Dec 30, 2006

Going Straight

You're a romantic at heart, and you want your garden to feel soft and flowy, so you're absolutely positive you want curved beds, an undulating margin of lawn, and a gently meandering pathway. Nope, no straight lines or hard edges for you, right?!


Actually, straight edges may be the best way to make your garden complement your home. After all, isn't the biggest, most significant element on your property… your house? And no matter what style it is—rancher, Tudor, Eichler, Codder—it's got straight edges. So when your garden reflects and extends those lines out into the landscape, you visually anchor your house to its site.

Furthermore, straight lines are the essence of practicality in the garden. If you're working with small spaces, you can arrange elements far more efficiently using straight edges rather than curves (think of the contents of your refrigerator: do cylindrical bottles or rectangular items nest together better)? Even rectilinear furniture is more efficient: a 4' x 4' square table, for instance, allows 16 square feet of dining space, while a 4' diameter round table only offers 12-1/2 square feet of surface area within the same envelope. And when it comes to lawn, it's just plain easier to mow in straight lines than follow irregular curves.

All this isn't to say that your yard has to look like a checkerboard or feel like a prison cell. Even if you used nothing but straight lines, you still can install plants that drape and billow over the edges, and use irregular planting patterns and varying shapes. And if you're fortunate enough to have property that "goes wild" at the edges—whether adjoining a natural open space or a neighbor's naturalistic garden—it actually makes sense to loosen up your bed edges on that side, for a smooth transition that takes full advantage of borrowed views. And if your yard is asymmetrical or unbalanced, or has a particular trouble spot, curves can actually be used to advantage, to distract the eye past the offending area.

Don't get me wrong: I've designed plenty of gardens based on curved lines, including one that was almost nothing but curves. Even in a starkly modernist garden, arcs provide necessary counterpoints to all that rectilinearity. But even if your style is as far from straight as can be, don't make yourself a prisoner to curves. Often, going straight is the best way to go.

Dec 29, 2006

A Bug In The System

And we thought Y2K was going to be bad. In the last 24 hours I've lost my Mac due to an illogical logic board, and now my email due to a power outage wherever those email servers serve emails. Dammit, people, I'm workinghere!

Actually, it's ironic because I've recently moved away from hand drafting and begun doing most, if not all, my work using CAD. So the project I was going to finish up this week is now sitting in the hands of an Apple Genius somewhere, who undoubtedly doesn't appreciate the intricacies of my work. And the email notification from the aforementioned Apple Genius, informing me I may have my repaired computer back? It's sitting in limbo somewhere, feeling unloved.

Technology. Now helping you waste more time than ever.

Dec 28, 2006

Garden workout

We all know that spending some quality time in the garden, even if it's not quite power gardening, is good for the soul. But it can also be surprisingly good for the body.

For instance, a half-hour of digging and tilling can burn 200 calories. The same time spent trimming shrubs manually can burn about 180 calories, as can weeding a garden bed. Raking leaves for 30 minutes: 160 calories. Mowing with a push mower: 240 calories per half-hour. And my personal favorite, turning a compost pile, will burn about 250 calories in 30 minutes (although I simply can't imagine going at it for that long, myself).

It's worth mentioning, though, that it's all too easy to overexert yourself, because most of these activities are low-load/high repetition. So while the first few whacks with the hedge shears seem like nothing, after minute 30 you've probably earned a couple of Advil. Ease into it with these tips:

  • Start slowly, if you haven't been exercising regularly. Build up to longer times and heavier chores.

  • Warm up and stretch muscles before, during, and after gardening.

  • Take care of your back and knees by bending at the knees, not the waist, to keep your back straight when shoveling or lifting, and by using long-handled tools and knee pads.

    It's easy to forget, in this era of leaf blowers and power tillers and soil drills, how enjoyable the physical aspects of gardening can be. Take advantage of the next dry, clear day to get back in touch.
  • Dec 15, 2006

    Front Yard, Back Yard

    Why do we landscape? Sure, we love the color or scent of flowers, or the tickle of lawn between our toes. We want a place to sit and chat, or sit and rest, or run around and play. But deep down in our lizard brains, what really compels us to move the earth around and poke plants into it?

    The answer, I suspect, depends on where we landscape. The fact is, most of us landscape our front yard for our neighbors, and the back yard for ourselves. The front yard is the "curb appeal," the "first impression," the "look at me" statement. All of these are externally driven by the opinions of other people, and reflect our insecure little ego's need to either blend in or stand out. I've worked with home owners who wanted their front yards to have the same, boring patch of lawn with a flower bed border that their neighbors up and down the street have; "we don't want to be the weird yard on the street," they told me. I've also worked with people who didn't want their yard to be anything like their neighbors'; for these people the front is the chance to express their individuality to the world, presumably for the world's amazement and approval.

