I don’t know what a Florida landscape should look like.
This idea has been bothering me. I can't shake it.
Is “should” even a useful way of thinking about a region’s landscape aesthetics?
What’s the challenge? The challenge is that Florida (especially South Florida) has been sold as a tropical paradise. People come here expecting lush foliage, big flowers, bright colors - all year round.
Like any place that’s marketed mostly to tourists, it’s posited as an escape. A place where the rules are different, where you can discard reality and live out a fantasy. "Whatever you want, sir."
Landscape doesn’t work that way.
Southwest Florida isn’t a dream. Intervening with landscape is intervening with reality. And reality always offers resistance. Aesthetic decisions have physical consequences. Here are a few images that show our region’s evolved plant communities.
Maybe they offer a starting point for how we can design landscape better.
Today, I gave a short presentation about my history and work to the Regional Conference of IFLA Americas. Thank you to Ricardo Riveros and the team at IFLA Americas for inviting me. Preparing for that presentation made me think a little about what’s converged to influence the way I think about landscape. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:
As an older kid and young teenager, I lived on a hobby farm in southeast Missouri. It’s a small-scale, mostly post-agricultural landscape. It’s a patchy landscape, filled with rolling hills, forest growth of various ages, and small patches of agricultural land. Few people make a full liveable income from farming. Fields are rarely more than 15-20 acres in size. It’s a landscape that feels very approachable (maybe because it’s my baseline for how landscape should feel) - never overwhelming in relationship to the scale of a human body. Walk half a mile, a quarter even, and the landscape is likely to change.
It’s impossible to escape the reality that this landscape is shaped by the interaction of humans with geology, water, plant life.
The larger geographic context reflects such confluences of force. Missouri is both southern and midwestern (the Midwesterner recently had a great piece on this - “State of Flux”, Elizabeth Enochs). Especially in southeast Missouri, we have a weird cultural identity - neither fully southern or midwestern. Gillian Flyn is the author that I’ve found does the best job of interpreting this place, especially in Sharp Objects, set in a fictional town in the Missouri bootheel. It’s the book that I’ve read which best reflects the feel of the place where I grew up - and that’s well translated in the HBO miniseries.
Perry County, where I grew up, lies right where the edge of the Ozarks arcs up to shape the northwest side of the Mississippi River Delta. Over eons, the river cut through that crescent of rocky ledges before opening into the wide meandering silty plain that wanders through the Missouri bootheel, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
While we were influenced by human movement east-to-west across the continent of North America, where I grew up, the influence of the River was much older. The place names reflect waves of settlement. This was first the land of the Kiikaapoi & Osage. Later, it was claimed by the French, the Spanish, the Germans, and those of us who only identify as Americans. Friends from the real midwest - the Great Plains, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois - are struck by the multilingual place names: Friedheim, Altenburg, Brazeau, Cinque Hommes, Belgique. Even in these names - I am confronted by the sense that landscape is never separate from humans. We make place. It makes us. We are always in relationship with it.
I’ve been reading a few books that have helped me tease out the way that I think about humans and our relationship to place. Here are some that I’ve found helpful:
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The Future Eaters, Tim Connolly
The Economics of Belonging, Martin Sandbu
The Gulf: Making of an American Sea, Jack Davis
Hello America, J.G. Ballard
Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto
Watching me go for a walk is like observing some deranged insect. I’ll set off intentionally in a direction, get distracted by a colorful flower, scan for other individuals, glance back, notice something interesting that I missed, take a loop around to look at the drainage and species distribution, then saunter on towards my next distraction. It’s infuriating to anyone trying to be efficient.
For me, walking isn’t usually about getting to a destination.
Instead, it’s about getting to know a place. I love walking. It’s a privilege that my body affords. To me, walking is the best way to discover landscape - traverse the land in different ways, under varying conditions, notice how it changes and what stays the same.
Fortunately for me, walking landscapes isn’t just something I enjoy. It’s actively a way of getting better at my craft - the practice of making landscapes, especially with designed plant communities. I find it a great way to increase my repertoire. The wider my knowledge of how different plants grow and interact in different situations, the better prepared I am to understand how to design plant communities. Building on that experience, I’ve learned that walking around wild (and managed) landscapes is one of the the best ways for me to learn about plant communities.
