Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fashions in Landscaping

At the start of the year, our landlord decided to redo the landscaping of our apartment building. In January, he instructed his henchman (that would be the handy man) to cut down the beautiful cherry tree that grew beside the front porch. I tried to rally my neighbors to save it but I was too late. A few months later, all the other plants followed: the tulips and daffodils my upstairs neighbors had planted and the woodruff and iris I planted in the beds next to the building, a strip of useless grass (useless because no one could ever get to it because of the juniper border) and finally the prickly, hideous junipers that lined the sidewalk. I have to say we were all happy to see them go.

But I am not happy with the new landscaping. There are two Italian cypresses, each planted about halfway between the front door and the ends of the building. There are also two Japanese maples close to the porch, one on each side. And then a scattering of rhododendrons, hebes, sweet box and mountain laurel, all drowning in a sea of brown mulch. It’s the kind of soulless landscaping you could find on any block in Seattle.

Just as flowers and architectural styles go in and out of fashion, so does landscaping. In my neighborhood—which has a mix of housing including brick apartment buildings from the turn of the century, apartments from the Fifties and Sixties that look more like motels, a few houses and some brand-new condos—the landscaping is equally diverse. Yet you can always tell which properties are rentals and thus which yards are maintained by gardening services. They tend to have a generic feel.

The popularity of junipers I suspect dates from the Fifties and Sixties, at least that’s when my dad planted them all around our house in Southern California. I believe the mountain laurels. viburnums and rhododendrons were the choice of the Seventies in Seattle. This is probably the same era responsible for the ornamental St. John’s Wort which shows up everywhere as a ground cover. Then there’s the more modern landscaping that uses drought-tolerant, indigenous plants like salal, covering the area with low ground covers. It’s easy to maintain and environmentally sound but not particularly interesting.

I prefer the yards on my block where I can see an individual aesthetic at play. I still call one house the rose lady’s house, though she sold it years ago. Her front yard was completely covered with rose bushes and she kept it free of other plants, except for a few stray violas. The current owner has kept most of the roses but let some other flowers spring up and it looks a bit softer. There’s an apartment building around the corner where someone went crazy with herbs and I can find rue and wormwood, plus the more usual rosemary and lavender. Another householder really loves the little ground-covers. He has all the sedums plus some sea thrift and other tiny plants surrounded by neat white gravel and stepping stones of concrete blocks. I suspect the inside of his house would display the same tendency towards fussy order and clean lines.

A few months ago I visited my brother in Ventura. He lives in a house built in the Fifties, probably around the same time as our childhood home (it has a similar look and feel). The landscaping seems to date from that era as well: the front lawn, the bottlebrush in the front yard, the bougainvillea spilling over the back fence, the citrus tree with its fragrant flowers. It was great to be back in the landscape of my childhood.


Sarah said...

Yay, it's back!

Professional landscaping where I live tends to be highly artificial (sculpted hills, random decorative boulders, lots of mulch) and using non-hardy plants or ridiculous spacing.

So I feel your pain.

I'm so happy you're posting again!

Trollius said...

I suspect the inside of his house would display the same tendency towards fussy order and clean lines.

Hm-m-m, wonder what someone would say about our garden and home interior? unfinished, start here but, get distracted and go there?