Jul 30, 2007

A Tree Grows At Stanford

We all know Stanford University is the pinnacle of knowledge west of the Atlantic Ocean. But while we might expect binary trees, expression trees and one particularly silly mascot, did you know the University's founder also planned a great arboretum that would be a veritable "zoo for trees," taking advantage of the region's moderate climate to grow rare and notable species from every corner of the globe?

Unfortunately, what remains in the original arboretum space planned by Frederick Law Olmsted are mostly eucalyptus and oak species as well as the palms on eponymous Palm Drive and elsewhere. The oaks are native, explicitly protected by Senator Stanford; the eucalypts were planted as fast-growing "nurse trees" to offer shade to tender exotic transplants while they established, then be removed.

As the Stanford News Service reports, in the financial crisis following the Senator's untimely death "the arboretum was neglected. Most specimen trees failed, while the heartier eucalypts flourished." When backers revived plans for the arboretum, they "upheld Stanford's vision for maintaining wooded open space, but departed from his notion of trees from around the world in favor of species native to California."

Nevertheless, today Stanford hosts a remarkable diversity of not only trees but also shrubs, vines, grasses and native plants, catalogued and annotated online in a tremendous resource. Horticultural notes, leaf silhouettes, tree walk maps, and more await you. Whether or not you've seen it on campus, this is a quick and gorgeous go-to guide for identifying, or selecting, that perfect specimen.

Jul 16, 2007

Have You Seen This Lawn?

Our good buddies at NASA have put out this image showing how much of the U.S. is devoted to turf lawns. Says NASA's Earth Observatory:

The map shows how common lawns are across the country, despite a wide variability of climate and soils. Indeed, the scientists who produced the map estimate that more surface area is devoted to lawns than to any other single irrigated crop in the country. For example, lawns appear to cover more than three times the number of acres that irrigated corn covers.

Just take a look at, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or any other "desert" town to get a sense of just how important we perceive lawn to be to our way of life. Books such as American Green explore our obsession (albeit a bit pithily, says the New York Times), and magazines such as Forbes estimate that we "Americans spent $25.9 billion on lawn-care and landscape maintenance in 2006, a figure which includes, among other things, professional services and water bills."

That article goes on to mention xeriscaping -- technically, landscaping with plants that can withstand bone-dry conditions, such as the lovely specimens offered by High Country Gardens -- but also notes that local ordinances may actually override common sense, dictating plants of a certain type or lawns of a certain size.

My clients know I believe lawn is good for children and dogs, and not much else. My neighbors despise me because I've let the gratuitous patches of lawn in our front yard die ("it's not brown, it's golden," I remind them) as I await the fall planting season. My readers know I've wrestled with the dilemma of natural vs. artificial turf for my back yard (natural won, in a split and ambiguously ethical decision involving invertebrates). But I still find that most people I talk to for the first time can't let go of their vision of a lush, green lawn. Never mind that we Americans use as much as 19 trillion gallons of water and 2.4 million metric tons of nitrogen-based fertilizer annually to care for our lawns... you've got yours, and I want mine.

Jul 5, 2007

Plant Personalities

"Garden design is far more than just choosing appropriate plants for the site and properly spacing them in well-prepared soil. It's about creating an energy or mood that makes the owner or visitor feel comfortable and connected to the surroundings."

So says Laura Crockett in the current issue of Fine Gardening, distinguishing plants that have "personality" -- the "demeanor portrayed through their weepy forms or jagged leaves" -- and illustrates with a truly weepy Hakenochloa and a truly jagged Agave.

I mostly agree. But we humans anthropomorphize plants (and everything else) so extensively, is it truly fair for garden designers like Ms Crockett or me to decide for our clients what plant embodies what personality? That weepy Hakone grass, for example, may be comforting to me but evoke a sadness in you.

More properly, I think it's unfair to evaluate plants on just one aspect (in this case, their form: weepy or jagged). I might find the flowing shape of the Hakenochloa relaxing, but you might find its yellow variegation and violet winter tones invigorating! And the Agave may be just plain scary to me, but oddly reassuring to someone with a more Gothic sensibility.

So I would conclude that a plant's "personality" is a fiction projected by those of us who have emotions (in the human sense). It's not an objective attribute, and should not be the basis for a design the way form, color and texture are. On the other hand, if you're designing your own garden (as Ms Crockett's readers probably are), why not fill it with plants who evoke emotion and meaning for you? Just don't take my word for what that meaning is.