Our gardening projects, large or small, can just seem so overwhelming. Fortunately, resolving design issues and demonstrating a spectacular choice of plants is a skill that you can acquire. We want a creative and exciting design. Design Process is how you do it.
And, we've been talking about Design Process these past few months as I describe ways to work through complex design problems. One part of this process involves a deeply thorough understanding of the site: not just the site, but understanding each constituent part of the site. This week I want to talk about microclimates, and how this important notion helps you house the best possible plants for your Conceptual Plant List.
Before taking a step forward this week, remember the "big picture:" the design process essentially proceeds on two tracks.
Why? One track describes how the client wants to use her garden. The other track describes what the site will allow. Put another way, we want to develop the garden in a way that pleases the client, but do so within the constraints offered by the site.
"Where do I start?" Always start with the horticulture. Learn what plants will thrive and make your neighbors envious. We find what works through a process of elimination (remember?)
But how do I know what to eliminate? By knowing your site — your garden — very, very well.
Don't forget that in choosing plant material for our Conceptual Plant Lists, we want plants that will thrive, and we want happy plants. To make this happen, we frequently start by matching the USDA zone of the plant and of the site is our first step. Is it enough? Maybe not (see Michael's column of 9-15-2011).
As regular gardeners, we already know that 'climate' and 'weather' are different concepts and are useful for different reasons. In Southwest Florida, we are all in a similar climate zone, 10a or 10b (See more on USDA zones via Google). If you are in 10a you may expect occasional freezes, for example, while Zone 11 freezes would be quit unusual.
In a way, climate is the average of weather over a period of time. Many will rightly say this is simplistic. Still, this is a useful way to think about climate, which long-term and is subject to much less variability. Weather, on the other hand, can be quite variable.
In our gardens, though, we want a higher degree of granularity than simply average temperatures or normal rainfall. We want to know if the garden is uniform, or if we can detect regular and predictable environmental departures from the other parts of the garden site. Does a certain spot tend to stay dry? Does the roof tend to focus water? Is there a wind-tunnel effect from a group of small buildings?
Too much analysis
Back in graduate school at LSU, Professor Dan Earl warned us about 'analysis paralysis', an affliction more likely to start after the required semesters of qualitative analyses/statistics. He was right then and he is right now. What difference, for example, between 88.7 degrees and 87.8 degrees? Nothing, that's what. So why point out the different temperatures? Simple to show that common sense is at work here, that's all.
Take another example. In my book I categorize the ability of a plant to tolerate beachfront conditions in three ways: the plant might have no tolerance to direct salt exposure (Japanese Fern Tree), or it might not care if it is planted directly on the beach (Sabal Palm or Coconut Palm). Those are the easy ones! We have a third category called 'partly', and that is where things get interesting. Plants are not digital elements, people, with simple 'on' and 'off' switches. Sometimes a bit of protection from beachfront conditions provides the necessary minimum microclimate for a plant to thrive.
Paurotis is an example of a plant that truly benefits from a small deflection of beach winds. Asian Jasmine, too, appreciates a bit of protection.
Do you see what we have just done here? We've added two lovely plants to our Conceptual Plant List. In the strictest terms, both of these plants would not appear on a Conceptual Plant List suitable for beachfront conditions, but since we know the site well, they are added.
But how? Imagine a house somewhat angled to the beach, and since we know the prevailing winds, we can place our Paurotis or our Asian Jasmine so that most of the time they are partly protected from the salty breezes. This is a microclimate.
Next week we will continue with creating plant lists. Don't forget that the website is slowly regaining some form. And, of course, your questions on any subject are always welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Learn more at www.msadesign.com or contact Michael by email: email@example.com. His website is www.msadesign.com. And watch for his forthcoming book on tropical plants.