Ever noticed how fashion goes in and out of style? There's no apparent reason, really. "Oh! How fresh!" And that's about how fashion changes are described.
A similar thing occurs with plant material, too. Several decades ago, Pampas Grass was all the rage, and why not? It's a lovely plant with huge, long-lasting, feathery and large flowers. Liriope was used as much as Asian Jasmine is now, but discontinued largely because it was planted too far apart, never grew together, and created an expensive mulching bed. The Rubber Vine was popular, and so was the Mahogany Tree.
Unlike fashion, each of these plants had a specific problem. Pampas Grass gets brown leaves near the bottom, and nobody knew how to maintain them, for example. And once it was discovered that liriope needs a 14-inch spacing and benefits greatly from peat worked into the soil, we are seeing this plant make a resurgence. Pentas, too, has been 'up', and 'down', for no reason at all.
I actually started to think about these 'old' plants because Landscape Architecture, too, experiences episodic fashion. Many many decade ago, a Venn diagram showed considerable overlap with architecture and with civil engineering, and so the profession went off in that direction. Your Design Pundit never lost his abiding affection with plant material, but a DP has a mortgage to pay.
Recently, I was involved in one of those ongoing discussions that we occasionally see online. The subject? Faithful readers know that your DP favors 'monoculture' for many situations, and that the provenance of this material is of little importance in an ornamental landscape. The main criteria, DP feels, is that a plant should thrive and that it should be self-mulching. Pick the right plant and use it, as they say.
And let's add this as a bit of self-importance: It's the 'duty' of landscape architecture to promote and extend native areas for critters, some say. The notion of wildlife corridors; is a relatively new idea, allowing furtive animals a way to move from Big Cypress to CREW property, and on to Lake Okeechobee. Plant material should be quite varied to accommodate the many animals using this important corridor. Very sensible.
What are the implications of this kind of design on residential (single family or multi-family) planting design?
Right. None! Does this break my heart as card-carrying PETA and FPNS member? No. This is an example, much like recent politics, where sticking to a position with no room for modification gets the holder in a heap of trouble.
Start with the purpose of upland ornamental plantings around your home or condominium. Are we providing plants to attract animals so that bears or panthers will eat them? No. Are we planting because we want to see songbirds, hummingbirds and others? Maybe. Do we want raccoons or possums? Maybe not.
This is were the trouble begins. Why insist every planting is populated with a hugely wide range of species? It's not a corridor.
More to the point, these ornamental plantings are serving an entirely different purpose, aren't they? We create gardens around our homes, and in the more spacious condominiums, for people. We are creating space. This is a different design goal and it is entirely reasonable. In fact, planting these spaces in any other way is indefensible.
A simple example
Often I write that 'Design is Not Opinion', a phrase that confuses many people. Here, though, is an example. Remember planting design rule No. 1: Find the right plants! Do not search for homes for favorite plants. Is this hyperbole? Sure.
Imagine a very sunny site, a little high, meaning the plant will tend to dry out. We would like a 6-foot shrub that is 6-foot wide, is colorful, that attracts butterflies, and that flowers in the winter.
And do you know how many shrubs plants almost satisfy these requirements? Four: Firebush, Thryallis, Spanish bayonet, and the Chenille Plant. The only plant that meets all of the requirements in our example is Firebush. Why would we use anything except Firebush?
Let's take it a step further. We have about 10 inches between the Firebush and a sidewalk. What would work there? Same characteristics, but we want the plant to be a foot high or less: Asian Jasmine, Dianella, Horizontal Coco Plum, Juniper, Grass, and Horizontal Carissa.
Which combination do you choose? Well, this is where you depend on the design principles, and your concept. Remember that 'contrast is king'? This leaves us with Jasmine, Horizontal Coco Plum and Carissa.
(Are there other options? Sure. Let's keep the example simple).
Now. At what point was the process of specifying plant material a matter of opinion?
It's not opinion. Chose the plant and use it. Use nothing else. Plant so that they grow together and I promise your mulch and maintenance bills will plummet.
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.