Future Viable Plant Palettes for Metropolitan Areas, Part 3

Peter Walker, FASLA, stands in front of his redesign of the UT-Dallas Campus featuring exotic turf and tree species. image: David Hopman

Peter Walker, FASLA, stands in front of his redesign of the UT-Dallas Campus featuring exotic turf and tree species.
image: David Hopman

Part 3: The National Green Industry ‘Utility’ Plant Palette

The next step forward in moving towards a better balance of aesthetics, environment, and ecology has flourished since the latter part of the 20th century with the introduction of better adapted plants by the national horticulture industry. These are the ‘workhorses’ used by landscape architects to cover large areas of ground in landscape development and to provide the structure and spatial definition desired for landscape designs. They are hybridized species of turf, groundcovers, annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees that are rarely indigenous to the areas where they are planted. The massive scale of the areas in the United States covered by these plants makes them the primary target for the aesthetically qualified native polycultures that are the subject of this series. Turfgrasses alone cover over 63,000 square miles—about the size of the State of Florida—and may be the largest irrigated crop in the United States. [1]

As in part 2 of this series on fine gardening, the priorities of the companies and the plant palettes they produce are revealed by examining the search functions on their websites. These websites show what the companies want their customers to look for and, significantly, what is missing from the thinking that is reflected in the plant palettes produced.

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Future Viable Plant Palettes for Metropolitan Areas, Part 2

Dallas Arboretum (warning sign added in Photoshop) image: David Hopman

Dallas Arboretum (warning sign added in Photoshop)
image: David Hopman

Part 2: Fine Gardening

Part 1 of this series, published earlier this month, explained the goal of promoting a plant palette that balances aesthetics, environment, and ecology. This installment begins the discussion of a variety of plant palettes and planting design approaches with ‘Fine Gardening,’ a methodology that is very out of balance with the goal of aesthetic, environmental, and ecological balance. Fine gardening is an approach where the artistic intentionality of the designer and the direct sensuous experiences for the user are often the only priority. This approach is used in many high end residential projects, botanical gardens, and other landscapes where cost is not a determining factor. For example, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the gardeners take the heroic measure of hand-snipping twice a month every third leaf of each branch of the London Plane trees that line the path of the famous Robert Irwin garden, per Robert Irwin’s precise instructions. Fine gardening is promoted heavily in many newspapers and in magazines such as Southern Living, Fine Gardening, and many others.

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Future Viable Plant Palettes for Metropolitan Areas

Crystal Canyon entrance garden in Arlington, Texas. Grasses installed by landscape architecture students from The University of Texas at Arlington and wildflowers compost seeded in. Photo taken in June of 2013, one year after installation. image: David Hopman

Crystal Canyon entrance garden in Arlington, Texas. Grasses installed by landscape architecture students from The University of Texas at Arlington and wildflowers compost seeded in. Photo taken in June of 2013, one year after installation.
image: David Hopman

Part 1: Aesthetics, Environment, and Ecology in the Creation of Plant Palettes

Essays about plants usually focus on specific plants, specific approaches to combinations of plants, practical uses for plants, plants for specific habitats, etc. These essays are indicative of the broad and continually evolving way that landscape architects approach planting design. This post takes a step back to address the issue of how landscape architects should use a clear set of principles to inform their palette of plants. By thinking first about the plant palette, new approaches to planting design will emerge that reflect the contemporary concerns of both the profession of landscape architecture and society at large.

Many design firms have design priorities that can be summed up in a few words. The ideas are sometimes illustrated with Venn diagrams and referred to as a triple (or quadruple) bottom line. The three criteria that are the focus of this series of posts are aesthetics, environment, and ecology. Other important elements, such as community and economics, can be addressed with a plant palette that balances these three important criteria. However, if art or economics, for example, are the driving generators of a plant palette, it may not be possible to bring the plants into balance with environmental and ecological concerns. Ecology is the most difficult and complex parameter to bring into balance and is currently the leading edge of future viable planting design innovation for landscape architects.

A variety of approaches to the selection of plants will be tested against the criteria of aesthetics, environment, and ecology in future posts. These posts will begin with a critique of palettes that are the most out of balance and proceed to others that gradually bring the three elements into equilibrium. The end of the series will propose a methodology for creating a palette of aesthetically qualified native polycultures suitable for the typical kinds of projects undertaken by landscape architects in metropolitan areas.

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Annual Meeting Preview: Planting Design

Ball Horticultural garden design by Roy Diblik image: Brooke Ryan, Ball Horticultural Company

Ball Horticultural garden design by Roy Diblik
image: Brooke Ryan, Ball Horticultural Company

Planting Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) Meeting
Sunday, November 8, 5:10-5:45 PM in PPN Room 3 on the EXPO floor

At the Planting Design PPN meeting Sunday afternoon during the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO, we will discuss our PPN’s goals for the upcoming year, meet the members who have been shaping blog posts for The Field and plans for Online Learning webinars, and have an opportunity to sign up and volunteer to join the Planting Design leadership team. We will have three very special guests at our event, who will make short presentations to the group and be available to meet and answer questions:

Roy Diblik
Noted plantsman and designer Roy Diblik has spent more than 30 years studying, growing, and enjoying plants. His passion for native plants and other perennials began with his work at the Natural Garden Nursery in St. Charles, Illinois, and has been cultivated through his establishment of Northwind Perennial Farm, a nursery in Burlington, Wisconsin.