    If the front yard seeks the approval that will satisfy the ego, then the back yard is governed by the id's need for pleasure and immediate gratification. The current trend toward lavish outdoor rooms, replete with televisions and dishwashers, indicates a certain unwillingness to endure any discomfort or delay, as well as a wish to wring every drop of enjoyment out of the yard. I've noticed that more clients are willing to pay a premium for larger size plants (and more water to sustain them) to make the brand new landscape look established. And built-in grill centers certainly offer a sense of fulfillment that the humber Weber kettle doesn't.

    There are lots of gray areas here — the overdone outdoor room is as much a monument to the self (ego) as a pleasuredome, and those mature plants are being installed in the front yard as well as the back. And I'm not passing judgment on any of it: we all have our desires and needs — I think we may all be human — and there's no wrong answer when it comes to expressing ourselves. There are even online quizzes to tell us whether we're an "ego" or an "id," but I wouldn't depend on that to define the style of your garden.

    Nevertheless, it is fun to ponder: which matters more to you right now, your front yard or the back? Can you identify why? There's a field called design psychology that uses psychological insights as a tool for developing the design program (often to help home sellers discover the wishes of home buyers). But don't overlook that the landscape itself can be a place that drives, not just reflects, your mental state: therapeutic or healing gardens can provide sanctuary that helps you, not just your garden, grow. Either way, begin with an understanding of yourself… a truly unique and personal yard will result.

    Dec 14, 2006

    The Great American Desert

    "When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires, many of them started deliberately by Indians or cowboys trying to scare nesters off, took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on. Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish in dry years and wet. The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant. The short grass, buffalo and blue grama, had evolved as the perfect fit for the sandy loam of the arid zone. It could hold moisture a foot or more below ground level even during summer droughts, when hot winds robbed the surface of all water-bearing life. In turn, the grass nurtured pin-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, cranes, jackrabbits, snakes, and other creatures that got their water from foraging on the native turf. Through the driest years, the web of life held. When a farmer tore out the sod and then walked away, leaving the land naked, however, that barren patch posed a threat to neighbors. It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient."

    —Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

    Read this book.

    Dec 9, 2006

    O Tannenbaum, Part III

    I still haven't been able to definitively identify an organic christmas tree farm in the Bay Area, but did find a nifty summary of eco-friendly holiday decorating tips at The Green Guide. Perhaps my favorite lead is the pointer to, a brilliant database of farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food. Just plug in your ZIP code, and it will return listings and descriptions close to you. (And if you don't know why it's important to buy where you eat, you need to read Michael Pollan's new book.)

    By the way: my observation of the energy-efficient LED mini lights is that, while they last virtually forever and use at least 75% less electricity than incandescent mini lights, their light quality is still a little harsh, with the clear/white lamps in particular tending toward a cold blue light, as compared to the canary yellow light we're accustomed to. It would be nice if (a) manufacturers could get the light quality closer to what we're all used to, and/or (b) we can just get off of our stuck-in-time asses and embrace the technology.

    No one said saving the planet would be pretty…

    Private Musings on Public Spaces

    "Design jurors tend to be aesthetes looking for elitist eye candy, not populists who admire places that ordinary people love and flock to."

    So says Bill Thompson, FASLA, editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, in a recent article that questions whether functional public spaces are any less valued by our industry that pretty ones.

    Thompson compares Columbus Park in Manhattan's Lower East Side, which he found to be "virtually wall-to-wall people intensely socializing… chockablock with people enjoying every square foot of it," with Martha Schwartz’s award-winning swirling-bench design for Jacob Javits Federal Plaza, which Thompson found inhabited by "just a few users who, to my eye, looked a bit lost in the hundreds of linear feet of green bench. And this was during lunchtime on a pleasant day."

    The importance of public parks and plazas has been scrutinized for decades, most famously in William Whyte's treatise The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte documented a number of features that bring such places to life: benches, fountains, points of "triangulation" that encourage communal gatherings, and so on. It's not for me, or Thompson, to say whether pretty, cutting-edge designs such as Schwartz's are good. But I fully agree with Thompson that no public space can be evaluated without first and foremost considering its effectiveness—obviously measurable in its popularity.

    Dec 4, 2006

    O Tannenbaum, Part II

    Continuing the discussion, a little closer to home… this originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

    Choosing a Christmas tree can be an ethical quagmire for environmentalists

    - Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Thursday, December 15, 2005

    The cultural minefield of December has another politically loaded question to tiptoe around: Will you purchase a real tree or an artificial one?

    And then, what will you call it?

    Your answer will speak to your commitment to protecting American jobs, reducing the trade deficit, preventing environmental destruction, helping us breathe and, of course, showing where you stand on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's
    efforts to counter what he calls the anti-Christian "war on Christmas."

    The choice between real and not real is especially painful for some environmentalists. Either they desecrate the Earth and chop down a tree or buy a fake one that's full of landfill-clogging polyvinyl chloride, which is kryptonite to greenies.

    Salting a tree with pesticides, then chopping it down for a mere two weeks of display time isn't a great option. Ask San Francisco forest activist Kristi Chester Vance. When she invited friends to a party at her place this month, she
    warned her environmentalist pals on the guest list:

    There will be a tree here.

