Landscape Design Planting design

5 Nursery Web Site Catalogs I Go Back to Again and Again

January 4, 2017

Johnnys Selected Seeds

This is an old favorite. I have a soft spot in my heart for vegetable gardening and a lifelong daydream of becoming a farmer. The information in the Johnnys catalog is thorough, and they offer a great selection of vegetables, flowers and herbs.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Southern Exposure appeals to me for a lot of reasons. They are seed savers and exchangers, which is great for continuing both old traditions and genetic diversity. They also list a lot of heritage varieties and natives. Because they are driven by a membership base that truly loves seed saving and gardening, they offer a wealth of information in their catalog as well as several events throughout the year for people who want to get involved.

Heirloom Roses

No doubt, I love roses, and I love heirloom varieties. This is a great catalog with a lot of varieties to choose from. It’s one of those sites I go to whenever I need a little pick-me-up, because it’s so much fun to scroll through the varieties and daydream about which ones I’d like to plant.

Wayside Gardens

When I need a general plant catalog, this is my first choice. Wayside has been around a long time, and they offer a great selection, especially for the southeastern US. I’m in California now, so they aren’t as useful for me as they used to be, but they are still a great resource. (I’ll do a separate post on nurseries that specialize in California natives. That’s a whole niche unto itself.)

Plant Delights

This one is fun. They have a decent selection, but mostly they look for varieties that are a little different for one reason or another. The catalog is full of plants that have unusual shapes, colors or flowers, and they present it all with a sense of humor.

Landscape Design Planting design Sustainable Design

Gardening in Drought – the importance of planting design

September 19, 2014
xeriscape garden in silver and red

A xeriscape planting design that uses color and texture.

We had a little drizzle in Carmel Valley this morning, which is not so common in September, especially in a year of serious drought. It got me to thinking, with all the implications of the drought, how plausible is it to raise an ornamental garden with little added water? It’s a challenge we deal with on a regular basis as designers, and one that morphs into new challenges as each client adds their own set of criteria.

Can such a garden be beautiful? I would argue that it can, depending on your definition of beauty and your tolerance for brown hues.

Let’s set aside the question of Beauty with a capital ‘B’ and think for a moment about what styles lend themselves to low water plant palettes.

The two I’ve seen used most are what I’ll call the naturalistic style and the xeriscaped style.

Certainly, a naturalistic approach can seem like a simple choice. In this case, I’m using the term for a style that mimics the local ecology, which, if well done, can create a planted landscape that thrives in the climatic conditions of the region. Succeeding at this strategy isn’t necessarily easy. Natural landscapes arrive at the result we see through a myriad of complex strategies and interactions. Finding the right balance with a purposeful approach takes either experience or the patience to see the project through on a trial and error basis.

The xeriscaped style, as I’ve usually seen the practice applied, starts with a palette of low water use plants and places them, usually higgledy-piggledy, with each specimen far from its neighbor in a sea of mulch. It’s akin to an English border in its mish mash of species and varieties, except that all of the plants keep a distance from each other instead of intermingling and creating a riot of lush growth.

If it sounds like I’m not super excited about either option, I’ll admit that that’s partly true, but only partly. Each offers great possibilities for design. What I’m not excited about is the lackluster way each is usually applied. Frankly, they usually leave me bored and ready to see something different.

Instead of throwing a handful of random plants in a bed and calling it a garden, how about using a planting design concept that results in a dynamic interplay of form, color and texture? Why not use those characteristics to create a display that makes a statement? If mulch is to be visible, why not make it worth seeing?

There are strong constraints on creating this type of garden. Whether people limit their choices simply to low water users or go the extra step of looking for only plants native to their region, it can be a challenge to find a wide variety of options. Sometimes, though, constraints are the very thing that drive a creative solution.

Rather than using a lot of different species together with only one or two specimens of each, why not limit the choices to a few species that contrast or play up each other’s characteristics? Start with a focal point or a framed view and choose varieties that will perform the function needed to achieve the desired look.

