BEING RADICLE, with SANTA FE-BASED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT CHRISTIE GREEN,
Christie Green is the founder and principal of Radicle, a landscape architecture firm based in Santa Fe, NM.
Radicle – spelled like the name of the first intrepid root pushing out of a seed - embraces people and their stories, their lifestyles and the myriad ways they connect to place. Through innovative and ecologically regenerative design, Radicle landscape design and implementation weaves science with art, intuition with experience. I find Christie's articulation of a feminine land ethic to be particularly compelling.
Christie’s home garden and her award winning work at the Santa Fe based Academy for the Love of Learning are featured in my new book with Caitlin Atkinson, Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.
"LIFE IS NOT ABOUT BEING COMFORTABLE, IT'S ABOUT BEING MEANINGFUL. "
CHRISTIE GREEN, RADICLE LANDSCAPE DESIGN, SANTA FE, NM
Excerpted from Under Western Skies
Radicle Desert, Christie Green
written by Jennifer Jewell, photos by Caitlin Atkinson
The Place “Water informs everything here. The first thing I think of is the beauty of extremes— of wetness and dryness—and the patterns of these on the land. I live on the Santa Fe River, and it feels dry here ninety percent of the time. But when the rains come, it’s instantaneously wet and raging,” landcape architect Christie Green says. “The topography is also extreme—high elevation mountains to eleven thousand feet alternating with dry, dry, flat plains.” At almost 7200 feet, Santa Fe is characterized as a semi-arid steppe environment with cold winters. Between winter snows and summer monsoons, the region receives an average of 14 inches of precipitation annually. The city is flanked to the east by the fault-block Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which rise abruptly from the valley floor as a result of tectonic plate faults and uplift, and to the west by the volcanic Jemez Mountains. Indigenous peoples have cultivated the region for thousands of years; archeological evidence in and around Santa Fe indicates agricultural activity dating back to 500 CE using traditional dryland farming techniques such as sunken check-dam sites.
The Person Christie Green has never considered landscapes as something that could be made to serve her wishes, but rather as rugged personalities of their own. She acknowledges, “Okay, land, you were here first. This is your shape, and these are your ways. How do I concede to you?” Christie uses the word concede purposefully to highlight a sense that the land and nature set the rules, that we may learn from adapting to the land. “We are the only species who demands in the most arrogant of ways that the land accommodate and adapt to our comfort zones,” she says. “I don’t think it’s our place in the whole scheme of things, especially aesthetically.” She starts her design process with the question, “What’s best for the land?” Christie did her undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, in cultural history, then started a landscape design business, Down to Earth, in her late twenties with the belief that she would change the world by helping people grow food in their backyards. “I was convinced that if the food was in such close proximity, people would understand how it’s grown and the relationship to place and healthy soil, heirloom crops.”
Christie eventually came to realize that she wanted to have an impact “at the housing development, city planning, and zoning scale.” Graduate studies in landscape architecture stretched her design mind in good ways, she says, helping her to think creatively beyond the confines of a client’s budget. But she also found in-the-box thinking that she questioned. When she wanted to focus her thesis on how fracking impacted the ecology and culture of western North Dakota, she was told “Landscape architecture isn’t about that. It’s about urban design—parks, schools, shopping malls.” She completed the program, but decided to do her own thing. She called the new iteration of her business “radicle,” a word play between the first embryonic root of a plant to emerge upon germination and the idea of being radical.
She aims to push the limits of what landscape architects do. “I love designing for whole systems,” Christie notes. “Looking at systems from beyond political boundaries of individual ownership and at a whole ecosystem or a system like a watershed.” She also likes designing for a much longer time frame than next week, even a time frame beyond her or her client’s lifetime. “What I can see blooming from my desk is not good enough.”
Christie has learned to think with humility. The second she thinks she knows some- thing, the more she believes she needs to pay attention to what she does not know. When clients say they love a certain plant and want to incorporate it or that they hate the way another plant looks and they want to get rid of it, she likes to “invite a conversation wherein we talk about how a plant is structured, about why and how it looks that way.” For instance, she might explain that thin leaves provide minimal exposure to sun, prickly hairs reduce transpiration. “It’s like going to a museum with a docent,” she points out. “If you understand how [something] grows and why, then you touch it and you get it as a living being, then there’s some form of connection. There’s no way there’s going to be stewardship if there’s not really deep connection. I guess that’s what I think is most important. Not making a how-to-care-for list, but a help-each- other-care-about list.”
The Plants Academy for the Love of the Learning
In 2011, the nonprofit Academy for the Love of Learning opened a newly built 86-acre LEED Gold campus designed with founder Aaron Stern’s objective “to awaken, enliven, nurture, and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages.” The campus sits on land that was once part of the 2500-acre historic Seton Village, built between 1930 and 1946 by Ernest Thompson Seton, a wildlife artist known for his support for wildlife conservation and the rights of American Indian peoples. The goal was a naturalistic, peaceful space for guests and visiting students to be in during intense retreats, workshops, and classes. Christie’s first encounter with the Academy for the Love of Learning was in 2009, when she was invited to consult with the design and build team. She was greeted at the site with a list of the plants the team wanted where. “I just can’t think like that. The plant species are the gravy. You have to start with how does this place/land work? What is it? How will you move in the space? What can we do here to reflect the culture and philosophy of the organization? How can the garden and landscaping embody what you do, who you are, and where you are?”
She pointed out that Seton’s entire way of being was stewardship for the wildlife and honoring its Indigenous cultures. “He did not want to impose a Western white culture, so I worked to bring his ethic into this century and onto this land in this moment and into the culture of the academy with what we called the Learning Landscape.” The first thing she took on was the slope from Seton Castle down to the new facility because of real concerns about erosion damage during storms. “The academy is on a twelve percent slope. The engineers for the architect... treat[ed] water as a liability. And the Southwest is the last place water should be seen or treated as a liability. We need it, and we can use it to grow all kinds of things and hold the soil.” Christie designed what is now known as the Ancestors Heirloom Orchard, an “ecologically beneficial series of berms for orchard trees and swales full of native species for habitat all the way down the slope. The detention pond [required by code at the bottom of the slope] has maybe never had water in it because the water, an asset, is being put to full use to water the orchard and swales.” Any excess water is filtered by the soil and percolates back into the ground water.
At the top of the property lie the ruins of the historic Seton Castle, which burned in 2005. In and around these ruins, Christie created a design based on traditional Zuni sunken gardens, sometimes known as “waffle beds” due to their sunken square pat- terns with raised sides for capturing, directing, and holding what little rain falls. Here she built a dye and medicinal plants garden using flowering annuals and perennials.
In the front of the academy building is a more lush, serene mix of deciduous trees and shrubs, including Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Robinia ‘Purple Robe’, hackberry (Celtis), American purple ash (Fraxinus americana ‘Autumn Purple’), and chokecherries (Prunus virginiana), among others. The rest of the property remains in its natural pinyon and juni- per scrub state as open, green space that is accessible to the local human and wildlife communities.
Christie Green’s Home Garden Christie’s home garden is in southwestern Santa Fe. “When I came to my own home property, the land had been cleared and was bare. No one wanted my house and lot because it’s situated at the base of a slope. Everyone wanted the view up at the top, and my two-acre lot was the one designated for the development’s detention ponds. . . . But I saw this lot as the best, wettest place.”
Like many designer’s home gardens, Christie’s is some part refuge, some part experimentation station, and some part home to all the orphans, castoffs, and leftovers from client projects. The garden is situated along the Santa Fe River in USDA zone 5. Christie did not draw a design for the space, but worked organically from the house out, experimenting with what would work on the land. She follows general principles of permaculture, with plantings needing more water and maintenance focused around the main house. She tries to have food growing wherever she can.
Christie designed a graywater system incorporating pumice wicks, also known as Watson wicks, wherein seasonal rainfall is directed into shallow bioswales filled with pumice/coarse sand to slow the percolation and filter any pollutants. Laundry and bathwater are run to the eastern side of the house, and on the western side a canale (a short, narrow trough that protrudes through the parapet of a flat roof) directs the roof water into another pumice wick, which ultimately waters shrubs.
“I did three large deep bioswales where the original single detention pond was sited,” says Christie, and around these she sited riparian trees. On her outer perimeter slope, which carries runoff from adjacent properties and the road, she created a series of berms and swales on which she planted an orchard. “This effectively handles erosion as well run-off from two main drainages cutting across my land to the detention pond.” Similarly, there’s a bit of a slope away from the house all the way around, and here she planted native wax currants and shrub roses that thicket to hold soil and provide habitat for birds. Christie does use some supplemental irrigation if she absolutely has to after the graywater. “But plants in my garden have to be tough.”
In fall, Christie cuts vegetables back, works in compost, and plants garlic and a cover crop of field peas, rye, or wheat. Then she covers everything with straw until planting again in March. She lets ornamental and native plantings self-mulch and “doesn’t groom much beyond that.”
Art installations and creative projects with narrative intent lighten and add to the garden. For Christie, nothing is just one thing: food, habitat, erosion control, art, politics, or history. Rather, they are all integral to one another and they all feed us in some way: food is art is habitat is political commentary and is the history we are making as we go.
You can follow along with Christie's work online at: beradicle.com.
Join us again next week when we focus on creating more garden joy and fun by facing some of our garden fears – yep – we all have them. Portland based Loree Bohl, aka the Danger Garden, joins us to talk about all things Fearless Gardening: On Being Bold, Breaking the Rules, and Growing What You Love.
THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
In my work researching, interviewing and writing Under Western Skies – I was often cracked wide open as a gardener. Interviewing and researching Christie Green was one of those moments.
I love this excerpt from her profile in Under Western Skies:
"Christie Green has never considered landscapes as something that could be made to serve her wishes, but rather as rugged personalities of their own. She acknowledges, “Okay, land, you were here first. This is your shape, and these are your ways. How do I concede to you?” Christie uses the word concede purposefully to highlight a sense that the land and nature set the rules, that we may learn from adapting to the land. “We are the only species who demands in the most arrogant of ways that the land accom- modate and adapt to our comfort zones,” she says. “I don’t think it’s our place in the whole scheme of things, especially aesthetically.” She starts her design process with the question, “What’s best for the land?”
This statement by Christie late in our conversation is worthy of post it note, a sky writer, or a message from the Universe:
"Life is not about being comfortable, it's about being meaningful."
Ok let me say it again slowly just for us: "Our Garden lives are not about being comfortable, they are about being meaningful."
We know this. We live this (think weeding, deadheading and pruning roses, digging out roots, working in rain, blistering sun, with stinging buzzing creatures sucking life from us of a summer evening; lugging hoses and watering cans to inconvenient places we HAD to have that one plants, or on our knees with aching backs in frigid cold conditions wrestling the last of our bulbs into hardened ground in mid-winter).
This determination and tenacity for these relationships and places we love - this fierce willingness to do what it takes - It’s among our greatest strengths and super powers as gardeners…
WAYS TO SUPPORT CULTIVATING PLACE
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