Is Horticulture Too Ornamental?

Fantasy, eclecticism and a wish for decorative embellishment are the bases of widespread and dominant horticultural attitudes now due for serious revision.

We are in an age of reevaluation. We have been forced to reevaluate our lifestyles to meet the limits of this planet in the 21st century. This generation of young people is probably the first who will be taught to make do with less. Frivolous and wasteful lifestyles fostered in the “growth is progress” era are being checked with admonitions that “small is beautiful.”

Horticulture* and its related professions are not exempt from this period of introspection. In the West the drought has precipitated a reassessment of how and why we plant the landscape. The need for reassessment is not limited to this region; horticulture, in all its many facets and in every part of the world, needs self-examination.

Perhaps the term “ornamental horticulture” is the place to start. It is a term which needs redefinition. Better yet, we might do well to drop the term altogether. We need to liberate horticulture from the bonds of ornamentation that have held it since the days of Pliny in ancient Rome. “A city garden… ought to be planted and ornamented with all possible care” (Cato). Since then the use of ornamental plants has increased until today the decorative use of plants has become the accepted norm. Frugality has given way to frivolity.

Many of us have studied “ornamental horticulture” in colleges and universities. The term apparently was devised to differentiate the training of horticulturists from the floriculturist, pomologist or other economic horticulturist. This training has been in response to the demands of a society wanting pleasurable, attractive, surroundings. The need for planting private gardens dates back nearly to the beginning of recorded time and will presumably always be an important aspect of our lives. Only the form, size and style, or nature of gardens will change.

A garden is a symbol of nature. We express, in the creation of a garden, our view of nature. With a rapidly urbanizing society an increased detachment from nature has occurred. Gardens and the use of plants in the urban landscape have become almost purely decorative. Ornamental horticulture has led to cosmetic horticulture. The fascination with spectacular individual plants has detracted from sensible plant combinations which are functional as well as visually attractive.

In our cities and suburbs abundant examples exist to substantiate the over-emphasis on ornamental horticulture. A number of traits of human nature are reflected in many of today’s gardens and landscape plantings. Eclecticism, collectionism, fantasy, and cosmetic “landscaping” can be observed in both private and public plantings.

A horticultural extravaganza of eclectic delights! Birches from Vermont, palms from Mexico and a potpourri of “ornamental” plants in a pseudo-Japanese style garden in front of a pseudo-Moorish house with a pair of globe arborvitae in French formalism as sentinels at the street.

A horticultural extravaganza of eclectic delights! Birches from Vermont, palms from Mexico and a potpourri of “ornamental” plants in a pseudo-Japanese style garden in front of a pseudo-Moorish house with a pair of globe arborvitae in French formalism as sentinels at the street. Photographs by the author.

Eclecticism. For most of us the design of landscape plantings is difficult unless trained in the art of landscape design. Even with training there is a tendency to recreate other landscape styles either consciously or subconsciously. In a mobile society people move from one landscape or climate to another. The remembered landscape is familiar and comfortable. In any residential subdivision one can see examples of such re-creations. The family from Vermont longing for birches and maples will try to plant them in the barren yard of an arid western town. A landscape architect from the East may transform a western park into the rolling greensward so typical of moister regions.

Thematically the planting and the restaurant are harmonious. Nevertheless a whole street or city of diverse planting themes can become a bizarre horticultural experience leading to urban chaos.

Thematically the planting and the restaurant are harmonious. Nevertheless a whole street or city of diverse planting themes can become a bizarre horticultural experience leading to urban chaos.

Helena Worthen recounts an interview with a resident of San Ramon, California, “My idea of a real house is one of those places in the Midwest where they have sweeping lawns that go from house to house. No one puts up fences and there are giant trees…”

Another type of eclecticism is the attempt to recreate garden styles experienced while traveling in other countries. Copies of a Japanese garden or the formal French parterre are familiar scenes in residential neighborhoods.

A collectionist’s garden such as this iris garden is greatly satisfying to the gardener but can be deadly dull to others. Wash drawings by Hich Lyman.

A collectionist’s garden such as this iris garden is greatly satisfying to the gardener but can be deadly dull to others. Wash drawings by Hich Lyman.

Collectionism. We all enjoy collecting things — souvenirs, knick-knacks and plants. The outstanding All-American rose, a spectacular lilac, camellia or rhododendron, a splash palm, or a favorite conifer are proudly displayed in prominent places in gardens. The fascination with the Colorado blue spruce is evident in gardens all around the United States.

A collection of conifers reminiscent of an alpine setting is mixed with tropical tree ferns to defy the logical use of plants for shade and spatial definition. Several large shade trees would bring substantial shade and reduce air conditioning needs.

