Readers: This piece appeared in the February 21, 2014 edition of the Naples Daily News. Send me an email for a PDF version.
In September 2008 monthly office billings from developers dropped dramatically. The same was true all over the country. The old days were gone.
A bleak future, as it turned out, held some significant surprises.
Back to the Future
The firm was 20 years old in 2008, 20 years focused on design- and diversification. Developers dominated our
assignments, but we cultivated relationships with the residential communities. I enjoy community work, and my planting skills were honed by the unique planting requirements of older communities. Why? Research. Specifying the right plant for myriads of small planting situations was satisfying and deeply educational.
Moreover, I came to become an expert in the special concerns of these communities.
At the same time, the firm moved into joint construction efforts with a large construction company. Readers will remember I met Al O’Donnell while working with Meritage Homes. After 2008, several large projects with O’Donnell Landscapes stand out.
A major community face-lift at Wildcat Run on Corkscrew Road is emblematic. There were several difficult design issues, including an irrigation system not able to comply with water restrictions. The project entry, too, was simply sub-standard,. More seriously, Wildcat Run shares nearly a mile of visual exposure to a very high voltage transmission line. Wires run more than 40’ in the air; the community wanted them completely hidden from view.
Similarly, the Spring Run Community Association engaged the firm to completely re-think the main entry and miles of community streetscape.
Keep in mind that this multi-million dollar company plants hundreds of thousands of plants each year, all carrying warranties. Al’s not interested in supplying failing plants. The resultant experience is a gold mine (to a plant geek, one supposes).
I pounded Al for information, eventually learning that I could not exhaust the depth of information. I did the only logical thing: describing the book idea, I invited him as a co-author. He graciously accepted. More importantly: a strong relation was forming that would allow us to work together on the book project.
About the book: progress was slow. Plant material is complex and devilishly difficult to describe; at some point in the coming weeks I will describe more fully plant description. Data and photo collection continued. Significantly, the central concept of the book began to gel. I knew at last that I was on to something more universally useful.
Where do designers go for deep information? Book shelves or Google. Need information about Ixora? Look in the index or search.
Think of this, though: Designers might be looking for a fine-textured seashore plant, but must have a sense of what plants to use before going to reference.
It’s a process that depends on the designer’s memory: “what about X?”, she wonders, trundling off to research the plant and learning that the plant gets too big. Next: “but what about Y?”, and so on. This does not make sense.
Sophisticated design asks a different question: “I need a fine textured shrub for beach planting” or “how can I get color in a dark spot?” Many offices, including mine, make this process a bit smoother with ad hoc lists: Hedges, or Narrow Spaces, or Deep Shade.
This is a baby step in the right direction.
The Light Bulb
While reference books will tell you a plant’s family, or the number of pistils or stamens, the designer wonders-
“Cool! But how does it help me?”
Indeed. Selective data matters. We want to know how far apart to plant Asian Jasmine expecting coverage in three years (two feet). How tall will Yellow Iris be when growing in shade? (Four feet). How big will Arboricola become left unpruned (more than twenty feet).
And don’t get me started on photographs! Some of the best-selling reference books have very poor pictures or, in one case, simple line drawings. Designers want to see plants in context. Sure, a single specimen is interesting, but a photo of Zamia with Dianella is much more informative.
So there it is. Deep plant knowledge based on scholarly research and decades of practical experience in a format useful to the working designer. What could go wrong?
Michael loves your email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And Michael’s HOA readers will appreciate reprints of topics of special interest to larger communities, available by request or on his website: www.msadesign.com. Listen for Michael’s on-air sponsorship at WGCU Public Radio.