Dec 22, 2009

The Great American Desert

[I wrote this piece a few years ago, but the History Channel's recent broadcast of Black Blizzard, along with Tim Egan's narrative and interviews with Dust Bowl survivors, makes it worth repeating.]

"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.

Nov 19, 2009

Legends of the Fall

One of the things I hear from clients who have moved to California from other regions of the country is, "there's no fall color here." And while I'll grant that the Bay Area is no New England, I have to say that this autumn the trees seem particuarly brilliant.

While lots of factors influence fall leaf color, what I've noticed this year is that [a] we had a fairly mild summer, so fewer leaves scorched and departed early; [b] the cold nights arrived with a vengeance right around the autumnal equinox, giving the trees not one but two cues (light and temperature) that it's time for dormancy; and [c] the dry summer has persisted into fall, stressing trees into withdrawing their green chlorophyll earlier and more quickly (thereby revealing the natural anthocyanins and carotene colors).

Some trees with legendary fall color include Acer freemanii (Red Maple), Ginkgo biloba (Maidenhair Tree), Quercus coccinea (Scarlet Oak), Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple), the native Acer circinatum (Vine Maple),
and of course the reliably fluorescent Pistacia chinensis (Chinese Pistache) and Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet Gum). From a drive around my Palo Alto neighborood this morning, I've posted photos of these and more at my Flickr site.

To my eye, the colors peaked late last week, so as you're out and about over the next few days, I hope you'll make it a point to notice and appreciate the colors before they come back to earth. If you see something particularly stunning, feel free to send it in. And if you have favorite autumn plants of your own, please share!

Nov 11, 2009

Landscaping Small Spaces, Part 5

As much as I love the possibilities afforded by designing larger estate landscapes (as in, trees! I actually get to spec trees!), small gardens hold a special place in my heart as well. Here's the last of five bite-size tips to make the most of bite-size spaces:

Dry out. Because small yards are often planted right up to the house, using water-thrifty vegetation is one way to ensure foundations stay dry. Check with your local water utility for a list of recommended native or low-water plants for your area. Downspouts often may be tied into main lines that collect water in detention basins elsewhere on the property; from there, the water can percolate back to the groundwater. A French or trench drain along the home's foundation may also be useful for picking up extra water. And while these drain inlets often are topped with gravel, recycled colored glass may also be used, and even lit from beneath for a dazzling effect.

There are plety of other ways to add big impact to a small space. What are some of your faves?

Nov 2, 2009

Landscaping Small Spaces, Part 4

As much as I love the possibilities afforded by designing larger estate landscapes (as in, trees! I actually get to spec trees!), small gardens hold a special place in my heart as well. Here's the fourth of five bite-size tips to make the most of bite-size spaces:

Get wet. A modest fountain can create a big impact in a small space, especially with interesting lighting. Vertical columns of basalt rock can be drilled to create a naturalistic water feature, or employ a classic or modern container for a more elegant effect. A product such as the Aqua Box makes installation easier than ever. One or more translucent plastic tubes can be installed on end to create subtle waterfall effects, and metal salvage yards can also be a source of interesting fountain elements, from corrugated metal to stainless steel troughs that can spill into a basin below grade.

Next, I'll write about my fifth and final tip for landscaping small spaces: Dry out.

Oct 27, 2009

Landscaping Small Spaces, Part 3

As much as I love the possibilities afforded by designing larger estate landscapes (as in, trees! I actually get to spec trees!), small gardens hold a special place in my heart as well. Here's the third of five bite-size tips to make the most of bite-size spaces:

Think big. Small spaces get cluttered quickly, so resist the temptation to landscape on a petite scale. Instead, make a statement with a chunky, oversized pergola; boulders large enough to sit on; or a dramatic container that takes command of the space. Mirrors (or polished steel plates) can be used to reflect light and enlarge views; and large gates or doors, either freestanding or mounted on fences or walls, create the illusion of additional space beyond. Limit your planting palette to just a handful of species; it's far more effective to use a dozen each of three different plants, than three each of a dozen species. And if there's not enough space for all the full-size dining chairs you'd like, consider framing the dining area with a wood bench that will both define the room and provide additional seating when it's needed.

Next, I'll write about my fourth tip for landscaping small spaces: Get wet.

Oct 21, 2009

Landscaping Small Spaces, Part 2

As much as I love the possibilities afforded by designing larger estate landscapes (as in, trees! I actually get to spec trees!), small gardens hold a special place in my heart as well. Here's the second of five bite-size tips to make the most of bite-size spaces:

Be colorful. Knowing that bright colors seem to advance toward us, and dark colors seem to recede, create depth and dimension in small spaces by choosing appropriate hues. Use dark paving on patio floors. Stain perimeter fences dark brown or olive green, or cover them with dark green vines such as Hardenbergia 'Happy Wanderer'. Fill the foreground with variegated or chartreuse foliage, including Heuchera 'Key Lime Pie' and Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' or 'All Gold'. Then bridge the front and rear spaces with textures, not colors — grasses or succulents look great en masse, with a specimen pot, fountain or statue as a focal point.

Next, I'll write about my third tip for landscaping small spaces: Think big.

Oct 12, 2009

Landscaping Small Spaces, Part 1

As much as I love the possibilities afforded by designing larger estate landscapes (as in, trees! I actually get to spec trees!), small gardens hold a special place in my heart as well. Here's the first of five bite-size tips to make the most of bite-size spaces:

Go vertical. A small space quickly draws the eye to its perimeter. Interrupt that line of sight and create a three-dimensional yard with
vertical elements including tall, narrow plants (such as bamboo, crepe myrtle or 'Whitespire' birch trees); raised planting beds or berms; or freestanding trellis structures. Be sure to include accent lighting to show off these features at night. In the other direction, excavating a sunken garden can pose construction challenges, but the results can be spectacular. Retain and frame the area with a stone seatwall; include niches in the wall for candles or planter urns (including self-watering styles) and seat cushions with delicious custom fabrics.

