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.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Water Does

            We live in a water garden. Water falls from the sky, it runs in rivulets and streams through the low places, it settles in hollows as pools or ponds.  The land we cultivate is really an island.  Giving water its rightful place in our garden design can manifest in many ways.  The way we contour the land we cultivate mirrors the work that water has done to the larger landscape.  Imbuing our landscape with the markings of water: ravines, worn boulders, and wetlands brings our garden into harmony with what already exists on a geological scale.  If we desire it to, it breaks down the barrier between us and the forces of nature, making our garden seem less of a fortress and more of an Eden.
            Every garden site is challenged with conditions that are favorable to some plants and unfavorable to others.  The abundance or scarcity of water is often the most challenging of these conditions.  Fighting our water-reality can exhaust our enthusiasm as well as our budget.  If we turn to Nature for advice, we see that each environment, wet or dry, offers possibilities that, if collaborated with, will produce a beautiful landscape.
            Because garden design is inherently a matter of human creativity exerting itself on Nature (or is it the other way around?), we do get to make choices that manipulate the plot of land we are given to cultivate.  Each person’s efforts towards their dream garden may include an impossible task within the conditions of their site. Here is where brilliant collaborations with Nature are born.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Bit of Green

A garden can live wherever a plant can grow. When we scan our surroundings for a place to begin, we look for soil. All the soil on earth is either ground up rock or decomposed plant matter. One of my favorite small ecosystems is the top surface of giant boulders. There is a cliff nearby in my town. Below the cliff face lie hundreds of car-size granite boulders wedged together in a massive jumble of caves and tilted tables. Oaks and maples have wedged themselves between the tumble of fallen rock and over time, rock-cap ferns have grown in the leaf-made humus and now carpet the upper surfaces of these giant rocks. In this one hillside, I can look up hundreds of feet to the sheer wall of rock and from there I can scan the slope to my feet on the ferns. It is the whole story of soil.
On the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, all the soil has been made by the inhabitants. Over ten centuries, islanders have hauled baskets of seaweed and barrows of sand until the walled fields could support their grazing stock and their intensive vegetable gardens. Perhaps it all began with a fisherman wishing for a bit of green to go with his fish dinner.
This garden has been planted on the fireboat dock below the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Existential Bah Humbug

Open ground in nature is ruled by an observable and shifting hierarchy.   If you go into the woods the tall trees dominate the soil.   Smaller trees and shrubs either thrive in the under-storey or hang on until a big tree falls and a piece of sky becomes available.  In the redwood forests of coastal northern California, Douglas fir seeds sprout on the fallen trunks of redwood giants where one piece of sky has opened.  You may see a perfectly straight line of mature Douglas firs and know where an ancient redwood fell hundreds of years ago.  Walking through a redwood forest one does not ask the silly existential question about the tree falling when no one is there to hear it.  The impact of a fallen tree reaches from the original crack and boom to the vibrant structure of today’s forest.
Beneath the shrubs are the woodland perennials that we know as wildflowers and vines.  In many instances they need the cover of trees. 
In meadows and mountainsides, where trees could not or have not seeded in, every inch of ground that can provide a foothold is taken.   Hayfields that go unmown will shrink as the forests on their edge seed into the open ground.  When human or natural forces strip the soil from the underlying rock, centuries will go by before the land will return to its old vitality.

Monday, January 17, 2011


The first year after a seed sprouts may bring drought, predation, flood, uprooting, fire, lawnmowers, herbicides, and the gloved hand of humans.  With each passing year, it is a requirement that some seedlings fail.  Each species has its required space.  In the Mojave Desert, creosote bushes secrete a substance that inhibits any other creosote bush from growing within a precise perimeter.  This results in both sufficient water for each bush to mature and make seeds and it also produces an eerie regularity to the landscape.
In contrast, “weed” trees like poplars grow neck in neck.  It may take twenty years for the strongest trees to muscle out the weaklings.  In the meantime, fire, browsing and other hazards will make the abundance of seedlings seem wise.  A fifty-year-old poplar is rare.
Each plant’s life is determined by an interwoven set of circumstances.  There is no, “in general”, when it comes to seed to seedling and seedling to mature plant ratio. All plants are genetically programmed to produce offspring.  That one plant needs three weeks to make seed while another needs twenty years is often reflected in their structural character.  We can get to know what to expect from a given species if we know it as an individual.  Take an oak for instance.  Place a red oak from Maine next to a canyon oak from California and the difference will be startling.  Look at a red oak atop a ledge in Crawford Notch and one in the deep glacial till of coastal Maine and except for bud and leaf the contrast will be great.  If you live near an oak, or any other large old tree, you will come to know it as more than its species name.  If you are fortunate to watch a tree grow old, it will grow into you.  In this way, there will be no other tree like it.  This is one of the opportunities of the gardener.
We say that someone who lives where their family has lived for many generations has deep roots; someone who wanders has shallow roots.  The origin of these metaphors is in the plants around us. Plant a deep-rooted tree such as an oak or maple, and you make a commitment to the future, an immovable object, a sentinel.   When I plant a deep-rooted tree, I see the future giant in the sapling.  Planting thyme, sedums, dianthus is done lightly, experimentally. Hens and chicks can be moved almost daily; they are the doodles of the cultivated plant world. 

