Using plants as a landscaping tool

karinl(BC Z8)June 19, 2011

People frequently post here asking to be advised of a plant that will naturally do a certain job for them in the landscape; conceal something, block a view, fill a constrained space, create an image.

But plants only come "naturally" in so many forms (although plant propagation is starting to produce less natural attributes all the time), and many landscaping tasks ask services of them that are fundamentally unnatural - like that they stop growing at a certain size, or grow in only two dimensions. Even if a plant is found that will do the desired task, it will not always grow in the zone where it is wanted.

When you think about it, many landscaping tasks are not natural, such as defining boundaries or fitting within them, or accompanying buildings without overwhelming them. As such, it is somewhat illogical to ask that a natural life form should exist that coincidentally meets this unnatural need.

So humans have developed tools and expertise in the integration of plants into the built environment. A stellar example of this art exists in Vancouver, and I thought I would share it. These trees seem to be in the neighbourhood of 30 years old, and perform the function of screening kids on a school playground from passing traffic. Obviously there is clipping involved, and with some imagination, observation, and reading up on it, I think most people could figure out how to do it.


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karinl(BC Z8)

Sorry for the double picture - here is more of the fence. It goes a whole city block.


    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 3:06PM
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Wow, they did not chop that down or set it on fire when the Canucks lost? Sorry, could not resist.

Are we a Blue Atlas Cedar?

There is a movement being pushed by a lot of folks who believe every landscape must be native and natural. While I think it is great that we have a greater awareness of invasives and of protecting and restoring native habitats, the world would not be a better place without diversity within the built landscape. We don't have to love all types of landscapes, but we should appreciate the spaces made for particular uses, artistic expression, whimsy, or whatever. The human experience is not limited to an all natural circumstance.

Cultivation is fun for a lot of folks. Effort to maintain certain landscapes is worth the investment to those doing it. Certainly, when circumstances are such that this type of effort burdens the environment, natural resources, or a community, it needs to be corrected and this is happening all of the time. States are making lists of invasives that are banned. Communities are limiting water use, fertilizer,and pesticides in appropriate ways.

There are lots of values to balance out in every community and each has different circumstances. What I really don't appreciate is when people from one community want to impose the same rules on every other community as if the circumstances are the same (such as banning lawns in areas of 50" of rainfall per year because somewhere else only gets 3").

There are landscapes that should be sustainable and those that are aesthetic. Some are for long term and some are short lived. Enjoy your time on the planet.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 4:58PM
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Too funny. You must be near me, Karen. That school is not too far from my house. :-)

I've always been interested in that planting. It's an anomoly. IMO, it doesn't do a very good screening job or offer any particuar interest to the kids.

On the other hand, kudos to someone for thinking outside the box. I guess. :-)

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 4:58PM
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Current practice is not to fully screen school children. Police and passer bys should be able to see what is going on for safety and security reasons. This does that job and does not occupy additional space other than the fence while providing some natural foliage in an artificial form (much nicer than the green plastic woven between the chain link fabric.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 5:03PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

That's a marvel, karinl. I love espaliering. If only I had a suitable place to put some....

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 6:31PM
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Unpopular opinion:
I just feel bad for the trees- surely if they had a voice they would rather stretch their limbs in freedom.

Yeah, I'm a sap.
Same reason I had to drop bonsai classes- I felt it was plant torture.
I simply don't feel as if being humans gives us the right to subjugate every living thing on the earth.
I use plants, sure, but only if my environment suits their needs and I feel they can lead a reasonably happy life here.
Obviously YMMV.

[/ducks and runs]

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 8:26PM
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I have to wonder what someone eats when they feel that way.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 8:38PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

And surely by simply breathing they're killing helpless microorganisms....

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 10:35AM
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I have to wonder what someone eats when they feel that way.

In tailoring for needs...let's not overlook that carefully engineered family pet.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 11:24AM
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There's nothing wrong with getting plants to work for us. They are not sentient beings and have feelings or emotions, so they can't be 'tortured' except in our own perceptions ;-) Even the wolfhounds you raise have been subjugated to a certain degree, through years of breeding and training to serve man. Domestication of anything - livestock, pets, plants - is an entitlement by virtue of humans being the top of the food chain.

