Posted by urbansuburbanecoliteracy | Posted in Gardens, Landscaping | Posted on 04-08-2010
In February 2010, the City of Santa Monica sponsored an Airport Demonstration Gardens Design Contest. A contact in Santa Monica nudged me to submit a design and she lit the proverbial fire under my booty with the prompting that the period for contest entries would end shortly. So, my landscape contractor colleague and I visited the site in early March to conduct a site analysis. With a little over a week to go before the mid-month deadline for all entries, ultimately I decided not to generate a design. In principle, there was nothing wrong with the laudable objective, which was to show how “sustainable landscaping enhances our coastal environment, significantly reduces pollution and waste, and saves time, money and water.” I’m all for that. It’s part of practicing what my colleague and I teach through Urban/Suburban Ecoliteracy.
What I took issue with was the concept of the city providing three “readymade, yet customizable sustainable landscapes suitable for neighborhood front yards” for public consumption. City of Santa Monica residents have the option of downloading the winning designs for use as templates for their front yard gardens. Now before you conclude that I’m just airing “sour grapes” complaints because I didn’t enter the contest, consider that no two garden sites are exactly alike, just as no two homeowners are exactly alike. Using the design as a template assumes thatevery front yard in Santa Monica has the same soil type, the same solar exposure, and a similar rectilinear shape of roughly the same dimensions. Somehow, I doubt that the garden template idea compensated for differences in soil type and solar exposure and the concept also assumes that a homeowner will use the same plant palette as the original designer.
Each of the final three designs chosen has a particular plant palette of a about a dozen plants associated with it according to the prerogatives of the designer. A homeowner could theoretically substitute a plant species or two out of his or her chosen design template, but this is assuming that the homeowner knows enough about plants to make a plant choice that will 1) have similar solar exposure, soil type, and water needs to original plants in the design and 2) know what plants will complement the altered design in appearance, growth habit and mature size. In other words, non-designers would still have to know enough horticulturally and artistically to tinker with the design effectively without ruining it. What if the soil is different from the soil found at the airport? A different soil type and composition will affect the plant palette. How will a non-designing homeowner know which plant species to take out of or put into the design and in what relative numerical quantities in order to adapt the design to his or her own property? That would mean that a homeowner would have to know how to properly compensate for the mature sizes of the plants when determining the initial spatial arrangement when planting. One of the most common errors homeowners make is putting too many plants too closely together because they are impatient for the “full” look that comes with plant maturity.
Add to everything else the challenge of adapting the design to the specifics of a homeowner’s property. What if the homeowner doesn’t want to or can’t remove all the existing plants on his or her property? How does a homeowner adapt the shape of the design to his or her own garden’s dimensions? By now, adapting a design becomes daunting without hiring a professional designer whom the homeowner was trying to avoid hiring in the first place. Or, perhaps worse, a homeowner implements the template design and it flops. Nothing in landscaping is foolproof unless one opts for artificial plants and plastic turf. There is always some small percentage (i.e. 2 to 5 percent) of plants that don’t thrive shortly after a garden’s installation, but lots of struggling plants that are very slow to establish (i.e. 3 to 5 years) or major plant losses (25 percent or more) indicate that something was very wrong from the start.
For all of the reasons outlined in this post, I refuse to recommend free garden templates or free garden design software to anyone. Templates and rudimentary or simplified garden design software tend to treat plants like furniture in a house to be moved around at will. Furniture doesn’t change shape, size, or form. It’s an even bigger insult if the plant palette used by the software or the template uses the same generic database of ornamental plants and homogenizes geography and climate. If you’re in coastal Maine, you’re not going to use the same plants as one would in coastal Georgia, nor would you use the plant palette for either state in the Central Valley of California. Spatially and aesthetically a design might seem to work until it is put to the test after implementation. Then the plants themselves would tell a different story.