May 27, 2010

Know Thyself

© Cindy DyerA few weeks ago I had the privelege of being interviewed by one fantastic nature photographer, graphic designer and gardener, Cindy Dyer. The interview touches on some of the "day in the life" stuff that most of my clientele never get to see, and it's receiving some pretty favorable responses.

I'm honored that people enjoy learning about me and my work. The interview was a lot of fun for me, too, because it gave me a chance to reflect more deeply than usual on not only my work but also what inspires me. And a little self-knowledge is a powerful thing.

In the course I teach on Custom Garden Design, the first class is devoted to getting to know yourself better. After all, a garden can't be very personal if you don't know the person. But as I went through a couple of exercises designed to help identify my students' influences and inspirations, I could see eyes glazing over, as if they were terrified to get in touch with anything that might be meaningful for them. One gentleman spoke up: "This is supposed to be a course on garden design. We've been here an hour; are we going to do any garden design?"

I reminded him that the course was on custom garden design. As in, the garden you won't find in the pages of any book or magazine. The garden that fits you like a bespoke suit. If all he needed was to fill a corner of his yard, I offered, he could have spent his money at the local nursery instead of my class. But if he wanted that corner of the yard to be a place that feels like "home," that just seems right whenever he looks at it or sits in it, then he'd better get to know a bit about what makes him tick.

Now, I understand that I'm pretty open to introspection, self-awareness and all that Northern California touchy-feely stuff, maybe more so than a lot of people. But garden planning isn't deep therapy. It shouldn't be threatening or intimidating. Quite the contrary: developing your landscape wishlist should be pleasurable, a mini-vacation as you allow your mind to wander to the places and times that have been most enjoyable in your life. It's a chance to revisit the best parts of your life, and even to imagine places you've never been: I've never dipped a toe in the Caribbean, but I can practically feel the fine white sand under my feet, the gentle breeze cooling my sun-kissed face, the calm warm water caressing my legs. I can smell the coconut (OK, and the rum to go with it), and I can hear the clacking of palm fronds against each other and the warbling of some bird or other. I can tell you, without ever having been there, that the Caribbean would be an intensely relaxing place for me. And if I desire intense relaxation from my garden, I could try to recreate some of these sensory pleasures there.

In design-speak, we say this is part of the design program. The program includes a lot of other, quantitative stuff too: the size and shape of your property, the sun exposure, adjacent conditions such as trees and buildings, budget, timeline, and so on. But your wishlist is a necessary component, for it gives us a goal to strive for. Sure, we probably won't be building a beach in your backyard. But if we can understand what about that beach makes it pleasurable and meaningful to you, then we can be very strategic in our design, and probably create a pleasurable and meaningful environment without a gram of white sand.

I don't know whether my student will be able to dig that deeply within himself. Some of us can't. I do start my clientele off with a questionnaire to begin identifying their wishes and needs, and I also ask them to create (if they haven't already) an "idea file" with magazine clippings, photos, journal writings, whatever might give me that qualitative sense of their preferences and priorities. Even if they don't know what attracts them to a particular garden, I tell them, if I have enough data to work with, I can connect the dots and synthesize a design direction.

If you've ever tried one of those one-size-fits-all plant combinations from a book or magazine, chances are it hasn't lived up to your expectations. It's not your fault! You simply may have been starting at the end of the design process, instead of the beginning. Get to know yourself a bit better, and your garden will be the better for it.

May 13, 2010

Two Roses for the Price of One

So your rose bush is blooming magnificently. Bright, big flowers… glossy green leaves… gosh, it's doing so well it's actually blooming in two colors this year!

Uh… not actually.

In fact, if your rose bush is blooming in two colors, I'll wager that one of them is a deep maroon, a little smaller than the other, a little lower on the bush. Probably a little something like this:

If so, you don't have one rose flowering in two colors: you have two roses.

See, most roses sold and planted in California are hybrids — genetic crosses between two different varieties. Not at all Frankenflowers, they're bred this way to give us distinct joy: brighter flowers, glossier leaves, repeat flowering, greater resistance to disease. You can't have it all, though, and what makes them beautiful upstairs makes them weak downstairs.

Enter that miracle of modern ancient technology, grafting. By splicing that gorgeous body onto robust roots that can handle frost, rot, nematodes, fungus, drought, etc., humans figured out that we can have it all.

The only problem, and it's really just a minor one, is that those roots are — by definition — more robust than the body. And just like the body, their prime directive is to grow. Which means you get robust growth… just from the rootstock, not the body.

So those smaller, maroon flowers are "suckers" growing from the rootstock, most likely a variety named "Dr. Huey" (named after a prominent early-1900s rosarian) that is used for almost all California-grown hybrid tea roses because it can handle poor soils, shade, cold, and disease (although it has shown some susceptibility to nematodes in Florida).

Unfortunately, although "Dr. Huey" is beautiful in its own right, if left unchecked its vigor will sap the plant's energy from the more desirable body, the one you presumably bought the plant for in the first place. To prevent this fate, prune the suckers back as close to the primary cane as possible. This directs all that vigor back into the body of the bush… so it can bloom magnificently after all.

May 4, 2010

Learning from the Big Guys, Pt. 4

(By the way, I had nothing whatsoever to do with this combination of 'St. Josephs Coat' rose, unspecified iris, and Cerastium tomentosum… I saw it last week in a Los Altos front yard, and it just makes me happy.)

I've written before about learning from the big guys, but sometimes we can learn from the little guys, too — particularly when they make mistakes that, although not big in an absolute sense, are relatively huge.

I met recently with a Palo Alto homebuilder of considerable repute, who had endured what he deemed a "terrible" experience with a garden designer who also is a licensed landscape contractor. Hoping to learn from her missteps, I pressed him on what had gone so wrong. It boiled down to essentially three sins:

One, she didn't take direction. "We would make changes to the plan," the builder said, "and the same things would show up in the next revision." To me, it sounded like a rookie mistake: confusing your own interests with the client's. I'm not saying the client's ideas are always right; but their interests are.

Two, the designer's ideas were weak. Perhaps she threw them together hastily, perhaps she went with her first thought instead of developing more concepts and challenging her own limits. Perhaps she wasn't paid enough to put adequate time toward concept development. I don't know. I wasn't there. But none of those is a good excuse for faulty logic or cookie-cutter designs.

Third, she overstepped her role. Assigned to develop a pathway, she reconfigured the front porch as well. (This upset the architect considerably.) Given a budget and scope of work by the builder, she "added value" with elements that were integral to the design yet unaffordable. As a contractor herself, the builder said, she should have been able to provide creative alternatives without losing sight of costs.

In fairness, I got only one side of the story. But it's a great cautionary tale regardless. Landscape designers are not fine artists, accountable only to ourselves; we are commercial artists, accountable to our clients (and often serving many clients with a single work). Our creativity is meaningless if we lose sight of its object. And while we're certainly entitled — obliged, even — to stand up for our ideas, we mustn't forget that we do not have to live with our own work.

Having a good idea isn't enough: we must have the right good idea.