many of the bedding-out annuals, in their native range, were in fact perennials, but our climate, or practice here, limited them to being summer season performers.  ‘Annuals’ often lent a tropical feel to the garden.  Coleus that would collapse just before the first hint of frost, were grown for their fantastic foliage.  Zinnias that could suffer mildew, for their bright ‘party’ colors, Cosmos, Impatiens and Pelargoniums, Dahlias and of course Marigolds, were traditionally planted out in their modern truncated forms into mass, contrived, bedding patterns.  Because I had large enough beds I could get our grower to provide me with certain more unusual annuals, things like an old one time favorite, Lisianthus.  I did bedding annuals for more than a dozen years.  When downtown I installed, tore out and replanted more of these than any one else in the Park system and it got me thinking.  It is not just the plants themselves, but how they were used.  This gave me yet another reason to break the pattern to give the public something unexpected, but beautiful, that would cause them to take notice.

Before annual display beds were discontinued altogether I began utilizing particular perennials as featured specimen, taking a cue from Cannas, as featured plants or in small masses, using the more traditional annuals as a ‘ground’, knitters or ‘blenders, to frame and set off the show pieces.  Sometimes these include the very architectural Cardoon, a subtropical Ginger, Brugmansia and Bananas.  Eventually, one banana in particular became a regular resident.

For several years Harry Landers and I had been friends.  We’d met in Parks and worked together only briefly, but it was enough for me to learn much of his story and his love for and use of exotics and tropical plants, how he would use them extensively in Wisconsin with its frigid winters, aided by access to heated greenhouse space.  We would visit and share about these plants whenever we were together to prune the city’s masses of roses every year and during breaks during meetings and classes.  Sometimes, when time allowed, we would tour the other around, showing each other what we were working on.

A few others would join in and we’d have conversations about our experiments and trials in the parks we cared for and in our home gardens.  We had to make time for this because we were all so busy with the routine, our required duties, but we did it, because this ‘fed’ us and we knew, from our experience that the public was hungry for this too.  Our individual projects demonstrated this.  The public themselves would become more interested in our plantings when we provided them with innovative landscapes and plants that invited their curiosity, that surprised and pleased them, even when quite small.  Criticism came from within the organization, conservative as it was, but there was a growing and appreciative audience building in the public.

With limited and often tightly controlled budgets, there generally was no dedicated planting budget for most of us working in the field, we brought more plants from home, increased and divided them, passed them around. I often bought plants for home, knowing full well they would quickly out grow the space I had for them and dig them later and transplant them into a Park, after proving their hardiness and learning first hand of their particular requirements. Cannas, Hedychiums, Bilbergia, many others made it in from our homes. I would fall dig clumps of Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris at home and bring them into our greenhouse where John, another friend and Park’s plant broker, and I would spend a couple hours at a time cleaning, dividing and potting them up to be later distributed in Parks. Sometimes we donated larger specimen like my Loropetalum chinense ‘Razzleberry’ and a Stephanandra tanakae, which both still resides in the South Waterfront Garden.

We were up against a history of profound plant conservatism. Managers often had a very limited view of what were acceptable ‘Park plants’! (Yes, they would use this term and there were many efforts made to limit our choices to a relative handful of plants. At one time a suggestion from management was floated to limit us to a single dozen!) Some of us pushed back even harder against the system itself while others simply worked under the radar, never seeking project approvals, sneaking in plants, following the dictum that, “It is better to seek forgiveness than permission” which could only succeed to a point. Management would still view us as technicians, not qualified designers and we could be formally excluded from design roles. We were often told that such plantings were inappropriate and extravagant, that such landscapes were both more expensive to install and maintain. We would argue, that yes they may be more costly than a simple grass and trees Park, but they weren’t necessarily more expensive than the common and limited typical Park landscape…especially when balanced out against the greatly increased aesthetic benefits, the generally lower rate of vandalism they suffered and the positive responses we were getting from the public compared to the indifference often showed to the old conservative practice with their often neglected, simplistic and increasingly dated, less relevant and over mature beds. For some of us it was a bit of a ‘crusade’ and we saw it as our responsibility as public servants to fulfill our role as horticultural educators demonstrating to the public the range of possibilities and value that could be added to our generally boring public and private landscapes. Not only was the public largely uninspired by the ‘old’ landscapes, but so were we the staff charged with their care. An inspired staff, we argued, would be more committed to better care…this too was a hard sell.

