Category Archives: Site Analysis

Manzanita, Rock Roses and Friends: The Strength to Stand

Choosing the right plant is not an easy process.  We pick a design theme, make sure our plant choices are a good match for our site conditions, are compatible with their ‘bedmates’ and won’t become overly burdensome, in terms of the maintenance we are able and willing to perform.  There are a lot of variables here.  Our expectations of how a plant performs in the landscape, as individuals and as a composition, are important as we assess their performance over time and decide how we will respond to them.  Many of us are attempting to create gardens that require less of us in terms of maintenance, that fit the conditions on the ground with minimal intervention on our part.  We may chose to create a xeric garden to minimize or even eliminate supplemental irrigation.  If we do, the plant choices we make, their spacing, the size of plants we purchase, even the timing of the planting and the soil prep we do, are all important in our success or failure.  While we attempt to keep our specific site conditions and our goals in mind, we need to be prepared for the extremes of conditions, like weather, that can occur occasionally, even if only once every several years.   Continue reading

The Strength to Stand: Surviving the Load of Ice and Snow in Portland

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The morning after the big snow along the front of my house. To the left, splayed out and weighted down, is my Butia capitata. This one, from Argentina and not used to snow, had me worried, but it sprung back. The Oleander to the right, next to the sign, was bent down to the ground from its 8’+. Further back is one of my Chinese Windmill Palms, Trachycarpus fortuneii, bent under a snow load it is used to from high in the mountains of southern China.

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

Failing Landscapes, Failing Practices: A Look at Tri-Met’s Landscapes and How We Could Do Them Better!

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I include this photo, taken beneath the west approaches to the Marquam Bridge, an ODoT property not Tri-Met, as a reference for what is commonly found in transportation rights-of-way. This is not a problem solely with Tri-Met’s landscapes. It crosses the southern end of South Waterfront Park which was one of my responsibilities for 15 years and so I’m familiar with its level of care or lack thereof. The nearest portion, to just beyond the nearest piers, was entirely neglected for the entire period except for where I cut it down to reduce the amount of weed seed I had to deal with in the Park. There is literally nothing that was intentionally planted in the entire space. It is a landscape composed entirely of weeds and it is possible because landscapes for ODoT are of an extremely low priority. It is the neighboring properties that bear the brunt of their decision. It will be interesting to see if they come under increasing pressure over the years as the expensive and undeveloped properties to their south are developed. Currently the Knight Cancer Institute is developing a hundred yards or more away. The Marriot Residence Inn, immediately to its north, has had no effect on its level of care.

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

Losing Our Urban Landscapes: Sustainable Goals and Our Crisis in Leadership

The Brooklyn switching yard. These areas must be kept clear. The fence line to the right, next to the container yard, is typical, here filled with common weeds, aggressive invasives and Tree of Heaven.

The Brooklyn switching yard. This ‘landscape’, in a modern utilitarian sense, is ideal.  These areas must be kept clear. The fence line to the right, next to the container yard, is typical, here filled with common weeds, aggressive invasives and Tree of Heaven…and it doesn’t matter.  It works and that is the priority.  Whatever results elsewhere…is not.

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

Growing Agave in My Maritime NW Garden

My picture, but not my plant. Alas! I just potted my start up to a 1gal purchased from Sean at Cistus. Agave ovatifolia 'Vanzie'. Several of these big beautiful cultivars are growing in the Bancroft Garden. It is distinguished from the species by its undulating longitudinal waves across the wide guttered leaves.

My picture, but not my plant. Alas! I just potted my start up to a 1gal purchased from Sean at Cistus. Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’. Several of these big beautiful cultivars are growing in the Ruth Bancroft Garden, in Walnut Creek, CA.  We visited on a nice 80F+ day last October.  It is distinguished from the species by its undulating longitudinal waves across the wide guttered leaves.  Each leaf can be over 10″ across.

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

The Fields Park: Brownfields, Compaction & Drainage – a Missed Opportunity

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The Park enterance, framed by the four bio-swales (I can’t bring myself to call them ‘water gardens’ as they look very ‘un-garden like’) that take runoff from the adjacent hard surface as well as from the drain system installed across the lawn. They are planted with Betula nigra cultivars along with Cornus stolonifera ‘Isanti’, C. s. ‘Kelseyii and an Iris. As you walk through the Park you will move over eight different hard surface treatments!

The Fields (Click here to see the final design plan), completed in spring of 2013, is Portland’s newest Park in the north end of the Pearl District.   While I was still with Parks I did the horticultural review during the design process and was an on site inspector, periodically, during construction.  New Parks like this one require a huge time commitment by Parks.  Selection of designers, outreach to all of the stakeholders and many other meetings involving more technical aspects of such a project all in an effort to deliver to residents a Park that is beautiful, serves the needs of residents and is affordable in terms of long term maintenance.  Before  the project is offered to the design community functional goals are set for the Park and a general design theme is chosen.  Various firms offer proposals.  Concepts are bandied about.  Eventually, one is chosen.  In this case, the Office of Cheryl Barton, a San Francisco firm, was awarded the design contract (To see what they have to say about it). Continue reading

Jefferson Circle of Waterfront Park: NW Tropical Theme & the Question of Design

High summer with a wide angle distorting it a little but....

High summer with a wide angle distorting it a little but….

Jefferson Circle lies at the south end of the downtown seawall in Tom McCall Waterfront Park helping to anchor what we always referred to as ‘the bowl’, site of the Dragon Boat races, July’s Blue’s Festival and the end of Summer Oregon Symphony performance.  The curving slope of the lawn that sweeps across the site assures attendees of a more clear view of the stages erected for big events.  Jefferson Circle and ‘5 Flags to the south, permanently ‘backup’ the temporary stages, while a third display bed, Columbia Circle, marks the main entry from downtown on the west.  All three beds share a common theme though they are by no means a mirror image of each other.

