Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Garden Designers Roundtable: Get Real(ity)

I first wish to thank the Garden Designers Roundtable for asking me to participate as a guest!

Being observant and brutally honest, I was thrilled to choose the topic of this post, Reality Check/Don't Do This. I hope you find my interpretation insightful as to where I live and work - the arid, high desert southwest.


That classic Chihuahuan desert grassland scene was taken SE of Belen NM last fall. Similar to pre-development, northeast Abq, I'm told. Soaptree / Yucca elata standing sentinel over a thin cover of Black Grama, Sand Sage, Bush Muhley, and Snakeweed.

May you will look deeply at your own locale's horticultural practices, including the why's, the how's, and the many possibilities.

I could write an extensive book about this topic with heavy imagery, but unfortunately, I have limited time. For the concepts lacking photos, the reader will have to visualize supporting images. For plants improperly designed or improperly maintained, you are encouraged to look at my countless past posts or conduct online searches on any plant in question.

My partial list was narrowed down to the following:

PLANTS
Buying and using plants without considering mature size (and thinking they can always be "trimmed" or "shaped" to stay in-bounds)

Above is Beargrass planted too close, designed by someone who has dismissed my expertise as "opinion" more times than I can count. Below is Beargrass' almost-mature size...not an opinion.




















And another of my "opinions" on Beargrass.

Buying a plant for what it looks like at the nursery, instead of a smaller plant that is more adapted

Buying plants based on their flowering season appearance, not dormant season appearance. ("Design for summer & it's pretty in summer. Design for winter & it's pretty all year." - Tara Dillard) I opt for 1/2 to 2/3 evergreen in any landscape where I live, having 4 seasons, with summers and winters too extreme for much plant or flower growth.





















Above, in spring. Below, in winter; all gray and brown - powerless.


Primary succession tree species (softwoods or short-lived Arizona Ash, cottonwoods, willows) chosen over climax tree species (hardwoods like mesquites, oaks, pistaches, etc); speed over quality. The former have invasive surface roots, weak wood, and have a drinking problem - trash trees. Like oversized tumbleweeds. OK on large lots that collect water, far from pipes, hardscape, and structures. These are not trees that have much of a place in our outdoor living spaces, just open space and some park areas.
 

DESIGN
Ignoring the ecoregion where your garden is, and its defining characteristics - in the arid southwest, it is trying to re-create a high mountain or “back east” garden. This will fail, and look *so* out of place before it fails.

Note the name of this part of the development in Albuquerque, note the look of the foothills behind, and yet...(unhappy) aspens!

Kerrville TX, as ridiculous as using a spruce in Abq!
More playing pretend in Abq, with more blue spruces.















This homeowner must not get one thing about where they are, though the young Italian Cypress do go with the house, about the most drought-tolerant plant there. But turn off the irrigation, and watch what happens.

Start with the native, low water-use plants in your ecoregion, within 25 miles and 1000' in elevation ala Brad Lancaster; if natives don't perform a desired function, then expand the radius out some (but not the elevation more than another 500'), to adapted plants from adjacent ecoregions, or similar places in a similar environment.

Pushing climate zones unreasonably, based on too short a time period or the local area's biases - confusing weather with climate. The bias in Abq is arcticism, pushing way colder and wetter...those are dead, 5-10 year-old aspens, and it is August.

They did everything right according to some "experts" here...cool microclimate (root zones NE of wall), high water perennials underneath, and water-sucking bluegrass in the property behind it. Guess water doesn't compensate for forcing a plant from 4000'+ higher into the desert, with desert soils, desert heat, etc. That is 2 to 3 of the earth's life zones colder and wetter than anywhere in Albuquerque, to find where aspens grow naturally...similar to 5-6 actual climate zones different.

And logic does not compensate for willing ignorance.

The bias in Las Vegas is to push warmer. Oops. This after a quick low temperature 15F above the all-time record low. Dead queen palms are from Brazil, and quite happy in Orlando. Orlando...Las Vegas. Hmmm.

No water harvesting, letting storm water flow from the site without benefitting the garden first, placing trees on top of berms or mounds, cute cobble patterns, boulders set instead of buried properly, ....... Had to pick on El Paso, which harvests stormwater that could benefit landscapes even less than Abq:





















Not using native plants, especially sculptural accent plants





















Too much clutter, no unity - a one-of-everything, "stick-gardening" approach (and you know what's about to die w/ white trunks):





















Covering ground without creating beauty or an inviting space. Landscaping to just cover ground is _____.





















Confusing popularity with one's expertise (it didn't stop after high school; some are shocked at those who fit this description)

Confusing common with appropriate or native

Ponderosa pines above were once dizzyingly popular in Abq, and you can see how well they perform above. They are not from anywhere near the desert where this photo was taken. They are popular once more, and aspens have become popular in the last 10 years. I posted a few photos of how poorly aspens grow here. Yep, those are flatbeds with some...people here salivate over having a bunch of each, and the seller will plant them if you buy in quantities. I can't make this up!





















Letting lawns and gravel expanses constrain planting bed sizes; should be the other way

Fads (trends) over fashion (classic design principles)

Higher water-use trees & an understory of xeric plants, in the desert - instead of a tougher desert region tree of the same family. A little extra water does not help most times.



























The above didn't work, so let's keep doing it. "Who cares about David's opinions, anyway. Didn't he move?"

More Honeylocust trees in the median, above, hanging on. And below, the next series of medians - same soils, same aspect, same climate, same irrigation, etc. Desert Willow (often not considered a "real tree"), along with Texas Red Oak, were planted at the same time as the honeylocusts; they are thriving and outgrowing what is considered "a real tree".





















Plants used randomly with no relation to the architecture of buildings or space; plants, including natives, do not have to be used naturalistically

Implementation without an actual, drawn plan


MATERIALS
Lava rock and railroad ties - Three's Company and Charlie's Angels moved on; our landscapes should, too.


Not enough drip emitters nor spaced out far enough for trees

Rock, gravel and mulch patterns without plants




















Setting boulders on the ground, without burying them a minimum of 25%


MAINTENANCE
Shaping plants that don't need it (most plants' shapes are just fine and don't need help, especially bad topiary). Shaping mostly only serves to preventing flowering, takes away potential winter texture, increases water use by producing rank growth, or eventually kills the plant.





















These were Escarpment Live Oak, required by city code to buffer and shade. So much for that...unnecessary and ugly!



Above is the latest rage in terrible pruning...limb up every shrub. Below is what a Russian Sage should look like.



























Cutting back rosette succulents like they are grasses (their cut foliage does not grow back). Leave them alone.
Above was a Beargrass, and below was a Sotol. Remember what those are supposed to look like, in all their glory?





















Topping any tree is inexcusable

Desert Willow trees do not deserve that kind of torture; undeserving property owners and their maintenance lackeys do, though. Below is what Desert Willow trees become in Albuquerque.
Above, an older Desert Willow; below, one under 10 years old. They grow quickly, allowing them to be pruned with a habit and interior open enough, even retail signage can be seen through the branching and foliage.





















Over-watering (this kills more plants here in the desert than underwatering, notably with native, low water-use plants)


MONEY
(see all items above, they all relate to money)

Expecting instant gratification without a massive budget for refined materials and the largest plants





















Thanks for staying with me on this rather dispiriting tour. The above are quite common! It is rather painful to post such photos, as some projects not posted were what happened to my designs.

As this post is merely scratching the surface of the surface, please continue to visit my blog for past and future posts, and let's engage in some fruitful dialogue. Perhaps we can do part of the daunting task of making this a world where our outdoor living environments are valued at least as much as spectator sports, fast cars, pop-culture, etcetera.




















For now, please join me in visiting other individual's excellent blog posts on this topic. Especially since others will bring up items I didn't have time to pursue, or that I was not considering. I for one enjoy others' takes and viewpoints, and this is one insightful bunch to glean from:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay Area, CA
Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA
Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

And to read more past Garden Designers Roundtable posts, click HERE

Plus, similar and different ideas to avoid doing with a landscape and garden, at Phoenix Home and Garden HERE

60 comments:

  1. Wow what a run thru!
    So many excellent points.
    Masterclass for your zone and loads of pointers on how to think worldwide.
    Great post.
    Best
    R

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    1. Thanks - maybe a great book idea...what not to do, what to do. Certainly plenty of material out there!

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  2. I agree with Robert: so many of the "real problems" you've illustrated here are universal. My new mantra is "Think, people! Think!" Thanks for joining us today, David - great insights!

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    1. I have a friend here who does say, "Think. People!" Right-o!!!!! (if only I had the luxury to show some solutions to the common problems I didn't hint at, though that's what I get paid for, with a portfolio to be updated on.

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  3. Ass-kicking presentation. I have to admit that I've made a few of these mistakes (too many bear grass too close).

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    1. Gracias, Senor Scott! I have too (and still do a little), but I guess the key is to learn from those faux-pas and move on. I really think this relates to Jocelyn's post on careful observation, time, etc...when's our next hike and plant field trip??

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  4. I will contend with you on one point David. I think it can be okay to "shape" some of our natives in some cases--even when that is to restrict their ultimate size. For example, a creosote bush can be pruned into a single plane fan shaped and attached to a trellis. Just because they are local plants doesn't mean they can't be manhandled like a boxwood.

    One thing to understand when doing this, is that it is going to take regular, ongoing pruning. I might do this in my own garden, but probably not in most clients' gardens.

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    1. I'm sorry that was implied, since I do think a number of plants (SW natives or not) have habits that can be thoughtfully-manipulated into more shapes. I showed the examples I did, since those are plants that don't require what was done to them...Turp Bush, Desert Willow, Live Oak, etc.

      I can't find the pics, but in '92 at my first house across town, I planted Rhus ovata in a narrow space, to train as an informal espalier. I did so until I sold it and moved here...the next owner let it go, and there is nothing left of it. But not all plants allow that.

      (I also added a few more images to that shaping point, plus other points)

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  5. Nicely done, David! I love your "dismissed my expertise as my opinion' comment, too. So true...sad, but true.

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    1. Thanks! She was/is a piece of work, and not the only one. I have to laugh at such folks, since many times, they can't even spell the plant's name they disagree with me on...

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  6. As Scott admitted, I too have made the common gardener's mistake of planting too large a plant (or too many) in too small a space. It's because love blinds us to reality! (Not that it's a good excuse.) The clipped sotol nearly made me sob -- tragic, and another instance of planting too close to the sidewalk, I expect.

    I also agree with Scott about shaping natives. It can be done well. Most of the time, as you point out, they are butchered. But I like to trim Mexican oregano into a loose ball, and it works great, adding a little more structure into a blowsy garden. I've seen this accomplished with dwarf pomegranate and Barbados cherry here in Austin as well -- unusual but quite pretty.

    I especially like your advice not to "let lawns and gravel expanses constrain planting bed sizes; should be the other way" and "plants, especially natives, do not have to be used naturalistically." Hear hear! I'd love to see you write more about these topics. Thanks for a thoughtful and thorough contribution and for joining the Roundtable this month!

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    1. Yes, bad design begets bad maintenance. Too bad I couldn't find other pics I have showing such pruning where there is ample room! You are both right on the exception of good shaping, hence why I added "bad" to what I was against. (of course, I snuck in some more pics later!)

      Thanks to you, I'm starting posts on both of those topics, plus another one you suggested recently!

      Looks like our moisture soaking this morning is moving E, to constrain the death star's grip some:-) You are most welcome, oh dig-meister.

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  7. Over my life as a gardener, I've also made many of these cringe-worthy mistakes. But I hope I've learned, and will continue to learn. Reading posts like yours and others on the Roundtable certainly help.

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    1. Amen...the best life is making mistakes, then learning from them, making new ones, and so on! (when we cease to [notice] we make mistakes, that is whe we die and miss out on so much!)

      Thanks for visiting - I've enjoyed you and your sister's posts. And Toronto is one of my favorite cities; I have much family in western NY (Jamestown area), and my wife's aunt is in Burlington, Ontario. Must visit again for a long while!

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  8. I agree with almost all of your points, and have posted and written about almost identical "don't do's" as a designer here in the Southern Sierra of California, where the weather extremes are well known but still denied too often when it comes to landscaping. Fortunately, I hear from (and work for) a lot of people who do want to work with the climate and intelligently with plants. Guess there will always be folks who are more interested in making the quick buck (typical contractor type) than in creating a long-lasting valuable garden, but I try to stay focused on the positive. Thanks for an excellent post.

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    1. Thanks for visiting! Yes, many universal issues. I agree that concentrating on positives is best, though on this post, I didn't have the time to point out all the "do this instead" items. In my 20 years here, the negatives are "the 1%". I'm hope my blog posts show more possibilities than the locals' negative, needless limits fight me on. But back to my paying work...

      How cool that you are Quercus Landscape Designs! If I had to choose, Quercus would be my favorite genus. Never been to your area, but it must be interesting!

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  9. My MOST favorite line of the day, and I may steal it from you for later use- 'logic does not compensate for willing ignorance."
    Amen Brother!!
    Christina Salwitz
    The Personal Garden Coach

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    1. Glad you like...am starting a post on quotes to remember and forget! Use freely:-)

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  10. David, What a comprehensive post...my head is dizzy from all the great advice and photos. I especially liked your point about how trees that grow quickly are 'trash trees'. Here in CT, we've had lots of problems with quick-growing trees, like norway maples.

    In the past year we've had some very challenging weather (a hurricane in August and a snowstorm in October)and it was those very same trees that were planted because they were cheap and grew fast that were falling over and knocking down power lines. People don't realize the widespread impact some of these 'design don't' can actually have.

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    1. Glad it was the espresso version of coffee. I was afraid it was lame, since I couldn't find all the pics I wanted for certain items, and it was depressing!

      I've enjoyed your posts on norway maple and what should be in the NE. Weather extremes are great to weed out the trash:-)

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  11. You make a good point in selecting natives before adapted plants. Mentally I tend to clump them together as a resource for my needs but I like the idea of being intentional about using natives before adapted plants.

    And that sotol...ugh,don't even get me started!

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    1. I think I make that point since I'm pointing at myself, to be more intentional! Sotol - they get turned into pineapples here as they grow trunks or just because. "grrr"

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  12. Excellent overview of the many errors and omissions in the landscape!

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    1. This is more fun than work. Then again, work is fun to do better than the "errors and omissions"!

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  13. Very good post. I've said it before....I always learn something here.

    I'm trying to stick with natives. It's hard not to want that lush green garden that they publish in garden magazines. It just won't happen in some climates and without enough water.

    That trimmed sotol is quite sad.

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    1. That makes me happy, since I often wonder, "was that what I could have said?"

      You are giving me another idea to post...natives and dry climate adapted plants to create a lush, green garden. I've even seen some great designs in Phoenix that simply plant more heavily with the same natives used thinner elsewhere, and it really pops just by being dense.

      Loads of moisture is moving through enroute to central TX...

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  14. No! Say it isn't so...someone really did that to a Sotol? That's just too much.

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    1. I am sipping some sotol on the rocks as I reply (Sotol don Cuco, Generaciones). W/ dark sea salt chocolate...mmm! I need to post on sotols, spaced too close vs properly, and how some get pruned. People don't appreciate what they've got here!

      You bring up something - there was a large nursery / gift / holiday store in Redmond WA, or nearby. They had a cool SW garden around a sunny, south-facing patio. Their Dasylirion wheeleri was not shabby...I need to go back there next time I am up in Seattle. I wonder how it made it a few winters ago, or last winter?

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    2. Do you have any idea what it was called? The store I mean.

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    3. Just found it! Too bad I lost my photos of the place, esp the garden w/ sotols.

      Molbak's Garden & Home
      Woodinville, WA
      http://www.molbaks.com/

      They had a cafe w/ great food and wine, and outdoor seating and BBQ when it is nice.

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  15. Que placer es aprender cosas nuevas, y ver lo que sucede si se hace algo mal es bueno para no hacer lo mismo.

    Gracias David

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    1. Me alegro de que disfrute de aprender - los mejores diseñadores y horticultores siempre quieren aprender. De nada, Chomp!

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  16. David, I've got to know what your voice sounds like. How your inflections flow.

    LAUGHED the whole way thru this post.

    Will get off my laptop, pour a glass of wine & read it again on the ipad.

    However, wish I didn't know enough to be laughing so hard. Sad for landscapes, insects, wildlife, fungi, people.

    At least it gives us work, yes?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

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    1. I'm sure we'll meet, and you'll hear my flat speech, but with some inflection. Hmmm, not sure!

      Glad to make you laugh...if we don't laugh at what is wrong, we'll go insane. Insane is not an option...that's for the freaks who mess things up! And we get some work, though not starting from the higher level it ought to.

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  17. Another post I will read again and again.

    Several things I noticed, the Sotol of course, then there are those Escarpment Live Oaks against a wall in a narrow space. They do that a lot around here and I don't get it.

    The lollipop look....How is it possible to do that to a Live Oak!?!

    You should consider compiling this into a book.

    It started raining around noon and they are predicting a total of 2" by the time it moves out.

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    1. This is cool...I was holding back, and took out so much! Glad you and some others are getting more detail out of this post / rant...

      Live oaks...I think people need to see just alternating images of majestic wild or grown live oaks, with images of ones pop-pommed, rendered worthless from shade. So common on oaks in El Paso, Las Cruces and now here...like we can't use shade in the skin cancer HQ of the US?

      I just might turn this into a book...

      We got .34" this morning (that's our Jan avg!)

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  18. Congratulations on being a guest of the Garden Designer's Roundtable. I enjoyed this post very much. I have made some of these mistakes, and I still make some, even though I know better! But topping trees is unthinkable - the last pic of the desert willow show what a gorgeous tree it is naturally.

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    1. Thanks so much. I can only hope I learn more, and avoid large mistakes...esp with lawyers! Topping makes no sense where the sun shines mercilessly, let alone to want an attractive plant to look tortured.

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  19. I have to deal with "but why CAN'T I have an east coast garden design?" fairly often as well. While I completely understand the desire to recreate the landscape of our childhood, we need to embrace the beauty of the culture where we live now. Very good post, clearly illustrating not only how knowledgeable you are, but how much you care about the plants in your designs.

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    1. Thanks so much! The key will be we who care, permeating typical practices and mindsets. Soon!

      That is interesting on your area trying to be like the east. In San Diego where I lived out of college, few plants that went deciduous were liked (sweetgum), and natives (Toyon, Sumac, live oaks) were not used much. It was all palms and oleanders!

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  20. Wow!!! Megapost on lots of great tips! Queen palms, Spruce.....it should all be considered illegal. What a waste of money! Lawns should be outlawed and landscapers who plan all of this should be fired from their jobs or not take the job. Keep at it. It's amazing how many people don't get it when it comes to plants appropriate for their regions. My tip to all people who love certain kinds of plants....look for similiar looking ones that grow in the area. Great post.

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    1. Ha ha...I think I need to do small posts, a few sentences and 1 or 2 pics. Totally blow people away with brevity! You method makes so much sense...analogous plants for a new place. Thanks!

