‘We also base wise plant choice on the prevalent diseases in an area and the susceptibility of the plant to that disease. Growth rate and spacing is another consideration. As is diversity and ecology as relates to birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and the like.”

Prevalent disease:
Sometime around the 1950’s and 60’s there was an ornamental hedge plant named Eugenia that was planted extensively throughout California. It was a plant in the myrtle family from Australia that had white flowers and pink edible fruits. It took shearing well and grew to be a large shrub to a tree. Real pretty thing. Then a bug named psyllid, aka the jumping plant lice, took a liking to the Eugenia and went around sucking on its plant juices. In the process the Eugenia leaves became malformed and distorted with little bumps and pits. Plus the sugary excrement (frass) of the psyllid on the leaves would bring in the sooty mold fungus. The plant turned into a sick yucky mess. For a while people would use chemicals to treat the plant and kill the bugs, but that got expensive real quick. And some of those toxic chemicals got banned. In the end, many landscapers decided to just chop em down. These days, you can buy psyllid resistant Eugenias, and who knows? They might make a come back in popularity. One more thing – botanists working on this group determined that it actually belonged with the genus Syzygium, so that is where it is now. So old time gardeners will call it Eugenia. Smart up to date kids will call it Syzigium. Same plant though.

Another plant that has gone through a similar trajectory is the Fuchsia plant. Thirty forty years ago they were all the rage. For sure somebody you know had a hanging basket of them. In the 1980’s a mite made its way here and began feeding on the Fuchsias. The leaves became
all mangled and distorted and lost their value as an ornamental. Like the Eugenia, chemical and biological control work, but at some point you are like ‘at what cost’? Since then, for the past twenty years or so, we have continued planting fuchsias – the ones that are resistant to the mite, not the old fashioned ones. This has been a concerted effort by breeders who do not want to see the abandonment of such a great plant with fantastic flowers.

The latest plant victim of insect feeding and destruction is the Myoporum laetum tree from New Zealand. Myoporum is a common street tree and sometimes hedge that was adaptable, somewhat drought resistant, and tolerant of town pollution. It served for many years in this capacity. Then about ten years back, it got a bug called thrips. Same sad story of curled stunted and gnarled leaves. A couple of insecticides seem to work okay – the bacterial based Spinosad and the systemic poison known as Imidacloprid. With imidacloprid the dilemma is – how much is that plant worth to you? If using the pesticide causes further harm to local honey bees, is it still worth it?

As a designer you would want to know these things. The nurseries are often helpful with advice about disease resistant plants, as are groups of gardeners who meet and discuss such issues regularly such as the San Francisco Professional Gardeners Association. If you make plant choices and decisions solely based on color and texture and online mags and what they say on the internet then it is likely that you will miss out on local conditions and essential field knowledge.

Growth rate and spacing:
Some plants grow fast, others slow. Here, Buddleja butterfly bush is fast, Lavatera is fast, fragrant Daphne and its close relative Dirca are slow. If you place a fast grower next to slow growers, all too soon the speedy one will be towering over the others, casting shade, pushing their roots outa the way, making their life miserable. Ideally you plan for this and give everybody enough room, and make a note to the homeowner to prune regularly.

This here is a row of four or so butterfly bushes at a local park. Back five seven years ago, they looked neat and orderly on a landscape plan. Now, having grown woody and tall quickly, they have ‘taken over’…

The whole thing with spacing is so tricky to nail down. On the one hand you want the garden to grow in relatively quickly, so that your plan manifests itself and the clients are pleased. On the other hand you wish the plants would stop growing at some point and stay in that perfect and mature and precise size and form forever. (When is that, by the way?) Of course the plants do not listen to you as they have their own agendas. So really just do you best on this criteria, and be careful of how many fast growing woody plants you draw in your design.

What are they, what are their plant names? The woody fast growers I got to be careful with? Sigh. I’ll make a list another day. But recognize that nothing is a sure thing in the garden – even if we are talking about the same exact clone of a plant, its growth rate will vary and be dependent on the site’s soil, water, light, wind and air, nutrients, microclimate, etc etc etc. I could give you a list, but better and more specific than a list is you, gardening in your neighborhood, and figuring it out with all of your gardener friends.

Diversity and ecology:
Making a garden along these lines is difficult for many people to enjoy visually because it sometimes runs contrary to a garden being clean and neat and not bug ridden. I include this design criteria because some gardens are deliberate ‘butterfly gardens’ or ‘habitat gardens’ or ‘endangered species habitat’. If you go into the designing of native plant restoration sites then it is extra important to know what you are getting into, and what would define success.