Next, I'll write about my second tip for landscaping small spaces: Be colorful.

Sep 17, 2009

What's A Tree Worth?

Yesterday the city of Palo Alto completed its removal of some 50 trees, mostly holly oak (Quercus ilex), from sidewalks and medians on California Avenue. This is the first phase of an urban facelift that promises additional pedestrian-friendly features such as crosswalks, benches, and new red maple (Acer rubrum) shade trees.

It's a bit disturbing, especially for someone in my business, to witness the clear-cutting of an entire business district. And the barren streetscape is particularly shocking for anyone who hasn't been there since, oh, Monday. But what seems to be most upsetting for people is the fact that, for most of us, this was an utter surprise.

My studio is located on Cal Ave, and I can attest that the city did reach out with mailers advertising public meetings and soliciting comment. But none of us was told that the project was moving forward, nor given a timetable. When I called Public Works on Tuesday (when the tree removal began), I was told only that "it's part of a remodel for the street." No proposed plans on file, no renderings to review.

As Jeff Gatlin of the Daily Post reports (sorry, no link, they think "giving away news online is a dumb way to do business"), reactions on my street range from resigned to furious. The owner of Leaf and Petal thinks the removals should have been done "in increments like a fifth at a time". The manager of Szechuan Cafe thinks "it was a bad idea to cut trees that were here for 30 years." Next door, excellent Mexican restaurant Palo Alto Sol lost a huge tree that shaded several of its tables; owner Hector Sol was as hot as his salsa rojo, saying "Whoever did this is an idiot… now customers refuse to sit where they used to ask to be seated."

For what it's worth, I feel that (1) all the trees should have been taken out, and replaced, at one time — a patchwork of old and new would have looked particularly odd; (2) the deciduous, colorful red maples will be an improvement over the evergreen, dark holly oaks; and (3) Hector's food really is excellent.

But there's a lesson in here about the emotional attachments people form with their landscapes.

For better or worse, we were used to the holly oaks. Sure, their deluge of acorns made walking a bit treacherous each fall. Sure, they misted sap onto cars, people and bikes each spring, Sure, they were massive and not particularly pretty. But they were "ours," they shaded us while we sat and dined and socialized, they added a vertical dimension to a low-slung avenue, they softened the aging concrete facades. We loved those old trees — we just didn't know it until they vanished.

Twenty years from now, we will have the same attachment to the red maples. I can only hope that, if future planners decide to remove those, they will have learned that we all would appreciate a little more time to prepare our hearts for the loss.

Sep 3, 2009

The Biggest Little Farm in Napa

You've probably heard of The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller's definitive nouveau American restaurant that launched a little Napa County town called Yountville into the culinary stratosphere. You may even know that The French Laundry grows their own produce, mostly in a two-acre plot across Washington Street that brims with herbs and seasonal vegetables—from broccoli and Brussels sprouts to beans, tomatoes, radishes, leeks, and a seemingly infinite number of lettuces, to name just a few.

But what you probably don't know is that when Chef Keller needs green almonds, or white strawberries, or one of 10 types of figs or countless different culinary flowers, he travels a little farther afield: to Jacobsen Orchards.

Although it's just a few blocks from The French Laundry, you won't find Jacobsen Orchards on any map, nor is it open to the public. As essentially the restaurant's R&D laboratory, the 1.3-acre farm teems with 120 fruit trees, half a dozen varieties of melon, 18 different citrus, 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and curiosities most of us will never grow: white carrots, white miniature cucumbers, Japanese eggplant, caperberry, the odd-looking but delicious perennial tuber crosnes ("crones"), and the singular savory-acid-crunchy-juicy Ficoide glaciale.

Our host at Jacobsen Orchards was Ryan Hill, proprietor of the Hill Family Estate winery which has long ties to the land and landowner, Peter Jacobsen (aka PJ). Ryan walks the farm as if he had sown the seeds himself, bestowing samples of Korean mint and scarlet runner bean blossoms as he fluently discusses the breba crop of Brown Turkey figs. Ryan HillHe shows off the outdoor kitchen and fireplace, expertly crafted of rammed earth. And he gets our mouths watering with a description of "PJ's Peach Flambé," a dessert that sounds as much art form as recipe (below).

Nothing on the farm is wasted; or rather, every opportunity is maximized. The 'Sylvetta' arugula which has bolted? Its flowers are used in salads. The lovage which invites pollinator insects to the garden? Its pungent celery scent makes a great substitute for bay leaf. Long after those Brown Turkey figs are gone, the tree's leaves may be used to impart a coconut essence to soups and other dishes. Fennel pollen seasons fish, daylily petals are roasted into chips, garlic blossoms and lemon verbena leaves perform their olfactory sleights of hand. We and our host revel in the symbiotic relationship between the produce and the chefs who use it in their daily culinary alchemy.

CompostNaturally, all the green waste is composted, with the yield used as a mulch and reintegrated into the soil as crops are rotated throughout the seasons and years. The scraps also contribute to perhaps the farm's most precious product: snails, in fact the only certified organic culinary snails in the United States. The little critters are sourced to The French Laundry for—what else?—escargots, perhaps prepared into a fricassée with a puree of sweet carrots and roasted shallots. To accompany such a dish, Ryan recommends either the Hill Family's 2007 "Stewart Ranch" Pinot Noir, with enough acidity to complement the snails, or the silky-smooth tannins of their 2006 "Clarke Vineyard" Syrah. Happily for us, their tasting room also sells seed packets of some of Jacobsen Orchards' organic flowers and produce, so we can attempt to replicate a bit of the Jacobsen family's magic.