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  21. Great post! I totally agree with what you said. Being from this region, it's sad to see such horrible planting design. Hopefully post like these will change the way some people look at design around this area.

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    1. Gracias! I have only been through Lubbock once, but I wonder what it is that triggers such deficient landscape mindsets, compared to nearby towns. Probably numbers! I think exposing people to new ideas with price tags, can grab them to start doing better. Maybe comparisons...don't do this, do that instead...

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  22. So many heartbreaking photos. I have to admit, my front yard rather looks like that spring/flowering season picture. Except with more bare spots. Don't look! At least the rosette succulents are safe at my house, I'm too lazy to attempt butchering them.

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    1. Yes, this post started as fun, but I quit having fun! I'll have to do a solutions post or two, to address all I brought up...then, a book! Off to visit your blog:-)

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  23. A trove of illustrated reasons you've presented, David, as to why to hire an experienced designer/landscape architect who won't pull any punches.

    Yet the evidence so often seems to point to paid individuals making the mistakes: That's cutting the home gardener some slack. (and they may have been given bad advice by someone trying to sell plants.)

    If I hear of anyone in the SW who's looking for a truly knowledgeable professional, I'll point them in your direction!

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    1. Great contrast between honest pros and clueless "pros"! Though most people are sheeple and copy what they see everywhere, not from advice. Bad begets more bad. And thanks:-)

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  24. Gosh, I don't even know where to start. I suppose I shouldn't have found this as hilarious as I did, I mean, these are pretty painful if I let myself think about them! But your humorous voice made it clear what the "don'ts" are while lightening the mood a bit. My favorite part? Trees with a drinking problem! Awesome.

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    1. Glad you found it funny and informative...me, I was just venting a little, still holding back. Drinking problem...oh yeah! But there's a book in this topic, with solutions added...

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  25. Now THIS is comprehensive! It kills me to see spruces planted in the Southwest. Half the time, people don't even site them properly here, where they do grew. And it kills me to see Yuccas "shaped." Argh!

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    1. Thanks for visiting (just wait 'till I do comprehensive!). Sometimes, there is a place for certain practices, but much of what I see wrong is so far off, it almost reneders me speechless. Almost.

      I like your "Garden Smackdown" blog title, of course!

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  26. i agree people should plant what is natural to that region ! but then again i plant cold hardy cactus in the upper midwest.

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    1. True, though I also maintain that for some desired effects, one should be fine to look at adapted plants from nearby ecoregions or other similar places. And every Great Lakes and upper midwestern state has a native cactus! Which cactus?

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  27. Excellent post David! Funny that, although specifics differ, the same bad horticultural and design practices happen within any climate, and they rarely are innocent. Too many of our "contractors" approach their work with a cavalier attitude as to the final outcome. Very frustrating, as it can reflect poorly on the entire industry. Nice to commiserate on a Sunday morning, and thanks for joining us this month!

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    1. Thanks for visiting. Your word choice "cavalier" is perfect, describing a major root of this problem. How to make people care more, as well as contractors to not make unnecessary work, but real work, might be key. $

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  28. Most excellent post. The Dasylirion trimmed into a cube made me both laugh AND cry.

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    1. Thanks, H. Barkty! This post is causing me to think how to present solutions to all the terrible deeds, like that sotol.

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  29. David, this is exceptional! I am so with you on everything. But I especially loved your gravel/lava rock perceptions. Gee, if you're ever in Austin, it would be super to have you on CTG.

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    1. Thanks, and I narrowed this post down (but more to come, w/ solutions)! Yes, the rock cover answer to covering space really needs to be addressed; so out-of-hand here.

      I'm in Austin periodically, and I would be so honored to be on CTG! In fact, I need to catch up on a number of recent episodes I've missed...

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Thanks for visiting! I try responding to comments within a few days, though my day job can call. Comments now require word-verification, thanks to evil spammers...