While this was going on I began to look at Bananas, first growing a couple true tropicals at home before ‘discovering’ the hardy Japanese Banana, Musa basjoo, then being grown and sold by Burl Mostul at his earlier location in outer southeast Portland.  I became an avid convert and these became an early addition to my new palette. Tree ferns quickly followed, but their survival was more problematic, so they didn’t make it into Parks.  Sean Hogan had been an earlier inspiration, supporting my interest with the massive numbers of plants he and Parker offered, through Cistus Nursery, at the time a little operation selling out of the back of a friend’s property on Sauvie Island.  

Things were moving.  Palms trees got added, at first limited to Chinese Windmill Palms.  This was an easy addition, though I had to ‘sneak’ them in the first time in 2001 or 2.  I was told specifically that Palm Trees ‘don’t belong here’ when I submitted my first plan for approval in Waterfront Park.….(Tell that to the horticultural staff in Vancouver, B.C., who had been planting them around their City Parks for several years at the time! I toured their operation with one of their horticulture managers in about ’04.) When I originally moved to Portland in the mid-80’s I saw these scattered here and there.  One was in front of a restaurant on 43 in Lake Oswego that I would pass by regularly between Portland and West Linn, another was on SE Division at an apartment complex across the street from the entrance to the Park’s maintenance yard, which I first saw when I started with Parks.  But these were ignored by most, noticed only as oddities not possibilities.  In the mid 90’s, Brian, a neighbor of mine across the street, from Georgia, planted one by his front porch and it slowly occurred to me that I could plant these.  This is about the time that I took the breaks off and, instead of looking at where I could ‘sneak’ things in, I began to design beds and landscapes that left the expected behind.

This ‘fashion’ was not new here.  I would occasionally do some historical research, looking through old plant and seed catalogs, perusing photo archives and catalogs from a century ago (The Oregon Historical Society’s library is an incredible archive to search as is the City’s own official archives).  Exotic bulbs, bananas, palms and other ‘newly’ discovered plants of the time, were being brought to the trade and marketed to a country that was beginning to wake up to them, perhaps following the lead of Europeans that many Americans of the time still looked up to, viewed as more civilized and cultured, despite the horrors of WWI. Many Oregonians, with the means, saw these truly incredible plants, so unexpected, but exciting, from exotic, strange and even ‘dangerous’ parts of the world…and wanted them.  These opened an unfamiliar world to the public and presented them as somewhat romanticized possibilities.  I kept seeing photos of the marvelous Ensete ventricosum var. maurelii, the Red Abyssinian Banana, shown growing here in Portland. There’s a photo, from the 50’s with one planted prominently in front of the now gone landmark restaurant, Henry Thiele’s (check it out!) and I began to appreciate how commanding of a plant it really is.  This was a plant that could stir something in most people, it was not just unusual and exotic, it possessed a scale and elegance that could not be ignored.  The Red Abyssinian Banana became a central part of a dominant display garden in Waterfront Park I installed.  I also gave it a prominent place at home.  This tropical’s value rose, becoming worth the extra effort it requires to get it through a typical winter here.  This is what it often comes down to, what we are willing to do for ‘love’!

What I found was that if I took care in the design as well as in the care of my beds, if I chose plants well, plants that ‘worked’ with the others on the palette and placed them in ways that did not diminish them, then people would take notice and treat them more respectfully.  If I didn’t, if the composition was blah, if my plant choices themselves contained none with any ‘wow’ factor, if they were only adequate blenders or used simply as space fillers, neither I nor anyone else would really notice or care.  These landscapes would just become yet another unexceptional non-experience. 

