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.