Many of us who garden in the Pacific Northwest, and especially those of us in Portland this year, will be visiting our garden centers and favorite nurseries this spring and summer with a little more anxiety and need as we look for plants to replace those that have succumbed to this winter’s cold, ice and snow loads, all of which were more severe than what we have come to expect here. But before we pull on our boots and don our rain gear to head off for shopping there are several questions that we need to consider before we make our purchases. Not all of us draw up plant lists, but most of us at least carry in our heads a wish list of plants we have seen in other gardens, in magazine spreads and while on vacations, but if we want to avoid some major mistakes and move our gardens toward the kind of landscapes that we really want, we are going to have to put on our reality goggles and critically assess our choices…that is, if we want to avoid unnecessary losses in the future. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
(I’ve made earlier postings on this topic, but this piece actually predates those. I wrote this in 2013 while still working as a horticulturist for the City of Portland Parks and Recreation as a member of a Bureau committee that was working to define ‘sustainable landscapes’ so that we could begin to make our policies and practices more consistent with our ‘desire’ to create sustainable landscapes and protect the relatively intact ones that remain. This was a difficult process. We spent a lot of time discussing/arguing about what constitutes a sustainable landscape and ultimately the direction that Parks should be headed.
There was a large divide between those of us who saw ultimately, that the only truly sustainable landscape was one that recreated those native landscapes that preceded the massive changes that European Americans brought with them, so that our efforts should be on these, and those of us who, having spent much of our professional lives in the field doing maintenance in created/urban landscapes, arguing that these new landscapes played a necessary role in the modern world and that our designs and maintenance of them could be moved in a more ‘sustainable’ direction. These urban/functional landscapes, whether for active sports, community gardens or even many passive uses, provide places and venues for activities that native landscapes cannot.
The organizational structure of the Bureau has been built around three primary landscape ‘types’: ‘natural landscapes’ which tend to be larger and border more densely populated sectors of the City, ‘contrived landscapes’ that are dispersed throughout the City and serve the more traditional Park functions for sports and more casual social use and the ‘enterprise landscapes’ of Golf and PIR that serve very narrow functions and depend on those uses for much of the revenue that supports them. These are operated and maintained by discrete groups within the Bureau, have different cultures and priorities and view sustainability very differently. Because these are all in a highly urbanized area the degree of historical disturbance and the continuous pressures that a concentrated population apply to them, they can never by truly ‘sustainable’ in that they will always require our active stewardship to counterbalance these pressures. This is not to say that we give up on the idea of balanced/dynamic landscapes of appropriately chosen plant communities. We just need to remember that these are urban areas and be good stewards of the land. We can even move ‘high use’ landscapes in a more sustainable direction, both in their design and in their maintenance. It is incumbent upon us to do this to ultimately minimize the pressures put upon them and natural areas by weeds, invasives and human use.) Continue reading
The following is intended as a template for action or a beginning point for a discussion that is long overdue.
Landscapes are more complex than most people realize. They can go seriously awry in a very short time. Undisturbed native plant communities are relatively stable and are able to respond on their own, as they have for millions of years…if the disturbances they suffer are relatively small. Unfortunately these plant communities have been decimated in urban and most rural agricultural areas severely compromising their abilities to respond in a positive and effective manner. The addition of invasive species to the region puts even stable, undisturbed plant communities at risk. Because we are not all ecologists, or even gardeners, what can we realistically do to stop or reverse this process of landscape degradation? The decline of our landscapes is linked to a long history of practices that have ignored the value of both our native and contrived landscapes, a belief in a right to ‘dispose’ of the land in whatever way we so choose and our denial that this destruction matters. We have done this through our land management practices, our designs and the uses of the land itself even those that may seem unrelated, many that have become automatic in our society and are directly related to how we live, work and play today in the modern world. Our active threat is inherent in the way that we do business. Our attempts at correction are, too often, limited to only slight modifications that do not put any undue ‘pressure’ on our local economy, business or the privileges that we have come to see as ours. We are a society that has, in short, become disconnected from the realities of life at the local level and what is required to support it. We see a limitless nature that is there for our use. Whatever we may need, we believe that we may merely buy from elsewhere, an elsewhere that is limitless though undefined.
