Posts Tagged ‘environment’

d 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateI am so excited to tell you that I’ve been asked to serve on an advisory board for the Dunsmuir Estate!  I’m told that this is the first advisory board since the City of Oakland took over care of the property, so I feel truly honored.

I was just over there last Friday because I made an effort to remember to visit during their insanely restricted hours (it is an effort, even bank employees would drool over these hours!).  I work from home not very far from this place and even still, I can’t seem to get over there while they’re actually open…. never-mind the times they should be open (imho) but aren’t, like weekdays squeezed between major holidays and weekends (I tried to go last Black Friday for example).  BUT, that’s not the point I’m here to make.

a 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateThis place is a gem in the rough.  Anyone who has read my blog before knows how much I enjoy visiting historic estates and gardens, but this one eluded me until a few months ago.  SO, without further delay – a few photos from last Friday to celebrate my budding relationship with the folks who are working so hard to keep the place up and promote it.  I’m plain ole thrilled about it.

b 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estatec 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateSo above you see the Main House and the entry, ducks, fountain, and gazebo (drought?  what drought?)….

f 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate e 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… and two benches with gobs of personality…

i 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estatej 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate h 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… a couple of shots that I think exemplify the magic of the character of the place….

g 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… but I’ll leave you with a shot of my favorite thing, the pool and pool house.  I could do a whole post just on this one item, and I probably will, but it is such a magical, beautifully proportioned thing, I wish I had drawings of it to study, find out what it is about the space that is so magical, apply those ratios to my own work (even though I don’t design by mathematical formula, I just want to “get” it and be able to replicate it).   I dearly hope that this can someday be restored, but in the meantime, I’ll stare at it and imagine what it must have been like.


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A. p. 'Seigen' LF2 momI have a handful of stories from professional practice where soil or plant pathology testing should have been performed but wasn’t.  I personally believe that soil should always be tested before any fertilizer or amendment is added, and follow-up testing should be done every couple of years to see how the soil health has changed.  Not testing soil or sick plants before spraying or amending the soil is like prescribing medication without knowing what disease you are treating.  You wouldn’t do that to your body, so why do we do this to our biggest investments (your home or commercial property) ?!

Thankfully, getting lab tests done is not difficult if you take the few minutes needed to do it right.  Most soil and plant pathology labs are easy to work with, they’ll tell you what to do and how to send it in, and will provide you with a report explaining their findings.  Bammo – diagnosis!  Proper treatment!  Hooray!

A. p. 'Koshibori Nishiki' LF1 momNow for my cautionary tale:

Years ago I was working for a firm in San Francisco and we had a client with a mature beloved Japanese Maple.  It had a nice shape, and was reportedly absolutely beautiful in the fall.  Their project involved building an underground garage underneath this tree which required that we dig the tree out, box it, crane it off-site, and have it cared for while the garden was re-made in a new design on the roof deck of this garage.  The tree would be the centerpiece for the new design, and I thought how lovely that they were willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have it salvaged and brought back when a new tree would be so much cheaper.

Before we started demolition, the client called and said that the tree wasn’t as leafy (this was mid-summer) as it had been the year before.  We called a couple of arborists out to the site who took a good look at it, tested the trunk with a densiometer, and decided that it needed a little more water – we had just gotten through a few unusually warm weeks, so we all thought no big deal.  The gardener was asked to provide it with some nice deep watering and we waited to see how it would respond.  It repaid us with a flush of tender new leaves and we delighted in this result.

I wish I could remember how this next step was decided on – we asked the gardener to fertilize it.  The gardener was a well-meaning fella who had done a good job so far.  His English was not great, but nobody had a problem with that.  He fertilized the tree and within a week, WHOOMP!  Naked tree.  It dropped every single leaf.  We could not understand why – it was just recovering!  We finally sorted out that the gardener had mis-understood the label on the fertilizer package and used 10x the recommended amount!  That tree was sitting in a toxic wasteland of salts and chemicals.  Rather than wait for his next visit, I was dispatched to put soaker hoses around it and try to water the fertilizer out of the soil.  I left those soaker hoses on for hours, they were coiled around and around under the entire dripline of the tree.  We had the gardener follow-up, soaking the soil thoroughly on his next couple of visits, and we hoped that the excess fertilizer had been literally washed away.

