Posts by Katherine Montgomery

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Photos: Katherine Montgomery

I returned to school as an adult while working full-time. I attended classes in the evenings and weekends, all with the purpose of earning a degree in landscape architecture. The program required a large amount of self-guided learning, and outside of class, I sought knowledge within the quiet aisles of bookstores.

More than any class or studio I took during school, books provided a multi-faceted depth to my understanding of the landscape. From field guides to novels, I’ve accumulated a library that now I can repeatedly dip into for inspiration and perspective. My own understanding of landscapes comes from logical, scientific, artistic, and emotional descriptions. I’ve divided some of my favorite books into these categories to share and recommend.

At the heart of my list is a very dog-eared copy of Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. This book resonated, evoking memories of my childhood love of nature. It was Louv’s words that inspired me to consider landscape architecture as a career. I’ve included this title in my stack of non-fiction “Landscape Analysis” books, which includes essays on natural systems and historic context. Each of these books touches upon a different angle of the human impact on landscapes. Another favorite, Trees in my Forest by Berndt Heinrich, describes the interconnectedness of trees with a scientific, yet personal perspective. John McPhee’s The Control of Nature thoroughly investigates a handful of landscapes, looking closely at how humans have attempted to impact them. Even more so, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden proposes that nature has become just another human system. While I don’t necessarily agree with the outlook and opinions of these authors, they spark critical thoughts about how to interact with and design in our modern world.

In a similar category are the urban design books like Site Planning, Pattern Language, and Design with Nature – mainstays of landscape architecture school. I’ve kept these three books to refer to again and again when considering the built environment.

Taking a step back from analysis, my next stack is a series of field guides and indexes of birds, plants, wildlife, and how those systems function. I find comfort within the objective facts of science: a scrub jay is a scrub jay. I find studying bird guides and plant identification books extremely calming, but also helpful in navigating and integrating design with the natural world.

The final grouping of books in my library is based on subjective experiences of landscape. While a scrub jay is a scrub jay, everyone’s experience of its squawk is different. The novels, memoirs, essays, and poetry shown above all describe the human experience of a physical place. Willa Cather’s rugged Nebraska and Alice Munro’s descriptions of rural Canada help me understand the physical experience of place that influences the characters’ lives. Literary narratives can translate these visceral qualities in ways that blueprints cannot.

The ponds are uprisings from the water table, shallow and shape shifting as sand from the dunes blows into them, creating mass here, causing the water to spread in a generally southeast direction, away from the prevailing winter winds which day after day bite and rasp and shovel up the great weight of the sand. – Mary Oliver, Upstream

The most striking landscape narratives come from a combination of meditating on personal experience and an objective understanding of natural systems. There are so many varied perspectives to absorb and grasp, I love having them all mingling on my bedside table and bookshelves. I can only hope these books continue to guide my understanding of the world and design process.

Toyon photo by Katherine Montgomery

I find it comforting to meditate upon the subtle evidence of life buzzing all around us: the mundane movements of ants, the funny chattering of birds, and the slow growth of plants. Even in the urban setting of Los Angeles, wildlife finds a way to nestle into the smallest cracks. Lately during the morning, I’ve observed a mating pair of red-whiskered bulbuls grooming one another while perched on the electric line outside my kitchen window. An introduced species brought from Southeast Asia as pets, the bulbul was once prized for its beautiful song.

In the evenings, I notice my Epiphyllum has grown new buds that will bloom while I sleep. The iridescent green Japanese beetles have arrived, and the pomegranate tree has large, unripe fruit growing already. Recognizing these signals of life has given me a deeper understanding of the layered ecosystem of Los Angeles.

Cercis photo by Katherine Montgomery

One detail of the landscape that always catches my eye is the perfectly notched leaves left by leaf cutter bees. Often mistaken for caterpillar bites, these notches look more like deliberately decorative edging, as if a hole-puncher was taken to the leaf. The bees cut these semi-circles from leaves with their mouths, adding the plant matter into their nests to protect their eggs. Numerous leaf cutter bees are native to North America, and they rarely sting.

Bee hotel photo by Linda Daley

A solitary species, they can sometimes be found nesting near one another in existing tree cavities. Gathering pollen on their bellies instead of their legs, leaf cutter bees are an efficient and important pollinator that should be encouraged in any open space. One way to invite them into your garden is to build a bee hotel (or mixed-use development) by stacking hollow bamboo or drilling holes in wood. They are difficult to spot in action, but you can keep an eye out for the evidence of their delicate handiwork on nearby greenery.

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.

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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?