Agile engineering in gardens

When I left the family farm behind for the big city University life, I swore a mighty oath that my hands would never touch dirt again. Fifteen years later, I had to reverse my stance after Michelle and I bought our first house together. We were doing the home renovation thing, and as part of that, we re-factored the gone-wild planting beds into something attractive. And we both fell in love with sculpting living things into art. Michelle’s the best color arrangement and plant placement of the two of us; I do more on the hardscaping, line of sight issues and usability analysis. Then we geek out in the middle on aesthetics. Sometimes I’ll enhance the look and feel, sometimes she’ll make a usability improvement that I hadn’t thought of.
The more I worked incrementally improving our garden, the more it reminded me of software engineering in a rapid prototype environment. Yes, I am that geeky! But most of all, it reminded me of trying to design and build a game. You have to have the full user experience available before you can immerse the user in it and evaluate their actions, likes and dislikes. So when you’re building something complicated that costs a lot of money, it’s really hard to come up with a schedule and a plan for something that is, by definition not truly understandable until it is already up and running!
Our Walnut Creek garden is the best of our efforts. A complete, Desolation of Smaug piece of crap when we started the overhaul. With a moderate amount of hard work, and a large amount of lazily lounging and evaluating potential design decisions in the comfort of our wonderful garden, we came up with some pretty nifty designs!

Here is the process we used, and before/after pictures:

There is always an interesting effect as we broke in new sections of the garden. Basically, our rule was is that whoever paid the price in time and sweat to recondition an area for a mini garden got to completely control the implementation. In other words, if you dig up the ground, you get to decide what to plant! We filled in the different mini garden areas, and an interesting secondary effect came up; what do you do about the seams between, say, a new Larry project area that borders a Michelle project with a different theme? This turned out to be perhaps the most exciting piece, where we got to riff a bit off of each other’s ideas, and incorporate the view of the different mini gardens into the overall line of sight plans. And even on my pieces, she’ll grok something I missed, leading to further bouncing delights 😉
We have, I think seven mini gardens? A mini garden I define as a reasonable sitting area that provides a different look and feel from the other areas, and different patterns of sun and shade. Across the aggregate, you could be outside in the sun or shade anytime of day, any season of the year, just by moving your chair to a different seating area. And to Chris Kosmakos’ unending delight, I grew tired of dragging chairs around, and simply pre-populated all the sitting areas with chairs. Chris and I did a lot of software design work for The Sims project in the garden, as well as just kicking back and having a lot of intriguing conversations on software, people and whatever else came up that day! Chris was also outrageously surprised one day when he commented on the number of fruit trees that we planted, saying that we clearly love fruit. Well, I explained, I actually don’t really like fruit at all. And Chris righteously squawked: “What! Then why do you have so many bloody fruit trees?”
I do make a lot of fruit juice themed drinks, but the primary purpose of the fruit trees is the citrus scent in the aroma therapy sections of the garden, with the secondary benefit of hummingbirds loving to dance in and out of the shapes. Also, there was an existing lemon tree, near death in the garden we took over. It had some gnarled twisty shapes that I was able to slowly reveal with pruning and training the tree as years went by. Essentially, imagine an eight foot high bonsai tree. I loved the crafting process, so I added more fruit trees to shape. The third purpose is privacy; their density of leaves, year-round, greatly contribute to our privacy screen. But the biggest reason was I guess just the sheer coolness of being a Canadian with fruit trees in your backyard and not freezing in the winter, plus if you consider them flowers, their unusually large color blossoms that stay on the tree for very long period of time, adding color and depth to the yard. So as it turns out, we do highly valued the fruit trees, just not on the same variables that Chris does 😉

Details and pictures of the processes:


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