You can imagine how glad we were when it repaid us with a second flush of new leaves…. only there was something different…. these leaves were smaller, slower, not quite right.  Nobody knew what to do; we just kept watch and hoped for the best.  About a week later, it was dead.  Dead-dead.  All those new leaves fell off and you could feel that it had passed all the way on.

This was such a disappointment for the Owners and for us – after-all, here we were, a team of arborists, landscape architects, and the well-meaning gardener.  It sure looked like we killed it.  This is when we did the first intelligent thing:  we had the tree and the soil tested.  We took samples of the leaves, the branches, some root clippings, and the soil, and sent it all off for analysis.  Care to guess what we learned?

That poor tree had a raging infection of some kind of pathogen with a long name I’ve long since forgotten, and the lab said that this infection had likely been there for a couple of years already to be this bad.  The tree was doomed from the start; our screwups just pushed it over the edge.  In a way, this nightmare saved the Owners a bunch of money, but that didn’t make anyone feel any better.  We’d spent so many billable hours trying to figure it out, they ended up wasting a lot of time and money paying us to professionally accidentally kill their beloved tree.

So you know, the lab that we used was Soil and Plant Lab.  They are my favorite lab because their people are helpful and knowledgeable and their reports are thorough and easy to understand.  It isn’t so expensive to do, and one test can save not only your money, but your peace of mind and the health of your investment.

BTW, I took the photos at Momiji Nursery in Santa Rosa back in 2006 when I was working on this project.  They sell beautiful Japanese Maples.

A. p. 'Shishio Hime' LF momThank you for reading, as always, I look forward to your comments!


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Two years ago this month I visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Az.  Even though I was in Phoenix for the ASLA conference, I think I was more excited about visiting this garden than anything else.  This year, they’re celebraing their 75th anniversary – SEVENTY FIVE YEARS!

8 Desert Botanical Garden 52The Desert Botanical Garden, despite being in the desert, has beauty, drama, softness, and life.  There’s a word that I hate (it starts with a “x” and ends in “scaping”) that makes most people imagine a particular layout and use of plant materials that just makes my head hurt.  Things have changed, though, and design of water wise planting has evolved!

1 arborThe folks at the Desert Botanical Garden have done a beautiful job with the materials they use.  Most of the arbors, gates, trellises, and things like that are made with raw steel and rebar.  They’ve oxidized into being gorgeous rusted pieces that are both crisp in their design and rustic in their finish.  2 Desert Botanical Garden 41Next up is the use of concrete – oh yes, concrete is wonderful stuff!  This board-formed concrete wall with the wood bench attached to it is so nicely detailed!

5 Desert Botanical Garden 23 6 Desert Botanical Garden 247 Desert Botanical Garden 25 There’s this lovely seat wall with a green stone inlay that becomes a very discrete water feature at the other end.  The water aspect of this would be easy to overlook, it is not showy or loud.  Water, of course, is important for many reasons, but a big gurgling fountain would be out of place here.  Tempting, but not appropriate.

3 Desert Botanical Garden 1 4 Desert Botanical Garden 10I only recall one other water feature, also a nice quiet, appropriate piece.

12 Desert Botanical Garden 54Nearby were some very cool butterfly chairs with white slipcovers – they even looked refreshing – which caused me to realize that even if you don’t sit or touch the water, the visual cue of taking a break is still a powerful (refreshing) force.

10 Desert Botanical Garden 45 11 Desert Botanical Garden 51Above you can get a real feel for the place – materials retain their integrity; for example, stone is used like stone, and it isn’t just veneer.  The colors belong here, and boldness is introduced sparingly.  Here, the planting not only steals the show, it IS the show thanks to strategic restraint in all the other materials.  Take a peek at the next several images – notice how the materials are used honestly, With color and a sense of place in mind, here are more of my favorites:

9 Kornegay cast conc container 13 Desert Botanical Garden 72 14 Desert Botanical Garden 12 15 Desert Botanical Garden 16 16 Desert Botanical Garden 05 17 Palo blanco trunk 18 Desert Botanical Garden 26 19 Desert Botanical Garden 93 20 Desert Botanical Garden 7 21 Desert Botanical Garden 9 22 Desert Botanical Garden 71 23 Desert Botanical Garden 86 24 Desert Botanical Garden 44 25 Desert Botanical Garden 87 26 Desert Botanical Garden 88 Last, but not least I leave you with the parking lot (that’s right, the parking lot) and a bunny with two quail (the quail blend, just behind the bunny to the right, in front of the succulents).