When working with rare or uniquely remarkable plants there is the ‘danger’ of wasting them, of placing them poorly, in masses that diminish their visual effect or in ways which compete with their neighbors, almost criminally diminishing them.  Plants need space to grow properly and even more to be seen to their advantage. Designers sometimes refer to ‘negative space’, that space that surrounds a plant that remains open of visual competitors, not necessarily vacant of plant material. Many of us have a tendency to ‘fill’ all available space, the ground and the space above it…that space above is what I’m talking about. If you fill it, crowd your special plants too much, you lose their aesthetic value, and with it, you lose the public.  The public will fail to take notice, fail to be affected in a positive way. The public will respond by ignoring them, by treating them as barriers at best, obstacles.  People I found responded directly to my work.  If my work excited me, then more than likely, it would excite more of them.  When plants  are arranged, set in the landscape to accentuate their forms, to show them off to their best advantage, in ways that make sense to the plants themselves, so that they might compliment one another, they will draw the public’s attention from all but the most jaded and indifferent.  In a sense as garden designers, we are like make up artists, lighting experts and cinematographers attempting to show our ‘performers’ to best, or intended advantage. We are ‘manipulators’ of reality with the power to affect those around us, often unbeknownst to them. What I found was that if I used particularly, ‘wow’ plants, charismatic plants, capable of drawing the curious on their own, then the effect was amplified even more.

When part of your goal is to show viewers the true beauty of plants, you are going to pay more attention to your selections.  What calls to me? What stands out?  What is it about them? Is it their color, their form, their flower or something else?  I discovered many things while working with plants in public landscapes and two of the most important were to keep in mind at all times that whatever you do should be beautiful and, the plants themselves, healthy.  Because plants are living organisms it is difficult to separate these two whether you are looking at the scale of a single plant or an entire landscape. To be successful we must care for them, being responsive to their requirements. If we can’t, we should replace them with something within our abilities and capacities to do. Nothing is so sad as an unhealthy, poorly cared for plant or landscape. Healthy plants tend to be beautiful, because beauty itself is an expression of health, the full expression of an individual, whatever the species. We respond to both…as we do their absence.  It is essential that both of these are in our lives and that we have the opportunity to live in a world in which they exist, every day, whether we as individuals recognize it or not.  People have a visceral need for these qualities in the world around them, we can tolerate only a limited amount of their diminishment, their loss, before our lives themselves are diminished.  When much of our lives become dominated by ugliness, and disease, our need grows more acute.  So, several years into all of this work, I decided that an important part of my own mission was to be a horticultural outreach worker, a public educator and advocate for plants and beauty in our landscapes and our lives.

Fender’s Blue Butterfly, a rare Willamette Valley native of a nearly completely destroyed savannah and prairie system.

We do not all have time to regularly commune with wild, undisturbed nature, to visit pristine wildernesses, groves of venerable old growth forest, Doug Firs and Coast Redwoods, to visit the geological beauty and botanical rarities of places like the Owyhee country, the Sugaros of the Sonoran Desert, the Joshua Trees of the Mojave, Yosemite and the countless other intact incredible natural landscapes that remain.  Each of these places contain flora and fauna that have become emblematic of these places, iconic species, along with the thousands of those necessary and overlooked.  One cannot stand before a mature, majestic Coast Redwood and not be awed by it.  As western and largely urban dwellers we have effectively banished this kind of life from our daily world.  The native Garry Oak savannah that once covered much of the Willamette Valley and its prairies are now mostly gone to farm and urban development. In many ways the Willamette itself has simply become an engineered flood control project, the river itself contained and controlled.  The gnarled and majestic Madrone that skirted bluffs above the Willamette and stood out on rocky bluffs scattered across the Valley floor, are nearly as rare as Western Meadowlarks and the Fender’s Blue Butterfly, nonexistent within our cities and towns. So, we have to take advantage of the opportunities we do have to breathe beauty and health back into ours and our neighbor’s lives, the landscapes available to us, to awaken our sense of connection to all of the places essential to where we live and to our own lives, though they are largely forgotten. Ignorance doesn’t resolve this. 

