Monday, March 10, 2008

They do things differently here - News from Mexico 2

Now in a stunning town (Zacatacas), UNCESCO heritage site, old Spanish silver mining place - It is all rose-red stone, beautifully restored, clear desert light, fantastic baroque cathedral - a uniquely Mexican take on Baroque. Were in Cruz's home town of Fresnillo y'day. Like the wild west, about 1/4 the men wearing cowboy hats, women in spangled/sequined denim, shops full of amazing cowboy boots - alligator skin with incredible pointed toes, elaborately embroidered and tooled, loads of big old dusty pick-ups, music blaring out of shop fronts, one group of ?Mennonites/?Amish looking around - huge aryan and pink compared to everyone else who is so dark and well just how you imagine Mexicans to look like. Clear bright light, dust. Warm in sun - just, but you can imagine this place to be roasting later on.

Met Cruz's family. His mum and 2 of his (6) bros and 1 (of 2) sisters, glad I was introduced, as bros,. had faint  air of menace about them - big men in black leather biker jackets. Drove out into the desert to see his childhood home, dusty little villages and then miles down a dirt track which gets worse and worse and eventually seems to disappear (I'm doing all the driving and worried  about trashing the hire car), to a collection of little one-storey adobe houses - his is now abandoned. Humble beginnings all right. But the landscape - a vast panorama of distant hills, one of those landscapes of truly epic proportions which is so American West and so utterly un-European, mile upon mile of dry scrubby trees and cactus. Breathtaking.

The lectures - well this is Lateeen America. If el jefe of the Architects Association wants to answer his mobile phone in the middle of your lecture he goes right ahead. And things never start on time. A general air of make-do, and lots of people who have to be made to feel important.

Y'dy in Fresnillo we started 1 1/2 hours late as nothing could begin until the mayor arrives. Whole occasion a bit surreal - vast old stone theatre, freezing cold. Audience mostly students, local dignitaries, some young architects, green campaigners and (groan) some drafted-in schoolkids. Cruz was not interpreting for 'political' reasons - an awful lot of my being here is in fact to do with the politics of what he is doing rather than what I am actually saying. Which is fine, because I am so happy and honoured to be able to participate. All part of 'Green Day' so various other speakers, inc. Cruz. Anyway - interpreter - Sexy Senorita with Big Hair, and thick coating make-up (and spangled denim). Learnt her English in West Virginia (!!!!) so found my accent very difficult, and to begin with my heart sank when she could not translate 'landscape'. But she was really inspired, and we got on really well, and given how late the mayor was, we went through the whole thing twice beforehand. She made a really good go of a difficult job and it was all just about ok. But I've insisted Cruz interprets from now on.

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

News from Mexico

Cruz is to lecture next. I concentrate on the screen, trying to figure out the Spanish powerpoint presentation. Then I look over towards him.In one hand he has a microphone, in the other a gun. Definitely, no doubt about it, a small silver pistol. I soon put 2 and 2 together and realise that it is his laser pointer, but the effect is well – striking to say the least. Saw some in the market later, and thought about getting some as presents for those who work in the further education biz , but then realised that a case of them would be a surefire ticket to Guantanamo. Which almost happened at the next airport security – Cruz had left it in his hand baggage and nearly missed the flight.

Lots of exciting new plant introductions seem to come from Mexico, so it is interesting to get an invite to do a lecture tour there, and see if they do anything with their local flora. Thanks to Cruz Gaali, an irrepressibly enthusiastic PhD graduate from the landscape department at Sheffield University. Cruz had organised a whole series of lectures to teaching institutions, professional bodies and public events - on public planting design. I am away that my main role is to show people that “Cruz is not mad”, that in Europe and in other countries landscape designers and horticulturalists are creating nature-inspired, sustainable and bio-diverse plantings. As opposed to the standard Mexican public space plantings: beds of brightly coloured annuals, and clipped trees. And clipped trees. Clipping trees is clearly as Mexican as drinking tequila or going on strike (February is when everyone goes on strike). Even shrubs in the middle of  dual carriageways are clipped – squares and blobs for the most part, with the occasional basket, or possibly even….. is it a handbag? Private gardeners of course are far more adventurous – mariachi bands in greenery are a favourite. Needless to say there are more Mexican natives in a British garden centre than in a public park in Mexico.

Just done lecture no.3, in a tent in what appears to be a clearing in the jungle, but is in fact part of the best tropical zone public park I have ever been in. It is the tip of a wedge-shaped wilderness area which penetrates almost to the town centre of Uruapan in central western Mexico – it functions as a tidied-up, horticulturally enhanced bit of monsoon forest, with paved walkways and seating and other amenity areas around dramatic whitewater streams, waterfalls and water channels. A lovely way for people to experience natural environment in a very controlled way – very important in a society where very few appreciate wild landscapes or see native plants in a positive way. There is so much water, in channels, fountains and cascades that in some ways it is like a 1930s Villa d’Este. It is spotless.