In the 15 or so years of its existence, I've never had the pleasure of dining at The French Laundry. If you have, most likely you've enjoyed the fruits of PJ's labors. But even if you haven't, chances are that almost any contemporary meal you enjoy has been influenced by Chef Keller. And, in turn, by Jacobsen Orchards.


PJ's Peach Flambé
As narrated by Ryan Hill and Peter Jacobsen

"This is culinary theatre, a circus act that creates a great dessert. This is not a recipe for wimps."

Serves Four

≤3 large peaches or nectarines, cut into irregular pieces
2 figs (not necessary, but adds flavor)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup rum
½ cup Grand Marnier (or any orange based liquor)
Pint or quart (depends on how much your guests enjoy ice cream) Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche

1. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the bottom of a 12" frying pan and put it over very high heat. Let it melt until clear and then let the edges start to brown. You are creating caramels. Caution! The pan will be very hot.

2. Once the sugar has melted and you have the browned the edges (brown, not black) then add the butter. Don’t forget, the pan is screamin’ hot, the butter will melt fast. Roll it around the pan until it is completely melted. You can even stir it a bit with a spatula. You are making brown butter caramel. You will love the smell and the drama. But there is more drama to come.

3. Once the butter has fully melted and has almost stopped foaming, quickly put all the fruit into the pan at once and stir so that each piece gets coated with brown butter/sugar caramel. Timing is important here. If you let the butter or sugar burn, that’s not good. Be prepared with all the fruit ready to go. You will notice, when you put the fruit into the pan, the pan is still very, very hot. That’s the plan. You want the sugars of the fruit to mix with the butter caramel and scorch a little bit as the boiling juices cool the pan down. You still have the pan on a very high heat. Temperature and timing are all in this recipe.

4. Allow fruit to sit and "fry" for 1.5 to 2 minutes as the pan cools down to boiling.

5. Quickly pour in the rum (measures get less exact at this point. Two or three glugs [a unit of measure based on the sound of the fluid pouring out of the bottle] is perfect.) Did I mention, quickly? The pan is hot, the rum has alcohol, and there will be fire. Quickly pour in the rum and get the bottle far away from the flame. This is not Molotov cocktail time. That would be too much drama. You can always pre-measure the rum in a cup and have it ready. Cups don’t explode. That is a good thing.

Shake the pan so the rum coats the fruit and starts to boil, then tip the pan slightly so the flames "see" the alcohol boiling off. Pow!, now we’re smokin’, or actually you will be flamin’. (Do the French say flambé-in'?) Let it boil until the flames die down and then boil a bit more, 1.5 minutes, to get the juices hotter and thicker.

6. Add the Grand Marnier, and repeat step 5.

7. Allow the fruit and juice to boil down until the liquid becomes thicker and concentrated. It is thick enough when the bubbles of the liquid start to get very small.

8. Scoop over a bit of cake or beside a nice dollop of Dulce de Leche ice cream. The caramels of the Dulce de Leche ice cream complement the caramels of the peaches perfectly.


Sep 2, 2009

MeMe, A Name I Call Myself. Twice.

There's nothing quite so satisfying as learning that not one but two peers whom I respect a lot seem to feel mutually. Both Susan Cohan, APLD, and Laura Schaub have been generous enough to nominate me (me!) for a MeMe. I respectfully accept the MeMes, and thank Susan and Laura for their support.

Apparently the MeMe has a few, simple, rules:
1) Link back to whomever nominated you
2) Reveal seven tidbits about yourself
3) Nominate and link to seven other blogs
4) Notify your nominees with a comment on their blogs
5) Notify your nominator(s) when your "acceptance" post is up
Personally, I think there should be two more rules, to keep the whole "power of seven" thing going. Wait, that's not one of my reveals, is it? Good. Because what I really want you to know about me is:
1) I detest incompetence. Including my own. It's not that I'm a perfectionist, exactly: I know "done is better than perfect." It's more that if there is a better way, I want to learn it. A better tool, I want to use it. A better design, I want to make it. This is why I'm not the fastest at my craft: I react viscerally to releasing a product that doesn't live up to its potential. Let's get beyond "good." Let's get to "amazing."

2) I am addicted to creativity. My jones encompasses not just landscape but also graphic design, writing, advertising (my first career and secret love), architecture, typography, cooking, music, user interfaces, tattoos, any solution or expression—I am at once inspired, awed and intimidated by the creative process, the alchemy of producing something from nothing.

3) I love improvisational theater classes. (Hint: improv isn't about being funny. It's about developing a "yes, and…" reflex that validates the present and welcomes the future.) I recommend nothing more highly if you are, or expect to become, a parent. Especially a parent of twins. Especially twin boys.

4) I am 237 days away from a certificate in Landscape Architecture. This will bring me one step closer to becoming a licensed landscape architect, legally able to develop grading and drainage plans, specify construction details and generally create landscapes as opposed to gardens. In the meantime I will be devoting about 50% of my time to school, 50% to work, and 50% to my home and family. If I nod off in conversation with you, please understand.

5) I grew up in Las Vegas. No, it didn't seem bizarre to me at the time. Yes, some of my classmates would become showgirls. Even better, there was still desert there, literally in my backyard, enough for me to understand how desperately important water conservation was (and is)—and to have my heart broken repeatedly by the endless procession of gratuitous lawns, megalomaniacal fountains, and incompetent irrigation. I refuse to replicate those mistakes.

6) “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
—Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love
7) I am a garden designer—not a gardener. The state of the yards at my home belies this. I do not share a passion for horticultivation, pinching, pruning, weeding, seeding, cross-breeding…. I enjoy the results, and I am more than happy to stand on the shoulders of others who love gardening—and to be the catalyst of others' joy in their own gardens.
Because I believe the crux of my work is to inspire you, I'm pleased to nominate the following seven inspiring blogs for their own MeMe awards:
1) Chance of Rain. As a contributor to the Las Vegas Sun and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Emily Green brings a wonderful voice and wisdom to gardening in dry places and times.