A sprinkling of snow in the Owyhee river canyon.

Our modern aesthetic is sorely lacking.  Arguably, we don’t have one, beyond a simplistic idea of utility, plain and static.  A simple plan, with relatively large sweeps can be very relaxing, calm even..,but simple designs often require a heavier maintenance hand to keep them as such. This kind of simplicity often connotes rigidity and fixity over time. Nature rarely is simple, fixed or rigid. A well managed grass lawn requires regular work. It isn’t sustainable. A garden made with some attempt to create communities of mutually beneficial plants will be more stable and enjoyable in the long run, but these demand something from us, our understanding and commitment, that we value them. For me a beautiful garden keeps all of the relationships ‘alive’ and gives health, in its fullest sense, a high priority! Healthy plants growing in a healthy garden community, is the definition of beauty. Beauty is then not a fixed, limited thing, it is dynamic and sensitive to a particular site, not necessarily duplicable anywhere else!

This brings me back to the charismatic mega-plants, those plants by dint of their stature, structure and grace alone can call to us.  We need these more than ever today, but we must be judicious in their use. Giant Sequoias don’t belong in postage stamp gardens.  We must still think about scale so these plants can be displayed to best advantage, where they can work their magics upon us.  Earlier this year many people followed the flowering of the Amorphophallus titanium on the, Vancouver, WSU campus, via webcam.  Others made the pilgrimage and stood in line for the transitory experience. We need to bring plants into public places, make them accessible, not limit them to secret back gardens or locked away in collections. 

This will take some boldness on our part and entail some risk to the plants themselves.  We all know that their are unethical individuals out there who will steal what is rare and valuable, but we need to plant these anyway…and we need to place ourselves at the ready to provide visitors with the information that will make these and other plants more accessible to the curious, render them less intimidating, hanging information sheets near by, labeling them and taking our own time to educate the curious public that stops by.  I used to enjoy this a lot when I worked in our downtown Parks.  Knowledge and familiarity encourages others to join in, perhaps providing them with a reason and the support to take a more personal interest in gardening and the living world around us.  Baby steps, starting with mega-flora!  Opening the door to the jewels and tiny treasures of the world.

The photo above left, was taken in Kew Gardens, one of the UK’s must illustrious and a center for plant research. The other two are taken on the WSU, Vancouver campus during the flowering event of their Amorphophalus titanium.

This is a kind of ‘holy’ mission. One of re-establishing our connection to the living world one our society has largely abandoned, relegated to obsolescence, reduced to simple things of utility or rendered quaint, archaic, superfluous or perhaps marketed as objects or destinations of limited beauty to be held or traded, fixed and limited, expendable luxuries, but ultimately of little value. Many have lost their relationship with the living world and most of us are in a scramble for meaning in the world and our own lives. This is having devastating consequences. We spend much of our lives searching amongst the things offered to us while the world continues to ‘break’. In gardening we begin to find the integral value of the living world, value well beyond that which pop culture bothers to recognize, that the ‘market’ attributes to it. We learn that the value is in the doing, in our relationships with the living, in its health and inherent beauty, not something to be chased and acquired in the constantly changing world of human markets, which thrive on dissatisfaction and our ‘hunger’ for fulfillment through acquisition and consumption. Gardening gives us a role in the building and growing of the living world. Sure our participation in the economy is necessary, but we and life can’t allow it to be the distraction that it has become. Take our gardening efforts out to the street. Share them with your neighbors.

