Posts by Katherine Montgomery

All photos: Katherine Montgomery

The next few months in Southern California are going to be hot, dry, and smoggy. The summer air turns a muddy hue, with the hillsides covered with dry plants that glow warmly gold. It even feels like late summer weather has arrived early, with triple digit temps that usually start in September already here. It’s only going to get hotter.

In the extreme hot and dry conditions of a SoCal summer, many plants can’t survive without our help and extra water, especially those that are arguably not suitable for our climate such as old-fashioned favorites like impatiens, hydrangea, and traditional turf. California native plants – a more suitable landscaping choice – have adapted to these conditions over time, and some cope by going dormant until fall arrives. Without water, they look dead, but will spring back to life at the first hint of rains.

One native plant that thrives in these conditions is the genus Eriogonum, aka buckwheat. Dotting the hillsides, this plant bursts into flower in mid to late summer. Depending on the species, its leaves range from feathery deep green to silver. The flowers are most often white puffs – clusters of tiny flowers – that turn a shade of pink and then rust as they age. By fall, the florescence turn to deep-red seed heads.

When I first moved to Los Angeles in September 2007, it was a buckwheat that tempted me into exploring the world of California plants. Hiking the hillsides of Mount Washington, I spotted the 6 foot tall airy stems of Eriogonum elongatum, Long-Stem Buckwheat, clumped against the dry hillsides. It was the only thing blooming that time of year, and its gentle movement and cheerful blossoms were different than anything else I’d seen before.

Now, ten years later, my home garden has five different kinds of buckwheat blooming or preparing to bloom, including Eriogonum elongatum, E. x blissianum, E. fasciculatum, E. fasciculatum ‘Bruce Dickinson’, and E. arborescens. The flowers will carry through the end of summer, feeding pollinators and providing texture and color to my dry garden.

Beth Chatto’s Garden. All photos by Katherine Montgomery.

Last June, my mother and I traveled to England to celebrate my recent graduation from landscape architecture school. We planned our trip around the Chelsea Flower Show and a handful of gardens we’d long dreamt of seeing.

While England has a reputation for being proper and old-fashioned, its gardens are anything but. Many of today’s most lauded landscapes were designed during the Edwardian era, embodying a rebelliousness that was first promoted by William Robinson as a rejection of Victorian formality. Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, two gardens established around that time, capture this wild spirit.  (Their designers, Vita Sackville-West and Christopher Lloyd, respectively, were rebellious characters in their own right.)

Beth Chatto Garden reflects a more contemporary design than Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, featuring a variety of conditions like a dry garden and a woodland garden, all designed with a loose, informal aesthetic. Even the Chelsea Flower Show, away from the tight arrangements of mums, exhibited gardens that mimicked the unkempt beauty of nature. Garden design in England has such a long history, it’s no surprise they are ahead of America in their understanding the visual appeal of the wild landscape.

While I may never be able to replicate the dense borders of Great Dixter, I was excited to see California native Ceanothus used profusely there.  The layout of the garden rooms, the layering of plant material, and the passion for horticulture continues to inspire, and I return to these images for inspiration for my home garden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photo by Katherine Montgomery

I’ve recently  been thinking about personal experience in relation to the landscape – not by my fellow humans, but by every other type of living thing around us: birds, bees, trees, coyotes, etc.  This isn’t a completely new thought I’ve explored. Whether through photographing rabbit trails or observing how insects move in my own garden, I’ve long searched for perspectives and experiences in relation to the landscape outside our own as humans. Attempting to grasp non-human perspective of our world, whether it be animal, insect, bird, and even plants, can lead designers toward more empathetic solutions, and to think more critically about our impact on the larger environmental system.

My personal expectations in regards to wildlife is sometimes unrealistic, one shaped more by Beatrix Potter than scientific impartiality. I’ve long harbored a fascination with non-human life, attributed to a need to connect with something grander than myself.

When I was a kid, I would stalk fluttering butterflies, willing them to grace my hand with a moment of pause.  I wanted birds to pin up my hair like Cinderella.  Today, I hike with the hopes of crossing paths with an owl or coyote, their presence considered an otherworldly blessing.

Of course, I recognize this is all ridiculous. Animals don’t give a damn about me unless I am threatening them, which I most likely am if I am in their space.  Most likely, they want nothing more than my absence.

But then something like this happens:  A hummingbird at a nursery in the middle of Los Angeles a few weeks ago stays still enough to allow me to photograph him up close, and briefly permits me to pet his fluffy feathers. Even after I stopped harassing him, he stuck around on a low branch chirping.  I was charmed.

“Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves. None of us see animals clearly.  They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them. Encountering them is an encounter with everything you’ve ever learned about them from previous sightings, from books, images, conversations.”  –Helen Macdonald for the New York Times Magazine

I admit, I was definitely imposing my own narrative onto my new hummingbird friend. Otherwise I couldn’t explain why this bird was acting so tame.  I came to realize to him, the nursery was a landmark. Or according to Land Mosaics, a target – a “suitable patch containing food and shelter”. I happened to be co-existing in this landmark besides him. This overlap between wholly different species was thrilling to me.  I’ll never know what it meant to him.

How a landscape is used or perceived by various creatures is fascinating to consider. Its consideration results in scientific, psychological, and artistic questions about how to move and where to go.  The resulting abstract patterns reflect these choices, with the layered patterns of movement affecting our choices as designers.

The moments when the patterns connect – when we get to pet a hummingbird or lock eyes with a coyote – create a sense of crossing over into another realm.  I am left wondering how these intersections affect our experiences and the context of how we design – or more importantly, how we’ll preserve the landscape?

All photos by Katherine Montgomery

My yard was an explosion of weeds this spring – a superbloom of grasses, oxalis, and chickweed, mixed with native Phacelia, Gilia, and Achillea from seeds I sowed a couple years ago. It was a wild, ephemeral mess that looked great for about a month before turning to dry straw.

I find weeding is one of the most satisfying activities after a long day at work; yanking up clumps of nasty brome grass and getting large amounts of dirt under my fingernails is gratifying and productive at once. This weekend I finally got around to cleaning a few piles of weeds I had left around the yard. As I scooped them up, I discovered a wriggling mass of life underneath: doodlebugs, spiders, worms, and massive amounts of earwigs that had already begun the work of breaking down the debris.

I often marvel at the life that exists in my small yard, and quietly observing its movements and changes is an important part of my weekly meditation. I have a couple of trapdoor spiders whose hairy legs I occasionally glimpse in their tunnels. There is a feral honeybee hive in a retaining wall. Great swallowtail butterflies flutter through regularly. The earwigs that eat my compost feed the canyon towhee family that lives in the bougainvillea.

In the couple years I have lived in this house, I have worked to support this system by planting native, enlivening the over-compacted soil with compost, and providing food, water, and shelter to wildlife. The small system that exists in my yard is a reflection of the larger ecosystem of Los Angeles. I like to think my little plot of land, which gives so much back to me, has contributed to the larger biodiversity hotspot that is Los Angeles.

Photo by Katherine Montgomery

Several months ago, exhilarated by the Women’s March, a friend and I exclaimed, “We should do this every weekend!”  Since then, my anger towards President Trump has developed from a vague dread to specific fears as his policies have rolled out: Will immigrants be forever persecuted?  Will women have access to safe health care?

When House bill H.R. 861 to abolish the EPA was introduced in February, my fear sharpened to a point.  The stakes have never been higher for our planet’s health, and this bill is an arrogant deterrent to progress.

The mistrust of facts in the recent years has been well documented, and the attack on science – preventing scientists from publishing work without White House review, withdrawing research funding, gag orders related to climate change, etc. – is the continuation of this propaganda.  The administration’s attack on science has a direct impact on all of our lives.  From compromising our natural resources, to over-valuing outdated energy sources, their goals do not support the earth and are in direct opposition to the values of landscape architecture.

Download a free “March for Science Poster” for April 22, 2017, Earth Day and The March for Science!

The heart of this profession is in the service of the earth: restoration, habitat support, preserving open space, improving the earth one (rooftop) garden at a time. As the ASLA states, “[The] EPA’s role, protecting human health and the environment, intersects with ASLA’s work in leading the design and stewardship of land and communities…”

I used to advise science students on Ph.D. fellowship applications, and I’ve read more National Science Foundation applications than an art major ever should. I grasped only a small percentage of the technical details, but it was a good test for the students: if they could explain quasi-conformally homogenous Reiman surfaces or quantum computing in a way that I could understand, then they could be better scientists.

In my years advising, I learned the importance of the scientific method, and the concept of ‘good science’.  This term is heavy with meaning, but includes values like “fact over opinion”, following the scientific method, empiricism, and peer review.  I would argue that good science is the basis for all good design, and the parallel processes both include inquiry, research, concept development, trial and error, continual questioning, analyzing, and sharing results.

If science is being denounced, the scaffolding for our culture is compromised.  I urge you to join me in supporting science by marching this Saturday, April 22, in Downtown LA and over 500 other cities around the world.  The March for Science is part of a ‘global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.’ Come be part of the movement!