In general, I too like the wide open vistas and prefer them over shaded woods. Must be some kind of an ancestral instinct of hunting on the plains and feeling safe. As a gardener, I also appreciate the feeling of weeding a plot of land, or pruning plants so that they are separated distinctly, not all jumbled continuously into one another. When I go to see a fancy private garden like Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, I am impressed that there is one gardener per acre keeping the whole place meticulous and neat, not a weed outa place.

That said, there is another feeling altogether when you are in a mega rich and diverse place, filled with a cornucopia and abundance of life. There is a blurry messiness, right at that edge where people insist on it being clean and sharp.

A diverse place showcases strong, independent and yet connected, life. Strong and independent in that human management is not totally necessary to maintain order. Humans are contributors, but not the main design element that is ‘in charge’. The place and the beings are connected in that they are feeding on one another, but there also exists layers and layers of cooperation and even, dare I say it, harmony. Harmony not in the sense that hunger and death do not exist, but in the sense that they are part of the scene. Stuff turning brown, fruits dropping messy seeds, logs decaying, worms, birds scratching through the weedy ground covers. In a garden aiming for diversity, these are not aspects of the garden to hide and sweep under the rug and ‘make disappear’ and cover up. Such a nature place hums in an altogether different manner. So as a gardener trying to mimic this ‘style’, you have to explore such places and figure out how they tick together.

The old growth amazon jungle is one such wonderland. A few details I remember are the colors of hundreds of butterflies of dozens of species landing on our sweaty backpacks as we lay them down for a rest. Like in those indoor butterfly exhibits times 10,000. It is nuts, like a sky full of flittering glowing wings. All descending for a few drops of sweaty salts and minerals. In designing a garden of complexity, leave some food for the butterflies and the bees and the birds too. Or plant some food for them. Check.

Or the number of trees of varying kinds in the wet humid jungle, that was pretty crazy. That is what they are always talking about with the old growth rainforests right? The sheer number and types of trees – somewhere in the range of three hundred different species of trees per acre. But when you are there walking through the shaded trails, you are tree blind and they all look the same. You dont know a single one of them, so they all look the same. A stick going up. Bunch of sticks. What my friend Mr Kutches calls dog hairs and pecker wood. Just a puzzle of green with all these liana vines stretching to the canopies. So ignorance confers comfort in a way – easy to lump stuff and put it in a corner of your mind. Dismiss it, forget about it. But then you never get to see or to know or to understand. Some kind of profound poverty of the senses if you have in all your life never talked to and befriended the common earthly denizen known as a tree. The lesson: get to know every tree. Check.

Diverse places are rare these days, as a result many or most people have not experienced them or lived with them. If anything probably fear them. We have been actively pushing them away, further and further away from human consciousness. Therefore, I will describe another example of diversity and ecology to try to get you a ticket on the train. Talking about fishin’.

You take your kid fishing to a trout farm. Pay an entry fee. Its a pond filled with trout, all the same species, all more or less the same size. You know you are going to catch something, like 100% sure. You hook up and are super happy. You then weigh the fish and pay for the fish. They even gut it for you. Go home and eat it. Its pretty fun. But not that diverse. Like buying all your plants at a big box store from a nursery that makes billions of cans of the same plants from cuttings. Plants are naturally beautiful so plants are not the problem. Its the sameness of the patterns that is not an element of the ‘wild’ garden.

Next time, you go fishing to one of these human made reservoirs that are stocked with catfish and trout. Again, pay a day use fee, a parking fee, a boat launch fee for that rubber dingy kayak thing. You are floating around the reservoir, the reservoir that has a clean edge with no vegetation, except for a tiny clump of tule reeds on the southern edge. A big bowl of a reservoir that was carved out of the hills without much up down contours and elevation underwater, or in out in out shorelines, just a big round bowl that you can see all the way across. Not much underwater structures for fish to congregate around, few hiding places for schools of little bait fish. The water is trapped, impounded, and hardly moves. Basically the place is a good water source for people, but not much happening if you are a fish trying to raise a family. So you fish and fish and fish, some people are catching em, but not many. They say you gotta come on the day when the hatchery truck comes and be right there. Then for sure you are going to catch a fish. Oh, thats how it is? You are a little frustrated, thinking that you could have spent all that money just buying some filets at the grocery store. There was no feeling of inspired transcendence or unity with nature – just another failed transaction. And got a sunburn besides. Reflecting back on the design of the garden of ‘abundance’, the lesson is to accentuate the jagged outlines and serrate lobed crenate edges and highs and lows, and to gain comfort with that aesthetic – for the sake of all the creatures who would make it their home. If you garden is based on a weed whipped straight edge once every two weeks, or weed free flower beds mulched and sprayed once a month, its gonna be a clean, but quiet garden. The hospital operating room and the military barracks are clean. An old peoples’s home or the library are usually quiet. A diverse garden is really really loud with the sounds of cicadas and frogs and tweety birds and grasshopper strums and mushrooms sneezing spores. A diverse garden is a little bit messy cause theres things living and dying and living and dying and everybody is always eating leftovers.