Here on the Central Coast of California, if I’m looking for a small tree to create a focal point, Arctostaphylos ‘Dr. Hurd’ has an interesting form, provides evergreen canopy and uses very little water, in addition to being native. If we want a silver-hued shrub to cover the ground plane, Silver Bush Lupine or Eriogonum come to mind. A backdrop of Ceanothus would provide a stunning complement of color when the blue flowers come into bloom in the spring. It’s a simple mix, but effective.

Landscape Design Landscape planning Planting design Sustainable Design Urban design

In Defense of Ferns

March 30, 2014

image of a mass of ferns in a woodland setting


I have heard ferns maligned in a surprising number of places lately, and I want to do my part to set the record straight. There seems to be a misconception that ferns are scraggly and awkward or difficult to grow. Allow me to argue the opposite.

Ferns are no more difficult to grow than any other plant. Put them in an environment where they can thrive, and they will. If your chosen planting location is not currently suited to ferns, it may make sense to choose a different plant. Or, if you have the time and resources to create the right sort of microclimate for the type of fern you want to grow, you could give that a shot. If you go that route, just be prepared for ongoing maintenance to keep that microclimate in place.

There are many ferns to choose from, and texture is a great place to start in making your choice, because that is one of the most splendid traits that ferns have to offer. In most cases, they will make the best display when planted en masse, perhaps in a grove of tall deciduous trees, limbed up if necessary to allow for viewing the expanse across the forest floor. Does that mean that putting a few ferns in a bed along with a bunch of other plants is a bad way to go? Not necessarily. A small grouping of ferns can be effective. My caution would be against throwing a bit of this and a bit of that all into the bed and letting them fight it out for attention. It’s a common mistake, and one that really does not do justice to ferns. Give them a sizable grouping, and pair them with plants that will complement their texture and color.

For instance, if you choose a bold-textured fern, such as Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), you might consider fronting the planting with a ground-hugging flowering plant, like Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum). Or if you prefer a finely textured fern, planting an adjacent sweep of a bolder plant, such as Hosta, might be a good counterpoint.

Personally, I am especially partial to Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-femina) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum). There’s something about the delicate texture of each that creates an ethereal feeling when planted in a large grouping. Even a cluster of pots filled with maidenhair can add gorgeous greenery to a shady terrace.

Landscape Design Landscape planning Planting design Sustainable Design Urban design

Does DIY = Sustainable?

November 29, 2012

There’s a lot of romance to the idea of DIY. The rugged individualist is part of our national culture, part of how we see ourselves and our role in the universe. Not that everyone aspires to that goal, but it holds enough sway to merit an entire television network in its honor, plus countless books, tv shows, and courses at local community education programs. How many of us don’t devote weekends now and then to cherished projects we’ve been dreaming up for months, planning every last detail and searching for just the right materials?

DIY carries with it that romantic aura, and the impression that its somehow more wholesome. Better for the earth, if you will. But does DIY equal sustainable? It can – depending on intentionality and understanding. It’s like any other decision we face as individuals. We have to put in the effort if we want to walk the walk.

It occurs to me that I haven’t yet defined what it would mean for a do-it-yourself project to be sustainable. I always like the simplicity of the Iroquois sentiment so often quoted in definition: In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation. Meaning, whatever we do, the consequences will allow future generations to flourish. Clearly, I focus pretty closely on landscape considerations when I think of these things, but the concept is applicable to every decision we make in life.

And that’s the crux of the matter. It’s all about individual decisions. The best of intentions can crumble in the face of unexpected difficulties, higher than estimated costs, or just plain laziness.

Even actions that seem inconsequential at the time could be catastrophic at the aggregate scale. Take my dad, a master of DIY. I swear there was nothing the man couldn’t build, repair or improve. As a good rugged individualist, he always changed his own oil, and rather than wasting the old oil, he would pour it on all the spots where he had discovered poison ivy growing. Worked wonders for keeping the poison ivy in check, just like he intended. But what if everyone did that? In a world of six billion people? What about ten billion, twenty billion? Because that’s what we’re talking about – a world population that is rapidly outstripping the planet’s ability to sustain the status quo and the essential need to change the status quo to something we can all live with in years to come.

