The Talking Malibu Stacy Award for Best “Plant”

[… Drumroll …]

And the runners up ARE:

In no particular order:

Standard Iceberg Rose
Yucca elephantipes
Diosma pulchrum

Submit your nominations today.

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Typecasting: Barbie and Ken Plant

Think Broadway, jazz hands and Arnie Schwarzenegger.

Then there are purse-pets, cougars, jocks and Joe-straight; deprive anything of the detail that makes it random, niche, and it becomes a type. (Surprise!)

The barely functioning stereotype is a spectre of the planting-design world, and more generally of the landscape design world, as much as the stereotype is present in any other human sphere. Until we have a degree of familiarity with our subject that allows it to generate its own permutations without our censorship it remains reduced, substituted by a fictitious cardboard cut-out body-double with a drawstring voice recording that quips punchlines in a tinny voice (like Talking Malibu Stacy).

To arrive at the shores of observer acceptability for its own unique qualities (without triggering the innate human alarm that identifies strangeness as strangers) a thing, person, plant, must do two contradictory things: 1. Must be known enough to register as ‘known’ (in Monopoly-speak: Pass GO), and 2. Must be able to separate from the projective substitute that comes with that initial knowing (Get out of jail free). In this way ‘being known better’, known enough to be allowed to separate from the card-board stand-in that ascribes to you your qualities (quite probably a succinct group, those of an abbreviation), really equates to being known less, but having been given the hall pass to be less known, less predictable, less reliable even (because being reliable when you’re a stereotype means confining your actions and traits to a small set of predictable, idealised behaviors).

So back to our lead-in topic: When plants are constrained to the lives of stereotypes it can’t go well. The result is tired, tired repetitions of repetitions of…, each not actually responding to site, but each probably fluking some basic aspects of site and flunking others, and, the result is the attitude that certain plants that can’t ‘go with’ other plants, or within certain planting design styles, regardless of an actual assessment of their aesthetics and site-capability. After all blue and green shall never be seen, and don’t get me STARTED on pink and orange.

As an Australian designer, it is most interesting to see some of the planting design of overseas exponents of the craft. I saw some examples of American work recently in which Australian natives were integrated in an unexpected planting context to great effect. It occurs to me that natives here are possibly more subject to the detriments of typecasting than exotics.

I’m not really including the international style of ecological planting commenced in response to the outstanding work of people like plantsman Piet Oudolf, and James Hitchmough, but those in this instance using an expressionist style of planting design, using a mixed structural planting palette to express their design goals. In these cases there is attention to the plants’ capacity for the site, but apart from that the gates are comparatively open to all-comers and it elucidates some unexpected liaisons.

It’s interesting, because one sees some surprising breaches of planting-design stereotype, not everywhere, but sometimes, and it reminds me personally to keep my cardboard cut-outs out of the design studio, out of peoples’ gardens.

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The Concertina Rule of Planting Spacing

I meet a lot of people concerned about how to space plants, and with all of these people I share my rule of thumb.

It’s simple (so I say):
I reckon that to space plants 60%-80% of their expected maximum spread apart, gets the job done, but then I always want to add /90% on the end, and then there are a few qualifiers.

The idea is that you close the spacing up for groups and open the spacing up for individual specimens. It’s based on the supposition that plants will not necessarily reach their supposed maximum spread as noted on the label, and if they ever do, it may be a long time coming, so one acts supposing that 90% will do.

Think plants that get to 1m wide, I have more than one, I want a look that doesn’t give me views of mulch when they’re a few years established, so they go in at 80cm apart (that’s 80% spacing). That’s 80cm “centres”, meaning that the base of the trunk or stem of one plant is 80cm away from the other, etc.

You can exceed the 100% spacing for open woodland, or shrub borders with understorey, up to 120%, or 150% or whatever you like. Getting down to 20%, 30% or 40% alerts you that in all likelihood you’re planting too close, and the plants will be in way too much competition for shoulder room in five minutes. For the level 2 participant, that is unless you are succinctly nesting habits (“doing a thorough job of layering with spatial plant habit in mind”, such as deciduous perennial, with groundcover, with small tree).

1. If, the plants in question are intended as a group, merged, to appear perhaps as a blob in the night, then you ought to close up the spacing, reducing the percentage apart to 60% or so, so that when they are on the way to being well established they will meet as one conglomerate. Think tussock grasses, or groundcovers: you don’t want a bunch of little ballerinas all separately prancing about on the stage, you want a troupe, dancing in concert, with only occasional departures.

2. If however, the plants in question are intended as specimens, you want them to be spaced out like plates at a buffet on rodeo night (who likes their dolmades mixed up with their sherbet prawns?). Then, following the general principal, you might go for 80 or even 90% spacing.

3. The logic has to be layered for planting designs that include woodland, such that either the principles of ecological or matrix planting are applied, or at the very least the upper-storey is spaced with one logic, and the under-storey spaced with another logic and the whole things works out in the wash.