2) woolgathering. Elizabeth Perry has published a sketch a day for the better part of four years: more than 1,330 of them, in case you're keeping score. No apologies. No excuses. No shrinking.

3) House Enthusiast. Katie Hutchinson's reflections on architecture and design are graceful, thoughtful, beautiful and meaningful.

4) Garden Porn. Smart, generous, opinionated and funny, Michelle Derviss creates beauty that has literally taken my breath away.

5) Steve Snedeker's Landscaping and Gardening Blog. No pithy blog name, just straightforward advice and insights that make me wish Steve lived (or at least worked) further south. Like Palo Alto.

6) idsgn (a design blog). Design and branding news and inspiration. Nothing to do with gardening. Unlikely to accept a MeMe. Brilliant.

7) Verdigris Vie. The patina of a life well lived—Vitania's blog reads more like a transcribed dream than a delicious collection of interior design and lifestyle ideas.
Obviously I've left out a lot of people whose blogs I enjoy. I'm not even going to attempt to name names, but if you've made it this far then you should at least also check out the links over and down in the right column, there. In the meantime, thanks for indulging me, and Susan and Laura, thanks again for the nomination!

Aug 21, 2009

Futzing With The Recipe

Image courtesy GroovyVegetarian.comI've been watching more Food Network lately than usual, which can only mean that autumn is around the corner.

What I like about Food Network is that it makes food — or, more precisely, an elevated dining experience — approachable. I'm no gourmet chef, but I can still up my cooking game thanks to Bobby, Rachel, Giada, Alton et al.

However, such egalitarianism carries a risk: once I feel empowered to cook North African Meatballs, I also feel empowered to change the recipe. Perhaps I leave out the cilantro, or add a bit of nutmeg. Perhaps, when I'm making Ina's French toast, I use nonfat milk rather than half & half. Or maybe I only have medium eggs on hand, not extra-large.

Whatever, right? After all, some of the joy of cooking is experimenting, putting your own stamp on things. Except, too often I take that first bite and think, "Hm. This looked a lot better on TV." I then shelve the recipe and forget about it — never really getting that it's my fault the French toast fell flat. Somewhere along the way, I forgot: I'm no gourmet chef.

Gardening isn't terribly different from cooking. How often do we drool over the plants we see at the nursery or in the magazines, and decide to experiment with them in our own yard? Never mind that our site has deeper shade, or gophers, or a careless gardener. Never mind that winter brings temps in the 20s and that plant isn't hardy below 35°F.

Sometimes the experiment turns out great. Experienced gardeners are like experienced chefs: they know their ingredients. They know their site, the way a chef knows her oven. And they know the rules (even if that means knowing which rules to break).

But for less experienced gardeners, the experiment might not be quite as rewarding. Plants bought impulsively die; favorite trees sulk wedged into too-small spaces; and those combinations that "should" have worked, well, they looked a lot better on TV. Discouraged, we vow to never again spend our weekend in the garden.

I'm not at all suggesting we shouldn't experiment with our gardens. It's not only likely we'll make mistakes, I believe it's vital. But if you're going to take risks, take responsibility too. Know that the plant combination featured in this issue of Fine Gardening isn't well-suited to your clay soil. Know that there's a difference between a Spiraea and a Nandina, and therefore probably a good reason your landscape designer specified one rather than the other. Know that "regular irrigation" isn't synonymous with "drought tolerant."

If you're not interested in such minutiae, your best bet probably is to hire a pro to design for you. Think of it as going out to a really nice restaurant: sure, you'll pay more, but the experience will be wonderful, and you won't dirty a dish.

On the other hand, if you really yearn to be out in the garden, why not hire a landscape designer, fine gardener or garden coach to help you learn? You can be the sous chef, or at least the apprentice. You may still lose a few plants and blow through some money along the way. But when you do come up with your own amazing creation, you'll be able to take all the credit.

Aug 12, 2009

Meteor Dribble

In case you haven't heard, these are the prime viewing nights for the Perseid meteor showers. And this year's show is supposed to be especially good. Except, when I stand in my backyard, all I see is a fireball.

Yes, our neighbor has taken to leaving her back patio light on at night. All night.

Apparently she's oblivious to the fact that the fixture is of a design that emits light up and out as well as down, or that the wattage of the bulb is enough to brown a turkey at a distance of 300 feet.

This could bode well for our Thanksgiving. But any other day, this is the definition of "light trespass": the intrusion of light across geographic or property boundaries. And it's a classic case of light pollution, a growing problem which is devaluing our quality of life, harming wildlife, and destroying our environment.

I bring this up because, if you haven't noticed, the nights have been lengthening for a month or so, and will continue until we reach the winter solstice on December 21 (at 9:47 am local time, FYI). As a result, we humans are using artificial illumination more; which I believe means we have a responsibility to use it more wisely.

The most common reason to use outdoor lighting is, in a word, safety. We want to see where we're going, make it easier to ourselves to navigate around and into our home, and make it harder for unwelcome guests to do the same. But when we commit the error of my neighbor, we actually decrease our safety. Think about it: do you enjoy staring straight into the halo of a 75-watt bulb? Of course not, so you look away. Which means you don't see the fellow in the black ski mask jimmying the lock on the door next to that light.

Even if you thought you saw something, it would be impossible to see much past the glare of that lamp. Is it your neighbor, or not? Hard to tell, and given that you want to keep your neighborly relations, well, neighborly, you probably won't call 911 on him. Once again, the design of the fixture has compromised its effectiveness.

Furthermore, because misdirected light is wasted light, and wasted light is wasted power, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and others calculate that poor lighting may the US $2 billion or more annually. Nor is the cost just economic: the US alone may consume at least six million tons of coal annually to produce excess light — creating long-term environmental consequences such as air and water pollution, carbon dioxide accumulation, and acid rain that affect every species of life on Earth.