Is DIY sustainable? It has to be – our individual actions have to be taken into account if we really want to make a difference. Otherwise all the sustainable design we see celebrated across the internet is just designers making another crop of cool looking stuff for people to buy, and that has never been enough.

Landscape Design Landscape planning Sustainable Design

The Economics of Street Trees

July 1, 2012
image of large shade tree in urban setting

shade trees improve quality of life in urban settings

EcoGeek recently ran a post highlighting the correlation between income inequality and street tree inequality. The study in question was completed in 2007, and it’s certainly been true in my experience in cities that the fewer the street trees, the more marginal the neighborhood tends to be.

I’ve heard all sorts of things about the importance of trees in the life of the urban community, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to look for hard data to support them.

  • Street Trees raise property values

In 2008, a study completed by the US Forest Service in Portland, Oregon, concluded that street trees have a substantial positive influence on home values. They studied several factors, and found that in order to boost property value, the tree had to have crown area within 100 feet of the house, and that though positive value was strongest for the house directly in front of the tree, neighboring houses with canopy within 100 feet also gained value.

Given that this study was done before the worst part of the economic recession hit, it would be interesting to see a follow up study looking at how these factors might change across geographic and economic variables. Would the same results still be found in Portland after the recession? How would the results vary in different cities across the country? Does the positive effect of street trees increase with the prevalence of hardscape? Or does it go up as the size of the lot gets smaller? Has the shift toward investor-purchased homes changed the value of street trees, and if so, is it a short-term shift?

With so many questions, I feel like I should call a professor and ask them to do a study.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that it takes trees some time to get large enough to provide canopy cover. If a homeowner is planning to sell their house in three to five years and hopes to gain some value by planting street trees, they should do so now. Planting the largest tree one can afford, up to perhaps a six-inch caliper, is important to allow the tree to be large enough to visually register as a canopy. It’s possible to plant trees larger than six-inch caliper, but as they increase in size from there, it takes a seasoned expert to transplant them successfully, and the cost will rise dramatically. Of course, it all depends on the species of tree, so consulting a local expert is the best way to go.

  • There’s a correlation between street trees and reduction in crime rate

Interestingly, a study was just released this month in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning showing that the presence of street trees does correlate to lower crime rates. The study focused on Baltimore and found that an increase in canopy of 10% was linked to a 12% reduction in crime. The theory is that the presence of street trees shows that the community is active and takes pride in itself, making it less attractive to would-be criminals.

  • Street trees offer health benefits to the community

When I set out to research this category, I had in mind the ability of the trees to take up pollutants from the roadway, thus potentially lowering asthma rates, etc. According to a paper released by, this is true. Street trees absorb nine times more of the exhaust pollutants released by automobiles than do trees farther away from the road edge. But that’s not all they do for the health of the neighborhood. They also tend to lower blood pressure and improve psychological health.

  • Street trees improve the bottom-line of adjacent businesses.

A study from the University of Washington came out a few years ago showing that street trees in business districts positively influence the behavior of patrons. The study even found that shoppers would be willing to pay up to 11% more for the same item in a treed business district than in one devoid of trees. Again, the theory is that the presence of street trees indicates that the community takes pride in it’s appearance, making it more attractive to shoppers. It probably doesn’t hurt that the shoppers feel so great with their blood pressure lowered and their psychological health boosted.

  • Street trees help mitigate the heat island effect

This is one that the LEED rating system has been promoting for years now – plant trees to shade structures and hardscape, and the microclimate will stay cooler. According to the EPA, trees can keep surfaces 20-45 degrees cooler (F) than unshaded surfaces. Keep that in mind on hot sunny days!

Admittedly, this is not an exhaustive summary of the benefits of street trees, nor of the research available on these topics. Consider it a quick review of some complex issues that merit more attention.

Landscape Design

Screening versus Focusing

June 19, 2012
image of brick wall with wooden fence on top

When space and code permit, fences and walls can do a good job of screening smaller items beyond.