There are nine of us crammed onto a long table on the stage, speakers and various Important People, who have to make introductory speeches for ‘Green Day’. Most important of all is ‘Il Presidente del Ayunciamento’, ie. the mayor, who I sit next to – as foreign mascot person for sustainable public horticulture I am clearly very important. I love that word ayunciamento – its where we get ‘junta’ from – I always think of sinister Pinochet type generallissimos. This guy has the well-oiled urbanity of the professional politician; I wouldn’t buy a second-hand car off him. He speaks, the event is opened, we all stand. Ohmygod, they are going to play the national anthem. No, they don’t. Whew! Then we have to get down from the stage while they get the powerpoint ready. This, as always it seems in Mexico, involves around 6 young men clustered around the computer and projector, huffing and puffing, pulling cords out, pushing them back in, arguing, gesticulating – it is clearly some sort of male bonding exercise.

The photographers of the local press descend, Il Presidente del Ayunciamento and I put our arms around each other’s shoulders and smile. He then departs. Lecture begins, and with Cruz interpeting, goes very smoothly – although he clearly has his own agenda, often elaborating greatly on what I say. Just as well I trust him. Occasionally the PA system flips over to a local radio station. No-one stirs. Clearly a normal occurrence.

 Anyay, come the end – we all get a basket of presents (avocadoes, coffee, local delicacies, big bottle Kahlua-type liquor). Last place delivered us a dubious-looking little plastic character in local costume and a handful  of slightly-leaking miniatures of the local mezcal. Oh, and a big certificate from Il Presidente to commorate our participation.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008


    I have always found the idea of doing public space planting a more attractive one than designing private gardens. Thousands of people see your work every day, its part of the public realm, a part of the landscape, not hidden away. You have to accept some heavy constraints though: limited funds often mean that projects are small scale and maintenance is still a major issue. And you just have to accept that work does receive a fairly frequent mulch of plastic bags, beer cans and take-away wrappers.
    In Bristol I’ve been working with the city authorities for some years now, usually creating two new perennial-based plantings each winter. I’ve done a few small beds in parks, but they tend to get lost in the great expanse of grass and trees. Far more effective is planting at key sites on commuter routes: traffic islands, roundabouts, junctions. There are real advantages to working on these, as they tend to be pretty vandal proof, and slug proof too.
    Working on these sites involves co-ordinating with contractors. Usually an 8.00 am start, parking on a  pavement and sometimes running the gauntlet of traffic wearing a day-glo safety jacket. Once wearing one of these jackets you realise you have joined a working class brotherhood  who look after their own – great trucks screech to a halt to let you cross the road for example, and it also gives you just about enough authority to stop the traffic if you want to. Crossing roundabouts is something of an art form – much better if there is enough of a grass apron to drive onto. Driving off again though is pretty hairy I can tell you.
    The plants used are resilient perennials which can look after themselves as much as possible, and once established, compete with weeds. Geranium is one of the obvious genera to concentrate on; in the mild and moist Bristol climate, many are in active growth for almost all the year. They are such a useful group that I almost have to make a conscious effort not to overuse them.  Clump-forming and late-flowering composites: helianthus, rudbeckia, solidago, aster, are useful for later-season and strucutral interest.
    Ideally plants will be allowed to spread and self-seed. The aim is a closed canopy of vegetation. Whether this happens is very much to management which is out of my hands. I have run an afternoon training course however, and found the team (from Continental Landscapes) had a better ability to spot the difference between weeds and seedling perennials than I expected. If regenerating perennials are left, the ground will eventually be covered with the vegetation you want, leaving little space for invasive weeds. However on some sites, ‘over-maintenance’ prevents this happening. Ornamental grasses too can be mistaken for weed grasses – so any species used need to be very clearly intentional.
    One new approach I have tried is plug planting, of species which flower in the first year. This is not necessarily designed for permanence as some species used are short-lived, but instead gives more intense colour more quickly. Examples of species used are Achillea ‘Galaxy Hybrids’, Malva moschata, Lychnis chalcedonica, Rudbeckia hirta, Physostegia virginiana, Stipa tenuissima. Planting is at random at 30cm spacings.

For Bristolians, sites I’ve done some planting on so far are:
Snuff Mills,
Three Lamps Junction
Wells Rd. Oxford St. just up from the above.
Broadwalk Arcade, Knowle.
Redcatch Park
White Tree roundabout
Malago Lane, pedestrian island
Eastville Park, one bed near public conveniences at far western end.
St. James Barton
Novers Lane roundabout
Stapleton Rd./Rawnsley Park (something to look at while you wait for your crack dealer)

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