Monday, August 27, 2012

Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing With Native Plants

I enjoy visiting gardens, especially those that speak of the place they are in. And there's no better way to start that, by knowing one's ecoregion and then applying what makes it great. But is that all?

No. One must look at how all those great native elements work together, whether you believe in intelligent design, unintelligent chaos, or something in-between. And good, native plants used poorly and / or too wildly will never turn anyone onto native plants. But used well, and they stun and transform, just like in our natural spaces.

The challenge - find landscapes that use mostly native plants, or ones blending native and adapted plants. The latter is easier.

The Good - how could a view like this not be good? Ignore the Organ Mountains and that blue sky for now.

Start with the foreground - bunch grasses of very few species, and a few Torrey Yucca / Yucca torreyi punctuating the hill among those similarly-sized grasses. Then high, then low, then those mountains, then the desert sky. 4-5 elements.

Naturalistic - Regal Mist Grass, AKA Gulf Muhley / Muhlenbergia capillaris in mass, in front, with some boulders and a lone, tall Ocotillo / Fouquieria splendens in the back. Splendens to be sure! Jimmy Zabriskie's design.

Jimmy again, Deergrass / Muhlenbergia rigens, engulfing a different sculpture...dark mesquite trunks.

Those palms were not his, and they all froze and died, only to be replaced with...more inexpensive, fast growing Mexican fan palms. And probably some crepe myrtles...but I digress.

Threadgrass and Sotol / Dasylirion wheeleri are it, along this adobe home's entry walk. 2 species, repetition. Soft, sharp...

The Bad - that mission statement sounds good. But just read on. They lied. Not just a
matter of taste, but of proven, time-tested design principles.

The Ugly - It didn't work. This is the dreaded "tapestry of gray and brown ___" that I often mock, and for good reason. And large bark chunks have no place anywhere, let alone the sandy desert where this is.

This is what happens when emphasis on only flowering and non-sculptural plants are used. This is the old-guard xeriscape style.

May they retire and move somewhere far away. I don't need your tapestries. I want a garden of our powerful place.

At least this High Desert landscape has some good plants in it, but if nature were this chaotic, no one would visit the nearby open space. 

This is the more common gravelscape, with serious horticultural dyslexia. Desert, sand hills quite
visible in the distance  - not my opinion. Eastern legumes like these honeylocusts, prefer more
water and different soils than we have, not to mention lawns. Gravel and scattered dryland
plantings are foreign to them. Honeylocusts are one of the most commonly used and sought-after
trees in Albuquerque and they often become like this, and most become half-defoliated by mid-
summer. Just keep adding water, and it will make it all good.

That is done so much, I lose track.

Many reasons, but I'll pick the worst violators - client demand for the familiar, landscape designers
who haven't a clue, and supplier stranglehold (this is what they grow in larger sizes, not native trees)

You can see which plants are winning, even with irrigation. That landscape was under 1 year old
when I took the photo.

Now, how about a desert legume, to see if it comes out better in the desert.

Yes! Texas Honey Mesquite / Prosopis glandulosa, Giant Hesperaloe, and other xeric plants in mass, some negative space, etc. Think why the above works compared to the example above this one.

And no, I'm not saying that just because I designed it - that landscape was 7 years old at the time of the photo.

Native and rather overused, but native - Desert Willow / Chilopsis linearis, planted in rows and pruned just a little. At 6' tall, I have no problem walking under these 5 year old trees, with plenty of clearance. They will soon get much taller and wider. And every several trees, one has fragrant flowers subtly scenting the hot summer nights walking by. Dekker Perich Sabatini designed this "lifestyle retail center" in Abq.

Yes, native trees and plants can work in more linear uses. And they provide shade, too, with much more to come. 

Finally, dense green on the left, where you enter the community college building. Then negative space, and a mass of spikiness via more Blue Sotol / Dasylirion wheeleri. Then to the right, more negative space and a Chisos Red Oak / Quercus gravesii.

No need to design any differently with native plants than one would non-natives. It's how the space works that should determine how native plants are used. There are many styles of design appropriate to use that incorporate native plants, and I hope they soon will get use. I anticipate covering some different design styles that use native plants to my area, as well as possibly those of other, different ecoregions, in future posts.

Of course, using a variety of life forms - not just fleeting flowers - is paramount.

I hope you enjoy August's takes by others on designing with native plants on the Garden Designers Roundtable!




