GARDEN THERAPY: A Sense of Place – May 2016

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

For quite a few years now, there has been a trend in the world of landscape design toward a more naturalistic style. There has also been a lot of buzz about the importance of using native plants and providing habitat and food for our native flora and fauna. It’s a good thing and especially important in more suburban areas where the landscape is being reduced to exotic, deer-resistant, ornamental plants and turf grass. Why not embrance the trend and expand upon it with gardens or designed landscapes that maintain a sense of place, and celebrate their settings. Incorporate a healthy dose of native plants and native materials and really think about how they fit in.

This will really irk my libertarian friends, but there are neighborhoods and even towns in our country where the landscaping is regulated (Yikes!). In Santa Fe and Albequerque, New Mexico, in many areas it is not uncommon to limit residential landscaping to waterwise, native plantings. Think that is boring? Not really. It is amazing how much creativity and variety can be displayed within a limited pallet while keeping some sense of consistency within the neighborhood and with the greater surroundings. Landscapes there can have a simple beauty and cohesive feel while showing a lot of imagination. On a visit to a dear friend in Albequerque, I of course, took a walk and looked around her neighborhood. They had not instituted strict regulations but nearly everyone adopted the naturalistic look, which involved a lot of stone, gravel and desert-like plantings. However, a handful of properties in the area sported green lawns, tulips and other water-loving, floriferous plants. And you know what? They just looked wrong and “out of place.” One might even say they seemed artificial-looking and garish.

At the moment, I am in Seattle. I was fortunate to visit a couple of spectacular gardens, and, of course, I continually struggle to stay on the road while taking in all of the residential landscaping. This struggle is intensified by how impressive the landscaping here is. The Olympic

Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle is an incredible place with amazing sculpture and 4 garden areas designed to emulate different regional terrains and associated plant communities. The park is designed to incorporate and embrace the cityscape. It bridges a major highway and a railroad, dealing with serious grade changes and hugging the Puget Sound with a shoreside landscape. The flow is beautiful and the native garden areas provide a spectacular representation of the northwest landscapes while still feeling like lovely gardens. It is an outstanding achievement how Olympic Sculpture Park has created a sense of place with both the city of Seattle and the landscapes of the Puget Sound area.

I also visited The Kubota Garden, an amazing Japanese Stroll Garden, smack dab in a rather unremarkable middle-class neighborhood in Seattle proper. This 20-acre garden is an incredible wonderland with a network of paths, waterfalls, streams, bridges, old sculptural trees, huge rhododendrons and an amazing variety of fluffy ornamental plants from all over the world. It truly takes your breath away in its splendor. There are not sufficient superlatives for this humble author, but suffice it to say that it is amazing. But, in truth, this splendor could be re-created anywhere with a hill that is warm enough to grow huge Japanese maples. Yes, it has a magnificent sense of style, but it has no identifying sense of place. It is a self-contained world of its own, almost like the “garden porn” one stumbles across on Pinterest. While I love the garden (I sent my wife numerous pictures) and highly recommend you visit it, if you can only visit one garden and want to get a feel for Seattle, see the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Designers and professional folks love to give presentations about their goals to create landscapes with a sense of place, sometimes to the point where you almost question whether there was human intervention at all. Yet, rest assured that any home/building with a really “natural looking landscape” was put together by man and will have to be maintained by man not to look a mess over time. Nature just doesn’t work that way. While I love these types of natural, “looks like it was always there” landscapes, it is quite possible to have a property that has a sense of place without taking it to extremes. Consider using local stone of all sizes for steps, walls, patios, paths, accents and purely decorative fun as our native fieldstone and bluestone clearly put a Catskill stamp on the garden. It is a favorite design element of mine. Also, using groups of our native plants, emulating some natural plant communities, relates the garden to the natural surroundings and can be complemented by reasonable amounts of flashier, non-native plants to add color and flourishes to a garden. In my opinion, it is important to nurture as many native plants on a site as possible and edit out the exotic plants. This is especially true of any invasives that are competing with desirable indigenous plants.

My philosophy and esthetic is to make the most out of what exists naturally on a property by editing and extending it to create an environment that is both functional and beautiful but looks like it belongs here as a part of our amazing, existing canvas.~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener