Grass is the New Taxus

I’ve been spending some time in my good ol’ hometown Chicago. Of course, when you are a city lover both professionally and personally, visiting the city you grew up in can be both jarring and fascinating, as you see what has changed slowly, and what has changed, seemingly overnight.

A few months ago, while working in at a landscape architecture firm, it came up just how much I hate yew (scientific name: Taxus.) My coworkers didn’t hold such prejudices, in fact, one of my principals, designed a ‘yew pyramid’ that he hoped to place in an urban park we were working on at the time (the other scheme won the popular vote.)

A little soul searching revealed that I associate yew with the 1950’s Levittown housing of Chicago’s neighboring inner-ring suburb Skokie, which I of course associated with the ‘burbs and everything they represented to me. I associate the plant with boring lawns, and boring, conformist life.

It turns out that from an urbanist perspective, Skokie is really not so bad. It is fairly dense, has fairly good public transit for a suburb, and a host of public amenities (a public park with water slides, a small park/forest preserve with great environmental programming,) not to mention tons of small businesses. It also turns out that the neighborhood I grew up in, which just happens to be on the “right side” of the city line, is very similar to Skokie in terms of density and urban layout, and is probably demographically quite similar to Skokie. Ahhh, the misplaced urban snobiness of youth, when it’s not backed up by data.

Traveling through my part of town, I see so many newly planted grasses in, I don’t even know what to call them–parking lot triangles? You know what I’m talking about, those little 30 sq. ft. cutouts in parking lots that are left, curbed, planted with trees and shrubs, and nowadays, ornamental grasses and mulched? It’s like if there’s patches of green punctuating the parking lot, maybe we’ll misplace it for a sylvan experience?

Were these around when I was a kid or was a parking lot just a parking lot? I wish I could remember, but I just didn’t take that many photos of parking lots back then…..That would come later.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy these parking triangle gardens exist. If the trees have good quality soil and drainage, they will eventually grow up and create a lovely canopy that can push against the monotonous horizontalality of the lots. They will keep cars cooler in the summer and shade passersby as they walk from their cars to the mall/strip mall/whatever.

But these lots contest a belief that I’ve held onto for a while, that even in the most commercial/run down/”ugly” of settings, and even when there’s not a lot of space to work with, vegetation can make a big difference. Perhaps this these parking triangle gardens make a difference ecologically, but perceptually, I’m not sure they do anything. And I know that they don’t really add to the ‘delight’ factor of the space as the more these grasses and shrubs are planted, the more banal they all seem. Is vegetation ‘trendy?’ Is the more we use a species, the less ‘hip’ it becomes? I don’t want to think it’s true, but why would plants be excepted from the rules of style that dictate clothes, cars and even typefaces?

A Piet Oudolf Planting

Grasses were associated with the modern ecology movement, a return to our ‘prairie roots’ in the midwest, an interpretation of the post-industrial wildness of abandoned infrastructure like the High Line, an embrace of the wildness and seasonal variability of fields of waving grass. I love grasses.

Chicago’s Lurie Garden by Piet Oudolf

Piet Oudolf, who did the planting design for the High Line, and the Lurie Garden in Chicago, who uses grasses and other perennials in his wonderfully complex plantings is one of my design heroes. But being back in Chicago and seeing grasses used in a ‘landscape architecture of sameness’ is adding another level to my understanding of the plant, and I’m using it to add a discordant note to my bright-eyed naivete.

It’s funny, I kind of like yew now. It turns out there’s tons of different varieties that have different branching and growth habits and there’s something I started to find nice about yews with a reaching habit. This slight warmth of feeling may be growing, as well, to a few clumping varieties… And you know? There are a few really cool yew out there that were allowed to grow as trees without being shorn every year, and if you think about it, they have a pretty cool form and structure….

This week in plant fashion….

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