45 comments:

  1. A great look at the good, the bad, and the ugly with native plants. The good examples were especially inspiring and really spoke to the place.

    Your use of negative space is great. It's such a foreign concept here on the east coast where any bit of bare dirt will grow something. You embrace not just natives, but their patterns as well.

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    1. I was going to write something eloquent, show 2 photos, then I went the other way! But contrasting the good, bad and ugly has always worked. Thanks - negative space has taken me ages, and to think, our budgets and maintenance lack were always screaming out for it all along!

      Bare dirt here grows alot, too...see bad and ugly! Or if some water leaks into it, mesquites, mimosas, cacti, and tumbleweeds!

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  2. I, concur as I often do. One thing about gardening/horticulture is certain, once you have grasped the essence of what it takes to practice/theorize/experiment in terms of the eco-region, you have grabbed the pan by the handle by fifty percent. Aesthetics become a second fiddle, the whole is what matters, at least in my tropical humble, classical opinion. Not to mention other creatures, flora/fauna also beneficiaries of what we plant.

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    1. You are so right...and the asthetics follow the whole, anyway. The big picture, then the details, I think. Once it all comes together, everyone wants to use the space.

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  3. Your pics and commentary were very educational! You could turn that into a slide lecture for first year design students. :o)

    I love to see what garden designers do out there in the Southwest. The aesthetic is so different from back East, gorgeous in a completely different way.

    Oh, I was wondering about how that sign "lied"...did you mean the "water-efficient irrigation"? Are you saying there's no such thing?

    And those poor honey locusts! I want to dig them out and find a foster home for them back here in our friendlier eastern soil!

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    1. Why thanks, M. Gray in VA! I really had fun some of my 3 semesters of community college instructor time.

      I think the sign lied, since they did nothing to turn anyone onto the "beauty of xeriscape". Yes, poor trees, and they sell even faster than crepe myrtles!!!

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  4. Showing the good, bad and ugly is so powerful, perfectly illustrating your points. 'dreaded tapestry of grey and brown' - ha! That's what clients fear most when I suggest using natives in their gardens. I agree with Mary above - this would make an excellent lecture for students!!

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    1. I end up learning more from my posts (or lectures). I need to explore this topic much more, like Gen did on her blog. You are so right, as natives suddenly become "eew, messy", when they shouldn't have to be...they're just plants.

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  5. When I learned of the topic for this months GDRT I figured you'd be weighing in with an excellent post, and this did not disappoint. The "dreaded tapestry of grey and brown" is what so many people think of when I talk of my love for the desert landscape.

    Great photos to illustrate your points too!

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    1. Ha ha - I only wished I had more time to get the photos I wanted to, to really cover this. If people only knoew - dangerous gardens are quite green and stunning.

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  6. David, Following along with the comment theme, I'd say my favorite phrase has to be 'serious horticultural dyslexia'...you can almost hear those poor honey locusts crying out for help! I am always amazed at how full and lush your native plantings can be in the desert, thanks for showing some wonderful examples of the 'good'. I especially loved the photo of Terra.

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    1. I can hear them screaming out, too! I think I need to explore (especially for prospective clients) how in my area, a xeriscape or native planting ends up being more lush than a non-native, more mesic planting even with more irrigation. Thanks so much - I like how Terra came out, though I couldn't convince the ownership to maintain it better, or add some more flower color near the wall.

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  7. Wow! this was a wonderful post! I really love the combination of sharp soft with the grasses and dasylirion wheeleri!!!

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    1. Thanks so much, I think that sotol-grass combo really sings out to what could be done.

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  8. You and Pam are hitting on a key, often overlooked aspect to native design - the need for structural plants to anchor the garden. Most of the native gardens on our local spring tour (including the one I blogged about) are weighted too heavily towards flowering perennials and annuals. Fun for me when I'm touring as I can get lots of pretty pictures, but I wonder what the gardens look like later in the summer, let alone the heart of winter.

    "Unintelligent chaos." Hehe.

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    1. Hola, though I admit from my days in San Diego, some coastal areas have such mild "winters", that they can pull it off. But not as much as with some sculptural plants. I'm in the middle of talking loads of winter landscape photos, but spring-summer got in the way...picking it back up this Nov. then go back and photograph them in the growing season. Thanks for visiting, Susan!

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  9. Another good 'class'. Always learning here.

    More and more people in our neighborhood are going toward the 'desert look'. The recent droughts have convinced them that St. Augustine grass lawns just don't work here. Many are going the rocks and cactus route. Some is well designed....some not.