A collection of conifers reminiscent of an alpine setting is mixed with tropical tree ferns to defy the logical use of plants for shade and spatial definition. Several large shade trees would bring substantial shade and reduce air conditioning needs.

Restraint sometimes gives way to fancy and the results are reminiscent of a garden from the Victorian era. Palms, pines, azaleas, roses, oranges, flax and camellias all grow cheek by jowl. This is especially true in California where the benign climate affords the growing of a fantastic array of plants from all parts of the world. The Sunset Western Garden Book lists over 5,000 species or varieties of plants in about 2,000 genera. A modern retail nursery may carry as many as 3,000 species excluding annuals and perennials. This bewildering assortment of plants results in both the joy of discovery and the frustration of combining the plants in a pleasing composition. The nursery industry thrives on our collectionist instincts.

Fascination with collecting and growing new plants dates back centuries. During the Elizabethan times and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers brought countless exotic plants to England. In the 19th century plant collectors such as David Douglas brought many California natives to the British Isles. Great advances in the art and science of horticulture have marked the eras of exploration and discovery. Modern technology has made some previously remote areas accessible to plant collectors. In addition, sophisticated plant breeding techniques have added to the array of cultivars of both recent discoveries and older stand-bys. Older botanical gardens have fostered collectionism by displaying plants as individuals with little or no regard for either ecological or aesthetic groupings. Only recently have demonstration gardens begun to counteract this museum-type of plant display.

This developer’s fantasy of a romantic stream complete with sunken boat ignores the inherent character of the surrounding orchards and dry mountain landscape. Strictly visual, the scene is an ostentatious display of water use in an arid interior valley setting in California.

This developer’s fantasy of a romantic stream complete with sunken boat ignores the inherent character of the surrounding orchards and dry mountain landscape. Strictly visual, the scene is an ostentatious display of water use in an arid interior valley setting in California.

Fantasy. Closely linked to the first two is the urge to create a fantasy landscape. A longing for the paradisiacal qualities of the tropics has typified many California gardens for over a hundred years. “I saw Hawaii-Five-O on TV and I thought ‘That’s what I want’… We may be a California family now, but we hope to be a Hawaiian family some day,” reported a young resident of San Ramon, California.

The fantasies and fancies of architects and developers are expressed in the plantings of model homes, restaurants and other commercial establishments. The Mexican restaurant, a Tahitian bar, a Georgian colonial mortuary and a Cape Cod seafood home with their attendant plantings can be found lining almost any commercial strip. The rolling lawns (but without the big trees) of the Illinois dream can be seen in numerous new subdivisions in California.

“Landscaping” or planting without purpose soon grows out of hand and can obscure the setting it was intended to enhance, as in this example.

“Landscaping” or planting without purpose soon grows out of hand and can obscure the setting it was intended to enhance, as in this example.

Cosmetic “landscaping.” This last category of landscape planting is the most common. The term “landscaping” has come to mean decorative or cosmetic planting. It stems from the urgent need to cover the bare spaces left after all construction has been completed. It may be simply in the form of foundation planting even though there is no foundation to hide. Frequently whatever is available in the nursery becomes the “landscaping.” The advice may come from a nursery salesman who has never seen the site or from one who is not trained in either horticulture or planting design. In a commercial site the “landscaping” may have been done by an architectural draftsperson. A contractor is frequently asked to provide some greenery even though he is not a skilled designer or horticulturist.

Technically the “landscaping” requirement was fulfilled but no shade or amenity value was considered. A simple grove of shade trees and perhaps a sitting area would have been more sensible a contribution to the community instead of the weedy unkempt lawn and the rim of shouting flax and pines.

Technically the “landscaping” requirement was fulfilled but no shade or amenity value was considered. A simple grove of shade trees and perhaps a sitting area would have been more sensible a contribution to the community instead of the weedy unkempt lawn and the rim of shouting flax and pines.

Planning commissions regularly require “landscaping” for all new developments. Unfortunately few commissions have landscape architects or horticulturists who can evaluate the planting plans. The “landscaping” requirement frequently is met by a planting plan, a plant list and a promise to “landscape” the site. Instant maturity tends to supersede thoughtfully deliberate plant selection and arrangement based upon water requirements, function and long term visual composition. The resulting planting is usually decorative. In time many of the plants may either fail from being in the wrong exposure or develop maintenance problems from overcrowding and rapid growth.

This synopsis of landscape rationales illustrates the emphasis on ornamentation of our gardens and building sites with plants. The word ornamentation is used widely to describe superficial and frivolous decoration on useful everyday objects. It has acquired pejorative overtones because, for generations, the processes of mass-production have rendered poorly designed objects acceptable in the market-place by the application of ill-conceived decoration. The analogy with horticulture is too close for comfort. A garden or a city should be more than “just a pretty face.” A nursery man, landscape architect or horticulturist should be more than a horticultural “Avon lady.”

Perhaps what is needed is a redefinition of horticulture. The department at the University of California, Davis, went through a series of new names that exemplifies this need for redefinition. First it was “Landscape Horticulture” — a much better name but still too limited. “Environmental Horticulture” became the department’s name and today exemplifies its breadth of concern. Some persons felt they were climbing on the environmental bandwagon; perhaps, but at least the name has broken the bonds of ornamentation.

If horticulture is to de-emphasize the decorative aspects, what then should it be?

Sensible simplicity in fulfilling a commercial landscape code. White alders and groundcover are in harmony with the London planes along the street and provide a substantial and effective grove effect to soften the already handsome building and give a cooling effect to this hot street in Danville, California.

Sensible simplicity in fulfilling a commercial landscape code. White alders and groundcover are in harmony with the London planes along the street and provide a substantial and effective grove effect to soften the already handsome building and give a cooling effect to this hot street in Danville, California.

Looking at the functions that plants can serve in any landscape is a good starting point. The shade-giving, cooling qualities of plants may seem obvious but why are so few trees positioned to give maximum cooling to buildings or parked cars? Why are so few vines used to shade hot, west-facing walls of buildings? And why is there more concern for a fleeting show of blossoms than year round shade, resulting in diminutive flowering trees being planted along vast streets where sun and glare are the real problems?

There are many functions plants can perform in the landscape. There is no need to elaborate on them further here. Robinette and others have done this quite well. The point is that in any landscape, the use of plants to solve functional problems — sun and glare protection, screening, erosion control and so on — will certainly result in a more livable and therefore more beautiful setting.

At the same time the aesthetics of planting design need not be disregarded. Timeless principles of composition used in the dis­position of plants chosen to serve functional ends enables all needs to be met. One need not supersede the other as happens in cosmetic landscaping.

Another important consideration is the ecological implication of horticulture. Hor­ticultural traditions have almost always been based upon the exotic, the unknown plant, the “horticultural” species raised in nurseries for some attractive attribute. Mankind has always seemed to be fascinated with the unusual — from clipping plants into fantastic shapes — animal, human and geometric forms to manipulating genes to obtain a square tomato. The horticulturist has dealt with the city plants while the ecologist has remained camped in the mountains. Ecology needs horticultural expertise and horticulture must employ ecological principles.

For example, cities are ecosystems albeit principally unnatural ones. Plants, especially trees, in those ecosystems must be considered as ecological entities rather than just decorative greenery. This means that a plan for street trees should be more than a plan to beautify ugly streets. The street trees are only one part — the vegetative component — of an urban ecosystem. They have a direct link to microclimate modification, air quality and energy conservation. The street tree plan, therefore, should be related to the larger context — the urban ecosystem — rather than only to the individual streets. The latter will undoubtedly be beautified and in the long run the city will become a healthier, more comfortable place to live.

Out in the suburban or rural landscape the selection of plants should also relate to the ecosystem in which they are planted. This does not necessarily mean using only the plants native to a particular place. In some plant communities that would be too restrictive. Planting where the natural landscape is dominant should be done sensitively to complement native vegetation rather than arbitrarily to give contrast by using horticultural species. Numerous plants introduced from other, similar, ecosystems can be used where they are culturally and visually compatible. Mediterranean plants such as Arbutus unedo, Cistus and Quercus ilex are good examples of those compatible with the coastal woodlands and brushlands of California. Certainly, where possible, the use of plants of the species already growing in a plant community should be encouraged.

On the other hand, using only native plants is no real virtue in itself. A classic example of the misuse of a fine native tree is the planting of coast redwood on Highway 101 north of the Golden Gate simply because it was named “The Redwood Highway.” The first sixty miles of the road goes through oak woodlands, savannah woodlands, marshland and agricultural plains before finally reaching the redwood forests above Santa Rosa. The roadside planting is both ecologically and visually discordant with the adjacent farm and natural landscape. No attempt was made to relate the highway landscape with the character of the adjacent landscape. On the other hand the eucalyptus is both visually and culturally suitable for many parts of the highway because of its occurrence in agricultural windbreaks. By contrast Interstate 280 south of San Francisco is a fine example of planting to echo the beauty and character of the adjacent landscape.

In mountain towns and recreational subdivisions there is a tendency to contradict the character of the natural site by planting horticultural species found in city gardens. Here a more ecologically appropriate and visually unifying approach would be to encourage the use of endemic species and avoid the bizarre contrasts that come from the use of purpleleaf plums and other horticultural favorites.

Utility and beauty in a dual purpose planting of vegetables and flowers. Sweet alyssum, Chinese cabbage, lemon verbena, marigolds, lettuce and chives combined in an outdoor “salad,” some of which can be consumed at the table.