Whether you're planning your outdoor lighting from scratch, or retrofitting an existing system, there's a lot you can do to reduce these costs to yourself and your planet. I've written a white paper on dark-sky issues and effective lighting solutions, so please let me know if I can answer any of your lighting questions.

In the meantime, please turn down the lights. Your neighbors will see stars… and thank you for it.

Aug 6, 2009

Learning from the Big Guys, Pt. 3

In the previous installment of this series, I wrote about spacing plants appropriately (or not). Courtesy of my commercial neighbors in Palo Alto, here's an example with a smaller species, where tight spacing feels entirely appropriate. River birch in the landscapeBetula nigra, or river birch, is one of my favorite trees — its exfoliating cinnamon bark is visually arresting, and its canopy provides delightful dappled shade. In this cluster, the trees within each trio are planted about 14 feet on center, and the trios are about 19 feet apart. This grove would be a wonderful spot for a bench, fountain, or other lingering point. The biggest downside would be the tree roots: birches are notorious for surface rooting, which can heave a flagstone patio or invade a lawn. Placing a feature inside this grove would be a short-term proposition; and planting these trees close to a hard edge could compromise the hardscaping.

This brings me to another point: when reference books talk about surface rooting — or any characteristic, for that matter — they're not just using up ink. No matter how good your intentions, you will not be the exception to the printed rule. Fraxinus roots invade lawnFor instance, if a tree is reported susceptible to verticillium wilt, and your soil has verticillium fungus, that's not a good tree for you. If a tree is said to grow 40 feet wide, you'll have a hard time keeping it at 20. And if a tree is said to root close to the surface, that's not a good choice next to a lawn, or next to hardscaping. Here's a Fraxinus (ash) that quite owns the lawn around it. It's a big tree, not a bad choice for screening the parking lot from the building, but definitely incompatible with turf. Can you imagine trying to mow around this without scalping the roots? If you were the maintenance crew, wouldn't you stop trying?

So, given that Fraxinus roots do this, would you use the same species as a street tree in a 4' wide planting strip? Fraxinus as a street tree Perhaps it'll be fine, since the roots surface in an effort to find water and the sidewalk offers none. Me, I wouldn't take the chance. And given that this is in Palo Alto, whose choice of Liquidambar as street trees I curse every autumn (usually after twisting an ankle on one of the ubiquitous seedpods), I don't have high expectations.

But I'll keep watch… and learn from the big guys.

Jul 27, 2009

Faith, Hope…

    The Jesusita Fire raged for days through Santa Barbara, California and continued to burn until the Santa Barbara County Fire Department declared the fire to be officially under control on May 22, 2009. In its wake, the fire burned over 8,700 acres of land and destroyed 80 homes. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

On my recent vacation we passed through Santa Barbara and stopped by the fabulous SBBG, which had taken a big hit from the Jesusita Fire. Just up the road, a pile of twisted metal and black and gray rubble bore witness to the fire's devastation. On May 5, that was someone's home. On May 7, it wasn't.

Over on the other side of Mission Canyon, beautiful homes stood untouched, a testament to the latest heroism of thousands of firefighters. A couple of years ago, a Cal Fire captain in San Mateo told me that crews will focus their efforts on homes they know they can save, rather than spend precious time and resources on potentially losing battles. It was a harsh wake-up call: if your home isn't accessible or easily defensible, it's as good as gone.

Our mood was somber as we surveyed the scene. But then I noticed something odd: These charred sticks that used to be trees, they were sprouting. Growing. Regrowing. They were alive, and nothing as petty as an 8700-acre inferno was going to change that.

I was filled with hope. This is why we garden: to witness the unpredictable, play some part in the impossible. We plant a Salvia and hummingbirds materialize out of thin air. We plant the smallest of seeds and watch tiny leaves emerge after the coldest winters. We plant a tree, knowing we won't get to relax in its shade but that our children's children might. I'm sure I'm not the first to say it, but landscaping is an act of faith, a confidence that things will be all right — even if we can't know when or how.

A few weeks before our trip, the contractor remodeling the home next to ours had invited me to redesign its front yard. We both were delighted with my combinations of Phormium 'Dusky Chief', Euphorbia 'Helena's Blush', Nandina 'Gulf Stream', Festuca ovina glauca, Lavandula 'Provence' and Heuchera x 'Caramel'.

During our time away the weather had been hot, very hot, and as we rolled up to our driveway I wasn't surprised to see a few of my container plants had died. But the real shock was the house next door. My beautiful, drought-tolerant creation was… gone. All gone. Replaced by no less than the gratuitous lawn I despise. Explanation? The homeowner got cold feet, wanted "ordinary." Apparently extraordinary was too good.

I was devastated. I'm still upset. But I think of the people who lived in the house that is no more, and I realize that there are worse things than a garden gone wrong. And I think of those blackened twigs sending up their bright green leaves, and I realize that Nature has a way of righting herself.

All we have to do is keep the faith.

Jul 14, 2009

Four Degrees of Separation

What a difference four degrees makes.

That's the difference in latitude between my office in Palo Alto, Calif. (37.4 degrees, just south of San Francisco) and my current vacation spot in Carlsbad, Calif. (33.1 degrees, just north of San Diego).

Up north, we can't grow Jacaranda mimosifolia very successfully due to our typically frosty and occasionally freezing winters. Down here, the tree's vibrant lavender blooms are pretty much ubiquitous this time of year.

Up north, our soil is heavily influenced by at least four local ancient volcanoes — mounts Diablo, Hamilton, Tamalpais and Sonoma — with a resultant fertility that made today's Silicon Valley the original "Valley of Heart's Delight." Down here, with the nearest volcanoes some 4–5 hours away, the local soils are much more estuarine, sandy and lacking the minerals and clays that nourish "exotic" plants.