But I can walk and stop and talk and photograph without absorbing anything important. How do I get better at walking and looking at landscape? How do I look in an intentional way? What am I looking for? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Start With the Large Scale
Landscapes operate at different scales from humans, both in space and time. To better understand what’s going on in a landscape, I think it’s important to zoom in to the scale of individual plants - and out to the larger scale of plant communities. I usually start a landscape exploration by looking at aerial imagery. Talk about a place and I’m instantly clicked over to Google Maps. We’re phenomenally lucky to have access to this resource for so much of the world. I’m not quite to the level of a former coworker who would go frame-by-frame through imagery of space, looking for evidence of unidentified craft. But I will definitely take a lunchbreak vacation to street view in rural Ukraine or the Vinales Valley in Cuba.
Aerial imagery reveals routes, paths, access points. For plant geeks like me - aerial imagery shows a large scale view of plant communities - where different types of communities grow, how they merge into one another, their overall distribution across the landscape. Here in South Florida, the colorful flower-heavy herbaceous stuff that I’m especially interested in seeing often occurs at transition areas - scrub, grasslands, and at forest edges. I can choose routes (even parking and access locations) based on where I’m likely to encounter these kinds of conditions.
If I’m looking at a conservation area - especially in Florida - I’ll also search and see if I can find a Management Plan. These comprehensive documents will have the plant communities throughout the site mapped, as well as identification of any species of note (especially endangered and threatened species).
Equipped with a basic understanding of what I’m likely getting myself into, I trundle off in my Rogue - sneakered, sunscreened, and exuding a cloud of eucalyptus-citronella-grapefruit oil.
Pay Attention to Underlying Landscape - Topography, Hydrology & Soils
Arriving at a site, the first thing I usually notice is the topography. Topography is such a kinesthetic experience - I feel like changes in grade can really be understood only through walking. Here, where the peninsula of Florida erodes slowly down into the Gulf, even small changes in soil type and elevation can have a dramatic impact. In some areas, limestone ridges tip up and are exposed at the surface - forming rocky ridges. Plants that thrive on those dry ridges are often completely different from those that flourish on the sandy and mucky lowlands typical of south Florida.
Hydrology is closely tied to soil type and elevation. Low areas accumulate moisture - and organic matter. Sometimes these differences are subtle and hard to detect in dry season. In late summer and fall, Gulf monsoon rains flood areas that are completely dry for 9 months of the year. When I lived in more temperate zones, the flow of water across topography felt more important. Here, the vast difference between rainy and dry seasons seems more impactful.
I don’t have the best sense on soils. Their basic elements are easy - sand, loam, clay. Water and nutrients move most quickly through sand. They’re held in clay. High ph (typical of limestone-derived soils and water) binds up certain nutrients. Low ph binds up others. Organic content affects what grows. That’s pretty much it. You try to interpret those NRCS maps. I’ll believe whatever you tell me.
Do Not Disturb
People have built entire careers on understanding disturbance in plant communities. I don’t have such grand ambitions. I’d like to know it when I see it, though - understand the effects that different types of disturbance have on plant communities.
Disturbance can be a completely non-human phenomenon. At the edge of the sea, salt spray and wind shape the plant communities that live. Storms - tornados and hurricanes - physically clear the landscape of larger plants, removing large trees from the canopy and washing away vegetation cover. Hydrology of all sorts - rivers, creeks, deltas, floods - breaks the surface of the soil, transporting seeds downstream, and opening opportunities for new things to grow. Trees fall. Animals graze - and walk. All of these actions change existing physical conditions and instigate change. Soil is exposed. New plants grow.
Humans disturb landscapes, too. Mowing affects plant communities. When you mow, how often you mow, the type of instrument you use - all of these practices affect existing plant communities and stimulate different responses. Even driving and walking can change the spread of seeds and open up space for new species to thrive. At a larger scale, human-induced change through clearing and development will affect how water moves - and what plants thrive.
Fire is one of the trendiest of disturbances. Now, it’s usually human induced. First Peoples across the planet (especially in the Americas and Australia) used it extensively to manage their landscapes. Now you get planning permission and fire-retardant vests to accompany the flame.
(It’s All About) Distribution
When I’m in a wild (or managed) place, I am always looking at how plants distribute themselves - both horizontally and vertically. As a designer, I want to mimic that natural plant community intent where no gaps exist. Plants layer themselves together to fill each ecological and spatial niche.
