Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Chicken

Spring leaves with last summer's fruit
or The Egg

You wouldn't believe how long I debated which of those titles should come first.  A disclaimer, though—no actual chickens (or eggs) were involved in the making of this post.  We're in metaphorical chicken-and-egg land, thinking about priorities in general.  My desert olives have been blooming, you see, and for some reason, those trees always make me think.  (Just wait until I start pruning them—then the philosophical excitement really begins.)

Desert olive (or New Mexico olive, or NM privet) (Forestiera neomexicana)

Let's step back a bit.  A recent kerfuffle on Garden Rant reminded me of the book Plant-Driven Design, by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden.*  The basic premise of the book is that gardens are more satisfying when plants, rather than hardscape, are the starting point of the design—an idea most gardeners I know would agree with, but maybe not (some) landscape designers.  I certainly have a number of books on small garden design that go nuts about expensive brickwork, expensive water features, and theatrically expensive lighting designs, and then describe the plantings only as "mixed borders."  The Ogdens focus instead on landscapes where each plant is allowed to showcase its strengths, where its character is given a chance to shine.  At one point, they talk about facing a choice in their own garden about whether to prune a tree drastically to make room for a path, or to move the path to allow the natural character of the tree to develop; they chose to move the path.

Male tree
To return to the desert olives.  I planted them for all kinds of sensible reasons, but one of the most important was that they provided food for songbirds.  That is, some of the trees do.  This species has separate male and female trees.  Both are needed to produce fruit, but (obviously) only the female plants have actual "olives."  If you plant them young enough so that they stand a chance of surviving (at least, in my garden), you won't be able to tell which is which—you just plant several and hope for the best.

My very first plantings in the garden were three desert olive trees, two of which have turned out to be female, and one male—the optimal mix.  Today, several years on, even without the fruit as a guideline I can see the difference:  the male tree's blossoms are more golden, and they open before the leaves do.  They have a faint scent—one book describes it as honey, but I would describe it more as "proto-honey," maybe just the scent of nectar—which the bees love.  The female trees have (so far as I can tell) scentless, greenish blossoms that open with the leaves.**

Female tree

I can't help wondering what I would have done, though, if all three trees had been female (or male).  Would I have uprooted a perfectly healthy tree and killed it, replanting in the hope of mixing the genders?  (It's a small garden—planting more isn't an option.)  I certainly enjoy the trees on their own merits, but half the point of planting them was to provide food for songbirds.   What is the threshold of choice, between what I keep and what I discard?  What do I prioritize?  What comes first, the tree's life (a tree! not some measly annual!) or the birds' winter food?  I don't have a ready answer, and fortunately I don't need one this time around.  But I can't help wondering what I might have done, or how others have solved these problems; what kinds of choices you've made, which "small" lives you've prioritized, when it comes to the habitats you've created in your own gardens.

What comes first?

* I understand (deeply) what the critics say about the authors' self-righteous tone.  But for a westerner (or for anyone from a climate that's light on medieval ruins and mossy statues of Greek deities, and heavy on drought-tolerant grasses, sunflowers, and their ilk), it's a fabulous book.  Its photos show actual western gardens, none of which feature a stark but brightly painted adobe wall, yards of gravel, and a single sculptural yucca.  The photos (and descriptions!) instead show lush plantings that actually grow in the west (i.e., that 50% of the U.S. that is completely neglected by 98% of American gardening books).  When you're used to extracting only general principles of design from a book while discarding all the actual information, it's a pleasure to be able to use the information, too.  (Diana @ Elephant's Eye in South Africa—you might enjoy this one.)

A disclaimer that is not about chickens this time:  I have not been paid a blessed thing to review this book, gosh darn it.  These are my own (all too freely expressed) opinions, independent of the influence of filthy lucre.

** Both genders have what can only be described as insignificant blooms—I promise I'm not obsessed!***

*** But wait until I get going on the salad burnet!


  1. One of my favorite gardening books, The Undaunted Garden, is by Lauren Springer (Ogden). It's the book that changed how I garden in Santa Fe!

  2. Always learning in the garden ... sometimes I read about a tree, and realise again, yes I planted it for fruit for the birds. But I didn't know about male and female trees, and if I would ask at the nursery!! We do still have space to add more trees and I'm ploughing thru books and lists right now.

    I also need more nectar for our sunbirds - but there are LOTS of buds coming on the aloes this year. Thanks to Noelle in Arizona who advised watering succulents once a month, until they get established.

  3. I like to look at designing gardens and landscapes holistically, working in concert with both plants and hardscape. But the plants are those creating structure first, before adding the pretties.

  4. tough question...I opt for the critters and trees...other plants come I lose trees or plants I am replacing with natives and I decided not to develop the whole lot and made a wildflower (native mostly) meadow...great food for thought..oh and I showcase the plants and added some hardscape etc

  5. GirlSprout--I like the one she did with Rob Procter, too--Passionate Gardening. Why should it be so eye-opening when an author actually embraces the challenges of Western gardening?

    Diana--I love that books-and-list stage, even though at some point your eyes cross trying to keep straight all the heights and breadths and fruit and soil/water needs, and and and! Even the experts at the specialty nursery where I found the trees couldn't tell me which was male or female, though--they just picked out three and said, "Good luck!" Do your sunbirds migrate, or do you try to provide nectar year-round?

  6. GWGT--I've enjoyed the photos of your designs--the plants and the hardscape look so nicely in balance with one another. I think too many people out here assume that keeping the plants going will be too hard, so they just go straight for the gravel and pavers.

    Donna--I'm thinking more and more about natives, too. Your wildflower meadow must be lovely--sometimes I miss northeastern meadows!

  7. I love your analogy. Decisions.... all of our life is so full of them.... thanks for sharing.