    Deserts aren't just that 'tapestry of gray and brown'. There is structure and color. And, the negative space is very important to that 'design' that nature builds. The evidence is in that first photo.

    When it's right, it even FEELS right.




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    1. Hi, thanks so much. I hope people in your area won't go too far over to rocks and this desert look, since you have some great greenery that obviously survives. I hope more embrace that instead of going to the other extreme. And negative spaces are there no matter where, just different in Austin vs. Tucson. Great insights, and I think I learned much from your comment.

      Just breezed through Wimberley yesterday...saw a restaurant and the hardware store you noted with some plants in it! And saw loads of deer - I sent them to some gardens in New Braunfels.

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  10. Love that row of the Desert Willow. Cleverly done:) I like the overgrown feel of some gardens....that's pretty nice.

    Design and more importantly with desert spaces.....planning is required. I have to say that right now things look pretty nice around our place with appropriately placed plants in their areas. No lawn needed here:)

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    1. Me, too. Funny, but I rarely see desert willows used except in the high deserts...loads in Las Vegas, El Paso, Abq. Seems Tucson should have some rows and masses of them. I think when we meet, I need to visit El Presidio.

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  11. I enjoyed this post, even though my own style may be chaotic by the author's definition. Is it chaotic or just too crowded for the setting? Perhaps the homeowner or designer comes from the midwest or east where cramming plants together doesn't look so out of place. I have to admit I like cramming plants together.

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    1. Thanks for commenting as it gets me thinking. To some degree, I cram, as well. But most of that to me is to mass better, then cramming is OK. Negative space can vary by one's soils, moisture.

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  12. Great post David!
    Object lesson to us all.
    Love your planting!
    Thanks and Best
    R

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    1. Thanks Mr Webber! I cannot wait to read everyone's posts, as I've been out of state on some work-related travel, as my design's get somewhat behind. But much being learned.

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  13. Embracing natives is a great lesson that we're learning here as our weather changes appear to be much more permanent than anomaly. I'd think you'd have less trouble with that, but I guess people have a hard time letting go of a style they like, even if their climate doesn't support it. I want what I want and I want it now!

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    1. Funny, but I just had a similar conversation with Tom Spencer yesterday. Austin and many parts of TX have a far better horticultural "center" than us. Plus, variation in your area is different than variation in the desert SW...you vary between almost desert and almost deep south forest; we vary between sand dunes and not-quite-as-parched. Thanks for stopping by!

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  14. I so agree about using native plants intelligently and in the right place. In the UK they are so often used inappropriately, often in new landscapes linked to buildings eco funding. Planting natives gets the cash, however inappropriate. Meadows in the wrong place just become trampled and native trees and shrubs grow too vigorously and are then hard pruned, losing all their value. Better to use carefully selected garden plants which have a wildlife value of their own.

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    1. Thanks for your great insights. I concur, including mixing in adapted plants that blend in, too. So many Mediterranean or southern prairie species blend in and perform where we have few or no natives to, especially on groundcovers (iceplants, trailing germanders, rosemary, etc).

      Your point on natives for the sake of being native, but not enough room, is a large problem. I wonder about the meadow plantings in some of our street medians, or even the London Olympics areas.

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  15. "No need to design any differently with native plants..." is my top take away concept Good design is good design regardless of the medium used.

    The chaotic yard is more typical. Unfortunately when lawns are converted to xeric plantings, design principles are ignored as if there are no patterns in nature and the natural look becomes as brown and boring as the lawn was.

    Negative space, well that's a tough one. I'll try to leave some as I work my way around the yard.

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    1. As Pam/Dig alluded to, the differences lie in what certain principles will look like in a place like SA vs. El Paso, etc. But overall, good design is good design. What you say on converting lawns, and all rules go out the door, is so common. Negative space is tough in wetter areas, but part of that is the context, and that in a woodland area, the negative space is perhaps taller grasses and plants, while the trees form the positive space / mass.

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  16. Hey David! I really learned a lot from this post - as usual. I like the layering in your design - I think this is one of the reasons it works so well compared to the two photos above it. The above two were kind of like....extremes in height side by side. Or tall tiny tall med.......losing sight of the plants in "the middle" in that chaotic yard. Annoying to look at. Messy. I like the mass plantings of a few things big time so of course those are my favs. I guess they look highly designed even if they really are simpler. I like simple and sweet! Althought it takes restraint!