    "I'm a forest activist, and there's a dead tree in the middle of my house," she said. "Geez, if I have a tree, why not nail the last snow leopard to the wall, too?"

    She acknowledges, though, that most Christmas trees are farmed like an agricultural product. "It's kind of like corn," she said. "It would be best to get an organic one, of course."

    As an alternative, Sierra Magazine, a Sierra Club publication, suggests: "For a natural look, try making your own tree of trimmed evergreen boughs, a storm-felled branch, or a piece of driftwood."

    San Francisco's Department of the Environment began a program this year for those averse to stringing lights on driftwood. For $90, the city will bring a live, 7- to 9-foot potted tree to your home for you to decorate. After Christmas, the city will retrieve it and plant it in one of San Francisco's tree-starved neighborhoods, like Bayview-Hunters Point.

    But the city isn't offering pines. Officials said pines don't make the best street trees.

    Instead, they suggested hanging tinsel on a primrose, a Brisbane box tree or a fruitless olive tree. The program proved so popular that it sold out its stock of 100 trees in four days. It will return next year.

    Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, a field marshal for the conservative counter-campaign against the "war on Christmas," will be happy to know that San Francisco called this its "Dreaming of a Green Christmas" tree program. Not that there wasn't discussion about other names.

    "Some people wanted to call it a 'peace tree' or a 'holiday tree,' " said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. "But we figured that only people who would be celebrating Christmas would want one for the most part."

    Deciding between real and fake trees wasn't always an ethical nightmare. The decision used to be more about one's tolerance for cleaning up pine needles.

    But several years ago, America's tree growers started noticing that artificial trees were steadily gaining market share. In 1990, about half of U.S. tree-displaying homes were putting up artificial trees. In 2002, that number had grown to roughly 60 percent, say growers and fake-tree makers. Purchases of real trees declined from 32 million in 2002 to 23.4 million in 2004, according the National Christmas Tree Association.

    So Christmas tree growers got serious about telling their story. They hired a marketing firm that for decades had specialized in Republican political campaigns. The firm, Smith and Harroff, advocated reaching out to Generation Y (now there's an animated "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees" interactive game on the National Christmas Tree Association's Web site), Latinos (the association's materials are being translated into Spanish), first-time home-buyers and gays.

    Now, as possibly only a Douglas fir can do, Christmas trees have bridged a cultural divide. The firm that once consulted for the Republican National Committee was cooing about landing a pro-real-tree reference on TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" show last year.

    Farmers talk about how buying a real tree protects U.S. jobs. China -- the leading exporter of fake trees -- shipped $69 million worth of artificial pines to the United States from January through August of this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Overall, the artificial-tree trade deficit last year was $145 million, according to census statistics.

    More than 100,000 Americans are employed by the real Christmas tree industry, according to its trade association.

    "Do you want to keep your money in the state, or do you want it going to China?" said Sam Minturn, executive director of the 450-member California Christmas Tree Association. He has run a tree farm near Manteca since 1970, hiring students to help him out.

    Farmers say buying a Christmas tree is about protecting the environment. The National Christmas Tree Association takes it a step further, boasting that an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people. And it's trying to be a do-gooder, too, donating 4,000 trees this month to U.S. military personnel.

    The artificial-tree industry has taken notice. And the handful of U.S. manufacturers have started to swing back.

    "The tree farmers have definitely been more aggressive with their marketing the past couple of years," said Daniel Hanley, an administrator with Holiday Tree and Trim, which points out that it has been making artificial trees for 40 years with good ol' American workers in Bayonne, N.J. "But we're really on the same side as the tree farmers in terms of not wanting to see American jobs overseas."

    The artificial-tree builders boast a celebrity endorser to counter the tree farmer's new friends from "Queer Eye." They recently were the subject of a favorable profile on "Made in America," a Travel Channel program hosted by John Ratzenberger, best known for his work as Cliff on "Cheers."

    Hanley disputed the farmers' contention that fake trees generally end up in landfills after six to 10 years of use. "We offer a warranty for 50 years," he said. "We intend for them to be heirlooms, something that is passed down from one generation to another.

    "Plus, that means that a tree has not been cut down," Hanley said. "And think of all the pesticides and fertilizers that are used to keep that (real) tree going. And it's only going to be used for two weeks. Are they all recycled after that?"

    San Francisco curbside recyclers collect about 775 tons of Christmas trees each year and chip them into mulch, make them into compost or use them for biomass fuel to generate electricity, Westlund said.

    Hopelessly torn, with Christmas breathing down your neck? Eric Antebi, national secretary for the Sierra Club, offers an out:

    "Allow me to put in a plug for Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of a little bit of oil lasting eight days," he said.

    "You've got to love a holiday that's all about energy efficiency and eating potato pancakes," he said. "With only the finest organic potatoes, of course."


    Number of people who can live on the amount of oxygen produced by one acre of Christmas trees.


    Percentage of homes with trees that displayed faux fir in 2002.


    Number of Americans employed by the real Christmas tree industry.

    69 million

    Value, in dollars, of the fake Christmas trees imported from China this year.

    E-mail Joe Garofoli at