Mar 29, 2006

A Matter of Timing

Interesting phenomenon: as soon as we got a couple of sunny days last week, my phone started ringing off the hook with people who "want new landscaping in time for summer." This actually is typical of this season, as it gradually dawns on us that winter may actually end some day, and we may get to spend some time outside again.

But this year things are particularly bad: all the rain has kept contractors from working, which has backlogged their schedules, which means they won't be available for your job any time soon, and they'll cost twice as much when they are. Even the most ardent DIY-er will have a tough time working the soil (yes, that muck is in fact soil) or setting cement.

So what's an impatient homeowner to do?

1. Throw money at it. There's no problem that can't be solved when you multiply your budget 4x. Hey, the markets have been on a roll lately, right?

2. Call more contractors for bids. After all, there's gotta be one that's not booked up. (Make sure you don't ask why they're not busy like everyone else.)

3. Lower your design standards. So what if you really wanted a stone patio and redwood arbor? You'll get used to the gravel in time, and you can probably get a really good deal on a charming patio umbrella on craigslist.

4. Do it yer damn self. Because you're really good at things like this.

5. Start planning now for autumn. Contact a really good garden designer now and commission a unique landscape design to be installed in the fall. Your preliminary concepts should be done by June. You can start contacting contractors in July. Get final plans and bids by August. And break ground in September. Your plants (installed in October or November) will appreciate all the winter rains, as will your irrigation budget. (Watch, now that I've said that, we'll have a drought next winter.) Your wallet won't get raked over the coals by the laws of supply and demand. And in exchange for your patience and wisdom, you'll have an excellent new landscape, at an excellent price, less than a year from now.

Oops... sun's out! Gotta go...

Mar 24, 2006

The Smart Gardener

I've just wrapped my third show for HGTV's "Landscape Smart," transforming an entire backyard on a tight budget and an even tighter schedule. As always with these shows, it was an exercise in discipline; and it evokes some principles to keep in mind even if you're just replanting a border:

Think small. Include details that will really give your project that stand-out quality -- a water feature, a specimen plant, a coat of paint -- and invest disproportionately more of your time and money into making them shine.

Think big. The smaller the project, the more important its raison d'etre. Whether it's an outright theme or just a big idea, express it boldly and completely, from the smallest plant to the tallest structure.

Be relentless. Even professional designers get overwhelmed by choices. The tendency is to overcompensate, tossing in some of everything for insurance. Don't do it! Keep your focus, and trim away everything that doesn't advance that big idea. Cut your plant palette by half; and even reduce your budget. The creativity this demands will burn like an overworked muscle... but you'll make smarter choices for it.

Be gentle. Especially if your time or budget is limited, you'll probably have to compromise some good ideas and abandon others entirely. It can be hard to let go, and the disappointment can shake your confidence. But don't take it as a failing: look instead at how much you're achieving despite the limitations. And add those good ideas to your garden journal -- you never know when you'll have the chance to implement them after all.

A friend of mine installed her entire yard herself, with a baby in tow, in one week while her husband was out of town. It's an amazing feat (especially since she had no landscaping experience) and a beautiful garden. Her secret, she confides, was to dig the holes and buy the plants for only six feet at a time; that way she was never far from being finished.

Which illustrates my last principle: Be reasonable. Don't bite off more than you can chew. As another friend is fond of saying, "done" is better than "perfect." And it's a lot more fun, too.

Mar 19, 2006

Uh... Mr. Ball?

George Ball, president of Burpee Seed Co., went on a little rant this weekend in the New York Times. His point, I think, is that proponents of man-made native plantings, whether in private or public settings, have become too dedicated to their cause — "the horticultural equivalent of radical fundamentalists" — and that we should instead celebrate the "petunias, begonias, impatiens and hollyhocks" that apparently make life worth living.

Uh... dude? WTF? I have yet to meet a pro-native gardener or nurseryman who wants us "to stop enjoying the charms of harmless and beautiful plants like Queen Anne's lace, yarrow and chicory." In fact, most pro-native folks I know recognize the value of these non-natives in attracting beneficial organisms such as pollinators and predator wasps to the garden.

But one only needs to glance around the coastal hillsides throughout California to see just how opportunistic "exotics" such as Mr. Ball's own Pink Pampas Grass clearly have overstayed their welcome, leaving little room for any other plant that could actually contribute to the local ecosystem instead of stealing resources like a freeloader grazing his way through Costco. Sorry, Mr. Ball, but to claim that "No one, and certainly no gardener, grows truly destructive invasive plants in his garden," when your own company sells the invasive Cortaderia for home gardens, is delusional. I already have talked one client — an Argentine nostalgic for the pampas of his youth — out of planting this weed, and surely will again.

Perhaps what Mr. Ball meant to say, and I may be taking liberties here, is that no one intends to grow destructive plants. No one wishes to be the object of his neighbors' scorn because his Algerian ivy doesn't respect their property line. No one imagines that their cute little shrub with the lemon-yellow flowers could possibly want to live anywhere but that one spot in her yard. But the next thing you know, the Scotch broom is covering the landscape so thickly as to create a monoculture that suppresses biodiversity up and down the food chain.

And this is the problem — not with introduced species, but with human nature: we are short-sighted optimists with even shorter memories. In our haste to endow our own gardens with nature's beauty, we forget to consider our neighbors, both near and distant. We assume that because our intentions aren't bad, our plants won't behave badly. We congratulate ourselves on learning our parents' lesson that ivy is not a suitable ground cover for small spaces — and then plant Vinca major instead.

Mr. Ball, no one —not even the most passionate advocate of native plants — wants to enslave the world with totalitarian "prohibitions of exotic plant species". We all recognize the value of the tomato, and the beauty of the tulip. But we also know the dangers of a monoculture (which, by the way, you forgot to mention in your canonization of the potato). In fact, you are right on one count: "lush diversity" is exactly the goal of any good gardener. And we want to experience that diversity not only in the beauty of the flowers we plant, but also in the butterflies, birds, and other creatures that visit them. Which is precisely why we must judiciously limit the use of "exotics" that have the potential to overwhelm native and non-native species alike.

Don't worry, Mr. Ball: in modern society, there's little chance that your company won't be able to sell your non-native petunias and impatiens. We just want to make sure we see a few non-non-natives around, too.

Mar 17, 2006

Luck O' The Plantsman

Looking for that four-leaf clover today? Try wild oxalis, or sorrel... subterranean clovers useful as cover crops... and decorative clovers that do well in almost any damp location.

Just beware the yellow oxalis, 'cause it's as weedy as it is fluorescent. And if you have a wide-open space where you're considering putting in lawn, plant a nitrogen-fixing clover there for the next couple of years instead. With a little mowing, it might do even better than grass... and if not, at least it'll enrich the soil with plenty of nitrogen: just till it into the soil before putting in the turn, and your lawn will thrive!

Mar 16, 2006

Native Plant Sales this Spring

It's just about time for nurseries and collectors of California native plants to host their Spring sales... come take a look at what's coming up!

Mar 9, 2006

It's a Spring Garden Festival!

I'm off next week to the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show… can I bring you back anything?

Last year I felt most of the exhibits were overplanted and generally overdesigned. The one standout was Ric Lopez of ModernPast Gallery, who had a very nice, minimalist exhibition garden (and if I can actually find my photos of it I'll post one).

I'll let you know what I find... stay tuned.