Originally appeared in the Naples Daily News July 6, 2012.
Can plant material be obnoxious? Oh, sure. Some plant material is so swaggeringly arrogant, so assertive that it overwhelms the garden–- and the garden designer. It’s easy to avoid this error, though.
Some materials are so visually appealing that they are difficult to use in any sort of thoughtful planting design. They constantly shout at casual passers-by, in an nettlesome, cloying way: “Hey! You! Yes, you! Look at me! Just look at me!”
Easily the most challenging part of planting design for the novice is acquiring godlike skills: the ability to fully understand a site in its entirety. Otherwise, planting design becomes a very lame process of ‘oh, this would look so good over there!’, a sort of trivial exercise that one sees constantly. This is the line of demarcation between the professional designers–these would be those who regard plants as mere materials or tools– and the putterers, who simply cannot see more than a few plants at a time.
Do you think that this is inflammatory? Really? Why do we see so much Variegated Arbicola?
My students and readers often express a similar frustration: where do I start? It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Aside from the obvious solution–hire your favorite Landscape Architect!– here’s one way to usefully organize smaller projects: sequential focal points. This isn’t a technique useful for every project, of course, but in every case, examining the treatment of vocals does yield some insight into the skill of the designer.
Why? Because focal points provide structure, or backbone. They give you a rationale for which parts of the site is to benefit from heavy planting, and which parts are not. Think of this as you drive about through your subdivision, particularly if you live in one of the more recent gated communities. Where does your eye linger? Are lake views provided where drivers may enjoy them, for example? This ‘focal analysis’ is powerful, helping understand land planning as well as planting design.
And at the smaller scale of your own lot, consider how your eyes move as you approach your home; be conscious of what you see from the kitchen, the den, the master bedroom. These are all candidate focal points, where time, effort, and money are appropriately spent. All of the areas between these focal points are simply green mayonnaise, to coin a phrase.
And now, what of those obnoxious and needy plants that I spoke about? Think of it this way. If your design has carefully crafted focal points, you have thought ahead about how users interact with your design. You know where users will gaze because you have thought out how your site works. If you plant an attention-grabbing plant anyplace other than your focal points, you have destroyed your design. Why? Because distraction ruins a finely crafted planting design.
Can these plants be properly used in any place at all? Absolutely. Properly placed by the sensitive designer, they bring a resonance to your design not easily achieved. They bring either scale, or sculpture, or simple symmetry. There is, of course, extra attention necessary to maintenance over the life of your garden because the failure of these beauties will seriously flaw your design.
A few plants on my Obnoxious List:
Pandanus, or Screw Pine has a very powerful, triangular form, and is messy, but nonetheless quite beautiful;
Bismarck Palm has become incredibly popular, this huge, silver palm will completely overwhelm anything but the largest lot or public space;
Ponytail Palm: can become quite beautiful, but more often does not age well;
Giant Bird of Paradise is very useful for large-scale screening, but can quickly overwhelm (and introduces sugar ants if the leaves touch the house);
Sago Palms aren’t palms, of course, but ancient plants, nearly impossible to group or mass.
Are there more? Sure. But next week, let’s look at some of the very common plants that we see around, and offer a few alternatives for Ixora, and Arbicola, and Juniper.
Any questions? Feel free to email Michael (email@example.com) with your questions about horticulture, design, or life.