Does one never weed? Or prune? Raise crops for human consumption? How is this any different or less disruptive to the 'natural order' than training a tree into a visual screen? What do you think about when you eat that you are in essence preventing that tree from its natural biological imperative to procreate.

These issues really need to be looked in the proper perspective :-)

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 11:41AM
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The whole notion of gardening becomes really quite strange when you think of flowers as the primary reproductive organ of the plant (typically). This is made more strange when one considers the history of hybridization and cultivation that often has the goal of making the flower as large, as showy, as colourful and long-lasting as possible.

Of Piet Oudolf's planting designs: "He's gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower," said Charles Waldheim, the director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Toronto.

These espaliered trees seem less contrived than a recent Lowes commercial that featured a suburban home plastered with hundreds of garish flowering annuals, pasted all over the yard like a floral wallpaper border.

- Audric

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 11:57AM
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"I have to wonder what someone eats when they feel that way."

LOL, you have a point there, but I would argue a harvest more expeditious and humane than an ongoing procedure.

"There's nothing wrong with getting plants to work for us. They are not sentient beings and have feelings or emotions, so they cant be 'tortured' except in our own perceptions";-)

Not sentient as far as we know- years ago fish were thought unable to feel pain as well.
A thousand years from now who knows?

"Even the wolfhounds you raise have been subjugated to a certain degree, through years of breeding and training to serve man."

To be clear I do not raise Wolfhounds, I rescue and own pets :)
I try and rescue at least one dog for every puppy I buy, and can honestly now say that I have purchased my last.
The remainder of my life will see only rescues.
After 40 years in the dog world as a groomer and trainer I am very proud to have never bred any animals of any kind.

I acknowledged it an unpopular opinion.
As we all know design is subjective and for me I could never rest with those things in view as they make me feel quite claustrophobic.
And if nothing else I have shown you a viewpoint you had not previously encountered :)
That's gotta be good for something!

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 12:30PM
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Discussion is always good, particularly with those who can discuss and hold contrary views in a very pleasant manner. Thank you for that. I did get something pleasing and worthwhile from it.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 8:57PM
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A wood fence of which requires the life of the tree rather than the death of it and several of its friends - Espalier.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 9:02PM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

I have a very small property, but a great desire for fruit trees.
Finally, after decrying espalier as 'hortitorture' for ages, I realised that the only way it was going to happen was 2D trees.
Most of my garden would look quite chaotic to many people, and I quite enjoy the juxtaposition of the seemingly wild and random with controlled and contrived.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 5:30AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Sorry I have forgotten to come back to this thread. I drafted a response but never posted it. I had another picture I was going to add sometime, and also, how neat to encounter a near-neighbour by having posted this!

As to whether the plants are tortured, I often have trouble cutting plants myself, but these blue atlas cedars always look quite pleased with themselves to me. They have the space all to themselves and their unique capacity to grow sideways is on full display; they are the stars of the show! And what I also see in these vignettes (borrowed word, good one) is gardeners happy with their achievement, even though I never see a soul working on them.

Anyway, here is another example of plants being convinced to do something they don't do naturally. This one could also be a study in minimalism!


    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 1:34PM
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pinusresinosa(MN Z4)

Espalier! Also a good way to grow fruit trees in small spaces.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 2:41PM
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Stunning works of living art. That latest picture is especially elegant.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 3:25PM
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botann(z8 SEof Seattle)

That latest picture is downright ugly!

I spotted this weeping Cedrus atlantica in a neighborhood south of Seattle.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2011 at 6:24AM
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Then I guess I'm just a sucker for Arts and Crafts aesthetics, lol

Here is a link that might be useful: Craftsman elegance

    Bookmark   August 16, 2011 at 1:49PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

That's an interesting interpretation of the planting, Adrienne! I like the connection.

Botann, the larger context makes the planting more intriguing. It's a busy street in a low-end semi-industrial area in town, my downtrodden neighbourhood. Real beauty is hard to achieve under these circumstances, and for all the years I've lived here I've appreciated the efforts that are made - by both the gardeners and the plants! Most of the buildings are just like this, cinder-block boxes, and they're often built to lot line, so there's not much space to work with. Every little bit helps alleviate the drab greyness of it all. I should add that the wall is north facing, so plant options would be limited, and they don't exactly get watered or anything! And it's narrow - can't extend into the sidewalk as the road begins right where I show the grass ending on the right. Pedestrians aside, you wouldn't even want gardeners up on ladders there to prune if the stuff grew higher.

A cedrus like the one above would extend half way across the road! Fabulous, but you have to have the space to do it.


    Bookmark   August 16, 2011 at 11:47PM
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Here's my modest story -

Our wonderful old dog, Hamish, loved to sit atop the limestone cliffs watching the water below at our previous home, a lakeside cabin. When we moved to a new development in the south, I planted as many big and interesting rocks in my yard as trees and bushes. The boulder near the front walkway became his new perch from which to survey this new domain. I really don't think our neighbours are more entertaining than ducks, but Hamish was content enough. Sadly he died last year.

In his memory, I planted a dwarf weeping norway spruce beside "his" boulder and I'm training one of the branches to hug it as the tree grow. The yard seems a little less empty now.

(Can you tell we really, really need rain?)

Here is a link that might be useful: Hamish's tribute

    Bookmark   August 18, 2011 at 8:37PM
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I am glad you brought this thread back up Karin, because I find it very interesting. Personally, i love the look of espalier, although the examples you have given certainly aren't espalier at its best...

Its undeniable that pruning increases fruit production and quality. Given that fact it actually seems wrong to let fruit trees take their natural form. Our property is an old orchard and the fruit trees were way too far gone when we bought it to bring back. Its sad to see all the inedible fruit they produce. The deer like it though.

There is a nursery near me that specializes in niwaki which is the art of pruning trees in a bonsai like style. Its called bonsai when the trees are miniature and niwaki when they are full size. The simplicity of form is truly beautiful to see.

Here is a link that might be useful: japanese trees

    Bookmark   August 19, 2011 at 12:12PM
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karen, the 15 Aug pic of the handrail shrub planting is very interesting indeed! I barely have time to cut my grass and trim the edges and just do scant pruning yet alone a work of art.

Cearbhaill's opinion about plant "feelings' is shared by my spouse. I can't even bring in cut flowers without hearing a comment about their beauty followed by sorrow at thier lost life. Even when the cut flowers are annuals, which techically are at the near end of their alloted life-span anyway.

I also got a earful, when I plucked a volunteer mango seedling from our property, which was growing near the driveway. An unplanned 50-ft tree near a driveway and a wall just is not good design, and it had to go.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2011 at 10:21PM
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Karinl, I find your photos of espalier to be inspiring. They're a testament to show possibilities! The idea that plants should only be used to do what they do "naturally" (in one person's opinion) I think is absurd. The reason that a given plant can appear so different from one instance to the next is that they--naturally--are masters at adaptation. In nature, plants are pruned all the wind, freezing, lightning and even the efforts of some animals. In landscaping, adorning our square houses and yards (neither of which are 'natural'!) we ask plants to perform functions. There's no reason to think that plants, themselves, care...or that they have the capacity of doing so. Science has determined that unlike fish, they have neither nerves, brains or emotions. They are truly the life form that can suffer any "abuse" without pain or a rock. While there's nothing to stop a person from thinking otherwise, logic will not support their conclusions.

While plants are NOT like people in that they "think" or "care"...they are like us in that they have "personality," "behavior" and "abilities". These qualities have nothing whatsoever to do with their "emotions" or "intellect." They're simply the product of a given genetics and growth. Some think that these abilities are only worthwhile when allowed to develop unhindered by the hand of man. Others think that the it takes the hand of man to guide and develop the abilities into their most useful form. (It is this same argument that is prominently featured as the basis of the TV show "Wife Swap." One wife likes her children, husband and self to be natural and unguided. The other likes everything around her to be rigidly and exactingly organized. I think most of us expect to live a life somewhere in the grey area between these extremes.) When external forces try to re-shape the lives of people, they balk. Plants just go with it. There could be nothing better for people to be shaping into whatever form they conceive of.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2011 at 2:08PM
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