What would you do here?



I grabbed this photo from this post on a local blog, Buffalo Rising. I have to agree with the author, STEEL, a Chicago architect who grew up in Buffalo, that the potentillas in front of this neat little building are ridiculous, though I never thought about it before. Clearly, they were put in by whatever landscaping firm the contractor who restored the building hired. (It is part of a five-building apartment project; each is a distinctive 19th century structure.) I see stuff like this—and worse—all over the city. Whoever these landscapers are, they seem to love red mulch and white stones to surround their puny shrub-and-impatiens plantings.

But I don’t have a clue about what I would do instead. I see this building every day on my way to work and never give the plantings a thought. I guess I just expect bad or simply dull plants around buildings that are not planted by owner/gardeners. Now that I consider it, I can see that the shrubs look silly, though the bright yellow in itself seems a nice contrast for the gray building.

What should they have planted here? Nothing?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I was unable to find out what the building is used for now from the originating blog site but if it is still a store then it seems nonsensical to put a flower bed right in front of the windows. The point of storefront windows is that you, the potential customer, can get right up close to them to examine the goods displayed and suss out the interior of the shop. So if it is still a shop with display windows I would pave right up to the base of the building, maybe with rounded cobbles where the bed is now. If the shrubs are there to deter people from looking in I would put a ground cover, vinca major perhaps, and if you have to have shrubs then a trimmed box between the pilasters on each side of the window not higher than bottom of the window sill. My choice reflects the delicate somberness of the facade and its original use.
    This is a beautiful facade, very distinctive and formal and detailed right down to the ground. It seems inappropriate to shroud it in greenery much less flowers.

  2. Landscape architecture and horticultural planning is a cerebral endeavor.
    When you choose to plant without thinking about the surrounding environmental context or the emotional meaning of the site then you will end up with a disconnect willy nilly plant scape that has no tangible substance to its being.

    What should they have planted here you ask ?
    To answer that question you have to know more about the essence of the building and its relationship to all that it touches and surrounds ( both the physical and metaphorical ) .

  3. This was (100 years ago) a place that sold granite monuments and statuary. Now it is an empty storefront (of recent renovation) with apartments above.

    Michele, if you were read the original BRO post, you would get a sense of what it means (along with a lot of comments of questionable utility). It’s actually a fascinating building, one of the most interesting small buildings I have ever seen.

    I see it (and love it) every day and yet I do not have a clue as to what plantings would suit.

  4. I would put a simple dark granite bench on either side of the door. This space is not appropriate for shrubbery or delicate plant life. After a snow, where will the shoveled snow be put? The sidewalk will probably be salted; what plant would stand up to that? This same plant would have to tolerate the baking heat from the sidewalk on those furnace-blast summer days. Let’s be Miesian – form should at least have some relationship to functionality.

  5. I agree with the ideas of some sort of paving and perhaps the benches but with the addition of containers, two or four, with somewhat formal shaped plants. Not living in a snow area I don’t really know what plants would be best.

  6. O.K.. I’m going to jump right in, without the benefit of technical stuff like scale and measurements. The right side of the building needs something tall and lean like pyramidal english oak or the european carpinus (whose full proper botanic name or common name escapes me). In front of the building I would use boxwood in a formal hedge lining the walkway and side walk. Full, beautiful, formal windowboxes on both the lower and upper windows. Practicality aside, you always need plants. Or you could just stick with windowboxes and pea gravel the rest, maybe with two big pots in front….with more flowering plants. Just can’t get away from plants…..Or what about some neat topiaries in pots.

  7. I would frame the lovely columns and the the first floor sill with something that would support ivy to create a green border, kept trimmed by gnomes in the dark hours. Then in the summer grow hycinth bean over the ivy so the purple pods and flowers bring the battleship gray into its own. It’s sort of victorian isn’t it? In the beds, white knock-out roses with amaranth and underplanted with snow drops, masses of them for early spring happiness in the dreary Buffalo winter. Purple, gray and white. They have to be someone’s alma mater.

  8. These are such thoughtful, creative suggestions. Thanks! I wish I could assert that the developers would pay atention to any of them, but I cannot. I am, however, going to send a link to STEEL (original BRO poster) and some others. Just for fun.

  9. The building looks Victorian-era to me. Think I’d plant those areas in front with colorful annuals.

    For a moment I wondered about winter interest, but seeing as how this is a building near the street in Buffalo, piles of snow will probably comprise the winter interest, so herbaceous plantings could work well.

  10. Part of the problem with this planting is that the building is very formal and imposing and the informal potentilla and what look like puny stray petunias are sitting in a dirt bed next to concrete.

    Something that would go a long way to correct this problem no matter what, to a certain extent, was planted would be a short six to eight inch tall formal granite edging around the flower bed. This would tie the bed and the building together.

  11. What an architecturally beautiful building this is. I see it planted in front with only silver and white plants of less than a foot high, to compliment and blend with the silver and white of the building. Maybe lamium silver beacon or lambs ear Stachys byzantina or maybe the painted fern Athyrium Silver Falls. Could use these alone or inter-plant with small white flowered perennials or annuals. To the right of the building, I would like to see something big leafed and rounded, maybe 3 feet high, with white flowers… hydrangeas come to mind there. The plantings should be simple so as not to take the focus away from the building but just to compliment it.

  12. I don’t think this building needs any plants in the ground in front.

    Too many landscapers, owners, and architects use plants as decorations instead of for creating space and a sense of place. Green for the sake of green is not a good use of living material in urban settings. The use of plants in the case of this building and many I have seen recently makes the plants and the building look silly. These plants block access to the big windows which are meant for display. Why block them with an insipid little patch of dirt filled with tiny little bushes that will never grow and even if they do then what?…They cover the windows up.

    The owner would have served the building and the street much better by planting a few large street trees instead. Large street trees would have created an outdoors space. These little shrubs are nothing but foundation booties. I feel sorry for the little bushes in this setting

  13. I have to disagree with STEEL on the street trees. Definitely not enough space for typical suburban street trees there–either root space or “head space” for the canopy.

    That said, I think that vertical is the way to go. Either something tall and skinny like tall junipers or skinny poplars… or maybe some funky industrial-looking trellises?

  14. There is plenty of room here for trees at the street. Trees lining a street are not suburban at all. They are a very common and historical urban landscape treatment. Buffalo (prior to Dutch Elm) was a virtual city in a gorgeous forest of Elms. The giant elm trunks filled the space between the sidewalk and the street on most streets. Often there would be 2 giant elms in frot of each property Just around the corner form here is a massive 150 year old oak tree that is planted in less space than what is available in front of this building.

    There are techniques and new products available to allow tree roots to grow below concrete pavement. The special kind of space that trees can create in an urban setting makes them one of our most powerful architectural materials. Unfortunately like most planting these days they are just plopped in place rather than planted thoughtfully.

  15. Clearly the space is vacant right now, but with the large front windows, it seems like the perfect space for a retail store or any business that would have seasonal displays or at least change the display periodically and if it did become that I like the idea of changing the flowers seasonally as well to match the window displays. I would add some tall pots as well for height, because it is a very imposing looking building, but thats also why I would like something whimsical there, to tone down the somberness a bit. I also think window boxes on the top windows w/ some trailing plants would be beautiful.

    I know that STEEL doesn’t like the idea of using plants just as decoration but it just seems like annuals are what would work there having to deal w/ the heat requirements in the summer and then just forgoeing them in the winter to make way for snow.

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