Vertical layers can be challenging. Here at the edge of the tropics - we have SO many vertical layers. Plants grow upon plants, piling themselves together in aggregations that would floor the efficiencies of any monitoring program. I just want to get that natural process started. Looking at how unplanned plants distribute themselves vertically helps me understand where to start.
Horizontal layers? I started really thinking about how plants are spaced horizontally when I took Noel Kingsbury’s Gardening with Experts class on Planting Design with Perennials. Noel’s instruction made me think about how plants distribute themselves horizontally - are they spaced as single individuals, tight clumps, or loose running individuals? This horizontal distribution occurs at different scales. Think about the long loose Sabal Palm Forests of the Everglades versus the tight Andropogon washes of the Konza Prairie. Both are large scale monocultures, operating at different scales.
Plants’ life cycles and reproductive strategies are integral to their physical forms. Plants that shoot up, flower, create many seeds, and die don’t invest time or resources in the individual specimen. They are tap rooted, narrow, and grow in the cracks. Others - like Baptisia - are clumpers, establishing deep roots - in for the long haul. Some thrive on multiplicity, like the running mints and goldenrods which sucker everywhere.
Reproduction strategies are important, but I’m not your guy for that. I don’t know what insects like. Call Heather Holm.
I made a harmless dweeb sniff sassafras leaves last year - and sit through a lecture on sarsaparilla tea making. Maybe, don’t do that? But walking through wild and managed plant communities is a really great way to build your critical thinking skills. Go! Look at landscape. Think about it critically. You’ll be better equipped to design plant communities - even if your walking companions find your behavior ridiculous.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to arrange plants. I spend a lot of time figuring out how to put plant communities together. If you were cruising Captiva Drive last Thursday, you’d have seen me in action - waving my arms around, choreographing the crew, shoving silver saw palmettos into exactly the right position.
Besides pulling together and observing my own designs, the way I learn the most about plant communities is by observing them in the wild.
Today, I took a drive up toward the central part of the state to observe two sites I’d never visited before. The first was Lake June-in-Winter Scrub Preserve State Park, on the western shore of Lake Placid. The second was Highlands Hammock State Park, near Sebring.
I’m tired and stanky, so just going to make this a visual essay for now. Look at the structure, how these plants knit together. It’s fantastic!
“I just wanted to let you know, if you think you’re having a private conversation - you’re not. We can hear every word you say.”
The woman mashing her fist into the screen of my lanai isn’t quite my grandmother’s age, probably only a decade or so older than my parents. I tell my friend on the phone I’ll call back.
“Hi?” I say.
“I’m Kathy,” she says, “I live over there” - she gestures across the lawn.
“On our lanai, we can hear everything you say.”“Thanks,” I say, “Thanks for telling me.”
“We don’t mind,” she says, “I just thought I’d let you know.”
Neighbors have been on my mind. Not just because of that conversation, but because some of my most frequent personal encounters in these pandemic days are with neighbors.
I moved, not that many weeks ago, back to southwest Florida. My current digs are in a small condo complex, as close to the water as you can get without seeing it. The brackish scent of the mangroves - a little muddy, a little like rotten eggs - washes over me every morning as I leave for work.
Across the street, there’s a trailer park. Matchbox homes, stacked one after the other. I love walking through and looking at the front gardens. Only a few people appear on the streets. Sometimes an old woman barks at me, shepherding her dog to the other side of the sidewalk. If she has her dentures in, I can understand her a little better. I often see people on bikes, clothes sweat-plastered to their bodies.
The flora and fauna are more consistent Many plastic beasts, plaster ones too, sit sedately out front of these compact retirement dwellings. Some of my favorites are the choir of bowtied penguins, the spread-eagled bald eagle, the haughty concrete lions - and the faded green metal rottweiler.
Robert Champion of Studio Tarn in Australia wrote a thoughtful piece about neighborhood gardens a few weeks ago - “The Value of Front Gardens in a Pandemic, and Always”. Preston and I were able to talk with him as part of a series of conversations that we’re planning to release later this summer as a podcast (Growing in Mind). We talked about how front gardens have the potential to be social space - Robert’s term is “a gift to the neighborhood” - but are often only realized as extensions of the facade.