29 Desert Botanical Garden parking 1 28 Desert Botanical Garden bunnyBotanical gardens and arboreta are a big influence in my life and someday I hope to work on another one.  In fact, I really should buy a lottery ticket because if I ever won, I’d buy some land and …. oh, do I have ideas!27 Desert Botanical Garden 92

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The front of my new place is awash with purple Lantana (Lantana montevidensis).  It is lovely stuff if you are both color blind (unless you’re into this sort of purple, nothing wrong with that!) and an admirer of wildlife.  There are butterflies, bees, spiders, and lizards all over it.  It is absolutely marvelous for year-round blooming and needs no supplemental water once established (at least not here, I turned the irrigation off last fall).

lantana HQ 043

The flowers are the pepto bismol of purples – not my favorite, though maybe someday I will find a companion plant with a color that mitigates the pepto purple hue.  Meh, maybe not.  A dear friend of mine said that the overwhelming amount of purple Lantana in my garden made my place look like a retirement home.

lantana HQ 044

As much as I’d like to be able to retire (I’d still spend my time designing gardens – I love it that much), I am not ready to live in a dadgum retirement home!  Talk about death by association; I can’t look at it anymore without thinking about retirement homes.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, my lovely boyfriend thinks the foliage smells like poo (the flowers smell nice at night).  Charming: a poo scented retirement home.

lantana HQ 039Here’s my vexation:  as much as I intend to remove the Lantana and put in other stuff, it is happy, healthy, requires no water, and supports oodles of critters.  So for now it stays…. providing food and shelter for all those bugs and lizards, but lookout, Lantana!  You’re living on borrowed time.  Wanna know what I think might fill the space above?  I’m considering a collection of spineless Opuntia that my friend Melinda sent me from Texas along with a few I’ve collected on my own here.  The ones from Texas are rooting in the shed right now – cross your fingers that they all take!

IMG_3647So there’s my dilemma – removing the Lantana removes habitat, but goodness gracious, there’s so danged much of it, I don’t really like it, and the new design/plants aren’t ready yet.  Patience….

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I started a blog post mumble-mumble months (years) ago about the humming birds that were nesting in my apartment patio (I think they’re Anna’s Hummingbirds)

Hummingbird eggs in podocarpusI was going to say all sorts of lovely things about the environment and gardening without chemicals, stuff like that.  But then I stopped blogging, and I focused on pretty much everything else…. and then I moved.  Now I have a place only 30 minutes from the old apartment, and hummingbirds abound.  I think I have Rufous, Anna’s, and Allens, but I’m not sure so don’t go betting any money on it.

hummingbird babies in redwood at 2028 2012What I am obsessed with now is the incredible diversity of tiny critters that inhabit my suburban garden.  I must apologize in advance for not having the sense to take photos of all of the species that have come forth so far (northern rubber boa, aroboreal salamander, slender salamander, the neighbor’s cats, and countless birds).  I have only photos of this very patient little dude… here’s our story:

I was cutting (digging/swearing/chopping) out one of the dreaded Lantana in the front yard.  While I was whacking and wheezing and pulling at the stubborn Lantana stump, a teensy tiny baby lizard jumped on my hand.  I screamed like a little girl right there in my front yard where everyone on the block would be able to tell who the big baby was.  I ASSUMED that the intrepid little lizard had bounced off and gone about its business, since it quickly vacated my hand.