To turn this situation around, or to make significant improvements, requires that we examine what we are doing now, that may be working against the goals that support life and landscape,…and stop. We have to stop doing the things that are working to continuously disrupt the ‘healthy’ functioning of the landscape. If we don’t do that then all of our attempts at improvement, all of our tweaking of our system, will come to nothing. We cannot ‘save the patient’ with good thoughts while they bleed out. Continue reading
Trees fail all of the time and when they are older, this can be quite spectacular, or devastating, if your car, home or an individual have the misfortune of being in the its path. Like most people I used to believe that most such failures happened as the result of storms, and many do, but it is relatively common for trees, or major limbs, to come crashing down with calm conditions in the Spring. The new flush of growth brings with it a great deal more tissue and water weight than a tree in active growth has previously supported or, for a tree struggling, compromised by the burden of significant rot in its core and/or limbs. Look at any tree and look at its girth, its canopy spread and on many species, its long, often horizontal limbs and try to imagine their weight. To help with this fill a couple of buckets with water, lift them and try to hold them horizontal away from your body. Trees are static structures, comprised of countless overlapping fibrous layers, much of it hard and rigid with a great deal of compression and torsional strength. The were ‘born’ for this. Few of us would last for more than a few seconds trying to support so much of our own weight on extended arms. We shouldn’t be surprised when they fail, even as elegant and as well ‘engineered’ as they are. Continue reading
When we garden in the public view, and most of us do, at least where we front along the street, or even when we invite others into its more private and inner sanctum, and we grow plants successfully, people are going to ask you: ‘What’s that?’ ‘I didn’t know you could grow those here!’ and, ‘What did you do? they always die for me!’ In short, if you’re successful, people will regard you with respect and assign to you the attributes and position of ‘expert’…when all you did was try to follow the gardening maxim of ‘Right Plant, Right Place!’ In short, you tried not to kill it. Genuine expertise requires broader experience, study even, that the simple buying and planting of one particular plant cannot earn you. If you’re like me such easy success and adulation, can be embarrassing and often serves as a prompt, to look through books, search the internet and ask others, that you know who have way more practical growing experience than you yourself do, and gradually, the assignation of ‘expert’ feels a bit less flimsy, maybe even ‘earned’. I often tell gardening friends that I consider myself to be more of a dilettante, flitting from one plant or group of plants to the next. Inquisitiveness has always been a part of me and growing one Penstemon, one Banana or one Agave, never adequately ‘grounds’ me. Grow a few more and I feel a little more comfortable with it. Look into some of its ‘cousins’ and the particulars of where something grows, its climate and soils particularly, and I feel ‘better’, much like I did when I was preparing for mid-terms at school. And then I move on, my interest sated for the time being, somewhat comfortable in what I know and curious about the next group. Over time they all start forming a bigger picture out of what once seemed like a massive, unknowable puzzle and I enjoy solving puzzles. Having said this, I still don’t consider myself to be an expert, just an avid and focused gardener. Continue reading
I’ll bet you thought this was going to be about the hours of meetings wherein Council pours over the issues surrounding the plantings and landscapes of which the City has responsibility…Hah!!! No, this will be a bit more mundane, hands in the ‘dirt’, and about some of my experiences gardening in the limited ground around City Hall, as well as some observations and comments on what it’s like to garden in such a public spot. There’s also a bit of hand wringing and hair pulling here. I’ll be telling two short stories of gardening, one on the 4th St side, but first the 5th Street side of the building. Continue reading
The landscape is the land we live in. It is the place and the territory that surrounds us: built, disturbed, neglected or purposeful. A garden is a piece of that landscape that we have defined as special, that we have applied our own purpose to, a theme, above and beyond the natural forces at work across its face to grow plants of our choice. Many urban places are feral, once domesticated, now gone to ‘weeds’. A few pockets may be as nature made them, eroding at their edges, surrendering little bits of themselves to exotics tramped in on our boots, the hooves of our horses, the hair of our dogs, floated into place by streams or rivers or flown in by birds and on the wind. Most landscapes exist somewhere on that continuum between undisturbed nature and the wastelands we have left in our wake of disturbance, vacant land waiting in that limbo, land on its way to purpose, value and development. As Portland became urbanized over the last 150+ years the land has been literally transformed, become an expression of our culture, via a matrix of values and forces, that act as a particular and devastating template, a process that is still occurring and will continue to do so as long as value is measured in dollars, and demand, fashion and greed, keep cycling and reinventing this place we have made our home. These in-between places are what French landscape architect, Gilles Clement, calls the Third Landscape. Few areas are they that have escaped this process. The Reed Canyon, that contains most of the headwaters of Crystal Springs Creek (another spring lies within the City Parks owned Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden), the last of the free flowing such creeks on the east-side, may have been spared the heavy handed re-contouring of its terrain, but it has suffered much over the years anyway. Continue reading
The Pruning Series, 3
Plants often present pruning challenges to the gardener. I’ve already introduced the issue of understanding ‘why’ you are choosing to prune, the physical structure of a ‘normally’ growing individual and how it will respond to the cuts you choose to make. There are several good books out there that discuss how and what constitutes a ‘good’ individual cut and what approach you might take with different types of growers…it should be the goal of any gardener to understand the technical details of pruning, so that they become ‘natural’, reflexive. (In an earlier posting, I discuss pruning tools and provide an introduction to what constitutes a ‘good’ pruning cut.) Like all artists we develop a style that may distinguish us from others. Even understanding all of this and possessing the technical competencies there are the ‘aesthetic’ decisions the gardener/pruner must make. Two different gardeners can prune in the same landscape and it can be obvious when they are finished that they have very different aesthetics. The results can be ‘disjointed’ or harmonious. Every plant, every branch, every internode, presents a choice and because each individual plant of a given species or variety, though it may grow following a shared genetic code, will grow uniquely in response to the physical conditions it faces…and the damage and pruning it has received over its life. Like most things in life our control of a plant is limited and the more we attempt to control it the less like itself it will be. Continue reading
The Pruning Series, 2
I’ve heard it said often enough that trees and shrubs got by just fine for millions of years before we started pruning them, so why do it now? That’s a good question and if you can’t answer it, you shouldn’t be pruning. Horrible examples are all around us. Trees repeatedly stubbed off their natural branching form and elegance destroyed. Others sporting long scars where someone removed a branch with a single top cut causing the branch to drop pulling a long tongue down the trunk where it was still attached. Still more with split trunks and scaffold limbs where multiple sprouts, vying for dominance fail and tear down. Poor pruning has lead to the collapse and premature deaths of many trees and reduced many shrubs to inelegant space fillers jammed up agains buildings. The first thing you should ask yourself is, ‘Why I’m I doing this?” Continue reading