Archive for the ‘Reading and research’ Category

(c) Jennifer de GraafIn my professional practice and in conversations outside the office, I avoid using common names for plants like the plague.  It is common practice to put both scientific name and common name on a plant list, and this is so that the contractor can verify that the plant they think you’re talking about is the one they’ve gotten for the project.  Why would a contractor not be able to use scientific name and require common names as well?!  As far as I can tell, the only confusion that might occur would happen when a plant has been re-classified by the trade to have a different name.  For example, Ligularia changed to Farfugium years ago, but most people know it as “Leopard Plant” (regardless of the cultivar or absence of spots).  Sadly, I suspect that the real reason we put common names on plant lists is because contractors don’t recognize or know all the plants we might use belonging to those scientific names and they appreciate the extra hint.  Residential clients often find scientific names too technical and feel more comfortable with the common names, but using common names can be very mis-leading as you’ll see in the last few photos.

Taking my own photos of plants is a huge benefit to me as a designer.  Not only do I have the physical action of taking and naming photos to help my brain keep the connection, but I also follow some practices that help me understand the plants better for when I am designing with them in mind.  Here are a couple of the things I do:

Photo taking: When I am in a garden or at a nursery, I take a picture of the plant, leaf, flower (or whatever) first, then the plant tag.  Plant, tag, plant, tag, plant, tag.  With my trusty old digital camera, I can smash 300+ photos on one memory card at a time, and I have two memory cards.  Once the plant photos are labelled with the correct scientific name, I delete the images of the plant tag.  I also (usually in my own garden) take photos from different angles – a close-up of a low-growing plant from ground-level tells you nothing about what it would look like from above.  A great example of this is this gorgeous specimen of Hellebore ‘Pink Marble’ I saw at the Annie’s Annuals 2012 Summer Garden Party last weekend:

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Cute, huh?  I am glad this person walked by at the right moment, because you can see how the plant relates to an upright person, and understand that I am sitting on the ground to take this.  Now see how different it looks from above, the way you would see it in a garden (without sitting on the ground):

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Image file naming:  I have a naming convention for the photos, too:  Scientific name, then descriptive abbreviations (from my own list), followed by the abbreviation for the grower or source of the plant.  For example, photos of this little Bletilla I got at Plant Delights Nursery last year are labeled “Bletilla 15in FL pdn” and Bletilla ‘Murasaki Shikibu 15in FO pdn” (15in = 15 inches tall, FL = flower, FO = Form, pdn = Plant Delights Nursery):

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

See how different the close up and the form photo look in color?!  I’ll take several photos of my plants because the way the camera processes color can vary a lot from image to image and depends on lighting, context, and where on the subject the camera focused.  Because of this, I include other things in the picture when I can.   I also use these images for inspiration for plant combinations in the future and keep copies of images in a separate “combos” folder for just that purpose.  Here’s a shot of the same Bletilla but with Asplenum bulbiferum (a.k.a. “Mother Fern”, but you didn’t hear that common name from me) in the background:

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Be Specific!  I’ve already explained how I label my images, but here’s a lesson from a purchase two weeks ago that I hope illustrates the need to use the whole name including the species even when it seems obvious.  Take these two Violas:

They look pretty similar.  Both are Violas (Pansies are Violas too), both from the same grower.  The big difference seems to be the name “Pansy” or “Viola” on the tag, and you might ignore this since that information is a common name thing, not scientific.  The cultivar name is similar too, ‘Apricot Antique Shades’ vs. ‘Antique Shades’. I could swear I see some of the same flowers in both photos, just turned upside down and enlarged on the Pansy tag (which is complete baloney as you’ll see below).  Now, flip those over and read carefully:

Check that out!  The Pansy’s scientific name is Viola wittrockiana ‘Antique Shades’ and the other Viola’s name is Viola cornuta ‘Apricot Antique Shades.  What neither of these tags tells you is how very different these two plants are in real life.  The Pansy has much more orange and yellow in real life, and the smaller Viola is far pinker overall.  The photo at the top of this post shows these little dudes the day I brought them home, and below I will leave you with a photo of them together in my patio while I was planting things.  Thanks so much for reading, and HAPPY SPRING!

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

So the lesson here is to not rely on catalog photos for your garden planning, take your own.  Light, color, and real life differences are not always evident on plant tags or in catalogs.  Designer beware!

Read Full Post »

I admit, this post is not exactly exciting.   It is important, though.  All property owners should understand at least the basic concepts of landscape water use.  The issues are multiple and varied and it is not reasonable to expect that I can smoosh it all into one thrilling, must-read post.  I am sorry to see (I’ve been online for several hours at a time over a few days) that though there are TONS of websites with water saving tips, few address the multitude of issues very well.

Guess what?!  In January 2010, California will require certain landscapes to be more water efficient.  The state adopted ordinance AB 1881 in March and it will go into effect January 2010.  Unless the governing city or county where your project is has already adopted stricter ordinances regarding water use, AB 1881 is the new rule.  As of November 2009, I have not found anything in the city of Alameda or Alameda county websites that restricts water use more than AB 1881, so I am assuming for now that it is our new rule, too.

Suzanne Palmer of David Neault Associates in Temecula wrote a post back in February that outlines the history of California’s water problems and discusses both the genesis and some of the aspects of AB 1881 – no need to re-invent that wheel, she covered the issue well.

Emily Green, a columnist for the LA Times posted a bullet point list on ordinance AB 1881.  Her list does an excellent job of illustrating which projects that will be affected by this ordinance, including private residences.

WUCOLS:  A Guide to Estimating Irrigation Water Needs of Landscape Plantings in California.  This publication is industry standard.

The Save Our Water website is a statewide public education site with lots of fun links, tips, calculators, etc for both indoor and outdoor water use including kid-friendly challenges.  Of course, there is also the Bay Friendly site that covers a variety of Bay Area specific environmental topics.

Residents of the East Bay who are customers of EBMUD may benefit greatly from their Residential Landscape Rebate Program.   EBMUD also published a book a few years ago that I have and love.  The book illustrates better than any others I’ve seen that a water-wise landscape doesn’t have to look like a cactus garden.  I like cactus gardens as much as the next guy, but I do feel that the word “xeriscape” earned a bad reputation and misunderstanding from too many gardens looking alike.  Using water smart practices and appropriate plants does not necessarily dictate the style of a garden! EBMUD also has a WaterSmart Center on their website with links to rebate programs, free stuff, and even free on-site water use surveys.

I encourage all my clients to invest in a self-adjusting irrigation controller.  It doesn’t cost much, can work with an existing irrigation system (we’re just talking about the controller and a weather station, here) and usually does a better job than your gardener will.  That brings me to this evapotranspiration web page and the benefits of self-adjusting irrigation controllers from Urban Farmer.  At the top is a link to a comparison chart for the top five brands.  Urban Farmer is absolutely the go-to place for irrigation products, all the contractors I know get their supplies (and tech. support) there.

If you have read anything online, or watched the news, or read a paper in the last decade, you already know that water use and conservation is an issue in our state.  Things that can save water include:

  • mulching
  • grouping plants into water-use zones, and using drought tolerant plants that are adapted to your area
  • switching from a typical sprinkler system to drip irrigation or sub-grade irrigation
  • Watering in the early am (not late at night, please!!!  that actually promotes pathogens) so the plants can take up the water in time for the warm day ahead.
  • cleaning sidewalks and driveways with a broom instead of a hose (well, duh)
  • adjust your irrigation system so there is no over spray onto paved surfaces
  • look for leaks in your watering system, pool, spa, etc and watch your water bill for changes
  • replacing lawn with water-wise plants

Above, I think I’ve compiled a decent overview of the basic water issue, but I am still bugged by the correlating issues not mentioned.  Please stay tuned for a future post focusing on these corresponding not-so-often discussed side-issues.  They’re just as important for the sustainability and long term success of any landscape.


drought tolerant grasses and perennials

Read Full Post »

Dear prospective client:

You just called.  You want to meet, I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing about your project.  Many initial meetings start off from square zero, not square one.  In this post, I offer some tips to save both money and time as both are precious.  You took the first step and decided to call someone, I’m glad you found me.  Do yourself a favor and start thinking about your project – I will bring my own ideas, what I need to hear are yours.  Here’s some things to consider and be prepared to chat about when we meet:

1.  Dislikes:  This is so important!! What do you dislike?  It would seem that we’d want to begin with what you DO like, and we will.  Interestingly, I find that I learn more about your aesthetic from hearing about things you don’t like.

2.  Preferences:  What do you like?  do you have pictures?  magazine clippings?  pages tagged in a book?  If you feel strongly about any of it, let’s save some time.  Please be ready to show them to me!  If you could have a set of color copies or digital images that I can take with me, all the better.

3.  Budget:  Please form an idea of what you would like to spend on the project.  If you’re on a particularly tight budget, let’s talk about how to make the most of what you’d like to spend.  If you are more concerned with ‘doing it right’ than with a particular spending limit, tell me that too.  It isn’t my job to find ways to spend all you have, though many clients underestimate the real world costs of the design and installation of their visions.

4.  Notes:  Prepare to take notes. Even in our first meeting, I will most likely be happy to answer some questions and discuss the direction your project may take.  Who knows what we’ll talk about?!

