This time last year I was getting ready to attend the 2007 Association of Professional Landscape Designers annual conference. Held in Southern California, the 10 day visit began a transformation about the way I think about landscape design–although it has been difficult to put that burgeoning philosophy into practice all of the time.
Even though in my twenties I had lived for several years in Los Angeles, coming from my Z6 mid-Atlantic base, the conference’s garden visits were a trip to an exuberant, exotic locale. Gardens and landscapes in the subtropical climate that is 21st century Southern California have a completely different point of view than those ‘back east’. The ‘New American Garden’ aside, east coast gardening is rooted in the English traditions of lawn and border. Most of the gardens in Los Angeles challenged my idea of what a garden is and can be.
From what I saw, designers in California are taking a leadership position in environmental restoration and preservation. Sustainability was the focus of the conference and many of the gardens we visited incorporated that concept by utilizing recycled materials, native plants and xeriscaping. The idea of sustainable landscape practices through the use of creative design solutions was evident. The gardens presented a paradigm of design trends that respond to California’s climate of long dry summers and mild wet winters, outdoor lifestyle and a clear commitment to the restoration of indigenous plant communities.
I was initially shocked by what I saw through eyes used to lush summer landscapes green with irrigation—whether natural or man made. Early in the conference, I realized I couldn’t identify but a handful of plants, many were native to California or other Mediterranean climates and not suited to the climatic swings in other areas of the country. This lack of plant knowledge allowed me to focus on the big picture rather than the plant groupings. At first I thought, where is the GREEN, where is the lush, where is something familiar? From my perspective, agaves, echiverias, and aeoniums exist in the greenhouse or in pots on a patio—not in a front yard, yet there they were and they looked right. They looked as if they belonged. It was my viewpoint as a designer that didn’t belong.
After several days of garden visits, we went to a beautiful and imaginative garden that looked, with some exceptions made for plants, as if it had been transplanted from the East coast. This garden was heavily irrigated, lush and green. It was not sustainable, it didn’t have that sense of place that many of the other gardens had. When I thought about many of the other more ‘alien’ gardens I had seen, this verdant Anglo-Mediterranean space seemed out of touch with the California design sensibility I had been seeing elsewhere. I realized I was beginning to see the point.
The California designers’ mindset of celebrating their geography, climate and native plant communities hasn’t really take hold here. New Jersey, where I practice, despite its moniker as ‘The Garden State’ is the most densely populated state with a long history of industrial and environmental transgressions. Like many other areas in the country, we are just beginning to safeguard open space, protect what used to be old growth forest and save and restore native wetlands and riparian buffers.
Garden visits can challenge and delight. They can also expand the possibilities of design to the open minded viewer. After the initial shock, my visits in California did exactly that. I came away from the conference wondering how I could translate and put to use what I had seen and heard. There were some impractical ideas—I can’t imagine listing plants slated for removal on Craig’s List and having strangers come to any of my very private client’s properties as one left coast speaker suggested—they’d be appalled at the suggestion. It would be next to impossible to convince my conservative and traditional clientel to have a wall built of repurposed concrete—what was cheerfully nicknamed ‘urbanite’ in California. In the east, we have an abundance of beautiful and relatively inexpensive local stone. I can also promote the use of recycled brick, which locally is in abundance and costs about one third of the cost of new brick.
I can investigate and use more native and locally grown plants that will require less water and use fewer fossil fuels needed for long distance shipping. I can make sure stormwater is kept on the property and used as passive irrigation. I can make sure that the organic materials we remove from a site go to the proper recyclers to be composted for future use. I can also make sure that inorganic debris is sorted and recycled instead of dumped.
I also realized that in other ways, I have already started. I try as often as possible to reduce areas of turf grass in a design, just on the basis of water useage, chemical fertilization practices and air and noise pollution created by the mow/blow/go crews. We also offer organic garden maintenance without the use of power tools to our clients, promoting it as Estate Gardening and charge accordingly for it. My show house garden is an opportunity to demonstrate these ideas to a large group of people looking for inspiration.
So I figure if I design with sensitivity to the genus loci and keep sustainable practices in mind, the gardens I build will be to their time and place, what many of the new California gardens we saw are to theirs.