I would like to see more gardeners reclaiming their front yards and its public space, planting more of interest, being less concerned about defensible space, convention, boundaries and barriers and take the risk to plant as they might for themselves in the privacy of their backyards, sharing more of what they value to inspire gardener and non-gardener alike. And I think the best way to do this is to incorporate some charismatic mega-flora in these front gardens. Plant large, bold and unexpectedly. If it fits, why not a Gunnera, Petasities or a Tetrapanax. Why not Palms or a large growing Agave or Phormium? And, while we’re doing this protect our large trees which gain value and character over the many years of their lives. Add some Restios from South Africa, large flowered hybrid Hibiscus bred from multiple native North American species, giant timber Bamboos, an iconic Madrone or Garry Oaks. Plant large growing, xeric Manzanitas, train them up to reveal their beautiful trunks and bark. Be bold! Take the spotlight and bring a little ‘theater’, a little ‘drama’, to your front garden. We’ve had too much of useful, boring and functional…nobody cares! We need to care and project that same sense into the community. Where are our old habits and patterns getting us?

Monte’s Flowering
It is 212 days since ‘Monte’, my flowering ‘Agave montana’, began its final act as a monocarpic plant…at least since we first noticed it. Monte, along with several of my other curb side plantings, such as my now flowering Echium wildpretii, another stand out Dr. Seussian, that one from the Canary Islands off of the coast of Morocco, have been drawing the attention of visitors and passers by over the course of each of their lives because of their stature, form and color of the beautiful and simple basal rosettes they form and because of their very public placement and location along my south facing sidewalk. At first it was our neighbors and local employees who noticed, many from the Fred Meyers headquarters, who already included our garden on their regular walks. It’s not just the gardeners who would say something to me if I was working nearby. Those, non-locals, with enough familiarity with plants would sometimes come across to do a drive by and stop for closer examination. “I didn’t know those would grow here!” and some variation of, “What is that”…would be a common question. I still hear daily variations on, “OMG…look at that giant Asparagus!” The rate of these visitations quickly began to accelerate when the Agave’s processes of flowering became more noticeable.

I began to post photos and ‘updates’ regarding the process on ‘geek’ Face Book pages and so did random people who passed by. We live on somewhat of a regular commute route. Within a month of beginning, the peduncle, the flowering stem, ‘shot-up’ to about ten feet, five feet above the height of the stiffly leaved rosette, the ‘stem’ about 6″ in diameter. More and more people began taking notice and many of these began stopping to pose with Monte, taking selfies or having friends shoot them. The level of excitement climbed. People became more likely to engage me in conversation, to question me about what the heck it was and what was going on. I began taking more and more time to explain. Eventually, I decided to take advantage of the event for a little horticultural outreach and hung a double sided information sheet on it. People read it…and not just gardeners.

Monte has become a destination for some. Friends bringing friends to see it. Parents bring their children and more and more people were stopping simply because they were on their way to someplace else when they couldn’t help but notice! and they stopped. Parking their cars, circling back on their bikes or stopping purposely later on their return trip home. This continued on through November, December and January even though any evidence of additional growth had stopped. My climbs up the ladder with camera and measuring tape, took a break as well. Then, in late January, growth began again, very slowly, with the tightly adpressed and overlapping, imbricate, bracts, which sheath the stem, beginning to swell out, pushed out by the developing buds and flowering branches beneath them. With this, at least on decent weather days, the frequency of visitations increased. The top portion of the stem continued to swell turning its surface into an out of proportion, lumpy, knobby, crown on the stubby shaft. It began looking even more bizarre, out of balance. Surreal. As this continued more and more visitors began coming by.

Now it may be related to the economic slowdown and so many of us sheltering in place, our lives slowing down, simplifying, but I think people’s reaction without COVID would be much the same. Monte’s flowering has become an event. ‘He’ has become a local celebrity of sorts, with hundreds of followers. People have been Tweeting about it and posting Instagram pics. It is common for little groups of visitors to congregate around it, generally safely spaced, talking animatedly, those who I’d already shared information with or those who had read the attached information, perhaps adding what they themselves may know of Agave and gardening, to those who don’t. I have been meeting neighbors from down the street, commuters who have been driving by for years who appreciate my garden and gardeners who’ve made trips from across town to see what they’ve only previously known from posted pictures. One garden friend drove down from Puyallup, WA, on a plant nursery run, who wanted to see it, and, almost everyone of these people have said something about how they had thought that the pictures probably distorted the perspective, that it couldn’t possibly look quite so…large! Many of these would exclaim about how much bigger and stranger it looks in person!…how it elicits from them some kind of ‘prehistoric’ feeling. People, who don’t necessarily know each other, often excitedly share, gardener and non-gardener.