You still want to go fishing. A friend says I will take you and your kid to Three Mile Reef or Hopkins landing or the submarine canyon. You are really scared of the open ocean but you agree to go because you want to experience a place that drops you to your knees. A place that overwhelms you with awe and totally wrecks you out of the dream of ultimate control and dominance. And you want to catch a fish. The friend says be ready at 4 am. With great reluctance and trepidation you agree, and tell your kid to go to sleep early, no more videos and senseless fingering. Tomorrow is the day. Then morning is here and it is still dark when you push off the sandy beach in a boat and make your way out past the two to three foot waves into the depths of the blue sea. Your friend explains. For one, there is a variety of substrates – sand mud rock gravel shale… Two, there is up down shelves and sea mounts and canyons and shoals and bars and caves and trenches and ridges… Three, there are plants named eelgrass and macrocystis kelp and ulva sea lettuce… Then your friend starts going on about currents and temperatures and upwelling and swell and tides and invertebrates and plankton and you are like ‘Can you shut up already? I only care about the fishing!’. No sooner said then done, you are surprised by a whale breaching. Looking down into the water, you see millions of shining silver specks gliding by all headed north. And the rod bends, and its fish on! Your first fish is an alien looking sculpin. But with time, you meet sand dab and sole and halibut and blue rockfish and brown lingcod and spanish mackerel and coho salmon and on and on and on. Stop. What does this have to do with garden design? Well, it is the same thing in the garden, and we as people can play an active role in activating this love of the planet. It starts with the land and the plants and how we cultivate this relationship. Except on land, in the garden, instead of mussels and scallops and monkey face eels and albacore, we are talking about isopods and springtails and creeper birds and allen’s hummingbird and andrenid bees and red legged frogs and gopher snakes and everybody else. And your kid? Jabbering on in the boat, I almost forgot about the kids. They are why we are designing and growing a diverse and ecologically healthy garden. Because the process is fun, is challenging, is exciting and unpredictable. And in the words of the new generation, it is SICK!!!

By leaving logs as path liners and sculptures and erosion control, you will feed saprophytic pill bugs and beetles and turkeys tails and create a habitat for slender salamanders and millipedes. And on and on up the chain of beings.

By having selective groundcovers and self sowing annuals, either ones that you plant, or ones that come in on their own, you will provide food and shelter for creatures of all kinds. Nectar, pollen, seed, foliage, fibers for a nest – its all great stuff. A bunch of mulch all the time looks good for a shopping mall landscape, and that herbicide sure works wonders in the parking lot. But to play in tune with mother nature’s garden, you gotta emphasize the positive, not negative space.

Instead of deadheading and trimming everything, and treating the gardener as a custodian, leave the ripened seed pods and some brown leaves alone. Not only are they ingredients for someones dinner and home, they will enable you to start a seed company or seed exchange. Its that flow and interaction that is gonna make you as a garden designer really pop.

Find out what the host plants for local butterfly caterpillars are, and plant those species along with some nectar plants for the adults. And when the leaves of the host plants are all curled up and tented and full of holes, don’t reach for the bug spray. Let them be. Later, when you see the butterflies in the sky, lighting it up, you might go ‘hey theres my buddy!’. Ditto with encouraging the preferred habitats of damselflies, solitary bees, dragonflies, and so on. And the yellow jacket wasps streaming out of the ground – sorry, take em out.

All in all it is a balance. Some of y’all might think I am advocating for lazy gardeners who neglect their beats and call the weeds habitat. Or that I am anti-power tool anti-pesticide anti-human growth and anti-progress. Or that I am encouraging habitat and wildlife which to you means uncontrolled populations of rats and raccoons and pigeons and coyotes eating pets. No. The design principle here is that we want the kids to know our world as a magical and fantastic place. The garden is a great portal into that world. If you manicure it and sterilize it and try to deny all the joy that is a part of a garden, then the kids are going to miss out altogether. They will be thoroughly disconnected and find themselves in an ugly labyrinth of the mind. You gonna rob em of wonder and force them to live in a sad dull poor lonely miserable world of a garden and that is a no no no. Cannot. Let. That. Happen.