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:

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.

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

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%

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)

(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

Monday, January 16, 2012

Foliage Follow-up - 1/12

I wasn't going to post this time. But once I heard a soft rain falling on the skylights, and took in that incredible scent outside, my mood changed. Enjoy a rarity: rain drops on plants (though not all is foliage).

Blackspine Prickly Pear / Opuntia macrocentra:

"Cristiani Spineless" Prickly Pear / Opuntia -----, ala Dave Ferguson. But not all things considered "spineless" are harmless:

This cactus has vicious glochids, and this Cristiani is 1/2 Sicilian:-) But that's all for the spiky plants...

Green Mormon Tea / Ephedra viridis:

The moisture rolled right off of those green stems; a number of plants here did that, for whatever reason.

Speaking of moisture (.05" of rain), I'm glad we have 40's and higher humidity. The foothills are nicely washed off, rejoicing:

Did I say "that's all for spiky plants"? Of course there's more! And they look as good with rain drops on them as snow.

Desert Prickly Pear / Opuntia engelmannii selection from large-padded ones common between T or C and Socorro:

Most pads are 10-14" in size. Unprotected, these took last winter better than many O. engelmannii native right nearby. Weird!

Beargrass / Nolina texana:

Texas Sotol / Dasylirion texanum:

Or is that Desert Candle / Dasylirion leiophyllum? Not sure where the grower collected the seed, so it's your call!

Blue or Gray Sotol / Dasylirion wheeleri:

That is quite a favorite, tough plant for landscapes, Abq area to El Paso, and many other Desert SW cities. It is native to rocky hills in central NM, then deep into northern Mexico.

Others call it Desert Spoon, and some scientific publications call it Wheeler's Sotol. Though some scientists are quite stodgy and rather unteachable, others are not. And the few Wheelers I've known have always been fun and interesting people!

And of course, there's a alcohol distilled from this sotol! It's the state drink of Chihuahua, New Mexico's neighboring state across the border; I'm told that Dasylirion wheeleri is most common one used.

Big Bend Agave / Agave havardiana:

Beaked Yucca / Yucca rostrata:

A side note. Some of the foliage above, adorned with rain drops, has a bluish or grayish cast. That's a mechanism to help conserve moisture, which many plants have, where clouds, rain, and humidity are rare.

The latter is why I posted today!

And also because Pam digs foliage - here

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Gray Oak / Quercus grisea

Once people in my region get over cliche, high water-use trees, this underused and attractive tree is often noted as a favorite.

A single Gray Oak / Quercus grisea in a natural area at about 6,200' elevation in NE Abq, protected from typical development practices:

If you'd rather skip the detailed information, more pretty pictures are found further down.

Gray Oak is a broadleaf evergreen tree, and its stature is medium (20-35' height x spread) to small (12-20'), depending on moisture availability and soil type. It grows at a moderate, 18"-24" / year rate, but if over-watered too frequently, it usually dies. It is strong-wooded and deep-rooted. Like many oaks, it often hybridizes with nearby oaks; near me, that is Q. turbinella and even Q. arizonica; higher in elevation it is Q. gambelii. Soils in it's range are mostly alkaline and rarely neutral. It is native to foothill edges of the Chihuahuan Desert region and adjacent lowlands, and grows in desert grassland, savanna, chaparral, and rocky uplands, especially along arroyos and where boulders trap stormwater runoff. (not much dew to condense, so...) I would rate Gray Oak as hardy in Sunset Zone 3 and USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 6. It is moderate to low water-use, once established.

It is not found in colder areas, from Santa Fe and Los Alamos northward, including Rocky Mountain foothills and Great Plains edges.

Having travelled in remote areas of SE Colorado and NE New Mexico, I've not seen anything resembling Gray Oak N of the canyons near Roy and Mosquero, but rather, Q. undulata is common with even a few Q. mohriana. But I am open to seeing good documentation to the contrary.

More on Gray Oak - here and here.

Regardless, I believe Gray Oak is definitely worth a try in such places as Boise, Santa Fe or Los Alamos, and even more extreme climates like Denver, to add a new dimension to their tree palette. The reason for my optimism is based on countless observations and climatic research. Of course, it is deserving of trials and actual use in landscapes between 3500-6500' elevations in the southwest.

I recall it thriving at a southwestern planting near the Ballard Locks in Seattle, which like parts of California, is probably more easy on the plant than it's own native habitat. On the Pacific slopes of California and southern Oregon, stick to your native species, to avoid potential habitat issues. But where native live oaks don't exist naturally in mild climates such as "Cascadia", I say, "go for it!"

It is uncommon in nurseries in my region, since most still only grow higher water-use species, continuing to unprofessionally perpetuate an inappropriate tree palette. They also squander a money-making opportunity to supply awesome-looking, more xeric trees such as this, that meet landscape codes existing since as long ago as 1995. Bright, eh?

But a couple of growers do carry limited quantities of this species, though of smaller planted sizes than are often required:

I found some at Trees That Please in Valencia County.

To compensate for small size, I called out a 36" box / 12' tree on the landscape plan, knowing an alternate method may be needed. On this hot, humid August day, we selected (3) - 8' tall x 2' wide x 1-1/2" caliper and (1) - 5' tall x 18" wide x 1" caliper trees, placing them in the same large hole. Instant, almost 36" boxed Gray Oak! This is similar to the clumping or multi-trunk habits of many in the wild.

This is a key area, as viewed from people going to the owner's home, as well as on-axis leaving their house: 
(specimen trees for key areas must be nicer than 4" caliper lollipops - "specimen" as excused defined in the region)

And some views in early November, after the installation was completed.

A natural Gray Oak grouping in the arroyo bordering the west and north side of my property, fed by a spring N of the freeway:

And some typical foliage in mid-winter, photographed today:

Juvenile foliage often has prickles on the leaf margins, but older foliage loses that and is smooth with a pointed tip, and small (under 1-1/2" in length). Of course, broadleaf evergreen trees can be deciduous, when the tree is recently planted and unestablished (I find it takes at least 2 or 3 years to establish a smaller tree, more if larger). Or the winter is unusually cold, such as the last few.

Just some ideas of the winter foliage. Nice!
And the bark of a typical, mature tree:
I hope you find that all the positive attributes of Gray Oak outweigh the few perceived negatives, which all plants have.

I posted on the nearby foothills plant community where Gray Oak is found; it is of Madrean origins, not Rocky Mountain - here.