4. Groundcovers that get to 2m spread, like some Grevilleas, don’t usually go in at 1.9m apart – it’s just too open in the short term and you’re liable to have too much weed incursion from blow-ins during the establishment phase. In this context the planting is reduced to 50%/60% or so, with the view to getting quicker establishment, and accepting the possibility that some individuals may get elbowed out once its up and running. That’s considered collateral damage.

5. Trees, like many Eucalyptus but also other species, tend to be upright and skinny in groups, having evolved in a woodland context, but spread out with a wider canopy when planted as individuals, this can be used to effect.

6. Plants always, always push away from a wall or a fence so sometimes it’s better to bring the planting hole out some, so the plant is centered under itself, instead of leaning out like jazz hands at a 70’s dance party.

7. Most plants, with the possible exception of grasses, push toward the light and neglect the back end. The bit not facing the light soon looks like someone in their pajamas down at the milk bar, or like the space down the side of the shed where things get leggy and horrible, with the odd doll’s head. You don’t want to be looking at that part from a path or a window, so this effects site design as well as spacing.

Good spacing is a challenge even for the practiced, and often looks like there aren’t enough plants even when there are. Come to think it this reminds me of a conversation about typface spacing, in which it was explained to me that letters in a heading should not look like random sheep on a hillside, or something… , no that’s not it, a sheep thief…. no, I’m not sure…

Ah yes, found it: “Anyone who would letterspace blackletter would steal sheep.”
Frederic W. Goudy

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Ceci N’est Pas une Vue: Autistic Architecture – the Failure of Suburban Building Design to Positively Relate

Ceci n'est pas une vue (No, this is not a view)

Ceci n’est pas une vue (No, this is not a view).

I’ve just been flicking through the local glossy rag. Part articles, part gastronomy, part property listings.

It’s Sunday, I like to flick through the property pages to see what’s on but also to scrutinize the status quo in terms of landscaping, and the way people are relating sites to landscape.

The result is a disappointment and I feel a blog-post is in order. Call it a diatribe, tell me to get off my soap-box, but I think it warrants some honest complaint.

I’m not sure whether complaining will help – this is a highly prevalent issue that is by all apparent accounts going unnoticed by everyone, from the purveyors of building design to home owner/buyers alike. Home owner/buyers can be forgiven for not seeing the wood for the trees when it comes to the fact that they are not necessarily in the industry themselves, so their capacity to make value judgements about building design is surely driven by its graphic on-page presentation at a time when they’re being inundated by decisions and choices (at which point there are no TPF’s in sight). Even a show-home is completely dislocated from the future site even if it is a real 3-D version.

In fact I’ve been keeping an eye out, and I’m constantly dismayed to see in so many of the sale shots a honking great view of a timber paling fence, some timber sleeper (or brick) retaining, and a bottom-dollar trellis fence extension in the views out of the windows of anything from high-end residential extravaganzas to 50 year old suburban sell-ons and the plethora of “architect designed” town houses, semi-detached and detached residences in between. It isn’t a good view on day one, it’s not going to be a good view – ever – not on day 300, not on day 3000.

I simply can’t understand this blatant oversight to considerations of quality of life for the occupant. To my mind it constitutes a complete failure on the part of the architects and building designers responsible in relating these properties to their site, a failure verging on professional misconduct in the industry context.

I see a lot of homes while doing design and garden consultations, new and old, and I can personally attest to the fact that in all likelihood a high impact view of a timber paling fence (with inevitable timber retaining and bottom-dollar trellis extension) on the day the property is at lock-up and possibly even complete with “landscaping” has EVERY PROSPECT of still being a high impact view of a timber paling fence (with inevitable timber retaining and bottom-dollar trellis extension, or complete with view of brick walls, gutters, aircons and satellite dishes) 20 years later.

It would after all only take a small amount of expert consideration on the part of any of these professionals to ensure that an adequate planting space is considered to support the powerful outlooks that are a contemporary essential in any new residence or renovation.

It just doesn’t take a genius to see that a concrete path to the garage can never be a garden bed, and that a 20cm gap filled with scoria and pvc behind the timber sleeper retaining that supports the 1.8m high timber paling fence with unmitigated views of the adjacent property’s brick walls, gutters and aircons CANNOT under any known landscaping circumstances provide sufficient amelioration of that view to substantiate there being even a single frosted highlight window outlook onto it, let alone the prime-time glass facade extravaganzas we frequently see dumped into this context.

I’m no architect, but it doesn’t take a genius to see the failure of suburban development to adequately consider the nesting of building design into site, for anything other than flood overlay and set-back conditions.

