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.
Landscape architects have been and continue to be terrible at branding our profession.
It’s a problem.
I've been more involved with thinking about marketing recently and read How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Want You to Know by researcher Byron Sharp (thanks, S). This book offers a research-based approach to marketing and branding. It’s made me think about how we market ourselves as individual designers, firms, and - especially - as a profession.
The goal of branding is to make your products and services easily identifiable AND frequently noticed during your potential customers’ everyday lives. Sharp writes, “The purpose of building strong, distinctive assets is to increase the number of stimuli that can act as identification triggers for a brand.” Potential customers need to know your work when they see it and somehow connect it with you.
Sharp outlines several strategic guidelines (such as continuously reach all buyers of the brand’s service category, ensure the brand is easy to buy, stay competitive and keep up mass appeal), but the one that’s had me pondering for the past couple of days is:
Refresh and build brand-linked memory structures that make the brand easier to notice and buy
What’s a memory structure? Sharp writes, “Memory structures that relate to a brand include what the brand does, what it looks like, where it is available, when and where it is consumed, by who and with whom.”
Think about that for the profession of landscape architecture:
What do landscape architects do?
What does landscape architects’ work look like?
Where do you go to hire a landscape architect?
When and where is landscape architects’ work consumed?
Who experiences landscape architects’ work?
Do you have a clear and easy answer to any of those questions? The ASLA defines landscape architecture as “Landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environment through science and design.“ That’s actually a pretty concise definition - but it’s not exactly easy to picture.
Sharp defines the distinctive elements (or cues) that contribute to memory structures as “anything that shows people what brand a product is”. He lists the following possibilities: colors, logos, taglines, symbols/characters, celebrities, advertising styles. Landscape architects’ work isn’t so easy to identify. What kinds of things do we design? Everything outside. We operate across scales. There’s also the self-defeating tradition within landscape architecture which tries to mask human effort in the experience of landscape - just think of Olmsted and Niagara Falls.
Sharp also identifies that distinctive elements can be evaluated using two criteria: uniqueness and prevalence. It’s interesting to think about high-profile landscape architecture projects related to these criteria. Consider the High Line and Lurie Garden. They’re unique. The abundance of flower color creates a highly memorable experience (Hitchmough’s research identified flower cover of 27% or more as a highly attractant quality of naturalistic plant communities). They’re also prevalent - they’re publicly accessible, located in major metro areas, and have heavy visitorship. That visitorship and accessibility makes them easy to visit - and well publicized on social media.
Landscape architects have the knowledge and skill to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the human and natural systems we serve. Moving forward, we need to start marketing ourselves in ways that allow the public to connect our skill and expertise with their positive experiences of place.
I live in books. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I always have some book in my bag, something else loaded on my phone, hold requests at the library, and a waterfall of books stacked down my staircase. A childhood isolated from mass media gave me the impulse to read anything I could get my eyes on.
Over the past year or two, I’ve begun to realize that - even if I manage to finagle my way to old age - I won’t get to read everything. Starting with Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge (an endeavor I’ve bonded over with the remarkable Lindsey Kerr), I began to think more seriously about reading as a practice - the types of work I’m reading, whose work I’m paying attention to and how I was reading it. I’ve been nudged further in this thinking through conversations on a variety of podcasts - Book Club for Masochists, Overdue, The Worst Bestsellers. I’ve also been inspired by our local UU’s social justice book club and the recommendations of Mandy Cowley.
After a year of consuming a lot of book-related media and exploring some of the associated reading challenges (including trying to expand my understanding by reading books by authors from different countries of the world), I’ve realized that - while these challenges might be good for some people, they don’t necessarily translate to a meaningful reading practice for me. Perhaps it was a late and naive realization - any challenge related to publishing is going to have a focus on selling more books and promoting recent publications. Neither of which is a bad aim, but not necessarily what I’m trying to do.
I’ve been letting the thought “how do I choose what to read” simmer for a while. When, in the usual imbricated way of contemporary life, a highly contingent chain of events (friend’s book recommendation, reading the book, rating on goodreads, link to a list based on the post) led me to A Planner’s Guide to Reading by Martin Weigel, which answers the question:
"What should I read to inform and inspire myself?"
Weigel lists 7 kinds of reading from which planners benefit:
“1. That which expands our capacity for empathy
2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy
3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built
4. That which illuminates the present state of things
5. That which lets us peer into the near-future
6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft
7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression”
Weigel goes on to provide a short reading list under each of these categories, with a brief explanation of his thinking around each category. His list felt solid, but not quite right for me. Some were a little too focused on marketing and advertising. Others were, perhaps, a little narrow.
I’ve thought about (and bounced a draft list off the ever-insightful Jared Barnes) how I’d frame such a list for myself. Here’s what I read:
I’m sure I’ll realize that I’ve left out something essential, but here is my own quick list of what I’ve been reading lately in each of these categories:
That which expands our capacity to love
Empathy isn’t enough.
Mister Loverman - Bernardine Evaristo
Crush - Richard Siken
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous - Ocean Vuong
Autumn - Ali Smith
Generations - Flavia Biondi
The Velvet Rage - Alan Downs
That which amplifies the past, illuminates the present state of things, and projects possible futures
Think about these as a continuum rather than as separate categories.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Staying with the Trouble - Donna Haraway
Transmetropolitan, volumes 1-10 - Warren Ellis
Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place - bell hooks
White Fragility - Robin DiAngelo
That which provides vocabulary, concepts, frameworks, and models for describing thinking and experience
Queer theory and phenomenology are incredibly useful frameworks to help me make sense of the world.
Queer Phenomenology: Orientations - Sara Ahmed
The Queer Art of Failure - J Jack Halberstam
Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric - Madison Moore
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity - Jose Esteban Munoz
Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality - Gayle Salamon
That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft
So you feel less alone and are compelled to keep making good, whole-hearted work.
How to Make Art at the End of the World - Natalie Loveless
On Writing Well - William Zinsser
Eat Up - Ruby Tandoh
Coal to Diamonds - Beth Ditto
Educating the Reflective Practitioner - Donald Schon
Create Dangerously - Edwidge Danticat
That which grounds us in our areas of expertise
Be informed - know the scholarship in your disciplines.
Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture - Bruce Pascoe
Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening - Julian Raxworthy
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape - Lauret Savoy
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond
Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire - Ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Bruce Erickson
I don’t expect that my five categories of reading - or my recent reads in each category - will be right for you. These lists are by no means comprehensive. They just demonstrate how some of my recent reading can fulfill the categories. Perhaps they’ll help you gain some clarity in thinking about your own reading practice. Go read!