Utility and beauty in a dual purpose planting of vegetables and flowers. Sweet alyssum, Chinese cabbage, lemon verbena, marigolds, lettuce and chives combined in an outdoor “salad,” some of which can be consumed at the table.

A third important consideration to liberate us from decorative horticulture is utilitarian horticulture. Growing plants for food and fiber had its beginnings in the earliest gardens from the pharoah’s temples in ancient Egypt to the Franciscan missions of California. Modem agribusiness has superseded the need for subsistence gardening. The orchard and the vegetable patch, once a major feature in gardens, nearly disappeared in the affluent fifties. They are making a comeback and undoubtedly will become an integral part of more gardens in the future. Cooperative community gardens thrive in some urban neighborhoods representing the sociological as well as utilitarian relationships of horticulture.

Utilitarian plants need not be relegated to the back yard. Many plants such as parsley, chard, lettuce and artichokes can be attractively combined in a patio setting. Certain fruit trees espaliered along walls can serve a dual purpose by shading a hot wall. The kiwi vine (Actinidia chinensis) is an excellent arbor or fence plant where space is adequate. Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) and dwarf citrus make fine hedge or screening shrubs. A deciduous fruit and nut orchard is a fine alternative to a front setback full of dull junipers or the ceremonial lawn.

Lastly, the environmental relationship of horticulture to the resources of the world must be included to break away from the ornamental syndrome.

The recent severe drought in the West, the 1972 freeze in California and a surge of environmental awareness have combined to force us all to reevaluate what we plant and why in the landscape (see “Browning of the Greensward,” Pacific Horticulture, Fall 1977). A major conference in November 1977 entitled “Appropriate Horticulture for California” was a significant event marking a serious attempt to redefine horticultural practices and responsible planting design for the Golden State.

The relationship of ornamental horticulture to the conservation of both water and energy resources has begun to be realized especially in the arid West. Our sense of what is beautiful in landscape plantings — from gardens to parks and roadways — is being challenged. Everyone who has experienced water rationing or trees lost in the 1972 freeze has become acutely aware of the vagaries of nature and our relationship to the environment.

A quiet revolution is underway which will change the face of horticulture. Although “revolution” is a bold term for such a conservative movement, it is an apt one because the weight of necessity is forcing the pace of change.

In the Rockies, the Southwest and the Great Plains there is a movement towards the preservation and re-establishment of the indigenous landscape. In California a renewed interest in native plants is growing at mete­oric speed. Hitherto strange names, such as baccharis and ceanothus, have crept surreptitiously into cocktail conversations!

In several urban parks in England the traditional mown turf has given way to wilder, self-regenerative natural plantings. In the United States native plant gardens and home demonstration gardens are becoming integral elements of many urban and suburban parks. Sales of vegetable seeds and plants have soared recently. The vegetable patch has come out of the closet! Esoteric horticultural journals and organizations have begun to expand their interests from primarily plant culture to broader issues of urban horticulture, landscape design and conservation.

These and other changes are healthy signs that horticulture is broadening. Nevertheless change comes slowly. The narrow view of plants as landscape decorations will not change unless we landscape architects, horticulturists and amateur gardeners change our views first.

A residential garden which has a multiplicity of horticultural effects: limited lawn for play; drought tolerant screen plantings; an enclosed front court shaded by trees and vines in which vegetables, flowers and favorite plants are grown.

A residential garden which has a multiplicity of horticultural effects: limited lawn for play; drought tolerant screen plantings; an enclosed front court shaded by trees and vines in which vegetables, flowers and favorite plants are grown.

Public education is the key to broadening the revolution. Horticulture in its broadest context must become a part of every school curriculum. Children are taught personal hygiene, economics and a host of subjects to help them take care of themselves in a changing world. Yet little or no attention is paid to helping people improve their environment — from the making of a garden to the planting of a city. Unless this happens street tree and park planting budgets will remain at the bottom of the municipal budget totem pole and plantings will continue to be decorative luxuries.

In biology or science courses the link between the biological roles of plants and their landscape uses is usually not made. Perhaps biology should be taught as a part of environmental design so that horticulture, planting design and the physiology of plant growth are all integrated in a comprehensive understanding of the role of plants in our lives. In this way plants will be less likely to be looked upon as trinkets — mysterious, fascinating collectibles. Plants in the landscape will then become essentials instead of novelties; an integral part of our lives rather than greenery around us; and consciously understood as symbiotic companions of us all and not just the mysterious province of specialists.

Cato was right in his time when the world was weary of simply surviving the wilderness. Decorative enrichment of cities and gardens with plants was needed then. Now, however, it is time to amend his plea to say, “A city (and a garden) ought to be planted with all possible care.”