Up north, Palo Alto averages about 15" of rain annually, contributing to a mostly foothill woodland native plant habitat bordering on evergreen forest. Down here, Carlsbad averages about 7" of rain annually, creating a predominantly coastal sage scrub community.

Up north, our average summertime high temperature is above 78° Fahrenheit. Down here, the average summertime high temp is just under 74°F. However, thanks to the famous San Francisco fog, at night we can drop 22°F — while closer to the equator, Carlsbad drops only 10°F.

Obviously there are pros and cons to each latitude, but you can see how just a few degrees of separation can significantly affect environments and lifestyles. Where would you rather live? And if prognostications of global warming expanding the equatorial zones are correct, and Palo Alto comes to resemble Carlsbad and Carlsbad comes to resemble Puerto Lobos, how would your lifestyle change?

Jun 29, 2009

Your Backyard Vacation

Last week I met with a client whose landscaping was recently completed. As we sat poolside in the shade of an umbrella, he told me, "this is my favorite place in the world. I just step outside and I'm on vacation." Who was I to disagree?

Even if we're not attempting to recreate Bali in our backyard, don't we landscape in hopes of making a destination for ourselves, a getaway that's more "get" than "away"? I've got kids to adore, I've got a business to run, I don't have the time or the money to hop on a plane to visit a better life. Even on the hottest days, the thought of driving to the beach gives me pause: who wants to pack, schlep, do battle with the general public on crowded freeways and busy beaches, finally arriving just in time to turn around?

But when I can step outside my back door and be transported to another place or time, now that's luxury.

When I can't wait to sit poolside in the shade of an umbrella… when my favorite childhood memories return, prompted by a scent… when I feel my pulse slow, watching clouds at sunset… I have the luxury of truly relaxing. When the fragrance of star jasmine wafts into my bedroom at night… when I can invite friends over and grill an amazing, impromptu meal in my outdoor kitchen… when the butterflies waft around my face while I enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning sun… then I've got not just a yard, but a destination.

Best of all, it's not just one destination, it's several. It's a space for my alone time. It's a space for my children and me to play. It's a space to indulge my senses, and a space to retreat to when my senses are on overload. It changes with the seasons, delighting me with surprises even as it soothes me with its predictable constants.

There are practical aspects, too. Every dollar that I invest in my yard is a dollar I don't need to spend on airfare, or room tariffs, or waitstaff gratuities. My travel time is zero. No jet lag, no language barrier, no cultural adjustments needed. Also, no chance of sellouts, blackouts, overbookings or lost reservations. In my garden, I am always welcome.

We think of a resort vacation as an indulgence. Yet the most indulgent act of all might be staying home, and taking a holiday in our very own backyard.

Jun 23, 2009

Happy Anniversary, Blog

Today marks the fourth year of this blog, and it's incredible to look back and note how much has changed since that first post. It appeared almost a full year before the venerable Garden Rant, a month before the venerable Pruned. House & Garden was still in publication. There were still gardening shows on HGTV.

"Social media" really wasn't, yet. There was no public Facebook, no Twitter. (Given how much time the latter sucks from my day, this may be the most incredible change of all.) And while Google was going strong, it didn't yet own Blogspot (my original host) and therefore hadn't morphed it into Blogger (my current host). There also was no SketchUp and no Google Earth—two tools which are indispensable to me now.

Since that first post I've also moved to a new house, started (but not yet completed) new landscaping, turned 40, turned 41, won "Landscapers' Challenge," started (but not yet completed) a landscape architecture program, learned AutoCAD, abandoned AutoCAD in favor of VectorWorks, and migrated almost my entire production process from hand-drafted to digital.

I'm not really a gardener, in the usual sense, and I never intended this blog to be about gardening—no shots of my lavender seedlings, the first snowdrop, the last pepper. Instead, I hoped to interest people in the idea of gardening: making, keeping, enjoying and living in gardens. Yet there it is, over on the right, there: undeniable evidence that I've written about "gardening" 57 times, more than any other topic. I guess I shouldn't be surprised; after all, what's a "garden designer" without the garden?

I also never expected to become quite as environmentally outspoken as I have; but somehow "environment" has become my second most popular tag. Then again, it's sort of difficult to have gardens without an environment. In the past four years, our climate has changed noticeably, our state has gone into drought, and our political and corporate leaders have discovered that "sustainability" can be more than just a buzzword. In my work, too, I've become much more conscious of my opportunity and responsibility to not just make places prettier, but to make them better.

One other thing I couldn't have expected when I launched this blog was my readership. Yes, you. Just when I think I've written dreck that no one cares about, there you are with a comment. And even if you don't comment (though I wish you would), my draconian spy software tells me you're still reading, and that you come back for more. That was my greatest hope four years ago… and it's the best anniversary present a blogger could ask for.

Here's to a four-year germination: a good start.

