On the [Planted] Road: Notes from Austin

A couple of months ago Elisa visited Austin, Texas for South by Southwest. Of course, amidst all the music, her eyes wandered toward creative uses of plants in small spaces. The following few posts contain a sampling of what she saw. –Katie

Contain Yourself! This is a Public Place…..

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Arranging plants in containers is an easy way add more diversity to garden design. You can play with differences in height, variations in the materials and color of the container, or the idea of an instant mini-garden created by the boundaries of a pot. The rust-colored steel containers in this sidewalk strip allow the eye to pleasingly bounce through the small landscape. Moreover, sturdy containers help protect the plants. And note the plant selection as well: Succulents are great for sidewalk gardens because they hold their form and don’t require much water at all. (Contrast this to a common problem in San Francisco, in which neighbors get excited about installing and initially undertaking a sidewalk beautification project, but sometimes neglect to maintain it, leading to an overgrown mess and a magnet for trash.)

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These hexagonal pillars add an artistic, sculptural element, with succulents poking out the sides like the drought-tolerant version of strawberries tumbling out of a strawberry pot. The shock of sword-like leaves crowning the top is a cool addition, as well.

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These two matching but differently sized pots are a perfect example of paying attention to height to make a simple corner more interesting. With the succulents planted in the ground around them, it draws the eye to three levels, offering a sense of balance.

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Steep Hill Ahead? No problem!

The ancient gardening art of terracing has been used all over the world for taming hillsides while simultaneously respecting their, shall we say, “hill-ness”. A steep asphalt street in Noe Valley is no exception. One of the best sidewalk gardens in San Francisco, this one uses modern-looking metal boxes, which are both durable and develop an attractive rust patina. The grey-green and golden grasses, wine-colored aeoniums, and bright red kangaroo paw offer complementary hues as well as diverse textures. And an added benefit? The small gardens are something to stop and check out while huffing and puffing one’s way up the hill!

 



Rope sidewalk garden barrier

Planting in a city sidewalk is a noble endeavor but almost always a gamble. Between the car doors, peeing dogs, and rambling drunks, these plants endure a constantly threatened existence. Protective sidewalk barriers are often flimsy and get beat up quickly. But build one out of half-inch thick rope and four pieces of rebar, and you have a sturdy, inexpensive, and easy solution. Even better, the plants remain in full view and the design complements the small square landscape.

Getting Attention

In a city brimming with charming buildings and, uh, unique people, it can be easy to go unnoticed in San Francisco. These rectangular planters, though, do an admirable job of being an eye-catching and dramatic addition to the sidewalk. The orange, crinkly leaves and bark of the Japanese maple leap like flames, offering an intense contrast with the dark modernity of the house in the background. Some sort of brassica in the middle is a tad overgrown, but the color combo of the yellow flowers and the silvery blue foliage more than makes up for any legginess – in one plant you’ve got the gray that ties the garden to the house and great little sparks of light to attract attention.

Need a creative way to get rid of some pipes?  Hide them behind a crimson clump of phormium and a rectangular container.  Tie it all together with a simple wooden wall of the same color and from a distance it looks like a complicated custom built piece.  These small plots are a good reminder that the right mix of colors and growth forms can be both aesthetically luscious and functional, too.



If a sidewalk garden is too much, consider weeds

Knotweed (Polygonum capitatum) is considered a weed in San Francisco because it’ll take over a garden.   I wouldn’t advise planting it in a yard but look how great it looks when it grows in cracks in the sidewalk:


It’s invasive in natural areas but it seems like it couldn’t spread far if it’s surrounded by concrete.  I’d hesitate to plant it but probably wouldn’t rip it out if I found a situation like this one.

Good plants for under street trees . . .

. . . do not include Echium.  Or any other woody shrub.   Kids, there’s a reason these trees are so unhappy:

California wildflowers in full bloom

Spring hits at the California native garden in the SF botanical garden . . .

Tidy Tips flowing down a dry creek bed

There must be close to a million irises in bloom

Fremontodendron

It’s definitely not a small garden but the same planting scheme can be used in a smaller – but still sunny – space.  My neighbors planted a mostly CA native meadow along their strip of sidewalk that looks great every spring.