Friday, January 14, 2011


Every plant needs a few basic elements: light, water, and food.  When we walk in natural places we see plants adapting to the balance of those elements that the land and weather provide.  A spruce growing in the deep bottomland of a river valley grows tall and broad.  Its genetic cousin, sprouted in a crevice on a mountainside is dwarfed and shaped by hardships.  A short walk anywhere will reveal hundreds of species living in apparent harmony.  Each plant sprouted in a moment of optimum light, warmth, and moisture.  Often, that plant represents a minute portion of the seeds offered by the parent plant in that particular year.
In any given year, only a fraction of a plant’s seeds sprout but by shear volume the parent plant still produces hundreds to thousands of seedlings.  It is the seedling that has the hardest time surviving.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Primary Source

Nature is our primary source for knowing plants.  All garden plants, from potted geraniums to clipped yews, originated in the wild.  From a design perspective, the names are not important.  Like streets and highways, you’ll know them when you need them.  In nature, a plant grows where it can.
Sometimes, when I walk in the wild, I notice a plant or community of plants that I never see in cultivated gardens.  A viburnum called “Hobblebush” grows on a steep hillside above one of my favorite streams.  It is a sinuous shrub with broad spade-like leaves.  The impression of hundreds of them growing waist-high up the rocky hill is lyrical.  They seem to be the shape-equivalent of the flowing water.  Their upturned leaves harvest the scattered light that falls through the maple and beech canopy. 
I notice them because I am enchanted by them.  I’ll remember them.  Now, why do they grow there in such abundance?  Simply put, it is because the conditions are just right for them.  Perhaps it is because the stream-side hill has not been logged.  Or the springs that seep out of the mountain provide the constant moisture they need.  Or I can go to my wildflower guide and discover what botanists say about their habits.  Ultimately, they remain in my mind as living forms associated with that beautiful stream.  The association with the forest and stream broadens my vocabulary of form and habit.  Although I may never transplant one of them into a cultivated stream-side garden, I have impressed my memory with one way in which hillside harmony can be created.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Organizing Force

How often do we come upon a natural place and say that it is like a garden.  We recognize some organizing force that has thinned the trees, placed the stones, and brings focus to the scattering of wildflowers.  Farther along, on a stone ledge we come upon a simpler garden.  A fissure in the rock contains sky-blue flowers all in a line.  From somewhere below, water strikes high notes as it falls. 
If all natural places were equal to our senses, we would have no guide when we set about making a garden for ourselves.  Nature offers us models of balance and harmony as well as ones of change and chaos.  Natural gardens teach us about natural harmony and give us clues about the harmony that we seek for ourselves.  Our attraction to similar settings is a good first step in developing a garden vocabulary.  However the fluency that will create an eloquent garden requires that we reach beyond our preferences.  Noticing the multitude of garden forms that nature sets before us is one of the pleasures of human existence. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Garden Language

Many garden design articles are the equivalent of travel guides or phrase books, basic and automatic, meant to serve the tourist. The Conscious Garden is not about eastern style gardens, cottage garden style, prairie, natural, formal, or cutting edge.  It is about what makes any style work without explanation.  And that is the paradox.  To create something that touches us, the creator must understand the dynamics of the medium.  This blog will guide the reader to a natural way of communicating in garden, a language that is common throughout time, geography, and age.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Because a garden is collaboration with nature, it will always be a work-in-progress. Look at a garden, any garden, formal, relaxed, or natural. In each one, Nature has had its say. Even in the most strictly formal gardens, the plants and stones exert their unique qualities. A yew tree, clipped to geometric standards, fulfills its nature by making a dense layer of needles. A column of granite will grow moss on the north side. A manicured lawn will change color in the course of seasons. If the gardener knows this he or she will be capable of collaborating with nature to create a garden that lives both inside us and outside of us. True collaborations require us to listen as well to our partner as we do to ourselves. And then to act.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Dig

Every garden is a story.  In an abstract way our garden is our story, expressing our unique connection to the world. Like our familiar languages, the story is composed of a vocabulary that in varying combination produces different meanings. 
              We spent our childhood playing in landscapes animated by season, geometry, and space.  We hid under bushes, sat atop lookout boulders, ran along paths to our favorite destinations.  Before we were adults we created multiple worlds from mud, sticks and grass.  Those worlds were sound archetypes, if not structurally durable.  When we come to make a garden we carry the sensory vocabulary that we collected over our lifetime.  It contains memories, images, sensations that are uniquely our own.  Sometimes it is an organized collection, easily reviewed.  Other times it requires an archeological expedition to uncover

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

No Accident

Great gardens are no accident.  Objects and plants can do no more than their individual qualities suggest.  The way we arrange the objects and plants produces the overall effect.  A boulder, however powerful in itself, can lose its impact when it is unconsciously placed.   A well-placed pebble can out-perform it.
For each person’s unique artistic bent there is a corresponding place in garden design where those sharpened senses will shine.  Sometimes all it takes to make the leap from confusion to clarity is a straightforward guide to the language of a medium.
Composition, a word found in all art forms, is applicable in all its meanings when we design our gardens.  We humans are particularly sensitive to composition.  In any single day of our lives, the visual, verbal, musical, textural, composition of our surroundings jostles our emotions.  Our senses compose a multi-dimensional response.  Pleasure requires the support of all the senses. We are carried into the deepest dream of a garden when the garden is made with an understanding of the transporting qualities of composition. It then holds our awareness of place, nature, and purpose and returns it to our unconscious.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Why I Am Here

I design landscapes. I also move huge amounts of stone and plants to make those designs real. Over time, this Blog will provide a window into what vocabulary I use during those inner conversations between myself, the garden site, the materials, and the people who will walk through the landscape when it is complete.
I believe that those conversations occur most vividly when I am conscious of the various elements in play, how what I do affects the emotional content of the landscape. In some ways this can be analyzed if I know the voice that each element contributes to the overall composition of the landscape. However, because of the multiple elements that make up a whole and harmonious landscape, I need to be multilingual with my sensory vocabulary. The inner conversation that inspires the composition of a great landscape will run from the mundane to the abstract.
I look forward to extending that conversation to you.
Thanks for checking in,
David Neufeld
North Star Stoneworks and Design