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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Influence of Backgrounds

I often begin a landscape plan by standing back from the site and letting the surroundings tell me the setting in which the ideas will live.
Fire place and ledge island by North Star Stoneworks
I can do this even before I meet the prospective clients. This is the sort of ‘homework’ that enables me to later comment on the neighboring environment and its effect on what we are planning.
Painters often begin a painting by working on the background. This may be a practical approach as it is easier to paint a building, portrait or tree over a background than to paint the background around them. It also serves to tune the foreground objects to the color and texture of the background.
In landscape design it is doubly important because we can’t go in and move a mountain or building after the fact.
Chapel Fountain at Franklin Memorial Hospital by David Neufeld
Sculptors too must be aware of the surroundings their work will be placed in. A niche in a building is very different than a town square.
In some instances, the background becomes the heart of the plan and the materials and plantings are placed to enclose the landscape.  Fences, walls, and tall planting obscure whatever was formerly the background. Thus we create a new world within.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Positive and Negative Space

Perceiving an object requires that we distinguish it from its surroundings. The joke about a blank piece of paper being ‘a polar bear in a snowstorm’, applies to our perception.
Painters and sculptors refer to positive and negative space. Positive space is the object we are able to perceive. Negative space is the background that allows us to see that object. In landscapes, the tree is the positive and the sky is the negative.
'06 Bridgton Academy project by North Star Stoneworks
Applying this to landscape design, we may choose to remove masses of confused greenery in order to accentuate a specimen tree. We may also take advantage of a mass of greenery by planting or building a contrasting form in front of it. We might ‘cut’ a hole in the greenery to form a dark shadow. Each of these changes creates the negative space needed to bring the desired focus to the design.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Painting and Sculpting a Garden

Viewing a landscape as a painter or sculptor would gives us the ability to avoid confusion. Think of it this way. Any landscape painter looks at the subject (a big, big world) and must choose which of what he or she sees will get into the painting. It can fairly be said that a landscape painter doesn’t paint every tree leaf or blade of grass in view. The portion of the landscape captured must also be a deliberate choice.
Landscape design begins with choices. Out of all the elements in the existing plot of land prior to design, some must be kept and some removed. Very rare is the blank canvas of landscapes. Even rectangular flat plots of land are set in a neighborhood. In landscape design, the backdrop counts. We cannot ignore a distant mountain or a neighboring colossal oak.  Or the buildings.

What is your existing canvass? What will you add, paint over, or enhance?

Monday, February 21, 2011

To What Purpose?

We can imagine the visual equivalent of music when patterns repeat and shapes reappear.  In nature and in cultivation, our eye is drawn to repeating patterns, the layers of hills as they recede into the distance, a row of corn, an orchard. 

Each of these patterns initiates a response in us, very much like music, that often equates with an emotion or a state of consciousness. For instance, the repeating forms of hills in the distance relaxes me and also gives me a sense of the infinite.
Forms found in spider webs make me smile, wonder, perhaps even feel whimsical. Applying this recognition to landscape design lets me use familiar patterns to create gardens that feel original but have a solid base in our visual experience.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Themes and Variations

I am not a musician. However, when I hear music, I can identify the melody; it is what I hum to myself afterward.  If I am very familiar with the piece I may hear the layers of orchestration that give the music weight.  In a long piece of music such as a symphony, I can hear the theme reappear in the variations throughout the movements. I also know when one piece of music is over and another begins.  This begins to qualify me to see themes and variations in landscapes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Artists and our Sensual Vocabulary

All humans are attuned to beauty. Whether we pursue lives immersed in art or not, we know when something is beautiful, when it moves us.  We understand the language of art even if we don’t speak it.  Music, Sculpture, Painting, Poetry, and Drama have their place in landscape design.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Temples and Chapels we love

When we think of holy places we most often picture temples and chapels dedicated to beliefs.  The inspiration for the building’s design and the purpose of these places originated in the belief of that people. What stays in our memory is the way that these places take on a spirit of their own over time.
Regardless of the history of any given religion, a building that has stood and sheltered worshipers for hundreds of years develops a presence of its own.
Observing the physical details of time that these buildings take on gives us a clue to designing places of meaning for ourselves.  Often, it is the place on the land where these buildings were built, that makes their presence so significant.
For me, a temple, church, or chapel in ruin speaks most eloquently. Buildings without roofs, with crumbled walls, with grass growing in the nave, allow me to focus on what is left of beliefs when the physical boundaries are gone.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Natural Holy Places

The are places we come upon which inspire a sense of the infinite. Other places are more intimate, shrine-like. The span of years that imbues a place with holiness is often far beyond the scope of our lifetimes, yet those places offer us a sense of timeless order that we can apply when creating intimate or grand designs in our landscapes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

