Wednesday, April 6, 2011

landscape architecture month

crocuses in our side yard with honeybees doing their thing

We have crocuses coming up all over now.  That's not too surprising- but seeing honeybees already when there's still snow in some corners of the yard- that's surprising to me.  I guess they got tired of staying inside this winter too.

It's good to see them out so early.  I'm glad to see them at all given all the problems honeybees have had nationwide and worldwide.  While few are willing or brave enough to definitively say what is causing colony collapse disorder, there is growing evidence pointing to the use of imidacloprid and clothianidin,  pesticides produced by the Bayer corporation.

Which would explain why they like to hang out in our neighborhood.  I haven't seen, at least not in my recent memory, anyone spraying chemicals on their garden in our area.  I'm sure it happens, but I would guess that it happens a lot less here than in most neighborhoods, and furtively, maybe under the cover of night.

The suburban neighborhoods where I used to do landscape designs, on the other hand, were virtual chemical war zones.  Lawns often had tags warning children not to play on them until a certain date (and you know how well kids like to obey things written on tiny little signs).  Most suburban garages were chemical warfare arsenals with a stockpile of products designed to kill anything that came near their yard.

Our urban neighborhood isn't urban on the scale of Manhattan or the Chicago loop.  We live in Saint Paul- in an area of little bungalows on eighth-acre plots, versus the 1/3rd or 1/2 acre lots which are standard in 2nd and 3rd ring suburbia.  It's urban, but there's still enough room for gardens and a little garage off the alley in the back as well as a bit of lawn. 

It's all small enough for one or two people to tend the whole lot and not feel overwhelmed.  Even gardening intensively, as I like to do, doesn't feel like a chore.  Occasionally I wish for a little more space, but the truth is that between having two kids and a day job and other responsibilities, I wouldn't have the time for more acreage.  I'd end up with a lot more weeds.  And then maybe I'd start to waver in my organic principles-- and the bees might start worrying.

The social makeup of the neighborhood plays a big part too.  It's an area spotted with small colleges- where students and professors live, maybe not side-by-side, but  in close proximity to each other.  Anti-war signs can be seen in windows here and there and 5 coffee shops are within a 4 block walk of my house.  I would get more sideways glances and mean stares if I were to stand out in the front yard spraying chemicals on my lawn than I would for having a few dandelions here and there.  The social pressure, I'm pretty sure, goes the other way in most of the suburbs.

I appreciate living in an area where I can see bees, butterflies, hawks, rabbits, cardinals, and even the occasional sphinx moth in my yard, and where I can also walk to get my groceries or a cup of coffee.  I don't have to put out a feeder to see any of this wildlife either.  Monarda, echinacea, lupine and the fruit trees bring in the pollinators in droves, and the other animals usually follow the pollinators. 

this week's Landscape Architecture Magazine
So it's finally looking like spring; green is starting to come back.  I'm sure that whoever named it was thinking of that when they named April "Landscape Architecture Month".  In honor of the month, ASLA, a group I'm a member of, is offering a free virtual copy of their magazine for free.  Click on the picture or text above and you'll be taken to the front page.

Landscape architects are, of course, on the front lines of the conflict between the health of the natural world and what humans are demanding of it.  Many, if not most landscape architects go into the profession because of their love of the environment, love of design, or combination of both.  Unfortunately, once out of school and practicing, LA's are pushed by clients, by engineers, and architects to provide what is cheap, fast, easy, popular, and in aggregate, the opposite of what is good for the environment or even good design.

And not playing ball isn't really an option.  Architects and associated professions (that would be us) had an unemployment rate of almost 50%  in the Twin Cities last year according to an architect friend of mine.  Paying the mortgage and keeping the kids fed comes out ahead of environmental principles when push comes to shove.  I speak only for myself, of course.  I can't read minds- but I pick up in conversations the same feelings from others in my profession.

I've been a yard and garden designer before becoming an LA and don't miss that- see the above rant about the suburbs- but my own yard is a little haven where I can do what I think it right.  It's also a place to experiment and see what it possible--at least on a small scale.

the plum and apricot trees waiting to be planted
I'm excited to plant two new fruit trees in the back yard this spring, and fill out our 'food forest' more completely.  The newcomers are "Black Ice" plum, a hybrid between a Japanese plum and native plum developed by the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Pioneer Apricot- a Chinese selection which is supposedly self-fruitful and fully hardy to zone 4.  Both are pretty exciting.  The plum, at least in photos and reviews, looks like a purple plum that you can buy in the grocery store in mid-summer, not one of the small red plums more commonly grown here.  The apricot on the other hand will be fabulous if it just blooms and sets fruit.  I won't complain if it isn't perfect.  I've seen apricots in a few places in the Twin Cities, but they're rare.  There are two- a Moongold and a Sungold in the community garden near our house, and one of them set fruit spectacularly last year.  We went with the kids to the garden one cool evening while they were fruiting, and the kids were fascinated.  Picking and eating sweet apricots off of the tree was something they still talk about almost a year later.

We already have two cherry trees in the yard: an 'Evans Bali' sour cherry in the back yard, and a 'Stella' sweet cherry in the front yard.  The Evans produced cherries the first year we planted it and has been a champ every year since.  We put it in as a 5-gallon tree, about 5 feet tall, four years ago  It has grown steadily to about twice that size, while also producing lots of tasty cherries.  The Stella came a year later, as an 18" whip from a mail order company- either Fedco Trees or Jung Seed, I can't remember which.  It's now taller than the Evans, but hasn't yet set fruit.  We moved it two years ago during the front yard overhaul, which set it back quite a bit and almost killed it.  It took off later that summer though.  So much so that I've had to cut the terminal bud off of the top in order to keep it from getting too much taller than its current 15 feet.  I want to be able to reach the cherries when they finally come!

Stella is a zone 5 cherry.  We're not supposed to be able to grow it here, but it seems to be thriving.  It's lasted 3 years, and withstood a low of -24F.  I get the feeling it's hardier than it's given credit for.

Of course, we may not even be a true zone 4 any more.  The Arbor Day Foundation created an updated USDA Hardiness Zone map in 2006 using the same data used by the USDA in the past.  The new map puts us, just barely, in zone 5.  I wasn't surprised that the USDA under the Bush administration didn't update the map to reflect the reality of a warming climate.  I am a bit disappointed that the current USDA doesn't make an update.  In the past, the USDA has updated its zone map every 15 years.  At this point, the current map has been in use since 1991- 20 years- and no sign of anything new coming out soon.


  1. I feel spring after seeing those beautiful flowers; hurray!!!!!

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