I know you’re anticipating its return already, clearly it did NOT leave me and go about its business!  That dad gum lizard showed up FOUR HOURS later… on the front of my t-shirt, after I had come inside, grabbed a snack, changed some of my clothes (ha ha, little lizard, very clever!) and… get this…. climbed into bed to read a novel.  There I am, plate of cheese and crackers, no shoes, hands and face washed, beverage with ice, feet under the covers, and ta-da!  the same  teensy lizard bounces smack on the front of my t-shirt between my murder mystery and my face.

little lizzie 019little lizzie 024I am very proud to inform you that I managed not to scream like a bitch this time.  In a very grown-up and mature way, I put down the book, slid off the bed, opened the curtains and the sliding glass door, and bent over ever so gracefully so my little friend could relocate to the railing just outside.

little lizzie 022

It is still out there, hanging in the back yard and waiting for me to come out.  I see it from the kitchen window almost daily, and pretty much every time I go out to water, there it is.  I can’t be sure that I’m not looking at a ton of look-a-likes, but who cares when they’re this cute!?

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While I was away neglecting my modern web-presence-building duties, I enjoyed working on a particularly wonderful little project…. a Bed and Breakfast in Italy!  I have never been to Italy, but when my good friend and talented architect Glenda Flaim showed me her work on Casa Incantata, I asked if I could take a stab at the planting design which had yet to be finalized.  Neither of us had any idea what would happen.  Come on, what do I know about plants in Italy?!  Niente.  The way we worked around that, and got the garden done was a genuinely collaborative effort involving Glenda, the Owners, their gardener, some dutch visitors, and me:

First, Glenda sent me a photo of the site with notes (in green) on her thoughts for the planting:


We chatted about the decisions on the photo – why the hedge, what is the lawn for, stuff like that.  I studied snapshots of the building and tried to imagine what it would be like to be there in person.  Glenda mentioned that the house  had just won a national award for sustainable architecture, and was photographed soon after I started noodling with the design of the garden on paper.  You can see pre-garden professional architectural photos here and here.  She sent me a computer drafted file of the site and I gathered photos of plants that came to mind.

I started the planting design in June 2012:

120619 Flaim House Italy pltg concept001I mapped out the planting design in areas with palettes.  The areas got names:  there was “lawn”, “spicy”, “meadow”, and “hedge”.  I wrote a description of how each of these areas would be different from each other, what forms and colors I was trying to emphasize, and what colors I wanted to avoid entirely.  I wrote out how these plants would change with the seasons and the desired effects.  With lists of plants and their written intentions, the memos were translated into Italian and back into English through Glenda.

The Owners and their gardener started looking for the plants and sent word back what was available and not, and we figured out plants that might work instead.  More memos handling spacing and layout were translated back and forth, plant research was done on both continents.  Plants were purchased and installed as they were found; this took a few seasons to finish.  Some were purchased in Italy, some shipped from the U.S., and the last, elusive bulb was a gift from some visitors from Holland who learned of the missing bulb in discussions of the garden during their stay.

Over the last 2 years, I’ve gotten a couple of photos a season so I could see how the garden was doing.  They had wasted no time getting plants in the ground.  Later that same year (fall 2012), the lawn (Hernaria glabra) which also extended between the pavers, was getting its start:


By the following Spring (2013) it had filled-in very nicely!


The other plants were coming along too:


By that Summer, you could see the different zones expressing themselves:

photo 5 photo 1

And just last month, I got another update:

2014 June

It is challenging to know how a garden will look when you’re designing it, and there were many anxious moments when I knew they were investing in my advice and I could only hope that the Owners would like the results.  I’m not sure it is possible to tell if the image in my head matches what the garden will become.  I can’t know ahead of time if the Owners will like what the garden will become, and yet it is dependent on them and everyone who takes care of it to continue to support the design’s intention as the garden is maintained.

I am finally able to share (two years later) how things are going here in this post.   I can also share that the owners are very happy with their garden, and conveyed to me this sentiment:

 Il giardino che ho sempre sognato!!!

(The garden I have always dreamed about!!!)

I couldn’t have asked for more.

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It seems that everyone is aware that gardens can require some effort to maintain.  Professionals in the landscape design and construction industry understand that the success of any outdoor space depends on thoughtful design, quality installation, and ongoing, intelligent maintenance.   Not one of these three items can deliver the desired result without the other two.  Nearly every client I’ve ever known has brought “low maintenance” up as part of their wish list, often right at the beginning of the first meeting.  Let’s consider:

Thoughtful Design – the design process should take into account the needs and life-cycles of both living plant materials and non-living hardscape materials.  Naturally derived hardscape materials may not be “alive”, but they do change over time.   Metals oxidize, woods weather, and stone materials can do both…

Quality Installation – poor installation can cause good design ideas to fail miserably.  Bad planting practices will kill your plants and trees, poorly installed paving will sink and shift, retaining walls can fail, and irrigation systems can be mal-adjusted in so many ways.