From the Sacred to the Vernacular

It has been said that we have our feet in the earth and our heads in the heavens.  We unconsciously seek to bring together our sense of the divine and the furniture of our everyday lives.  The result is most profoundly seen in gardens.  The plants we choose to inhabit our gardens reflect our own unique balance between heaven and earth.  Landscape designs that recognize the emotional significance of a hollyhock, an oak tree, or bed of moss succeed.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


When we name a place as many gardens and estates have been named, we not only lay claim to the work we do there but we extend our claim far into the future.  In New England, where I live, it is routine for a farmstead to be referred to by the name of a previous owner.  The current owner may even have to wait out their lifetime in order to have their place referred to by their name.   Family estates and large gardens often take on names ranging from whimsical to mythic.
Naming is an organizational tool.  A name like ‘Sunny Acres’ needs its fields to be kept mowed.  Dalton’s End’ better be private.  Single words have even more power. ‘Eden’ has a tradition to live up to.  ‘Serendipity’ begs to be let go a little.  Any name will place its influence on the developing landscape.   
Places within a garden can be named too.  I have named parts of gardens, ‘The Forgotten Garden’ for instance.  The name reminds me to allow the grass and plants a freer range of expression.  In this garden, the grass goes uncut, the rose sprawls, even a dead limb from the tree is left to imbue the space with forgotten-ness.  The bench has been purposely entwined with wisteria vines so that they may take over the support of the bench when the wood slats eventually give out.
'The Meditation Garden' likewise is at the farthest point removed from traffic and includes moving water, that most pleasant of all sounds. The names we give our place or our gardens need never be public. If they are well-given and well-attended to, anyone chancing upon the place will intuit the purpose and perhaps even guess the name.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Origin of Spaces

Claiming territory

Claiming a piece of the earth is in our nature.  Native Americans were very clear on what was their tribal territory and fought to acquire and defend what was their “hunting ground”. Virtually all wars have been fought over territory. We scuffled with friends over what was ours and what was theirs.
In the tamer setting of a landscape we are reassured to see signs of ownership: a gate, a house, cottage, or shed, a plot of land that is cultivated.  The way these places are cultivated tells us so much about the owner, their sense of order or disorder, their tastes in color, form, and organization, cultures they are fond of evidenced by their copying of style, and the size of their endeavor.  It is impossible to work a piece of this earth without leaving evidence of your personality on the land.  Even wild places have boundaries marked with the agency that manages them and their regulations.

Friday, January 28, 2011


There is a way to measure harmony. We do it all the time. It stops us, even momentarily when we perceive harmony in a setting, picture, or group. Harmony isn’t required for something to be well made. The subject of disharmony and drama will be addressed later. Harmony, however, is something observable, though it may take some practice.

Imagine that everything has a psychic weight and that no two objects can have that same weight. Stone 1 and stone 2 for instance might seem about equal, they might even be cut identically (like a cobblestone) yet when set side-by-side you would choose one over the other.
Simple enough, you trust that your choice (measurement) was accurate (ridiculous you say). But, if you follow this simple measuring game you will find yourself tallying (as when you build a wall or plant a group of shrubs); you will tally the weights back and forth and if you stop (and still trust that this isn’t complete madness), you may find that you reach the moment of harmony when all the elements are balanced on the scale of the whole image. This does not happen often in nature on a scale that we can perceive (within our visual frame).

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Most of what we take for granted as the hallmarks of civilization are the result of shelter.  Without a place to come back to, protected from the rain, heat, and cold, we would be witless and soon thereafter, dead. 
Beyond the basic need for protection, shelters give us a vantage point of comfort from which to appreciate our gardens. Gardens and shelters go together, one providing a reflection of our place in nature and the other a place in which we can absorb the enormity of nature’s hold on our planet.
Granted, the above photo of the Italianate garden at Illnacullin in Ireland is bit extravagant. Thanks though, to the Irish National Parks for letting me visit when it was closed. The island is reached by ferry from Glengariff, County Cork and is in Bantry Bay.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Wild Wood

