Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Public plantings: my village, part two

Yesterday I introduced Veg Plotting's public planting meme challenge, and offered a couple of examples of less-than-satisfactory efforts on my campus. My main gripe with them is that they are influenced by a vague notion of what a typical college campus is supposed to look like (read: a small liberal arts college in New England), but that sort of planting doesn't come off very well here. And the reason for that is actually pretty simple: we don't live in New England.

There used to be a great swath of prairie right up the middle of this continent. Most of it is gone now, but the environmental conditions that created it are still around: semi-arid climate; sandy soils; abundant sunshine; unfettered wind.

The first three things in that list dictates what thrives here. Ideally, a public planting should be something that doesn't need to be coddled, since coddling = time, and time = money. Gardeners have long known (but too often ignored) that plants do best if they are situated in either their natural environment or one that does a darn good job of mimicking it.

There are of course many plants that can accept a wide range conditions. Tulips are arguably in this category, but most of the year they are not in bloom, and in a public planting, this means the space which they inhabit will be blank, or, as in yesterday's example, they will have to be dug up and re-planted each season. (See above, in re "coddling.")

So that's an argument to create public plantings that fit their environment for sustainability reasons, but as I noted in yesterday's post, there are aesthetic and cultural reasons to do it, too. I won't re-hash that here, but I will say that we can take it a step further and create plantings that honor the environment in which they are found.

Here are a couple of examples on campus in which I think this is happening. (Please bear in mind that the plants have just had their spring haircuts, and so are not looking their best.)

The first location is the hell strip between a campus street and a dorm parking lot. Note the benches for seating, trees placed for shade purposes (the only reason to have trees here), and the use of drought tolerant species like artemesia and Mexican feather grass:

In this example (as in the one I also offer below), I like the use of "negative space." That is, I like it that there are wide swaths between beds; it seems to reference the openness of the plains. The soft gray greens and yellow of the plants, and the earthy, rust color of the paths do this, too.

I also like the abundant use of the Mexican feather grass, and in this case I think it makes a nod not only to the grasses of the prairie, but to the wind that blows through them. In my mind, there are few things more beautiful on Earth than the sound and sight of wind blowing through a stand of grass. Close your eyes right now and imagine yourself sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the warm spring sun, and listening to the sound of the grasses as they are lifted by a soft breeze.

The second example comes from a courtyard space between the library and student union. This used to be a paved street, with some rather ho-hum plantings. That was all taken out a few years ago and replaced with this landscape. Again, note the use of negative space, drought tolerant plants (artemisia, sedums, Mexican feather grass, yucca), and trees and benches for comfortable sitting in shade:

These spaces are all empty right now because I took these photos over spring break, but in good weather those benches are usually full of students, sitting around reading or visiting.

Now I ask you, do those places look like "Anyplace College, USA?" I think not, and more than this, I think they reflect who and where we are. I think they look spare, tough, gritty. As Isak Dineson once said of her home in Africa, ours is a land that is lean, with no fat on it. Let us celebrate that unique quality with our public spaces.

Both of these examples were designed by the university landscape architect, Jason Hodges, who is a real advocate of the prairie environment. He has worked hard over the past few years, slowly adding these elements of design. The plantings he uses are not always native to the prairie (only a couple of the ones I mention above are native, for example), but they still manage to provide that aesthetic reference while also providing for drought-tolerance and the specific needs of public spaces.

Even so, it has been difficult for some to leave behind the old ideas, as demonstrated by this little bed in front of the library:

Oops. More tulips and pansies.

I'll be back with some updated photos later in the season, when the plants have grown their hair out again and are looking their spruciest. Maybe I can even talk Jason into doing a guest blog on the sort of considerations a landscape architect must make when designing a public space.


  1. Susan, Loved this post (and the previoius one). It makes me curious to see what the University of Missouri-Columbia campus looks like now! It was once a campus of huge lawns. It was interesting to read..."Note the benches for seating, trees placed for shade purposes (the only reason to have trees here)". I never thought about the lack of trees in a prairie...but there wouldn't be any! I totally agree with you about the tulips and pansies...they are pretty, but so are grasses and prairie flowers.

    Thank you for an excellent read! Btw, my husband is from OK and he says more then anything he misses the wind! I am going to make sure he can see the grasses in our garden blowing in our little wind!


  2. Susan - thanks so much for your thoughtful posts. When you showed the more sympathetic plantings I felt my whole self relax and say 'there, that's better'. And what better way is there of saying 'we're a unique place and different' than by having a distinctive planting style instead of something that could be in Anywheresville? Is it me, or do they also seem more sympathetic with the campus buildings than what you showed us yesterday?

    I look forward to seeing how these plantings develop over the next few months :)

    As for a guest posting from your colleague - yes please!

  3. PS I've added Part 2 to Mr Linky over at my place and I see from reading your reply to Part 1's comments that you and Jason are presenting at a sustainability conference on this very topic next month. How exciting and I wish you well with it.

    Word Verification says chance - I'm interpreting that to mean there's a great chance for success :)

  4. Great post. I really enjoy gardens and landscapes that instill a sense of place. Too often the aesthic of gardens in this country pay homage to English and French gardens.

  5. Another great one from you, Susan. I imagine one of the things you and John are fighting against with all of this is the craving for bright colors at times of the year when maybe the prairie flowers are dormant. Am I way off the mark? When the paths and buildings are shades of brown and red and grey, sometimes people just think they need to jazz it up with stuff that doesn't really belong. Here in Seattle there's a lot of grey (buildings, sky) and green (everything else) so we do the same for different but also maybe wrong reasons. The appreciation of negative space, a chance to let the eye rest, doesn't come naturally to everyone. But you explain it so well and it make so much sense in the photos you show, that even the design-disabled like me can take something from it. Thanks!

  6. Susan, this and your previous posts are excellent! I love your imagery of the grass rustling in the wind. I must admit though, that I'm not sure which would drive me over the edge first if I were to move to the prairie, the wind or the flatness (or distance from the ocean)!

    Do you suppose that the yearning for a landscape different from that which surrounds us is because so many of us are from somewhere else? I know that a lot of people that move to California have a hard time with our dry brown summer landscape. I've lived here all my life and can't imagine green hillsides in summer and fall.

  7. Two excellent posts. I do like the sympathetic planting but I miss the colours that flowers provide - obviously because I come from somewhere different and I'm used to spring flowers.
    Do you think the pansies and tulips combo reflects a desperate wish for colour at any cost!


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