Ongoing, Intelligent Maintenance – taking care of your investment is critical.  There’s no way to design around bad gardening practices or neglect.  Understanding your plant and hardscape materials is half the battle to having a garden that doesn’t require more of your (or your gardener’s) time than is reasonable.   Understanding is the key to this.  For example, I firmly believe that you could grow roses (considered by many to be high maintenance) without much fuss if roses that are suitable for your area have been selected and you understand how to care for them.

So if we keep the focus on maintenance, what are we talking about?

  • Pruning, shearing, dead-heading, weeding and mowing.
  • Fertilizing, spraying against disease or insects, watering.
  • Cleaning (water features, stains on hardscape), sealing (deck wood, stone, etc), repairing broken items, etc.

There are countless books and internet resources on low maintenance gardening.  Not one of them can take the place of using good common sense.  Below are a few quick thoughts:


  • They must be big enough to support the plants grown in them.
  • Smaller containers dry out faster, and don’t have as much room for roots as larger containers.
  • Some plants are more tolerant of container culture than others.  Shallow planters are better for some things than deep planters and vice versa.
  • Containers need a hole for drainage.
  • Dark containers heat up more and can cook the plants’ root system (and dry out fastest).
  • Containers (or raised beds) of different materials create different environments for your plants: metal, wood, ceramic, terracotta, and plastic all have unique qualities that should be considered.


  • Each different kind of plant has different needs.
  • Individual plants of the same kind are individuals and may not look exactly the same as the same kind of plant nearby.  Healthy plants are better looking than plants that are struggling.
  • Lots of different plants are harder to care for than a simpler plant palette.
  • Plants grow.  Trying to keep a naturally large tree small to fit a small space is … less clever than planting a smaller growing tree in the first place.
  • Lawns are a lot of work, period.  They don’t have to be so bad, but the appearance that people typically demand of their lawns requires work and chemicals.
  • Plants have annual life cycles.  Some go dormant, others look pretty much the same year-round.  For example, Bulbs need their fading foliage to store up energy for the next season, and lavender starts to look ratty after about two years without annual pruning.  Honor your plant’s needs.  Some plants re-seed themselves, others don’t.  How does that fit with your design intent?


  • Stone is a natural material and is meant to oxidize and weather naturally.  I wholeheartedly disagree with sealants on stone to “keep it looking new”.  My feeling is that this is like applying clear nail polish, and that the true beauty of stone is expressed with age and patina.  Choose surface finishes carefully for the out of doors as smooth stone can be slippery when wet.
  • Tiles 1/4″ thick are not meant for paving.  Materials this thin are usually meant for vertical applications or indoors.
  • Wood is a natural material that weathers and rots.  My personal preference is not to use sealants on wood decks unless you really enjoy sanding them down and re-sealing them annually.  Containers and other sources of consistent moisture will accelerate the decomposition of the wood on your deck, so be careful.  Different woods degrade in different ways and at different rates.  They also have very different costs associated with them.  The most vulnerable part of lumber is the end cut.  Working with the characteristics of wood can produce wonderful results, but ignoring its natural tendencies is fool-hearty.
  • Bricks are a man-made construct from natural materials.  They can age beautifully like a soft stone or be chosen for their resistance to weathering.

Consider that Filoli in Woodside, CA has 12oo volunteers plus a paid staff to maintain it.  I think it is totally worth it for such an impressive estate and extensive gardens.  Oh, and make no mistake – those people know what they’re doing, too.  So what is low enough maintenance for you?  One hour a week?  Three?  Do you need to hire someone, or are you going to do everything yourself, and do you really enjoy doing it, or will the work ruin your enjoyment of your outdoor space?

Truly high maintenance:  bonsai, String Garden, topiary, zonal denial (growing stuff that isn’t really suited to where your garden is), and trying to cram in too many amenities so that the feel of the space suffers.

Please add your thoughts in the comments!

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