I love going into the woods, even the most familiar of them beyond my backyard seem the keeper of some mystery. Despite the extent to which modern-day woods have been tamed by suburbia, roads, and even parkland, they still hold a dark mystery in our minds. All folktales that include woods, use them to conceal wild magic. It is where the witch’s gingerbread house is. It is where Beauty goes to find Beast. It is where we will find the fire circle surrounded by four spirits that can give and take away. This is the strength of woods in landscape design.
Your woods may contain old trees, trees of protection, As in all old tales, we are warned to respect woods. The story of Pan’s death, of the last unicorn, of the end of a golden age when humans saw beneath the surface of the world’s activities, is tied to woods. A group of trees becomes a wood when you can’t see through it. This density or distance of uncleared land lures our consciousness and sharpens our senses to the wild world out there.
If the idea of woods is part of what you need for your garden to fully satisfy you and you do not presently have one, then making one can be the central effort of your garden design. Creating a wood in open ground offers design opportunities rarely found in perennial garden design. Most of the great urban parks are created woodlands. In many cities, the places we associate with the old wild places were planted less than a hundred years ago.
Because a wood comprises of many trees, we must think of the whole as a community. In our own human communities there are figures that possess physical and personality influence that endures, the matriarchs or founding fathers. Others do the daily work that keeps the community going and incidentally fill the streets and stores. And then there are those who are passing through, the contributors to the community’s commerce.
If we look to Nature again we see that certain tree species have the form and endurance to dominate. Others, such as birch, create a lively visual activity that brightens the forest but does not seem eternal. Planting a wood from saplings may seem like a long wait for gratification but in many instances, ten years will find the planter of a wood entirely enthralled by his or her work. The added benefit to a woodland garden is its lessening care. The older you get, the bigger and more care-free become the trees so that by the time you reach an age when you just want to stroll through your garden and rest, the shade of your woods and the stoutness of the trees you have planted welcome you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Human Spatial Response

Most people are drawn to the open sky.  We orient ourselves to open spaces where the sun can shine and we can consider the forests or cliffs the boundaries of our habitable world. 
Folktales portraying loss of consciousness (sleep, death, enchantment) do so with trees, thornbushes, or vines overgrowing the civilized place.  In my part of New England, Maine, the woods are full of foundation holes, paddocks, and wells from a time when light shone on plowed or grazed homesteads.  When we walk toward a clearing, it is the form of a homestead that we are drawn to, knowing that it means there are living, working, things about.  These living things may amount to an ancient ant colony or grazing cattle.
In the vast open spaces of the American plains and deserts, it is the opposite; we gravitate toward the copse of trees.  During the year I lived and worked in Death Valley, California, I spent my time off painting landscapes.  At first, I would always head for an oasis or clump of palms that signified a spring.  I would paint the contrast between the green that my woodland mind felt safe in and the bleached landscape just beyond the fringe of leaves.  Perhaps four months passed before I could see and paint a desert devoid of trees.  For most people, open space disturbs and it is not just the instinctive protection from predators that we seek in the shelter of trees; it is shelter from the eye of God.  Or to put it another way, wide-open spaces force us to introspection at a scale most of us are unequipped to manage.
Landscape design allows us to apportion the degree to which open space effects us. The dimensions of a clearing or the use of an open field will direct the emotional/spiritual quality of the space. A glade will be private, a lawn public, a hundred-acre expanse of open ground and invitation to journey outside of our bodies.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Continuity of Weather

            All cultivated gardens rely on some consistent weather pattern.  The plants we choose are ones we hope will thrive in our local climate.  When we design our garden, we must acknowledge the weather conditions we will cooperate with.

            A harsh, windy site, will, most years, be a harsh, windy site.  If we design a garden that echoes the force of the prevailing wind, the resulting landscape will appear in harmony with the local conditions.  Unsuitable trees, shrubs, and perennials, however we may get them to survive the harsh site, will appear like lightly clad people in a snowstorm.
            Conversely, as much as we might be drawn to the austere landscape of the desert, we cannot realistically expect a desert garden to ‘work’ in a moist, lush, climate.
            In accessing what effect weather will have on our garden design (not on our plants), we need only look around. Coastal weather has a characteristic influence on the shape of growing things.  Mountain weather often highlights the exposed and protected pockets of land.  Bottomland, the prime deep soil of river valleys, reflects the moderating influence of level grounds and ample water.  We may borrow the shape that each of these weather landscapes creates but we can’t borrow the weather.  Ultimately, our garden will respond to the weather that comes our way.  The windblown looking tree in a mountain garden will need constant shaping to keep it from rounding out in our protected, pampered yard.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Water Seeks

Water seeks its lowest level. Or as we say, it runs downhill. As apparent as this is, this law of physics governs how we use water in the landscape. With the addition of a pump we find that a natural body of water can be moved uphill and allowed to fall as a waterfall.  The same requirement means that we can arrange basins in descending order and be sure that the water that we pump to a high point gets a thorough design workout before it finds its lowest level in the water garden’s reservoir.
            Our choice of how the water makes its way from a high point to a low point can vary from channeled formality to seamlessly natural stream construction.  Entirely human made water gardens are labor intensive and often costly.  By matching the quantity of water that we imagine we are capable of summoning for our garden design to the quality of the design, we are emulating Nature.  Natural water features rarely presume to command more water than is seasonally available. The rivers that run through valleys are shadows of the glaciers that scoured them to their present shape.  Although canyons appear to have been sculpted by a great torrent, most of the shaping we see occurred over millions of years.  So with our gardens.  If we have an old dug well as a reservoir, the watercourse we design must match the well’s ability to supply it.  If we only have a pitcher full of water to spare each day, then a hollow in a stone becomes the natural container.