Sunday, April 17, 2011

Directing plants as Actors

Imagine that you are the writer and director of a play or movie (no pressure).  In this case, the stage is your yard and the actors are the trees and shrubs and flowers.  Generally speaking, your company has some veterans, actors who have been around awhile but admittedly can play only the roles they are used to.  These are the trees.  You may have one or two stubborn actors; scraggly trees, harassed by deer or ice-broken, who have lost the energy to grow. You’d like to cut them from the company because they mess up their (or your) lines and need to retire but they don’t know it. 
If you’re fortunate you have at least one stellar actor who seems to hold the whole company together no matter what audience shows up and now matter what script you throw at it.  This is your sentinel tree or your specimen tree, the hallmark of your productions.  You might have some young ones who are coming up in the ranks and may someday challenge the veteran for its place, but for now they are saplings standing on the sidelines.
Next come the supporting actors, the shrubbery, as they might be called.  They require few lines but need some pampering and care to perform at their best.  Do not underestimate their value.  There’s many the leading actor that can credit the best performances to the roles of the supporting actors.  You may also think of groups of supporting actors as playing a significant role in the unfolding script that you have written (or are desperately trying to write before the production deadline).
Then you’ve got the extras, let’s call them the color.  Crowds of silent or murmuring perennials or annuals that give the whole shebang flavor.  Sometimes we bring in extra extras when the script needs last-minute help. This occurs around the end of June and coincides with the clearance sales at nurseries. A drive-by pick-up of extras can be a wonderful, curative event.
No production is complete without lighting. A perfect opening scene might include a light fog at sunrise, shafts of sun landing on the blooming shrubs, the backdrop of forest reduced to a soft dark-green veil. Hopefully, sunset lights the garden with the finality of a romantic kiss or a cathartic reunion.
Last year you launched a drama.  After a bright and colorful opening (daffodils, forsythias, lilacs), the script took an ominous turn as weather and somber dialogue had the audience wonder if a tragedy was in store.  However the cast turned out in the end with a rousing (and long) finale that left you inspired and exhausted.
This year it’s a mystery piece. It’s early yet.  Walk around the garden and pick up the clues.  Step back inside, check the script and perhaps make some last-minute changes in the cast. Break a stick!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


People, in general, are sensitive to non-verbal signals. A closed door means privacy. Lights on over a marquee means there’s a show going on, a series of open doors invites us to puzzle over the mystery at the last door. Dark doors are ominous, brightly-lit interiors signal activity.

The signals we place in and around our landscape shape our own and any visitors sense of invitation
The first passage anyone passes through sets up an expectation of what our garden or even our home or community is willing to share.

One of the favorite gardens that I have designed fills the entire front yard of a simple Cape Cod house on a perfectly flat lot. There is no lawn.  The fieldstone wall that sinuously encloses the space between the street and the house is filled with trees, shrubs and perennials. 

An interior path crosses through this garden and winds around to the more private back yard. This exuberant garden is what walkers and other passersby see and it reflects the community-involved personality of the owner. It is an invitation.
When we invite people to pass through our garden on their way to our front door, we are delivering an invitation. A stark walkway, whether we intend it or not, delivers a stark invitation; one that we may have to work hard to overcome on the other side of the door.

Monday, March 28, 2011

What We Hide, What We Reveal

As a photographer, I know that I can control the ‘depth of field’ of a photo by adjusting the size opening of the shutter (F-stop). In everyday terms, I can make the camera near-sighted, almost near-sighted or I can give the camera perfect vision where everything will be in focus. But even in the most perfectly focused photograph, detail will be lost when the grain of the film can’t keep up with the impression made by the light coming through the lens. If you get close enough to a photo, let’s say with a microscope, all you see are fuzzy strands of photographic paper.
In landscape design we can control how much of the garden is visible in one ‘take’. Do we lay out the beds so that the pattern and color can be taken in with one glance? Do we conceal elements of the garden behind a screen of lace-like foliage that puts the farther garden into fuzzy focus? Do we build walls or fences that entirely conceal parts of the garden creating an album-like effect, a page-turner?
These choices are the ways that you determine the speed at which your garden can be absorbed and appreciated.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I Digress

A two week visit to Italy will temporarily interrupt the previous writings so that I can share inspiration as it happens.

I have always  been awoken by gardens that aren't gardens, just way that people adorn their lives with flora.

In Ravello, Italy terrace gardens are the rule and every available space serves double purpose. A trellis that will shade in summer covers a walkway and also bears fruit.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More on Metaphor

The arrangement of plants and objects in the landscape can be metaphoric. A metaphor: that is when something IS the representation of the intended meaning, such as “that tree is my grandfather”.  If that tree was “like” my grandfather, we’d have a simile; enough of English 101.
Deciding to use an object as a metaphor relieves the landscape designer of finding a literal representation. Literal representations, such as garden gnomes, fairies, angels, or Venus’, attach the viewer too securely to one meaning.
Rocks, shrubs, trees (dead or alive) that suggest mythic forms create a stronger and broader effect on the viewer.  A shadowed doorway into a dark woodland cannot avoid suggesting a journey into the subconscious.  This is clearly a different effect than the loud direct message sent by the entrance to the carnival fun-house.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The Symbolic Power of Objects
We instinctively know that when we see a single standing stone, it marks something (or so we believe).  Two posts create a gateway, three a family, four a room, five a counsel and many, well many are likely to be grouped in subgroups of one, two, three, and four.
If we contemplate the one stone, we sense authority and before long a paternal or maternal impression of the stone creeps into our heads.  The two stones or posts appear to be guarding an entrance and we approach knowing that we may have to ask permission to pass.  Three (let’s say of varying sizes) gets us identifying father, mother, and child.  And four, depending on their placement will present an organized entity whether they enclose a space or provoke you to ask (as you would a panel of judges, sages, or grandparents), “what do you want?”
We do not need to work hard to perceive the symbolic nature of objects; their meaning will jump out at us if we let it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultivating Visual Instincts

We are born with certain visual instincts: The desire to have our backs protected, the awe that a limitless vista inspires.
Other visual instincts we must cultivate. This means that the seeds of that knowledge are part of us but that we don’t regularly pay attention to them.
Composition is one of those instincts. As we wander around the visual world certain compositions of objects catch our attention. We may stop for a moment or say, ‘how pretty’. Over time we may have done this ten thousand times. But, when we come to a situation for which we need to compose a pleasing arrangement, we get stuck.
If we cultivate those instincts, each time we come upon a beautiful composition, whether it is an arrangement of flowers, a landscape, or someone’s living room furniture, we might take some time to analyze why it works.
Truly, this will not diminish our enjoyment. We may even find that we are seeing pleasing compositions in unlikely places: peeling wallpaper, a dilapidated building, a pile of laundry.
This knowledge, brought to the usable surface will serve us when we design spaces in our landscape.