Landscape architects and designers--are they friends or foe of garden centres and nurseries?

An editorial feature in a national Canadian gardening magazine last winter just re-enforced my thoughts about landscape architects and their dedication to their beloved ‘hard landscaping’ and their apparent lack of interest in plants! Remember Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” As far as I am concerned, with many landscape architects and designers, it is still most often “Where are the plants?”

In fact, it harkened me back to September 1971 when, as editor of Canadian Nurseryman, I published a spoof piece entitled “A Feature For The Year 2000”, written by none other than Jesse Vilhelm Stensson, a landscape architect (Harvard) and president of Sheridan Nurseries Ltd. In the piece “J.V.” as we affectionately knew him was predicting some of the things that would have happened in the trade 30 years from then. The thought of his that particularly came to mind was one paragraph which I’ll quote here.

“Over the years, the palette of plant material used by the professional has been gradually refined and now consists of three varieties of trees, three of evergreens, three of shrubs, one vine and no flowers. This trend dealt a particularly hard blow to one prominent nursery called Sheridan who carried a superb list of plant material. Fortunately, in a nick of time for the nursery, scientists discovered a mysterious substance called CC (cancer cure) in the humble purslane (Portulaca oleracea) weed. Since Sheridan, in spite of numerous trials and chemical weed killers, was still the most efficient producer of purslane, the whole nursery was promptly expropriated by federal authorities and production entirely turned over to the propagation and production of the life saving weed. Six crops a year were not uncommon.”

When I saw the photo of the semi-detached townhouse in south Rosedale in the magazine I noted it had a brick 4-step staircase leading up to a small stoop at the front door. There was a black wrought iron railing up one side. The owner had it nicely decorated with individual seasonal items such as a pumpkin in the “before” photo. In the “after” shot there were now five brick-wrapped stairs leading to a larger stoop, all with nicely edged Credit Valley stone caps or treads. Within the new stair system are three small planters containing what appear to be ‘Green Gem’ ‘Green Mound’ or ‘Green Mountain’ box-wood with three in each container. Nothing wrong with those plants (in fact I was closely involved in work with them just prior to their introduction), but no one could possibly say it is over-planted! There is also an additional ground-level planter not yet planted.

On the new stoop itself are two traditional low urns filled with colourful mums and ivy. And, oh yes, there is a narrow (too shallow) window box half the width of the window sill on the front window. That’s it!

My first question would likely have been when are you going to put in the permanent plants?

There is naturally, a short discourse on “You really should consider paring things down to make your life easier…” and other similar bafflegab about “casual looseness”, “layering plants” and “formal control”.

In fairness, the owner/author does say “By spring, I’ll also have simple, wrought-iron railings for the front porch, a wooden overhang and new trim for the front door…” Those are definitely needed and if you look at the “after” photo, I hope you will concur. But none of those makes up for the crying need for more plants. For example, on what I think is the south side of the porch (far right) there is a metre-high brick wall absolutely blank, with no room for the placement of a short climber or two to soften it. Each of the now wide Credit Valley stone capped stairs could have been left with small pockets for planting at least robust perennials if not dwarf evergreens or shrubs.

It seems to me this is typical of most of the plans I see today. Nurseries and garden centres used to be criticized for over-selling nursery stock for new plantings. The gardens they created were absolutely jammed meaning that in just a few years the planting would have to be “re-organized”. But when you think about it, is there really too much wrong with that? Particularly where the plant-ing is done by a “design-build” operation, because in early future years they then can undertake to move plants around as some of the specimens outgrow their space.

But what do garden centres and nurseries have to do to keep the landscape architects and designers from heading into the territory described by my good late friend and mentor J.V. over 30 years ago?

One of the things they can do is to provide sample plantings in small corners of their own properties--along the edge of parking lots, in awkward corners etc. But how many garden centres do that well? I could name a few, but I would quickly run out of nominees!

by Art C. Drysdale