In conjunction with that conversation, I watched the Hitchcock movie Rear Window - and was struck by how it presents the spatial setting of urban life. The movie frames the condition of “being a neighbor” as a constant dialogue of seeing and being seen.The protagonist, Jeff Jefferies, is an adventure-craving photographer who’s been confined to his apartment due to an injured leg. He’s forced to shelter in place as he heals, staring out the windows. He watches his neighbors - a young blonde dancer, a romance-hungry middle-aged woman, an elderly lady who suns herself in the public garden, a lonely male songwriter. Eventually, his 4am feelings lead him to believe that he’s witnessed a neighbor in the act of cleaning up after a murder. The way that lived space is presented in the film - through windows, with reflexive actions of seeing and being seen, creates a tension that feels very 2020.
The pandemic and political climate of this year have reinforced my awareness of the way that physical space sets up conditions for human interactions - especially with strangers and distant acquaintances. Now, every social encounter feels charged.
I read City of Quartz (thanks, Chantal, for the recommendation) a few weeks ago - and it was wild to hear about how architecture and landscape architecture were changed following the LA riots of the 1980s. Design supporting social insulation, especially for the middle and upper classes, was a direct response to the tensions of the late 80s. The mushrooming of gated communities, malls, and private schools - with the defunding of public spaces such as schools, libraries, universities and parks - was the response of developers and decision-makers in the 90s and 00s. Places were - and continue to be - designed to avoid “desirable” users having to be exposed to anything that makes them uncomfortable. Will we do better this time?
“Eh, it’s not for me.”
That’s the response I got when I sent a friend the trailer for The Big Flower Fight.
Another was worse:
“Honestly, it looks stupid, but if it gets people more interested in plants and flowers, I have to support it.”
My friends are wrong. I love this show. Yeah, it’s silly. It’s a blatant attempt to recreate the rainy Saturday duvet-cozy warm heart feeling of Bake-Off. But I love it.
The show’s both earnest - and goofy AF. I love the characters. Any show about flower arranging has to be queer. Start with the hosts. I hadn’t heard of Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht before this show, but I love his energy. He talks about being a dad and an influence in a recent article for O magazine. I’ve also been enjoying cohost Natasia Demetriou recently in the second season of What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite show about dumb vampires.
The choice of judges has confronted me with my ignorance of floral design. James Alexander Sinclair was the only one I found familiar. I’ve long been a fan of his blog - as well as his project 3 Men Went 2 Mow. I also saw him looking busy at Chelsea last year, but didn’t stop him to talk. Missed opportunity, I know.
The contestants, though, are truly the best bit of The Big Flower Fight. I only knew of one - Farmer Nick, part of the Brooklyn cohort - when I started watching. I’m following them all now. Brooklyn was well represented - but performed poorly on this show. There’s definitely room for American horticulturists to better uphold some standard of excellence to the media.
Honestly, this show felt like a normal person’s real life friend gang. Chanelle with INOIR is a fashion designer who paired up with London florist Raymond to create truly memorable works. Sarah, of Intrigue Designs in Maryland, makes fabulous arrangements with her incredibly patient assistant Jordan. Andi and Helen are estate gardeners with run-down cars in the driveway and impromptu dance parties in the living room.
The gays took the day (naturally). Henck and Yan, absurdly Dutch and Danish (respectively), are a camera crew’s fantasy. Their dedication to absurd fashion is matched only by their execution of well-crafted and memorable installations.
My favorites? Ryan and Andrew - they turned my heart. I loved seeing these guys work together and support each other. Their social media notes that they’re not in a romantic relationship following the show, but are creative partners - a distinction which emphasizes the transience and complicated shading of queer relationships. Watching them made me think about how important it is to enjoy the moment of working together, rather than demanding some kind of permanence.
I wasn’t convinced I’d like this show. I’m not really that interested in flower arranging. I’ve written publicly about how show gardens don’t do that much for me. I struggled with Chelsea. Anything temporary doesn’t seem to fully realize the emotional power or the reality of what it means to work with landscape. My favorite gardens are permanent, integrated into their surroundings - evolved with care in relation to landscape.
But I loved it. This show is adventurous and goofy and - honestly - brave. There’s so much potential for failure here. And, these people create something that’s truly wonderful.
I’m not getting paid for this (email me, Netflix, and I’ll give you my routing number) - but go watch The Big Flower Fight. I think you’ll love it, too.