5.  Soil testing:  an inexpensive test that is especially useful if you will grow any edibles.  I know that I would never plant something I might eat without knowing first what kind of contaminants are present where I will be growing that food.  For example, did you know that strawberries concentrate lead from soil into the berries?

6.  Site survey: okay, this should probably be the first thing.  Depending on your site and the extent of the project, it can make sense for you to have a professional survey done.  Wait until we meet and I can help you find a surveying company and we can discuss what should be included in the survey.  A big money waster is getting surveys re-done or my needing to supplement any missed information.  If the project is small enough that you can taking measurements yourself, you can save some time (=money) by having those measurements ready to go.

7.  Maintenance:  Who will be doing this?  You or a hired gardener?  How much time are you willing to spend/pay for?  There is no such thing as a zero maintenance garden.  Your project is an investment in the property – be prepared to protect your investment by caring for it.

8.  Function:  How will you use the project/garden/site?  is it for viewing only, relaxing, active play?  Do you throw an annual BBQ with 50 guests?  Do you never throw parties and this is a sanctuary for you?

9.  Imagination:  Gather up some enthusiasm and let’s get to work.  The best reward in garden design and landscape architecture is getting to create something that will be appreciated by someone.  Doesn’t matter to me if that someone is an individual or the public at large, let’s talk about your motivations for doing the project today and what will be helpful to you.

10.  Reading:  read my blog.  I started it and post to it so that clients can be as well informed as possible.  Ask me questions, e-mail me, whatever.

Aristea spiralis  4

Read Full Post »

The memory of that scene for me is like a frame of film forever frozen at that moment:  the red carpet, the green lawn, the white house, the leaden sky.  The new president and his first lady”  – Richard M. Nixon

Wikipedia defines a lawn as “an area of recreational or amenity land…that is maintained at a low, even height.”  Wikipedia goes on to describe the history, popularity, criticisms, maintenance, and various grasses for lawns and is well worth a read.  I am talking predominantly about turf grass lawns, not ‘alternative lawns’ of other plants and materials.  Lawn alternatives will be dealt with in a future post.

When asked about turf grass lawns, some clients feel that they should have one but cannot provide a particular reason.  “Because they’re nice” someone once said to me.  I don’t think that is reason enough if there’s no functional or aesthetic need for it.  If a lawn fills a particular emotional need or is meaningful in some way, that is a different story.  Unfortunately, the care required to keep them healthy makes turf grass lawns one of the least environmentally friendly growing things you can have.

Obviously, I have feelings about lawns; I’m generally not a fan.  Growing up, one of my chores was mowing – front and back, we had lawn to play on.  Ironically, I spent most of my outdoor play time in the sand box, stacking stuff up to make forts, and making up stories about things I found (read: not throwing a ball or running).  Our lawns weren’t really big enough for running and playing, anyway.

twin houses 1

Lawns are good for kids to play on, dogs to pee on, garden parties, and to give people something to do with their weekends.  Aesthetically, a turf grass lawn can be used as a visual contrast to other plantings.  A lawn can be a path or an area; it can reinforce a geometric design or be a place holder if you can’t decide what else to do.  As a designer, lawns do serve certain functions – I’m okay with that.  What I am not okay with is installing them for no particular reason, especially given the environmental and financial impacts.

I love this post on a NASA website which outlines research on the impact of lawns on the environment. We mow, fertilize, poison, water, and fuss over these flat green carpets as though all that stuff was fun or healthy.

Personally, if it was my garden, my money, my weekend time, my water and carbon footprint, I’d find something else to grow.

Read Full Post »

Books I LOVE

Landscape Architecture and Garden Design Books:

Anatomy of a Park – Donald Molnar, Albert Rutledge

A Pattern Language – Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein

Architecture in the Garden – James Van Sweden, Penelope Hobhouse

Beautiful American Vegetable Gardens – Mary Tonetti Dorra

Discovering the Vernacular Landscape – John Jackson

Front Yard Gardens – Liz Primeau

Garden Design Details – Arne Maynard

Gardens Are For People – Thomas Church

Gardens in the Spirit of Place – Page Dickey

Hideaways – Sonya Faure

Plant Driven Design – Scott Ogden, Laura Springer Ogden

The American Meadow Garden – John Greenlee

The Modern Garden – Jane Brown

The Modern Japanese Garden – Michael Freeman, Michiko Rico Nose

Ten Landscapes: Shunmyo Masuno – James Grayson Trulove


All Marketers are Liars – Seth Godin

A Whole New Mind – Daniel Pink

Summer of the Monkeys – Wilson Rawls

The Great Good Place – Ray Oldenburg

The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger (fiction)

The Secret Garden – Francess Hodgson Burnett (fiction)

Read Full Post »