These three beds were part of Waterfront’s original design from the ’70’s.  Jefferson Circle an actual circle 40’ in diameter defined, like the others by a concrete bench that surrounds it.  Columbia is an ellipse stretched along its north/south axis, while 5 Flags is an ‘organic’ form with 5 ‘corners, each defined by a flag pole that for years displayed ours and a changing assortment of three other international flags.  Their plantings have changed over the years. I take responsibility for their current theme and most of their plantings. Continue reading

‘Reed Canyon’ and Crystal Springs Creek: ‘Reclaiming’ a Natural Area

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The east end of Reed Lake looking south.

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

Manzanita, Arctostaphylos, a Genus Whose Time has Come: Advocating for a Plant

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Many Arctostaphylos, like these A. densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ make admirable landscape plants on xeric sites. This is above Riverplace Marina on the east facing bank of the Willamette in nutrient poor, compacted fill. It shares the site with Compact Oregon Grape and a variety of local dry site natives, Mediterraneans and Californians.

Thirty years ago, when I first moved here to the Portland area from the Central Oregon High Desert country, very few people were growing Manzanita.  Those plants that you did see were local natives that you had to search out, remanent populations of widely scattered stands, in western Oregon, in the Cascades, parts of the Gorge and Siskiyous or on old stabilized dunes above the beach, e.g., near Manzanita.  They were mostly ignored in the trade, barely recognized by anyone other than those in the Northwest native plant societies and hikers who would go out on forays botanizing. When I still lived in Bend, I would occasionally order dry-land native plants, like Cercocarpus, that could be seen in the Ochocos, from Forest Farm in southern Oregon.  My first two horticulture books, other than the many vegetable growing guides I bought from Rodale Press and Steve Solomon’s guide, were the Sunset Western Garden Guide and Arthur Kruckberg’s, “Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest”…I went through them over and over again.  In the small space Kruckberg devoted to Manzanita he wrote, in the first paragraph, “Only Arctostaphylos uva-ursi…, A. nevadensis…and possibly A. patula are hardy in colder areas.”  Because I lived in one of these ‘colder areas’ this stayed with me, effecting my view of the genus.  I’ve already posted on A. patula, of it growing in Central Oregon, the eastern slopes of the Cascades and as a specimen outside of our breakfast window in my childhood home.  Other than A. columbiana, a denizen more of the western Cascade slopes and the high ground of the Coast Range, Kruckberg barely mentions the other species and forms…of which there are argued to be between 50 and 100, primarily in California and  southern Oregon.   Continue reading

TriMet’s Orange Line Landscapes: SW Lincoln & 4th to SE Milwaukie Ave

[I had been delaying the posting of this entry as I was waiting to meet the project manager with TriMet.  As I’ve heard nothing back from him, I’m going ahead and posting.  It would seem that my earlier posts concerned him, but I suspect now that time has passed and the sky has not fallen…he has moved on to more pressing matters.  It is a common tactic not to engage ‘critics’ so as not to give them any energy.  Ignoring critics can be effective, albeit, a very frustrating treatment to the one who is being ignored.]

Part 3 of the Series

This is an introductory note.  Yes, I realize I started the series in the middle, in a linear thinking world this would have been the first posting, but I live nearest the middle portion of the Line…and I have my own motives. Those of you who don’t know me, I do not mean this to be overly critical in spirit.  I’m a person who is always thinking what next? How can I do this better?  I have similar high expectations of the organizations around me.  Organizations all tend to be conservative in action.  There is a reason mature bureaucracies have a reputation for mediocrity.  It is not my intent to question the intent of TriMet or of its hired contractors.  I am a big supporter of transforming our City into a more livable place and the Orange Line is part of that.  There is nothing to be gained through polarizing a situation or setting someone up as ‘the bad guy’ and putting them unnecessarily on the defensive…having said that, sometimes a ‘push’ is in order.  We live in times of rapid change, many of them destructive, and it does no one any good to not work toward the changes that they see as positive.  That is my intent here.

I began this series with a discussion of scale and how it acts as a magnifier.  I spent some time talking about the problems caused by compacted, heavily disturbed, soils and I emphasized the issues created by a history of bad weed management…this first section of the Orange Line landscapes, from SE 11th to its beginning at SW Lincoln and 4th is heavily impacted by these factors.  Built on heavily graded and or imported fill, often on abandoned industrial sites, on or adjacent to sites that have been out of control weed generators for decades, this section may pose the biggest problem for landscape maintenance of all.

It is dangerous to assume that a new urban landscape is created on a ‘blank slate’.  Merely scraping a landscape off and beginning anew does not return it magically to its ‘pristine’ condition prior to the arrival of ‘modern’ white American culture and all of our accumulative impacts.  To be successful some effort must be expended to ameliorate at least the worst of these conditions.  Even if we make our ‘best’ effort to do this, landscapes such as these with their ‘heavy’ impact histories will present a powerful challenge to those charged with maintenance.  It is easy to underestimate the severity of this problem.  We have developed an ‘alien’ aesthetic that really doesn’t belong anywhere and as such is outside the bounds of the function of the normal cycling of energy and resources common to nature.  We impose this aesthetic and our designs on our landscapes and then expend a great deal of energy, in the form of labor and chemistry, to maintain them, or they quickly degenerate.  In some ways it would have made maintenance much simpler to have buried all of the surface beneath concrete sealing the problems beneath it.  But then the priorities of urban tree canopy, the capture and ‘treatment’ onsite  of stormwater would have been negated, the possibility of groundwater recharge further reduced and the ‘softening’ of a very hard edged urban ‘landscape’ stymied. Continue reading