Plan(T)ing for the Future

As a Landscape Designer for over twenty years, I have heard many requests from clients.  There is one very common one that I always hear.  It is the Tree Request.  “I want you to plant the largest tree I can afford that grows quickly, and doesn’t drop leaves/seeds/petals” or “isn’t messy”.  I love you all, clients, but perhaps you might consider something in plastic?!  The problem with fast growing trees is that they are also often fast dying or way-too-large tropicals.  Yes, you can have a tree without flower/fruit, that is evergreen, but it’s like eating vanilla everyday.

  I’m not sure when things got this way.  Once upon a time, the idea of planting an acorn and knowing that it would not be mature in your lifetime, was a wonderful thing.  The thought that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren would enjoy it’s shade was very satisfying.  Once upon a time, the incredible purple show of a Jacaranda tree in bloom signaled the beginning of spring and was cause for catching your breath. 

  I’m not sure when plants of great beauty or incredible majesty became a bother or not worthwhile.  Perhaps it has been our mobile society, or our fetish with cleanliness, or our need for instant gratification.  Perhaps it is all of these.  More seriously, perhaps it is an inability to value the past and perceive a positive future.  As a preservationist, I would like to know that the trees I plant will grace my historic home, long after I am gone.  I hope that when people see them in bloom they will stop in their tracks and gasp.  I want the future children who live here to enjoy picking fruits from the orchard and to be as fascinated as I am by the flying, creeping and burrowing creatures that live in the garden.  Just as my 1905 bungalow is worthy of preservation, so too should the landscape be.  So please, no more fast growing monster Ficus, tedious Podocarpus or sedate Agonis!  Choose a tree of the proper size for your lot and home, but choose it for it's great beauty and long life, not it's fast rate of growth or "cleanliness"!           

Love Your Tree Please!

We all love the look of the graceful weeping willow - and it would look so incredible drooping in front of your wonderful historic bungalow/Spanish Revival/Mid-Century Modern home, wouldn't it? See the picture below left. Wait! Do you have a small creek or stream running through your property?! Do you have a large budget dedicated to the betterment of the Department of Water and Power?! Don’t do it!!!! Yes, I know that you love that incredibly expensive, beautifully burgundy, filigree-leafed Japanese maple, but are you willing to move to the Great Northwest? Install a yard full of misters filled with distilled water? Mound up your clay filled soil in a dream of better drainage? Don’t do it!!!! Before you choose a tree, look carefully at its water and soil requirements and eventual size. If you like the look of a certain tree that is not appropriate for your area, there are many others that will substitute. For instance, in Southern California, that weeping willow can be replaced by the beautiful Mayten Tree (Maytenus boaria), the Peppermint Willow (Agonis flexuosa), or, see the picture below - the wonderfully steely Weeping Myall (Acacia pendula). Instead of a burgundy Japanese maple, plant the always incredible Cercis 'Forest Pansy' or Leptospermum 'Dark Shadows'.

To be truly sustainable, the tree you choose should not only be drought tolerant, but also, require ocaissional minimal trimming, rather than heavy pruning annually. To shade a typical one story house, you need only a 20 to 30 foot tree. Most modern lots are very small and can barely fit one tree on them. Remember that most trees grow as wide as they do tall – plant them at least 10 feet from your foundation. Consider all other aspects of the tree as well. Is it brittle? Have invasive roots? Disease prone? Short-lived? Too messy for you or your patio? Will it burn like a torch at the least provocation? Will it procreate all over our nature reserves or your neighbor's yard? Choose carefully!

Another issue is the proliferation of phoenix/king/queen palms et al in Southern California. They look great in Waikiki, at the end of a spacious yard, or down Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, not in front of your window on your tiny lot. At 6 feet they are lovely. At their full grown height, they are large trunks, blocking your view, that need a cherry picker to constantly trim, lest the fronds fall on your head and concuss you, with fruit you could slip and kill yourself on! Instead, try the much smaller Pygmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelinii) which will look wonderful from your living room forever.

Whatever the tree you do choose, please, please, please – don’t EVER “top” your tree! It will weaken the structure, destroy the natural form of the tree, make it prone to disease and insect infestation, and contribute ugliness instead of beauty to your fair city. And please, when you do choose, no cheating by saying that you are planning on moving before the Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) takes out your foundation! We should choose our trees with an eye to longevity, not instant gratification. Planted and situated correctly, a tree will be something to be enjoyed for generations, not an annoyance to be removed within a few years.









Carrots are a great thing to plant with children—they grow quickly and easily and are right down there where little hands can reach.  So we grew carrots at The New City Farm.  We planted Danvers, French Chantenay, Chantenay Red-Cored, Nantes and Thumbelina.  Lo and behold, when the carrots were harvested, beyond the obvious nutritional benefits, a life lesson came along.


My students, used to those ubiquitous, shaped, scraped and soaked “baby” carrots (oh, but they ARE organic!) thought that something was very wrong with their produce.  Different sizes, different shapes, different colors.  Even within the same variety was a great variety.  Besides, there were ROOTS! And DIRT!  So we discussed how vegetables are just like people—just because they look differently than we expect doesn’t mean that they are not just as good as, or more, delicious than, those look-alike carrots.  We discussed how the process of making those baby carrots might affect their nutritional value.  And just how much does all of this processing affect our environment, from factory to shipping to water usage?


I often forget that children, and many adults, not only no longer have a connection to where their food comes from, but do not have a grasp of even the most basic idea that good food needs soil, sun and water.  Our super clean and tidy lives have left us clueless about how food really grows and what it looks like before it is processed.  No wonder we have such an easy time cutting apart our faces and injecting poison (of course it’s HARMLESS because it has been altered in a lab!) so that we too can look as uniform, smooth and seamless as those “baby” carrots!  If we were to be more used to the sight of non-uniform produce, would we be more comfortable within our own skins?  Here's hoping that the lessons the children are learning at the farm will give them the strength to be so!





unless otherwise stated, all photos by Kathleen Irvine or James Danno
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