Building footprints must be reduced in suburban developments (or at least their minimum offsets to boundary increased) if the tide of (in all realistic terms) permanent and depressing views is to be stemmed. The inflation of building envelopes to grossly maximise the interior footprint is misplaced, misleading, short-sighted and appears to be salesmanship at the expense of realistic siting. The subsequent and frequent instance of this real issue (for normal bell-curve quality of life) is a direct result of a fundamental and apparently systematic failure on the part of architects and building designers to adequately consider the broader scope of their designs in a real-life off-page suburban context replete with views you wouldn’t wish on a mausoleum.

These days new developments come with a recommended suitable block size. This needs to be strategically reconsidered in the light of how easy it is to overstep the building-envelope mark and create a systemic failure of the building to interact with the site on an aesthetic level once you actually look through any the windows instead of at them on a floor plan.

No amount of luxury furnishings in that real estate pic and the kudos of sheer glass frontage on that floorplan can make up for 20 years+ of UTTERLY WOEFUL OUTLOOKS that have no remote possibility of salvation.

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Naturalistic Planting for Trees

Being a landscape designer is all about one thing, inside all the fancy pants outfits and dressing up.

Landscape design is the fine art of noticing stuff, of noticing how things do themselves, of wondering why what you see in front of you or what you are experiencing right now is effecting you the way it is, and wondering what you might like to do about that – how to stop it, how to do more of it, how to do just enough of it in combination with the things that aren’t happening at all yet and with the other things you want to do just enough of to make everything just so.

A few years back I went to a masterclass at Burnley Horticultural College in Richmond (well worth a walk around on a Sunday if you haven’t been). The masterclass was with an eminent Japanese landscape designer whose name I unfortunately cannot recall (no reflection on the individual concerned). Frankly, the workshop was not quite as masterclass as I was hoping, I was looking for something to really show me some action on the Japanese landscaping skills front. There were some terrific pictures of the work of said landscape Master, but there was one thing that absolutely stood out as a real piece of tuition that you would never have gotten otherwise.


The eminent Japanese landscape Master (whose name I unfortunately cannot recall) made us do a sketch of a proposed very tiny garden based on Japanese principals which we would, later in the day, be replicating out in the field station in the Burnley gardens. One design would get picked, we would all chip in putting it together from a miscellaneous collection of rocks, pebbles and wicker with some potted stuff from the production nursery and including a few medium sized potted Maples. (wait for it, none of that was The Thing..)


So in the course of an afternoon, we mocked up this thing off one lady’s paper draft, all pretty average it has to be said – (and I’m not saying mine would have been on any better footing if it had made the cut to production) – but then – then the Japanese Master stepped into the mediocre faux Japanese setting like a conductor with a secret and gave all the Maples a good hard yank in the pot, so that they were leaning on bizarre angles into the space (such as it was). That was the Thing – it sounds misleadingly simple. Everywhere you go in the nursery industry, and in garden settings, trees are all nice and straight. All the trunks are going in the same direction, and they’re all going up.


This simple act of offsetting all the Maples on obscure overlooking angles across the ground plane seemed to me to be a single piece of genius in an otherwise watery day. The faux garden came alive, the view-lines came alive, the Maples seemed greatly more connected to the ground they were leaning over than they ever had standing up straight. But it did take a while to sink in, to be able to see this truth. In the first moments after the crazy Japanese landscape Master went around upsetting all the dominant straight lines it just looked like a weird-crazy-fest, all out of kilter, all unbalanced. Then suddenly, like a mental fog lifting, the whole thing sang in a way it would never have been capable of otherwise.


Since then I’ve taken the opportunity to plant feature components on dodgy angles wherever I can, emulating trees suspended over river banks, trees leaning down hillsides half-fallen, fallen trees that still live on, layering tree species and aged coppices fanning out for the light, and, I think my work is a lot better for it. That being said in these pics, in this garden I do think I could have gone a bit further with it.

I recall palpably how surprising it was that the more the Japanese Master shifted the angle to an acute degree, the more we all thought – nooo, really? and the more incredible it looked afterward. And having retrospectively flicked through some Chinese landscape books you can see the magic at work over ponds and lakes. There’s no reason why this same magic can’t work over your piece of ground, but changing up the angle between ground and dominant trunks (including the angle of the ground itself) is a sure fire way to enrich your scene without bells and whistles.

On the other hand, the technique does require the courage of your convictions and maybe the temporary suspension of some disbelief…


… On planting day the trees you have will be all nice and straight very likely, having gone through some proper production methods. And that’s very likely true of anything you’ll pick up except maybe some specialist multi-planted specimens and low-branched advanced stuff which is already spreading. Also, all the leaves will be facing up for a group photo all in the direction of wherever the sun was at their place, so when you put the whole tree on a bizarre angle all the leaves look like they couldn’t pick themselves out of a crowd. We know that will sort itself out over time, and especially any deciduous character will re-orient the foliage on the next dress rehearsal if not before. At first though, your naturalistically divergent planting may look like a bunch of corn dusters, and less like a lovely-scape. Luckily, in this case, natural beauty comes to those that fake.


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