Branching Out - Geneviève Villamizar

Decades ago, I lay in my childhood bed watching my Love’s sleeping eyes twitch, the orbs within, racing. He’d moan, or start, and toss. We were recent graduates, road tripping the States in pursuit of a new landing place, our undetermined adult lives ahead of us. We’d met climbing; he, a carpenter, me a landscaper and designer. We’d planned on a life restoring beautiful old homes and gardens and then flipping ‘em. It wasn’t yet the money-grubbing pursuit some consider it to be these days. When he awoke, I asked what he’d been dreaming. 

“We’re done with school,” he insisted sleepily, staring past me. The eyes I loved so much — sparkling circles of moss green and aqua, framed in a fringe of lashes — held fear. “Somehow, I was late for class, though! Hadn’t done my homework — we had this huge test! I didn’t study — I thought we were done with tests.”

I was perplexed: learning and tests were lifelong. We didn’t last but my career and passion have.

In landscaping — the field of horticulture and design — the lessons stack up, season after season, unheeded, contributing to our climate crisis: reductive landscapes, flailing ecosystems, biodiversity loss, water shortages, extreme weather events and financial devastation. Profit margins and stubborn practices infect our profession.

Rather than rise to knowledge in horticulture, we’ve followed the agribusiness model of treating Life as an inanimate object, bending it to our will for faster turnaround and easier profit. We’ve exerted consumer, quick-fix traditions across the “land” aspects of development and growth. 

Toward graduation, a professor back then had asked my opinion on how to address our esteemed Oval at Colorado State University. Its elms were succumbing to Dutch elm disease. What should we do?  

I felt it to be an outdated relic; an homage to an era from which we’re all still recovering. “I’d do a glorious arboretum with layers of canopy and diversity so people can enjoy it more,” I replied. 

“You haven’t learned a damn thing, then,” he’d said.

Mavericks eschew tradition (I watched Top Gun!). Along the way, I’ve followed or befriended the “black sheep” so that unlike my ex or rigid professor, I could continue to grow and evolve. Every aspect of Earth must evolve — including us — to adapt and continue to exist.

Renowned Washington, D.C. design firm Oehme, van Sweden’s 1998 coffee table tome, “The New American Garden”, gut-punched my collegiate arc from architecture to horticulture — from seeming boxes and codes to organic aliveness and connection. They “ruined” me forever, espousing nature-inspired design over aristocratic constructs. 

Discovering Miscanthus sinensis, Morning Light, in one of the featured gardens was pivotal to me: airy and luminous, I planted this delight in my own first garden. Oehme, van Sweden quotes plant breeder Karl Foerster, averring grasses “were the hair of the Earth.” I was 17 at the time. It would take me two decades to understand his deeper meaning. 

Designer, plants-woman and author Lauren Springer rocked my nascent world. Before the internet, we all learned from reading and doing. “Undaunted Garden” shook the pillars of my ego. She was already doing what I wanted to do, successfully so, and publishing! Tucking ugly jealousy away, I devoured her books and attended her talks. I saw someone like me: she swore, recounted youthful acid trips and designed as Nature. Lauren’s been a mentor and friend since, even helping me laugh over family tragedy. If nature can carry on, so too shall we.

Fort Collins Nursery’s world-traveling plantsman Scott Scogerboe brings it full circle: propagating plants. His origin stories on new plant selections must be written. Each traces a fascinating lineage of unvaulted, enamored horticulturists — orange-skinned apples, nonsuckering chokecherry, or one-of-a-kind junipers. Following Scott these past 15 years, I’ve been inspired to grow plants for my designs now — I can use species unavailable commercially and better suited to our western lands. AND grow them with a reduced carbon footprint/increased survivability.

Friends, we’re at a watershed moment. Momentum by mavericks is shifting the field. 

President Biden’s recently passed Inflation Reduction Act funds a multitude of alphabet agencies — the USDA, NOAA, NRCS, BLM, NFS (look’em up) — in which landscape architecture and design play a role through more holistic approaches steeped not in profit, but the cycles of nature.

Closer to home, every client this season has responded to our crisis with nature. 

“Native plants, more habitat!” they concede with relief. 

Rather than tradition, Mrs. A seeks genuine nature. 

“No lawn, no landscaped beds.”

We’re marrying arid cliff and riverside with a mélange of species that’ll spread and mingle, interwoven with ubiquitous, inevitable native grasses — the very hair of the Earth. 

When asked what he wanted, Mr. P waved his arm at scrub oak and cliffrose. “Nothing that doesn’t belong here,” he grinned.

The learning never ends.