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    1. Hola, from just up the road in Austin. Thanks, glad to do it, though winging it more than I planned. I'll post in more detail, tho. Yes, 1/2 of design is reductionism - too bad I often use up my fees before that, so I have to reduce later on my dime.

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  17. P.s. I am abstracting your first photo! ;) in my feather grass bed I finally found 3 Yucca rostrata 'sapphire skies' - albeit they are tiny....ordered them online. Still.....one day....an abstraction of picture number one! Yay!

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    1. And I think you have it...that area in the photograph drains well, but it is north-facing and has some gravelly soil (often called desert pavement), so it grows grass clumps even in arid Las Cruces (8" avg annual precipitation). Can't wait to see it!

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    2. I planted the yuccas and I am really excited about them! check it out...
      http://xericstyle.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/yucca-rostrata-sapphire-skies-are-in-the-ground/

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  18. I think the concept of negative space is hard for people not from the desert to really understand (and I'm one of them), but you illustrate its importance very convincingly. This, I think, is one of the reasons that good design is not truly universal. So much of what looks good, and what grows well, depends on the natural environment where you find yourself.

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    1. I agree, but sitting in Kathleen / Denny's place above New Braunfels, I realized I really, really need to post on what I think "negative space" is in various different ecoregions...desert, grassland, prairie, forest. It seems the interpretation and application of the universal principles are what we design folk need to adapt to each diff. place.

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  19. Great post...and so revealing that, for one thing, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to garden design, even (perhaps especially) with natives. That's kind of the point though, right, since those plants are native to a specific area, how they SHOULD be used SHOULD be different dependent on the locale. You've hit the nail on the head...and it's something people forget far too often. Plants from the High Desert shouldn't be planted in a manner similar to plants from a woodland edge (and vice versa).

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    1. Very well-said. It is, yet is not, one size fits all to design. But the principles all apply. Wet plants low (where water collects), dry plants high. Group things to water use, then group the groups, and mass. Assuming it's a xeric plant in a dry place...honeylocust in Abq better be in a wet spot in a lawn that gets regular water, or it will learn Abq is not Chicago.

      Yes, densities can and should vary as to place and it's moisture availability.

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  20. I love the "terra" landscape. The prickly-pear cactus adds a nice touch.

    Just a thought, but how would that negative space look with a purple prickly-pear next to the dasylirion in that last pic? Might be too much?

    As always nice job! And thanks for educating us the public.

    -Aaron

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    1. Thanks...within a year, the client sprayed for roaches or something out there, and the drift hit the cactus and killed it. But at least a got the pics!

      In the last pic, I agree...some purple prickly pears would be nice, especially with a few on the left side of the sotols. In Abq and even cool spots in Las Cruces, it would have Opuntia macrocentra or O. camanchica, but in warmer parts of LC and all of El Paso, I think the Opuntia santa-rita 'Tubac' would work fine.

      Your most welcome...what I like to do!

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  21. David, the first photo as example, and then the next three in the landscape were of great value to me. Nature is such great inspiration for design here as well, but yours is so drastically different (and beautiful), that I need the example for context.

    Honeylocust are used (too extensively IMHO) here also, but the tree that drives me crazy is the Bradford Pear. It's marginally attractive, splinters apart each winter with any snow load, can be invasive, yet the nurseries keep churning them out by the thousands. Go figure...

    I also love your use of negative space. I'll need to get creative in using it here, as weed suppression is a constant concern.

    Thanks for teaching us about your beautiful region of the country!

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    1. Thanks, as I can't wait to post on both what a typical forest vs. grassland vs. desert ecoregion look like in nature then reflected in the landscape. My post was a very rough intro, only.

      Bradford Pear...the "grrr" plant of 3/4 of the lower 48 USA.

      Your negative space is dense groundcover flora...ours' sometimes is, just higher up in elevation.

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  22. This is significant for a couple of reasons, both expressed simply. It is not the plants, vegetation per se. Abused or not, what makes or break any installation. Aesthetics aside, is their resilience in any particular context. When this consideration is judged accordingly, any garden will bring lots of pleasure, visually, with bonuses like fragrance, color and contrasts.

    Perhaps, not less important, the amount of hours dedicated to maintenance in every season if in your own garden or else. Great post!

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    1. Thanks again, as it wasn't even the post I intended to make! Resilience is crucial. When most established gardens I see are no longer maintained or especially irrigated, their true character is revealed. Maybe the characters of the owner and the designer are also revealed?

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