Category Archives: Landscapes

This Life: A Memoir, Gambol and Botananomical Tale

Sharpless 249 and the Jellyfish Nebula Image Credit & Copyright: Eric Coles

Sharpless 249 and the Jellyfish Nebula, Image Credit & Copyright: Eric Coles

 

I hope that you will forgive me this departure into verse, prose, whatever this is…another thread in my life.  I don’t think it is too far amiss, because, after all, horticulture is the ‘art’ and science of growing plants.  Originally I began this as an idea for a children’s story, yes I did, the life of a particular Dandelion, but, probably due to my more recent reading on topics like photosynthesis, cellular metabolism and a biophysics response to the question of, ‘What is life?’…it has morphed…considerably.  When you read this, keep in mind that my intention was to write from the perspective of the Dandelion, a concept pretty incomprehensible to a modern American. 

The Taraxacum Cycle

Stories all begin with a single word, a seed, around which they grow, nurtured over time by the things we all share in common, family, history and experience.  They contain ‘truth’, but are not themselves true, because they must be told in such a way that they lure the reader in and are ‘believable’.  They are organic and grow within us and to the extent that they reflect our own ‘story’, that they meet our expectations, we stay with them and them with us, because there is no story if it is forgotten.  So, the author must manipulate what he knows, he must ‘lie’, to bring you in and keep you, weave truth and lie into a whole.  We take the stories you already know and introduce our own characters, set them in exotic though familiar settings, and, if a writer is good, introduce enough, but not too much, that is ‘new’, different from your cultural experience, your expectation, that you are affected by its unfolding, that you become a part of the story and look at your world in a different way, even if only a little bit.  The word here is Taraxacum. Continue reading

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

Weeds, Politics and Commitment- When Doing the Right Thing is Outside of the Box

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This view is from the northern property line looking westerly toward 27th which runs between the white and gray warehouse buildings. The tall ‘coppery’ growths are the seed heads of the Knotweed. Much of the middle ground is buried in Blackberry while Clematis can be seen to the left now hanging from a neighbor’s tree, and is more than capable of burying it completely. The brick at the bottom of the frame is the cap of a low wall the northern property owner has built.

[There is a recurring theme in several of my postings and that is the failure of various of our local agencies and departments to responsibly care for the landscapes that they are charged with, a responsibility that is secondary to their primary mission and priorities.  The fact that this problem is so common is indicative of two things: first, that society views the ‘care’ of the wider landscape as a non-issue, that it is either somehow self-regulating, the mother nature thing, or, of such low importance that it need not be addressed, or some combination of these two, and, that our need for government accountability is so tightly defined and our mistrust of it, so deep, that our ‘exclusionary’ strategies utilized to accomplish this, eliminate the possibility that secondary responsibilities, i.e., those not directly serving the explicitly stated priorities, are excluded from any action or even discussion.  Thus, an agency or department charged with specific transportation priorities will only respond to and act on issues of transportation efficiency and safety…not landscape concerns.  My position is that this allows the uncontrolled spread of weeds and an overall decline of the health, beauty and vitality of the landscapes across the City within which we live, devaluing both the place that we live and the quality of lives we can enjoy.

The following is another example of one such landscape, in southeast Portland, this time a one block section of unimproved right-of-way, or roadway (UROW), a scenario that repeats regularly across this part of Portland, the difference being that the lack of vehicular traffic and the grade have allowed this property to grow in solid and has become impenetrable.  Many other such properties are in use by vehicles with sections of them graveled and eroded, huge pot-holes turning them into obstacle courses, but largely free of heavy weed growth, or at least free of many of the larger more aggressive invasives that plague our area.

First, below, is a descriptive piece that I sent to Commissioner Novick’s office as well as Suzanne Kahn, PBOT Maintenance Group Manager.  Next is the response I received from Cevero Gonzalez, Constituent Services Coordinator, with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and finally, my interpretation and response to that.  Governments are very ‘conservative’ organizations and are risk averse, meaning they tend to do what they’ve always done avoiding creative solutions that put them outside their comfort zone.  Very often this is exactly what is needed.]

There’s a short strip of ‘street’ a few blocks south of our home and garden at SE Schiller between SE 28th Ave and 27th.   It appears to have never been paved.  It’s not currently passable by vehicles of any type without engineering and improvements.  It’s completely overgrown with several invasive plants and multiple weeds all of which have been left on their own for years providing a significant source of ‘infection’ for the neighboring properties.  It is also a repository for trash.  From maps this appears to be a City of Portland property.   Continue reading

What Really is a Sustainable Landscape & Why it Matters

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I took this at Cape Horn in early May ’15 in one of the ‘wet’ woodland ‘terraces’. The native Delphinium gives it a fantastical appearance. If we could create this landscape anywhere in the City I can’t imagine that it would withstand the level of use and inevitable abuse it would receive let alone the ‘weed pressure’ it would suffer. Perhaps there are a few places that such a landscape could work but it would require that we have all of the surrounding landscapes ‘under control’ and that we educate the public so that they would understand and respect it enough to stay away. Our numbers alone even if most behaved themselves would make its survival difficult.  Ultimately, this is just what is necessary, re-establishing the public’s relationship with nature and the wild world.

(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.

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There is space and need for many different landscapes in an urban area. This is in the garden at South Waterfront Park along the Willamette River and is intended to be a contemplative refuge from the business of the city. It is layered and carefully orchestrated though its goal is more aesthetic than to be a ‘natural’ plant community. It requires considerable regular ‘grooming’ and editing to maintain in order to show off the plants to their best advantage. This garden was designed for multi-season interest especially through the summer when our native Willamette prairie landscape slides into dormancy.

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

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