A friend recently asked me to take a look at the backyard of their rented urban home and help them screen a series of unsightly pipes and wires on the house as well as the conglomeration of waste bins and refuse in the adjoining yard. None of the property belongs to my friends, so actually cleaning up or moving any of the offending items is not a viable option.

I understand why they want to screen the view, the trouble is that the only way to completely screen in such a case would be to build a structure that would cover it all. In this case, that just isn’t feasible, both due to building code and ownership issues. This is a case for what I call focusing – creating a visually arresting space that draws the eye, so that the unwanted view beyond no longer takes center stage.

Will my friends still see the wires on their house and the mess in their neighbor’s yard? Sure, to some extent. It will be partially screened by the planting and movable pergola we will construct. But there’s no question the uglies will still be there. The point is, the garden space will take up their attention, shifting the point of focus and lessening the importance of the ugly bits.

Is focusing the perfect solution for every circumstance? No, but it’s a necessary solution in a lot of cases. Especially in urban situations, it isn’t always possible to screen unwanted views, so finding another way around the problem is crucial. Best of all, if you can find a way to work the uglies into the composition, to turn them from a negative to a positive, you’re ahead on all counts!

News From Around the Web

This Week’s Jumble – February 20, 2012

February 19, 2012

From around the web this week:

  • I heard of Arcosanti for the first time two years ago, when I flew to Phoenix to visit my boyfriend’s family for Christmas. It sounded like an interesting concept, according to the brochure sitting in the rack at the airport information desk – an artisanal village in the desert founded by an architect who wanted to create a new paradigm for urban development. Our holiday schedule didn’t leave time to visit, so I have yet to see the village for myself. The New York Times reported that the founder has retired and is being succeeded by a second generation of leadership. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Phoenix so I can explore the idea a little more.
  • Landscape design inspired by sound is certainly nothing new – and it may be as old as humanity. According to the BBC, a scientist has proposed that sound was the basis for the design of Stonehenge.
Productive Landscapes

A DIY Valentine’s Day

February 13, 2012

image of tulips

I enjoyed reading Dealnews’ tongue-in-cheek take on ways to save money on Valentine’s Day bouquets. Since forcing roses into bloom in February is tricky and probably best left to those hardy plant lovers who might be up to the challenge, I thought I’d offer a few alternate suggestions for intrepid romeos looking for a DIY source for Valentine’s flowers.

1) Camellias – For those in zone 6 and warmer, Camellias could be a simple way to get a rose-like flower. They are part of the rose family, and some of them bloom naturally in winter. Make sure to look for varieties that will bloom December through March, and pay attention to your hardiness zone. Some varieties are more tender than others. Keep in mind, these will look more like species roses, not the hybrid tea varieties you’d be getting at the flower shop.

2) Forcing bulbs – If you like the idea of forcing flowers for your Valentine’s bouquet, several flowering bulbs work well for that, and it’s pretty easy to do without a greenhouse. Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are probably the most common bulbs for this type of treatment. Pot up the bulbs, put them in a dark place and when you see green starting to appear on the bulbs, move them to a sunny room. Each type of bulb has different specific needs, so you’ll want to research the process for your chosen variety, but this may be one of the easiest solutions to the DIY flower problem.

3) Dried roses – If you still want to grow your own roses, you could plant some lovely varieties, let them bloom naturally, and dry the flowers. Come February, you could present them as a bouquet. Depends on your significant other – if he or she would enjoy a dried bouquet, go for it!

3) Silks – I can’t help but think this is something my dad might have tried as a joke. It sounds like him: buying a bunch of silk flowers and giving the same bouquet to my mom year after year. I have no proof, but I bet he thought about it! As a girl, I wouldn’t recommend it.

4) Non-bouquet options – Giving flowers doesn’t have to involve a bouquet of cut flowers. If you want a gift that will continue to provide flowers for years to come, perhaps a flowering house plant is the way to go. Just keep in mind the light needs of the plant. Orchid, gardenia and jasmine are all beautiful options, but you’ll want to choose something that will thrive in the living conditions you’ll provide.

Enjoy your flower-giving adventures!