Roy’s recent work includes a planting of the new Oceanarium at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and a garden for the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is best known as the plantsman behind Piet Oudolf’s midwestern garden designs, including the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Jim Urban, FASLA
Jim is well known for his skills in the areas of urban arboriculture and soils, including the preservation and installation of trees in the urban environment and the specification and installation of specialized planting soils for roof gardens, urban landscape plantings, and rain water management. Jim will present to the group about the TREE Fund, a non-governmental source of funding for research and education programs in the field of arboriculture.

Nancy Buley, Hon. ASLA
Nancy, Director of Communications at J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., will speak about the health benefits of trees and green space with an emphasis on new research, and will share a handout with links to resources and research available on this important topic.

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All Eyes on ‘Plan Bee’

Pollinator Week Draws Diverse Attention

The third week in June is home to National Pollinator Week, a week that the U.S. Federal Government and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) officially set aside in 2006 to steer our focus toward the plight pollinators are facing. It’s estimated that a quarter of all invertebrates are pollinators and in the past 35 years, invertebrate populations have decreased by about 45%, while the human population has doubled (University College of London, 2014). In earth time, 35 years is about as long as it takes for a person to blink. If this much diversity can be lost that fast, our actions must also be as swift. Fortunately this year, all hands were on deck, from local parks departments all the way up to the President of the United States. But what was accomplished? And…is it enough?

Monarch populations are at a mere 10% of what they were just 20 years ago (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014) and domesticated honey bee stocks have decreased 58% in 58 years (National Research Council, 2007). In response, POTUS announced the release of an unprecedented action plan to call national attention to the population devastations happening to wild and managed pollinators. The White House Pollinator Research Action Plan outlines issues pollinators are facing and highlights priority actions for a cornucopia of public and private groups. This is the first administration to actively address the issue of pollinator decline to the public and that is a huge step. It is also following through with its promises of creating databases of more accessible information.

But the problem is the document is filled with words like “identify,” “understand,” “determine,” and “research.” The key word lacking here is “do.” How can this be called an action plan when it is missing key action words? Even when action is mentioned, some of the measures have existed for years already. These are not necessarily new advances to protect pollinators, but rather are a distraction from our relatively unbridled pesticide use and the paucity of suitable habitat as a result. I can’t say I am surprised though. When 25% of the global agrochemical market is neonicotinoids, you are bound to run into some red tape (National Resource Defense Council, 2014). Luckily, there are groups spreading the message to put pressure on the government to make big changes…and fast.

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Spring Cutback: A Model for Maintenance

image: Liz Ligon

image: Liz Ligon

“Landscape design is the art that engages with all aspects of a sustainable world: elemental forces, materials, humans and other living beings. Thus it is the responsibility of landscape artists to create the work and develop the aesthetics that will make experiences of a sustainable world highly enjoyable and desirable.”
–Diana Balmori, FASLA, A Landscape Manifesto

In late March, the Friends of the High Line team began its annual “Spring Cutback.” For most perennial gardeners, and especially those who align themselves with the Piet Oudolf “New Perennial” aesthetic, the process of cutting back ornamental grasses and the skeletons of last season’s herbaceous perennials is as much a harbinger of spring as the first bulbs poking through the soil. In New York City this process is no different, as volunteers flock to the High Line to play a part in the preparation of the park’s plantings for another year of glorious, wild exuberance. This community event has quickly become a tradition that many New Yorkers mark on their gardening calendars, and it has particular relevance to landscape architects who are interested in creating well-maintained, long lasting, and luxuriantly planted urban environments.

The most limiting force exerted on planting design is maintenance. A recent ASLA survey of emerging trends for 2015 in residential landscape design emphasized “low maintenance landscapes” as one of the top consumer demands. Landscape architects often justifiably associate complex planting maintenance requirements with increased operational costs and consider it a potential obstacle to the long-term sustainability and viability of the landscapes they design. These constraints have spawned an exciting branch of planting design research in Europe, where pioneering horticultural ecologists like James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett at the University of Sheffield are developing seed mixes and modular planting systems that can be implemented in public spaces to provide an exuberantly diverse aesthetic spectacle with minimal maintenance involved.

These are indeed exciting developments and must continue, but what the High Line Spring Cutback illustrates is that there is another strategy to ensure diverse, ecologically functional and aesthetically engaging plantings thrive in urban public spaces. Rather than propose a planting like those being developed in Europe that thrive on neglect, the High Line’s model requires that the planting designer craft a vegetal environment that is so undeniably beautiful and easy to fall in love with that its life will never be in danger, regardless of economic circumstances.

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Pollinators & the City

image: Samantha Gallagher via Bee Safe Alexandria

image: Samantha Gallagher via Bee Safe Alexandria

Saving Native Bees to Save Diversity

Bees are one of nature’s biggest celebrities. They have been on the cover of Time magazine, written about in The New York Times, and featured in multiple documentaries with various celebrities. And there is good reason for it. Bees are responsible for the pollination of the majority of foods, including almonds, blueberries, avocados, and watermelons, as well as the pollination of many flowering landscape plants. Bees are a keystone species, and we need to rehabilitate their populations or face a serious change in the composition of our landscape and meals…which is not something I take lightly. Take away blueberries and avocados and I would have an anxiety attack. But my work is about much more than just saving the bees. It’s about biological design as everyday practice. It’s about changing policy and education to support the creation of living landscapes and not monocultures. It’s about diversity on all scales of life because diversity attracts diversity. And it all starts with bees.

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