***This is a bit of a local rant, but I do have a point that relates to designers and anyone who expresses themselves artistically in the garden.***
I’m lucky: my college town’s somehow managed to stay funky, cool, small and walkable, and above all, different from any other town in the world. Because us Arcata peeps are a bunch of hippies (or, ahem, forward-thinking individualists who appreciate eco-friendly living), we tend to reject that corporate sameness that’s endemic to so much of the US right now. We limit our chain stores, and most locals go out of their way to support local businesses who have tailored their wares to what WE want.
That’s not to say that big box stores are all bad; rather, that they bring with them a sense of scale that’s not always in line with what’s comfortable for people to live around. The sprawling Wal-Marts and open malls of chain stores tend to discourage the slow, human process of strolling to town, since there’s not much to look at for the ten minutes it takes to walk past.
Add to that the fact that most of the big boxes seem architecturally designed to stick out; their goal is corporate continuity, not continuity with the town or region. Designs are created in an office many states away, their chief aim of course is to bring in as many customers as possible. The landscapes are particularly bad, with no regional harmony or uniqueness to soften the looming buildings. The same islands of ‘Stella ‘d Oro’ daylilies and red barberry line the parking lots of all of the stores in a five-state area.
This is unattractive when a big box store does it, but it’s understandable given their goals.
When a college gives way to this aesthetic, you have to wonder: what in hell are they thinking? You don’t just drive past a college, and have the bright tones of its paint and its barberries lull you into a drugged-out buying mood in which you sign your life away for four years. Rather, you think about what type of person you want to become, and you choose a college that speaks to your soul. Sorry if that sounds hippie, but 18-year olds are kind of woo-woo like that.
My town’s college? It draws forestry and natural sciences students from many states away. These students connect with the trees, they think about birds and swimmy things and ecology. Our community is able to attract these fine people in large part because of our quiet, environmentally-sensitive community, and the majestic redwoods that provide the backdrop to everything we do.
So why in the world did Humboldt State University, known for this:
A 200 foot long field of yellow daylilies, against buildings of yellow and red? Really? It’s like somebody plopped a giant McDonald’s in the middle of a small historic neighborhood. I’m a gardener, so I’ll pass up any additional shots at their overblown architecture and drive-thru burger color choices and get to the issue I care most about.
What were they thinking in their landscaping? First they cut down a number of mature trees that created a park-like entrance to the college, then when replanting, they chose the most generic parking-lot plants possible, crammed them together in segregated monocultures, and completely ignored any possible connection to the redwoods and the forested surroundings that make the area what it is.
“It seems like they are in a tiny fishbowl,” Haggard said. “They’re making decisions without any background and creating an alien environment. It just doesn’t reflect us at all.”
I couldn’t agree more. Lately, I’ve been realizing that many of the beautiful gardens I see around town, in magazines and online, could occur anywhere in the US. Roses, dahlias, daisies and other traditional garden plants are lovely, and definitely have a place in the landscape.
But think about why you live where you do. You may have to think back a bit, to that initial sense of wonder you felt when you first saw the mountains soaring above your town, or the spiky saguaros or the deep, soothing green of the redwoods.
Then think about where you choose to go on vacation. Is it in the snow of the mountains where you can hurdle down the hill on your skis? The red rocks of Sedona? Or the crazy diverse excitement of New York City? We like these places because when we’re there, we’re part of something greater and more meaningful than the $5 off savings you get at your local big box. It’s different!
So when we landscape, does it not make sense to try to reflect that deeper meaning? To use plants that reflect a sense of place, and remind you of why you live where you do? The plants that are native to our region give back so much in the regional character they provide.
Even if it’s not practical or desirable for every homeowner in my area to have redwoods in the backyard, we can bring in some red flowering currants or Douglas iris, plant our native columbine with our spring bulb display, and have that small touchpoint with nature. Even in a strongly-themed garden, there are natives that can pull off formal Japanese, English cottage, swaying and beachy, black and gothy looks. You’re not stuck with a woodland theme just because you live among the redwoods.
Is this an argument against our traditional flower garden plants? Well, yes and no. It’s an argument for using both types of plant. Landscapes made up entirely of natives sometimes seem to reject human interaction and human artistry; a state of affairs that doesn’t encourage connection.
But the recent trend of rejecting natives is missing something as well. Not only regional connection, but a connection to our ecosystem; a connection to the specialist insects and birds that simply don’t show up if their native host plants aren’t present. Think about how you feel when you get to see hummingbirds or sparrows chirruping or drinking from your flowers. You can magnify that sense of awe by inviting the less common wildlife into your garden as well.
As for my local college, I can only hope that once they’ve had to rip out masses of their overplanted and inappropriate plantings, they’ll take a few hours to consult with local designers and ecologists to help select some plants that DO reflect something of our region. Because without regional diversity, we may as well live someplace else.
(photo of original HSU entrance credited to Darin Price)