Jun 15, 2009

Getting Your Money's Worth

I wrote previously on when and why to take on your own project. In a nutshell: do what you love because you love to do it, not to save money — then hire a pro for the rest.
But if you're inclined to do any of it yourself, you probably are conscious of the money. So whether you work with a designer first or go straight to the contractor, here are a few ways any homeowner can work more efficiently with your landscape professional:
  • Know which professional you need. Landscape designers, architects, contractors and gardeners all have different strengths, and are appropriate for different jobs. Take the time to learn how they differ and decide which is right for you before you invite them out to your site.
  • Know what you're asking for. Do your homework: What's the size of the area to be landscaped? What are some of the ways you envision enjoying your new yard? Have you ever seen any other yards or gardens (public or private) you liked? Take pictures, tear pages out of magazines, photocopy books. Do whatever it takes to clarify, for yourself as well as your pro, what you've got and what you want. And please, do it before we agree on a direction. Sharp turns are painful for everybody.
  • Know what you can spend. You didn't shop for a car without a budget. You didn't look for a house without a budget. So why on earth would you start planning your landscape without a budget? "Well, we want to see how much things cost before we commit to a budget." That's a landscape designer's dream: pay me for idea after idea after idea until we reach that magical place where ideas and budget intersect. But wouldn't you rather spend that money on the actual construction, not the pretty drawings? Just talk it over with your partner (and your financial adviser and your loan officer if necessary) and decide on a figure already. Then let your pro help you figure out how to get the biggest return on whatever you invest.
  • Know when to stay out of the way. We get that you're excited that things are moving forward. We love what we do, too. But looking over our shoulder while we work (either figuratively or literally), designing your yard for us, shopping for plants or hardscape materials before the design concept has been approved, or hooking us up with your friend's cousin who's studying for his contractor's license just is not helpful. Unless, of course, we've agreed beforehand that it is. Which we probably didn't.
  • Know your limitations. If you're at all handy, you probably can do some of the landscaping yourself. And if your contractor agrees that some of the work will be done by you, great! But before you start, consider whether you're really going to save money by doing it yourself versus giving the job to someone who makes their living doing it all day, every day. Are you really that good at staining redwood? Do you know how to put a plant in the ground to keep it from going into shock? What's the worst that can happen if you don't wire your landscape lighting properly? I'm not saying you can't do any of these things; just that if, say, you kill that plant, you're on the hook to replace it. If your deck is splotchy, you have no one to point to but yourself. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
  • Know your pro. Don't, just do not, hire an unlicensed contractor to do the job of a licensed one. Don't hire a landscape designer (unlicensed) to design a hillside deck. Don't hire a gardener (unlicensed) to set your stone. For that matter, don't hire a landscape contractor (C-27 license) to install your gas line (C-36 license). Hell, I'm not even a fan of hiring your gardener to install your irrigation. Check the contractor's license status. Check their insurance. Sure, unlicensed, uninsured contractors are a lot less expensive than licensed/insured ones. Right up until something goes wrong.

Chances are, even in This Economy, your landscaping is going to cost more and take longer than you expect. But there's nothing that says you can't get your money's worth.

What are some ways you've made a project more cost-effective?

Who's Blooming Today: Buddleja 'Lochinch'

Butterfly bush 'Lochinch'I can't tell you how to pronounce it, but I will tell you the 'Lochinch' butterfly bush (pictured here with pink Cistus 'Victor Reiter') is one of my favorite Buddlejas for the garden. Its light blue-gray foliage is a wonderful foil for almost any other color—burgundy Berberis, purple Limonium, white 'Iceberg' rose, orange poppies or Gaillardia—the list goes on.

So, too, do the fragrant blooms, which begin in late May and don't quit until December if I deadhead consistently. It's a vigorous plant: even when cut back hard over winter, it will hit 10 to 12 feet of new growth in a single season. The habit is fairly upright, which makes achieving a vase shape easy if space is limited. And, of course, it attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators in droves. (The pale lavender flowers are particularly stunning with yellow swallowtails alighting on them.)

'Lochinch' has performed equally well for me in a part-sun border in loam soil next to an irrigated lawn, and as a solo specimen in a full-sun, full-clay xeriscape. Really, my only complaint is that the leaves are so heavily felted that pruning them can trigger an allergy attack in seconds. Other than that, 'Lochinch' is a standout in any perennial landscape—no matter how you say it.

UPDATE 6/16/09: Don't you love it when the wildlife enters on cue?

Jun 9, 2009

The Age of Value

A recent value-added design, realizedNot low cost—just high valueI went to a presentation today sponsored by a couple of my favorite suppliers, Bamboo Pipeline and Monrovia Growers. And one of the executives, whose job it is to understand things like business cycles, described our current era as "the Age of Value": consumers obviously aren't throwing money around indiscriminately; but despite our economic woes, neither are they looking for the flat-out cheapest solution. Nope, we're still willing to spend our money — we just insist on getting best-in-class results for it.

Which made me think about why, despite our economic woes, people are still paying good money to hire good landscape designers and contractors. As I've written before, my work isn't exactly the foundation of Maslow's hierarchy, but this isn't about the hire-me-versus-do-it-yourself dilemma. This is about spending thousands of extra dollars to ensure a premium result. It's about specifying and buying Monrovia plants and FX Luminaire fixtures instead of whatever's on sale this weekend at the big-box store.

I'm not the least expensive designer out there, and definitely not the fastest. So it's understandable that I'm not the best fit for everybody. But the ones who do call me, and ultimately hire me, know what they're getting. They know I'll give them a clear vision… attention to mundane details… plans that deliver more information… plants that are perfect for their site and different from everyone else's. In a word, I'll give them value.

It's the same with contractors. I work with some of the best in the business, and quality ain't cheap. I know (because I've been in those shoes) the shock of finding out how much a seemingly simple plan actually costs. I've gasped upon learning that "just" prepping this little site is half of the client's budget. And I know that someone else could do it cheaper. Someone else can always do it cheaper. But what value gets lost? The quality of construction? The attention to detail? The level of contact and communication before, during and after the job? There's always a tradeoff. Always.

I'm grateful that my clients and I — and hey, in This Economy, anyone — has money to spend on luxuries like landscaping. I don't take it for granted, and I'm not looking to take advantage. In fact, no one I know is; not even the highest-priced contractor or landscape architect. We all take it as an honor that you would even consider entrusting us with your money. And we're going to do our damndest to reward you with some pretty high value in return.

May 27, 2009

Our Services are No Longer Needed


Apparently, I'm obsolete. Not as in outdated; just as in, well, redundant.

It's a shame, really, This was going to be a good career. It seemed to have everything I wanted: the chance to create beauty, inspire people, help the planet, soak in a little sun and learn a little Latin.

Sure, I wasn't going to get rich at it. But affording the mortgage by drawing pretty pictures and tromping through plant nurseries? Priceless.

Unfortunately, my secret got out: any blockhead can do what I do. You don't need a degree (never have), you don't need a license. Used to be, for the price of a stack of books you could know almost as much as the experts; now, it's even cheaper than that.

What changed?

The Internet, that's what. Now, without ever leaving the comfort of your couch, you can access primo gardening and landscape design information, from some of the best names out there:
  • Bettter Homes & Gardens
  • Sunset
  • HGTV
  • Fine Gardening

  • OK, so maybe that last one's a little weak. But seriously: how can I compete with Sunset, BH&G, Fine Gardening?! They wrote the book (literally) on what I do. And now, they're offering their decades of experience online, for free. How can I possibly justify charging thousands of dollars for that?


    Although… I suppose… there is one thing they're not doing. They can tell you how to build a pergola; but they can't tell you what the ideal orientation of that pergola is for your site, or what dimensions would suit your home's architecture the best, or for that matter whether a pergola is the best choice for you in the first place. Hey, that's something, right?

    And, come to think of it, while they can tell you how to find the perfect plants for your yard, they're relying on your interpretations of things like "partial" sun and "moderate" water, not to mention soil texture and fertility, microclimate, or local plant communities. I could help with that!

    For that matter, they can tell you about the coolest varieties of the best species; but they can't tell you whether those varieties really are appropriate for your yard, or where to find them if not at the local nursery. Actually, I'm really good at that!

    Do you know what this means? This could be good news! Not only am I really well-suited to help someone design a garden that's customized for their own unique lifestyle and their own unique site, I'm also able to hold the big-picture vision of that garden, maximize their design to their budget, and put it all down on paper so it can be installed exactly the way we envisioned it. You can't get that from a website, not even from a book! This is great!

    You know, I'm feeling a lot better now. I think there might be a future for me in this business after all.

    May 18, 2009

    The Incredible Disappearing Designer

    It's that time of the year when perfectly good landscape designers seem to vanish into thin air. Gone are the witty blog posts. Gone are the tweets. Emails languish. Voicemails vanish.

    Where is everybody?!

    Most likely, we're at one of three places:
  • Our computers and/or drafting tables
  • Our clients' homes
  • The local nursery, rockyard, or furniture store

  • In other words, we're in our primetime, working like mad to transform old eyesore yards into veritable Edens… "by summer."

    Fortunately, the Bay Area enjoys a long summer: well into November, in fact. And if you're just beginning the design process this late in May, chances are you're going to need every week you can get. So what can you do to speed things along?

    1) Know your yard. How big is it? (In square feet, please, not adverbs: "fairly big" doesn't help me nearly as much as "8000 square feet"). What's in it? (Again, bonus points for specificity: "it's really boring" is less useful than "it has an old lawn that I stopped watering 3 years ago, bordered by a 7-foot-high hedge that blocks my windows.") And what do you want it to become? (Say it with me: "Make it more interesting" doesn't help. "Evoke the Tuscan countryside" is a good start.)

    2) Know your budget. I've lost count of how many times I've been asked, "how much will it cost to landscape our yard?" The short answer is, it will cost as much as you have to spend. Left to my own devices, trust me, I will design a wonderland that will break you. Your only chance of staying out of bankruptcy court is to tell me ahead of time exactly how much money you have to spend on this little adventure — no more, no less. Otherwise, the best scenario you can hope for is to waste your money paying me to design a yard you can't afford to build.

    3) Know yourself. What styles do you like and dislike? How much time and money do you have to spend on maintaining your new garden? How do you want to feel in your new outdoor space? What colors, scents or sounds make you feel that way? If you see examples of things you like - whether in print, online, or in the "real" world - tear out the pages, print the screenshot, snap a photo. Build an idea file to guide yourself and your designer. Even if you don't know why you like something, collect it. The good designer can synthesize what seems like a random jumble and divine the common elements that speak to you.

    When I begin working with a client, I start them off with a questionnaire that gets at all this information and then some. It still doesn't guarantee the design process will go quickly; but it does give us some specific targets to aim for so that the resulting landscape will delight your senses and inspire your soul.

    And isn't that worth waiting for?

    May 15, 2009

    Who's Blooming Today: Romneya coulteri

    One of my absolute favorite California native plants, Romneya coulteri or Matilija poppy, began throwing out its huge fried-egg blooms a couple of days ago. At 7' tall and even wider in just its second year with me, this perennial is too large for many gardens (including mine, but that hasn't deterred me). And unfortunately, it resents being transplanted, and is notoriously difficult to propagate — as a native of the fire-prone chapparal, the seeds usually won't germinate unless something like pine needles is burned on top of them. Fortunately, Romneya can be found fairly readily at nursery. Just know that if you're shopping in the fall or winter, you'll probably find just a small pot of dead sticks... the dormant plant gives no clue of just how massive it will become.

    Apr 11, 2009

    Learning from the Big Guys, Pt. 2

    Some of the knowledge we lose living in urban and suburban areas is how plants naturally grow. As in, how BIG. As a result, we put big shrubs in the garden where little shrubs should go (I tend to make this mistake with Viburnum); and place trees too close to structures or crowd them together.

    In this example at a Peninsula elementary school, two redwoods and one Atlas cedar have been triangulated about 8 - 12 feet on center. Now, this would make a nice grove of small ornamental trees such as cherry or crabapple. Or a compact windbreak of columnar specimens such as cottonwood or 'Fastigiata' hornbeam. But come on! These are long-lived forest giants, wanting to spread 50 feet or more. Even if they were to grow this close together in nature, they would probably be successive generations, never really competing with each other for light, water, nutrients and space.

    As this trio matures, they will create a maintenance headache for the Arborist who has to keep their limbs pruned clear of each other (with probably unattractive results). Even so, they probably will struggle along together, limp into midlife, and never achieve the cool grove I bet their planters intended.

    The lesson here: work with, not against, Mother Nature. She always wins.