There are regular visitors coming by weekly, now startled at the progress. Several families are among these, because the kids want to see what Monte looks like today. Some parents are taking their walk here as a science teaching moment for their home bound kids.

I did have to put in some 3′-4′ bamboo stakes, because some people were walking across or into the bed to pose, crushing plants below their level of perception, compacting the soil in the process, not unlike many of the Instagramers we saw last year when we visited Carrizo Plain in California, to experience the super-bloom! I certainly get the attraction, but come on people!

All in all I see this as a wonderful thing and I’m enjoying Monte’s flowering more because of what this event has become. Many ask if I’m sad because Monte will die at the end of this process…and I say, yes, a little. But this is balanced out by the public response to the event itself. I’m choosing to view it as a kind of ‘seeding’ that will grow into other gardens, changing perceptions of this world we’ve found ourselves in. It has given me a reason for a little more hope in a world today that is desperately in need and I can see Monte inspiring people to see this too and perhaps encourage them to do little things that can make this place and life better, to wake even a few up to the beauty already around us and to see the potential for more!

As gardeners we have the opportunity to effect this change.  We can  choose to open our gardens to a wider public, by in a sense, bringing our private gardens out to the street, placing an importance on our public spaces, our front yards and hell-strips, our schools and public places, transforming them with an eye on health and beauty.  Utility and conformity are boring and expected.  In a world of frighteningly low expectation these spaces are missing a major opportunity and leave society wanting.  We could choose to not leave our lawns dormant, declining weedy messes, with overgrown evergreen foundation plantings, no trees, over grown and declining, too often hacked and diseased, with open wounds and reminders, adding to the urban malaise that we suffer from.  Run down infrastructure, trash and the abandoned detritus and lives emblematic of an indifferent city, wear us all down.  While beautiful plants are not a cure for all of our urban ills, they do represent the hope and energy of those trying to create something better for us all.

9 thoughts on “Gardening in Public, Charismatic Mega Flora and the Need for a Public Horticultural Intervention

  1. Stine Writing

    From another blogger it seems like you live in Oregon. My boyfriends family came from there. They began the Forestry way back. The Elliot Forest, I think it is, is named after his great grandfather. His family has so much history from Oregon, I have never been there.

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  2. Katherine Brevik

    What a wonderful, thoughtful article on the role of (healthy) plants in our urban reality!
    I have designed gardens for clients for over 25 years and have seen the allure of beauty and wildness in residential settings.
    Thank-you!

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  3. intothewoodsshegoes

    So grateful to have witnessed Monte and ALL of your incredible plants. I took my 7 and 10 year old daughters and we were so moved by all of them. We are huge plant nerds and loved learning more about everything from the signs and from your blog! Thank you. I’m so sorry it has been such a nuisance for you to have people being irresponsible around your property and in the midst of this pandemic. We were careful to respect social distancing and tried not to spend too much time there. Your love and care for these plants is so evident!

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  4. Brad Cross

    Hi Lance! I live in the neighborhood and have admired your garden for years (you even met me and my Saint Bernard recently). I admit I’ve been checking on Monte several nights a week for the past couple of weeks but will steer clear for now. I’ve always wanted to tap you on the shoulder and seek your advice about my garden, but I’ll wait until all the Monty hubbub dies down =) Thanks for being a great neighbor!

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  5. Aj Rogers

    Saw Monty on reddit yesterday and walked 3 miles to see him today and did not disappoint. So beautiful. Glad I found your blog. So interesting. Thank you so much for sharing.

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